Posted by: jbwuk | September 9, 2009

A most extraordinary book launch

atwoodFirst of all, I have to confess that I am a huge fan of Margaret Atwood. I still vividly remember reading The Handmaid’s Tale and being completely gripped by it. Since then, I’ve read almost all her books and the “almost” is only explained by the fact that for the greatest part of the year, my reading is dictated by my work.

Yesterday evening I went to the launch of her new novel, The Year of the Flood, a loose sequel to Oryx and Crake. Margaret Atwood is a writer who thinks of the business of being a year of the floodwriter. Today it is not enough to produce wonderful books and hope the public will love them. You have to be a performer, to sell yourself and we, festival directors and events organisers, are part of the problem. For someone like her, with myriads of adoring fans round the world, this meant the invention of the LongPen which enabled her to sign her books from the comfort of her own home. And yes, apparently it works but yesterday, she was signing for real. 

On this occasion, she showed us how she had rethought the traditional book launch. No mere reading or interview for her but ” a dramatic and musical presentation” of her novel, the promotion of a new book and a fundraiser for a good cause (in that case the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). The event took place in the Church of St James, Piccadilly.  It felt very much like a wedding. There was a sudden hush of anticipation and, eventually, Atwood walked up the aisle, last in a procession holding magical blue lights to the tune of a choir already on stage. She started by explaining this was the beginning of a three months tour but that she was offsetting her carbon footprint and would try to be vegetarian for most of the time, in tune with the topic of her novel, a dystopia on a world destructed by man’s folly, a world -she warned us- that we have partly brought upon ourselves.

Atwood sat in one corner of the stage, playing the narrator, while three actors played the different parts and a choir sang the hymns sung in the book by God’s Gardeners, a religious group devoted to the preservation of all plant and animal life. The result was thrilling and the audience really felt part of a very special and unique event. Judging from the queue of people at the end, it certainly also translated in hefty book sales (and yes, I did buy my copy even if it will now have to wait until March for me to be able to open it).

Now why am I telling you this story? I would obviously love to invite Margaret Atwood to JBW. There are enough themes in her book which should resonate with our Jewish audience: the Golem-like genetically spliced creatures which pullulate in this future world, the effort to repair the world (Tikkun Olam) by the Gardeners and our duty to the poor planet we live on, the role of religion, the idea of pure and impure foods (and by the way we are still awaiting news of Jonathan Safran Foer’s participation in JBW to launch his book on “not eating animals”, could vegetarianism be the new kosher?…). But I guess that by March, Atwood will be resting at home, deep into her next novel, so no hopes there.

No, her launch was an answer to a question any literary event organiser will ask him/herself: how do we present fiction? There is something terribly unfair in the exercise. Here is a writer, who has been sitting at home for months, lonely and free, suddenly forced to face the whole world and bare it all. We want the story and what is behind it. As with DVDs, we want to see the making of which is so fascinating.

2009-02-21-EB---Amos-Oz-(3)Should we do Dickens-style straightforward readings? It can work when the author is enough of an actor to give an amazing performance and I have witnessed some of these but only too rarely. Most of the time, we seem content to have writers discuss their books. They usually end up explaining what is not fiction in a work of fiction, an exercise in paradox if there was one. They walk a fine line between revealing too much of the story and whetting their potential readers’ appetite. I have seen interviewers who had not read the book, maybe as a way of protecting the audience -who would not have read the book either- from too knowledgeable questions… I have also seen usually academic interviewers lecture the audience on the writer’s work while the poor author sat slightly dumbfounded and wondering what he was doing there. No one describes this better than Amos Oz in his latest novel, Rhyming Life and Death, and I could not feel but amused that it was the book he launched on his first ever visit to Jewish Book Week!

I did enjoy the performance at St James but I would lie if I said I did not prefer listening to Margaret Atwood’s excellent interview by Mark Lawson the day before on Front Row. Of course, in an ideal world, I would have loved to have both, one after the room

And let’s not forget, as one of my friends said, a small independent publisher without Bloomsbury’s means, ” I cannot imagine what I would do if any of my authors came saying they want a book launch with a choir and actors!”.

But we will go on thinking about the best way to bring you literature. We all remember the success of the reading of Zangwill at JBW a few years ago (listen to the session) and we are planning more spoken words events but probably with new specifically commissioned material. So do watch this space for exciting developments and, in the meanwhile, let us know what you prefer when it comes to fiction: authors’ interviews, readings, Q&A or reading groups?

PS: I’ve just finished reading the most wonderful novel, The Glass Room by Simon Mawer, short-listed for the Booker Prize. Do read his interview and definitely read the book! I do hope I will have more to tell you about it in the future.


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