It's funny that some people still consider book readings to be snobby and elitist. Almost every book event in town is absolutely free, and most of the exceptions to that rule are five bucks a pop to cover the cost of renting a large venue. Readings are practically the most egalitarian of all the entertainments: no fancy dress is required, no purchase is necessary, and, in theory, every audience member has an equal chance to become part of the dialogue. Since the book is read aloud, you don't even have to be literate to attend; that's one hell of an open-door policy. Seattle Arts and Lectures' lecture series, with its hundred-dollar tickets and stuffy Benaroya Hall setting, is acceptable only because it brings big-name authors to Seattle, like John Updike and Orhan Pamuk, who otherwise wouldn't come at all.
So it was with great trepidation that I approached last week's Words & Wine reading with Ethan Canin in the W Hotel. The prereading music didn't allay my fears; Canin's new novel is America America, so someone had decided that the thing to play was Neil Diamond's "America." This was the third event in the Words & Wine series, which launched in May of this year with (a curious choice) famed rehab-graduate James Frey. Upcoming Words & Wine authors announced at the Canin event included Helter Skelter author Vincent Bugliosi on September 9 and novelist Francine Prose on October 4. Objectively, it's not a bad deal: $45 gets you in the door and all the appetizers and wine you can scarf down in two and a half hours, plus a signed first edition of the author's newest book and an intimate setting that virtually guarantees a chance to buttonhole a notable writer into a private conversation.
The audience was graying, although several cute young things were in attendance, too, and pretty much everyone had downed multiple glasses of wine—Chateau Ste. Michelle is a cosponsor of the event—before the Q&A started. Canin sipped at an enormous pink cocktail as he discussed everything from Bobby Kennedy to Chappaquiddick, from class schizophrenia in America ("You're always both the class you came from and the class your parents came from—it's always the place that you came from versus the place where you are") to 9/11 ("I stopped writing for two and a half years... I don't think that fiction is important in the great scheme of things, but I think that if it has any sort of importance, it's that it creates empathy").
America America is a great monster of a book. Set in 1972, it's about a young senator who's running for president after a disastrous Republican presidency—a concept that didn't seem as prescient when Canin began writing it in 2000. As with most readings in Seattle, the crowd physically reacted to every mention of George W. Bush, but Canin wasn't just feeding easy lines to an approving audience. Though he grew up in San Francisco, he lives and teaches in Iowa City, and he said that the mixture of conservative and liberal thought makes Iowa City "the most diverse city I've ever lived in," because "in San Francisco, everybody looks different but thinks the same."
The drinks seemed to make Canin more forthcoming. There's always something wonderful about getting drunk with smart people, especially authors. The conversation tends to be startlingly intimate, far ranging, and strangely raw. When asked a question, Canin would ramble pleasurably for 10 minutes before moving on, sometimes never actually answering the original question, although no one minded.
Canin is a graduate of Harvard Medical School who decided to become a novelist after reading Saul Bellow. He talked at length about his career as a doctor, mentioning, for example, that "the only time I ever got sued" was a result of attempting to treat a gunshot victim, adding cryptically that "finding an entry wound is much harder than finding the exit wound." He told aspiring authors to relax and let the subtext of their books remain in the unconscious and not to overanalyze: "Symbols are not symbols because Harold Bloom says they're symbols." He reflected on the positive side of America's possible impending demise as a global superpower. It might be true that we won't be the wealthiest people in the world, but on the other hand, "it could be a good thing. Italians don't have to worry about their place in the world anymore, and they seem pretty relaxed."
Words & Wine isn't going to replace any of Seattle's traditional book readings—Canin read at Third Place Books the night after this event—but there's something to be said for the idea of getting an author liquored up and letting him talk for an hour or so to a wobbly, blush-faced audience. Canin's talk certainly ranks among the most relaxed and revealing discussions I've ever attended. Nobody I talked with seemed at all unsatisfied, and people who had no idea who Ethan Canin was going in left as huge fans. Words & Wine had a new fan, too: Afterward, over still more wine, Canin toasted the evening as a favorite book event of his entire career.