There are a number of different considerations. To begin with, are you reading in support of a work that’s about to be published? Then maybe you should be reading from that work. Ditto a work that’s been published within the last few months. Particularly if you’re on an author trip being paid for by a publisher (I never have been, but I hear it’s a thing). In all these cases, you’re reading to support a specific work, and that specific work ought to be part of the presentation.
But what if your reading is simply because you’re local, or you signed up at a convention and asked for a reading slot because it’s supposed to be good promotion, or as practice for when you do have a work to promote, or… There are a number of reasons why you might be scheduled to do what I think of a a “free-floating” reading.
So ask yourself: to whom am I reading? For example, shortly after I moved to San Francisco, I was invited to read at Writers with Drinks, an SF reading program hosted by the purely amazing Charlie Jane Anders. The program is held at a bar, and the other readers were a poet, an very hip essayist, and a writer of erotica–and then there was me, writing alt-historical noir mystery (Point of Honor and Petty Treason). People are there for the readings, sure. And for the bar. And to hear Charlie Jane’s wildly imaginative introductions of each reader. It’s not an atmosphere that conduces to close listening. So for this crowd, I decided to go with comic, with a sexy edge, and the first chapter of Petty Treason–somewhat redacted for time–was my best option. It has some humor, a little sex, and a bad guy gets a quick comeuppance. It didn’t ask the listeners to weep or follow any complex action or reasoning, because it wasn’t that kind of setting.
On the other hand, when I did a reading at SF in SF with one other reader and a certain amount of elbow-room as to time, I read a section from the beginning-middle of Sold for Endless Rue which is, though I say so myself, harrowing. It’s a scene in which the protagonist, who is learning to be a midwife, attends at a birthing that goes catastrophically wrong.* Why that section? Because I know it’s emotionally involving, and if it doesn’t introduce the characters, exactly, there are enough cues in it so that no one gets lost. Also: the format of that particular reading program involves a Q&A discussion afterward, and I knew this would provide meat for discussion.
The final question I ask myself is: what will I enjoy reading? Because if I’m not having some fun reading the section in question, it’s pretty certain the audience isn’t. And by fun, again, I don’t mean laughing all the way, but being engaged, relishing the action or the emotion in the work, being able to read it clearly and be open to being moved myself.
Once you’ve decided what to read, the next step is to consider how you’re going to read it. Next time.
*My older daughter, who was in the audience for that reading, came up to me afterward and simply said “I hate you.” By which she meant that she’d gotten hooked, and grossed out, and involved. Sometimes knowing your audience personally makes for interesting conversation.