Thursday, June 09, 2005


O, BEA! (Part Four)

The remainder of BEA was, well, anticlimactic. You wouldn't know that from the security guard who noticed my Los Angeles Times badge and excitedly muttered to me, "I've got a story for you." Go ahead, I told her. "Survival of the fittest!" she said. "That's the story of this convention." Perhaps. Yet the floor looked sleepier, less Darwinian, than it had the day before. I wandered down to the basement and caught the tail end of a panel about literary prizes. Then I moved on to another panel on embargoed books, sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle. The participants--from left to right, John Freeman (who looked like he had just run a four-minute mile), David Kipen, Elizabeth Taylor, and Art Winslow--made some amusing and articulate comments about the tug-of-war between publishers (who want to maximize press coverage by sitting on their wares until the last minute) and journalists (who want to report on sensationalistic material the minute they catch wind of it.) One problem: all four panelists were basically in agreement. No kidney punches, no hairpulling, which always enlivens a discussion like this. Everybody complained about "blackout documents," which oblige journalists to delay their reviews until after a certain date. "As a critic," Freeman noted, "you're very sensitive to the feeling that you're just an arm of the publishing industry. That's when I really start to bristle." Kipen suggested a broad-brush solution: "Embargo everything! That way, at least I'll know when I can run the review." A tip of the hat to Art Winslow, for his turn as the soft-spoken devil's advocate. (Addendum: thoughout the entire panel, I could hear a faint, tap-dance-like sound in the row behind me. This was Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, live-blogging the proceedings via a wireless connection. Later I was told he couldn't get a signal and had confined himself to taking notes. So: was it live, or was it Memorex? Does it matter whether he reported on the fly or recollected the whole thing later in tranquility? A tricky question.)

Next I wandered over to the Google booth, with its array of shiny new iMacs, subdued lighting, and the best furniture at the BEA, including a groovy red sofa with cylindrical backrests that was plainly too nice to sit on. Given the recent friction between Google and the publishing community--which now seems to have been resolved--I wondered how smoothly the convention had gone for them. The answer, according to a staffer: very smoothly indeed. Publishers of all sizes had been flocking to the booth to sign up for the Google Print program, clearly figuring that a spot in the company's oceanic database of digitized texts could hardly be bad for business. For a few minutes I hung around and watched publishers enroll in the program: so this was what the radiant future looked like. Then I went to a couple of parties. The first, thrown by HarperCollins, was at Mario Batali's Otto, and I kept imagining I heard the distinctive tattoo of Batali's trademark clogs on the floor. No such luck. It was dark, it was loud, and while I cadged fancy morsels from the passing trays--pizza, shellfish, miniature ice-cream cones I avoided because I assumed they were filled with custard--I saw a few familiar faces drifting by, plus the occasional person I wanted to punch in the back of the head. A pretty good party, in other words. When we stumbled outside it was still bright: blinding, in fact, with a lurid sunset in progress over the Hudson, pale yellow and pink and veined with a fluorocarbon-assisted green. Tortoni is the word that came to mind. We tottered west, toward a party for Toby Young, in a club whose name I honestly can't remember. I was still wearing my narrow, Italianate shoes from the Barney's outlet, and paying the price: a small blister on my left little toe. It slowed my progress. Bliss it was to reach the club, step into the sort of a velvety darkness I associate with a sensory-deprivation tank, and drink a free beer on the banquette. The BEA was over. Long live the BEA, etc.

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