I was sitting in the Knopf booth chatting with one of their publicists and LATBR editor David Ulin (who had just offered a tongue-in-cheek - we hope - warning about the dangers of talking to bloggers) when Michael Cader wandered by and gave me a friendly chiding over my dearth of posts here. When I made excuses that posts were coming later, he suggested that the raw impressions might be more entertaining than polished consideration - because, really, who has the time to consider anything at BEA?
He's right, so I'm following his lead and offering some unedited impressions about my DC BEA experience. It breaks down into three areas for me - meetings, panels and parties.
Meetings: Unlike previous BEAs, where I would wander serenditipitously up and down the aisles bumping into friendly publicists, I made appointments this year. Lots of appointments. The upside was structure. The downside was more time in meetings than in panels. (Although given what I saw of the panels, this wasn't such a downside.) So I've spent much of the last two days meeting with publicists of more houses than I could name, and I share some general impressions:
The publicists that I had the good fortune to meet with were, to a person, smart, enthusiastic, dedicated to the work they were handling. They are young, overworked, underpaid but they really are motivated by the love of the book (a refreshing change from the hired marketing consultant who might be selling widgets or Starbucks as easily as books). They know the material they're handling, have thought about why they like it and are, in a noisy, noisy marketplace, often a book's last, best advocate. As I waded through dozens of catalogues and made my requests, I was struck by just how much promising material is out there, looking for its audience. As dire as the calls seem to get each year, every single house I visited - again, without exception - had something on their list that would interest any serious reader.
So what were the "scores" people want to know - galleys or books I got that I'm most excited about. Well, I picked up copies of the new WIlliam Boyd, Jonathan Franzen and Richard Ford books. I was thrilled to nab a copy of Grove/Atlantic's bilingual edition of Waiting for Godot. And William Logan's collection of criticism, courtesy of Princeton University Press, might have been the score of the weekend. (Actually, the biggest score I'm not quite at liberty to mention yet, but watch this space soon.)
Some less well known titles that are high on my radar now, given the enthusiasm I found surrounding them include Yvette Christianse's Unconfessed (Other Press) and Frederick Reuss' Mohr (Unbridled Books), which I've begun reading and looks promising, indeed. Also catching my attention is Delia Falconer's The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers (Soft Skull).
Panels: As I said, with all the meetings, I've had less time for panels than usual. The blogging panel is always a must for me but, sadly, was a bust. There was virtually no moderation - the five panelists each made longish statements (David Brustein's opening statement was maddeningly longwinded and elicited at least one cocked eyebrow of dismay from Ana Marie Cox), and a handful of questions were fielded. I was surprised at how, frankly, inarticulate the proprietor of Daily Kos was but perhaps that's just generational - your average twenty-something would surely have related to him. And although he might understand blogging, he seemed out of place at a publishing convention, where his insights on publishing seemed to be limited to "Dog books and Abraham Lincoln are popular." Still, Michael Cader gave the best definition of a blog we've yet heard - "A website that showcases an individual voice" which is more elegant than our "A website that records the enthusiasms of its host." Still, Michael's description doesn't account for popular group blogs, like LBC, but it's a handy starting point.
The problem remains, as Michael himself pointed out, people still don't know what to do with these blog panels. They all seem to lack a clear sense of purpose (and in this case, an absence of effective moderation), and it might be that simply taking on Blogging casts to wide a net to be informative in an hour. BEA education types, if you're reading this, drop a line to this address, and you'll get some proposals about how to liven things up next year. Like actually showing a blog on the large screen sitting there dormant ...
At the other blog-related panel, Sarah Weinman struggled valiantly with the nebulous "Syndicating Litblog Reviews," which I still don't entirely get, and I'm a blogger. But she made the most of it and her lecture was a handy blogging 101 for those in attendance, with several audience bloggers leaping in with pointer of their own.
Oh, another BEA panel pet peeve - use namecards, people. If you arrive late, as I did to the Future of the Novel panel, you have no idea who the players are. Fortunately, David Kipen was on hand to be my scorecard, as I watched Lev Grossman, John Freeman, Laura Miller, Oscar Villalon and Jennifer Reese talk about novelists under 40. This discussion was the liveliest of the three I attended, even if the Writers Under 40 designation feels like an arbitrary mark. And the panel did seem to take that mandate literally, discussing writers and youth, thus taking a pretty straight-line approach to the question of "The Future of the Novel." Now, I arrived a bit late but in the time I was there, no one discussed the role of the Internet in the future of the novel. It was entirely focused on young writers as the future of the novel.
That said, numerous interesting and worthy points made. The MFA question seemed to split the panel with Freeman and Villalon clearly against and Miller more or less for. Reese was silent on the issue. Villalon suggested - as others, including myself have - that there's a sameness in MFA fiction, and he cited the New Yorker as Exhibit A. Miller disagreed with him, arguing that MFA programs are an opportunity for writers to learn to polish their skills, especially less gifted ones. The panel tackled the question of genre as a trend of the future, with Miller suggesting that the merging of the literary and genre is a new development but Freeman pointed out (rightly, I think) that that's scarcely a new development. Milller also asserted that literary fiction tends to be passive and reflective because those writers are passive, reflective people. Nothing like falling back on a gross generalization, eh people? Prep was noted as a novel that blurs distinctions, one that can't easily be pigeonholed as either commercial or literary. Finally, Grossman asked whether it's possible to still have a writer considered "The Voice of Generation." Miller suggested some thought Dave Eggers might fill that role (which prompted a few groans of distress), and she felt these days the Voice of a Generation tag will get attached to memoirs before novels. Villalon opined that the Voice of a Generation is like pornography - we'll know it when we see it. And, he added "God willing it won't be a white writer ... but a writer comfortable with White American ... and Immigrant America." Milller went on the suggest that people essentially only like to read about themselves, or about the deeply exotic. Good Lord, does she enjoy this stuff at all? Still, it was a panel that left one wishing they'de been given a bit more time, and Grossman showed himself an able moderator, keeping the proceedings lively.
Parties: Everyone wants to know about the parties. Once again, I was surprised and pleased how well attended the LBC party was. The Big Hunt turned out to be the perfect spot and, as with last year, it was definitely the most relaxed of the evening's parties. Folks did complain that the bloggers were not easy to find and should have been wearing name tags, so perhaps those will come into use next year. By the time I left, at least 75 people had shown up, and I understand they kept coming after I left ... I made a brief appearance at the party thrown by A Public Space, which was held in a great space with great music playing but I admit I felt a bit old among the late 20-somethings, so I didn't stay long. I'm also not used to the whole smoking-in-bars thing anymore, so I was eager to flee the smoke. I then proceeded to get so thoroughly lost on the streets of Washington that I entirely missed the Hougton Mifflin dinner for Alison Bechdel, which I'd been looking forward to. But I did make my way over the Phillips Collection for the NYRB shindig where I spent quite a lot of time chatting with my former nemesis Steve Wasserman, who regaled me with wonderful literary stories. (Highlight of the evening: Telling Steve and Ben Schwarz, Atlantic literary editor, about my "scores", especially the Godot and the Logan. Wasserman nodded approvingly and Schwarz laughed, looking between the two of us and saying to Steve "You know what I'm thinking ... " So do I - more alike than either of us realized. Then onto the Macadam/Cage launch party for their forthcoming title Mary where I got have a long and interesting talk with Dave Weich, the mastermind behind Powells.com, before finally ending up at the Hyatt drinking whiskey with a bunch of YA authors. More of the same on tap for tonight, dishy stories to follow and general wrap up tomorrow.