'You're Not The First Person To Have Felt These Things": Advice From The Authors Guild Dinner

I recently moved to New York for the summer, and last night I had my first introduction to the literary parties here at the Authors Guild Centennial Gala, held at the Edison Ballroom in Midtown. There were about 500 people there, and the event was officially black tie, though the publicist told me any party dress would do. I coat-checked a cardigan. Since moving here, I’ve had some questions about how lit life works in New York. Questions like, can you do this without being part of a “scene,” and how much of this involves posturing? etc. As the night progressed, I discovered that however awkward you appear, people will kindly overlook that so long as you can hold up your end of the conversation—and that drinking always helps. Initially just invited for cocktails, I ended up staying for dinner. And happily so since the bartender wouldn’t give me drinks because I didn’t have a license or an ID card. Which is how I got my first two pieces of New York literary-party advice, courtesy of novelist Alexander Chee: In New York, always bring ID. And at dinner, don’t try to help the waiter do his thing. If you do, it’ll always be weird because it’ll always be different.

The event coincided with a recent revival of the guild’s case against Google Books (first filed in 2005), which, just the other week, became a class-action suit. But at the event, the case was never mentioned; instead, the focus was on the guild’s centennial and its continued support of the rights for so many individual writers. Someone waved at Ann Patchett. Someone something independent bookstore. David Rakoff being funny. Fuzzy, warm, bookish feelings.

So! How do you cover such an event? Do you take photographs of the people, the food, the centerpieces?

Calvin Trillin hosted and at one point stood right by me, but I felt weird asking for photographs so this is what you get:

As you’ll see, the same went for the night’s four speakers, who were Andy Borowitz, Patricia Marx, David Rakoff and Sarah Jones.

While last year’s Authors Guild Dinner honored Terry Gross, this centennial event avoided spotlighting any one author. Instead, each speaker picked one canonical text to reject (there were two women speakers but the canon was represented by an all-male cast). As though speaking from the position of an editor, the speakers advised aspiring authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Homer that literary success (if not posterity) lies in the pursuit of popularity rather than the pose of pretension. Why not 50 Shades of Penelope or Eat, Slay, Love as a title for the story of Odysseus, Marx offered.

Rakoff shut down On the Road, telling the young Kerouac that editing would do him some good. You’re not the “first person to have felt these things.” It was excellent, and a roundabout way of commenting on the culture of individual blogging (which, according to my table, is apparently way out of style. Talk of groups with a brand or an image were mentioned, like The Millions, The New Inquiry and N+1.)

Jones told off Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (which, on behalf of many writers: thank you!!!), telling them that instead of following their rules of keeping it short and simple, maybe she’ll submit an 80-page college paper titled “The Tyranny of Brevity.” (Funny because I think this happens more often than not?) It’s “Restrictulous,” Jones suggested, because it’s “so strict it’s ridiculous.” Whereupon I learned, giggle too loudly behind someone and they will turn to look at you.

The black-tie crowd.

Upon exiting, I heard a man ask two women: “Are you novelist ladies or publishing ladies?” Oh.

On the subway ride home, print was having a moment in the form of Road Dahl.

Jane Hu coat-checks her cardigan.