Writers' public shame, preserved for others' enjoyment


April 18, 2004|By Dinitia Smith | Dinitia Smith,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Writers just want to be humiliated. Over and over again. That's the way it seemed to Robin Robertson, a Scottish poet and editor who solicited authors' reminiscences about their most humiliating moments for a book.

The stories poured in. Writers, some famous, seemed only too glad to share their humiliations. The result, Mortification: Writers' Stories of Their Public Shame, published last month by Fourth Estate, is bound to ensure their humiliations endure, on paper.

"What all or most writers want is communication with the public," Robertson, who just received the E.M. Forster Award for his poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, said from London. "It's integral to any art form. But then there are those accidental, messy discharges that occur."

The idea for the book came to him after his experiences escorting authors to readings and finding "a sign saying `Reading Canceled,' or three chairs occupied by people released from mental institutions and not thought to be violent," he said.

Most stories Robertson received were about readings, the apotheosis of the author's desire to communicate with his audience. The Irish author Carlo Gebler wrote that he was trying to read while a group of drunken students fought over a girl. He broke off and asked, "Do you want me to finish?" Someone said, "Not really." Michael Ondaatje wrote about a well-known American novelist who was invited back to her high school to read. She suddenly felt sick, ran into the bathroom and threw up noisily, forgetting that she was still wearing her microphone.

Most frequently, though, no one shows up. Carl Hiaasen arrived for a reading in Arkansas and found a chili-cooking class and a University of Arkansas Razorbacks game scheduled in town at the same time. He ended up autographing books for the salesmen. William Trevor drove for hours to a reading and found the place empty. So he read to the cabdriver and two people who wandered in.

For humiliation, second only to the reading is the talk show. In an interview from London, Margaret Drabble remembered being mistaken for the author Lynne Reid Banks. "I had to answer questions," Drabble said, "about The L-Shaped Room," a book written by Banks.

Some humiliation hits closer to home. Rick Moody wrote that his mother, who "had a lot of opinions about my work, not all good," reviewed one of his books on Amazon.com and gave him only three out of five stars. Simon Armitage once discovered a signed book of his in the garbage. "`Under the signature, in my own handwriting, are the words `To Mum and Dad.' "

Teaching, a common method of earning money, carries its own dangers. "Great view of your knickers, miss," a schoolboy told the poet Vicki Feaver.

Parties are fertile ground, too. The South African novelist Andre Brink once asked his publisher, "Who on earth is that wretched-looking woman over there?"

The man answered, "It is my wife."

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