When my alarm went off at 9am Sunday, I wasn’t too psyched. I was sleepy after a late night, had a headache, my random foot injury hurt…but it was the BROOKLYN BOOK FESTIVAL so I hauled down to Brooklyn Heights and settled into St. Francis McArdle Hall for the morning.
I had wanted to see Justin Torres and Tayari Jones speaking about writing childhood, but either I read the schedule wrong the other day or some events got changed around because their panel ended up happening at 10am, before I arrived. My back-up choice was not bad, though.
11am: The Good, the Bad, and the Family with Sergio Troncoso, Elizabeth Nunez and Tom Perrotta, moderated by Rob Spillman
These three writers read short selections that pertained to family from their most recent books. Both Troncoso and Nunez’s excerpts struck me as a touch didactic, but their pieces were out of context and they were charming when discussing the way they negotiated their family’s reactions to their work and how they mined their family’s experiences to create stories that, in the end, were fictional, and their own. I really liked Tom Perrotta’s reading. I hadn’t given a lot of thought to his new book because, although I’ve always enjoyed reading him, for some reason I’d gotten it into my head that he was too commercial for me anymore. Hearing him read a passage about a teenage girl in the aftermath of a non-religious rapture in which many people on earth disappeared, I realized that was dumb. The book sounds great. Rob Spillman asked the questions and time ran out before the conversation could be opened up to the audience, which made me very happy because Q&A’s make me cringe!
12pm: Epic Confusion with Nadia Kalman, Chuck Klosterman, Sam Lipsyte and Tiphanie Yanique, moderated by Tiphanie Yanique
This was by far the best event of the day. It started out a little shaky with Tiphanie Yanique’s overly brassy introductions, but the readings were all terrific and the discussion was excellent. I loved Nadia Kalman from start to finish–I can’t wait to read her novel and would like to make her my friend. I always expect to dislike Chuck Klosterman because of his whole persona, but, as has happened in the past, I found him funny. I don’t think I’ll pick up his book but he’s a great person for livening up a conversation. I absolutely loved Sam Lipsyte’s reading from The Ask, which I’m now dying to read, even though one of the passages he read was the same passage he read at the festival last year!
I took a fair amount of notes during the Q&A which, luckily, was not awkward–people asked generic questions that elicited a lot of great answers. When one audience member asked how the writers knew when they were done, Sam Lipsyte quoted a philosopher (I can’t figure out which one–let me know if you do): “You’re never finished, you just turn away in disgust.” Love. Klosterman said, “The end is the second thing I know after the beginning.” That was interesting. It seemed like the bulk of his work was figuring out how to get from A to Z. Kalman said, “You are asking this question of someone who wrote 52 drafts of this book.” The conversation proceeded for a moment before Klosterman interrupted and said, “Wait, what do you mean, 52 drafts?” It turned out that while she hadn’t rewritten the whole book 52 times, she did have 52 distinct drafts saved on her computer. Later, when I was telling my writing group about this, someone said that the crazy thing was that she was still counting at that point. Sam Lipsyte closed out the event by saying that, “Writing fiction, in general, is a bad idea.” A man after my own heart (is that the expression?). It was terrific.
1pm: The Writer as Illusionist with Emma Straub, Steven Millhauser and Steve Stern, moderated by Harold Augenbraum
This was okay. It started off in a charming fashion with Harold Augenbraum saying, after a woman snapped some pictures of the panel, “We ask that you hold your photography until the end, but that one was okay because it was Emma Straub’s mom.” They all walked a line with her–she was a young woman at the start of her career, they were all older, storied men–but in the end I found that they were more supportive and sweet than patronizing. Stern joked “This panel should be called Emma and the Elders.” During her reading, when she got to a funny passage that caused Millhauser to snicker, she blurted out, mid-sentence, “I made Steven Millhauser laugh!” Stern’s reading was fine (I’d never heard of him, but I think a lot of other people had) and Millhauser’s was good, particular his reprise of “She Takes He Takes,” this wacky spoken-word-ish poem about a divorce that he performed last year at the festival, too. I found it a little strange that he did it again, but if I wrote something that good, I might recite it every day, let alone once a year… At this point it was really warm in the room and I started to feel terrible so I snuck out to take in some fresh air outside before the next event.
2pm: The Brooklyn Book Festival Honors Jhumpa Lahiri, in conversation with Liesl Schillinger
This event had about a bazillion people crammed into St. Ann’s Church, including people who inexplicably felt like, in the incredibly acoustically challenging space, it was okay to talk during the event, keep their crying babies in the room, rustle with plastic bags, etc. The speakers were on level with the audience, rendering them disembodied echo-y voices. Marty Markowitz kicked the thing off in his usual affable, goofy manner and then Schillinger invited Lahiri to read, for her fans, a small portion of the new novel she’s working on. I couldn’t really focus because I could barely hear over all of the din, and because she spoke very quietly. I had higher hopes for the conversation, but sadly, surprisingly, it was pretty boring. It absolutely isn’t Jhumpa Lahiri’s job to be an interesting speaker–her job is to be a great writer, which she is–but I wish some organizer had realized that this wasn’t the venue for her. When she was asked a question about her process, her answer invariably was, “I don’t know…” A writer friend pointed out that, because she doesn’t teach, she isn’t required to analyze process the way so many other writers do. She spoke a lot about her parents, which wasn’t very enlightening for me because she didn’t say anything that her nonfiction hasn’t already said better. This didn’t change the way I feel about Jhumpa Lahiri or her writing (the way I feel = good), but I wouldn’t go see her speak again.
3pm: Pizza and gossip.
4pm: Presented by the National Book Foundation and BAM’s Eat, Drink and Be Literary-Defining the Moment: USA 2011: Where are We? Writers Deborah Eisenberg, Fran Lebowitz, and Wallace Shawn moderated by Harold Augenbraum
I was in hell. A good part of that is my fault for not looking beyond Deborah Eisenberg’s name on the bill–I don’t know that I’ve ever seen her on any other one so I was excited and that was that. This panel, though, had absolutely nothing to do with writing, books or literature. I found it highly uncomfortable to be seated in front of a panel of very privileged, successful, white people holding forth on the state of the country (including vast proclamations about poor people…did you know that poor people are uneducated and don’t know to care about politics? Did you know that if we–the rich, smart, comfortable, lefties in the room–cared more about our country and less about unimportant things like gay marriage, we could educate these unenlightened poor people? Jeez–women’s studies 101–there is ALWAYS supposed to be something more important and immediate than civil rights. Fight for them anyway–if you wait for a lull in the rest of the world’s atrocities, you’ll be waiting forever.). Omg. Some of it was funny, a lot of what was said were things I agree with in much more nuanced theory, but in general I found the whole production reductive and terribly obnoxious. I wished I was over at the international stage (or any other stage).
All in all, it was a good day, but as our writing group discussed, the festival might be getting too big. The crowds were oppressive at times, making it hard to get in to certain panels or to hear once there. I’d love to see a bit more diversity in terms of writers–I don’t necessarily mean ethnic or racial diversity, but a more varied selection of writers from year to year so there isn’t so much repetition. And, to paraphrase my writing group friend, “If all those people in the audience were writers, which it seemed like they were, no wonder our writing never gets published! There are too many of us!”