Elinor Lipman provides a guide to author anxieties

By Elinor Lipman
Sunday, September 19, 2010; BW02

Thank you, book lovers, for even thinking about devoting your Saturday, in whole or in part, to a lit fest! You'll be rewarded with stimulating, painless and free fun. (Utterly up to you: the purchase of books that will help save our industry.) Not to be downplayed: the likelihood that persons to your left and to your right will be like-minded fellow readers of the opposite or same sex. Though no one guarantees that a literary festival is fertile social ground, the New York Times did once run a feature titled "Readings as an Opportunity for Romance." Although everything from your side of the podium will be unassailable and pure pleasure, we vain authors still worry about things that are out of our hands. Here, therefore, is a reader's guide to the traumas that may be fueling our overblown, lit-fest anxieties, plus optional sweet talk and authorial remedies:

Things that have gone wrong in the past:

1. The local newspaper prints the wrong day, time or location for your event. Or leaves you out completely. You flop. This befuddlement will forever taint the city in your small mind.

2. The night and hour of your reading coincide with a critical playoff game or the final episode of the decade's most popular sit-com. In my case, May of 2004: both "Friends" and "Frasier."

3. Always, no matter how scintillating you are, there's a snoozer in the audience. He wakes up during the Q&A in time to ask a question you've just answered at length.

4. In the program, where the little bios are printed, you've supplied the titles of your books and your hometown. Everyone else's bio quotes rave reviews and employs phrases such as "critically acclaimed," "prize-winning," "Iowa Writers' Workshop," "best-selling" and "Guggenheim fellowship." You remind yourself to add some adjectives and adverbs next time.

5. You stand poised, book in hand, smiling, waiting to be introduced, hoping the recent review calling you a cross between Barbara Pym and Kurt Vonnegut has come to the introducer's attention, especially after your publicist Fed-Exed her a copy. She approaches the mike and says, "You didn't come to hear me, so without further ado, please welcome X [mispronounced]."

6. You prepare, you read; you talk your heart out. You are good and interesting and even a little funny. (You've considered what to wear: edgy earrings, interesting eyeglasses, lipstick a few shades louder than everyday.) Then the very famous headliner gets up. He drones, he splits infinitives, he laughs at his own lines and doesn't know when to quit. You are so much better. Up on stage, facing the audience, you smile as if you're enjoying his performance, while all the time you're thinking "horse's ass." Then the book-signing portion of the event begins. The patrons rush to line up in front of the Very Famous Novelist, clutching several hardcover copies of his new book and whatever's available in paperback. After signing your cousin's and a college classmate's purchases, you slink away.

a. Worst reading I have endured: The fellow who announced proudly, "I'm just going to open one of my out-of-print novels and read whatever I find there." He did, at length, resulting in a lot of weather, derelict relatives and bougainvillea.

b. Tied for first worst place: the 45-minute reading in a hot barn by a poet who gesticulated wildly with a plastic cup filled with alcohol.

7. Your books (the reason your publisher paid the airfare that got you there) do not arrive in time to be bought, signed, read and cherished. You hear: The distributor said they were not yet available/out of stock/out of print/back-ordered/due any minute. All lies. You are gracious because you are aware that not all authors are.

8. It's time for the Q&A, a ritual that usually isn't necessary. You want to kiss the person who breaks the ice, even if it's -- recent question in San Francisco -- "The coffee that the librarian in 'Then She Found Me' brought to school in his Thermos? Was it Peet's?" People ask who your favorite authors are and/or what books are currently on your night table. Several women in the audience write down your answers on a little notebook brought especially for this purpose and will later assign these to their book group, possibly in lieu of your own.

Lies to tell an author who is looking forlorn, unloved, unpurchased:

1. "I've always meant to read your work. Everyone else I know has!"

2. "My book group is doing [title of novel you're not buying] in February. In fact, I'm going to be the facilitator. I love your Web site."

3. "I own every one of your books -- too many and too dog-eared to bring today."

Guidelines for authors, anxious or not:

1. Never, ever read longer than 20 minutes. Fifteen is better. Ten minutes if there are more than two authors on the docket. Practice reading in the privacy of your home using your microwave oven timer. Note that 20 pages do not equal 20 minutes; 20 pages, especially the too-beautiful kind, go on forever. Once, when a fellow author was at the podium and going on endlessly, I wrote the word "time" on a slip of paper and delivered it to his open book. He stopped.

2. Eventually say, "I'll take one more question" -- not because you're spent, but because the audience has had enough and is wondering how to make a break.

3. Don't complain about anything from the podium. Anything! You had to get up at 5 a.m. to get here? Boo-hoo. There are MFA students and unpublished writers listening who'd be so willing and grateful to set their alarm for any hour without bellyaching. You complain that writing is such hard work and so lonely? You brat: Try digging ditches or disabling IEDs or a thousand other harder things for a living.

4. Buy some books yourself, especially those by today's unfamous and ignored. Tomorrow they'll win prizes.

Elinor Lipman is the author of nine novels, most recently, "The Family Man."

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