Paid Author Events: The Future of Independent Bookstores?

It was a humid Wednesday afternoon, and I was outside BookCourt with a microphone.

That morning, a New York Times story about paid author events ignited a firestorm on Twitter. Some independent bookstores, hurting for cash, were now charging admission for a reading. Sometimes it was as little as $5. Sometimes it was the price of the hardcover for an off-site event. What had once been free was now the cost of a pint at happy hour.

These developments began in April. In Colorado, Boulder Book Store announced that it would charge $5 a head to attend an event. In California, Kepler’s demanded a $10 gift card to admit two people through the new paywall.

Was this reasonable? Or was this a form of gouging? Wasn’t the purpose of an author event to give the customer a chance to sample the goods? And would such a practice, as Ann Patchett suggested, scare off those who didn’t have the clams for a hardcover?

And why had nobody talked to the customers about this?

The time had come to sweat in the sun and ask every person leaving BookCourt to take part in “a journalistic survey.” I talked to as many customers as I could before the next thunderstorm broke. Some people were skeptical. Others were kind, but in a rush. One woman ran away, calling me “one of those goddam bums.” (In my haste, I had forgotten to shave and I was wearing an old T-shirt.) But most were accommodating.

Listening to the Customers

During the afternoon of June 22, 2011, we conducted several interviews with book customers outside Bookcourt for this story. Listen to Glenn Kenny discuss his thoughts on author events with Our Correspondent. (3:27)

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Lucas, a smiling 50-year-old man who doesn’t work, told me that he doesn’t really attend author events, but that he “bumps into them.” He said he wouldn’t pay for an author event, largely because he views it as a meeting. In his view, the reader shouldn’t pay to meet people. “It’s very bizarre to go to an author meeting or gathering. Because basically you meet authors through their books. So I read their books. And I sort of dream about meeting them. But I don’t really want to meet them.”

Miriam, a 35-year-old consultant, told me she attended two to three author events a year. She likes “to learn about the work that goes behind the writing.” Asking stimulating questions and “the author’s voice” were also big draws. She said that she would pay $5 for an author event “if it was an author I liked.” The $5 fee wouldn’t make a huge difference, but she felt that “these things should be free to get the maximum number of people.” Miriam said that, if she were intrigued, she would pay for a debut or an unknown author event. But the biggest reason that Miriam went to events was knowing the author in question.

Patty Greenberg, a 60-year-old stay-at-home mom tightly gripping the leash of a rather large and very well-groomed poodle, told me that she only attended one author event a year and that she would only pay $5 if she was really interested in the author.

A 24-year-old dancer who claimed to be “Devon Alberta” (stage name or lark?) said that he doesn’t attend author events, but that he would pay money “if he liked the author.” He would even purchase the book if this was the cost to attend. Why does he attend author events? “I always like to have access to the writer and the way that they communicate outside of the text.”

Then there was an unexpected run-in with the film critic Glen Kenny, who told me that he attended five author events a year. Would he pay? “Five dollars is about reasonable if I wanted to go. And if there was seating.” Kenny confessed that he mostly goes to events if he knows the author, but he is interested in the presentation. “Just a window into his own perception of what he’s doing, I think, is often conveyed through reading.” He pointed to key differences between seeing Martin Amis at an event when he wasn’t well-known versus when he was well-known. But he did admit that an author event “doesn’t necessarily enhance my appreciation of the work.”

Brandon Pederson, a 24-year-old gentleman who identified himself as “a real-time highlighter for Major League Baseball,” said that he usually attended four author events a year. He said he would pay $5 if he “was sold on them being someone I would give $5 to” — note the way Pederson views the money as going to the author, not the bookstore. Pederson said that he often attended author events because “friends told him to.” I suggested to Pederson that surely he had free will. He then told me that he was new to the city and interested in “theory” and “fiction that pushes what fiction is.” He enjoyed hearing authors talk about books, sometimes buying them to be signed. But if Pederson was asked to pay $5 for an author he hadn’t heard of, then his criteria changed: “if the work sounded relative to what I was interested in.”

Jen, a 27-year-old teacher, told me that she probably hadn’t been to an author event at a bookstore. She was fond of going to author lectures –“usually authors that we’re reading about and stuff that we’re taking excerpts from.” Why did she avoid bookstore events? “Honestly? Probably because it’s not marketed that well. I don’t know about them.” Jen said that she would pay for an author event at a bookstore, but, like the majority of the people I spoke with, it would depend on who the author is. She would pay for favorite authors, but she wouldn’t pay for debut or unknown authors. “Not unless it was a friend I was trying to help out.”

Another 27-year-old teacher named Lynn, accompanied by a highly animated dog, was an even bigger fan of author events than Jen, in large part because she teaches English. She copped to attending 40 author events a year and she was the only person I talked with who had read the New York Times article. Why did she attend author events? “I’m bad in bars.”

While paying for an event would make her think twice, Lynn said that, despite her teacher’s salary, she would pay $5 if she had to because she loved independent bookstores and wanted to see them flourish. “There’s a reason I don’t buy used books.” But she did say that her husband would probably give her a hard time if she was forced to pay out $200/year.

Lynn told me that she had been disappointed by some author events. “I just go to go. It would have to be more of a schtick. Some do interviews. And some just read. I might be a little more thoughtful about the events that I go to.” I asked if she would want more from a reading if she was ponying up a Lincoln. “Yeah,” said Lynn. “Instead of Paul Auster reading, Jonathan Lethem interviewing Paul Auster. Maybe there’s wine and cheese.” Like other paid author event supporters I talked with, Lynn said that she would have to be somewhat familiar with a debut or unknown author to attend a paid author event — perhaps through a story in The New Yorker or One Story.

Will Paid Author Events Create More Demands?

“Instead of Paul Auster reading, Jonathan Lethem interviewing Paul Auster. Maybe there’s wine and cheese.” Listen to Lynn, a 27-year-old schoolteacher, discuss her thoughts on paid author events with Our Correspondent. (1:59)

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Doug Stone, a 40-year-old writer, said that he attended somewhere between three and four author events a year. Asked if he would pay $5 for an author event, he replied, “Well, it can’t be anybody.” Stone said that readings had a certain feel of inclusiveness that might be diminished by asking people to pay. “I’ve been to bookstores where you’re browsing and you didn’t even know there was going to be a reading. Then all of a sudden, we’re doing a reading. And you go over and you’re introduced to people.” He felt that charging money changed the spirit of the event and audience expectations. “The readings that I’ve enjoyed the most, they’re just a free event.” But Stone was not averse to someone passing the hat after an author event, if certain needs were stated. “I would put ten frigging dollars in that hat.”

* * *

What do these conversations tell us? It reveals that people like Lucas and Doug Stone often attend author events when it is random and that these happy accidents can produce potential acolytes. Nearly all of these customers see the author event as an experience to get to know the author beyond the book. Attending an event represents a perceived social experience. A $5 fee not only created the distinct possibility that debut, experimental, and unknown authors would be cut out of the loop, but it created new demands upon authors and bookstores. Would authors be required to perform? Should the authors be compensated? Would the audience demand more?

“Paid author events are common in Europe,” says novelist Stewart O’Nan. “In fact, a free author event would be uncommon, and even those are subsidized by the publishers and bookstores in co-op fashion, with the author being paid for each and every tour appearance. Because the author, when not writing, is being asked to be a performing artist. What other professional would be asked to travel across the country and perform their work for free? Even the lowliest dive bar has to give the band half of the door. This ain’t open mike night. The store provides the venue & the advertising & logistics, so they should definitely get a cut, but the author, being the attraction, should definitely be compensated.”

“Author events are a kind of gentlemen’s agreement, in a way,” says memoirist Alison Bechdel, who also offered an idea of authors performing foot massages for a small fee and splitting the take with the bookstore. “It’s understood that the bookstore and the author and the publisher all have a stake and a responsibility, but it’s a complex, overlapping mix in which you all depend on one another and work as hard as you can to have a successful event. All three parties want to sell the book. But there are other, less commodifiable, elements in the mix. It’s worth something to readers to have access to an author. It’s worth something to authors to have the opportunity to reach readers. It’s worth something to bookstores to get traffic and possible new customers. And when, inevitably, there’s an event that no one shows up to, the toll is not just financial — it’s depressing.

Stephanie Anderson, manager of the independent bookstore WORD Brooklyn, concludes that the author is being compensated on some level. “We’ve definitely noticed a strong correlation between how much an author and audience connect and how many books sell. I know royalties aren’t huge, but they are a good reason to want to sell a lot of your own book.”

I reached Tayari Jones by telephone as she was in the middle of a very involved indie-friendly tour for her latest novel, Silver Sparrow. Jones said that she was very grateful to the independents for their support of her book and that she wanted to do whatever she could for them. But she did express some reservations about paid author events could solve present problems.

“We need to raise awareness,” said Jones. “But I think that charging money feels punitive.”

Jones brought up a hypothetical example of a customer driving all the way from Detroit to an Ann Arbor bookstore and being turned away because she didn’t have the $5. “Can you imagine that?” Jones said that she didn’t want anybody turned away. Would this mean authors and publishers subsidizing author events for those facing financial hardship? I asked Jones if she would pay out of pocket. “$100,” said Jones. “I could front twenty people.”

Jones has adopted one strategy of informing her audience why it’s important to purchase a book at an indie — even if members of her audience have already done so. “It’s worked every time.” She notes that when such a request comes from the author (instead of the bookseller), it tends to have a less partial perception.

* * *

“My bottom line is this,” says novelist Jennifer Weiner. “I don’t think authors have any business telling readers where or when to buy their books. Would I love it if everyone bought my new hardcover the day it was published at Headhouse Books, which is my neighborhood independent in Philadelphia? Absolutely. Do I understand if they’ve got e-readers, or can find the books more cheaply at Sam’s Club or Target, or wait for the paperback, or visit the library because a hardcover isn’t in their budget? Absolutely. I’m grateful to have people reading my books, however and whenever they do it.”

Weiner hopes that struggling independent booksellers can consider the long-term customer. “Maybe the graduate student or young mom who shows up at my reading isn’t going to drop $27 on my newest hardcover, but maybe she will buy a trade paperback, and a few Judy Moodys for her kid. So the store’s making money, even if it’s not on my book. Or the putative reader won’t buy the book that day, but she’ll get it in two weeks. Or she won’t get it at all, but she’ll tell a friend, who will then buy a copy.”

Still, as former bookstore marketing manager Colleen Lindsay has observed, the author event is fraught with significant costs, including expenditures for returned books and those customers who couldn’t purchase a book that they wanted.

Off-site events, such as WORD Brooklyn’s recent ticketed event with China Mieville, have made a difference. “I think ticketing the event and having the vast majority of the books pre-purchased ended up making the event a better one overall,” says Anderson. “We and the venue were able to properly plan because we knew how many people were coming, which made setting up and transitioning from Mieville’s interview to his signing much easier (and meant he could spend more time with fans). It also meant that the act of commerce was essentially disassociated from the event, because everyone had already paid. There was no pressure to buy, because everyone had already bought. The staff could spend more time talking with people and helping out, instead of running a million credit cards. We did have some backlist titles available for sale and sold a few, but most people just got right in line with the book they had gotten when they walked in the door, and it all went very smoothly.”

Yet O’Nan suggests that shifting to a pay-for-play model generates additional problems of writers competing with celebrity writers. “Sarah Palin will sell a truckload more books and draw much bigger crowds than, say, Tom Wolfe,” says O’Nan, “who will sell a truckload more books and draw a much bigger crowd than, say, Steven Millhauser. In the end, is the idea merely to turn out the largest crowd and make the largest profit (and to sell the largest number of copies)? If so, book Sarah Palin. If it’s to enjoy the genius of a master storyteller, call Steven Millhauser. I’ll pay good money to see him.”

“There many be some evolution towards a revenue share model similar to what you see at a music venue, where they book in an act and share the door with the performer,” says Christin Evans, co-owner of The Booksmith in San Francisco. “We’d be open to considering that type of model. We already have a similar arrangement with the performer as our monthly adult cabaret event, The Literary Clown Foolery.”

Jones, O’Nan, and Weiner all tell me that they work very hard at their author events.

“I bring an A-game regardless,” says Jones. “There could be no more additional pressure.”

“I go out and give my all every time, whether I’m being paid decent money at a big university or reading for free at a tiny library,” says O’Nan.

“My secret weapon is baked goods,” says Weiner.

But do performance elements — what the dedicated bookstore customer might call “schtick” — create new demands for authors and bookstores in the 21st century?

Glenn Kenny suggests that some of these performance elements have been there all along. “I remember going to benefit events,” says Kenny, “which combined readings with music. It was something that McSweeney’s did after 9/11 at Angel Orensanz that had Chuck Klosterman reading from Fargo Rock City and David Byrne doing a PowerPoint presentation. So those things, which are packaged like entertainment events, they make more sense to be paid events, per se. But a plain reading might not necessarily be it. But I can’t rule anything out.”

While Weiner says that she would pay considerably more than $5 to listen to author Jen Lancaster, which she compares to “attending a stand-up performance,” author events can sometimes work in reverse.

“Some authors just aren’t very good at the performance component of this job,” says Weiner. “Which doesn’t mean they’re bad writers. It just means that maybe they aren’t necessarily the ones publishers and bookstores should send on the road and make readers pay to hear. And yes, there is something a little off-putting about charging for an event and the author, and her publisher, and whoever interviewed her if it was a Q and A, not seeing a cent of the money, particularly since publishers are the ones who pay to send authors on the road. I can see that independent bookstores feel like they need to take a ‘by any means necessary’ approach to cultivating revenue streams, but maybe there’s an approach where a bookstore could say, ‘If we clear more than X dollars that night, we’ll split the cost of the author’s plane ticket and hotel stay with her publisher.’ And anyone who volunteers his or her time to interview an author should at the very least get a gift card, or a few books for their trouble.”

It remains to be seen if paid author events will become a new regular fixture at this early stage in the game. In the meantime, some authors simply hope to go on with their business.

“The road of thinking that what we do is simply quantifiable — my ‘words’ or my ‘appearance’ having some fixed value — is the path of madness,” says Jonathan Lethem. “I’m just glad that anyone cares at all to either read the work or come catch a glimpse of me, and anything a bookstore can do to go on being a bookstore is just fine with me.”

“Everything is an experiment in the book business,” says Sherman Alexie. “We are talking about writers and independent booksellers. We are not talking about economic geniuses. We are all flailing.”

(Images: Rebecca Williamson, Daniel Huggard, bitchcakesny, Steve Rhodes)

The Bat Segundo Show: Insulted by Authors

Bill Ryan recently appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #384. He is the proprietor of the website Insulted by Authors.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Insulted by humorless people.

Guest: Bill Ryan

Subjects Discussed: Taking unexpected tumbles in life, why insults are the best way to pop the cherry of the author-reader relationship, being the son of a scientist, dodging dodgy publicists, being identified as “The Bill Plus Insult Guy,” picking away at the celebrity industrial complex that has been built up around the author, being frightened by Salman Rushdie, whether there is something inherently wrong in asking an author to insult the reader, difficulties with humorless authors, Nicole Krauss’s post-profanity titter, how the prelude to an author interaction sets up strange expectations, Rick Moody’s refusal to sign older books, book autograph prospectors, being afraid of preconceptions, taking the denial of an insult personally, when joie de vivre is mistaken as a threat, hero worship and naivete, the protective personality traits of authors, looking at the dilemma from the “why not an insult?” position, ideal readers vs. material readers, Banksy, being inclusive of quirky ideas within a marginalized medium, non-monetary value and books, and the dangers of being drawn too close to the apotheosis of fame.


Ryan: Salman Rushdie was in my top four of insults I’d love to get. The Mount Rushmore of insults or whatever. I was so frightened ahead of time for some reason, despite the fact that this is a guy who’s reading a children’s book in front of a crowd of people who showed up at an art gallery. To hear someone read a children’s book. I was nervous! Because it’s Salman Rushdie. And I approached him. And I have tweaked my approach, depending upon the author. Like with Salman Rushdie, I was very deferent. “Mr. Rushdie, I’m sorry to be the kind of person to ask you this. But if you have a moment, if that’s okay, could you add an insult to my personalization?” And I’m worried almost that the fact that I’m scared, intimidated by the very thing that I kinda want to break down, is maybe a problem with my scientific approach. (laughs) Do you know what I mean?

Correspondent: Well, maybe it’s an emotional approach. Because here you have Rushdie. You hope that he will defy your expectation, that he will insult you. And what does he do? He decides, “Why do you want to do that?” And it’s sort of a big letdown. It’s almost like maybe you were nervous about setting yourself up for this letdown. Is that safe to say?

Ryan: It’s like: What did I do wrong? Okay. Exactly, yes! The scientific approach where I was waiting in line and I had everything lined up like a series of actions that I had just lined up in my mind. And I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to approach Mr. Rushdie. I’m going to set down my book. Very gently.” I’m going to say, “Mr. Rushdie, thank you very much. Blah blah blah. By the way, my name’s Bill. Insulted by Authors.” So I went back over after the fact. And for whatever reason, I got really really nervous and really excited. Just the fact that I’m disrupting whatever silly little convention that there is behind the whole signing of a book. I may be blowing it up way, way too big in my mind. But afterwards, my heart was pumping. And I was like, “Okay, what did I do wrong? What was it that Mr. Rushdie didn’t understand about….”

Correspondent: Just call him Salman. (laughs) Mr. Rushdie? He won’t appear on this program. So we can go ahead and be informal about him. If it’s any consolation.

Ryan: (laughs) So Salman. Yeah, I had to go over for the next twenty minutes. And I actually, literally, sat right outside the signing — or stood right outside the signing — and was breathing deep. And all these people.

Correspondent: Breathing deep?

Ryan: Yeah. I was breathing deep. I was actually…

Correspondent: Hope you weren’t hyperventilating.

Ryan: A little bit! A little bit, man. This is how much I put into this for whatever stupid reason. And all these people who had heard me talking to myself in line slowly filtered out around the corner. What did I do wrong? How can I perfect this asking for an insult? How can I make this more accessible to the Rushdies of the world? But also equally accessible to the AL Kennedys of the world.

Correspondent: Or the Amy Sedarises.

Ryan: Exactly. Exactly.

Correspondent: Well, on the other hand, what do you to deal with the reality that some authors — particularly the Old World, anti-online, anti-Tumblr, anti-Twitter types — they’re going to go ahead and say, “I’ll never stoop to that. Because I am an author.” Rushdie may be one of the last ones. Along with say, maybe, Richard Ford. I don’t think he would insult you.

Ryan: Probably not.

Correspondent: Philip Roth might, I think.

Ryan: I’d like to think that.

Correspondent: (laughs) I’d like to think that he would. Cynthia Ozick might, if you could get her.

Ryan: Yes!

Correspondent: But, on the other hand, you’re dealing with a lot of self-important authors who, let’s face the facts, are humorless. So where does the challenge kick in? Is it less about trying to bump your head against the wall? And more about seeing how they will react? I mean, it was actually rather astonishing to me to learn that Allegra Goodman would refuse to insult you and that post has not gone up, I noticed.

Ryan: Not yet. Not yet. I went through a transition between — I still don’t quite know what I’m trying to do with all this. Like I’m just trying to have fun. And I’m a book collector, in general. And I treat books as objects in addition to being books. Which is somewhat tragic, I’m sure. But also — whatever. I mean, everybody has something they’re trying to change about them. But I feel like everyone would be able to give me an insult if I somehow approached them in the right way or it was the right situation. Or something. There’s all these other outline — like little things that can mess with my amazing idea, incredible idea for insults.

Correspondent: You think you can develop the perfect pretext for any situation.

Ryan: (laughs) Exactly.

The Bat Segundo Show #384: Insulted by Authors (Download MP3)

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SF Sightings: Kelly Link


On Wednesday night, an appreciative crowd of thirty gathered to hear Kelly Link read at the Booksmith. Harcourt has recently issued Magic for Beginners in a paperback edition and have sent Link on a ten-city tour to promote the book. Link, clad in a no-nonsense beige Eveready T-shirt, threw the crowd a monkey wrench by reading “The Wrong Grave,” a story uncontained within Magic and set to appear in a forthcoming Candlewick anthology edited by Deborah Noyes. This YA story, as fluid in its twists and turns as nearly all of Link’s fiction, managed to combine poetry, grave robbing, mistaken identity, and a curious fixation on beef jerky. Link was initially a bit nervous, but found a firm confidence as the crowd responded. The tale was to form the centerpiece for the Q&A that followed.

A young man asked a preliminary question concerning Link’s natural intuition as a storyteller, wondering how she had managed to evade the stigma of cleverness. Link noted that she found stories scarier when they involved things like Cherry Chapstick. She noted that the story she read had been troubled by an intrusive omniscient narrator, but she had felt as comfortable reading this particular tale as she had writing it.

The tale had been inspired by the title, “The Wrong Grave.” It sounded like something culled from Edward Gorey: something a bit macabre and a bit stupid. Link was considerably self-effacing, pointing out that she was “still working through her obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and that this story served as a way to contend with this. The story centered around a young poet named Miles. Link had pursued the story after becoming interested in the idea of a person who was single-minded in their pursuit of art.

Link’s Nebula-winning story, “The Faery Handbag,” had recently been optioned for a film. And Link confessed that she hadn’t expected the words, “My story has been optioned for a film,” to escape her lips. She indicated that she would have no problem if the film production company screwed this up, that she would enjoy any resultant bad movie that came from this, but that she hopes to enjoy the process.

When another questioner brought up the subject of YA, Link noted a recent conference in which a person had suggested that a YA author could do anything but be boring or present beastiality. When this had been said, already the YA writers’ eyes were rolling over how they could circumvent these restrictions. The apparent impression in today’s YA climate is that you can, in fact, do anything. Which is good for a writer like Link.

The intrusive narrator in “The Wrong Grave” had been inspired by the previous Link story, “The Great Divorce.” It was something that Link had hoped to expand upon, only to determine while writing the story that this was a bad idea.

A main character, Link contended, should do stupid things. A character who didn’t do this would end up being another unfortunate case of “moral fiction.”

Asked about Small Beer and the zine Lady Churchill’s, Link indicated that the long-term goal of the former was not to go too much into debt and the goal of the latter was to break even. She noted that there was something “deeply relaxing” about a low-production zine and indicated that Lady Churchill’s had a two-year backlog that motivated Link and co-editor Gavin Grant to keep working on it.

For those who desire more, I’m happy to report that a future Bat Segundo podcast will feature an interview with Kelly Link.

The Social Darwinism of Book Tours

A Jessa Crispin article now making the rounds and riffing on a David Milofsky piece kvetches about “the traditional book tour,” which is presumably defined as an author giving a series of readings across the nation in front of a crowd. But while I certainly advocate any literary event that involves liquor or strange poets braying into a mike, I think Jessa misconstrues Milofsky’s larger point, which is that the languor one associates with an author appearance might be better dispensed with by literary enthusiasts frequenting their local bookstore readings or paying attention to the listings in the newspapers.

However appealing a reading series might be, it still involves a certain social Darwinism: the reading series organizer invites writers who are hip or in or otherwise down with it. But what of the authors who don’t fit into a “Progressive Reading” agenda? Or who aren’t telegenic or charismatic enough to appeal to an 18-34 demographic? Does this not cheapen or detract from the books that the authors have written?

SF Sightings: The May Queen Panel

On Monday night, Your Correspondent (hereinafter referred to in both first-person singular and third-person, as the mood fits) observed the largest group of writers ever assembled at A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books. This little infobyte was reported later by Wendy Sheanin, the bookstore’s loquacious events coordinator. Personally, I stopped counting after seven writers — in large part because I grew distracted by Jay Ryan’s multihued parrot poster for Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, hanging to the right behind the (then vacated) folding chairs arranged for the writers. The poster’s colors were very pleasing and somewhat hypnotic for Your (Caffeine-Fueled & Sleep-Deprived, I should note) Correspondent. But perhaps the greater distraction was a very attractive blonde woman sitting next to me, who smiled and was friendly and made Your Correspondent blush and caused Your Correspondent to move to the front when seats became available, so as to take perspicacious notes and not be distracted by this attractive woman’s décolletage, which was prodigious and Euclidean and, as a result, pernicious to Your Correspondent’s concentration, in his peripheral vision. These two factors prevented Your Correspondent from fulfilling his professional obligation on the arithmetic front. For all I know, there may have been as many as fifteen writers there. I’ll leave the appropriate experts to confirm the final tally by abacus.

chabonfinal.jpgNow ACWLP is a bookstore that Your Correspondent doesn’t frequent nearly as much as he should, in large part because Your Correspondent is somewhat vexed by the sizable contingent of smug and excessively coiffed and (most of all) humorless folks found in that area. No fault of the amicable ACLWP people, I assure you. You can find this contingent in Max’s Opera Café (situated in the same 1980s-glass-and-steel-and-black-black-grey-black plaza that houses A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books). Which means that you’ll also find them at the Opera Plaza (an independent theatre in the same plaza playing second-run indie films on closet-size screens) invading your cinematic experience with merciless cellophane and boisterous banter in media res (pardon the pun). Which means that you’ll also find them in ACWLP’s comfy confines, hemming and hawing and hectoring the very amicable people behind the counter with idiotic questions. That evening, I observed one gentleman ask, “Do you carry nonfiction? Because I just can’t find any!” This was as he was standing in the history section. I should note that this gentleman did not squint or wear glasses.

At the risk of generalizing, this contingent fails to understand that ACWLP has one of the best selections of literary quarterlies and hardbacks in the City, and it seems at times, as one is distracted by cell phone ring tones (for the love of God, why Chris de Burgh’s “Lady in Red?”) that some of these people may never know this, nor be curious enough to stumble upon this cache of literary wonders by accident or serendipity. To digress again (I’m sorry) and give you an idea of what one is up against in this plaza, should one dare to enter Max’s, this type is there, often insensitive and simply not comprehending that a very nice person is not only singing beautifully in front of them, but also serving them drinks and viands and placating them in countless ways that those blind or inured to the service sector (which, of course, includes this contingent) fail to parse. Your Correspondent actually prefers Tommy’s Joynt up the street, in part because the server-customer conversation is more egalitarian, there are very exuberant Germans serving corned beef and cabbage and pastrami and other crazed meat-heavy victuals, there’s an incredible selection of beers, and the staff, because they are not ignored while both serving and singing (in fact, they’re not really ignored at all), are less jaded.

In short, for these and many other reasons, Your Correspondent doesn’t get out to that block much.

So why was Your Correspondent there?

Three reasons: (1) I had enjoyed The May Queen, the anthology that the writers were there for, (2) Your Correspondent was set to conduct a panel with many of these writers later at the Hotel Rex, and (3) there were several writers whom Your Correspondent knew by email but had not yet had the good fortune to meet in person (and, in at least one case, there was a most criminal three year absence of idle chit-chat, even when the writer lived in close proximity to Your Correspondent!).

mayqueen.jpgIn any event, after the anatomical contretemps described above, which was unfortunate, ironic and possibly egregious for a reading championing women’s issues, Your Correspondent took a seat in the front, being sure to ask the people behind him if he was too tall and might obstruct their view of the front. Apparently, there were no problems.

After pondering why all the readings in San Francisco bookstores seem to take place in the children’s section, I looked around and noted that there were about 30 people, but a paucity of men. (Many more spectators would wander in after 7PM.) This was a pity, as the men probably needed to attend this reading more than the women. It was also troubling that the few Y-chromosomed customers attending were in deeply intense modes of concentration that seemed to cause them considerable affliction. For example, there was a fortysomething gentleman who was stark and immobile and seated not altogether comfy. The most animated thing he accomplished during the reading was to cross his legs. Whether he was reserving his energies for something later in the evening, I am not in the position to speculate. Perhaps he was transfixed by the Jay Ryan poster or facing a Euclidean anatomical predicament of his own.

I also espied a man in a leather jacket who, while mostly inert and frozen, was nevertheless drinking a Styrofoam cup of coffee with austere alacrity. He did not smile.

In fact, the most animated man I saw was a thirtysomething man with an exceptionally large brow and curly hair (not Dave Eggers). He seemed very nervous. His head pivoted nervously around the room, as if he expected to collide into a process server or he was afraid that someone specific and possibly malicious might see him. He reminded me of Peter Lorre. I was shocked that he wasn’t sweating.

What all this meant was this: Your Correspondent, at least from his perspective, was apparently the only dude in this room who wasn’t inert, intense, gloomy, paranoid, static or miserable. Granted, we were all still suffering from a lost hour, courtesy of the recent switch to PDT. And granted, as established, Your Correspondent was suffering from a sleep deficit. But none of this is anything to get huffy over.

So to step up the sanguinity, I went backstage and introduced myself to the ladies, “Hi there. I’m Ed Champion and I’ll be your podcaster this evening.” Since Michelle Richmond had her hair in pigtails (a wry visual reference to her May Queen contribution), I didn’t entirely recognize her. But we said hello and I apologized for the slack how-do-ya-dos over the years.

Your Correspondent returned to his seat and, not long after, the ladies emerged.

Wendy, the aforementioned events coordinator, then stepped up to the podium. As I recall, she had an impressive array of brown hair and was dressed in a burgundy turtleneck sweater and, I do believe, several other wool accoutrements designed her to protect her from the elements. You have to understand something: it’s been raining like a motherfucker in the Bay Area. Nearly every day of March. I know a few people who have not only gone well beyond Wendy’s preparations and who have, in at least one case, sobbed on the phone to me because of the gloomy weather. So if I cast Wendy in a neurotic light, it’s only because, frankly, we’ve all been neurotic here in San Francisco, what with being denied the sunshine for so long.

Anyway, Wendy remarked that she liked a SRO crowd, which the event had certainly become. Her introduction continued. Things were fine for a while, as Wendy set up The May Queen and the inevitable offerings of the contributors. But there was a tragic conversational segue out of left field as Wendy talked of turning 30 herself, expatiated at length about a bad breakup and how she had wept over Erin Ergenbright’s essay and how grad school was tough and how….well, no matter. Wendy is a nice person and this was a pretty mammoth event to organize. And given the number of digressions contained within this account so far, it would be hypocritical of me to quibble about this.

Even so, after about what seemed like sixteen minutes of this, I soon wondered if we would ever hear from the book’s contributors, many of whom appeared to be a wee bit nervous (but disguised it gracefully) and who had not read in front of a crowd before.

But eventually Nicki Richeson, the editor of this fine anthology and someone who Your Correspondent had apparently met unknowingly at a Tayari Jones reading a few years before (apologies, Nicki!), was on deck. She promised that we would be hearing “the smallest taste of a person’s voice” with all the contributors, followed by a Q&A.

Also: Samina Ali, alas, was sick. Long live Samina Ali. But Nicki revealed that nine of the contributors, again a number that cannot be corroborated due to my unfortunate incapacitation, were there to read from their work.

First up was Heather Juergensen, whom I dimly recalled from a hazy DVD viewing of Kissing Jessica Stein about three years before. What Your Correspondent saw of the film was not bad. Unfortunately, two factors prevented Your Correspondent from enjoying the film in full: (1) some excellent beer and (2) a girlfriend who became extremely randy around the film’s 20 minute mark. Matters were not helped by the fact that said girlfriend was nibbling quite pleasantly on my ear. What was Your Correspondent to do? All I’ll say is that I ended up kissing a woman who wasn’t named Jessica Stein. But I’m sure it’s a fantastic movie and it’s been added to my DVD queue yet again, where I can enjoy it without beer and/or a woman to distract me. So my profuse apologies to Ms. Juergensen.

Ms. Juergensen was dressed in a pleasant green pullover reading “Lucky foda la noche,” with a green pendant around her neck occluded by the pullover’s verdure. Being relatively clueless about brand names, I have no idea if there’s a subtext to the pullover’s message, other than its ostensibly WYSIWYG content. Perhaps the Bret Easton Ellises in the crowd can help me out here. She read from her essay about becoming an actress, which involved being considered over-the-hill at an obscenely early age. She cocked her head slightly askew. She held the book curiously delicate in her left hand, raising her eyebrows quite rapidly when reading. If this was a first read for Ms. Juergensen, it was a dependable yeoman’s job.

She was followed by Erin Cressida Wilson, who you might know as the screenwriter of Secretary. What you don’t know, however, is that she’s authored something like twenty plays. Your Correspondent happens to know this detail because he carefully reads the bios at the end of anthologies. So should we all.

Anyway, Wilson read her essay about having a child and coming to terms with the fact that she got a boy instead of a girl, but learned to love him all the same. She looked as if she had just stepped out of the shower, for her slightly damp red hair dappled across her face. Personally, I thought this was an audacious move on Wilson’s part – a nice way to subvert the expectations that audiences have of their authors. Unfortunately, Wilson read in a monotone and matter-of-fact tone that may have taken away from the substance of her essay. It’s possible she had a flight to catch that evening. I don’t really know.

Wilson was followed by Kimberly Askew, who did not identify herself to the crowd. Kim later informed Your Correspondent that the last time she mentioned her name in public, she started receiving packages in the mail containing Malthusian propaganda from a stranger who refused to identify himself. The stranger did, however, confess that he had attended “that reading you were at, if you know what I mean.” After six years of endless scolding about “moral restraint,” the packages stopped. And since then, Kim has been very careful in bookstores.

But with her dark hair, isangelous gaze and a grayish suit buttoned to the neck, to say nothing of the dead giveaway of the essay’s first few sentences, I had a pretty concrete notion that it was Kim. And not just from those telling details. You see, I knew the man who had sent Kim the Malthusian packages. And Your Correspondent, before practicing journalism, let us just say, demonstrated the principle of population control in person.

Kim read about the fear that she had once faced with reading a poem in front of a crowd. Thankfully, much of this fear had dissipated with “Hold Your Applause, Please”’s reading, which Kim read in a charming and modesty bubbly voice.

Unfortunately, despite the clear instructions contained within Kim’s essay title, the audience did not, in fact, hold their applause. They all clapped, the bastards. Even Your Correspondent did. Clearly, the audience was comprised of reprobates and scoundrels. Let this be a lesson to you, ambitious essay titlers everywhere, that nobody pays attention.

Next up was Carla Kilhstedt, who, because she’s a big-time local musician, will never ever spare the time for a roundtable podcast with crazed writers. Before the reading, Your Correspondent was a big-time Sleepytime Gorilla Museum fan. Now, Your Correspondent has thrown all of his posters and CDs into the bonfire, and advises all readers to do the same. I weep. I weep again. I contemplate declaring bankruptcy.

Anyway, Kilhstedt, whose dark hair was cropped short and was also dressed in a green pullover and a grey shirt (there’s a running sartorial theme here, isn’t there?), read her essay “The Late Bloomer” and suggested that she had mom hands and bruises. Most importantly, she unfurled a telltale test to demonstrate that any single person is antediluvian: Pinch your knuckle-skin and if it doesn’t pop back, you are an old fogey.

We can say nothing but fantastic things about Michelle Richmond, in large part because we received the check in the mail today (Thanks so much, Michelle!). Richmond started off addressing a fallacy. Contrary to Ms. Juergensen’s assertion that babies just popped out, Richmond noted that they do not pop out at all. She then read from her essay, somewhat rushed, but with several acceptable asides (such as pointing out that she had perfected the art of getting ready in a miniscule amount of time).

Tanya Shaffer followed next, wearing a purple velvety top and reading at an all-too animated pace from “Of Sweethearts and Sperm Banks.” It was not a surprise to learn that Tanya is theatrical. Alas, the theatrical isn’t always compatible with the literary.

Then followed Erin Ergenbright, dressed in a simple blue-black top, who read about the horrors of an on-off relationship with appropriate minimalist efficacy. During her reading, someone’s cell phone went off (ring tone; “Stairway to Heaven”), but Your Correspondent proceeded to flog the insensitive bastard while Erin continued with her read, without attracting too much notice.

Meghan Daum was next and she was perhaps my favorite reader of the group – in large part because she was the most subtly militant. Daum’s reading ranged from over-the-top anger (“She doesn’t yet GET IT!”) to a fury just beneath the surface. She does indeed have good reason for this indignation. But you’ll have to pick up the book and read the essay for yourself. Your Correspondent will just say for now that he did try to broker a détente when we did the podcast.

Flor Morales was there, but she did not read. And I regrettably didn’t get a chance to meet her. But Your Correspondent will say, off the journalistic record, that her tale of escaping from El Salvador while pregnant was moving.

There followed a Q&A. What follows are some highlights.

Tanya Shaffer reported that she was still with the man she cited in the essay and she still has the kid.

Wilson revealed that, gender discrepancies aside, her kid wears some late.

Richesin approached several writers for the anthology and confessed that Sarah Vowell declined to participate, suggesting that she has said or written everything she has to say about gender. This was quite interesting to me, seeing as how one could easily be preoccupied with gender for six lifetimes.

Wilson noted that she felt that she didn’t know a lot of women her own age. (She is 42.) The book was a conduit in certain respects towards bridging her isolationist tendencies. She felt that it was particularly empowering to read the essays in the book.

Juergensen noted that she was really taken with Kihlstedt’s essay, particularly with the concept that ambition often burns one out.

Kihlstedt responded that the format of the book reminded her of “An Exquisite Corpse.”

The women were asked what they thought 40 would look like. But since some of the contributors were closer to that age than 30, this question was somewhat vexing.

Kihlstedt noted a friend of hers that kept pointing out that every zero-number proved to be a better decade.

Shaffer rejoined, “As each year evaporates, you are still unavoidably you. I am still the same person.”

Richmond noted that there was a great fear of aging in American culture. Nobody takes you aside and gives you a signpost for each age, nor do they tell you that what you lose in youth, you gain in emotional and psychological ease. Ambition eventually eats away.

Juergensen noted that she took the assignment quite literally when she got it, talking explicitly about what happened when she was 30. Concerning being an actor in her thirties, she replied, “I’m too old to worry about it.”

Shaffer noted that when she told the Chronicle she was 32 during an interview, many of her solo performer friends were shocked that she had confessed so easily. “Never tell a reporter your age,” said a friend.

Richmond noted that there was no getting around age from an author’s standpoint. Because the Copyright Office required you to list your date of birth. So while she’s omitted this in later books, readers can still go back to the first book to find out how old she is. She is, nevertheless, proud of being 35.

A question was asked concerning whether the 30s are the new 20s.

Wilson, at 42, concurred. She said that at 42, she felt more like a 32 year old.

Richmond noted that orgasms last longer in the thirties.

Wilson had an interesting story where she had gained a lot of weight in her 30s while trying to become pregnant. During a 5-6 year period where she was fat, she was surprised to see that women were suddenly nice to her and not badmouthing a skinny yucky girl so easy to hate. She had more friends and an easier time with women.

Kihlstedt noted that one time, when she was dolled up for a photo shoot, she took a subway ride to Brooklyn and had never felt so many stares upon her.

Kevin Smokler asked an awkward question about that grups article. Kihlstedt responded by noting that she had planned to rock out for some time.

Juergensen noted that there were certainly clear expectations for how you should look and act in Hollywood.

Alas, the conversation on an interesting topic had to be cut short due to lack of time.

Your Correspondent didn’t have time to schmooze. I had to take my leave to the Hotel Rex, set up the audio and wait for the ladies to come. Sure enough, they did. But you’ll have to wait until the podcast is released to hear the results.

SF Sightings: Tom Robbins

The Love Parade, the Blues Festival, Webzine 2005, antiwar protests, and that remarkably sunny weather that creeps into San Francisco during this time of the year didn’t stop about 250 people from gathering at the All Saints Church to listen to Tom Robbins read from his newest book, Wild Ducks Flying Backwards — an event sponsored by the Booksmith. The crowd consisted mostly of people in their twenties and early thirties, with a few hoary-haired holdouts that had somehow kept their humor and idiosynchratic faith while flaunting sartorial garb from the L.L. Bean catalog: no mean feat by anyone’s standards.

I had hoped to get Tom Robbins booked on the Bat Segundo Show, but while the people at Bantam were more than accommodating, it wasn’t in the cards. As Robbins himself explained to the crowd, he had recently had surgery in his right eye and had recently been the victim of “a Category 5 dental emergency.” This resulted in Robbins, at times, speaking out of the corner of his mouth. Robbins warned the audience that he “sounded like a cross between Gomer Pyle and Boy George.” Nevertheless, he still maintained the traces of his North Carolina drawl with a deadpan timbre, speaking at a measured pace and pausing to shout specific words into the mike for emphasis.

A few words on the new book: While the title shares the exuberance of Robbins’ previous tomes, this book collects short pieces that Robbins had racked up over the years. There are travel articles, “tributes” (more like over-the-top paeans, a few of them from 1967) to the likes of Ray Kroc, Nadja Salemo-Sonnenberg and redheads, an extremely mixed bag of “stories, poems and lyrics” (the less said about the poems, the better), “musings & critiques” and finally various responses to questions. In form, the book reminded me of Douglas Adams’ The Salmon of Doubt; the difference, of course, being that Robbins isn’t dead. While it’s a bit odd to experience Robbins in short form, causing one to reconfigure one’s head for unexpected ends (often after a mere paragraph), like The Salmon of Doubt, it’s still an interesting portal into Robbins’ thought processes. Just don’t pencil in the entire afternoon. You’re likely to knock this puppy off in a few hours.

Robbins was dressed in a grey suit that was slightly rumpled, although just crisp enough for a public appearance, and a black tee with the portrait of a cherubic green boy with crimson devil’s horns (the cultural connection momentarily eludes me). On his right hand, there was an extremely large and extremely round watch. He only took off his shades during the reading to reveal hounddog eyes surrounded by the deep circular recesses of age. But he kept the shades on during the Q&A session and, of course, during the mad rush of Robbinites stampeding towards the book signing line. He had dark tousled hair that appeared to have been cut by a barber in a rush. Near the back of his head, several sharp spikes emerged like blades of jet grass hankering for a head-shaped lawnmower.

Since we were in a church, Robbins started off by observing that his two grandfathers were Southern Baptists and that, because of this, he felt that it was his disposition to be in the pulpit. He said that he had spent some time in the Haight dring 1967 and remarked upon the many things to do in San Francisco. By comparison, Robbins noted that in his Northwestern town, there was little to do but throw a stick of margarine in the microwave and watch the oysters and clams come in from the fields.

He noted that despite San Francisco having “the highest cost of living in the solar system,” he was shocked that a bohemian culture still existed. This was, he thought, very conducive to art. And Robbins said that he had experienced a sudden burst of artistic activity. He had started writing a script entitled Pyrex of the Caribbean, which involved maintaining an oven-ready backing condition on the high seas. His offering for reality television was Fungi for the Straight Guy, whereby the producers would take a conservative Republican and give him a syphillitic mushroom with a camera crew following him around. And he had devised a pitch for a dramatic television show, Helen Keller: Private Eye with the tagline: “She’s blind, she’s deaf, she’s mute, but she can smell a rat a mile away.”

He read a piece first written in 1967, in which he had just seen the Doors. He read another piece from 1967 about the Seattle arts community. He read the Sonnenberg piece, as well as a travel piece called “Canyon of the Vaginas,” a story called “Moonlight Whoopie Cushion Sonata” and his response to the question “How do you feel about America?” in which the original response had been written in 1997 and updated with a footnote for the book. During the course of these readings, he would frequently stop midway, saying “And this goes on and on….”

Then there were questions. Robbins was asked what his favorite novel was. He said that Still-Life with Woodpecker was his favorite to write because it was so short. Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, he found, “the structually most impressive.” Skinny Legs and All and Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates were “the ones I most admire,” although he said this with some uncertainty. Robbins doesn’t read his books after he’s written them. And this proved problematic when he had done several interviews in Italy. Unknowingly, Another Roadside Attraction had been republished. Unlike American journalists, Italian journalists actually read the book. So he was forced to respond to questions for a book he had not read in 25 years. He couldn’t obtain a copy of his own book, as the only ones available were in Italian.

An extremely obsessive Tom Robbins fan asked Robbins if Fierce Invalids from Hot Climates‘ Switters, seeing as how Switters appeared at the end of Villa Incognito, would be appearing in a future book. Robbins was clearly mystified by this and answered, “I haven’t been thinking about another book.” But he did mention that he was thinking of outsoucing the next book.

Robbins was asked which book he most admired this year. He said that he hadn’t been able to do much reading this year because of the eye. But he did say that the best books from the past 3-4 years were Louise Erdrich’s The Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse and Manil Suri’s The Death of Vichnu.

Questioned about his thoughts on the film version of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, he said, “It was a big hit in Hungary.” He noted that Gus Van Sant was such a fan of the language that he had decided, against Robbins’ suggestions, to present the book’s dialogue as is. Robbins felt the film spiraled downward after the “first ten to twelve exhilirating minutes” and that, given the stylized nature of the language and that people don’t talk like this in real life, he felt it was a mistake that Van Sant had made that decision. Particularly since the first words were said by an actress who had never acted before. “Not a lot of authors will tell you that,” he said, mentioning that most novelists want to retain the original feel of a book.

Robbins doesn’t base any of his characters on real people, save Jitterbug Perfume‘s Dannyboy, who was “50% Timothy Leary.” However, the aforementioned Switters was based in part on a CIA agent Robbins had met in Singapore. Despite being a member of one of the most evil agencies in the world and despite desiring to be posted in Southeast Asia so that he could have sex with underage girls, Robbins remarked that this agent was articulate, well-educated, charming, funny, and the kind of guy who would risk his life for you. It demonstrated to Robbins that human beings were more complex than we give them credit for. Thus, Switters was born.

There was another minor character who Robbins had based on a real person — a yuppie he knew in “one of those books.” Apparently, a note from the editor came back, indicating that this one character didn’t seem real and was “too artificial.” But in this instance, Robbins had essentially taken the details from ordinary life.

Asked about Finnegans Wake, Robbins again insisted that he was stuck on page 49 and that he understands it all. He said that it was “the most realistic novel ever written” and said that it was almost impossible to be real in fiction.

Once, Robbins was on a panel with John Irving. And Irving had remarked that he could never write a book until he knew the end. Robbins couldn’t believe this and said, “Isn’t that like working in a factory?”

Since this is San Francisco, there was one question asked about what Robbins’ stance was on polyamory. Robbins genuinely did not know what this was. He confused it with polygamy. After an explanation, Robbins said, “I had some experience with that. I tell ya, it only can lead to disaster.”

SF Sightings: Norman Solomon

Last night, at Modern Times Bookstore, Norman Solomon spoke on his new book, War Made Easy. War Made Easy is organized by chapters headlined by statements that Solomon believes the media perpetuates (sample chapters include “If This War Is Wrong, the Media Will Tell Us” and “Opposing the War Means Siding with the Enemy”) . The book delves into the last forty years of media reaction to government policy, beginning with LBJ’s 1965 oft-overlooked invasion of the Dominican Republic and extending into the present Iraq conflict, using specific statements parsed directly from politicians and framed within the context of media theorists such as Susan Sontag and I.F. Stone.

Solomon had a chiseled face, a recurrent and well-timed smile that might easily disarm small animals, and an adorable mop of curly dark hair well-streaked with flecks of gray. He was dressed in a light blue oxford shirt and dark pants, attire indicative of a suave journalist, and wore a calculator watch on his left wrist, presumably to balance his checkbook when catching a flight to Tehran.

There were roughly 35 people in the crowd, predominantly activists and, to my dismay, predominantly men, leaving me to wonder why women weren’t showing up to this. Was it because the book had the word “war” in the title? About half of them were quite gray-haired, with the remaining half inhabiting a wide swath of temporal increments under the age thirty-five.

Solomon began by evoking the anonymous graffiti spray-painted in Bogota, “LET’S LEAVE PESSIMISM FOR BETTER TIMES,” which he suggested was applicable to living under the Bush Administration. He noted that only one newspaper (the Los Angeles Times) had reviewed his book so far, but that it had been selling comparatively well for a political hardcover.

Solomon honed in on 1965 because he says that before this, the United States was not invading countries at this time.

Solomon talked about the 1965 Dominican Republic invasion, pointing out how it was comparatively obscure to other conflicts of the day (such as Vietnam). But he noted that for some people, such an invasion is not obscure at all. There remains the legacy of U.S. involvement. He noted too that when visiting Iran, he could feel the effects of what happened in 1953 — not just with the coup, but of the spirit of Mossadegh, whose ousting he viewed as a particular tragedy because he was an educated and secular leader. And that this spirit led in part to the 1979 revolution. Solomon had recently visited Iran and, in a question later asked of him, he remarked that despite the repression, he encountered more of a civil society in Iran than in Iraq.

He bemoaned the inability for Americans to see world events from someone else’s vantage point, pointing out that government is unwilling to do this. The excuses behind the Dominican invasion were largely bogus. And as Solomon began looking into other conflicts, he remarked, “I couldn’t find any war not based on deception.”

He declared Tony Blair “the smart man’s George Bush” and dwelled upon how Blair’s recent statement that “the ability to use common sense” would be used to seek detractors. Solomon remarked that he thought it was the law’s duty to protect against what some people’s notions of what common sense entails.

Solomon pointed to a Department of Defense press conference, in which “Welcome back” had been lodged inexplicably in the middle of a transcript, without any indication that a segue had occurred. He saw in this transcript all sorts of references to “a modern-day Hitler” and said that if he ever released another edition of War Made Easy, that he would likely include a chapter describing this common association.

Specifically, Solomon zeroed in on three symbols of unreality that current media engages in: (1) denial of information (and here, Solomon quoted Aldous Huxley), (2) things that are not true that are taken as truisms, and (3) the numbing anaesthetic quality of media that forces media consumers to shut down.

Questions were then asked. Strangely, Solomon was asked to weigh in on the television show, Over There, to which he didn’t offer an opinion. When pressed for a prediction about U.S. involvement in Iran, he said that he believes there will be a very good chance of an air attack on Iran in the next year. He believes the troops should get out sooner rather than later. He said he didn’t buy the rationale that dicates, “Well, I didn’t support the war, but now we have to stay.”

Solomon remarked that he viewed NPR as the biggest tool of the Bush Administration because so many people trust it. He expressed distaste for a recent interview with Laurence Korb on All Things Considered, where the idea that we should have enlisted more people in the military is now being passed off as a liberal notion.

How did War Made Easy get published? Solomon likened the ability to get his book (and other related books) published to cracks in the wall. He remarked that the corporate dominance of book publishing is understated, but didn’t really elaborate too much on this. He suggested that word of mouth and grassroots support had done more for this book than anything else.

TOP JIMMY: Gore Vidal

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The great Jimmy Beck, a fantastic literary enthusiast who has made guest appearances at The Old Hag and Maud Newton, has offered the first in what I hope will be a semi-regular series that I’ve tentatively entitled “TOP JIMMY,” whereby the great Beck observes literary figures at bookstores and readings, and weighs in. His first subject is Gore Vidal.]

BECK: If you were to read a transcript of Gore Vidal?s remarks at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham, NC on Friday afternoon and use this alone as the basis for your impression, you?d probably come away thinking, ?Jeez, what a grumpy old bastard.? And sure, Vidal is full of bile and righteous indignation about the Bush administration.

gorevidal.jpgBut he?s also a lively conversationalist and a true raconteur. His comments were leavened with humor: ?These guys [Bush and Cheney] have turned me into creationists?Darwin was wrong!? And of course, it?s hard to imagine anyone else who knows so much about US history. His faculties remain undiminished by the fact he?ll turn 80 this year or that he now walks haltingly with the aid of a cane (he recently had knee surgery). He speaks in a deep baritone and, while regaling the packed house with his inexhaustible supply of anecdotes, treated us to spot-on imitations of JFK, Eleanor Roosevelt, FDR, Orson Welles and W (natch).

Not surprisingly, most of his remarks — and the questions directed at him — were political in nature. The sympathetic lefty audience looked to him to answer questions along the lines of ?What the hell has happened to us as a nation over the last few years?? — a subject Vidal was happy to expound upon at length.

He was in town to assist with a revival of his play, The March to the Sea, a Civil War drama being performed at Duke University (that?s ?DuPont? for all you Tom Wolfe fans).

On the media:
Having just read the New York Times, Vidal said that Paul Krugman was the only reason to even pick up the paper anymore. ?The media is totally corrupt from top to bottom and paid for by the same interests that bought and paid for this administration.?

On Iraq:
?[The administration] seems to feel [it?s] watching a bad movie or a video game. Something?s gone wrong in the American psyche.?

On funny business during the US election:
?[Rep. John] Conyers [D-MI] went to Ohio during the election and has got a lot of material, but we may not get to hear about it. Silence at Appomattox, as it were.?

On Freedom and Democracy:
?We had freedom once, but never democracy. But if you go to an airport today, you know you?re not terribly free.?

On why we vote against our own self-interests:
?That?s the American way.? He went on to blame the media, saying that if a lie gets repeated often enough people will believe it. Here?s where he invoked Welles and War of the Worlds. ?I asked [Welles] once if he realized the ramifications of what he was doing [by broadcasting a fictional invasion from Mars]?? Welles said, ?No I didn?t. I didn?t realize people were that crazy.??

On the prospect of another constitutional convention:
The professional liberals (or professional cowards as I call them) worry about what the bad guys will get hold of [if we have another convention]. Well, they?re getting hold of it anyway. Jefferson thought there should be a convention every 30 years. He said, ?You can?t expect a boy to wear a man?s jacket.??

On the US?s role in the world:
?We are part of the concert of nations. We should play the oboe. Or the triangle.?

On the right wing media?s treatment of Hillary Clinton:
?Suddenly she was a lesbian who murdered her male lover [Vince Foster]. If I were writing that script, I would have at least said ?female lover.??

On John Kerry:
Vidal described Kerry in the 1950s as being ?ruthlessly on the make? for Janet Auchincloss, Jackie?s younger half-sister (and a relative of Vidal?s). Vidal said that Kerry wanted nothing more than to become a relation of JFK?s. He then brought up Kerry?s statement that he would have voted for the war even had he known there were no WMDs, which Vidal referred to sarcastically as ?very statesmanlike.?

On prospective leaders for the Democrats to lead them out of the desert:
?I don?t think you can look to individuals.? One notable exception in history: Lincoln.

On Ronald Reagan:
?The most crashing bore. But a very nice man. He always read all of the jokes in Reader?s Digest.?

On reasons for optimism:
?We have a great capacity to change our minds?look at Prohibition. And as we grow more broke, China will outdo us. Once we cease being imperial, we?ll be calling the troops home.?

On the book of his he wishes more people would read:
?Inventing a Nation. It?s Madison, Washington and Jefferson in their own words.?

On the internet and the emergence of blogs:
?The internet gave us Howard Dean. He not only raised money, he fueled people [to become politically active]. At the big march against the war, I spoke to 100,000 people on Hollywood Boulevard. Of course, the L.A. Times called it ?a scanty crowd.??

On television:
?I don?t watch the programming. I just watch the commercials.? He then launched into a perfect infomercial voice. Returning to the subject later: ?We know the attention span has snapped.?

On religion:
He talked about how religion was not much of a force in American life in the 1940s and said that TV evangelists had a lot to do with changing that. Here he did his best 700 Club TV preacher impersonation?priceless. He also called for revocation of religious organizations? tax-exempt status, calling it ?a vast source of revenue.?

On southern cuisine:
?You?ve got the best smoked ham, grits and gravy. I asked for a ham sandwich the other day and you can?t get one?or you get the rubberized kind.? I asked my mother once what the 19th century was like. She said, ?Well, the food was awfully good.??

On what he?s reading now:
?The History of the Peloponnesian War, and again and again, The Federalist Papers.?

On what kind of gay novel he would write today (versus The City and the Pillar in 1948):
?A pretty dour one.? He then said he rejected the terms of the question. ?There?s no such thing as a gay person. There?s only sex, which is a continuum. ?Homosexual? is an adjective to describe actions, not people. Neither Latin nor Greek has a word for it?it?s just sex.?

On reviews:
?I remember the review of my first novel (Williwaw, 1946). It said, ?Mr. Vidal has posed the problem but offers no solution.? Well, [the book] was a tragedy, for God?s sake. What am I supposed to say? That Sophocles wanted me to end it this way??

On the fate of literary fiction:
?Fiction? Well there?s always The Wall Street Journal.? Rimshot. ?Fiction has dropped to where poetry was when I started. I don?t know if the written word can ever come back. I tell ambitious writers to go and read Montaigne.?

(Thanks, Jimmy Beck!)

Iowa Yin-Yang

Tonight, at Modern Times, two University of Iowa grads read from two books issued from University of Iowa Press. Both books were remarkably compact (both around 135 pages) and both authors had won several awards. It is here that the similarities end between Marilyn Abildskov and Merrill Feitell. (Although, you see? They also have similar first names!)

Both read for about twenty minutes: Abildskov from The Men in My Country and Feitell from Here Beneath Low Flying Planes. Abildskov’s book is a highly personal memoir set in Japan about her days as an English teacher, while Feitell’s book is a collection of short stories (and winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award).

After their readings were up, the two answered a handful of questions, before Marilyn took the mike and began interviewing Merill and expressed how astonished she was at Merill’s output, before Merill confessed that writing her California-based novel was an uphill battle.

Even so, the two ladies demonstrated that there’s one heck of a demand for Iowa writers here in San Francisco. It was SRO by the time I got there, but I somehow managed to find a strange seat watching the two authors in profile. I felt a bit like Tom Landry, which is a strange sensation to feel at a reading.

Incidentally, I’ve read The Men in My Country and I’ve been trying to talk Marilyn (a friend of mine) into a Segundo interview. I made an impassioned pitch to her that she did indeed have things to say, but we’ll see.