This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

May 12, 2002 — It wasn't the sort of thing you go to expecting to like. It was the sort of thing you go to because your boss sends you to it — it was a business convention, for God's sake, held in an airport–sized hall made of chic, postmodernist concrete and filled with people in suits and heels, gladhanders all, wearing nametags no less, and all of 'em were selling something.

So why did I come away from my first attendance of the annual BookExpo America convention, held at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City last weekend, feeling as if I'd had a near–religious experience?

In fact, one of the most prominent exhibitors seemed to embody, to an almost unimaginably precise degree, what was for me the very idea of a convention — Heidi Fleiss, a.k.a. "The Hollywood Madam." She was there, skinny, pasty, and all in black, looking remarkably corpse–like as she sat on a velvet Victorian sofa in her booth like a side–show freak while some younger women, similarly skinny, pasty, and also in black, although noticeably less of it, stood in front of her handing out copies of her book, which was all black save for its title: "Pandering."

Which was enough to leave you in a black mood. Fleiss wasn't the only weirdo there, of course, she was just the most repellant. And wouldn't you know it, her depressingly mercenary and relentlessly cynical appearance — at a book convention, no less — not only got the most attention, but it paid off: a few days later it was announced that she'd netted a distribution deal with the hallowed Publishers Group West. Attention self–published authors who are not former whores or pimps to movie stars: try even getting PGW to so much as take your call.

But as I say, the place was full of people who weren't necessarily the walking foreheads you would expect to find at a book convention. I realized this when I found myself talking to a guy wearing a giant hedgehog head. Or at least, I think it was a hedgehog. I never did figure out what book he was promoting.

Did I mention someone dressed up as Benjamin Franklin was there, too? Also, a guy in a green suit covered in question marks. Also, a couple dressed up like miners, wearing overalls and helmets with lanterns on them.

I know, it sounds like a circus, and I haven't even told you about the magician yet (master masochist David Blaine, who does stuff like freeze himself) and the highwire act overhead (Philippe Petit, the guy who walked the wire between the World Trade Center towers).

Then there were some of the more outlandish publications being promoted, which impressed even some veteran attendees. For example, when I asked David Kipen, book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, what still impressed him once he got home, he said "The one thing I saw that, er, sticks with me was the dogshit calendar. Twelve months of full–color glossy shots, all immortalizing canine leavings." What might have been depressing to some, à la Mme. Fleiss, was amusing to Kipen. "Can't you just hear the marketing conversations?" he asked me. "Sure the booths are almost a grand a pop, but if Hillel Italie will just make us the x in his annual 'everything from Nobel laureates to x' lede, babe, we're golden!'"

Then, of course, there were the schmooze–fests surrounding the convention itself — the multitude of attempts to impress the press about some upcoming book by plying them with food or cocktails. Elizabeth Taylor, editor of the Chicago Tribune's book section told me that after all the "cavorting, eating and drinking, there's one book I'm eagerly anticipating, Grove's 'The Hungry Gene' — the 'Tipping Point' on fat."

Of course, it wasn't all fun and games and calories for journalists. The New York Daily News reported a particularly ugly scene at a dinner hosted by Little, Brown, where a roster of the publisher's authors were supposed to be making nice with invited members of the press. But then best–selling schlock writer James Patterson "found himself sitting next to Karen Valby, a book reviewer for Entertainment Weekly" who had once criticized his "Roses Are Red." A witness told the DN, "Patterson laced into her. He got really personal, talking about how she looked, what she was wearing. He was all red, and right in her face. A publicist at the table freaked out and left, so [Valby] was the only woman left at the table. She's only in her 20s and he went on and on, and [Little, Brown publisher and editor] Michael Pietsch, who was sitting next to them, did nothing. When she left, she was crying."

But that, I have to say, was the opposite of anything I saw going on between members of the press and authors on display. In fact, I'd seen both Kipen and Taylor, for example, at a Warner Books meet and greet — the only one I got invited to, thank you very much, and have I mentioned what a sensational line–up WB has coming out next fall? — and both these prestigious journalists were clearly made downright giddy by all the famous authors on hand, thrilled as if they were kids locked for the night in the proverbial candy store. And maybe I'm wrong but the authors looked pretty energized by it all, too. Maybe being in the presence of all those professional enthusiasts isn't such a chore for them after all.

Then there were the other events going on off the main floor — the panel discussions and speeches and signings and so on. Nancy Pate, book editor of the Orlando Sentinel, told me that the highlight of the BEA for her was a talk given by children's book author Kate DiCamillo at a kid's book function that featured a bevy of well–known names, such as actor John Lithgow. "Kate gave a speech about becoming a writer that had people laughing, had them crying, gave them goosebumps," said Pate. "And she followed Tony Kushner and Maurice Sendak, who I imagine are rarely upstaged. Lithgow said, 'I can't believe I have to follow that'' and bowed to Kate. It was the kind of speech people will be talking about for years to come, much in the same way Pat Conroy's was when Prince of Tides Came Out."

In a way, that gets at what was magical about the BEA for me. As exciting as seeing all the big authors can be, there was something equally thrilling about the other, less glamorous or lesser–known books and writers there, not to mention their eager and hopeful publishers; the booksellers, normally beleaguered, now besotted; and all the people who found a way to get an entry badge simply because they're book fans.

For example, the owner of the tiny Catbird Press, lapsing rhapsodic about some Czechoslovakian translations he was working on. A young woman at the booth for the Semiotext(e) press getting excited beyond reason when I stopped to look at their books (but how could you not check out a book called "Hatred of Capitalism"?). The people crammed into the booth of the Princeton Architectural Press — not the kind of publisher I normally pay attention to — all buzzing in delight at their beautiful books on design.

Sure, I made a few depressing observations. Should I be worried that the biggest publisher in the world (Random House) had a booth that, as one unnamed insider told Publishers Weekly, was smaller than his hotel room? Does this mean its German ownership is becoming negligent? Even more distressing was to see the classiest of the historic New York literary houses, RH partner Knopf, with a booth so embarrassingly small it seemed they couldn't show off all their new books.

But then and now, I was mostly overwhelmed by the enthusiasts there — people for whom it doesn't get better than a book, for whom a book is the best way to express their interests, whatever they may be.

Nancy Pate explained it best of the journalists I know. BEA 2002 was an "amazing mix of the commercial and the literary," she says. "I actually love the incongruity of watching a costumed character of Babar the Elephant walk down the aisle, some guy try to lure me into having my picture taken with the actor who plays Artie on The Sopranos (promoting The Sopranos Cookbook!) and then plopping down at 10 a.m. on a Saturday to discuss the death penalty with Scott Turow. Only at BookExpo."

Not quite. The lesson from BookExpo — I hope — is that they're out there: a bunch of weirdos who just love books.

Last Week’s Column: BOOK CLUBBED Oprah Winfrey took a drubbing for her exit speech. Luckily, some major intellectuals have stepped forward to shoulder the book club burden.


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2002 Dennis Loy Johnson.