Everyone enjoys stories of failure. Reading a compilation of rock stars’ anecdotes about their absolute worst gigs, I was actually jealous of their kind of humiliation.
The piece was in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago, just a list of short memories by members of pop bands as varied as Jethro Tull and the Jonas Brothers, and they mostly involved on-stage disasters of the kind you’d associate with rock ’n’ roll – being soaked in urine and threatened by skinheads and having a stoned bass player collapse on stage. All that must have been stressful but at least it’s glamorous. It happened in front of audiences.
Writers love this particular conversation – what is your most humiliating public appearance? – because our public abjection is of a slightly different kind (it usually involves a realization that despite all your interviews on the CBC, you have no audience), and because it seems to encapsulate the fundamental truth that what we do is and will remain solitary despite all kinds of learned critical response and blogging.
I’ve been beaten to this by a book of such reminiscences, called Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame (edited by Robin Robertson). And by The Onion, of course, whose eerily accurate faux-news story “ Author Promoting Book Gives It Her All Whether It's Just 3 People Or A Crowd Of 9 People” captures the brave tone that even well-known authors adopt when they face the serried ranks of empty chairs in the big-box bookstore. I canvassed a few Canadian authors about their most humiliating public appearances, as a sort of subdued and Canadian counterpart to the rock stars’ disasters.
My own most sobering was – well, how to choose? Probably the time I was driven by an earnest volunteer through the sunny vastness of suburban Calgary to do a “reading” at a Chapters store. I was with the author Barry Callaghan; we were supposed to appear together. After a good hour’s drive we arrived at the echoing store; there was no manager who was aware of us. There was, however, a sign announcing a reading by Spider Robinson, as well as a table of his books. Robinson was, of course, not aware of this either. We went ahead and read to a kindly homeless man anyway.
But that’s nothing. Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, author of Perfecting, went to a book convention with her very first novel and was flatteringly asked to pose for a photographer shooting authors who were on the cusp of “making it.” After an hour of photos, the photographer asked her, “So, you're Mennonite, right?” It was then that Kuitenbrouwer realized she had been mistaken all along for Miriam Toews, who was actually on the cusp of a very big deal, with A Complicated Kindness. Kuitenbrouwer writes, “Massive ego failure.”
Susan Swan, author of What Casanova Told Me, has a possibly even worse story about false recognition: After a reading at a library with Carol Shields, Swan went to a restaurant with another writer. A woman approached the table and said to her, “Hi Carol, I'm so glad to see it's you here and not Susan Swan.”
There is something about mall bookstores that makes readings particularly ghoulish. Andrew Pyper, author of The Guardians, once read in a small-town mall after hours. “You know how malls play that syrupy, stringy muzak all the time? Guess what? You can’t turn it off. The organizers tried, the janitor tried, even the mall manager, who was called in for the emergency. So I gave my reading through an orchestral Raindrops Keep Falling on Your Head.
Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, author of Ghosted, went on a book tour of the United States after his U.S. publisher had gone bankrupt, so without any publicity. The lonely tour culminated with an appearance at a bookstore in Portland, Ore. The bookstore had organized, for the same night and the same time, a reading by comedien Amy Sedaris – across the street. Bishop-Stall gave his presentation to three customers and then went to a next-door bar and watched from the window the happy crowd flow out from Sedaris’s reading, clutching their new hardcover copies of her book. He refuses to blame anyone for the debacle, concluding, as should we all, “I’ll accept the fact that being a writer means being on your own. It’s the price of your name on the cover.”
I have more tales of literary abjection for another column.