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Vol. 13, No. 4, 2014
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Robert J. Lewis
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Donald Dewey's latest books, both published this year, are the novel The Man Who Hated History and the biography Lee J. Cobb: Characters of an Actor.

Those who lamented Philip Roth's announcement that he was no longer going to read his works in public must not have been paying attention. For starters, Roth had made an earlier announcement that he was also finished with writing, suggesting that if he had gone on with his readings, they would have been of previously unrecited high school compositions. More important, the disappointed could not possibly have attended many ‘meetings with the author,’ as they are typically called, since if they had, they would have been relieved to hear that at least one scribe was removing himself from public awkwardness and pomposity. As a veteran of these events from both ends, I can assure you that writers are better off writing and readers are better off reading. Outside of poets in the vein of Dylan Thomas, rare is the writer capable of reaching out vocally with a dramatic lyricism more resonant than what he has committed to the page; outside of those addicted to audio books for making their morning and evening commutes more tolerable, rare is the reader who isn't more rewarded following the eye rather than the ear to the brain. And as for the industrious bookstore operators who have sought to make Meet the Author opportunities a seductive feature of their business, well, look what's happened to bookstores since they started doing it. You never hear of Amazon presenting the latest Poet Laureate in its Shopping Cart.

The motive for organizing a Meet the Author evening, of course, is a publisher's desire to sell books. The key ingredient for these encounters is not so much the book being pitched as it is the celebrity of the writer doing the pitching. This is not as special a circumstance as you might suppose. Granted that Beyonce might generate a longer line outside the bookstore than the mad housewife living upstairs who has finally gotten it all copyrighted, but merely by having an imminent appearance publicized with a window sign, the mad housewife has earned a curiosity value that has become increasingly indistinguishable from celebrity. And that's without counting the scores of intimate friends she has made on Facebook who are ready to march to some convenient location because, like them, she has a Siamese named Yul and likes staring out the window between four and five every afternoon. Celebrity no longer just marks somebody everybody knows, it encompasses anybody you want to think you know. (If you doubt it, glance at your favorite gossip column and identify half of the bold-faced names).

Not all Meet the Author occasions offer readings in the strictest sense of someone standing at a lectern and happily quoting himself. In many instances the reading is dispensed with behind the calculation that the mere appearance of the writer will provide a sufficiently orgiastic experience and the rest can wait until the reader has purchased his book, gone home and gotten under the covers. In place of a reading, the focus will more often be on a summary of the work under discussion followed by a Q and A in which the Q demonstrates that the presentation has been a waste of time for the question he has been obsessed with asking for days and the A responds to some grievance he has been wanting to get off his chest since agreeing to show up. Protocol demands that each party thank the other for pretending to be engaged in a dialogue.

Arranging a Meeting with the Author inevitably involves a publicist from the publishing house. Almost without exception (we haven't got time for the exceptions right now), publicists are earnest and supportive and those other qualities vital to gatherings in church basements. They want your book to succeed because (a) they liked the few pages of it they read, (b) their job depends on it, and (c) the rest of the pages are on their might-eventually-read list. For the writer that can be more than enough to get on with it, especially when some centrally located venue has been chosen for attracting readers and their credit cards. In New York, for instance, this could be any street with a number attached to it and a traffic light nearby indicating that another street crosses through it. All the writer has to bring to the occasion is a distant smile and a pen that works.

The publicist, on the other hand, has endless responsibilities, making her (hims are usually busy in the mail room) wonder why that B+ on her Edith Wharton paper in college persuaded her she was suited for a career in publishing. One common task is to make it clear to those showing up for their audience with the author that certain subjects would be too far afield to interest anyone so don't go into them; i.e., the author has made it a condition for an appearance not to broach that topic. Thus, for instance, at a recent encounter with Linn Ullman, the audience was cautioned that the novelist was there to talk about her work, not about her famous parents --- the director Ingmar Bergman and the actress Liv Ullman. Everybody muttered that was a reasonable request, at least until the first question came: “Do you think you were inspired in your work by your famous parents?” The audience muttered again, Ullman imported a smile from Scandinavia, and the publicist looked as curious about the answer as the questioner. For the next half-hour about the only Bergman picture not mentioned was The Hour of the Wolf. It didn't have to be: That was ticking away in the author's eyes.

Sometimes the publicist is saddled with doing everything from scratch. The first time a gathering was organized for one of my books was around a sports history, and the publicist for the occasion very logically chose as a venue a Manhattan restaurant owned by former major leaguer Rusty Staub, known to Montreal fans as Le Grand Orange. She was equally logical in choosing for a time the second day of the baseball season since in the Northeast this is traditionally an open date in case rain or snow forces cancellation of the scheduled opener. In this particular year there were no tantrums from the weather, and there hadn't been any forecast for some time, enabling not only the New York Mets players at home to be invited on a day off, but also the visiting St. Louis Cardinals. Panoply was in the air, hors d'oeuvres were on the tables, and reporters were squeezing through the doors. The only question mark seemed to be over which encyclopedic entry in the book would be read. But then, after about two hours of an empty restaurant and the publicist's dismayed insistence that she had sent personalized invitations to every player on both the Mets and Cardinals, she finally threw in the further detail that she had sent the invitations to spring training camps in Florida, where neither team had been for more than a week. Was that important?

From a sustenance point of view, not really. It enabled yours truly and several friends to cart off from Rusty's enough hot dogs, roast beef and cheese for a week of dinners. Promoting sales wasn't everything. On the other hand, it didn't hurt. There was another evening when a publicist decided that being read was more important than being sold --- as aesthetic an outlook as one could never hope for. The occasion was a presentation in a prestigious Manhattan museum of a book I had written on the history of American political cartoons. All the chatter went well until, just as the signing was about to start, the publicist grabbed the microphone to tell people that if they couldn't afford one of the numerous copies being offered for sale, they could always find the book at their local library. Her peculiar sense of timing had the immediate appreciable effect of thinning out the line for buying the book. “As long as it gets read, right?” was her stab at reassurance. No, I don't know if she's still in the publishing business.

At the serious level, meaning when a house has committed to printing tens of thousands of copies, not only the author but the publisher himself will show up to meet the public. At a recent gathering in a Brooklyn bookstore, for instance, the Swedish crime writer Jon Sesbo showed up to hype his straight novel Son flanked not only by the inevitable publicist but also by Knopf editor-in-chief Sonny Mehta. What followed was the kind of somber 45 minutes usually encountered at a summit meeting of the Group of Seven (or how many of them are there now?). For his part, Sesbo assumed a stance once made famous by Chinese Prime Minister Chou en-Lai: pretend I don't speak English so I'll have more time with the help of an interpreter to come up with an answer. When the answer came, of course, it was rendered with the fluency and enunciation of John Gielgud. In the interests of giving the writer even more time to calculate his responses, Mehta intervened to talk about the hopes Knopf had for the sales of Son in the manner of a Minister of Trade given the floor to announce industrial projections.

Fortunately, there was the publicist to the rescue with such questions as why Sesbo had departed from his internationally successful crime stories to write a fairly straightforward novel. The Swede needed no Chou en-Lai tactics to answer that one: He was a little bored with his detective characters and wanted to try something different. Then the questions were thrown to the floor. First one: “When are you going to get back to writing the detective stories I love so much?”

If he ever did get back to those crime tales, Sesbo's eyes said, he had a pretty good idea who one of the victims might be.

Also by Donald Dewey:
The Overwriting Syndrome
Writers As Ideas
Let Them Entertain Us
It's a Kindergarten Life
Being and Disconnectedness
History of Humour in the Cinema
Cartoon Power




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