Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. The following column was originally presented on January 22nd, 2016.
Once, I met an author I loved and it was a total letdown. She was narcissistic and bored by all the people who came out to hear her read, and I disliked her so much it made my skin crawl. Now I can't enjoy her books because it reminds me of how unpleasant she was. Should I bother going to readings anymore? I don't want to lose any more favorite authors, and the risk of them being jerks is scaring me away.
Mary, Bainbridge Island
Once, I was invited to a fancy literary party full of very impressive people – best-selling authors, sitcom writers, actors, comedians. I couldn't throw a fork without hitting someone whose work I admired. As parties go, it was normal: People sipped champagne, talked child rearing, traded jokes and were surprisingly tolerant of me sweating on them. I should say, it was normal except for me. Intimidation, my natural dearth of social graces and a near-painful desire to make a good impression rendered me mute – that is, until the hosts' daughter, a sweet-looking girl of about 12, emerged from the kitchen with a plate of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and began offering them to guests.
“Mmmm, is there anything better than a cute little girl handing out warm cookies?” One actor asked rhetorically.
That is the moment I found my voice. “Only if she's stripping,” I said.
The actor stared. The child proferred her plate to me with pity in her sweet brown eyes. There was a moment of silence as everyone in the room wished my place were filled by someone who could pass the very low bar of not sexualizing children in casual conversation. That was the day Paul Constant learned that bringing me as his date to parties is like reading Proust to a pig.
I bring up this story, Mary, to illustrate how awful some writers are at interacting with other people. Others are just awful in general (Norman Mailer was a notorious misogynist who once told a crowd of fans that “a little bit of rape is good for the man's soul.”). Either way, you have to separate the person from his or her work and be generous enough to pity them when they act like dicks in public, as all those people pitied me years ago.
Because by their nature, books are a private obsession, both for writers and readers. So attending an author's reading is, to me, an unparalleled act of public intimacy that can go horribly wrong or beautifully right. Personally, I think it's worth wading through a few assholes to experience the beauty.