New York, New York ( 29 April 2012) – Brent Shearer, 57, the Lower Manhattan resident who has gained notoriety as a literary gadfly, held a press conference at Soho’s McNally Robinson bookstore in response to media requests for an update on his training regimen in preparation for the PEN conference.
“I’m tapering off on my time actually listening to readers even though I have continued to adhere to my grueling schedule of going to readings in these last few weeks before the conference. I think this is the best approach because this way I don’t lose my rhythm of getting to the events on time.
“The point is that by not listening to the readings while I’m there, but still going to them, I think I have achieved pretty much the literary equivalent of the lift that “blood doping” gives runners. I expect to be able to pay better attention to readers at the conference because I’ve spent the last three weeks not listening to writers who have read their works at local venues such as the KGB bar or the Housing Works Café, not to mention our hosts this afternoon.”
Shearer also addressed other concerns raised by the press and the public in the run-up to the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, starting in New York next week.
Shearer, the author of the best-selling memoir, “In the Front Row, On the Dole,” the story of a man who lost his job and started his now-legendary going-to-readings project, which resulted in first place finishes in the PEN competition the last two years, also said, “The new testing rules don’t scare me. I’ve never used any banned substances in my preparation for the PEN conference. Anyone who wants my urine or tissue samples is welcome to them.”
While reluctant to exactly spell out how he manages to attend so many readings, while piling up the highest per reading scores in the history of the PEN conference. Shearer did say the following in response to questions about whether he was changing anything this year in his going to readings technique.
“A lot of times the margin of victory comes down to how well you can coordinate your use of the city’s mass transit system to hit as many readings as possible to pile up points. Cabs have some utility but if there’s a lot of traffic, forget it. A bike would be good, but I’m scared to ride in heavy traffic so it limits my use of this mode of transport.
“Being from New Jersey is actually an advantage because in addition to having to know the city’s transit structure as well as natives, I also bring to the table my knowledge of the PATH system. It will surprise people, but often the best way to get from one PEN event to another, say if it’s a question of getting from say “Death in Spring”and “The Time of Doves” at the Cuny Graduate Center, near Herald Sq to “A Thousand Deaths Plus One” at the New School, NYU or anywhere else in the West Village, is on the PATH.
Shearer also touched on what has been called his “sharp-elbowed” approach to getting the most “mike time” during the questions and answers period that follows many PEN readings. “It’s hard to do well in the PEN competition if you don’t get the bonus points awarded to frequent questioners. They provide a cushion to compensate for the inevitable screw-ups when you get held up on a train or stuck in traffic in a cab so if that means resorting to techniques like unplugging the mike on the other side of the auditorium so I can squeeze in a second question, well, you might have noticed there’s a big gap between first and second place prize money.”
Shearer responded to criticism of his practice at last year’s event of sitting in the “empty” chair customarily placed on the stage at PEN events to draw attention to imprisoned writers. “The symbolic impact of these damm chairs occurs only at the start of the reading when the moderator makes the same canned speech noting the their significance. Once the reading starts, it should be every man for himself. Those on-stage stairs allow the readings competitor the best access to panelists during the questions and answers session and often the quickest egress from venue. I’m sure the imprisoned writers, once they get mentioned, could care less who sits in their chairs during the readings.”
Shearer also said the controversy about professional audience members accepting “guarantees” to attend particular authors’ readings was, in his mind, a non-issue. “I feel as much as anyone that it isn’t an official reading if I’m not there. But these rumors of appearance fees for leading competitors are easily dismissed. If you are tying to win the whole event, you can’t let your schedule be affected by the kind of small change payments that we are rumored to be receiving.”
In response to a reporter's question, Shearer reacted to criticism that the conference’s competition should not allow competitors to merely skip, as Shearer does, events which are wholly or partially conducted in languages other than English.
“To make this point is more evidence of the hypocrisy of the event’s organizers. I don’t see them scheduling any non-English events at any of the main venues with the best-known writers. They avoid this because they want people to come, want to sell tickets. It’s obvious that the few, relatively, paid events help subsidize the majority of the events which are free and open to the public."
"When the organizers schedule Salman Rushdie and an otherwise all Filipino slate of authors presenting their work in Tagalog, then they can talk about penalizing competitors who attend only English events," he said.