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The organizers of the National Book Festival, now in its 11th year, know how to draw a crowd early. The fest has typically slated the biggest names for the opening slots, and on Saturday tents filled at 10 a.m. for PBS anchor/novelist Jim Lehrer, longtime Post columnist Eugene Robinson, and Nobel-winning novelist Toni Morrison, who took part in a spirited discussion with critic Michael Dirda before an overflow crowd. Asked whether she had ever taught her own work to students, she laughed, aghast. “[Teaching my work] defeats the whole purpose of being a critical reader,” she said. “I’d be saying, ‘No, I’m right, and you’re wrong.'” (That got a big laugh. The picture above shows Morrison after the session, the golf cart ferrying her to the signing tent slowed by surrounding fans.)
Morrison’s comment is representative of a particular kind of noise that authors often make when they’re in a public forum like the National Book Festival. Writers are supposed to project a cultivated modesty regarding their work when they talk about it—-they don’t foist it on students, don’t say the work is easy, and don’t make it all about them. Russell Banks quoted one of his early mentors, Nelson Algren, who told him, “A writer who knows what he’s doing doesn’t know very much.” Rightfully much-decorated novelist Jennifer Egan shared a few war stories about writing her awful first novel (“I literally couldn’t save a word”) and eagerly getting out of her own environment to write. “The worst advice I ever got was, ‘Write what you know,'” she said. “I don’t like to write about myself or the people I know.” Before reading a few pages from his novel in progress, Dave Eggers mentioned it was only the second time he’d read it in public. “It won’t sound very polished, but we’re in a tent,” he quipped.
The syndrome isn’t unique to novelists. Asked how she decides what to write books about, Sarah Vowell smirkingly responded, “First the idea has to sound terrible.” Longtime Post book critic Jonathan Yardley, discussing his book on rereading, Second Reading, copped to his own early ineptitude; his first assignment as a reviewer was Saul Bellow‘s Herzog, “which of course I didn’t understand a word of.”
That’s not to say that the collective modesty was false, or that the authors were engaged in literary humblebragging. But there was a dearth of writers eager to talk a lot about themselves—-among the various genres represented across the fest’s six tents, memoir was absent. (Another overflow crowd showed up at the Contemporary Life tent for Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but that book is a memoir of the most pragmatic sort, praising tough parenting instead of mining a rough childhood for humor or pathos.) So it was refreshing to see Baltimore crime writer Laura Lippman deliver a no-nonsense, assured talk about her writing process that was free of self-effacing gestures. She recalled a writer’s conference where she was left fuming at a Famous Author who delivered awful advice, and how she bore down at that moment to come up with the idea for her next book. Waiting for one’s muse to show up? Nuts to that. “If I waited for my muse to show up, I don’t think I would’ve finished my first novel.”
Questions for Lippman inevitably turned a couple of times to her husband, journalist and TV writer-producer David Simon. Asked which Baltimore writers’ work she admired—-besides him, of course—-she joked, “You’re presuming I like my husband’s?” Well, she must: She later mentioned that she’s collaborating with him and D.C. crime novelist George Pelecanos on a project that she’s not yet at liberty to discuss, but which is “not anything you can possibly imagine.”