More than 400 writers spoke about their new books at the 18th Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held last weekend at the University of Southern California campus. Free to the public, the Festival of Books is one of the most respected and prestigious big book festivals in America.
It also has more access to stars who have new books to promote than most book festivals do. Paul Anka, Brian Boitano, Carol Burnett, “Iron Chef” Alex Guarnaschelli, Demetri Martin, Debbie Reynolds, Molly Ringwald, Tom Sizemore and Nia Vardalos all talked about their new books at the festival. The L.A. festival organizers employ those stars smartly; their appearances were sprinkled throughout the weekend. Roma Downey, formerly of “Touched by an Angel” and now, with Mark Burnett, the author of A Story of God and All of Us: A Novel Based on the Epic TV Miniseries “The Bible,” appeared right before hip comedian Demetri Martin took over the Los Angeles Times Stage. That’s the beauty of a big book festival: it’s hard to imagine two more different kinds of people than the ones who want to attend an event about a novel based on a miniseries based on the Bible vs. the ones who want to see a comedian who draws on a big pad of paper and is known for accompanying his jokes with music on either guitar, harmonica, piano, keyboard, glockenspiel, toy bells, ukulele, or tambourine, “sometimes all at once,” according to Wikipedia.
Fans of "The Bible” (the miniseries) and of Demetri Martin both need to feel that the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books was created with their particular taste in mind. Maret Orliss, the senior programming manager for the Los Angeles Times’ various public events, is in charge of the festival’s lineup of writers, which writers are invited to appear at the festival and how those writers appear in the program (on their own, with other writers in a panel conversation, etc.). “We do particularly well with our current event and political talks and conversations,” she says. That was evident at the Current Events: Political Disunion panel on Saturday. Rule and Ruin author Geoffrey Kabaservice, Pilar Moreno, author of Killing the American Dream: How Anti-Immigration Extremists Are Destroying the Nation and veteran liberal commentator and author Robert Scheer talked about the polarized state of national politics with moderator Ronald Brownstein, the editorial director of the National Journal. There’s usually never a dearth of commentary at political panels and this one was no exception, but Brownstein did an excellent job of keeping the discussion from becoming bogged down by the minutiae of one sole topic.
A number of panels over the weekend began with the deciphering of their enigmatic panel titles, but “The Social Novel” panel took it one step further. For the majority of the panel, novelists Rachel Kushner, Jonathan Lethem and Marissa Silver spent their time attempting to define what exactly is a social novel, and whether they’ve published one. The discussion went from the weeds of Wikipedia into the highlands of Victorian literary theory surrounding the various connotations of the social novel, which they collectively defined as a novel written with a particular agenda. Yes, of course, every novel is a social novel, the writers agreed, but none of them admitted to ever wanting to be hemmed in by writing something so rigidly defined. After Los Angeles Times book critic and moderator David Ulin gave the panelists permission to dismiss the frame of the panel, the talk widened to the larger context of novel writing that cohabits internal and external worlds. Lethem declared, “The novel forces you to be interested in inclusive views of history,” and Kushner partially agreed, suggesting that you can care deeply about issues of the world, but once you are inside a novel, “you have a new set of responsibilities,” to the novel itself, not to the social agenda.
The ever-unconventional Jamaica Kincaid began her conversation with the Los Angeles Times’ Héctor Tobar by reading from the last pages of her latest novel See Now Then. She explained, “If you see the end and you’re still standing, then you know there’s a beginning.” Kincaid herself is still standing strong, as she proceeded to take on her critics after the discussion veered from growing up in Antigua, and the literary influences of her childhood, like being punished for unruliness at school by having to copy out Paradise Lost (in the moonlight, no less, since she had no electricity). She attacked critics who accused See Now Then of being too autobiographical, which she is adamant is a fictional novel. She remembered growing so aggravated by the misrepresentation of her work that she wanted to call up Tony Soprano, but Kincaid doesn’t need back-up. In her own defense, she maintained that “if I were a black man, and certainly a white man, this would not be the conversation of my book.” After the audience broke out in applause, she went on to call out a critic for The New York Times who “wasted all those little brain cells,” trying to dismiss her book as a memoir. Kincaid’s last word on the subject: “The only thing worse than a bad review in The New York Times is a good review because the same idiot is writing it.”
Photo of Debbie Reynolds courtesy of Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images.