Why do people want to listen to an author when they have their books? From time to time, I’m plagued by this question.
The last week of May, the Third International Forum on the Novel took place in the French city of Lyon. The line-up was impressive, from Aharon Appelfeld to Will Self, and from Adam Phillips to Alfred Brendel—neither of which are really novelists, but alas.
I was invited to take part on a panel on the íThe Fantasy and the Far-Out: The Twisting of Reality.ë The organization asked me also if I was also willing to speak to the pupils at a high school, but they added that this was voluntarily. I felt guilty flying from New York to Lyon and back just to participate for 90 minutes in one panel, so of course I answered: íYes.ë
The festival in Lyon was very well organized. The participants were asked to write a statement on the topic of their discussion and to deliver their statement six weeks before the festival. Then the organizers could have the statements translated into English and French. It was almost Prussian.
In the lobby of the hotel in Lyon where most authors stayed, I overheard one author say that he had asked his agent to write his statement. I don’t know who the author was, but I was flabbergasted that an agent was willing to produce texts for an author and that apparently the outside world was not able to distinguish between a text written by the author and a text written by the agent of the author. If my agent could produce texts that equaled my own, I would become an agent myself.
The panels, with four authors and two interviewers, often resembled the United Nations. During the panel on memory with Aharon Appelfeld, five languages were spoken. It was in simultaneous English translation for those who didn’t speak French, Spanish, Arabic, or Hebrew.
I was on a panel with the French author Véronique Ovaldé and the British author Toby Litt. In his statement on fantasy, Litt had written: íYet, in my opinion, the great ghost stories are self-consciously post-Marx, post-Freud.ë
Since I wasn’t sure if this was ironic, I asked Toby Litt if all authors do not feel like con men sometimes. Nothing is worse than a panel in which the participants produce nothing but monologues, so I always try to ask questions.
Toby Litt had a beautiful sense of humor. I cannot remember what he answered, but I remember laughing out loud. And I remember thinking that that’s the purpose of literary festivals: to humanize and demystify the author. They are as weak and vain as everybody else and sometimes by coincidence, they same something interesting. Or funny.