L.A. Times Festival of Books – brilliant and illuminating

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The L.A. Times Festival of Books on April 9-10 was outstanding. A huge thank you to the organizers for inviting me and for the superb organization.

The awards ceremony was a highlight. Although it went on nearly as long as the Oscars, it was great to see Juan Felipe Herrera, the first Chicano Poet Laureate of the U.S., win his award, along with the philanthro-phenomenon that is James Patterson, the brilliant Mexican novelist Valeria Luiselli, the Nigerian debut novelist Chigozie Obioma, and many others.

As for the festival itself, I saw five panels and all of them were excellent. This is as rare as a lion in my kitchen.

The first panel I attended concerned the publication industry. The panelists, Bonnie Nadell, Nicole Dewey, Dan Smetanka, and Robert Weil, talked about the serendipity of publishing a bestseller. Sometimes a book just clicks or finds its moment and then nothing can stop it. I also enjoyed their enthusiasm about the industry and its ability to survive constant threats: a few decades ago it was TV, then video games, now the internet. As one panelist mentioned, people have always said the publishing industry is falling apart. And yet folks still read – just in different ways.

The panelists also mentioned that part of an agent’s job is to “manage expectations.” Bonnie Nadell, of Hill Nadell Literary Agency, said that one of her writers told her she’d like to be featured in The New York Times, get a 3-book deal, and have her own TV show, to which Bonnie replied, “I’m an agent, not a fairy godmother.”

The funniest session I attended was a fiction panel with Tod Goldberg, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and Bill Beverly. Goldberg had a joke in every line he uttered, particularly about being a lapsed Jew, and the look on his face when Viet Thanh Nguyen said he hadn’t watched TV for ten years was precious.

One serious thing they talked about was veracity even in fiction. You have to get the details right. This was echoed in another session I went to (sci-fi): two things you can never get wrong in books are guns and horses. Readers will stalk you forever if you do.

The final panel I attended, not including my own, was also on fiction, and there I heard something very interesting from Anne Enright. The most influential times in which she’d read fiction were times of transition for her: adolescence and midlife. “You don’t know where you’re going, and neither does the book, but the book makes your uncertainty beautiful.”

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