I’d say it’s one of the traits of a good comedian or comic writer to know when something is not funny. I arrived in Boston on Thursday for the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) annual conference, fully intending to find enough weirdly dressed or oddly behaving writers to make for a blog as humorous as last year’s. But after two days here I can’t do it.
Apart from a few backpack people, who still do not comprehend just how far those annoyances jut out from between their shoulders yet continue to spin about in crowded elevators, the 11,000 or so attendees have been remarkably, refreshingly professional. From the larger publishing houses to the lit journals to the indie startups, virtually everyone I’ve spoken to in the bookfair is focused on their publishing goals. And I haven’t seen a single Elvis or Madonna look-alike.
What’s the difference? I can’t help thinking that maybe the economy has turned the corner on recovery, and that people, even writers, are taking the opportunities this presents, after so long in the recession, seriously. Maybe the bad weather here forced people to leave their leather gear at home.
Whatever the reason, the result points to what could be a resurgence in the publishing industry. I stopped by dozens of display tables today, many of them fledgling publishers with interesting new books to accompany their plans and dreams. Surely a more serious public will turn to reading as a break from the corporate pabulum that passes for entertainment that is slathered upon us 24/7 via corporate media.
Or maybe I’m dreamin’.
But with that change in attitude also comes a renewed sense of what it takes to be a writer. On Friday evening I attended and reading and conversation with authors Richard Russo and Amy Bloom. The discussion came around to how each of them balanced the rather disparate, but necessary aspects of the writer-as-God with the ability to feel and communicate empathy in stories. It’s fun, they agreed, to maintain that kind of God-like control in storytelling, even if the omniscient approach isn’t usually the best one to employ. A writer can’t help feeling his/her omnipotence over an imaginary world. But it’s just as important to empathize with one’s characters and therefore, with real people. As Ms. Bloom said, you’re either the kind of person who’s able to care about someone who’s not you, or you’re not. A writer is that first kind of person.
Yesterday, at the bookfair, I purchased a book of essays by Mary Ruefle titled Madness, Rack and Honey, because we reviewed it in LA Review last issue and our reviewer raved about it. I was hooked from the first page of the Introduction. Here is a writer whose perspective on existence resonates with me. An excerpt:
This is what Ezra Pound learned from Ernest Fenollosa: Some languages are so constructed—English among them—that we each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime. That sentence begins with your first words, toddling around the kitchen, and ends with your last words right before you step into the limousine, or in a nursing home, the night-duty attendant vaguely on hand. Or, if you are blessed, they are heard by someone who knows you and loves you and will be sorry to hear the sentence end.
I’ll trade humor for inspiration any day.
I want to stay in my hotel room and read the entire book, but it is time for my shift at the LAR table.