So today was the second annual Brooklyn Book Festival. Taking place in picturesque downtown between Borough Hall and the courthouse, it was basically a big jumble of publishers hawking books, authors hawking themselves, and nobody hawking fair food (to Jacob's discontent).
The booths were unspectacular. It's always good to see little presses working hard to stay alive, but it's hard to get excited about what they're pushing. There should have been more free stuff: books, catalogs, even t-shirts (my big new book publicity idea). And I say that because I'm a free stuff whore, but also because I don't want to spend $10 on a completely unknown book/author. Maybe it's due to all that time I spent with MFAs at Emerson. And if I'm not willing to take risks on new stuff, with my background in how publishing works, what are the chances that most people will? It's not the best system, but the small presses will need to do something to address that. There was some swag, though, and now I have a Nancy Drew "Get Caught Reading" poster, an issue of Poets & Writers, and a "Leave No CEO Behind" button from The Nation Books.
Also, there was some free edumacation. We observed the "Define-a-Thon" for a while, which was basically a spelling bee, but with dictionary definitions. None of the questions we heard seemed all that difficult. I bet some seventh grader would have wiped the floor with those adults.
I didn't catch many of the readings (those tend to be better in quieter, less time-restrictive settings), but the panels were quirky enough to be kinda fun. The first one was a retrospective on On the Road, featuring some dude from Viking Books (who was pretty much there to let us know that the book still sells 100,000 copies per year), an ex-lover of Kerouac's who has published two books of their intimate details, a journalist who's written a book about Kerouac, and another woman who was there to fill in crucial 1950s social details for all of us whippersnappers who wear jeans to public events. There was nothing revelatory, just a lot of the usual background about how Kerouac wasn't really a hippie, how Neal Cassady wasn't a role model, etc. I was hoping that the ex-lover would turn it into a Cheever-esque situation. But no--she stuck to lame, PG stories about Kerouac's reactions to book reviews.
It made me wonder, though: is there a whole subculture of women who sleep with struggling writers, on the tiny chance that someday they'll get a book deal out of it? Like groupies, but with higher aims? If so, I totally squandered my time at Emerson. I could have planned far more effectively.
Later in the afternoon, there was a session with the Simmons family, a.k.a. the guys responsible for part of Run DMC and the Def Comedy/Poetry/Phat Farm empires. This was possibly the most un-literary book pub event I've ever seen. Probably because the guys were artists and not writers, they answered questions with real person answers, not Author Answers--and Rev Run didn't even want to publicize his former books. His wife, Justine, tried hard to get him to talk about his writing (and she did a good job publicizing her own children's book), but Rev Run just rolled his eyes at her and refused to answer anything he didn't feel like talking about. It was refreshing. I didn't see any MTV cameras, so I guess those sparks of family dysfunction won't be broadcast any time soon.
The day's ultimate event was a panel called "Everyone's a (Former) Critic," featuring culture critics who are venturing out of the zone and publishing novels/memoirs. The critics were Chuck Klosterman (whom I still read and like, even when he annoys me), Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone, and Ed Park of The Believer and the Village Voice. They talked at length about what it's like to move from moving from critic to critee (no idea if that's a word, but I'm going with it). There was also a lot of talk about the nature of criticism in general, and all three had insightful comments about trying to create art by talking about someone else's. I was especially struck by something Klosterman said, that book criticism is the only kind of criticism that takes the same form as its subject. Apparently, there's an inherent unfairness in writing about music or movies instead of taking them on in the same media. He talked about the irony that the only thing he's really qualified to do (write about other writers) is the one thing he won't do, opting to take on music and television instead. I'm butchering his words here, but the concept made a lot of sense at the time.
The panel started to get very strange toward the end of the hour. While the critics were still talking, a woman began to creep up the stairs on the side of the stage. Judging by the uneasy looks that the moderator kept casting that way, this was definitely unplanned. When the woman reached the stage and started wandering around, no one really knew what to do. When she sat down behind Chuck Klosterman, nobody (onstage or off) was paying any attention to what Rob Sheffield was saying. Nobody escorted her off, though (ahhh, meek literati). A minute later, after the moderator chose to ingore her, she stole Ed park's water bottle before wandering off again. If the whole thing was staged: worst clown ever.
Cool bit at the end: I ran into some Emerson folks who moved out here last year. Random, but neat.
So yeah...I look forward to an even better organized event next year (they're promising international authors! I assume it will take a full year to get all the visas approved). Either way, definitely a fun way to spend an early fall weekend afternoon.