Saturday, April 28, 2012

Lower Manhattan Man, Readings Enthusiast, Begins Final Training Phase For PEN Conference –

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.

Monday, April 16, 2012

"I Ride An Old Paint"

Dispatch From The East Fourth Street Crypto-Cowboy Jubilee

Date: March 15, 2012
Authors: Nick Dybek, Claire Vaye Watkins
Venue: KGB
Agents and other Lit. Celebs: Julie Barer, Colson Whitehead
Neighborhood: East Village
Free Drinks -- Depends on Lou's Mood
Q & A -- no
Book signed -- no
UE Check Number -- benefits expired

When Colson Whitehead walked into the bar, early, for the reading, I thought that guy looks like the novelist Colson Whitehead. But then I thought, nah, what are the chances? When I saw agent Julie Barer come in and sit down with him, I thought, “Oh, pretty good.”
Still, just to make sure I was going to embarrass myself with the right people, I asked a woman who I'd seen chatting with Julie if her friend was the well-known agent. She said she was. Then I said, "Oh, so who's that guy she's sitting with? It was already kind of crowded and noisy in the bar so the only part of my informant's answer I heard was "white." I replied, "No, the black guy."
A little later, I did go over and introduce myself to Colson and Julie and I think I made the conversation brief enough so that I didn't embarrass myself.
I didn't mention that I wrote a play "Mr. Charlie is Down With the Wu Tang Clam" based on Colson's N.Y. Times op-ed that came out right after Obama's election. Colson's story was a tongue-in-cheek take on the post-racial America that some commentators said Obama's inauguration ushered in. The whole concept of a post- racial America, which I riff off in my play, has gotten a lot less funny with the death of Trayvon Martin.
Of course, the main subject of this blog is who I met and what we talked about at readings, but I do want to mention the writers from last night.
I've always imagined a show-down, battle of the bands kind of reading between the two gifted Nevada novelists I knew about before last night. You'd have Charles Bock, the author of "Beautiful Children," representing Las Vegas against Willy Vlautin representing Reno.
What Hannah Tinti said about Willy's work is absolutely true: he breaks your heart. (I know I've been promising my reader the "My Date With Hannah Tinti post. Don't worry it's upcoming and will include Row, Dole’s first poem.)
But now that I’ve heard last night’s first reader, Claire Vaye Watkins, I realize there’s another gifted Nevada novelist. She read a piece whose title might have been "Razor Blade Baby" that really was kind of like Denis Johnson and sounded brilliant.
The second reader, Nick Dybek, Julie’s client, also rocked the house, reading a short and dramatic section from his new novel “When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.”
Sometimes I think if I've only heard a story once and not read it, it shouldn't be the sole critical foundation to judge a writer by. Maybe so, but last night at KGB, both writers gave great performances and easily accomplished one thing that a reading is supposed to do, make the listener seek out the book.
Continuing the night's Southwestern motif, filmmaker Bernadine Santistevan sat down at my table between Claire and Nick’s readings. We talked for a while after the reading was over.
Bernadine is from a tiny town in northern New Mexico. Her family are descendants of Sephardic Jews who fled the Inquisition in Spain and moved to Mexico. But then the Inquisition crossed over to Mexico and they moved to what is today northern New Mexico. They hid their Jewishness and spoke some kind of Ladino-inflected Spanish. Fast forward four hundred years and now when Bernadine goes to Mexico or Spain, people have trouble understanding her Spanish.
I love these stories about largely forgotten linguistic pockets like the survival of 18-century English usage in hidden corners of Appalachia.
Bernadine told me a story about how us poor authors are always trying to gauge the effect of our work on readers.
When Bernadine went to the KGB ladies'’ room last night after the reading had ended, she ran into Claire. The author asked the filmmaker how she liked the performances. But Bernadine arrived after Claire had read, so she could only say that Nick’s stuff had been great.
But even if she had heard “Razor Blade Baby,” Bernadine would know what Claire looked like. The best kind of feedback for an author would be if she could ask the question and be unseen. I don’t know the layout of the ladies’ room at KGB, but if it had adjoining stalls, an author could use them as a confessional of sorts and solicit the reaction of somebody who just heard them read without the audience member knowing she was talking to the author.
You could do this in the mens room by sitting down on the sole toilet, closing the western-style swinging doors and asking the pissers standing at the urinals, “How’d you guys like my, I mean, that dude, who just read, how’d you like his stuff?”

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Minty Stem's Date With Bill Clegg

Group Home Resident Assails Lit Agent with touching plea:
Beck out my Clog ! Beck out my Clog !

Date: April 12, 2012
Author: Bill Clegg, moderated by Katherine Lanpher
Agents: Bill Clegg, Marly Rusoff, Anna Wiener
Venue: Barnes & Noble, Union Square
Neighborhood: lower Chelsea, upper mid-Village
Free Drinks -- no
Q & A -- yes
Book signed -- no
UE Check Number -- benefits expired

This is another one of those posts I thought I'd get out of the way before the event occurred. I've been going to readings now for three years to meet writers, agents and editors so I know how this event will play out.
Now that I've pitched Jonathan Galassi (see below My Date with Jonathan Galassi) and blew it, I might as well pitch Bill Clegg. If nothing else, I'll learn how to pronounce his last name.
I'm really not scared to walk up almost anybody and ask them to publish the book that this blog is the warm-up for. Especially now that I have the arrangement with Salman's peeps (see below Rushdie’s Rejects).
Yeah, I'm the Samuel Pepys of the NYC readings scene, clawing my way up the slippery ladder of the media food chain one Google Alert at a time.
With Clegg, I'm going to roll out my Minty Stem personna and see what he makes of it. I'm not going to even start the courtship process of Clegg becoming my agent if he doesn't know what a Minty Stem is.
My Minty Stem character is a Rick Ross rapper guy transposed to the NYC readings circuit. He's like the Nas - Samuel Pepys of the scene I've been inhabiting at KGB and McNally Jackson.
Right after I introduce myself to Clegg, I'm going to describe myself as the James Kunen (an author who just published a book about boomers getting the boot out of their cushy, corporate gigs) combined with my pal Jon-Jon Goulian, albeit with a much less impressive body fat ratio, with a bit of Anis Nin thrown in.
If Clegg gives me a blank look after that associative challenge, I might just start squawking "Beck Out My Clog, Beck Out My Clog" and start looking around wildly for the mini-bus from the group home.
My pal Lou, a KGB bartender, had no trouble figuring out that this is just Martian for “Check Out My Blog.”
So that’s my plan for Clegg.
With the moderator, Lanpher, I plan to not try to stike up a converation. I saw her at the Maud Newton - Alex Chee reading last night at KGB.
Sometimes when I try to meet people I admire on this literary readings circuit even if my opening line is, as it was to Lanpher, a slam-dunk, I manage to alienate them.
When I met Lanpher, I mentioned that I worship the work of her friend Trish Hampl. I’ve been a fan of Trish’s ever since I was working at the Strand in 1985. Like when Our Lady appeared at Fatima, I stumbled onto Trish’s work in quaisi-religious moment when a shaft of light penetrated the gloom of the bookstore’s basement and pointed me toward her first prose book “A Romantic Education.”
Oddly enough, I’d just gotten done raving about “A Romantic Education” to my tablemates Alex, Jean and John when I saw Lanpher come into KGB last night.
I dunno, maybe I should get my teeth fixed, maybe it wouldn't amount to losing my hillbilly muse
Anyway, when Trish and Garrison Keillor were undergrads at the University of Minnesota, he probably thought of her as the bright one. Her latest book is “The Florist's Daughter.” It has this great scene where after meeting Trish’s mom, the agent Marly Rossoff says that Trish’s mom is so Irish that she’s Jewish. That observation is so profound, I can’t get my head around it, but attempting to, has been great fun.
The agent Anna Wiener was at the KGB reading. I didn’t talk to her but if I had, I wanted to mention that the composite client at her shop is a young mom novelist who wears colorful footwear to their readings and writes about animals, upstate communes or doctors in New Jersey.
Finally, here’s the first “Row, Dole” bonus challenge:
one free Baltica beer at KGB for anybody that can tell me what a Minty Stem is. (Google it, but that won't help.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Copping a Feel at Housing Works

Copping a Feel with Deb Olin Unferth
Justin Taylor and Ben Marcus Pas de deux

Date: March 12, 2012
Authors: Ben Marcus, Deb Olin Unferth, Diane Williams
Agents: David McCormick, Denise Shannon
Venue: Housing Works
Neighborhood: Soho
Free Drinks -- no, but Sixpoint beers available
Q & A -- no
Book signed -- no
UE Check Number -- benefits expired

I was thinking about not drinking because I'm such a contrarian and St. Patrick's Day is nearby, but the availability of SixPoint 
beer ruined that resolve.
It's not often that I actually know an author at a reading, although to meet authors is a goal of this whole, stupid going to readings project. Still, I got to know Deb Olin Unferth two summers ago when I was running the reading series at KGB, an experience that was, to quote DFW, "A supposedly fun thing I'll never do again."
Anyway, I had this joke I'd been waiting to tell Deb for more than a year. So last night's reading was my chance to tell it to her.
When a reading ends a lot of people crowd around and want to talk to the authors. The worst thing that can happen is that just as you make your bid to talk to the author, she sees a friend, that is someone she really knows, not someone who booked her to read at a bar two summers ago, and shouts out his name in excitement, "Jim," just as you start to talk to her.
But Deb was gracious and introduced me to Jim. I thought I'd better speak my piece, tell my joke and get out of there.
"Hi, Deb, so here's this joke I've been waiting a year or so to tell you," I said.
"Wow, that's a pretty big build-up." Jim said.
"I'm glad you're here, Jim, because you can be like the impartial judge of whether it is in good taste or funny." I said.
I continued, "So, you know Deb in your book "Revolution," toward the end you have this little passage where you say, "Oh, by the way, I was sexually harassed and molested at just about every turn in the trip this book is about." This matter-of-fact tone is consistent with the dead-pan humor that makes the book so effective. It also led me to think that Deb must be one of the most stoic victims of sexual harassment ever.
My joke was to ask her "Could I cop a feel?"
She laughed and I guess the joke worked, although I told her and Jim that the reason it did was because of her great sense of humor, which I think stems from the creative intelligence that informs her work. I explained to Jim that since I really don't know Deb very well, the joke could easily have bombed.
Another fascinating conversation at last night's reading between two writers at different stages of their career, like Deb has one and I have this blog nobody reads, occurred when Ben Marcus and Justin Taylor chatted. Now that was a conversation packed with nuances in which the younger writer, Justin Taylor, sought to curry favor with the older, and more established writer, Ben Marcus.
I think he and Ben talked about Ben's career path at Columbia in which he started out teaching creative writing, was named head of the department, and, I hope I have this right, recently shed his administrative duties. Justin said something like I'd love to get involved up there and Marcus was non-committal. There were two rows separating me from the two men so I can't say this is a verbatim account.
What does Marcus think of Taylor? Who knows? The only sure thing is that Taylor entered the conversation well aware of the various types of patronage Marcus controls. If Taylor read this blog, he would know that the really well-paying teaching writing gigs are at the CUNY Writer's Institute though they go more to editors than writers.
But as far as CUNY Writers' Institute professors go, it is likely that faculty member and Granta editor John Freeman is feeling the pressure to produce a book that isn't as lightweight as "The Tyranny of Email."
Despite Freeman's knowledge of the production processes of the magazine, as he recently recounted at a Granta event, there is no escaping the fact that "The Tyranny of Email" is no "Among the Thugs," the first publication by Granta founding editor Bill Bufford.
But for myself and my three colleagues who have these New York readings blogs, I think we can take comfort from the fact that I don't think any four words in English contribute to the viability of text on paper, despite Freeman's boring description of the travels of Granta raw stock, more than "Check out my blog."
My Date With Maud Newton

Date: September 15, 2010
Author: Name Withheld, moderated by Maud Newton
Author's Agent: Sarah Burnes
Venue: McNally Jackson
Neighborhood: Soho
Free Drinks -- no
Q & A -- yes
Book signed -- no
UE Check Number -- 567093

I had struck up a slight acquaintance with the writer Maud Newton during the summer of 2009 when she and other writers from the anthology "Love is a Four-Letter Word" were doing a series of readings to support the book's launch. She was totally pleasant and accessible, which makes my faux pas with her at this later reading really regrettable.

Anyway, Maud was interviewing an author at McNally Jackson reading. I said hello to her before it started. It's always tricky for the Samuel Pepys etc. to see if his writer-heroes remember him, but Maud did and we started to chat.

Unfortunately, the second or third thing that somehow came out of my mouth was "What's with the Fifties get-up?" I saw Maude's face darken. I said, "Are you coming from work?" She replied with totally justifiable indignation that she wasn't. It was one of those moments where I couldn't unsay what I'd said and the more I tried, the more lame I sounded.

Anybody reading this account can see the problem I created. You don't go up to somebody you barely know and suggest that perhaps their outfit doesn't fit the social situation. Not only don't I know Maud well enough to say that, but who appointed me arbiter of authors' outfits at readings?

As my wife said, Maud probably put a lot of time and effort into selecting her outfit and who was I to open my big mouth. Of course, horrified by what I'd done, I kept making it worse. I started ticking off all the writers Maud has introduced me to on her blog, Keith Lee Morris, A. L. Kennedy, Rupert Holmes, the Dog of the South guy and many others. But it was too late.

In the post, "White Sweater, Black Lungs," I accidentally compliment an author. That's not so bad. I'm sorry, Maud. I'm going to go to your event this week at McNally Jackson and apologize in person.

Posted by Brent Shearer at 11:37 AM

Monday, April 2, 2012

Rushdie's Rejects To Be Escorted By Row, Dole Principals Shearer, Skyhorse, Miller --

In a pact that threatens to remake the formerly staid world of readings and book parties, if the three Row, Dole principals could ever get invited to the later, Indian novelist Salman Rushdie's representative, Sarah Chalfant at Wylie, has inked a pact that calls for the two KGB bar patrons, Shearer and Skyhorse, and KGB employee, Miller, to serve as escorts for the many literary women of the city who would be thrilled to hang out with Rushdie.
As reported in a recent New York Times article, Rushdie is embracing the social opportunities of the city, now that his political problems have receded. His entry into the social whirl precedes the publication of his memoir, which will presumably tell the story of the years that the gregarious novelist was forced to live in seclusion.
"Regrettably, Salman cannot possibly chat with, meet for drinks, spend weekends at the country houses of all the women who find him fascinating. I have to thank Chris Jacobsen, Louie Miller's agent, who put together this deal that calls for the three KGB bar veterans to serve as stand-ins for Salman on the city's as well as the Hampton's and the Berkshire's social circuit."
For his part, Jacobsen played down press reports that said Shearer, as he is Rushdie's only generational peer among the three Salman-substitutes, will have to do the majority of the escorting. "We expect to spread the wealth evenly among the three KGB-Row, Dole gentlemen. We didn't select our Rushdie replacement escorts team without giving serious consideration to the talents and abilities of each of the team members. It wouldn't be fair if we load Brent up with most of the social opportunities growing out of this groundbreaking agreement. Plus, neither Skyhorse or Miller have those hillbilly-looking missing teeth that some society women fans of Rushdie's may find off-putting in Brent's otherwise charming self-presentation."
To make reservations to spend time with any of the KGB - Row, Dole Rushdie replacements, please contact Chris Jacobsen at the his lower Fifth Avenue office, the Strand kiosk opposite the Sherry-Netherland, as the well-connected agent eschews any but person-to-person inquiries.
In other news, an unidentified source said Rushdie doesn't consider Granta editor John Freeman "a Quisling" because he was willing to publish a Rushdie story turned down by the magazine's previous editor, Alex Clark.
Any implications that Freeman's willingness to do the bidding of the publication's owners resembled, although with an opposite outcome, the "Saturday Night Massacre" of the Watergate era is incorrect according to this individual.
(The "Saturday Night Massacre" was the term given by political commentators to U.S. President Richard Nixon's executive dismissal of independent special prosecutor Archibald Cox, and the resignations of Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus on October 20, 1973.)