Here is a factual, but overly cynical report about some well-known writers I have seen or met in person. It might interest you.
I saw Salman Rushdie read in Boston in summer 2008.
At that time I had limited experience with Rushdie. The only book of his I had read was Haroun and the Sea of Stories. It was assigned my freshman year of high school by a teacher everyone hated. She seemed pretty humorless and thus surprised us by assigning (and obviously liking) this “fun” book. But we didn’t end up liking Haroun and the Sea of Stories. The book involved a tap in a child’s sink from which teardrops of stories flowed. Conversations took place on magic carpet rides, and central characters included a pair of rhyming fish. The book seemed to be an inappropriate choice for seventeen-year-olds.
The Harvard bookstore sold out the church for Rushdie, and then allowed even more worshipers to stand in back. It was a hot, sweaty July afternoon. People were hot and sweaty.
Rushdie began by telling us about his new novel, The Enchantress of Florence, which is a fantastical story about—what else?—the magic of storytelling and the moving love affair of some royal princess and prince (or whatever).
“Much of the weirder stuff in this book is true, and the kind of ordinary stuff is the stuff that I’ve made up,” he said. Big laughs for that. As it turns out, people really like Salman Rushdie. People think he’s very funny. He busted out another snazzy one-liner when he told us, “I discovered to my intense delight that the Ottomans were fighting a war against Dracula. I mean actual Dracula himself, Vlad the Impaler. And the moment I realized that I could have Dracula in my novel, you know, without cheating, I thought that I’d gone to Heaven, really.” This, too, raised the roof. Rushdie cracked himself up.
Rushdie read a long section about the dashing male hero and the princess who loved him. I think. My dad fell asleep on my shoulder for part of it, and then that cute thing happened where I then fell asleep on him, my head on his head, which was on my shoulder. You know, that cute thing that happens?
I wasn’t out long. A description involving a tattoo (of a tulip) that the princely figure had on the shaft of his penis (!!) prompted me to wonder if Rushdie might be sharing an autobiographical detail. I wouldn’t be surprised; a penis tat might explain how this 62-year-old intellectual had managed to lure the objectively ‘hawt’ 37-year-old model/chef Padma Lakshmi into his bedchamber. But looks aren’t everything, and as we have learned already, Rushdie is a very funny guy. That can help.
In the Q&A, when asked to compare writing novels to a “9-5 job,” Rushdie said he has never been a writer who can get up early in the morning. “Martin Amis does that, Martin Amis gets up real early. He finishes his work by twelve noon, and spends the rest of the day playing tennis and drinking.” But who is Martin Amis?
One audience member/supplicant asked the Booker Prize Guru what he’s reading for pleasure right now. He began his reply by imitating the Italian accent of Umberto Eco (his good friend) who apparently said, “If it’s like my writing, I hate it. If it’s not like my writing, I hate it.” More snickers for the impersonation, with the biggest laughs coming from Rushdie himself again.
His first mention was of Junot Diaz (see below!). He called Oscar Wao a “wonderful book.” Then, to everyone’s delight, he said: “I just re-read Gatsby. I hadn’t read Gatsby since I was 21, and I just couldn’t believe how good it was. Really, there isn’t a bad paragraph.”
Audience members nodded their heads vigorously, like ‘Yes, yes. Oh, so true. He’s right!’ It was funny. But I liked Gatsby too. So Salman and I could probably be friends, hang out, have a good time. Right?
The final question came from a timid young female student who asked him if he had any advice for aspiring writers. He said the best writers that he knows all began careers in their twenties and were immediately successful. All had a certain drive. “If you don’t have that real thing burning in you that makes it possible to spend twelve years trying to learn to do something without any guarantee that you’ll ever learn how to do it, um, then, it’s a problem.” Everyone laughed here, though I couldn’t quite see why. I felt this comment was very serious. He continued: “The great writers have always known why they wanted to be a writer. They’ve always known what was burning inside them that had to get said. So, if you don’t have that fire, don’t write.” There was silence. “I’m sorry, it’s brutal, but it’s a real truth. There are, you know, enough books in the world. None of us in this room could ever read all the great books that there already are to read. If you’re going to add to that mountain, it better feel necessary to you. It better feel like a book that you can’t avoid writing. And then it has a chance of adding something interesting to the mountain.”
After Salman Rushdie said this, I began to really like him. Rushdie has some good yarns to spin.
Salman Rushdie’s appearance in July encouraged me to go to another reading sponsored by the Harvard Bookstore. This time it was in September 2008, and the writer was Junot Diaz.
The same starry-eyed bookstore employee who introduced Rushdie marched onto the stage to deliver a chain of Diaz ass-kissing that was rife with strange phrases and mispronunciations. First she told us that Oscar Wao “met, exceeded, and exploded all expectations.” The thought of “exploding expectations” made me think of those YouTube videos in which people drop a Mentos into a big 2-liter of cola and watch it explode. Would Mr. Diaz be doing that on stage today?
She went on to note that the book won the Pulitzer, which she pronounced “pew-litzer.” No matter. She hurried off and Diaz began with some jokes about being from New Jersey and therefore hating Boston. I’m from Boston. Just get to the reading, buddy!
After only a little more stalling, Diaz revealed that he would be reading from a work-in-progress, a short story entitled “Flaca,” which is a Spanish word for “skinny.”
Diaz is a great writer, but as it turns out, a poor speaker. This will sound cruel, but I’m describing these readings in a factual way, and it’s a fact that his jilted reading voice was distracting. He read the first line of the story: “I’m not going to stay… [awkward pause] …long.” There was also some stuttering and visible nervousness. Surprising from an MIT professor who probably addresses giant lecture halls every day. Is Diaz the real Oscar Wao? Of course, you’ll only get that if you’ve read the book.
In addition to the problem of his reading each sentence with the same cadence, there were some verbal stumbles, like “You stood besides me.” (Incorrect, right?) Later, he read the city’s name as “News Jersey.” That could have been a joke, though, that was over my head. Maybe New Jersey makes a lot of news
But none of that mattered; the story was terrific. It involved a guy reciting to a former lover a numbered list that recounts his memories of their relationship. One moving line that prompted sighs from the audience came when the characters have a sad, serious chat in which they agree that they could never marry each other, and then: “we fucked so we could pretend that nothing hurtful had just transpired.” The sentence was blunt and beautiful. At the same time!
Once the Q&A began, it became apparent that the author only has problems when reading aloud. Fielding questions, he was unfaltering. He was also more charming. He acknowledged his public reading problems when he joked, “I know I suffer from this utter lack of affect that makes me sound like I’m trying to be funny, but usually I’m not!” He was right in his self-analysis; he did read with a lack of affect.
The vast majority of the questions asked were about the influence and presence of Spanish in the text. These questions started to get really old.
When one cool guy in the audience (it was me) asked Diaz what books he’s currently reading for pleasure, he delivered some cloudy references, mentioning “A Book of Memories,” a novel few had heard of (evident by the dead silence when he said the title). He called it “super-duper dynamite.” People smiled and liked him for his geeky enthusiasm. Diaz is an adult comic book geek. It’s cute.
Junot Diaz is not great at reading his own work aloud, but he’s great at writing. He seems like a cool, nerdy guy.
There are some other “big” writers I have seen, and you can read about the vaguely interesting things that happened at those readings in Part II. The readings in Part II are also more recent. Also, Part II has a photo, so that’s exciting.
This piece would have been too long if I had not broken it into two parts. Even broken up, I am aware that each part is already too long. Oops, sorry.