How to Host a Literary Event: Two Flops and a Gem

Lately I've been to a number of rotten literary events and one spectacular one. What's the difference?

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In each case, it came down to the host. Zadie Smith's host opened their discussion by admitting he hadn't read any of her work since 2001; then he asked a bunch of cheap questions ripped from The Atlantic

Simon Rich's host talked about her wedding; whenever the audience seemed ready to riot, she brought the conversation back to her safe place: unfunny gay jokes. I complimented one audience member at the Rich reading who asked a question that landed on an apt pun. 

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"We're all just trying to get out of here," he hissed. "We need to work together." 

Daniel Gumbiner from McSweeney's, who is, I would guess, not an professional on-stage interviewer, does a clean-up job on this talk with Daniel Alarcón. His strategy seems basic but is beautifully comprehensive: he's read the book being discussed, is familiar with the author's larger body of work, and listened to recent interviews that allowed him to ask thoughtful follow-up questions that deepened the understanding even of those who caught the earlier NPR interview. His questions were smart without being showy or self referential, and let the writer talk about his craft in a way that felt fresh and insightful.  

They talk about: 

  • Structural faults with the book's disastrous first draft (of which only 8 pages made it into the final book)
  • Which elements of the book's messy first draft the author found salvageable, and how Alarcón comes to an understanding of what isn't working in his drafts
  • The tradition of protest theatre in the context of pro-establishment and anti-establishment political climates
  • Authenticity as an ideal, and the authentic countryside in conflict with the city in fiction

If you were a writer in the audience, it was fascinating. If you were a reader, it was compelling. If you were anyone at all, you walked out of The Library Bar wanting to buy the book. 

Listen to the Alarcón interview here, on the Litquake podcast.