November 12th, 2008 5:33 pm | by MATTHEW KORFHAGE News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

Wordstock Diary: Workshops, Willy Vlautin and Wolk


WW correspondent Matthew Korfhage was nice enough to send us his musings on last week's Wordstock Festival. And because we're awful people, we haven't gotten the post up until today. Don't worry, it was worth the wait:

The Oregon Convention Center, by dint of its sheer inhuman scale, can be a confusing place. It's never easy to find the right entrance, the right escalator. You end up at a Christmas fair when looking for the book fair, or sit down at the wrong council of educators (of which there were two, this last weekend). Still, luckily, this time around the Wordstock folks had taken charge of the event space snuggled right up on the main entryways at MLK. So I made it in record time, without any of that forlorn stranger-in-a-strange-land business I'm used to, those lonely treks down quarter-miles of empty carpet.

11:30 am - 12:30 pm
Steve Perry

Steve getting physical

The organizers of Wordstock settled on a red/black Darth Maul theme for this year, so it's fitting I should start with a Pacing in Genre Fiction seminar by writer Steve Perry, who among other things has contributed scads of books to the Star Wars universe. Perry is a ring-blinged man in blazer, T-shirt and jeans, with wiry gray-white hair. A self described "cracker from Louisiana", he speaks with a personable lisp and drawl.

He starts, encouragingly, by recommending Mark Twain's hilarious, devastating assessment of James Fenimore Cooper (that's the Last of the Mohicans fellow, for those of you at home), called Fenimore Cooper's Literary Excesses , and from there Perry launches engagingly into a parade of personal anecdotes, sayings, and stories of how people got their starts--running through elephants, Harlon Ellison, all-too-personal rejection letters, and tips from Heinlein--each with its own designed instructive punch. You get the feeling Perry is the sort of person who understands life almost entirely through stories: plot, if you must.

So we forgive him if his description of non-genre fiction (non-mystery, non-thriller, non-sci-fi) is "stories where the plot makes no difference, the setting makes no difference, and the characters are no one you want to root for," that allow you to "sit on the beach, drink tea, and be sensitive." He softens this description a bit, later, but here Perry is all about movement, short lines of dialogue and no unnecessary words (no shrugged his shoulders , no looked with his eyes , no kicked with his feet ), just plot and ascending problem until the writer, himself exhausted, brings his reader off late into the night and allows him, too, to sleep.

12:45 pm - 1:45 pm
Christina Katz


Christina Katz is best known for her book Writer Mama , though she's written nonfiction for a number of publications about a number of topics. Her books, accordingly, seem mostly to be about writing nonfiction for a number of publications about a number of topics. The basic gist in her seminar is that one should write about what one knows, perhaps by combining two of four different "life roles" into a novel combination that, suddenly, defines an audience. Like, for example, writer and mother.

So the crowd gamely combined adventure with mama, mama with friendship (as transition, with one's grown children), writer and hiker, gamer and athlete. My own four life roles--writer, instructor, editor, erstwhile Lothario--seemed not so fruitful. Katz's in-session tips are aimed mostly at the writer who wants to write for no reason, and who therefore needs personal introspection--the sort that makes me uncomfortable because dishonest and simplistic, an ugly exercise in self-labeling--to find topics within herself rather than in what's interesting and foreign and located somewhere out there in the world. Saves you the work and trouble of actually going out there and finding anything new when what you need is, of course, always already in you; the boundaries of the interesting are, comfortably--as we'd already suspected--one's own human skin.

2:25 pm - 3 pm
Main Bazaar

I love the main strolling area of Wordstock--the publishers' booths full of books, the MFA program reps, the readers at myriad stages, the heart-stoppingly lovely McSweeney's interns--in part because it brings people together who are decidedly unpublic. Bookreaders, bloggers, mystery writers: these are not always people who are comfortable in the narrow lens of the public eye. Or, in some cases, they're a little too comfortable at its fringe: charmingly, I overheard the corseted ladies of Kensington Press explaining to a four-year-old boy that Mistress of Pleasure was "erotic literature." I'm not sure what the kid made of it, but he nodded knowingly in a way that implied that he, too, was of the demimonde .

One of the many games to play is, of course, to decide which type of book reader a passerby may be. There are crocheted caps over frizzy hair, scarves that could carry the load for any possible personality, blazers pinned with queen-sized lapels, all matter of schlubbiness, some guy in a fuzzy suit handing out zines. So: is the Puck-chinned guy in the trenchcoat and fedora a reader of detective novels, or just a sci-fi aficionado who's way into Philip K. Dick and Blade Runner ? The girl with the messy hair and boxy shoes in garish two-toned brown? A poetess, one presumes. Black shirt, black purse, black bob, blue jeans? French lit. The one with the big floppy purple hat and wine-colored sweater-dress over frayed, bunched white kneesocks and shiny black fetish heels? We don't even have a clue. But still, as people-watching goes it's much more interesting--and the affectations on display perhaps much more honest--than amid marketing reps strolling down the Pearl.

3 pm - 4 pm
Willy Vlautin


Richmond Fontaine singer Willy Vlautin was introduced by WW's own Casey Jarman, who was also obliged to inform us that the giant cow sculpture in the hall was not just some metaphor or mascot, but rather a rarefied acronym for Community Of Writers. Go figure.

Vlautin himself hunched heavily over the podium, folksily cocksure, smiled crookedly and sheepishly like a guy who's shy around women but is nonetheless trying to flirt. His accent was countrified lilt, his fiction desert blue-collar. And while Vlautin is certainly accustomed to being front and center of a band, he seemed almost embarrassed to be reading his writing material in front of so large a group, in this case sharing a piece about death and abandonment because "that's how I was feeling today," before moving on to a much more comical story about abuse.

Vlautin closed with a question-and-answer session, during which he confessed to being flat busted broke, and only half-jokingly petitioned the reading audience for housepainting jobs. He also offered up--free of charge, apparently--a new EP patterned after old-time radio, in which a washed-up, alcoholic jockey returns home for Christmas. As it goes, the WW offices have been listening to it nonstop for the past week already.

4 pm-4:30 pm
John Hodgman


John Hodgman, as you can see by the picture heading up this article, which show the massive crowd of at least 700 onlookers who'd assembled to watch him, was the big name at the conference. He's likely better known as the PC guy in the Mac ads, as the resident expert on The Daily Show , or for his stints on This American Life , than for his music writing or comedic books, but so be it. This is a bookfest, and we're all about pretending that this massive crowd is a sudden manifestation of literacy in resurgence, the mighty Word's revenge on the Convention Center carpet.

Hodgman manned the stage with song-blogger Jonathan Coulton, who acted as toss-off theme-song backdrop to Hodgman's dry monologuing about how to cook owls and about how to become a famous minor television personality (of which the first step is to get on television). He promises that in his book he will teach you various hangover remedies that include gin. He taught us that what makes a tux a tux is piping and a lack of a belt, and explained that like most celebrities he could breathe underwater. And it was funny. I laughed. Often.

But nonetheless, people we know from television do surprise us, maybe even frighten us, when their in-person and onscreen mannerisms coincide, when the image becomes flesh so convincingly that we find ourselves convinced that the image preceded the flesh. Whenever Hodgman tilted his head in characteristic deadpan, in a manner familiar from countless 2-D viewings, it was humorous but also every bit as creepy as the stilted near-verisimilitude of inhuman Disney animatronics. So while I knew that he was not technically an impersonator of the guy on television, that the Hodgman invented onscreen was also the Hodgman I saw in front of me, the lines of precedence had become a little blurred. Disoriented, I beat a hasty retreat in order to confab with Douglas Wolk.

4:30 pm - close
Douglas Wolk


Douglas Wolk is the author of Reading Comics , and a critic for various places including Rolling Stone and The New York Times , those holy grails of finally getting both a) read and b) paid, and he wanted to talk about what makes criticism work and what makes it relevant. Except, in a change of pace from other seminars--because pretty much everybody in attendance there was actually a working critic in some form or another, whether in Web or print--Wolk actually wanted to talk about the subject, to bring our different viewpoints into congress and let them co-mingle.

Wolk outlined three possible functions for criticism, or three possible things it does. It can be 1) a form of advocacy for the form or its practitioners, 2) a consumer guide (should you buy or no?), or 3) a guide to the experience of art itself. Wolk seemed to reject roundly the idea of the critic as cultural cheerleader and view himself instead as a servant to the reader, who is ill-served when you hold back the 50-mm cannons because you know the band's drummer, or because the singer just had a baby and you're sure they'll need the money from T-shirt sales.

So basically, just know this: next time we at WW eviscerate some well-meaning painter or writer or musician, splay their guts and blood across our pages: we're doing it for you , our dear readers. And you're the ones to blame.
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