On Monday, the Department of English and the Department of Dance, Drama and Film welcomed author Teddy Wayne to campus for a reading. The author of five — soon to be six — novels and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker’s “Shouts and Murmurs,” Wayne read from his two most recent novels, The Great Man Theory and Apartment, much to the frequent laughter of the audience in Brandi Recital Hall.
Known for his humor writing, Wayne showed his comedic prowess in the opening minutes of his reading, when he informed the audience that he had timed his readings and they had clocked in at 45 minutes apiece, leaving the room in an uneasy silence. He then reassured everyone that, in fact, the two readings would be only 25 minutes total, eliciting a round of appreciative chuckles. With his audience well aware of his sensibilities, the reading began in earnest.
Wayne opened with an excerpt from The Great Man Theory, a novel about a divorced and demoted professor, Paul, who finds himself living with his mother. The excerpt Wayne read describes Paul at a dinner party with a group of well-off colleagues.
Throughout his reading, Wayne interjected with brief and often humorous clarifications about what he had just read. After the narrator described Paul’s equation for calculating how much to spend on a bottle of wine for a dinner party — “your age, divided by two, minus five” — Wayne admitted that Paul’s calculations might not pass muster against the present inflationary pressures. Though a dinner party with well-to-do professors may not have been familiar territory for the students in the crowd, the detail with which Wayne constructed the North Slope — “That’s Brooklyn,” he explained — townhouse welcomed the audience into a dinner party they could not help but to laugh (and cringe) at.
After bringing the audience into the near past with The Great Man Theory, Wayne moved back through time with a reading from the opening pages of Apartment. The novel opens in a scene that some Kenyon students may recognize: a creative writing workshop. The unnamed narrator is an M.F.A. student at Columbia University in 1996. Throughout the scene, he comes to discover that his magnum opus, a novel called The Copy Chief, is nowhere near the masterpiece he once thought it was.
The first person narration of Apartment offered the audience a different view of Wayne’s writing. The narrator’s initial proud description of his novel could at first be read as genuine, but as the narrator describes the downward spiral of a workshop session in which his classmates and professor pick away at his writing with increasingly pointed critiques, it becomes clear that his praise may have been self-deprecatingly sarcastic. The specificity of Wayne’s writing, particularly about the narrator’s novel and his professor, helped to establish the humor of the scene, ushering even those in the audience who had never participated in a workshop into the sometimes fraught environment.
In an interview with the Collegian, Wayne said that some of the experiences of the narrator in Apartment came from his own time as an M.F.A. student at Washington University in St. Louis. “I had a number of workshops that weren’t quite as bad as what the character gets in that opening scene, but that were fairly devastating and made me reconsider whether I wanted to do this,” he said. “I usually rebounded by the next day, but there’d be several hours where I was doubting not only my talent but my desire to pursue this, still.” Wayne emphasized the importance of professors fostering a constructive yet humane environment in a workshop, rather than taking the events of the opening scene of Apartment as a suggestion of what to do.
Upon the completion of the reading, Wayne opened the floor to audience questions. To the Collegian, he described question sessions as a chance for the writer to consider their work and values while on the spot. “It’s a good way to force yourself to think about what your values are as a writer and as a person and how those are conveyed to the public,” he said.
Most of Monday’s questions focused on Wayne’s role as a humor writer. He offered advice on how to effectively incorporate humor into writing, suggesting that writers aim for less obvious humor instead of having characters say the punchline aloud. Answering a question about the potential shortcomings of comedic writing, Wayne emphasized the importance of humor having substance: “If you’re … going toward comedy as a sort of nervous defense mechanism because you’re afraid of vulnerability or saying something real close to the bone, that might be the biggest pitfall [of humor writing].”
Wayne’s reading offered the audience a chance to find a laugh on a dreary Monday night, as well as much food for thought for any future projects and likely a few new entries on some reading lists.
Comments for this article have closed. If you'd like to send a letter to the editor for publication, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.