Overwhelming and underwhelming: that’s the phrase that some bloggers and I settled upon to describe this massive event. It’s overwhelming in the sense that it is truly massive (as any big industry trade show must be), with endless rows and rows of booths where publishers big, small, (and self-) hawk their wares. There is a seemingly endless spray of people flowing into the giant exhibition floor from all entry points, and you are jostled constantly as you thread through the crowds. On top of this there are wacky promotions going on at nearly every juncture – an author dressed up like an Elizabethan princess, dancing dogs and grannies wearing matching outfits, a balloon animal sculptor – along with lots of promotional freebies being thrust at passersby who must also avoid the snaking lines of people waiting to see some personality or another signing books at a publisher booth. The independent row felt like a safe haven – much less crowded and populated by less frenzied folks. But it was underwhelming too in that the interactions I have with some of these folks over email already are far more valuable than the hurried face to face meetings that end up happening at this event. While the Expo itself is an exercise in endurance, the parties that came after – including the LBC affair – were much more fun and relaxed. But more on that later, I need to get downtown to dive in again. I’ll wrap things up with a more detailed report – including my finally meeting so many great bloggers whose blogs I read daily – by the end of the weekend.
The excitement over blogs is officially over ladies and gentleman. They are no longer new or sexy to the book industry. I just snuck out of a panel called, oddly, “Blog 2.0”. The idea, I suppose, was to suggest that we are beyond the initial enthusiasm for blogs in the publishing world, but the atmosphere was remedial (and uncomfortably warm, but that might just be the bookish corduroy blazer I’m wearing.) The panel included blog and new media heavyweights like Ana Marie Cox, formerly of Wonkette, Kos of Daily Kos, and Michael Cader of Publishers Marketplace, but they were plodding the same old ground: Use blogs to promote books; blogs aren’t scary, they’re a part of the media landscape; blogging is so easy, anyone can do it. Though the “2.0” moniker suggested new insights in the merging of new media and publishing, the panel was decidedly “1.0”, and the audience in the half-filled room wasn’t exactly brimming with enthusiasm. Still, some of the comments made were worth sharing. Michael Cader suggested that blogs promote “individual voices over institutional voices,” whether the blog lives at Blogspot or the New York Times. Kos decried the notion that books by bloggers have anything more than a tenuous connection to the blog medium. Blogs are not meant to be books, but blogs are a great way to find new voices with built-in audiences. All in all, though, there wasn’t a sense that any new ground is being broken in the marriage of publishing and blogging.I did, however, get the opportunity to meet Booksquare, and I’ll be seeing other bloggers soon, including Sarah Weinman, who’s giving a talk called “Syndicating Litblog Book Reviews,” shortly.
It was raining last Thursday (because it is always raining in New York) when I went to the CUNY Graduate Center to hear a panel called “Language in New Forms: The Work of Andrey Platonov.” I’m glad I braved the weather, however. The panel featured four of the most mellifluous voices in Anglo-American letters – Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Threepenny Review editor Wendy Lesser, and intellectual historian T.J. Clark. I could listen to Ondaatje read the phone book. Even more remarkable, though, was Platonov himself. Indeed, this Russian writer of the Soviet epoch turned out to be my big discovery of this year’s festival.Edwin Frank, whose NYRB Classics imprint has brought Platonov’s fiction back into print, opened the proceedings. Reminding the audience to turn off cellphones, Frank had a kind of Woody Allenish mien, but he waxed eloquent as soon as he began discussing Platonov’s complicated publishing history. Platonov’s “pressurized, contorted. . . lyrical” style made him “the most inventive writer of the revolutionary era,” Frank suggested – a Slavic peer of Beckett and Kafka, only with a desire “to bind up [the world’s] wounds” in addition to probing them. His admirers and champions included Yevtuschenko and Gorky, and like the latter, Platonov truly believed in the revolution. He had the utopian spirit. And yet, perhaps detecting the negative capability that is always hostile to ideology, Stalin’s functionaries suppressed Platonov’s best writing.After this fulsome introduction, the panelists let Platonov’s work speak for itself. Ondaatje read from an early short story. Then Lesser undertook a mash-up, reading half of “Fro” from the recently retranslated collection Soul and half from the “barbaric” older translation (which NYRB published in 2000 as The Fierce and Beautiful World). Apparently, publishing complications have followed Platonov even into English, and Lesser’s reading made clear why. Platonov is an intensely unusual stylist, blending modernist subjectivity with futurist, revolutionary diction and visionary mysticism. Francine Prose’s reading from “his finest story,” the eponymous “Soul,” revealed an animist sympathy with trees and rocks and buildings. “After reading him for a while,” she said, nodding toward her bottle of Aquafina, “you start to wonder what the water bottle might think of this evening’s proceedings.”The most spirited performer of the night, however, turned out to be T.J. Clark, who read a remarkable excerpt from the newly reissued novel, The Foundation Pit. Clark “did all the voices,” as the third-graders I used to teach would say, and drew the audience into a story remarkable, above all, for its sensibility: passionate, tender, absurd, and tragic. It’s a sensibility I look forward to reading much more of in the coming weeks.
When I first began living in Toronto, I used to book off the week of the Film Festival. In those days it seemed much less schmoozy, more communal and low-key. Going from cinema to cinema, seeing multiple films each day, chatting with fellow movie buffs while waiting in lines. It was a treat.But I stopped doing that a few years ago. I still love film, but I’ve come to accept that the festival is a glossier version of the one I used to know. There are still many wonderfully rough edges to be found, unknowns to discover, but the noise surrounding it all has become deafening. Too much to make a solid week out of it.And then there’s the Fringe Festival. This is what I had been missing. Plays and monologues from stage companies worldwide. 150 different plays, each presented at least half-a-dozen times over 12 days in small venues – many of them in and around the leafy University of Toronto. At C$10 a performance, and with half the seats for each show available at the door, the Toronto Fringe is a festival for the people.So this year I booked Fringe week off, and saw 11 plays. With each venue playing host to several different rotating plays each day, stages are often bare or spare, sets kept to a minimum, forcing extra creativity in lighting and staging to create a mood.The high point for me was a 45-minute adaptation of Moliere’s comic love tale, The Sicilian. There was also a great version of Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ tale of women in wartime Ancient Greece banding together to withhold sexual favors from their men as a protest to the war. Still set in Ancient Greece, the 4-woman, bare-stage production from England has been updated and twisted with Cockney accents and modern and extremely bawdy British humor.The same troupe also put on an all-women version of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, with octave-dropping performances of fake-mustached Jack and Algie. And there was also a fine, if conventionally-staged, version of George Bernard Shaw’s love-triangle Candida. Among the monologues, transplanted Brit and Fringe-favorite Chris Gibbs presented his latest comic monologue full of his delightful tangents.As many of these productions go from one Fringe Festival to another, you might be able to catch them somewhere down the circuit – at a Fringe Festival near you.