Readings for Pleasure

WHEN CHAIN bookstores feature author appearances, they tend to be celebrities who've gained their recognition in other fields -- Jimmy Carter, say, or Kirk Douglas. Independent bookstores, on the other hand, lead with their strength, which is writers of serious fiction. Then these events happen in the early evening instead of lunchtime, and are called "readings." That generally means the author reads a short passage from his or her latest, answers questions from the crowd, and will sign or even inscribe his new book or an old one you happen to bring along.

By their very nature, readings are not mass-appeal phenomena. With the wrong author or inadequate publicity, the crowd can be embarassingly small. Sometimes, this happens for no reason. Ian McEwan, the hot author of The Innocent and other macabre tales, drew only a handful of the curious last spring. The event ended up being dwarfed by the cavernous Smithsonian auditorium.

Three more recent readings demonstrate the opposite: the relatively huge appeal seemingly unlikely authors can have. If Mario Vargas Llosa had found the kind of avid audience in Peru that was in Borders Book Shop Oct. 10, he'd now be president of that country, instead of living the expatriate life in London. Maybe he should have run for Montgomery County executive. On Oct. 16, South African novelist and perennial Nobel candidate Nadine Gordimer drew an equally impressive crowd at the recently relocated Chapters. But it was the third writer -- an American, incidentally -- who seemed to demonstrate the purest, deepest devotion.

This was Wallace Stegner, who was at Politics and Prose Sept. 25. When your writing has appeared in seven decades of this century and you've felt a bit neglected during some of them, it must be a comforting feeling to watch people pack themselves as tightly as a rush-hour Metro train to see and hear you.

Or even, in the case of a few of them, to not see and not hear you. Stegner was at the back of the store. People stood everywhere it was possible to stand, putting up not only with the close proximity of their neighbors but the sticky air. In fact, the store's vestibule was filled. Stegner was not in view of the folks here, and his voice was no clearer than surf heard from a great distance. Now that's dedication.

After the reading, the line to meet him was so long that it was safe to leave and then come back an hour or two later. Stegner, then, clearly has an intense following in Washington. For this he gives credit to Politics and Prose, which has done a good deal to promote his work here. But over the whole country, there seems to be a growing attention to the man often called the dean of Western writers, fueled by word of mouth over his most recent and probably final novel, Crossing to Safety (1987).

Those who come to him late have a lot of catching up to do: Since Remembering Laughter appeared in 1937, there have been two dozen books. Penguin is in the process of reissuing some of the major ones, including Joe Hill, a revisionist 1950 biographical novel about the labor organizer that suggests he wasn't the saint legend made him out to be; The Spectator Bird, the story of an old man forced to reexamine his past that won the National Book Award in 1977; and, coming in March, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, a huge 1943 novel that follows the archetypal Stegner pattern of a nesting woman and a roaming man, set against a Western scene with lots of movement. Many of his other books, including his classic account of explorer John Wesley Powell and the opening of the West, are in print from the University of Nebraska Press.

"I haven't had to outlast the critics, because most of them never paid any attention to me," says Stegner. "It's part of being Western -- you disappear. It's not a nice solid thing like the South. The West is big and various. There are a lot of writers there and a lot of good writers, but somehow they do get overlooked, particularly by the review media in New York."

They used to, at least. If Stegner's time has come around at last, it may be because his work eschews all modernism and stylistic flourishes. By never being in style, it's never gone out of style, either. This was a trick he learned while directing one of the country's premier writing programs, at Stanford University.

"I was running into a lot of whims and fancies and fads as they developed," he says. "You could see them come and go in a year and a half. I was always discouraging that in the writers because I thought they could get themselves into postures they couldn't get out of, get frozen into some wrong dead end. Literary fashions are like mutations. Every once in a while one changes the whole course of evolution, but most of them are monsters with two heads and they don't last."

As for his current success -- including the requests to speak, the documentary interviews, the signings, the books arriving for blurbs and the manuscripts for advice -- he comments that, "I enjoy it, but I try not to participate much. We live by choice off in the fringes." That's the California hills in the winter, backwoods Vermont in the summer.

Moreover, he hasn't quite reconciled himself to new-fangled things like readings. "I can remember in 1940 or '42 when Katherine Anne Porter came up to Breadloaf and read her stories. Reading prose aloud -- we didn't think it was quite moral. I don't think I ever read a story of mine until 10 years after that."

His Collected Stories was a bestseller earlier this year, but at the moment the only new thing he's got in mind is an autobiography. No fiction? "I'm 82. I don't know people who write novels at 82." But he's not quite reconciled to this, either. "If I wrote another one and got lucky," he says finally, "it might turn out all right." Publish and Flourish PUBLISHING in Germany is currently doing better than anywhere in the world: more sales and more enthusiasm. German publishing is also the most decentralized -- a fact that may not be coincidental. Editors in Stuttgart go their separate ways from those in Munich, which must lessen any sense of a herd mentality.

In this country, despite valiant regional efforts and a small role played by the once all-important Boston, the vast majority of books in the typical bookstore come out of New York. The most concentrated recent effort in Washington to establish a general trade publisher, Adler & Adler, couldn't make any headway.

But books are still produced here, however quietly. Mostly this is niche publishing, such as The U-Boat War in the Atlantic. It's a title that will be No. 1 on the Christmas wish list of every U-boat fanatic you happen to know but won't appeal to many others. This $50 effort is actually published in Britain by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, but the folks handling things on this side of the Atlantic are UNIPUB in Lanham, a specialist distributor of foreign intergovernmental agency publications.

Written immediately after the war by Gunter Hessler, a son-in-law of Admiral Donitz and a former U-boat commander himself, the once-classified document represents an attempt by the British to understand the vanquished enemy's thoughts and viewpoints. We're talking day-by-day detail here, with frequent maps showing, for instance, the convergence of U-boat groups Unverzagt, Wohlgemut and Tummler, 12th-19th March 1943. (Not to keep you in suspense, the result was the sinking of four British ships.)

A more indigenous local effort is 1001 Monday Nights: Stories by 12 Washington Writers, a handsome paperback from Washington Expatriates Press. These dozen authors, who range from a NASA scientist to a former civil rights lobbyist, are members of "Cochrane's Saloon" -- the core group of which was originally made up of students from an Adult Education class at American University taught by Shirley Cochrane. They've been meeting weekly since 1978, which the preface acknowledges doesn't quite add up to 1,001 nights, but let's not be picky. In the foreword, Rick Peabody writes that "There are a lot of magazines printing work of lesser caliber . . . Maybe one story will change somebody's life, if only for a minute." And the Glory Forever "THERE are mystics who are said to have experienced God directly. He was a mystic, too, and what he had experienced was vacancy -- a complete certainty in the existence of a dying, cooling world, of human beings who had evolved from animals for no purpose at all." That about sums up the mood of The Power and the Glory, usually regarded as Graham Greene's greatest novel, now reissued by Viking in a 50th anniversary edition.

Set in a late-'20s Mexican state that was the scene of the worst religious persecution since Elizabethan times -- priests were hunted down and shot like rats -- the work stars the never-named whisky priest, on the run and, he believes, without a soul. Greene wouldn't have gotten an NEA grant for this. Looking at his illegitimate daughter, the priest thinks: "the world was in her heart already, like the small spot of decay in a fruit."

John Updike, in an introduction written with his usual grace, notes how "every stage of the priest's ragged pilgrimage . . . grips us with sorrow and pity"; he might have added that it's an unputdownable read as well. As a nice touch, the book is bound in cloth, which hardly anyone bothers to do these days. In the Margin . . . A.S. BYATT is probably in no immediate danger of becoming as generally well-known as her sister. But Margaret Drabble, for all her reputation as a stalwart of contemporary English prose, has never won Britain's leading literary award, the Booker, which her sister laid claim to earlier this month with Possession: A Romance. The Booker has been presented since 1969, a period in which Drabble has published a half-dozen of her highly esteemed novels . . .

Is there something about cartoonists that makes them shyer than ordinary mortals? Garry Trudeau of "Doonesbury" and Bill Watterson of "Calvin and Hobbes" are both famed for their reluctance to make public appearances, while J.C. Duffy's first book, Moot Points, noted only that "He currently resides." His second, Meet the Fusco Brothers, doesn't bother to say anything at all of a biographical nature. His publisher, however, says this was an oversight, and provides these details: Duffy lives in Philadelphia and designs greeting cards. "I don't think there are any sinister things to report," a spokeswoman says.