26 april 1999



take a ride on the reading

I attended the Festival of Books at UCLA this weekend, and for the fourth straight year I’ve come away fascinated by humans beings and pragmatic about the book publishing business.

I’ve never gotten very woozy over the magic of storytelling. The collaborative nature of writing for most entertainment media is obvious and made clear to even the dreamiest eye after one quick look-see at Hollywood’s sausage factory. Books can be different though, we think, and even after extensive work with an editor the finished product can be as pure a transfer of one mind to another as is possible outside of a long marriage or a prison term with a single cellmate.

As with movies, however, for books to be made and distributed capital is required. Capital that writers don’t have. So it’s a business, big deal, you knew that. And yet, while the laws of supply and demand are at work, there remains a nebulous set of principles regarding the nature of literature and its place in a culture that keeps the book biz floating a bit higher on the foo-foo scale than, say, the business of those cigar-puffing fatboys and ambitious ex d-girls we envision as the folks who make the flicks. Oooh, the tension between the moom pitcher monkeys with studio drive-ons and the elbow-patched pipe-smokers who read.

But biz iz biz, baby. All the money rules apply to any system that is set up to mass-produce a story and get it to the audience while at the same time putting food onto the writer’s table. This is not a bad thing. This is not a good thing. It’s just a thing, a process that helps to serve the human desire to find out what goes on in those other brains out there, to answer the question Am I alone?, and to supply some of the raw material for what a society likes to call its culture.

It’s American culture. The business of America is business, just like the religion of America is religion. The book business doesn't exist to support writing. It exists to support publishing. Again, this is not a bad thing or a good thing. It’s just a thing, a process, a set of rules, a game which you can choose to participate in – but I am amazed at how many people go into it with an apparent belief that it will be the measure of their personal worth. One should not become a writer to find love through admiration. In the first place, I’ve never had the slightest idea what a person is supposed to do with admiration. In the second place, love and admiration are two different beasts altogether, and in the third place, writing is a craft and an art which is its own reward. If it’s well done and attractive to other people, the product of that effort can, through business, be turned into gold, but if you make the gold your goal you’re done before you start.

But you knew that.


Some observations:

The length of an author’s booksigning line is directly proportional to the budget for his publicity.

The majority of Mary Higgins Clark’s readers look very much alike, and if they are not all from the same family, then they most certainly shop from the same clothing catalog. Sweaters ‘round the neck and shoulders, that sort of thing.

A man will pick up a book, any book, if there’s a naked lady on the cover.

Most people at book fairs are approachable and very easy to talk with even if they are on the quirky side.

Most people on discussion panels at book fairs are approachable. If they stand during their presentation and hold a microphone, their approachability is decreased by 62%. If they stand, hold the microphone and wear sunglasses indoors, they are delusional. If they stand, hold the microphone, wear sunglasses and speak in another language, nobody is going to get what they want.

The macro-view of this festival can be pretty interesting. The corporate sponsorship allows it to be free of charge and gives those sponsors an aura of intellectual boosterism. Booksellers like it, particularly the small ones, because it puts the product out there on a level playing field, insofar as location is concerned. The L.A. Times likes it because it puts their product in the hands of more people, and makes them appear closer in prestige to the New York Times Review Of Books. Shuh.

True, the writing coming out of the west is in need of some serious regard by the big publishing houses based in New York. But the point is not made when panels set up to discuss the "Latino Diaspora" collapse into whining about the politics of academia. That's just one example.

The panels at this weekend's festival can be divided into three groups. The Celebrity Panels, the Political Panels, and the Process Panels. The first one is easy; you get a famous person who wrote a popular book, stick 'em on a stage, and voila, a good time is had by all. In the Political Panels you get a disgruntled minority, be it gay or fat or brown or whatever, it doesn't matter, dig deep to find its current for-sale texts and the folks who wrote them, and let their followers vent for forty-five minutes. In the Process Panels, the ones with the least attendance, you put up some writers who know the vocabulary of process, who understand that odd organic machine that gets the right words onto the paper, and let the audience explore and disagree and get inspired.

I guess it's pretty clear which ones I like best. But they all work for their own reasons, and they all can sell books. Which is the point, after all.


The non-sellers who went to the book festival fall into two groups – the writers and the readers. The readers populate the audiences in the panel discussions like "Fountain of Youth: Ways to Stay Young" where they can ponder the musings of Marilu Henner. This room will be packed mostly with women who appear as if they could talk at length about alpha-hydroxy and Tae-Bo.

The writers in the audience, on the other hand, will gravitate toward panels like "Great Expectations: The Second Novel". They will carry little notebooks, laugh knowingly in what they hope are the right places, and wish they could honestly deny the envy they feel.

The phenomenon of a book signing is ripe fruit. Bite into the fame, and let the worship drip down your chin. Publishers, via authors, come to the marketplace bringing books with shiny covers and the Buyers, the readers, (they are buyers first – see libraries; decline of) come to touch the hands that had the time to write them. Celebrity is a chemical phenomenon, it seems, that taps the need in the common man to be lifted from anonymity if only by association. I see grown people lining up for R.L. Stine and I want to get inside their heads. What's up there?

I’m not being fair here to the readers or the writers, but hey, you don’t pay me to be fair now, do you? When we have True Confessions Week here at Evaporation I’ll tell you about the time I was ON Marilu Henner’s talk show for a whole hour, one of my own brushes with celebrity by association, but until then, or at least until there’s pork in the treetops, let me rant. As Bette Davis (elderly version) would say, "Thaaaaank you."

Okay, I’ll rein in the cynicism and admit there’s a lot of crossover and, after all, this whole circlejerk is to sell books so okay, yeah, sure, it’s a great idea to hear what Arianna Huffington has to say about humor. Yes, let’s be inclusive. Yes, let’s listen to Edward James Olmos rhapsodize. Again. And yes, let’s just shoot me now, shall we? Thaaaaank you.

And as for the Poetry Corner... omigod, maybe in the next entry.

It did seem like there could have been some fun in the children’s area, and if there’s a kid out there capable of having a good time amid all the amplified reading, then more power to him. I know I’d have trouble being happy if I was 3 feet tall and standing in a crowd of 50,000 people at a book orgy.

Does it sound like I didn’t have a good time? Well, I did. There’s nothing like a parade of 100,000 faces (I went both days) to renew the understanding that this place is made up of all kinds of bizarre, dull, frightening, beautiful, sexy, intelligent, lunkheaded, jealous, your adjective here, creatures who, for whatever reason, like to gather up words, mix them around, and see what happens.

Just like here.

That’s it for now. I’ll have more pretentious presuppositions and overweening observations next time.

Thaaaaank you.


today's music:

"Can't Help But Wonder Where I'm Bound" -- Nanci Griffith -- OTHER VOICES| OTHER ROOMS


today's wisdom:

"One may recollect generally that certain thoughts or facts are to be found in a certain book; but without a good index such a recollection may hardly be more valuable than that of the cabin boy, who knew where the ship's tea kettle was because he saw it fall overboard."

- Horace Binney


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