Is Nextbook, the organization that promotes Jewish literature by producing events at Benaroya Hall and the Tractor Tavern and other venues featuring novelists and essayists and poets and scholars and the occasional live music act, doing a good job? Do people go to these events? Do they like them? Most people don't go to literary events at all, so a couple dozen people showing up to see, say, Neal Pollack, Jonathan Ames, and Lynn Harris at the Tractor Tavern (that was back in February) is more than nothing. But it isn't much. And, had you been to that event you would have left with a better understanding of why most people don't go to literary events, and you might even have resolved to go to a few fewer yourself. That evening began with a set by a band hired by Nextbook Program Fellow Michelle Yanow, who said in her introduction that when she was organizing the event she had no idea what band she should hire because music isn't her specialty, and she sent out an e-mail to friends, one of whom replied to the effect of, "Well, I'm in a band," and Yanow promptly hired them. Yikes. For a good 20 minutes, the band's sincere, hammy, generic rock was inflicted upon the audience. Many were miserable by the time the readings started. The readings weren't bad. But they weren't short.
It's awkward for me to criticize Nextbook, because Nextbook has twice paid me to interview authors onstage at their events, and because I know firsthand that an interesting event in your head doesn't always turn out interesting live, not to mention the fact that some authors just aren't that interested in interesting. Last May, I interviewed a young novelist at a Nextbook event, and I asked predictable questions about her books and more uncharted questions about whether she believed in God and how she felt about Philip Roth, and the predictable questions she had answers to and seemed to like, but the uncharted questions, the questions she hadn't already answered a hundred times, she balked at. Things got slightly tense. It was partly my fault. In her and my defense, we'd been preceded onstage by three white guys playing a disorienting amalgamation of klezmer and hiphop.
But these are just two events among the 15 that Nextbook produced in Seattle in 2006. They do so many events I can't keep up. And they're often enough in bars, which is a good idea. And word has it they pay their participating writers well. Plus, they're willing to take risks (klezmer hiphop!). But where Nextbook actually shines is online: www.nextbook.org. When news gets out that Iran is hosting a convention on denying the Holocaust, you can't magically add an event to your already-published season brochure, but there were articles right away on the site's Cultural News Digest. Plus, the website has columns by Jesse Green, Steve Almond, and others. Plus, it has audio interviews, including a fantastic one with Gary Shteyngart, who tells Nextbook's Sara Ivry that he does not believe in God and describes his late-in-life circumcision as "more painful than one can humanly imagine."