Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Miami Book Fair: November 19, 2005

The Miami Book Fair is big. Thousands of people, millions of dollars worth of books, dozens of fabulously talented authors. Located in the heart of downtown Miami, a beautiful location on an urban college campus. I only went for one day, the Saturday street fair, but the event went on for more than a week. It was a ruly crowd, but civility notwithstanding, book fair attendees are a passionate group, easily whipped into a barely contained frenzy by a well-articulated metaphor, awarding standing ovations to professorial scribes and avant-garde performance artists alike.

My primary objective in attending the fair was to obtain signed copies of Wicked and Son of a Witch by Gregory Maguire, on behalf of my out-of-town daughter. That objective was achieved, but unexpected bonuses were around every corner. A highlight of the day was being touched by Mitchell Kaplan--he was managing the book-signing line and because one of the authors was free, he herded me up to the front with an encouraging hand on the shoulder. Kaplan is the godfather of the book fair, the owner of Books and Books, and a literary legend in south Florida. I didn't have the presence of mind to say anything to him, but I wish I had told him thank you for all he has done for the literary arts in our region.

Maguire was scheduled at 11:00 a.m., on a panel with Eric Bogosian and James Shapiro. I knew that would be a popular event, so I took my seat in time to see the 10:00 feature: Zane. I knew nothing about Zane, but the audience was 95% black, and predominantly young--the group near me was obviously high school students with their English teacher. As it was soon revealed, Zane, writes "erotica"--essentially ethnic romance novels, apparently dominating a niche where there isn't much competition. She owns a book store in Baltimore, is in negotiations for a tv talk show and a tv dating show, is launching a clothing line and a personal products line, writes between three and eight books a year, and has her own publishing house. Her books are best-sellers. She read from her latest book and it was full of stereotypes and cliches. If it had been written by a white person, I'd say it was racist. Since I believe that a work of art stands on its own merits, apart from either the intentions or the ethics of the author, I'm bound to say that, in fact, it is racist. The character she described for comic relief is named "Precious"--she is a former stripper with 5 kids from 4 different men, collecting government checks and child support. The narrator ridicules the woman's hairstyle, fingernails, makeup, clothes, lack of education, and uncouth behavior, in contrast to our heroine, who is poise and good taste personified. As I said, stereotypes and cliches. The phrase "open a can of whup-ass" was featured. At one point Zane said, in response to a question about why she doesn't use her real name, that more than half of the authors she publishes use pseudonyms. I didn't think about it at the time, but later that really struck me. I wish I had stood up and said to her, maybe more than half of your authors use pseudonyms, but what percentage of the authors at the Miami Book Fair use them? I'm sure there is a inverse correlation between the quality of the prose and the likelihood of a nom de plume. She is making a lot of money, and I don't object to that. She got those black high school students to attend the book fair, and that is great. But if I were their English teacher, I would be sure they attended some other events as well, and I would hope that they didn't settle for just reading books when they can read literature.

Maguire, Bogosian and Shapiro read from their books and they were all fascinating and amusing in their own way. If Zane shows us that the way to make a lot of money from writing is to find your niche (or to write about sex)--Shapiro shows us that if you want to spend fifteen years writing a detailed book about one year in the life of William Shakespeare (1599) you need to be a college professor. Deadline? What's a deadline?

Bogosian was engaging and intense. He spoke reverently about Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, and said he feels old fashioned because young readers today don't want to learn anything from books, plays and movies. They look for a more "realistic" narrative; that is, one that goes on and on, with unexpected twists and no defined ending.

Maguire talked about Abu Graib and about his new-found fan base (pre-teen girls) and mentioned that he has adopted three children since the publication of Wicked. He brought those elements together and explained how they led to the sequel, Son of a Witch. Maguire, like Shapiro, is a college professor.

I didn't stay long enough to see Dave Barry with his band, the Rock Bottom Remainders. I did see Gloria Estevan, but she was signing books, not singing. And I saw most of the presentation by the author of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler. She is quite the icon.

The book fair is a safe place to be a liberal. I picked up a copy of the UN Univeral Declaration of Human Rights. [Article 9 - No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.] The speakers spoke emphatically and freely about their dismay at current trends in American domestic and foreign policies.

I had a great day in Miami, milling about with all the other bibliophiles. I came home tired but happy, and I'll be back again next year.


Sara said...

I can't describe my level of jealousy right now. Not only because you received Maguire's autograph but because you have a book fair like that near you. I've never heard of anything like that up in Minneapolis. I'm going to have to check. But I'm moving at the end of December, so if they have something here I guess it won't do me much good. Maybe I'll luck out and there will be something between now and December 29th!

yellojkt said...

The Miami Book Fair is great. I went once in the early 80's and saw Dave Barry, Jay McInerney, Tama Janowitz, Amisted Muapin, Penn and Teller, Marvin Hamlisch and people I can't even remember know. What a great gathering.

Sounds like you had a blast. Really nice report.