The OF Blog: 2012 Southern Festival of Books, Day Two: Mark Helprin gives a sort of anti-reading, family novels, and Junot Díaz on privilege and biculturalism

Saturday, October 13, 2012

2012 Southern Festival of Books, Day Two: Mark Helprin gives a sort of anti-reading, family novels, and Junot Díaz on privilege and biculturalism

Today was an even busier day than yesterday.  I attended two full sessions and caught parts of two others (I had to head out of the festival area for an hour for a personal matter) and since I did not record any of the sessions (and for the latter sessions, no suitable photos were taken), fragile, flawed memory will have to suffice.

Mark Helprin in the midst of his non-reading reading session
The first session I attended was the 12:30-1:30 PM session in the Nashville Public Library's Grand Reading Room with acclaimed writer Mark Helprin, who ostensibly was there to promote his just-released novel In Sunlight and in Shadow (I read the first 110 pages while waiting in various lines and the prose is gorgeous), set in post-WWII New York.  But in an entertaining 65 minute session that went beyond its allotted time, Helprin talked about memory, the weaknesses involved in reading aloud, eidetic memory, the shortcomings of reducing humanity to desires and not acknowledging that individually we can construct grander personal meanings out of those near and dear to us.  And yet despite his near-total avoidance of reading aloud from the book, I got the sense (which the pages I read later supported to a degree) that he did more to talk about a possible "what the book is" than if he had just sat down and read selected passages.  Not too bad for an author who said in his first years as a novelist that a TV host/interviewer threw him off the set of a Cleveland morning show for being "the most difficult interviewee" she had ever had (the punch line then being that in the 1930s this host, an American Jewess, had even managed due to a freak of accident to get an interview with Hitler).

While I was waiting in a long line (about 15-20 minutes, or long enough for me to be a few minutes late to my next session), I read the following passage and got Helprin to write a comment on it:

Helprin's 100 Shades of Gray, twice as good (at least) than the original.

 I was about five minutes late for the 2-3:30 session on family lives in novels, featuring debut novelists Adam Wilson, Tupelo Hassman's (whose Girlchild I had read and thought was very strong), and Lydia Netzer.  Due to a conflict with a personal appointment elsewhere in town, I only managed to hear the authors' read before I had to leave for an hour just when they had begun to take questions from the audience.  I will note that Wilson is a very strong, emotional reader and Netzer and Hassman read passages that were poignant (I will be buying Wilson and Netzer's works in the very near future; alas, I couldn't today and thus no signed copies).

Wilson, Hassman, and Netzer at the reading.

I was able to get back to the Festival site around 3:45, with just enough time to get my copy of Girlchild signed before I caught the last five minutes of Ben Marcus and Karen Thompson Walker's joint reading.  All I caught was a question for both about editing and Walker talking about how her experiences as an editor did inform some of her own writing choices, but that it wasn't necessarily an ideal situation.  I had already given my copy of Walker's book to a friend, so I only was able to get Marcus' latest, The Flame Alphabet.  While in line, chatted briefly with him about how I had read some of his stories in Conjunctions and other pubs, which led to a very brief convo about anthologies and cross-genre fiction.  Wish I could have heard their full talks, as both Marcus and Walker sounded impressive for the five minutes I got to listen to them.

But the highlight of the day has to be the hilariously profane and yet profound talk/Q&A with Pulitzer Prize-winning (and just nominated National Book Award finalist) Junot Díaz from 4-5 PM.  Díaz used humor to highlight some very uncomfortable truths that writers and readers in various genres often try to push under the rug:  the issue of racial epithets and when nigger/nigga is used, by whom, and how it is decoded; the issue of being of two cultures, neither of which is fully comfortable with those of the Dominican Diaspora who embrace both (in the case of Díaz and his friends/family/characters) "Jersey" and "Santo Domingo"; and the privileges that prevent certain writers, usually white males, from understanding just how poorly they understand women and how that is reflected in the works they write and the books that they read and promote.  There were some in the audience who applauded loudly at this, while others looked sheepish.  However, no one tried to gainsay this.  Perhaps this is because the audience was not primarily white male, but I like to think it is because most members recognized the truth in his statements.  He also had this funny line regarding a question of those who might criticize him for saying something wrong in either English or Spanish (my paraphrase):  "Yeah, I sometimes hear it when I misconjugate a verb or say something wrong, but shit, my negro, I know my fucking Quenya!"

Due to the good 100-150 people waiting to get their books signed, I didn't get to talk with Díaz more than a minute or so while he signed my copies of his three books.  But I did ask him if he had read the recent Salon piece criticizing the National Book Award for not recognizing "genre" writers.  He said that he had and that the piece was poorly-argued (he didn't say it was because a lot of his writings can be construed as "genre" and that he is working on a SF novel, Monstro, currently scheduled for 2013 publication, but that was my first thought when I saw that piece and the jackdaw piece on io9) and that he had seen similar things argued, with similar flaws, when it came to the British Booker Prize.  Would have loved to have asked him more on this, but he truly was busy, perhaps the busiest of any of the authors I had seen this year (even Helprin had a line that was only 1/3 or so of Díaz's and Helprin's was easiest the second-largest I saw).  Now many of the opinions Díaz expressed in this talk and in response to me can be found online in various recent interviews, so I would suggest searching those out.

I know this summary is a bit brief, but feel free to ask for more details if you want.  Tomorrow, I plan on attending a noon session on middle grades fantasy that will include Kelly Barnhill and Catherynne M. Valente on the panel.  Then there is a 2-3 PM session with debut novelist Peter Heller (The Dog Stars) before I finish with a 3:30-4:30 session involving journalist/columnist Leonard Pitts.  More on those sometime tomorrow evening.


Foxessa said...

Gads that Laura Miller piece was stupid. It's hard to think she's really that ill-informed or that idiotic. So what was the point of her publishing it.

Love, C.

Larry Nolen said...

I'm beginning to feel that Miller, like many in the UK who write genre-related pieces for The Guardian, is striking the same (discordant) note too often in her pieces. It read like something cannibalized from an earlier post of hers on a similar issue.

If I had the energy (which I don't, which is why my write-up of the awesome final day of the Festival will have to await at least until tomorrow afternoon), I would have written a longer, more scathing essay retort to the points she and the io9 people made (if "points" is even the correct word).

Right now, I'll just content myself with thinking it is hilarious the presumptions there, especially in light of the panel discussions I attended today.

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