Do Writers Have to be People, too?

Adam Gopnik has a very entertaining and thoughtful article in last week’s New Yorker summarizing the detection efforts of two teams of antiquarians: one that believes it has a reference book that once belonged to Shakespeare, and another that has a portrait of the Bard. Gopnik summarizes the arguments for and against authenticity in the case of each artifact, but then moves into a discussion of why we care so much. Why do we value things whose power derives solely from their association with a writer we love and admire? It makes not a whit of difference to the heft or meaning of Shakespeare’s writing, what he looks like or whether we can hold a reference book that he once held. “…our fascination with lives and faces alongside verses and pages can’t be cured,” he says.

It was a good topic for me this week, as I toured around presenting my book, and asking myself, as I often do (and as I asked Joyce Carol Oates, last week, when the tables were turned): Writers give our best, deepest and most essential selves to our readers in our books. What more is there to be gained from live appearances?

I’m not the first to wonder. The day after my Montreal launch, my sister sent me a Tim Parks article on the same question, from the New York Review of Books, which starts with a bunch of writers complaining about how much they would love their live appearances if it weren’t for all the “stupid audience questions” — questions about the life, not the work.

Parks’s own feelings are more generous: “They want to understand why books make such a deep impression on them… Something has come across to them that is not to be isolated in anything said on the page. There is a mystery they would like to understand and that mystery is you. Or they construe it as you. They feel if they knew more about you, about writers in general, it might put their minds to rest as to the experience of reading. Perhaps.”

Either I don’t get stupid questions or do not consider most questions stupid. There is, inevitably, a lot of repetition from one event to another, and some questions that have nothing to do with the writing. Audiences at book events are composed of people who love books but might not know the books of the person in front of them. And, since my most recent novel concerns a very sensitive topic that many people feel they have not had much chance to talk about, I’m more than unusually willing to engage questions on the topic instead of on the book.

But I’m curious to know from readers: why do you attend book events? What is the best thing you have learned about a writer from seeing a live event, that you could not have gotten just from reading his or her books?

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