Quarterly Conversation contributor Barrett Hathcock made a 3-hour drive to see James Wood participate in a recent panel. He was good enough to give me a write-up of what he saw.
First, the facts: I went to Vanderbilt University’s spring writers’ symposium (March 23 and 24) in Nashville. The participants were James Wood, Linda Gregerson, and David Lehman. Gregerson is a poet and Renaissance scholar, and Lehman is the series editor for the Best American Poetry series and the Oxford Book of American Poetry. I hadn’t heard of Gregerson before and had heard of Lehman only by name. Wood, of course, I revere, and it was to hear him read and participate in a panel discussion that I made the 3-hour drive from Birmingham.
First impressions: where was everybody? I don’t know what I was expecting, really, but I had kinda told my wife that there would be a crowd—lit groupies, Bic lighters out, brassieres ready for the throwing, everything. But there was none of that. For the reading on Thursday there were a few professor types and a smattering of what I guessed were grad students, but most of the crowd appeared to be composed of a couple of sections of undergrads—recognizable in the way they dressed (aggressively casual) and their standard issue this-is-a-class-assignment spiral notebooks. But there were no groupies. There were no brassieres. There weren’t even any pasty, chubby, reformed grad-school white guys—you know, my people—lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce with their mixture of ambition and dread.
But no matter. The reading was great. Wood read the first chapter from his novel The Book Against God, and then read from three essays from his first collection of criticism The Broken Estate: the beginning of the one on Melville, the end of the one on Chekhov, and the end (I think) of the one on Virginia Woolf. I was planning on giving you quotes from these to give you an idea of what he read but some greedy bastard has checked Estate out from my library. So, in brief: the bits he read were the more metaphorical and more theoretical sections of the reviews, the sections that explored how each writer worked on a grander scale, rather than tied to a specific book. I don’t know how this went over with other students, but I dug it; I wish I could be more hip or sophisticated about this, but what he read—especially the beginning of the Melville essay, which riffs on this great metaphor of Melville as a billionaire of words, and how every writer secretly or not so secretly wants to reach out and touch every word at least once—was straight-up, no-scare-quotes inspiring. I don’t know how to explain this without going all puddly on you. You’re just going to have to trust me.
After the reading there were a couple of us eager beavers who hung out to get our books signed and ask really complicated, horribly earnest questions. I was one of these people. Wood was gracious, relaxed; he came across as a really nice guy. He was not the thundering, imperious moralist some might suspect from some of his reviews. He was, in short, comfortingly human, which made me think about meeting authors in general. First, there is something pathetic and eager about the young and unpublished (me) meeting the feared and revered (fill in the blank). On the one hand, you have this untapped well of admiration and envy, and a vampire’s sense of entitlement. (Sign my book; answer my question; justify my ambition, etc.) It’s a freighted social situation to say the least. But instead of meeting writers, or whomever, and this meeting exacerbating this weird idolatry, I think it actually defuses it, because reading especially—with its secret stare, communing with a book like you might with a lover, or an addiction—fosters this over-developed attachment with the writing voice; you feel like you know this person. But meeting, or sometimes simply seeing, that person in public does two things: it reinforces the fact that you don’t know this person at all. You’ve simply participated in a distant performance of theirs. Second, you realize that that person, despite their grand prose style, is just as rumpled and harried by life as you are: they still have to iron their clothes, pick up the youngest, squirrel away time to read the latest NYRB, argue on the phone with their cable provider, etc. Sometimes I think it might be enough to simply see a writer enter the building or fumble with their notes to cure the accrued idolatry that festers in isolation.
Anyway, the panel discussion the next day was also lots of fun. Same type of room (a vanilla paint job scuffed with sneakers), same crowd (unscrubbed undergrads), and the three participants crowded at a narrow table. They discussed the dichotomy between someone who writes "creatively" and some who writers "critically." They also discussed the divide—Grand Canyon-like gap, really—between current academic criticism and the waning, endangered belletristic criticism. They didn’t say anything that groundbreaking, but it was still good to hear the talk, which struck me as earnest and honest and unpretentious. And those undergrads ended up asking good questions despite my prejudices against them. At least, they asked all the questions I had scribbled in my notebook.
The crowd was so small that you could walk up to the writers and talk to them like you and they were actual human beings and not textual vectors of success or ambition. I could and I did, and a sense of pride and decorum prohibits me from sharing my remaining hoard of details about it.