Event: Mixing Art and Politics
Participants: With Dorothea Dieckmann, Almudena Grandes, Janne Teller, Saul Williams; moderated by Sam Tanenhaus
Attendance: Strong - 50+.
Logline: On the impact - and relevance - of politics in an author's work and in assessing his/her legacy.
Impressions: A smart, spirited event. We arrived a bit late but none of the panelists were shy, although they agreed with one another a bit too much for Tanenhaus's taste (and ours).
Highlights: Poet Saul Williams suggesting that an artist claiming to be non-political is coming from a position of privilege ... and describing the Bible, Koran and others as "books of poems" ... Panel agreed that serious writing cannot avoid political engagement, at which point Tanenhaus asked how, then, to consider the work of a Pound, whose work we consider great and whose politics we find repellent ... Saul wondered whether he should be dancing to Dr. Dre or not ... but the panel seemed to agree that language finally trumps politics ... The political theme did bring out a few angry, ranting questioners, which does bring up our one pet peeve about this sort of thing - dump the Q&A ... They are seldom edifying and more often excruciating as apparently lonely questioners simply want someone to talk to ... Had we spoken up - we had to leave to catch another event - we would have reminded the panel of Robert Hughes's remark - that Guernica did not shorten the Franco regime by a day - and ask for their rejoinder; which works have exerted real political weight? Next time ...
Event: Conversation: Tatyana Tolstaya & David Remnick
Participants: Tatyana Tolstaya & David Remnick
Attendance: Strong - Around 100 or so.
Logline: Russian-accented literary conversation.
Impressions: We admit we were as curious to see Remnick as we were to see Tolstaya. He's terribly well-versed in the subject matter so, unsurprisingly, it was an interesting event. Tolstaya reminds us of most of our relatives, with that Slavic tendency toward absolutes.
Highlights: She's essentially supportive of Putin, which didn't seem to draw enough of a challenge from Remnick, especially given PEN's concerns ... but she doesn't really "know who he is" and invoked The Matrix, that there are those worse than Putin and it's the Matrix that controls things ... She observed that the New Authoritarians don't care about literature, which is why they persecute journalists, instead (invoking Tom Stoppard's idea that the greatest time to be a poet was when the Soviets would kill you for it.) She's convinced that all the Modern Russian is concerned about is money ... Finally, the pair shared their love of Pushkin, who, according to Tolstaya, "created language, created archetypes, created sound, created Russian literature" but is finally "unexplainable ... a mystery." (The stupid Q&A curse continued with the first questioner inquiring whether her two sons got along.)
Event: A Believer Nighttime Event
Participants: With Niccolò Ammaniti, John Hodgman, Uzodinma Iweala, Miranda July, Yasmina Khadra; and Eric Bogosian
Attendance: Completely packed - standing room only.
Logline: An orgy of twee.
Impressions: We've come a long, long way concerning the Believer (the magazine), which has gotten much better and much more serious over the years. But their public events are a different story and this one betrays the awful strain of cute that threatens to creep and poison the whole enterprise. (We should note, in fairness, that we're clearly the crabby minority, as the audience seemed to love the shennanigans.)
Highlights: Nothing for us, really ... but it's a matter of taste ... If watching Miranda July auction off audience-donated Ricola cough drops or literary speed dating with the likes of Uzodinma Iweala and Yasmina Khadra turns your crank, then this is the event for you ... But if we never have to endure another minute of Eric Bogosian's jumped-up-invective-as-performance-art, we'll die happily, indeed. But - and we mean this - the magazine is another, more impressive story altogether ... And the underlying idea that literary events can be fun and needn't be moribund affairs is absolutely fair game ... A question of taste, that's all.
Overall summary: The best literary event of its kind we've attended ... We're sorry to have missed the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books but this one was an easy call ... If you missed out this year, don't make the same mistake next time around. And thanks for the patience as we've struggled to get these dispatches up for you.