New York is famous for its literary culture. Yet even in this city of authors,
many bookstore reading series only feature commercial big-names. Stepping in
to fill the gap--and willing to take chances with writers who have not yet been
established--is a small group of cafes and bars, mostly in lower Manhattan.
KGB, a bar located in a building that once housed the Ukrainian Working Men's Club, and Limbo, an urbane East Village café, are at the center of this downtown literary renaissance. Most of the readers are young, with only one or two books under their belts, and the laid-back atmosphere is conducive to the experience of hearing writers--not just authors--read from their work. To get an insiders' perspective on this thriving literary scene just on the cusp of trendiness, Bold Type Editor Larry Weissman sat down with the people who organize these two successful reading series: Ken Foster of KGB and Stephenie Staal of Limbo.
Bold Type: What was your first reading like?
Ken: The reading series at KGB started in October of 1994. The first reading was by Lawrence David, who had a novel called Need, which he wrote while he was institutionalized. Instead of reading from the novel, though, he read an essay about being in an institution. Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose book Prozac Nation had just come out, was set to follow him, but she got up and said, "Well, he read so much better than I ever could about the same subject that I'm not going to read, but if anyone wants to ask a question they can." We had to tell her she couldn't do that. We coaxed her into reading and taking questions, and that was our first event.
BT: What kind of misconceptions about readings do you think people commonly hold?
Ken: I think a lot of people think it's easier to do than it actually is. They think you can get anyone with a book to stand up and give a reading and people will be interested, which isn't the case. I think there are things that lend themselves to reading more than others, and there are people who are better readers and who connect more live than others. I mean, there was a period when people were pitching things that were totally wrong... like self-help books. (LAUGHS)
BT: What makes readings special?
Stephanie: In my other life, as a book scout, I am often forced to look at a book from a commercial standpoint first and foremost, and then as a work of literary merit... which is why I enjoy helping to coordinate the readings at Limbo so much. Like Ken said, we aren't concerned with selling the book, but with providing a forum where others can hear an author we feel strongly about and would like to promote so that others can enjoy his or her work. Organizing the Limbo readings reminds me why I wanted get a job in publishing in the first place--a love of books, the ability to expose others to great books, and on a selfish note, the opportunity to meet and talk to authors whom I admire.
Ken: It's like the old radio stories, except it's live in one room. We've talked about broadcasting readings, which would be a good idea and I'm sure will one day happen. There's something about gathering around to listen that can't be replicated in advanced technology like TV, the Internet, etc. I think people are rediscovering that.
Stephanie: When you read a good book, the first thing you think is, "I want to share this with somebody. I want to give this to somebody." A reading is a way of sharing that feeling.
BT: Why are readings at KGB or Limbo different from a bookstore reading?
Stephanie: The setting is more casual. Both KGB and Limbo try to create an intimate setting where you can sit down, get a drink, hang out and relax. It's a downtown community, and it really has its own personality. There's an eclectic mix of people at the readings.
Ken: I think it's about listening to the work, and not about selling the book. The authors appreciate the fact that they're not there to rack up sales, that people are there to really lisen to what they have to say. Frequently authors come in to read from their book but just spontaneously decide to read what they wrote last week or something from their next book. People know that if they come to these readings, chances are they are going to hear something interesting.
BT: Tell us about some of your favorite readings.
Stephanie: What I like is when we have writers who aren't published yet, and all these people come in, and their expectations are high because it's the first time that anyone has been exposed to a certain author. The room is filled with anticipation, like when we had Junot Diaz.
Ken: We did a thing on David Wojnarowicz, who died a few years ago: I had read a new collection of his work which is all these little monologues and thought, "This has to be read out loud." So we had a lot of David's friends come and read from his work, including Joel Rose and Nan Goldin, and it was an interesting group of people. The place was totally packed. It was just a great event because there was something special about it. Some people came out of curiosity, to see Nan, but came away learning something about David.
BT: Some observers feel that the novel as an art form is in trouble these days, in part due to shorter attention spans. Would you tend to agree with that assessment?
Stephanie: Yes. I don't want to over-generalize here, but I think that too many readers tend to think of a book now as portable TV. So, they want something that's high action and plot-driven. What I think makes books different from something that's visually stimulating is that you can delve into more complex issues. You can make the person think; the ideas are not right on the surface. That's the great thing about novels--they make you think, they make you come up with your own ideas. I find a lot of the books I read now have lost that complexity. It's all on the surface, and the characters are flat.
I definitely like all of the authors that we book, and I'm not saying that there are no great books being written, but in general...
BT: What do you think about the state of the publishing industry?
Stephanie: What I find frightening is the growing influence of the film community in publishing, where it's an issue whether or not a novel will be optioned as a movie. When editors are looking at things now, they have to take that into account, much more so than before. What's happening is a lot of money is being paid for very poorly written books that read like movie treatments. It's disturbing. When the movie comes out, the book automatically becomes a bestseller.
Ken: It's like a 20-million-dollar commercial for the book.
Stephanie: From a marketing standpoint it makes sense. Look at The English Patient. That's a good thing, and I'm glad it's getting a lot of attention, but the whole process is distasteful. And I hate those movie tie-in covers; they're so cheesy! But what I see is publishing becoming much more integrated with the entertainment industry.
Ken: Publishers sells books the same way they did a hundred years ago. I think they should look at the way that the record establishes a new artist. Authors should be introduced the same way, like giving a discounted price for a new writer's novel. They also need to start looking at the marketing from several angles, over a longer term. Too many things are abandoned based on the first weeks' sales.
BT: Is there any hope for literate culture?
Ken: What I've found is simple: people love a good book. There's no saying "This is too literary," or "This is too obscure." I think there's a lot of good writing out there. In the past couple of years there has been some really interesting writing being published. Rick Moody, Jeff Eugenides, Jennifer Egan, and Kathryn Harrison are all writers who have made an impact with one or two books.
Stephanie: You need to hold a book and touch its pages and to talk about it. You know, the good novel will always be victorious.
Stephanie Staal is a book scout for Nina Collins Associates. She lives in New York City.
Ken Foster is a writer who lives in New York City. His work has most recently appeared in Bomb Magazine. He also writes about music for www.musicmatch.com.