Last week's story about a public interview gone horribly wrong during actor/writer Steve Martin's recent book tour was typical of current confusion about what culture is.
Martin has recently published a novel called An Object of Beauty. The novel is a satirical thriller of sorts, set against the elite art-trade world of Manhattan. As part of his efforts to promote this book, Martin agreed to do a public, onstage interview last week in New York, at the 92nd Street Y. His interviewer was the aggressive New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon. The tickets cost $50 (U.S.) each.
A blogger who attended the event has written that Solomon made the interview boring by concentrating on plot details of the book - a just-released book that most of the audience would not have read. (This is always a danger in public book discussions, and one that's hard for even the most experienced interviewer to avoid.)
According to the blogger, generally Solomon was overly talkative. Apparently Martin seemed uncomfortable and puzzled by many of her questions. So, halfway through her questions, a Y official, who had been reading e-mails coming in from an audience watching this talk on closed-circuit TV across the country, handed the interviewer a note asking her to ask more questions about Martin's life.
Solomon read the note aloud, and the audience cheered. She went on to take a few audience questions, which were largely about Martin's career. The next day, the institution offered, via e-mail, a full refund of the ticket price to anyone who had attended, because the interview had not met the Y's "standard of excellence." Martin and Solomon were both offended. Martin wrote an amusing critique of the populist process in a New York Times op-ed piece on Saturday.
Now, regardless of how much you enjoyed or didn't enjoy Solomon's line of questioning, it still seems pretty clear that what the audience wanted, more than any discussion of the book, was more details about Martin's life. That suggests that there may have been some misunderstanding among those who watched about what they were going to see - they were promised an up-close-and-personal with a famous funny man, and Martin and his interviewer may have just thought he was on a book tour.
And what, indeed, is the difference? Is there any point, really, in trying to promote a book by talking about the book? Or should we just talk about our childhoods?
Author interviews are always tricky. Authors whose life story is better known than their artistic work are always going to have a bigger crowd in attendance. And yet the interviewer has prepared by carefully reading every page of the novel. It's hard to know how much time to spend on the personal questions, the life-story stuff that people are curious about for gossipy reasons, and how much time to spend coaxing out some elucidation of the themes in the book.
Actually, if you think about it, both parts of the interview - the favourite-colour stuff and the what-does-it-all-mean stuff - are equally irrelevant to a reading of the book, as the author's intentions shouldn't influence how you interpret what's on the page in front of you. (You can argue with me about that but we'll have to do it in some other space.) I've never really understood why people want to know about authors, but I gamely participate (on both sides of the clipboard of notes) because, well, they do.
And I play along, somewhat squirmily, with the idea that a writer's personality could be useful to an interpretation, because I am told that publicity leads to book sales, and publicity requires a person to interview.
Media coverage of the 92nd Street Y event has so far made out the Y organizers to be Philistines, for interrupting an interview that was too highbrow and demanding that it become gossipy. That is probably not an accurate summary of what happened. (I would say that they were at least rude to Martin and Solomon, whom they had invited to talk, by disowning them so publicly and aggressively the next day.)
But the controversy over this one event does show up the conflict between presenting art and presenting an artist. Put another way, it's a conflict between analyzing art and publicizing it - for the simplest way to publicize art is to publicize an artist, as many artists discover to their great discomfort.