18 May 2006

Blogging BEA

(My apologies for the rough cut nature of this. I'll fix this up a bit with links, etc after I return)

Day one: Thursday May 18

Lisa Moore doesn't like the way Ernest Hardy looks. Or rather, Moore, owner/publisher/all-around-everything for RedBone Press is less than pleased with the way the cover of her latest book, BloodBeats: Vol. 1 -- Demos, Remixes & Extended Versions, a collection of essays, interviews, and reviews by Los Angeles-based writer Ernest Hardy has turned out. She has recieved a galley of the cover, featuring a black and white photograph of an African-American man in horn rimmed glasses' eyes and forehead against a black background, it is dark. VERY dark. You can barely see the guy. "It's like OJ on the cover of 'Time'," Moore says somewhat dejectedly. The printer had sent one set of proofs, which to her eye looked too light, and she'd suggested darkening the image.

They sure did that, all right, and the layer of lamination on the cover has made it even more opaque. Moore hopes that stopping the print run and sending the printer another version of the cover will fix the problem -- and that she won't be charged extra for their mistake. This may put a slight delay in the delivery of BloodBeats, which she'd hope to have available for advance and review copies next week. She's already in the midst of publicity for RedBone's latest effort, Spirited: Affirming the Soul and Black Gay/Lesbian Identity, and she needs to work on another book she has planned for Fall publication, which is already being considered as a required text at some colleges thanks to the promotional work of its author at conferences and meetings around the country. If it's not one thing, its three at the same time: Such is life for a small publisher, and the last thing she needs as BookExpo America kicks off.

All Hail The Queen

After walking from one end of the huge Washington Convention Center to the other (ie from subway exit to the front of the building where Registration is -- the somewhat discombobulated older black woman behind the counter starts my BEA experience off right by commenting that her husband and I have the same first name), I make my way to the area where the African American Booksellers Consortium is holding its programs. I've missed the opening lunch, and note that some others may have done so as well, but are making up for it, and have one, two, and in one case even three plastic covered 'box lunches' of sandwich, salad, and cookie in their publisher-supplied canvas bags. We're crowded into one of the rooms, waiting for Queen Latifah to arrive to give the Keynote to the group. Clara Villarosa of Harlem's Hue Man Bookstore vamps until she arrives. Latifah is resplendent in white and the crowd gives her a standing ovation. She proves to be extremely engaging, warm, and funny in person, and quickly has us all in the palm of her hand. She's there to promote a children's book she wrote, Queen of the Scene. Posters for the book are on every seat (I'm standing in the corner and don't get one). I'm very happy that The Queen names the late Octavia Butler as her favorite author. Apparently she's a Sci-Fi fan, and names Orson Scott Card as a favorite as well. I skip out during the Q & A to get something to eat (a Quiznos sandwich at outrageous Convention prices -- Note to self: bring your lunch tomorrow).

Quarter-Century's Best (Redux)

"Are the presenters here?" someone from the convention asks? A man in front of me says, "They're out in the hall." The person nods and starts to leave. "Well, at least ONE of them is here," someone else says. I look over and indeed one of the panelists is already in the room: white haired and owlish-looking Cynthia Ozick is sitting on the aisle amongst the rest of us great unwashed, waiting for the start of the session on the New York Times Book Review's recent "Best American Fiction since 1980" poll. Soon the rest of the panel arrives, looking like a law firm striding into court: Tannenhouse, Cowles, Mallon, and Schillenger, Attorneys at Law.

NYT Book Review editor Sam Tannenhouse says some of the impetus for their recent poll was from the mention on the cover of 'Invisible Man' that in 1965 it had been named "Most distinguished work of fiction since World War II". He wondered 'by whom'? and how was it chosen. Also in the mix were the many requests from people asking for suggestions of books to read.

It's interesting to me that no one on the panel had listed the eventual 'winner', Toni Morrison's Beloved as their top pick. Tannenhouse likes it, but thinks Song of Solomon (published pre-1980) a better book. I don't think he says which book he voted for. Thomas Mallon, another Song of Solomon fan, as well as of John Updike's Rabbit Redux, picked DeLillo's Underworld, even though he thinks there's a point in the middle where it sags, then picks back up again. Mallon also bemoans the fact that novelists don't write reviews anymore, and that the reviews they do write are all favorable. He misses the days when fiction writers wrote more non-fiction (Mailer, Baldwin, etc) and there was a vigorous magazine culture (Esquire in particular commissioned a significant number of pieces). He also thinks novelists 'should get out more' -- as in out of the academy, as he feels it is limiting their creativity.

Cynthia Ozick thinks the NYT should have asked for the "Best WRITER of the last 25 years" and praises Saul Bellow, thinking his work will endure. Her choice was William Gaddis' Carpenter's Gothic, although something about her comments leads me to suspect that that choice is something of a place holder for him since JR and The Recognitions were published before the 1980 start date. She doesn't care for Beloved, thinking, "it goes well in the History Department, Political Science, but doesn't fit in the Literature Department." This after praising the books' passion and compassion, and it's artful language. However, she doesn't care for the 'illusive, poetical, elliptical' narrative, and she cannot isolate one scene, voice or character. She also dislikes the dedication "60 Million and more" thinking its a poke at the Holocaust, and smacks of an attempt at setting up some kind of hierarchy of suffering. I like Cynthia Ozicks work, and respect her, but at this point she's starting to get on my nerves. She works me again later when she declares, "there's no such thing as experimental fiction any more. It's dead. It's all been done. What are you going to experiment on? There's nothing more 'old hat' than Experimental Fiction."

There's also an interesting side bar on how there were no 'younger' (40-something) writers on the list, and also how 'respectful' of their elders the current generation of writers were. Even the younger writers chose work by their elders. No Anxiety of Influence here it seems.

Part of the discussion turns into a Philip Roth love fest (as a Roth fan myself, I don't mean that maliciously), and the "Roth Mystery" as the panel trys to figure out how he manages to turn out such strong work again and again using what at first seems such simple vernacular language (Mallon points out his complex syntax and long sentences). Six Roth books were got a number of votes, and it looks like he (not Ozick's beloved Bellow, so there!) would be the judges' choice for 'Best Writer of the past 25 years.'

Someone from the audience (who appears to have an axe to grind -- twice he mentions sending cookies to the NYT Book Review office) asks about the relatively small number of women on the list of judges who votes. Tannenhouse says that over 200 writers were asked to participate; the names listed were the ones who actually voted. The number of women who chose not to participate was 'significant', he says....Again, interesting. I wonder why.

Another question: Will the complete list of novels suggested be posted to the NYT website? No plans at the moment but maybe. It might be interesting to see. None of the novels belwo the top 22 got more than two votes.

And I asked a question (a thick black man in a red shirt, close to the front, I'm easy to spot when my hand goes up) -- would they consider doing another poll for the 'missing years' 1965 - 1980. Tannenhouse says no, but someone else should. But not him. But that 'gap' does bother him. But no, not the Times. But someone should. But not him...well, maybe cause that gap really bothers him....but no...

If the Times Book Review puts out a "Best American Fiction 1965-1980", you know who to thank. (PS: I vote for Song of Solomon, followed by Gravity's Rainbow and Portnoy's Complaint)

The MFA vs The Ghetto
Back amongst the black folk (I was the only black male at the NYT presentation, but noted two black women and a few Asians and Latinos) they've already started the "Their Eyes Were Reading Smut" panel on 'ghetto/street/thug' fiction. The room is packed, as I'd suspected it would be, and there's at least one person (a woman in the front row) vigorously nodding her head at every pro-StreetLit statement. I worry if the convention needed to consider insurance against whiplash.

The presenters Malika Adero, Benilde Little, Nikki Turner, ask some interesting questions: are booksellers themselves obsticles to presenting the range of black fiction by having such huge, prominant displays of StreetLit to the exclusion of everything else? Turner says literary writers need to 'come out of their ivory tower' and relate to their audiences the way StreetLit authors do. "Talk to your fans. Take your book to the beauty shop and sell it!" Little bemoans the fact that she doesn't see the same level of artistic quality in the Street works she's read as she sees in the classic Manchild in the Promised Land. Adero and Turner (and the head shaker) immediatly disagree. "Its there! Its there!" but offer no specific titles.

Feeding Time
The African American Booksellers host an end of the day reception mixing food with free books and authors signing. A good mix of children's books, 'street lit', non-fiction, and literary novels. The 'divide' alluded to at the earlier panel disappears as folks crowd to pick up books and sip open-bar wine. Someone who works for the convention center comments on how good it is to see black people in a rush to get books, 'brain food instead of stomach food.' I nod and agree, although since the lines for the authors were so long, I decided to eat first and get books later. The well groomed brotha from the Convention Hall then mentions he's in line to get books for his wife. I wonder to myself why some straight guys feel compelled to mention their wives or girlfriends within the first five minutes of talking to someone. Do they think that others will think they're gay if they don't? Oh well.

I introduce myself to Passion Marks (and Passion Marks 2) author Lee Hayes as he waits for his books to arrive. He walks away to talk to friends and fellow authors and immediately someone asks me, "Are YOU Lee Hayes?" No baby, he's the Man in Black over there...

Villarosa tries to settle the crowd down to start the evenings program of award presentations. While she manages to quiet the crowd (after seeing her 'reading' someone for passing out flyers at the reception for his own events off-site, I know she's a woman no one wants to mess with) but after introducing the new owner of Black Issues Book Review, the group continually returns to schmooze and chat mode. Give us food, books and authors, then expect folk to be quiet? I don't think so...

The Road Home
Meet two librarians from Collection Management in the train station on the way home. We're all going back together. There were more posters available, and they both have signed pre-pub copies of Queen Latifah's children's book, which is quite nice and beautifully illustrated by Frank Morrison, and signed posters. AND a photo of the two of them with The Queen (who said to one, "You look like someone in my family"). I mention not sticking around to eat. "Just like a man, worrying about your stomach!" one says. Note to self: Be more patient.

Big day Friday: All day at the convention, a list of autograph sessions I want to attend, and if I can I want to catch Google's presentaion on their next steps in their efforts at World (Wide Web) Domination. Then the Cave Canem reading at the Folger, followed by the usual post-reading hang. Looks like a looong day....where are my sensible shoes?


Anonymous said...

What an interesting post! You certainly have more energy than I do; I'm tired just reading about all that running around. Re: Ozicks: I'm often dumbfounded at how much difficulty whites (even the smart ones, whose opinions on other topics I respect and defer to) have coming up with something intelligent to say when faced with black art (literature, music, etc.) I wonder if you do it: ignore what any white critic says about any black (art)work, and either wait for the opinion of a black critic (which won't have to be taken with so much salt) or know that nothing whatsoever can be known until you investigate for yourself. Frustrating!

Kai in NYC

John K said...

Reggie, this is a fascinating and fascinatingly thorough post. I'm not surprised by Cynthia Ozick's comments, and in addition to attributing them to racism also in part chalk them up to sour grapes and projection, since she 1) wasn't among the top picks and 2) her own subject matter is so extraordinarily narrow. As I noted on my post on the "Best American Fiction blah blah" selection, I believe Beloved is the more formally and thematically ambitious novel and in certain ways the more important work, but I also find The Song of Solomon to be Morrison's most fully realized novel. Ozick's tart commentary about "experimental fiction" also isn't surprising, and I'd imagine she hasn't read anything even vaguely "experimental" in years, which is her loss, but really, I have to add, who gives a f*ck about Cynthia Ozick these days? To answer Kai's question, I usually essay books on my own; I mean, when you have a critical establishment that trashes Kevin Young, Elizabeth Alexander, Derek Walcott, etc., and overlooks brilliant books by Claudia Rankine, Van Jordan, Renee Gladman, etc., how can you possibly have much faith in them? Margo Jefferson is still stuck on Michael Jackson!

Oh, also, the whole street lit/mainstream lit thing annoys me. Quality can come in different packages. I love your statement that the people who were claiming that some of the street lit books were aesthetically on par with Manchild in the Promised Land (hasn't that woman read a nonfiction book in the last 30 years???) couldn't name even one book to back up their claims. I think one could do this, if one were serious about making the comparison....

audiologo said...

Thank you for your comprehensive report. I'm glad you're back blogging. I appreciated your celebration of Robert Hayden (one of my faves). Both your and John K.'s comments regarding Cynthia Ozick cracked me up. In the past I have enjoyed her writing. But how ignorant is it to give praise of a novel's language and humanity, then because you don't have the critical acumen to analyze the work, dismiss it as a social studies project? I get the pull towards Song of Solomon over Beloved, that at least demonstrates some level of engagement. However, while I do usually read the NYT Book Review, I second John K. on the subject of critics; typically the critical receiving of work by one writer of color work exhausts the literary establishment to the extent it's too fatigued to expend any additional energy on any others (what! each of them has their own voice and literary tradition that can't just be subsumed, supplanted, and/or explained away by ours?! Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!).

Years ago I too witnessed Ms. Villarosa giving someone a leveling read; she don't play. I look forward to hearing about Friday's events.

ReggieH said...

Thank you Kai. As you'll notice now that I'm back at work it's taking a while to put out my report on last weeks' events. May is kicking my a**!:)

John (and Audiologo, who I'll be adding to my blogroll): Ozick totally confused me with her 'This was good, this was good, I liked this, but still it's bad' take on Morrison. It MADE NO SENSE, and to attack the dedication!?! I've heard of grabbing at straws but come on... I do wish they'd had someone to 'defend' Beloved, but on the other hand, I don't think it (or La Morrison) really needs defending. Ozick talked about 'enduring' works. We all know that our Nobel Laureate has written work(s) that will out live us all.