Thursday, April 30, 2009

Andrei Codrescu, My Arch-Nemesis

I understand that authors are only humans like the rest of us - just because they can produce stunning works of literary artwork from time to time does not really set them apart from the masses. Everybody has bad days. And all booksellers have had bad experiences with authors who may not necessarily carry bad reputations around. So Michael Dibdin showed up drunk and chainsmoking or Christopher Moore made fun of you in front of a crowd or Chris Reich throws a hissy fit - these things happen (and actually did), as they are just people after all. And for every one of these experiences, there is one where an author has an unfounded reputation for mayhem and they turn out abundantly cooler than expected (T.C. Boyle, for one). So I say, let bygones be bygones - there's nothing better than a second chance, right?

In this one particular instance, I was willing to chalk things up to a faded memory of a past experience - maybe this guy wasn't really as bad as I remembered, maybe he was having a pissy day last time I saw him and that was why he acted the way he did. I first met Andrei Codrescu in New Orleans in early 2002 - he had a book signing (for Casanova in Bohemia, I believe) at the independent I worked for down there and, as he lived in New Orleans at the time, he had a rather large following and a hefty turnout for the signing. From what I remember of the evening, he was great with his fans as he signed books - chatty, friendly, witty - and completely standoffish with me - the monkey hauling chairs, selling books, solving problems - not to mention with the owner of the shop, who put up with the author's air of superiority with a smile, as his shop was still in the fledgling stages of business. Maybe he didn't even notice, I don't know, but Codrescu was the first author to just rub me the wrong way. He made me feel as if I were the invisible boy - presumably because I wasn't a glowing fan and was just the shameful commercial side of his successful career. I've met hundreds of authors in the years since then and honestly, the only other time I felt treated that way was with Joan Collins and I was happy to be the invisible boy that day, believe me.

So, when when my current employer booked an event with Andrei at the downtown library, I requested to work - I figured it had been plenty long and perhaps my memory of his behavior was skewed by time lapse. Besides, I had that whole New Orleans thing going, he had just had a book signing at my old store in NO a few weeks before - how could things go bad? With any normal person, these personal connections, uncovered in a far away location like San Diego, would be conversation starters or at least mild talking points. Right. The event itself went great - Andrei's new book, The Posthuman Dada Guide, is an esoteric, high-brow, over-my-head, philosophical minefield, but the 100 people who turned out to listen to his talk seemed right in tune with it all. He was witty, sharp, and genial on stage, leaning over the podium and growling in his thick Romanian accent into the mic, throwing around tales of dadaist vampires and fictional chess matches. The signing line was 50 people strong and he seemed to continue that genial streak with them, chatting and laughing with everyone who approached his table. He had several very long conversations with some attendees, including a young Russian woman who sat in the wings, waiting to talk to him some more, once he was finished with the signing. As this was sort of a hybrid bookstore/library event, I was pretty hands off at this point and the show ran itself. I just sat patiently in one of the second row seats with my modest pile of books and waited until the line dwindled down. When I introduced myself as being from the bookstore, Andrei's face visibly fell - it sort of blanched when he realized that I was not another devoted dadaist, but was just the guy humping books for The Man. So I quickly played my multiple aces, perhaps in too-quick succession: I handed him my copy of Obituary Cocktail by Kerri McCaffety, which Andrei wrote the stellar introduction for. (Cocktail is my favorite New Orleans book - Kerri's brilliant photography book on the bars and saloons of the city - and has a huge cult following in NO.) "I used to work for (the bookstore in New Orleans). (The co-owners) are good friends of mine." He looked at me with mild surprise. "Oh yeah?" Then he flipped through the pages of Cocktail - "This is Kerri's book." "Yeah," I said, "I know, but I really like your introduction." Like I needed to explain this? How many people show up to his book signings - especially in Southern California - with Obituary Cocktail under their arms? "So, Marlena, what eez your last name?", he asked the Russian girl, as he spoiled my copy of Obituary Cocktail with his hand writing. Apparently, we were done. "This is my Dada Guide", I whispered, as I handed him my other book. He signed it with a straight signature, as if it were stock for the store - which is exactly what it became. He quickly scribbled his name in my ten copies for store stock, all the while talking to the Russian, and I was summarily dismissed when he just stopped signing at the end of the pile and never once looked up at me. I gathered the books and stepped away with my best serial killer smile, silently plotting the violent death of this obnoxious, Romanian P.O.S. (Its hard to rant without swearing.)

That's it - I just packed up my gear and had to ride the elevator downstairs with Mr. Important Author, the library staff, and Marlena the Russian Muse. Never once did he thank me or my store - we had done two events with him on that day, sold 70 copies of his obscure, University Press philosophy book, and even fed him lunch, but he never even looked at me after I initially shook his hand. I'm writing about this because of the unusual nature of this encounter - again, of the hundreds of authors I've met, Andrei is the only one, really, who just doesn't feel like giving me the time of day. It felt as if he were looking at me as a blemish on his otherwise perfect evening of holding court, as if I was a reminder of his true nature as a (gasp!) commercial entity. Why go out on tour at all if this is the reaction you deliver to the booksellers who pay your bills? Every other author I've met has expressed some degree of gratitude over the selling of their books - some writers much more famous than this Eastern European hack philosopher have been remarkably humble and genuine in their thanks. So what gives? Don't get me wrong, this is not about his expressing gratitude to me or my bookstore - I don't need that - it is about basic human interaction and a modicum of respect. To not even look at me again after I extended my hand? To have no reaction to my connection to his adopted hometown and his local bookstore there? You're done with me, then I'm done with you. My only regret, though, is that I allowed his dirty claws to paw at my book, forever soiling it with his mark.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

City of Awesomeness

Check it out: Jenny & I complete a David Benioff sandwich on a Saturday night at Warwick's.

I am happy to report that he does not intend on ditching the art of the printed word in favor of a more lucrative life penning only X Men films and gladiator flicks - it may be a couple of years, but he has begun the creation of another novel, at least inside his own head. To tide everyone over, he is spending all his time on scripting George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice & Fire into an HBO series.

Good enough for me.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Anonymous Awards

There is a great editorial by Elinor Lipman in this week's Publishers Weekly on the broken, biased system in place for the selection of the National Book Award. I have never made it a secret that I loathe the process we have accepted for the selection of major book awards, but I've never been able to put it so eloquently as Ms. Lipman has. Here's her Soapbox.

When the NBA judges were announced last year, I dismissed Lipman as a "moderately respectable" author of "ladies' fiction". I take the "moderately" part back and offer my humble apology - (I still think she writes "ladies' fiction") - because it's refreshing to hear an insider get upset over the way things work in the industry. No one wants to listen to the crazy, profanity-prone blogger from Southern California, but people read PW - and, I will begrudgingly admit, they also read Elinor Lipman. Essentially, she calls for anonymity in the process - something that is, shockingly, not already in place. Her idea would be to simply have publishers submit title-less, author-less, 50 page manuscripts - no finished copies, not bound galleys - in an attempt to get the judging panels to just shut up and read. The 50-page element is especially intriguing - if you're not falling over yourself in love with a book by the fiftieth page, it is simply not worthy of the National Book Award. The elimination of bias would be a breath of clean, cool air to a stuffy, dank process - no longer would judges consider or dismiss on the basis of the author's name recognition, bestselling status, or because they "looked rich" in their jacket photo. Petty attitudes like these should be shelved if you're on the selection committee for a major award - there's no denying the purchasing power of those little stickers that get put on the jackets once an award is bestowed. Does anyone think the sales for The White Tiger and Shadow Country would be half of what they are without their respective awards? Hell, five minutes before I left work on Thursday I had a customer ask me for some paperback Pulitzer winners for her upcoming plane ride. She dismissed a signed copy of People of the Book by former Pulitzer-winner Geraldine Brooks simply because it wasn't the book she won the award for and thus did not have the Pulitzer sticker on the jacket. (She may have settled for the Aravind Adiga, so all is not lost.)

Maybe that sort of buying attitude is naive and foolish, but it's not going anywhere - this is how people buy books. They listen to Oprah, they read the NY Times reviews, and they look over the stacks at Costco for the little golden stickers. The least we can do is offer them an unbiased, evenhanded assessment of what the best books culled from the herd actually are. Having this sort of "blind taste test" for award selection would, hopefully, lead fools like NYT's Sam Tanenhaus to never again select 90% of the year's best books from one single publishing house or for the NBA judges to give Peter Matthiessen an award for 15-year old material that he probably should have won the first time around. Maybe this attitude is, in and of itself, naive of me - it's never going to be a perfect system across the board, for all major awards and I realize that, but it does beg reform.

*Please note, this mild rant has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that David Benioff, author of City of Thieves, was snubbed by every major award panel, as well as the New York Times Notable list in 2008 because he's married to a Holywood starlet and he wrote the screenplay for Troy. Nothing at all. (Prove them all wrong by meeting Mr. Benioff on Saturday, April 18th at 7:30pm at Warwick's in La Jolla, CA.)

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Still Alive!

The first rule of being an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award judge is: you're not supposed to talk about being an ABNA judge. The second rule...

So, I'm a week removed from finishing my five assigned manuscripts and sending in my five reviews to PW - I still can't share anything about what I've read or what the process entailed, but I can direct anyone who's interested to Amazon's ABNA site, where all 500 quarterfinalists in the competition have excerpts available to read online. Fascinating, overwhelming, and rather enlightening, I found.

Since finishing the...wonderful books I was assigned to review, I have been reading (ie: resetting my brain) the forthcoming book from The Shadow of the Wind author, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Angel's Game. As enticement, since it is a fantastic book so far, here's the first paragraph, as it is fairly relevant:

"A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that will surely outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price."

And just to prove that I certainly have not lost any of my well-known cynicism or bitterness in my weeks away from this blog - in fact, I feel that my cynicism is all the more stronger after reading those manuscripts - I want everyone to know that I am fully aware that Marley the dog (Marley & Me) rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Friday. What better way to acknowledge the fact that millions of us have lost the majority of our meager savings during the last seven months than by having a dog - no, sorry, a fucking dog - ring in the close of trading on the stock exchange floor?

"Bong! I'm the world's richest dog! Now buy my DVD, assholes!"