Yesterday I trudged through the mist on the National Mall to go to several readings at the National Book Festival. I hadn't been before--in fact, I'd avoided it on the suspicion that it would be a zoo. Which it was. Hordes of people toting their purple bags, looking at layout maps, moving from one pavilion to the next. It was certainly enough to make me feel happily skeptical about all the death knells that have been ringing for the publishing industry, but on some level the whole idea is odd: Bringing thousands of people together to celebrate publicly the intensely private experience of reading.
But readings are always different than reading; that is part of their charm.
The difficult thing is watching people cram themselves under the enormous tent set up to hold James Patterson--there were folks standing outside the tent in the rain, bonking against each other like so many gumballs--when, 50 feet away, Jane Hirshfield is reading and there are empty seats.
I don't have anything against Patterson. I've read and (kind of) enjoyed several of his books. I'm sure he's probably a nice guy and it's great that he's trying to turn kids into readers. But so many people gathered for his wisdom? It's not, surely, because he's the voice of our generation ... so the crowd read, to me, like they were there to get a sniff of his millions and the celebrity that's accompanied them. Sheesh, Patterson's got a team of people writing his books now, and that whole notion seems odd to me. It reminds me a bit of some of the celebrity chefs who haven't set foot in a kitchen in years. Maybe I'm too naive about writing, still too wedded to that obsolete notion that authors are instrumental to their own work. Maybe only some authors are instrumental to their own work.
All I know is that I have a hard time imagining Jane Hirshfield waking up, doing her morning Zen meditations, and then handing off her pen to a lackey and saying, "Hey, do me one like 'Each Moment a White Bull,' only with more explosions."
Hirshfield read that lovely poem, along with some of my other favorites. I've written before about how much I love "The Envoy," and hearing her read it was a real pleasure.
I also got to hear Patricia Smith, which was the reason I came down. I loved her book about Hurricane Katrina, Blood Dazzler, and had heard that she was an amazing reader. This was proved yesterday. There are some poets that I think you can fully appreciate based on the writing on the page alone. Smith's work is great on paper, but it takes on a rawer and more vibrant quality when you hear it in her voice; she brings a power and heart and wit to her performance that the page doesn't capture.
Between Hirshfield and Smith, Ana Menendez read. I haven't read any of her books yet, though In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd is one of my favorite titles of the past ten years. Menendez read from her most recent novel, The Last War, but it was her off-script musings that I found most insightful. My favorite tidbits below.
"There is a kind of magic in writing. In my writing classes, I always have my students tell a story orally and then write the same story. They always discover something new about it when they write it down."
On the trend of ethnic fiction: "At it's best, it's beautiful and illuminating; at it's worst, it's just a way of exoticizing a culture and playing cultural anthropologist for the white people."
On the time she spent in India: "They would at first think I was Indian, and then when I opened my mouth, they would just think, 'Westerner.'" [As opposed to the States, where people always first see her as Cuban-American]. "One of the beauties of travel is that you see how fungible identity is."