Mortification: Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame , edited by Robin Robertson. Fourth Estate, 266 pages, $17.95.
Until I read Mortification: Writers’ Stories of Their Public Shame , I thought that my lowest moment as an author qualified me for some sympathy. After all, I spent two excruciating hours at a Barnes & Noble in Charleston, S.C., as hordes of customers ignored a table neatly stacked with copies of my just-published work on an infamous, anti-Semitic lynching in Georgia. The eventual appearance of a professor of Jewish studies from a local college saved me-he bought a book. Still, that godsend couldn’t dispel the shame, which followed me out into the parking lot and down the highway to my next gig.
This experience notwithstanding, I now understand that my brush with literary abasement was mild. No one mooned me, as someone once did Robin Robertson, the editor of Mortification , as he was giving a reading. Nor did I soil myself, as the poet Paul Farley once did. Unlike the novelist Darryl Pinckney, I was not accused by a bookstore clerk of shoplifting my own book just before an event. Nor did I undergo the near-death experience suffered by the novelist Carl Hiaasen, who arrived at a shop in Little Rock for an appearance only to find that it coincided with a University of Arkansas football game. “Nobody ever showed to hear me read,” Mr. Hiaasen relates. “So I didn’t.”
It’s grimmer out there than I’d realized. And big-name writers aren’t immune. Of the 70 horror stories Mr. Robertson presents in Mortification , many come from luminaries, among them Margaret Atwood, Rick Moody and Billy Collins. Ms. Atwood and Mr. Moody tell of incidents that occurred early in their careers. Still, neither success nor maturity insulates writers from pride-puncturing mishaps. Mr. Robertson believes he understands why: “The world of letters” seems “to offer a near perfect microclimate for embarrassment and shame …. Something about the presentation of deeply private thoughts-carefully worked and honed into art over the years-to a public audience of strangers … strays perilously close to tragedy.”
Predictably, a river of alcohol runs through Mortification . But drink is merely a force multiplier in situations that are daunting even to the sober. Though a writer can get his comeuppance almost anywhere (the novelist Alan Warner was laid low in his own home by a well-meaning but poorly informed neighbor who knocked on his door and asked him to inscribe a book by the other Alan Warner-the guitar player), three settings provide optimal opportunity for humiliation.
The most obvious danger zone is the book tour-where, in the words of the novelist Deborah Moggach, “the gulf between promise and reality” is “never wider.” She should know. At an appearance in northern England, she failed to sell a single copy of a new book, despite the fact that the shop that had invited her offered a free glass of wine and a bar of Crabtree and Evelyn soap with every purchase. As bad as that sounds, Andrew O’Hagan can top it. On tour for The Missing , a nonfiction meditation on missing persons, he had the misfortune to appear on Good Morning Chicago . During the interview, “the cables on the floor raised up like snakes” as the photogenic but dim host continually referred to Mr. O’Hagan as the author of a book on grandparents.
Peril also lurks at lectures and readings. The novelist Michael Ondaatje tells the story of an unnamed writer (in this book, such discretion feels unduly prim) who in the midst of a talk sensed she was about to vomit. Hoping to maintain her dignity, she excused herself on the pretext of retrieving some notes from backstage, then rushed to the ladies’ room, where she wretched violently. She was still hugging the porcelain when her host knocked on the door to inform her that she’d failed to detach her microphone-the audience had heard it all. Once more, however, another author takes the prize. A couple of lines into a reading, the poet Matthew Sweeney “felt the horrible sensation of my tooth loosening in my mouth.” With artful “flicks of the tongue,” he held the molar in place, although the effort caused him to lisp, which brought unintended laughter from the crowd. Still, Mr. Sweeney pressed on until, halfway through a poem rife with sibilance, he accidentally spit his tooth into the front row. The gig ended with a remark that belongs in the lost-dignity hall of fame: “Give me my tooth back.”
The awards ceremony stands out as the occasion when authors risk the worst abasement. Here, embarrassment can give way to its nastier cousin-ego damage. Every writer has to believe that he’s brilliant; otherwise, he can’t face the empty page. Thus, to sit in a packed hall while others walk away with the ribbons is to experience a kind of torture. Little wonder that some of the most painful segments of Mortification involve prizes-or the lack thereof. In a beautifully written set piece, the novelist Anne Enright describes making a long drive from Dublin to a town in County Kerry, all the while rehearsing her acceptance speech for the Kerry Ingredients Listowel Writers’ Week Prize for Irish Fiction. Such earnest preparation can only be rewarded with one outcome-failure. Ms. Enright’s unflinching account of the devastation she felt upon not hearing her name called is a small gem.
The effect of reading threescore and 10 such stories is, in the end, a bit numbing. I imagine that’s why Robin Robertson included a skeptical rumination from the novelist Duncan McLean: “The true mortification of being a writer is having to meet other writers from time to time and listen to their mundane egotistical rantings.”
The many disasters in Mortification also raise a question: Isn’t there a better way for authors to reach an audience? The last word on this point should go to the novelist John Lanchester. “The truth is that the whole contemporary edifice of readings and tours and interviews and festivals is based on a mistake,” he argues. “The mistake is that we should want to meet the writers that we admire, because there is something more to them in person than there is on the page …. The idea is that the person is the real thing, whereas the writing is somehow an excrescence or epiphenomenon. But that’s not true …. The failure to see this reality is the reason why book events are so prone to go wrong.”
That said, Mr. Lanchester adds: “I feel strongly on the point-just not strongly enough to put the belief into practice. Everyone else does it …. What’s the worst that can happen?”
Plenty! And the yarn Mr. Lanchester proceeds to tell about what happened to him one night at a publishing event in London proves it.
Steve Oney is the author of And the Dead Shall Rise: The Murder of Mary Phagan and the Lynching of Leo Frank (Pantheon).