The author as performer. Cover story, FT Life and Arts, 9 June 2009

Late last year, for one night only, fans of the musical The Lion King were turned away from the Lyceum theatre in London’s West End. If they had been able to peer inside at the stage they would have witnessed not Simba, dancers in multicoloured costumes and “The Circle of Life” but a solitary, slender 45-year-old Canadian with bouffant hair standing behind a lectern. There were no props, apart from the video screen relaying his image around the huge auditorium, but this didn’t bother the youngish crowd who had bought 4,000 tickets at around £20 a piece to listen to one of two consecutive performances.
The speaker was the influential journalist, author and ideas entrepreneur Malcolm Gladwell, in town to promote his latest book, Outliers: The Story of Success. But this wasn’t a book reading or a Q&A session of the kind authors traditionally submit to. Neither was it a slide show, as you might expect to find at a lecture. Instead, the author recounted a single vignette from the book – the tale of why a plane ended up crashing, from the perspective of the pilots and those in the control tower – and burnished it into a narrative with all the chill and pace of a traditional ghost story. Even the lighting was kept deliberately low to create the right atmosphere. The performance lasted precisely an hour and five minutes, and no questions were invited after Gladwell had finished speaking. Rather than a talk about a book, it looked more like a carefully choreographed stage show.
For Gladwell, the idea behind the writer-as-showman, wowing public audiences to drum up support for an idea or a book, has a distinguished heritage. “The Lyceum evening,” he explains by e-mail, “was very 19th-century, in a way. Dickens and Twain and countless others gave lectures of that sort in theatres like that all the time.” As far as his technique is concerned, he explains that while he doesn’t use a speaking coach, he has for some years been performing regularly at The Moth, a collective of New York writers who meet in downtown clubs to tell stories to one another. This week he returns to the UK for dates in Glasgow, Brighton, Liverpool and Birmingham; it’s the kind of whistlestop mini-tour you’d more normally associate with a hip American indie band.
I was in the audience at the Lyceum, and remember thinking that Gladwell was on to something. Not in what he was talking about – fascinating though it was – but in what he was doing. Part of my role as director of talks at the Institute of Contemporary Arts is to organise speakers, lectures and panel discussions. The culture of talks and debates is thriving in the UK, whether at high-profile annual literary festivals such as Hay, in year-round debating societies like Intelligence Squared and the Institute of Ideas or in the regular programmes of talks on at the London School of Economics or the Royal Society of Arts.
Recently, however, I have seen a shift away from the traditional model of book readings and for-and-against Oxford Union-style debates and towards a showier kind of speaking event, in which bookish ideas and themes are lifted off the page and into the stuff of rhetoric and performance. Recent highlights at the ICA have included the energetic and very funny Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Zizek talking about the continued relevance of Christ, Martin Amis naughtily puffing on a roll-up while fulminating about radical Islam and being heckled from the audience by the satirist Chris Morris, and the French novelist and filmmaker Virginie Despentes shocking British feminists with her laissez-faire attitude to pornography and prostitution.
It’s a trend that lies behind the festival TED (standing for Technology, Entertainment, Design), launched in 1984 by architect and graphic designer Richard Saul Wurman, and curated since 2002 by former magazine publisher Chris Anderson. TED has established itself as the luxurious stretch limo of the global talks circuit – a kind of Davos for technology enthusiasts. Highly exclusive, each year it invites the people it holds to be the world’s leading thinkers to California to present short lectures, known as TED talks. Attendees, described as “leading thinkers and doers” on the TED website, must also apply to be invited, and typical conference membership costs $6,000 a year. TED’s motto is “Ideas Worth Spreading” and its roster ranges from Bill Gates, speaking about philanthropy, to Billy Graham on technology and faith. But no matter how famous they are, each speaker has only 18 minutes in which to present their case – just long enough, according to the organisers, to develop an argument but short enough to hold people’s attention and encourage an economy of language. No questions are invited, and the talks programme is broken up by live comedy, art exhibits and live music performances.
These 18-minute presentations tend to be highly developed, with much thought given to how they are performed. Speakers, challenged “to give the talk of their lives”, are sent a stone tablet jokily engraved with the “TED Commandments” of speaking. These include: “Thou Shalt Not Simply Trot Out Thy Usual Shtick”; “Thou Shalt Tell a Story”; and “Thou Shalt Remember all the while: Laughter is Good.”
The injunctions seem to work. In 2007, following his complex graphical presentation of economic trends, a Swedish professor of public health called Hans Rosling tore off his shirt and proceeded to swallow a sword. The following year American brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, talking about the memory of her stroke, pulled on a pair of rubber gloves and picked a real and soggy-looking human brain from an assistant’s tray.
Chris Anderson explains the thinking behind the format: “It’s a big deal for a roomful of people to give up 18 minutes of their time for a talk.” He finds it amazing that anyone would even think of turning up to watch old-style lectures. “Sometime in the past, extra-institutional education has fossilised into something which has to involve a lectern, a suit and a tie,” he says. “But we as humans are wired to respond to signals more complex than a simple stream of words.” He points to Al Gore’s celebrated An Inconvenient Truth, in which the former US vice-president walked across the stage as he talked, adding a touch of drama to what could have been no more than a glorified slide show.
But surely an overly theatrical approach might lead to bombastic, sentimental, self-help-style talks, of the kind perpetrated by Tom Cruise’s misogynistic Mr Motivator in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Magnolia (1999)? Anderson says that even a self-help lecture can be an authentic experience. “People are hungry for knowledge, for a better understanding of the world, to be inspired by remarkable people. From that place of wonder comes a sense of possibility.”
While writers and intellectuals are trying to be more like performers on the conventional talks circuit, others, most notably contemporary artists, are straying into the territory of authors and intellectuals.
At its worst, this kind of stuff can make for crude politicking, sterile artspeak and bad art. When it works, however, it can work very well indeed. For some years now Mark Leckey, the winner of last year’s Turner Prize, has been using eccentric lectures to get across his ideas about high art, the media and culture.
For much of the past year, he has been working on a new performance lecture called Mark Leckey in the Long Tail. The show is a riff on US Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson’s popular treatise on internet economics, The Long Tail, an idea that traces the shift from the mass media into an online world where an infinite supply of media is available for download to anyone.
In Leckey’s hands, however, the idea has taken on a radically different hue. When I saw him perform it at the ICA in January, he covered everything from the birth of the BBC to the birth of peer-to-peer internet file-sharing, and used some impressive props to immerse his audience in what it must be like to live in a world ruled by “long tail” economics.
At one point during his lecture, a huge cat’s tail appeared beneath Leckey and began to wag ominously. The result was a talk with real wit and satirical bite, which did something to explain the idea but went on to gently mock its implications.
When I asked Leckey why he was interested in the idea of lectures as performance, he told me that he now spent most of his time as an artist scouring the internet for imagery. In this kind of “dematerialised” world, the idea of presenting objects in a gallery no longer seemed appropriate, he said. He was, however, keen to distinguish what he did from the traditional role of the public intellectual. “Most artists are not very clever,” he said, “and nor should we expect them to be. We don’t go to an artist for a rigorous analysis of an idea. What I’m trying to do is something that really engages with the pathologising effect of electronic information. I want to channel the idea, to get inside it and become the medium.” Leckey is constantly working on and perfecting his idea of the Long Tail; he has performed it in Cologne and Turin, and will soon take it to New York.


If Gladwell is the talk circuit’s equivalent of a rock star, the analogy is doubly appropriate – for in popular non-fiction genres such as business and technology, the economics of books are beginning to follow the economics of the music industry. We are familiar with the sad tales of record companies headed for disaster thanks to people accessing music free from the darker corners of the internet rather than paying for it. As a result, pop stars from Coldplay to Prince have embraced a new kind of business model, which relies on giving music away cheaply or free then looking to make more money out of live performances.
The talking tours of high-profile writers follow a similar logic. While book sales are not suffering at the hands of online piracy in the same way as music and films, they are falling. According to Bookseller magazine, UK book sales in 2008 were down 0.4 per cent on 2007 to 236.9m. So many publishers and writers are looking to the opportunities afforded by speaking. This isn’t easy, as most speaking engagements at public venues pay little or nothing. There is, however, an elite group of authors, particularly those who write about new ideas, technology, work or management (Gladwell is one), who can command huge fees by speaking privately for companies who want their executives to benefit from the best in new thinking.
Such events are by their nature, however, pretty exclusive. David Johnson, a professional theatre producer who has worked with everyone from the playwright Mark Ravenhill to the stand-up comic Stewart Lee, saw a gap in the market for doing things on a larger scale. “The man in the street never gets to see these [corporate] gigs,” he explains. I wanted to bring books that make people think to the widest possible audience.”
Having been involved in a six-week run by the filmmaker and satirist Michael Moore at the Roundhouse in north London, Johnson began to look for other writers whose work he could use as the basis of a stage show. It wasn’t easy: not all writers are natural performers; they are often terrified at the prospect of public appearances, and many of them only agree to appear at literary festivals after their publishers twist their arms.
But some, like Gladwell, do have a gift for performance. When Johnson was planning Gladwell’s London dates last year he advertised him as if he were a rock star or a stand-up comedian rather than an author.
It’s difficult to measure how Gladwell’s performances and all the associated promotional activity might have affected sales of his books. It’s possible that the shows might be taking the place of reading books, that the audience think that they have heard it all on stage. On the evening of Gladwell’s Lyceum event, one cynical publishing insider told me she doubted whether anyone who had paid £20 for a ticket would also fork out around the same again for a hardback copy of Outliers. On the other hand, however, it could be argued that the performances send people to the books, just as hearing a band live can inspire people to go to their back catalogue. Certainly, at the ICA sell-out lectures are accompanied by a huge spike in book sales at the shop.
Gladwell himself worries about what might happen if authors, like pop stars, begin to rely on making a living out of performances and the book becomes a loss-leading profile-booster, a bound “goodie bag” to be abandoned by the audience as they leave the theatre.
“I suspect that the book industry will eventually move in the same direction [as the music industry]”, he told me. “I don’t necessarily think that development will be healthy for books or for society. But I’m not sure what can be done about it.”
As news of Jill Bolte Taylor’s appearance at TED in 2008 spread around the net, there followed a book deal, an appearance on Oprah Winfrey and, no doubt, more talks. But what do the audiences get out of it? Yes, it is easier to listen to Malcolm Gladwell for an hour than to buy and read his book, but there’s something else here too.
When almost everything is available in a digital world of zeroes and ones, the thing that is impossible to duplicate is the intensely involving experience of live performance. The flamboyant talks described above are rarely interactive in the conventional sense; they don’t encourage any kind of formal participation from the audience. Instead, they speak to a desire for an intellectual experience involving enough to soak up all our attention.
That’s why people are still prepared to pay big money for live music, and why people choose to pay £20 for a one-off performance by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s why, in the past two years at the ICA our talks have been accompanied by everything from live butchery to live beard-trimming to the sudden appearance of dancing girls.
One of the talking points of last month’s highbrow Hay literary festival was a performance by the burlesque dancer Immodesty Blaize, billed in the programme as a “dazzling international showgirl superstar”. She also has a book out.