Storming the Gates

The event is free and open to the public. It happens every year at the San Francisco Main Library. The Northern California Book Awards. Timed early enough to keep the happy hour crowd away. The library shuts its doors at eight. Get out and go home to your books. And buy some on the way.

This is an awards ceremony, but you won’t find spouses, friends or family. This is a tableau vivant. Support your local indie bookstore. Support your local gunfighters.

Walk in, away from the dying sun. You don’t even have to stroll past security. Just hang a right and gambol down the steps into a murky contemporary world of yellows and browns. Is that why they built the Koret Auditorium? The great irony about this basement hall, which seats 235 people, is that it has no windows.

There is a table of hors d’oeurves in the center of an adjacent room. A civilized din escapes the reception. Eat eat. This is legitimate gatecrashing. Drink drink. Refine your mind with some free wine. But don’t you dare take any of it with you into the Koret. It’s not allowed. This is, after all, a library.

Stand on the side as the crowd spills on. The authors smile and nod their heads. The readers gush, hoping an aw shucks will secure an acquaintance. But it’s not to be. Distance is valued. A good way to fend off the potential nutjobs and filter the unimportant and the unpublished. Telegenic cadences have been perfected on book tours, as has the well-timed bon mot. Nothing too daring, nothing alienating or iconoclastic at all.

There they are, the scribes forming circles, socializing with the occasional stragglers. If you can’t recognize them from their author photos, then there’s always the name tags. Not much that a stranger can say except, “I loved your book,” which is exactly what I tell Ms. Packer. That’s enough for most people, but, from what I can see, not enough for a few middle-aged couples looking for a diversion. The old ladies effusing enthusiasm for regional royalty aren’t noticing the rote nods, the feigned interest, the Dale Carnegie technique. It looks like winning and influencing, this listening seen from afar as a half-assed gesture. And why not? The obvious goal is to sell books.

One writer recalls my name (before I introduce myself) and pictures of presidents posted in a recent blog entry. This little place? I don’t know the ritual. Is this some indication that literary blogs have influence or is this just a way to ensure additional leverage? It reminds me of Bill Clinton noting several personal details just before talking with someone, and winning fans. But I think it’s an unintentional way of telling me that this is exactly the impression we dilettantes are conveying to the authors. After all, what can any of us possibly infer beyond the text? What is there to say? I tell her that I’ve ordered her book (“Your order has shipped” read an email that morning). I ask if she’s nervous. She says she’s had some wine. Presumably to make the trundling across the room more bearable. Understandable.

These writers hope to retreat to their ateliers. Rebecca Solnit, who wins the nonfiction award for River of Shadows, addresses this solitude and thanks “the book people.” Again, understandable. Who wants to do PR? But it’s all part of the biz. Beneath a library prioritizing technological glitz over books, there isn’t a soul under thirty, save me just barely. The room is populated by authors and their followers. Fervent readers, silent hustlers selling books. Even the catering crew’s kept behind a swinging door, save for carefully timed replenishment of viands. I joke to my friend about the guy with the Minor Threat T-shirt and torn jeans who’s not there. Fortunately, I spot a few folks in leather jackets. My people? Hell if I know.

They come. All sorts. Whoever spilled in from the street. Whoever will play the game. Whoever remains naive enough to believe that this is a genuine celebration of literature, a call and response for local awareness, the bridge between the masses and the glitterati.

See one prominent novelist’s cute lime green skirt flutter as she hits the stage. Marvel over their Miss America smiles, their poise, their diction, even the austere ceremonial rituals. Is this what literature’s about? All the nominees saunter in front of a crowd as the titles are riffled out, then disappear into a room, white fluorescent light dappling the tops of their heads. When the winner is announced, she emerges to read something within three minutes. Since there are only seven awards, the timing’s just right.

They read. And the words stand alone. But while Tobias Wolff offers a nice Southern drawl, even he has to point out where he’s quoting within his text. Solnit has to specify when she’s quoting Edison and when “that’s me.” I have to wonder if the art of reading has been lost.

There is one very sweet moment. Peggy Rathmann wins the Children’s Literature Award for The Day the Babies Crawled Away. She’s genuinely surprised and honored. Her mouth forms into an adorable O. She shows the audience two pages that she’s illustrated and then reads the accompanying text, which isn’t much. She’s off the stage in less than a minute and a half.

The other grand moment is hearing Phillip Levine, honored for lifetime achievement. He is self-deprecating when he gets his award. He thanks the NCIBA for considering Fresno as part of Northern California, “which suggests that they’ve never been there.” But it’s Levine’s poem, about spending his days in a library while on the clock, that gets me picking up one of his books after the awards are over.

There’s no way to know how nervous these folks are, or how vexed they must be to have their work judged by their deportment. I wonder if there’s a better way to generate interest or to get people reading. I wonder if there’s a better way to celebrate authors. I’d like to think so. This business of readings and awards ceremonies boils down to the same image-laden, personality-driven nonsense. So why pretend?

But I’m more than willing to concede that it’s probably me.