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Desert Companion

Culture: Book Talk


Illustration by Ryan Inzana

Married authors Walter Kirn and Amanda Fortini on the bookfest, the essay, and writing in the age of Trump


Amanda: Dear Walt — Congrats on finishing your latest Harper’s column! You’ve had to be at home in Montana this fall because of the ongoing wildfires, while I’ve been teaching at UNLV, but I know you’re coming back for the Las Vegas Book Festival, on October 21st, so I thought we could email a bit about what we’re looking forward to there. I have to say, I’m pretty excited about your conversation with Dwight Garner (“The Practice of Criticism”) who has been a daily book critic for the New York Times since 2008. Remind me, how do you know Dwight?  

Walter: Before he became perhaps the best working book reviewer in America, Dwight was my editor at the New York Times Book Review, where I was a frequent contributor. This meant, because I can only think out loud, that he spent hours on the phone with me every few weeks listening to my theories and opinions not only on books, but current events and so on. I was crushed when he left his position, for selfish reasons. When he reappeared as a reviewer at the paper, I got uncrushed, for literary reasons. His voice is all his own, as are his tastes, and now that I no longer write many book reviews, I rely on his for guidance. As newspapers cut book review sections and lay off reviewers, Dwight’s work has become increasingly valuable to the reading community at large. Being onstage together will be a pleasure, since we haven’t seen each other in years. I hope I don’t embarrass him with my deep affection and admiration.

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Amanda: I completely agree about Dwight; what’s so great about his work is that you can feel his love of language, of books — he seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself. Wasn’t it Robert Frost who said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader”? Dwight is so much fun to read because you can sense the fun he had while writing. Now you’ll both be thinking out loud, together, on stage! And festival goers will get to watch. What do you think about The Practice of Criticism today? What do you think you’ll say? 

Walter: I’ll be honest, I don’t think much of what criticism has become because there are few people out there getting paid enough to do it well, with their full attention. Instead, we have reader reviews, systems that award stars and points, and blogs that may mean well but generally don’t measure up to the standards of yesteryear. Oh well, journalism in general is in flux now, so why should book reviewing be immune? 

What about you, though, and your panel on “Women of the Essay”? I’m a fan of Sarah Hepola’s book Blackout, and I’m looking forward to that panel. The essay is a form that seemed to go dormant for decades, but in the last few years, like memoirs, it’s been spectacularly reinvigorated. 

Amanda: The lineup we have is just stellar: Sarah Hepola, Carina Chocano, and Megan Stielstra, whose book The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, I’ve been reading so I’m ready to moderate. It’s opened up my thinking about the personal essay. She has a knack for taking her personal, intimate stories and broadening them outward to consider how she fits in this larger project of humanity we’re all engaged in. The book is genius.

But to speak more generally, I think you’re right about the state of the essay. The essay is arguably where all the heat lies right now, where much of the innovation in the literary world is happening — just as the memoir was the vital form of the late 1990s. Why is this? I teach the narrative essay (often called the “longform essay”), and I write them, and I think about it a lot. I think it’s that great essays are one of a kind; they respond to the world and explore their subject matter in an original way, without the stale conventions of “storytelling.” It’s my belief that the reading public has become quite hip to, and a little tired of, the expected moves of narrative. This is something I’ve been thinking about for an essay I’m writing. Great essays convey the stamp of individuality — you sense the beating heart of the writer.

Walter: Yes. Thus there’s an intimate connection between writer and reader.

Amanda: Precisely. The essay as a form is something you’ve become quite the practitioner of in the past couple of years, as you write a bimonthly essay for Harper’s about politics and culture, sharing the storied Easy Chair spot with the great Rebecca Solnit. Your other panel is “Writing in the Age of Trump,” with Virginia Heffernan and Mickey Kaus. What is it like to comment on politics and its intersection with culture in the Age of Trump? Although I have written about politics and feminism a fair amount, I’ve shied away from both in the Trumpian era. Partly because I’ve been preoccupied with writing a book and teaching, but also, I’ll be honest, I also feel wary of stepping into the fray. It’s treacherous out there, so much acrimony. 

Walter: Writing in the age of Trump is like walking naked into a tornado. You don’t know if you’re going to be hit by flying debris, blown against a brick wall, or sucked up into the air and dropped in a lake. You can’t please everyone, and it’s very easy to displease everyone, particularly if you write with an independent, questioning spirit rather than with a partisan agenda. Danger is exciting, though, at least for my type, who’s driven by adrenaline. The problem is you can’t write fast enough to keep up with the story, which changes hourly. That means trying to get above the whirlwind, up where you can look down on all the tumult. Perspective. It’s easier to talk about now than actually achieve. 

Amanda: It’ll be interesting to watch you and Virginia and Mickey walk naked into a tornado. What else are you interested in hearing/seeing at the festival, and why? There are so many writers I can’t wait to hear, from Tayari Jones (a current Black Mountain Institute fellow), whose novel Silver Sparrow I adored; to Kevin Young, whose poetry rocks my world; to Alana Massey, who is one of the most electric young voices writing today. The roster is world-class.  

Walter: I’m looking forward to “Myths and Mysteries of Las Vegas.” After living part time here for the last few years, I’ve come across many clues to what goes on here, but I haven’t cracked the case. I suspect that would take a lifetime in this fascinating, frustrating, singular metropolis, but I plan to do my best. Maybe this panel will help me make some progress.


Book It!

Some things to see at the Las Vegas Book Festival

Previously the Vegas Valley Book Festival, this year’s event October 21 will be keynoted by Y.A. authors Daniel (Lemony Snicket) Handler and Sharon Draper. Along with booths and activities for kids, there will be talks about video games, mystery fiction, the Mojave Desert, and more. Some highlights, chosen by festival volunteers Crystal Perkins, Geoff Schumacher, and (DC staffer) Scott Dickensheets

If Have Kids in to Y.A.

Identity Isn’t Everything: Six panelists — Audrey Coulthurst, Erin Finnegan, Jeff Garvin, CB Lee, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Dashka Slater — address LGBTQIA-plus fiction for youths.

If You Follow Current Events

Race and Justice in the 21st Century: They Can’t Kill Us All author Wesley Lowery and a panel that includes novelist Tayari Jones, speaker Yusef Salaam, and journalist Jill Leovy examine one of our most vexing issues.

If It's Literature You Want

Triple Consciousness: A trio of African-American novelists — Brit Bennet (The Mothers), Nicole Dennis-Benn (Here Comes the Sun), and Zinzi Clemmons (What We Lose) — join moderator Erica Vital Lazare to discuss being young, gifted black women in the 21st century literary world.

Book Festival After Dark: A powerhouse evening program at Inspire Theater features Daniel Handler, poet and New Yorker poetry editor Kevin Young, and novelist Brit Bennet.

If You're a Desert Rat

Writing the Mojave Desert: UNLV prof Andy Kirk moderates a sure-to-be-lively talk about the great desert, featuring writer-artist Kim Stringfellow, journalist Henry Brean, and travel writer Deborah Wall.

If You Love Romance

Romancing Las Vegas — Onstage conversations featuring romance authors Grace Burrowes, Mary Leo, Sylvia Day, and Alisha Rai, plus writer-decorated tables for readers.

October 21, 10a-4p, Historic Fifth Street School; 5:30-8:45p, Inspire Theater.

If you’ve enjoyed this read, wait until you get your hands on a bunch of these reads from contemporary voices mining the good stuff from Las Vegas — all laid out in a gorgeous design experience. Subscribe. It comes to your house. For real!