Monday, May 22, 2006


Who uses it: Literary critics
What it means: A novel or story written in the style of, and often borrowing characters from, a more prominent writer.
How you can use it: To explain the existence of new Sherlock Holmes stories.

Sherlock Holmes has probably been the subject of more literary pastiches than any other fictional character. By the end of his life, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had come to loathe his most famous creation; he would certainly not be enthusiastic about the shelves of fiction and critical analysis devoted to Holmes and Watson. On the other hand, Doyle was a devout believer in Spiritualism, so if he really objected, he might have found a way to make his views known.

Tom asked me to drop a few names from my adventures at BookExpo America -- I won't do that, but will share a few of the best things I heard over the course of three days:

"A great bookstore is the center of the earth, the center of everything." -- Pat Conroy, speaking at the "Celebration of Books" reception on Friday night as he presented the American Booksellers Association's lifetime achievement award to Betty and Rhett Jackson of The Happy Bookseller in Columbia, S.C.

American hard-boiled detective novels are about "small moments of inglorious redemption" -- George Pelecanos, at an audiobooks panel discussion on Saturday afternoon.

"Don't you just love books? I love books." -- An anonymous bookseller standing in front of me in a line to get an autograph from author/sportswriter John Feinstein.

"Celebrities. I need to see some celebrities... book people don't count." -- Author Christopher Moore, peering over the heads of the crowd at HarperCollins' Saturday night reception.

The worst thing I heard all weekend was in another autographing line, from a woman who now works (I think) as a librarian. She told me, with some pride, that one of the first things she'd done as a young bookseller in Ohio, many years ago, was help run a signing event for Robert Ludlum. "They didn't send us enough books in time," she said. "When he got there, we only had a few... and the big shipment arrived a couple of days later. So I signed them all."

I was speechless, and could only gape at her. This is the worst violation in all of bookselling, a betrayal of author and customer that benefits no one, not even (in the long run) the bookseller. Once I'd gotten my breath back, I mumbled something about that being not such a great thing to do. She smiled and shrugged and said, "Had to be done. I did a good job, too. I don't think anyone could tell they weren't actually his signatures."

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why you should never pay outlandish sums of money for autographed books that were not signed in your presence.

The worst thing I saw all weekend was the LongPen, manufactured by Unotchit ("you no touch it") after a design by author Margaret Atwood. It's a machine that allows authors to "sign" books remotely for fans. The author, in one location, signs a screen, and the LongPen signs the physical book that's placed into the machine. The fan/customer/reader has no personal contact with the author, and the author manages to keep the vulgar multitudes at a distance.

This machine is profoundly disrespectful to readers and booksellers, and misses the whole point of booksignings. A good booksigning allows the author to receive feedback he or she might never get otherwise, and allows the reader to thank the author and appreciate the fact that the book is the product of one person's (or, in the case of certain celebrity authors, a team's) imagination and effort. Yesterday, for instance, I stood in line for 20 minutes for Alice McDermott -- not to get a signed advance copy of her book (although that was nice), but to thank her for writing books that have meant so much to me, to my mother, and to my friends. Over the weekend, I also thanked Chris Moore for A Dirty Job, George Pelecanos for Hard Revolution, Jess Walter for Citizen Vince, and Louis Bayard for Mr. Timothy -- all books that gave me new filters for seeing the world.

Since I've started the name-dropping, I should say how glad I was to catch up with Reed Coleman, Denise Hamilton, Chris Mooney, Julia Spencer-Fleming (whom I never see in Maine, though we both live there), Jason Starr, the lovely bookseller Billie J. Bloebaum -- and to meet the legendary Otto Penzler, owner of New York's Mysterious Bookshop; the gurus of 800CEORead; and Randy Peffer, whose book Provincetown Follies, Bangkok Blues I'm greatly looking forward to reading. I also got to throw a little love at the folks from McSweeney's, who gave me a cool Believer magazine tote bag and a deeply quirky mystery novel that's described as "Nabokov meets Agatha Christie" -- more about this on Friday.

Oh, and I had one really-and-truly celebrity encounter that had me smiling for most of yesterday morning. Roscoe Orman is the actor who's played Gordon on "Sesame Street" since 1974. He's written a memoir, and was doing a meet-and-greet at his publisher's booth. I got to shake his hand and say "Thank you," for being a comforting presence not only in my own childhood, but in those of my nephews as well. I had him sign a postcard for Matthew and Henry, who have just started to watch "Sesame Street."

"Did anyone ever tell you your voice sounds just like Meryl Streep?" he said, as he signed the card.

"Uh -- no," I said.

"You do," he said. "I just met her about a week ago, and you sound just like her."

So I got that going for me. Which is nice.

Mr. Orman also told me that his favorite Muppet is Grover. "I just love him," he said. "He never gets anything right, but he keeps trying."


David J. Montgomery said...

Now that you mention it, I think you do sound a bit like Meryl Streep!

It was nice seeing you again, and meeting your Dad.

AnswerGirl said...

HA! Thanks, David! It was great seeing you, too -- and I'm glad you got to meet Nelson DeMille!

Anonymous said...

Holy Moly...I can't believe the story about the bookseller signing the Ludlum books. I was struck speechless just reading it. I can't imagine actually having her tell me that in person. Okay, you got around BEA much better than Jessica did.

Have a safe trip home.


AnswerGirl said...

Unbelievable, huh? As you know, I don't exactly have a poker face; I can only imagine how horrified I looked as this woman was telling her story, but she was oblivious.

At least she's not working as a bookseller anymore.

Sam said...

Glad you appreciated the Pelecanos-more people need to discover and read him.