Maybe it was jet lag. Or maybe she’s shy. Or maybe she just didn’t want to be there. Whatever the reason, Jhumpa Lahiri didn’t show up for the reading/intervew at the library on Sunday. I mean she was there physically but there was no enthusiasm, no gee-it’s-great-to-be-here, no smiling or even looking at the audience. I wanted to yell out, “Hey, we’re your readers and your book buyers. Yoo-hoo, we’re here.” Well, in all honesty, audience interaction had not been mentioned as part of the afternoon’s agenda: (1) The author will first read an excerpt from her new novel (I would not have run out and bought it on the merits of that reading, (2) she will answer interview questions — but not too many, and (3) she will sign books but will only personalize one copy, remember one copy only! There was no slot for questions from the audience.
I was disappointed. I couldn’t complain about the cost of the ticket since it was free. But, gosh, I had specially chosen her appearance as my re-entry into the world of literary discussions. While I was writing Annie’s Odyssey, I superstitiously stayed away from anything that had to do with writers and their writing. I figured that I’d start to measure my writing against all of the other folks and I’d come out lacking — I know myself well. Not that I necessarily would have but I was taking no chances until my stories were finished. So there I was on Sunday, excited to hear what one of my favorite authors — well, at least her first book of short stories — had to say about this whole business of writing. Yawn.
But, maybe, just maybe, she found it distressful to sit up there in front of the 200 or so of us and hawk her product? Not everyone can do it, you know. Truly, why should it be required that someone who is very good at putting words together into beautiful sentences, also be required to be good at marketing, schmoozing, pressing palms, performance art, social media and ingratiating the public? I hear the Intrepid Editor’s voice saying — because you won’t sell books otherwise!
Last summer, she, the same Intrepid Editor, gave me an important lesson in this reality. As we sipped cold beer and ate Greek food, she said, “Ann, you have to have a social media presence. Twitter, blogs, Facebook, Linkedin — the more the better.” She was very enthusiastic, “Get your name out there! Get followers! Follow people. Just do it!” I tried to hide under the table while I moaned, “No, no, no, no. I don’t want to! I don’t want a social media presence. I’m lousy at technology. I’m shy!” She was not listening. “Publishers demand it. They won’t look at you unless you’re established in the world of social media.” She grumbled that I was already a little late getting started — I didn’t mention that I’ve been a little-late-getting-started in most things in my life. No time was left to waste. “I don’t want to!” I had reverted to my Ohio nasal for effect but it sounded weak and pitiful even to my ears. It wasn’t up for discussion. But I have to admit that she was so right. It’s a new world out there and I had to be part of it whether I wanted to or not.
So maybe what we writers have to do is find someone to help with those parts of this marketing madness that we hate or aren’t very good at but that we’re required to participate in. I found a generous, intelligent, savvy social media guru splashing beside me every Sunday morning in aquafit. She didn’t make the world of social media any less scary to me but she opened the door so I could at least understand it. Maybe Jhumpa Lahiri could recruit a buddy to hang out with her while she met her adoring public and then maybe she could scribble more words inside the books. And, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, Margaret Atwood — who in my modest opinion is a lousy reader — could hire an actor to read her wonderful words with passion and pizazz while she lip-synched to the audience.