introducing readers to writers since 1995

October 02, 2004

The Venue Sounds Like a Video Game,
But the Prose Was Strictly Literary

by Ron Hogan

When the New Yorker festival schedule arrived a few weeks ago, I immediately hit upon the idea of trying to get a press pass so I could see a bunch of writers without blowing my entire entertainment budget for the fall season. The media relations department undoubtedly saw right through this stratagem, but apparently they liked what they saw in write-ups of other events, because last night they let me hang out at Crash Mansion for a pair of readings by a total of four authors.

Deputy fiction editor Cressida Leyshon introduced Antonya Nelson by invoking a statement from her Missouri Review interview: "I think I make people uneasy sometimes by being so curious as to why they do what they do. I find myself thinking about this fairly obsessively, and I can't stop until I've found an answer. It doesn't matter whether it's the correct answer for that person. For me, it has to be an answer that appears to be true; it has to make sense to me." It was something to keep in mind as she read "Dick," a short story that appeared in the magazine in the spring of 2003. Sitting in a booth in the back of the room, I mostly kept my attention up front, but occasionally turned to the big screen TV on the wall beside me to get a closer perspective. When she was done, Jeffrey Eugenides came to the podium and, after an impromptu analysis of Thursday's presidential debate (which mostly consisted of ragging on Bush's appearance of being not that bright), he read a fragment from a work in progress in which a young man named Constantine recalled many unusual things that had happened during a trip through Europe and Asia. The character was also called Cos at some points because, Eugenides said, his wife had told him "no one can bear to read an entire novel about a man named Constantine." He followed this up with a rare (for him, anyway) short story, "The Coming Out Party," which apparently the festival folks had wanted to webcast--an idea he told us he'd promptly nixed, preferring to limit the audience to his "heavily drinking" friends in the room.

In the Q&A segment afterwards, Nelson suggested that she was resuming a focus on short stories as opposed to novels because her adolescent children had begun requiring large amounts of attention again, while Eugenides admitted, "I can't write short stories to save my life." He cited a bit of advice he'd picked up from Larry McMurtry in graduate school, to the effect that novels are much easier to write than short stories. In response to a query about editing, Nelson said the New Yorker edited her fiction even more rigorously than her book publishers, and Eugenides pointed to Leyshon and told us she was the person who'd taught him most about how to analyze a story's effectiveness line by line. Nelson also quipped that while her children may remind her what it's like to be a teenager, the issues she grapples with in her writing have been gestating in her mind since her own adolescence; "if you're still stuck in your teenage self," she joked, "you probably have the makings of a writer."

There then followed a short intermission.

While waiting for George Saunders to begin the second round of readings, I caught up with his Syracuse faculty mate Mary Karr, who introduced me to Keith Gessen, mentioning his Atlantic Monthly feature on the preservers of Lenin's corpse and predicting a possibly great future for him. (Turns out he's also the author of the lengthy Dave Eggers analysis in n+1.) Saunders was soon introduced by NYer editorial director Henry Finder and read "Bohemians," a story that proves Saunders is just as amazingly funny when practicing hyperrealism as he was in his most surrealist stories. (An audience member would later suggest "echoes of Stuart Dybek," and Saunders readily agreed, dwelling on the idea of a "Chicago sensibility" rooted in sarcastic rejection of sentiment.)

Jonathan Franzen had a hard act to follow, and said as much: "George's language is as precise as it gets. He has a perfect ear." But his own three vignettes of "people behaving weirdly upon breaking up" proved that his ear's still pretty sharp, too. I thought he'd saved the best for last, in a tale about Pam and Paul, a married couple and screenwriting team whose disintegrating relationship gets filtered through their latest project in development. In lesser hands, that idea could be executed very, very badly, but Franzen makes it work through prose that's accessible without being simplistic.

Given the subject matter, I took the opportunity to begin the questioning by wondering how they felt about Hollywood adapting their work. Saunders was all for it; he's actually working on the script for CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and hopes "to use the same raw material to do a slightly different thing." Franzen knows "a script exists," but says, "I don't want to see it until they make me." A slew of questions about what you think about when you write followed, though a comment about Franzen's success at depicting Lithuania and Lithuanians in The Corrections led to a swell running gag that got us through all sorts of topics. There was actually a really thoughtful series of responses dealing with the modern American fiction reader and what he or she is like in aggregate, but I'm sorry to report that my writing hand was getting a bit sore by then, so you'll just have to take my word when I say the two of them handled the topic quite well, though Franzen did sort of stun the crowd when he suggested that the small audience of literary fiction readers "are the only people in this country I really care about." A lot of us seemed to be wondering if he'd really just said that, and he went on to...not backpedal exactly, but to qualify the remark by saying that he liked just about everybody he met, even the people with whom he disagreed most fervently, but that it was the people who saw the point in reading fiction for whom he had the greatest affinity. At least that's how I took it; if you were there and you interpreted it differently, comment now!

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