If the memorial tribute to William Gaddis held at the American Academy of Arts and Letters on May 6 was going to be anything like the writer’s books, it would have been long and somewhat daunting. Things didn’t turn out that way. The formal part of the service stretched but an hour and a quarter, and the speakers-unlike people in Mr. Gaddis’ novels-were clearly identifiable.
On a vast stage, writers Louis Auchincloss, William Gass and Joy Williams, painter Julian Schnabel and documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker rose in turn from their beetle-black chairs to reminisce about the man who once wrote “‘Merry Christmas,’ he threatened.” Mr. Gaddis died last December at age 75.
Down in the red velvet chairs sat a mostly over-40 crowd of friends, publishing industry types and authors. There was reclusive author Don DeLillo; Rust Hills, the former fiction editor of Esquire (and Ms. Williams’ husband) who had tried to publish excerpts of Mr. Gaddis’ work (Mr. Gaddis was opposed to excerpts). As Mr. Gaddis’ work is very popular in Germany, where his books appeared for the first time 10 years ago, there was a German contingent in attendance: Nikolaus Hansen, publisher of the German house Rowohlt, and two reporters from the establishment German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine . Biographer Frederick Karl (Franz Kafka, George Eliot), author’s photographer Marion Ettlinger and writers Robert Stone, Harry Mathews ( Cigarettes ), Joseph McElroy ( Women and Men ), Ann Beattie and Rick Moody were also among the connoisseurs of experimental fiction who traveled to West 156th Street for the event.
Mr. Auchincloss, who had met Mr. Gaddis at a conference in the former Soviet Union in 1995, recalled talking to the author about Danielle Steel’s best-seller status. “He said that if Danielle Steel sold millions and he had to make do with thousands, it was because she wrote books and he wrote literature.”
Mr. Gass talked a bit about how The New York Times managed to repeatedly misidentify Mr. Gass as the author of The Recognitions and JR , two of Mr. Gaddis’ four novels. “They only mistook Gass for Gaddis, not Gaddis for Gass,” said Mr. Gass. He also recalled, “On the back of [Mr. Gaddis'] New York Times obituary, there was a list of mutual funds and their performance,” and then he quoted the first line of JR : “Money …? in a voice that rustled./ -Paper, yes.”
Ms. Williams read a funny passage-easily comprehensible-from A Frolic of His Own , and reminded everyone of Mr. Gaddis’ laugh: “Heh heh heh.”
Mr. Pennebaker said that after graduating from college, he moved into an apartment on Horatio Street, in Greenwich Village, where Mr. Gaddis had been a former tenant. “Everywhere there was evidence of him,” he said. “He left in a blaze of manic idealism.” He then told how Mr. Gaddis had gone off with a friend’s father’s custom Cord automobile, heading for Mexico, stopping at sheep ranches on the way. “By the time they got to Mexico City, the car was worth nothing.”
Mr. Gaddis’ work is represented by two literary agencies, Donadio & Olson and the Wylie Agency. Donadio & Olson (formerly Donadio & Ashworth) signed Mr. Gaddis’ four novels, The Recognitions , JR , Carpenter’s Gothic and A Frolic of His Own . Andrew Wylie, the Gaddis estate’s current agent, signed the author with Henry Holt in December 1996 for Agape Agape , a novella about a player piano. Mr. Gaddis’ son, Matthew, said his father raced to finish the novella, which is quite different from the writer’s previous works. “It will be quite obvious that it’s identified with his last days. With this, the experiment has less to do with speakers as discrete beings than speakers as they exist within an individual.”
Donadio & Olson’s representative, Ira Silverberg, arrived early while Mr. Wylie and colleagues Sarah Chalfant and Jin Auh arrived after the service had begun. Afterward, as people wound up to the balconies to sip wine beneath crystal chandeliers, Mr. Wylie darted into the spring evening with a Federal Express box under his arm containing the finished manuscript of Agape Agape .
A funny thing happened to the Association of American Publishers on the way to Get Caught Reading Month, as the A.A.P. has designated May. It got caught by Barnes & Noble.
After settling on the slogan “What Are You Reading?” in late summer 1998, the A.A.P., the industry’s main trade association, learned that Barnes & Noble Inc. had filed a trademark application for the phrase back in February 1996. (The registration went through in December 1997.) Was that a surprise?
“Yeah! ‘Cause it seemed so damn generic,” said A.A.P. communications director Judy Platt.
Barnes & Noble was amenable to lending the slogan. “They were very, very generous,” said Pat Schroeder, the former U.S. Representative who is now the association’s president and chief executive. But the A.A.P. wanted an unfettered tag line. “We did have a discussion about whether we wanted to use it and not own it. We decided we didn’t want to use a slogan owned by Barnes & Noble. We thought we’d have great trouble. It might look like we were in collusion. I always learned in politics, if you can’t explain it, you don’t do it.”
What are Barnes & Noble’s plans for the slogan?
“We’re using it in conjunction with Get Caught Reading Month,” said spokesman Deborah Williams.
“It might have been grandiose if it had been my idea,” said 36-year-old Livingston, Mont.-based writer and New York magazine book reviewer Walter Kirn, “but it was theirs.”
Mr. Kirn was referring to the fact that in September he will be reviewing his forthcoming novel, Thumbsucker , for the new literary quarterly Tin House . The novel is about a teenager who sucks his thumb. In the press materials, Doubleday’s Anchor Books calls the book “a breakthrough novel for the newest youth demographic: the Ritalin Generation.” Read that characterization over the phone, Mr. Kirn was silent at first, then said, “I think it’s an apt description. There’s a lot of things that could be said. That’s one of them.”
Tin House is hoping for an edgy postmodern literary event. “A guy who has a reputation for his harsh reviews is going to turn on his own book,” said editor Rob Spillman. Mr. Kirn, Mr. Spillman claimed, is “the only public person with the guts to write nasty reviews.”
Mr. Kirn said as much. “I’ll probably slam it,” he said. “I guess I don’t have any choice when I think about all the options. There’s one side of me which might want to use this review as an opportunity to anticipate every horrible line about it that I can generate in my worst nightmare.”
But he will go a little deeper. “There’s a few ways I could go about this. One of them is to create a thought experiment in which I divide myself into two psyches and come on my book as if it had arrived Fed Ex that morning. The other way is to try to say something about the inner critic that writers have and be somewhat honest about the voices that accompany you as you create something. Any writer who’s at all self-critical is prey to late-night thoughts about their work that’s far more damning than anything they will see in a newspaper. And I guess there’s option three, which is to be extremely sincere and probably sickeningly earnest about my hopes and dreams for the thing.
“More than anything, it’s a humor piece,” said Mr. Kirn. “I haven’t started. Maybe when I get down to it, it will be impossible in some way I can’t foresee.”
Gerald Howard, Mr. Kirn’s editor at Anchor, called to stress that his writer was doing the review as “a joke.”
“The precedent,” said Mr. Howard, “was two or three months ago, when John Updike wrote as Henry Bech in The New York Times , commenting on Updike’s portrayal of Henry Bech.” (Actually, there was an even earlier precedent, also in The Times , when Henry Bech reviewed Mr. Updike’s Rabbit Redux in 1971.) “Walter’s is in a similar spirit. It’s a joke .”