Festival of Books Diary: Sunday AM

By Neal Comment

10 a.m.: Faced with far too many authors on panels I want to check out this morning, I hit upon a perfect solution: I simply won’t leave the green room, and that way I’ll get to see everyone I want to see before they go to work. Kim Dower introduces me to Steven Sorrentino, the former HarperCollins exec who wrote a memoir (Luncheonette) and is now the VP of author promotions and special events for Barnes & Noble, and he tells us about some of the shows he’s been putting together at the Union Square and Lincoln Triangle venues. I spot John Scalzi heading towards the buffet table and go over to make my hellos. He fails to recognize me at first, probably because I’m wearing a suit. I tell him that I ran into another of our old buddies from mid-’90s Usenet, American Heritage supervising editor Steve Kleinedler, yesterday afternoon after he led a “Define-a-thon” out on the Festival grounds. Scalzi introduces me to fellow science fiction writers Cory Doctorow, Kage Baker, and Harry Turtledove, which leads to another fanboy moment, as Turtledove wrote some of my favorite short stories and novellas when I was reading science fiction magazines cover-to-cover in the 1980s, when he was laying the foundations for his reputation as “The Master of Alternative History.”

11 a.m.: The science fiction writers head out to their panel, and I catch up with Erika Schickel and Brett Paesel, who recognizes me as the guy who nearly got thrown out of SoHo House for taking her picture at a reading last fall. They leave, and I spot Meghan O’Rourke and Dana Goodyear talking to each other, so I get a picture.


12 p.m.: I figure I really shouldn’t miss the panel on “the future of publishing,” so I walk over with Publishers Weekly review editor Louisa Ermelino, trailing behind the panelists. The discussion gets off to a promising start when moderator James Atlas says, “I don’t think there’s any use in signing petitions saying that book review sections should be kept alive for the good of the culture,” but then literary agent Georges Borchardt launches into a charming but interminably long pair of anecdotes about how he overcame the resistance of American publishers to secure book deals for Samuel Beckett and Elie Wiesel. “Let me know when we get to the future,” I whisper to Jennifer Kaufman, who’s joined me in the back row with her writing partner, Karen Mack.

Sara Nelson gets things back on track, observing that complaining about the publishing industry is nothing new, and that much of the current griping has to do with “unrealistic expectations” about what success should entail for writers and publishers. “Books are at the center of our lives in ways that don’t always show up on the balance sheet,” she says, citing the recent public debate over The Feminine Mistake as one example. But Dana Gioia, the head of the National Endowment for the Arts, laments “the general invisibility of literature in our culture,” complaining that the typical UCLA student probably couldn’t name a contemporary American playwright, “though they could name fifty pro athletes, or fifty hip-hop artists.” At this point, they haven’t even gotten to the fourth panelist, Charlie Winton, but I have to run back to the green room in time to eat lunch before being summoned to my own panel. I arrive just in time to meet Stephen Pastis, creator of the comic strip Pearls Before Swine, which is one of the first things I read every morning.