Attendees streaming into the Javits in the cool early morning to head for the Author Breakfast found a huge and growing line waiting to get in. So lengthy was the serpentine line of badgeholders that event coordinators instructed them to line up in pairs. Sharply at 8 a.m., the doors opened and the Special Events Hall quickly filled to capacity—more than 1,100 people in all. Many had tickets offering the usual bagels, muffins. and coffee; others sat in chairs beyond the dining area—and all were treated to a rousing event to officially open BEA 2012.
Stephen Colbert again—as he did in 2009—was the suave master of ceremonies, and the standout celebrity (by his own admission) who stood out among real authors.
Colbert, looking natty in full Colbert Report persona, cited the bestseller success of his current title, I Am a Pole (And So Can You) by marveling at its status on the PW list as “nonfiction,” observing that these days, “any book without a vampire in it” is nonfiction. He also announced that, in order to “celebrate the fact that hardcore porn is dominating the bestseller lists,” he would treat the crowd throughout the event to colorful descriptions of the male sex organ. Colbert lightly mentioned his next book, America Again: Re-becoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t (Grand Central), but did touch on a theme—change in the culture and the durability of certain values—that his fellow authors would expand upon.
Junot Diaz was up first and began talking about the importance of reading in a democracy and the need to acknowledge those who “sell, recommend, and promote the culture of reading.” He argued that it is “the space of vulnerability, of deliberation, of inner life” that books open in a reader that is “absolutely essential to the functioning of a democratic society.” Dictators and “jerks in Arizona” banning books know this, he said. His own book, This Is How You Lose Her (Riverhead) makes the point on an individual level, dealing with young boys and boyhood, not unlike his own, where love can be reached only after a first step—“vulnerability”—something that the pressures of being male work against.
Barbara Kingsolver clearly had at least a fan’s crush on Colbert, and asked how it was that “we end up orbiting the coolest guy on Comedy Central.” (Colbert took it well.) ”Writers are not cool,” she said—“we are not celebrity chefs, celebrity housewives, or celebrity celebrities” Today, she said, the least likely profession to get a book contract is… writer.”
She then talked with passion and wonder about the nature of story, which she claims has not changed since Homer, and the novel—“what Cervantes did in 1605 is basically what I do now”—hasn’t either. She explored what is “durable” about story and what has changed in its presentation, and in a sense calmed and assured attendees concerned about the effects of e-books on bookselling. She reminded them: it’s about the story and it’s about accessibility. That’s not to say she didn’t have some complaints about this new era—“I used to know, when I started a book, where it would end up: on a shelf between Stephen King and Maxine Hong Kingston. Now, I may end up on a tablet between Angry Birds and Whack-a-Mole.”
Kingsolver’s new novel, she said, is about climate change and about how “people can look at the same facts and come to different conclusions.” Flight Behavior, coming from HarperCollins, takes place among “conservative rural farmers” of her native American South, people she thinks are the most endangered by climate change and the most resistant to acknowledging it. “What are the ingredients of denial and belief?” she asked. This is what her book is about—and the huge crowd roared—another Kingsolver bestseller probably guaranteed by the independent booksellers who have made her a favorite over the years.
The Norwegian thriller writer Jo Nesbo had a tough act to follow, and in a strained English. He apologized for following such eloquent speakers “who had some nice long words I’ve never heard before, thank you.” Yet he charmed the crowd with his off-hand humor and self-deprecation mixed with his obvious love in telling a story. Mentioning that he grew up in a story telling tradition—his father told tall tales and, in his family, fictionalizing the facts were considered a good thing—he caught up the crowd on his transit from professional soccer play, rock guitarist, and stock broker to burnt out citizen sitting in a hotel room creating his fictional detective, Harry Hole, who stars in his third novel, Phantom (Knopf).
Colbert returned to the podium, saying he was “delighted they’d been able to teach Jo some new words,” and thanked Nesbo for teaching us that “Norwegians are funny.”