Spring in New Orleans is nothing short of glorious. The weather’s perfect — warm but not yet too warm, low humidity… perfect for hanging out in City Park or walking the streets of the Quarter. Adventures abound.
Oh, and then there’s crawfish. We wait all year for crawfish (our reward for making it through another Carnival season alive) and spring produces the best of the lot. Around every corner, it seems, you’ll see those ubiquitous big metal pots, bubbling, a fire blazing underneath them. Friends are made fast around tables laden with crawfish, corn, onions, potatoes, and if you’re lucky, mushrooms, garlic, and even pineapple.
Spring also brings festival season. Nearly every weekend from here until summer’s heat hits hardest, there are festivals of all kinds, all over the city. Music festivals (this past weekend was the free little brother of Jazz Fest called French Quarter Fest), food festivals, neighborhood festivals, and my favorite, the Tennessee Williams Festival. (The festival was held a few weeks back, over a weekend towards the end of March.)
Over a span of several days, scholars and literary fans from all over flock to the Hotel Monteleone to celebrate Tennessee Williams’ legacy and his influence on New Orleans and its culture. A Streetcar Named Desire is, of course, performed more than once, as are several other of his plays. There are intense panels discussing his work, and opportunities for writers to meet with agents and pitch their book ideas. The whole weekend culminates with a “Stella” shouting contest Sunday afternoon in Jackson Square, recreating that iconic moment when Marlon Brando bellows up to the apartment above for his wife.
In addition to the panels specifically about Tennessee Williams, there are lots of others about all kinds of literary topics. For $10 a panel, you can pick and choose which ones you want to attend, which is what I did. I went to one panel about the challenges of writing about New Orleans and another about the ideas of the exile and refuge in Southern literature (this panel included the scholar Frank Cha, who writes about and studies the representation of Asian Americans in Southern culture, which I found fascinating). I also went to a panel on creative nonfiction, which included John Jeremiah Sullivan, among others. They talked at length about the art of the essay and its place in modern literature, as well as how they interpret the “rules” of creative nonfiction. How creative can you get before it’s no longer nonfiction? (These panelists were largely in agreement that tactics like composite characters and time compression should be avoided. Otherwise, write fiction.)
All three of those panels were enlightening and entertaining, but the panel I was most looking forward to was the final one I attended, which was about reading in the digital age. More than the topic, though, I was excited about the panelists themselves: NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, novelist Michael Cunningham, New Orleans’ own Susan Larson, and New York Times book reviewer Dwight Garner. The first three in that list made up the Pulitzer Prize jury for fiction last year (in addition, of course, to their many other honors and responsibilities). And, you may remember, no prize for fiction was actually awarded in 2012.
Now, I was keenly interested in hearing the Pulitzer jurors talk about their experience. When I heard last spring that no prize for fiction was awarded, I set out to read the three nominees: Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell, and The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace. As I wrote about here, I didn’t love Swamplandia! like I thought I would, I didn’t even finish The Pale King (there it sits now, on my bedside table, looking at me reproachfully), and I loved Train Dreams (I’ve reread it once already since that post).
I’d also read Maureen Corrigan’s feisty take-down of the Pulitzer board, published last April in The Washington Post. That explained what I hadn’t, until that point, understood: the Pulitzer jurors read and choose the finalists, but the Pulitzer board (in other words, different people) chooses the final winner of the prize from those nominees. Given how strongly she felt about the whole process, I could only imagine the other two jurors had equally deep feelings, and I was interested in hearing how it all played out.
One digression, though — if you are a book lover, this was the panel for you. The panelists talked about their reading habits (digital or paper or both), and they all mentioned having various books stashed around their homes, and even their cars (what else to do in the carpool lane?). They talked about which books they’d grab if their houses were on fire (Michael Cunningham — Madame Bovary, Dwight Garner — Machine Dreams, Maureen Corrigan — first edition, signed copy of Sailors of the Night, Susan Larson — Jane Eyre, the first book she ever bought with her own money).
(I love conversations like this, and have been thinking about which book I’d grab if the house was on fire. It would probably be either my tattered and much beloved copy of A Wrinkle in Time, or my tattered, much beloved, and doodled in [I drew about 100 pictures of my grandmother inside of it -- random!] copy of Ramona Quimby, Age 8.)
But, eventually, yes, the dreaded Pulitzer came up. And boy, was I excited for it – I mean, honestly, when else am I going to be in the same room with the three people who read 300 books in a year, discussed them, and whittled the list down to three Pulitzer finalists for fiction? (And then got shafted when a winner wasn’t declared?)
They all three said that the process itself was a wonderful experience and the three of them really bonded over it. They loved the discussions they had on all of the books, and only once in the entire year did they meet in person. With Susan Larson here in New Orleans, and Maureen Corrigan in DC, and Michael Cunningham all over the place, this makes sense. It was all via email and a few phone calls. (I wish I had access to those emails!)
I especially enjoyed their discussion about owning up to their own biases when it comes to how they each define “good writing.” Michael Cunningham said he’s a “sentence queen,” which I thought was about the best thing ever. He said he’s a sucker for beautiful writing, lovely sentences, interesting constructions. That’s his bias, whereas Maureen Corrigan said hers was demanding a plot. She said she wished they taught “plot” in current MFA programs, that there’s just not enough of it happening in books today. Susan Larson fell somewhere in between. (I confess to being something of a “sentence queen” myself. I love it when writers string together words in a way that stops me and makes me re-read the sentence, marveling at the beauty of what they’ve done.)
They also said, however, that this whole situation scarred them and that it’s something they’ll never get it over. If you’ve not read Maureen Corrigan’s Washington Post article I mentioned earlier, I highly recommend it. Her feelings on the matter are clear.
Someone in the crowd asked, during Q&A, “What was the problem? Why couldn’t you all just agree on a book? Wasn’t your task to choose one?” Which made the three of them have to explain, probably for the millionth time, that it wasn’t up to them. That they did their job. That they did what was asked of them (so don’t blame them!). Imagine having to go around and talk about something like that, correcting that misperception again and again. One of them said (I believe it was Michael Cunningham) that he wanted to get a tattoo on his arm that just said, “It wasn’t my fault.”
I’d bought a copy of Maureen Corrigan’s book, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, which is a memoir of sorts about the reading life (I just started it and already am sucked in). I took it up once the panel was over to ask her to sign it, which she graciously did, and also to ask her the question I couldn’t NOT ask — “If you had been able to pick a book, which book would you have chosen?” I mean come on, wouldn’t you ask that? It was my one shot.
She didn’t bite, though, and demurred with a quiet smile, saying, “Oh, I can’t answer that. I just can’t answer that.” Her young daughter, standing behind her at that point said to me, “She won’t even tell me! Trust me, I’ve tried.” Alas. It was worth a shot. I should have known better.
I see a Pulitzer for fiction was awarded this year — The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. It’s a book I’m not familiar with, but want to look into. However, one thing’s for certain — the members of the jury for this year must be breathing a big sigh of relief. And I suspect Maureen Corrigan, Michael Cunningham, and Susan Larson are doing their best to be happy for them.