Day One is behind us now and the highlight was far and away the Dale Peck/Carlin Romano dustup from the afternoon panel on reviewing. More on that down below. First, we’re pleased to report that the blog panel was a great success. The room was nearly full with interesting and enthusiastic attendees who got to listen as Michael Cader (Publishers Lunch) led Jessa Crispin (Book Slut), Kevin Smokler (Virtual Book Tour), Dennis Johnson (Moby Lives) and yours truly through a wide ranging discussion about blogs, their role, their influence and their future.
It was interesting to note that Johnson seemed oddly contrarian for much of the proceedings: He strenuously resisted accepted the blog label (a stance made all the more curious by his willingness to participate in a panel called “Bloggers: Rewriting the Rules of Tastemaking and Trade Influence), as he returned to a more conventional “journalism” label. He also made some odd assertions: To my comment about blogs potentially filling the void of “the formal discourse of an amateur” (a void recently remarked upon by James Wood), he responded that Maud Newton’s book expertise was interesting to people because of her professional background as a lawyer. Now, I love Maud pretty much more than anyone, but I don’t go there because she’s been a lawyer – in fact, it’s something I routinely forget about her until it’s brought up elsewhere. I go there because she's passionate, articulate, intelligent and offers a book perspective I don't get anywhere else.
For those pining for Moby’s return, he informs that he’s still on hiatus. “Moby rests,” he quipped. He seems to be devoting his time these days to his publishing venture, and regaled the crowds with tales of the evils of Amazon. It appears that since he was the only publisher willing to go on record opposing Amazon’s co-op schemes, he’s been essentially blackballed – his books no longer carry a “Buy It” button. Coupled with the recent news reported at the Literary Saloon, this trend continues to disturb deeply.
Jessa spoke about the role that blogs can play in championing first time authors unlikely to get reviewed in the larger outlets, and all the panel shared tales of hearing from readers who had purchased and loved titles based on blog recommendations. She mentioned Alasdair Gray, and I made the inevitable John Banville plug.
Kevin spoke with energy and enthusiasm and – most impressively, to me – vision about the bigger picture; about where blogs can go and what they can do, something I’ve wondered about openly in these pages. He talked in detail about VBT – which if you’ve never visited is worth your time, and if you’re an author it’s worth your money. He also spoke to the importance of maintaining a “real world” presence – hosting readings and other live events.
There were varying tales of time devoted to blogging – Moby clocked in at a high of six hours a day, Kevin on the other end with about 30 minutes or so when not working on a VBT. And apparently, news of Jessa’s enthusiasm is now sufficiently widespread that it’s interfering with her job search. Questions were lively and ranged from as basic as “what, exactly, is a blog” to requests for blogging software recommendations .
If there was a single point that I came back to, it’s this notion of a conversation. There’s a lively, articulate conversation taking place out there about literature, and you won’t find it in the Times (whose recent book coverage, I pointed out, was all covered without exception months ago in the blogs) and you won’t find it on Oprah. It’s all about the blogs, and as Kevin and I agreed, this is the calm before the storm.
Speaking of storms, the entertainment value of the afternoon panel “Bibliocide: Are Reviews and Reviewers becoming co-opted by Writers?” is likely to remain unmatched for the rest of the weekend. Ellen Heltzel of the Book Babes sat in her chair occasionally trying to make peace, and Elizabeth Taylor, book editor of the Chicago Tribune, made occasional and profoundly ineffectual attempts to moderate but they might as well have sat this one out in the hallway.
Book critic Carlin Romano arrived late, and launched a distinctly Peckian assault on Peck. Using the word “disingenuous” to describe Peck’s professed unwillingness to review first time novelists if he doesn’t like their book, and calling the recent NYT James Atlas profile a “hagiography,” he launched into a recitation of Peck’s most quotable tidbits, including Peck's observation that “Terry McMillan sucks as a writer.” (Well, she does, actually.). Romano read from his own hatchet job on Hatchet Jobs and Peck weathered it with good grace, chiding Romano for pulling the “zingers” out of context. Romano also made much of the fact that Peck uses the word “sucks” to talk about books, and Peck pointed out that that’s precisely how most of us actually talk about books.
Ellen tried a few times to broker a peace but the talk inevitably veered back to what is fundamental difference in approach between the two men. Romano stated that it’s “hard to imagine a book that’s 100 percent bad” and claimed that Peck’s eviscerations of authors “makes no sense.” Peck tried to pin him down as to what “making no sense” meant and the Romano never answered to my satisfaction, but as near as I can make it out, it has to do with Romano’s notion of a degree of consideration for the author. Which led to interesting questions about to whom, precisely, is the reviewer obligated?
I’ve slapped around Peck in these pages before but to be fair, I found a great deal of merit in much (though not all) of what he had to say, particularly when he expressed this thought, much pondered in my own previous posts – “Nobody gives a crap about literary fiction. It’s ceased to have any real relevance.” Peck’s arguments – made before – have to do with what he describes as confronting and overcoming the canon, and the authors who invoke his greatest ire appear to be those with the talent to do so but who content themselves (his view, not necessarily mine) in playing within the accepted or acceptable rules and/or parameters of what the novel should be. It’s actually an interesting and provocative notion, though I remain unsure as to how “Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation” gets us any closer to that. I think perhaps the worst thing that can be said about Peck is that he sometimes seems to be trying to have it both ways. Watching him speak it’s clear to me that he has strong and deeply felt ideas about serious fiction. Romano, on the other hand (who’s thrown his share of barbs), clearly walked into the room with Peck in the crosshairs, and articulated less in the way of a vision of either literature or reviewing.
Audience sympathies seemed divided at first – Romano’s roll call of Peck’s barbs was effective at the outset; but as the panel wore on and Romano appeared to be badgering Peck, the sympathy tilted, reaching an apotheosis when one distressed attendee leapt up from her seat and shouted to Romano “You, sir, are obsolete!” (This in response to Romano’s answer to a question about how books are selected for review. Pretty much by the taste of the reviewer, he said.) She went on the accuse him of being “out of touch” and having a “personal agenda and a huge chip on your shoulder.” To which Romano wryly replied, “What’s your question?”
In the end, the panelists seemed uncertain as to what, precisely, the intent of the discussions was supposed to be, and Taylor’s weak-kneed moderation did nothing to being any focus to the talk. But exhilarating talk it was ...
I’m sure Ron will post his own version filling in any bits of interest I’ve overlooked. In the meantime, I actually approached Peck afterwards, told him I’d taken him down in the past on TEV – he seemed to remember that I’d called him an “asshole” – and we talked a bit more about books and reviews. And I’ve even invited him out for a round of drinks. How’s that for stones? He may or may not show but he took my cell phone number and said he thought he might be able to make time for some pre-dinner drinking. (Update: He’s called and I missed the call. But he left a very gracious message suggesting that although his schedule is a bit tight tonight, drinks today or coffee tomorrow might still fit in.)
Needless to say, if it happens, you’ll read about it here. A fine first day in Chicago … No panels of great interest for me tomorrow, so there’ll probably be a single post near the day’s end sharing images and tales from inside the Pavilion Floor. We're waiting for Clinton to take to C-Span, and I apologize for any roughness in these posts. Think of them as dispatches from the front.