Even the decidedly not-with-it city of Washington, D.C. is required by law to have a square-mile Hipster Refuge, and that is 14th Street. One of the bigger clubs in the area is the Black Cat Club, and right now, there are hundreds of people who work in the book business packed inside, staring at the Brazilian Girls, particularly the Brazilian Girls' lead singer, who is wearing a blindfold and a shimmery, breastful evening gown and singing about the joys of genitalia and drugs—the chorus goes: "Pussy, pussy, pussy/marijuana." I get the sense that nobody here is quite sure how to act at a rock show, and that the graybeards, with their cocked heads, are trying to figure out if the Girls, who are mostly men, are transsexuals in various stages of completion. Standing in a sweaty club full to fire-code limits of horny, awkward booksellers on the evening of May 20, beset by a vague, distasteful feeling equivalent to watching donkey porn with my parents, I suddenly feel more lonely than I ever have in my whole life.
Every year, over one weekend in May, publishers, bookstore owners, Amazon.com employees, and big-chain-bookstore buyers all converge on one major American city to reflect on the past year and prepare for the next one. There are several major players at BookExpo America: The New York publishing houses all have a commanding presence, as do Barnes & Noble and Borders and Amazon.com, and also ABA, the American Booksellers Association, a conglomeration of independent bookstores that use their combined weight as leverage against the aforementioned nationwide monsters. This year, Google is ubiquitous—they have an enormous booth and Google-branded ice-cream carts full of cookies and an army of Google apostles trying to convince publishers to open their catalogs to Google's embattled Book Search. I hear again and again, "...yes, but our authors just don't seem to like the idea of all their work being available for free on the internet."
Like most conventions, activities are broken out into three categories. At BEA, these categories are:
1. The Educational and Networking Activities
Clearly, to a layman, the least fun aspect of any convention is where people get together to discuss issues relating to their industry, so, briefly: The ABA does an entire educational program—mistakenly titled "Passion on the Potomac"—that includes such mind-blowing seminars as "Improving Efficiency to Achieve Success" and "Getting the Most Out of Your Website," which I attend and which features this gem from the speaker: "If you're not familiar with what a blog is, it stands for web log." For the people who run tiny strip-mall bookshops in red states, there's simply no other way to get this information.
There are a number of panels, as well, that are not independent-bookseller centric—for instance, a discussion, sponsored by the stellar new magazine A Public Space, about the future of short fiction, and a seminar titled "Their Eyes Were Reading Smut: The Impact of Ghetto Fiction on African-American Literature." As the only white man in the room, I find the latter to be especially interesting: Literature is one of the most ghettoized art forms in America today, and current African-American lit, to hear the panelists tell it, is mostly about either gangs and violence or hot-sex romance, most notably written by an author named Zane. An author on the panel points out that it's possible to include sex without making your novel a porno; by way of example: "I'm sure lots of you have read Po Man's Child or Howard Street," and these two titles set nearly every head in the room to nodding. I've never heard of them, and I'm sure that 95 percent of other white bookstore employees haven't heard of them either. The panelist, whose name I never catch, goes on: "Books are the freest media we have—it's the only media where we're not advertising drivel." These wind up being perhaps the most honorable words I hear all weekend.
2. The Floor
Oh, God, the Floor. Which should be plural. Two thousand exhibitor booths are stretched across two floors of the Washington Convention Center, and the first thing you see on arrival are the men in mascot outfits: the Pillsbury Doughboy, the Dummies books mascot, the Twinkies cowboy, Spider-Man, etc. They are an illustration of the level of discourse you find on the Floor. Everywhere, everywhere publishers are giving away pins and tote bags and posters and galleys of upcoming books. Many publishers offer special discounts to booksellers for show orders, and much of the business of the weekend is conducted over tables and in back rooms at booths, sales reps and bookstore buyers leaning into each other and quibbling over percentages, shipping costs, quantity—it looks mundane, but each of these deals results in a book either succeeding or disappearing.
So publishers will do an awful lot to get attention, besides the free swag and the aforementioned emasculating mascots. Authors sign copies and play nice with the thronging masses, posing for pictures and laughing at the thousandth stupid pun on their book's title, hoping to Move More Units. Robert Duvall, pushing a western novel that he coauthored, draws quite a line and a huge round of applause, but the line inspired by a half-dozen of Harlequin Romance's biggest authors is longer. Stephen Baldwin is in the hiz-ouse, with his new titles Livin It: What It Is and Spirit Warriors: Livin It Vol. 1. The majority of the convention is abuzz at the announcement of Charles (Cold Mountain) Frazier's second novel, Thirteen Moons, galleys of which he doesn't autograph until Sunday.
Here are some authors who will be putting out books over the next year: Jonathan Franzen, John Updike, Richard Ford, Nell Freudenberger, Ward Just, Mark Danielewski (whose Only Revolutions looks like it could be mad genius or superhyperindulgent twaddle, and considering that we're talking about the author of House of Leaves, I'm leaning toward the latter), Joyce Carol Oates (big surprise there), Scott McCloud, Joe Meno, Stephen Dixon, Heidi Julavits, and probably Whoever Your Favorite Living Author Is. The novel that seems to have the biggest buzz is Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, which will be arriving in early 2007. The advance copy clocks in at exactly 900 pages, and it's a Dickensian everything-included crime epic that begins with a yappy dog being thrown from a fifth-story window. The sensory overload from wandering the Floor is so intense that the 5:00 p.m. closing time comes as a relief, particularly because it's the gunshot beginning of:
3. The After-Hours Soirees
So here I am, at the Cosmos Club, one of the oldest old-boy clubs in D.C., one which just started allowing women in three or four years ago. I'm at a party celebrating the upcoming titles from Thomas Dunne Books. I have already gone to the bathroom and stolen an engraved Cosmos Club comb, and I have just eaten pâté, which I put in my mouth thinking it was hummus, when who walks in? G. Gordon Liddy, followed by a C-SPAN crew. The cameras are circling Liddy around the food table, and since I don't want to be caught on camera with any relics from the Nixon administration I back away, but in doing so I almost run into somebody. I turn and make eye contact, and then my brain explodes. I'm thinking, "This man is old, and he has a tan, and he's some sort of celebrity... is it Bob Barker?" But then I see the woman he's with, a plastic-surgery victim with a head of blond hair blown into the shape of two giant testicles, and I realize: This old man is Patrick Fucking Buchanan, who has a book coming out from Dunne called State of Emergency: How Illegal Immigration Is Destroying America. Yes, that Patrick Fucking Buchanan, AKA Pat. My first instinct is to spit some liver-tasting foulness on him, or to swear, but I just turn and leave the Cosmos Club. It's too much to think about: I can't begin to contemplate the implications of shaking Patrick Fucking Buchanan's hand, I can't imagine trying to pretend that I think that he's anything but a stark-raving bastard. To calm my nerves, I take a cab to the French embassy, where Dalkey Archive—possibly the best, and definitely the noblest, publisher in America—is throwing a party. There are people here I can talk to, and I do talk to them, but then I stroll out into the courtyard and stand in front of the bust of Charles de Gaulle, his bald head covered in bird shit.
These swank parties are the best and most insane perks of coming to BEA. Publishers have been sent here to impress me; I have been sent here by a bookstore to be impressed. And it works. I am impressed. Besides the above two parties, I find myself at a tapas dinner, thrown by Ecco Press's brilliant editor Daniel Halpern, at an upscale restaurant named Zaytinya. In attendance are Daniel Handler, Nell Freudenberger, Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Stone, and Leonard Cohen. I'm not usually given to gushing over celebrity, but Leonard Cohen surprises the hell out of me—didn't he become a monastic recluse? He's so outgoing he's practically giddy. He seems genuinely pleased that Book of Longing, his newest poetry collection, opened at number one on all the book charts in his native Canada. At my request, he personalizes a copy for me. There's not much that one can say after all that, is there?
On a less official note, there's also Hellfire, a secret society of booksellers in their 20s and 30s, that meets in an undisclosed location near brainy D.C. bookstore Politics and Prose. Besides an excellent DJ, buttloads of cheap beer, and the alleged presence of allegedly good drugs, this party also features a dance floor full of booksellers and publicists. Someone in a bunny suit hops into the middle of the rave, and it's pretty copacetic until it suddenly isn't, and people beat on the bunny until the mask comes off and everyone can see that it's a real person, and then they all start dancing again. There is impromptu sex in bathrooms, there are people grabbing at each other's asses, there is blind drunkenness—everything you wouldn't expect from a bunch of people who work in bookstores.
Which brings me back to the Brazilian Girls show, which marks the end of my time at BEA. In these five Convention Days, I've slept 14 hours total, and in the last two days alone, I've consumed a case of beer and a bottle of wine all by myself. Truly disgusting things are happening in the bathroom on a half-hourly basis—you don't want to know—and for a second it's entirely possible that I'm going to fall down dead. Then the Brazilian Girls' set ends, and nobody applauds. The crowd just starts murmuring among themselves. It gets so bad that the guitarist actually comes back out onstage and says into a microphone: "Look, I know you people usually just stay home at night reading books and shit, but let me tell you how these shows work: We have this thing called an encore, where you all go nuts and applaud and scream and then we come back out onstage and play another couple of songs. How about it?"
And we all go nuts and applaud and scream, and the band comes out and plays again and I can't really explain what kicks me out of the feeling of zombification, but let me try to at least explain it: It is as though everyone in the room, from the pretty young people up front to the older Birkenstock wearers in the back, suddenly grows a comic-book thought balloon, and written in the fluffy clouds over their heads is: "God, I feel so stupid! What am I doing here? Jesus, I wish I were home reading right now..."
It's ridiculous, this pageant of the weird where everyone gets together to celebrate books by ritually destroying their bodies for a weekend and pretending that they're on a first-name basis with celebrities, but you cannot deny the fact that all of it, from the hundreds of lonely nights of nerdy solitude to the once-a-year chaos of BEA, is done out of love. Love for books. Well, books and free shit.