Thurston Moore’s Audience: A Subjective Account of the Brooklyn Book Festival
September 13, 2009
10:37am – Walking by Book Stands
Tao Lin T-shirts were dangling on hangers at the Melville House booth at the Brooklyn Book Festival. The T-shirts said “Tao Lin: 1983- ????” Across from Melville House was the Ugly Duckling booth. The books were beautiful to touch. I touched A Plate of Chicken by Matthew Rohrer and bought it. It was hot and sunny. I thought, This is the last hot day of summer.
10:41am – A Man
A man looked at the hat I was holding and said, “I like your hat.” “Thanks,” I said. He was familiar. He had talked to me once on the subway. But that time it was night and he had said, “Do you like the opera?”
10:45am – The Legacies of John Updike and David Foster Wallace (Borough Hall Courtroom): Panel of Distinguished Critics
I looked in the courtroom, in the last five minutes of this panel discussion by a group of distinguished critics sitting at the judge’s bench. They were about six feet above everybody else in the room. Because they were critics rather than judges, this height dwarfed rather than heightened the importance of anything that could be said.
11:00am – The Future of Literary Fiction (Borough Hall Community Room): T Cooper, Elizabeth Nunez and Keith Gessen moderated by Richard Nash
“I’m hearing a kind of snobbism… especially from you T” – Emily Gould
The Borough Hall Community Room is a kind of carpeted greenhouse situated within a larger ordinary variety courthouse room. I sat on a dark heavy wood bench. Two large cameras were pointed at the long table and on the other side of the glass there were sound-engineers.
Richard Nash, the former Soft Skull publisher was moderating. T Cooper started. T Cooper had Facebooked friends and asked them what they thought about the future of literary fiction, and said what the other people had said about the future of literary fiction. Like Darin Strauss who said something like “The internet won’t kill the old maiden,” and T Cooper’s agent who said something like “Stop going to the library and buy the fucking new book.” The way to make money these days, T Cooper said, was to co-write a zombie or vampire novel and offered to write one with anyone in the audience.
Elizabeth Nunez said in a soft voice, “America has a major problem.” She said it was because publishers have one idea about black novelists, that a novel written by a black author is a “black writer’s novel.” And though she has been written about favorably for many years, and her last book was an Editor’s Pick at The New York Times Book Review, her books don’t sell. She ended by saying, “The definition of racism is a failure to see yourself in others.” She said black writers used to be more widely read, like Zora Neal Hurston and Richard Wright.
Keith Gessen had a neat haircut, a sport jacket and spoke fast. He said there is a tendency to think that humans will do something stupid with new technology when they get their hands on it. I thought that was insightful. I laughed. He said the advent of platforms like Kindle and Twitter doesn’t necessarily mean the quality of the work presented on those platforms will be degraded. I don’t remember what this was in response to, maybe to Elizabeth Nunez’s statements about black writers only being read by black people but Keith Gessen said that when he was publishing his book All the Sad Young Literary Men, his publisher was afraid to market him as a Russian writer because maybe then only Russian writers would read it. And they talked about the title and thought it might exclude women, and only men would read the book. At one point it seemed like a panel on identity fiction, not on the future of fiction even though T Cooper didn’t say anything about identity and writing. T Cooper is transgender. Richard Nash at one point was talking about T Cooper and said “she he” and looked around the room, which was silent.
Elizabeth Nunez said, “I happen to think I’m an excellent writer.” People in the audience clapped. Ballantine dropped her because her book didn’t sell.
T Cooper said Rick Moody was writing a novel in “morsels” that after editing would eventually be published on Twitter and expressed that there was something about the editing process that made it different than most other material published on the web. “The worst of humans comes out unedited,” said T Cooper.
Elizabeth Nunez said people under forty weren’t reading literary fiction. Both T Cooper and Keith Gessen are under forty.
During the question and answer session, a librarian said to T Cooper, “Don’t fuck the libraries,” or something to that effect, because libraries were some of the biggest supporters of literary fiction and played a big role in bringing fiction to a larger audience.
Emily Gould raised her hand and said “I’m hearing a kind of snobbism… especially from you T.” She was sitting very straight. She asked how fiction was supposed to subsist if authors and publishers refuse to meet an audience where it lives. Everyone looked at Emily Gould. Her hair was in a ponytail. I thought about when Emily Gould was with Gawker and stated in a post about Tao Lin, “You’re maybe perhaps the single most irritating person we’ve ever had to deal with,” and then in another post pardoned him because she liked an essay he had written about the levels of literary greatness and stated, “You’re good in our book for now, Tao Lin! Don’t fuck it up.”
12:05pm – Real Surreal (St. Francis College Reading Room): Tao Lin, Nicholson Baker, Ben Marcus, Yona Zeldis McDonough.
“Copper powder for phonic salting” – Ben Marcus (from The Flame Alphabet)
“I wasn’t thinking about it until you peed outside and I thought about variety” – Tao Lin (from Shoplifting From American Apparel)
Walking to the Tao Lin and Ben Marcus reading I saw Jason. “This is Bart,” he said.
Tao Lin was reading when I walked in. He read into a microphone sitting in his chair at a long table on the platform with the other readers. His legs were crossed at the ankles under the table. He read from Shoplifting From American Apparel. He read one of my favorite parts of the book, when Sam, the protagonist of Shoplifting tells his friend on g-chat that he was in jail for shoplifting. I was glad I got to hear him read that because I like hearing writers read things that I’ve already read and liked to hear how different it is from the way it sounds in my head. He read in a monotone way, more monotone than anyone I have ever heard speak, except for Tao Lin at another reading where he read three lines and left.
Someone asked after he read why he was on this panel about surreal writing if his book wasn’t surreal. Tao Lin said because the narrator, Sam, has a surreal worldview.
Nicholson Baker was reading at the podium when a woman fainted. She was near me and her head dropped back. Nicholson Baker stopped reading. A man with a professional badge went up to her. She lifted her head, opened her eyes and was breathing. Nicholson Baker started to read again. The woman who fainted didn’t leave the room.
Ben Marcus read from his forthcoming novel called The Flame Alphabet, about a world in which language is toxic for people to use, hear and see. What Ben Marcus read was understandable to the ordinary person who would attend a literary reading. Most of the time it was very readable. There were some clauses that some people would call difficult like “copper powder for phonic salting,” “marshal symptom appliance,” and “well-crafted public solitude.” But those didn’t occur as often as I was expecting they would. I wondered what its Fog Index was. Nobody in the audience seemed confused. I thought, Is Ben Marcus courting a wider audience? I then thought I wished I hadn’t thought that.
About the way Tao Lin reads and talks, Al said after the reading, “How much of that do you think is an act?”
1:00pm – Editor as Author (St. Francis College Reading Room): Heidi Julavits, Hannah Tinti, Sarah Rainone
“My inbox has been called the black hole of Calcutta.” – Heidi Julavits
I was missing the Rasskazy panel on the International Stage. (Rasskazy: New Fiction from a New Russia is a new Tin House anthology). Emily Gould would be interviewing Dmitry Danilov and probably saying things to him like “I’m hearing a kind of snobbism.” But Heidi Julavits, one of the editors of The Believer, I knew, would say good things too. And she did, like “My inbox has been called the black hole of Calcutta.” She also said she likes being bugged, but only in a good way.
Donald Breckenridge, who looked like he would have been cozier in a cabin beside a big fire reading all translations of War and Peace side by side than in this bright cafeteria with Vitra chairs, was moderating. The chairs were designed with holes at the back so peoples’ butts could be seen. First he said, about being an editor and a writer, “Who in their right minds would do both?” Heidi Julavits said she has two brains at work, a generative creative brain, which she uses when writing, and a math brain she uses when editing. Editing is like Pilates for her math brain so it doesn’t get “flabby.” Hannah Tinti, the editor of One Story said she started out working at the Boston Review and then The Atlantic Monthly and that sometimes she would reject a whole pile of submissions she hadn’t read because she was told to. So, writers shouldn’t take rejections personally. It seemed no one knew exactly what Sarah Rainone meant when she said she was a freelance editor. So Heidi Julavits said, “What exactly do you mean?” Sarah Rainone said she gets hired by authors and publishers to give structural and developmental assistance to authors whose non-fiction books are bought on proposal. “Hired gun,” someone said and all the panelists nodded.
Donald Breckenridge asked why they edit at all, and that most novelists would say it is a complete waste of time. Heidi Julavits had already explained why she liked editing earlier, so she just added that it was just a natural part of any writer’s “six-prong career profile,” and just a reflection of “all seventeen sides of the writer coin.” Hannah Tinti said editing helps her come out of her writer shell that she needs to go into to write. Sarah Rainone said she was grateful she “grew up” at Doubleday, but she was happy to be out on her own. This was her first panel. “I’m a lot more comfortable being other people than being myself,” she said. Then they started to say things like “financial reality,” and “I don’t get paid,” and “I don’t get paid either.” I went to the panel on upward mobility.
2:00pm – Movin’ On Up (Borough Hall Community Room): Lewis Lapham, Kathryn Newman and Gloria Browne-Marshall
“We’re about movement, whether you’re moving up or down on the social scale… And it’s the very essence of The New York Post” – Lewis Lapham
I walked by the International Stage, which was empty except for Keith Gessen and Emily Gould who were on the side talking and picking up things. I opened the Rasskazy book at the Tin House booth, which made me think, I have so many books to read. There was loud music playing somewhere.
Back in the room, which looked like a greenhouse, Lewis Lapham’s head was propped up on three fingers strategically placed around the temple of his inclined head, his elbow on the table. His head stayed this way for the hour. Someone told me at a party once that Lewis Lapham didn’t wear socks. “That’s a sign that you’ve reached the pinnacle of the social class in America,” she said. I couldn’t see his feet to look. To his right was Kathryn Newman, and to Kathryn Newman’s right was Gloria Browne-Marshall. This was the panel with the most statistics. It also felt high powered. Kathryn Newman is the Ford Foundation Professor of Urban Studies at the Kennedy School of Government, at Harvard University. Gloria Browne-Marshall is a Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College. Lewis Lapham was the editor of Harper’s Magazine, and is now the Editor of Lapham’s Quarterly. He also made a musical documentary I like called The American Ruling Class. I’ve been told he practices golf moves sometimes in his office—he has a full set of golf clubs there.
Paul Tough from The New York Times Magazine opened by asking Lewis Lapham to give an historical perspective, because that’s the kind of perspective Lewis Lapham gives, on “one of the founding myths” that goes to the core of our self-conception of ourselves as a nation, the myth of upward mobility. (Tough was careful to say that by myth he didn’t mean to imply it was false). Lewis Lapham said, “We love to tell ourselves that story.” He gave a short history of poor men who had done well: Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton (“the bastard born in the West Indies”), Obama, Clinton, Carnegie, Rockefeller—all started out as poor men. “The idea that you can invent yourself is a fundamental American ideal,” he said. He said, “We’re about movement, whether you’re moving up or down on the social scale.” (I thought, by the time he was my age, my father was a doctor and had two children in schools in New York. I am a writer. I make 99.9% less money than my father made. Did that mean I was sliding down on the scale or that I was at least at the same level on the scale as my father despite making a lot less money). Paul Tough gave some statistics. Black Americans he said were more likely to experience downward mobility than white Americans. Among the “haves” and “have nots,” 40% of white “haves” move down, while 70% of black “haves” move down. I missed when he said what the percentage was for the “have-nots” moving up, but the percentage of white “have-nots” moving up was higher than the black “have-nots” moving up, which was 25%.
With one finger, Lewis Lapham pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose.
Gloria Browne-Marshall said upward mobility was an identity issue. “I know people who will not accept that we have a black president,” she said, “who think if you are below me, how can you have a job title that is above me.” She said there were “artificial obstacles,” like societal expectations that prevent people from moving up.
I had a thought about Lewis Lapham practicing golf moves in his office when the audience clapped louder than any audience had clapped all day. Gloria Browne-Marshall had said something important that I missed.
Lewis Lapham moved his head once to clean his glasses.
Lewis Lapham said that statistics show it’s easier to move up the social hierarchy in Canada, France or Denmark than in the United States.
Kathryn Newman, who followed the progress of a group of children in Harlem, said 1/3 of the children she followed in her study, which she documented in her book Chutes and Ladders, were no longer poor. The reason was education. She spoke about governments investing in human capital to achieve this end, that early childhood education needed to be free and universally so.
Lewis Lapham said, “Human capital is Jefferson’s theory. It’s right.”
Lewis Lapham said our country has no history of taking care of underprivileged Americans. Our notion of healthcare is “essentially Bismarck’s.”
Lewis Lapham said the word “eleemosynary.” This word has three possible pronunciations: 1) one with a short “o,” 2) one with a long “o,” and 3) one with a short “o” and a “z” sound on the “s.” I believe Lewis Lapham used the first. It is derived from the Latin “eleemosynarius” (alms) and means, according to the OED, “Of or pertaining to alms or almsgiving; charitable.”
Lewis Lapham said, “You’re on your own.”
Lewis Lapham said, “The heroic individual.”
Lewis Lapham said, “Sinner at the hand of an angry god.”
Walking out, I saw Michelle. She said, “Nice hat.”
3:20pm – Talking to Nigel (By the Drawn and Quarterly Booth)
I said, “Did you see the Rasskazy panel. Emily Gould was going to be interviewing Dmitry Danilov. She was at the panel with Keith Gessen and said to T Cooper that she detected a kind of snobbism.”
Nigel said, “No. But I hear Housing Works is having a Rasskazy thing soon. Don’t Emily Gould and Keith Gessen fuck?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s possible.”
Epilogue – 11:50am (St. Francis College Auditorium)
The auditorium was huge and empty when I got there. I sat in a burgundy velvet seat, and looked at the carpet and high ceilings. I imagined Tao Lin and Ben Marcus sitting at the table with that black curtain behind them laughing and talking to each other while drinking from their complimentary bottles of water. I have never seen Tao Lin laugh. I have seen Ben Marcus laugh a few times. About twelve people walked in yelling at each other—or, talking but in a loud, flaunting way. I thought, Whose audience is this? This doesn’t seem like Ben Marcus’s or Tao Lin’s audience. Maybe it’s Nicholson Baker’s audience? I was thinking very hard about audiences. I looked for hipsters. I remember in an interview I read somewhere that sometimes Tao Lin has random thoughts that he will then think about continuously like one time where he thought “my audience is hipsters.” Then I thought in a definitive way that neither Ben Marcus’s nor Tao Lin’s audience would make very much noise and would make an effort to move very little. They would wear skinny jeans and small sneakers without laces. I thought, Is this The Anarchy of Youth panel? I didn’t see Jason or Bart or James or anyone else I knew was coming to this panel. Thurston Moore walked down the aisle in jeans and talked to someone next to me with STAFF written on his shirt. I thought Thurston Moore must be stopping by to say hi to Ben Marcus or Tao Lin since Thurston Moore is sitting on the Poetry Pop and Hip-Hop panel in this building at this time too. Thurston Moore moved to the stage area and I took a picture of him. While taking the picture, I thought, This is Thurston Moore’s audience.
Blurry Photo of Thurston Moore taken by me.