Behold the power of words
Fans filed into formidable lines that wrapped around Shemanski Park outside the Arlene Schitzer Concert Hall on Saturday, hours before author Ta-Nehisi Coates was scheduled to take the stage at the annual Wordstock literary festival.
The attendees hoped to reserve seats to hear the nonfiction writer discuss his new book and talk about race and existential issues with New York Times journalist Jenna Wortham. The line was so daunting, though, that some book lovers abandoned the pursuit and headed off in search of other readings and panels.
"We walked toward the line and it became clear that people had earned it more than us," said attendee Seth Freedland, who did not hang around to see Coates — one of more than 100 authors who captivated audiences and honored the written word in downtown Portland during the one-day event hosted by Literary Arts.
But those who waited were treated to an hour-long conversation that earned the 2015 National Book Award winner a standing ovation.
Coates and Wortham discussed Coates' rapid ascent from struggling journalist to lauded author and revered intellectual, the Harvey Weinstein scandal and a comparison between white guilt and male guilt. Coates also criticized the cult of smartness often surrounding public intellectuals, his lack of optimism that America's race issues will be resolved in the near future and the antecedents of Donald Trump's rise to the oval office.
In his new book "We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy," Coates pieces together the articles he wrote for The Atlantic during Barack Obama's presidency and additional essays. He draws parallels between black South Carolina Congressman Thomas Miller's befuddlement that white South Carolinians would disenfranchise blacks after blacks were "eight years in power" to the jump from the first black president to Trump.
In both cases, he says, because blacks conducted themselves aptly in office, they were met with resentment.
"Had these folks verified all of the stereotypes that make white supremacy work, that would have been fine. That would have proved the point. The threat was that they did not prove the point," Coates said.
Of Obama, he said, "He tries to represent himself well and they hate him for it. They hate that he's a walking embodiment of everything that they say black people aren't."
A series of fortunate events
Earlier in the day, Daniel Handler — whose pen name is Lemony Snicket — compared the strangeness of old literature such as "Beowolf" to contemporary children's literature like his "Series of Unfortunate Events." His own onerous process involves handwritten writing, typing and extensive sticky notes, he said, and a rejection of the idea that writing is hard or risky.
Through his recent novel "All The Dirty Parts," he said he hopes to engage teenage boys who are often forbidden from reading books that involve sex.
"There's a gender gap in reading among young people. More girls read than boys, and they are reading at a rate that some educators find more pleasing," Handler said. "I re-read some of my favorite novels from when I was an adolescent. The books had a lot of sex in them."
In one of Oregon Public Broadcasting's The State of Wonder panels on Saturday, essayist and journalist Chuck Klosterman and fiction writers Katie Kitamura and Hannah Tinti gathered at the Whitsell Auditorium to discuss their recently published work.
Kitamura's novel, "A Separation," delves into grief and the psychological violence of withholding information while inverting the trope of a dead or absent female framing the inner journey of a male protagonist. She wrote the novel while coping with her father's depleting health.
"When I think about the stages of grief, we think it follows this very neat trajectory. And in my experience it is completely not like that. It's very messy. It's very personal. It's very unresolved," she said. "I was interested in how a character grieves when their world is not clear to them."
Klosterman talked about the absurdity of magazine journalism, Taylor Swift's well-calculated career and seemingly inauthentic attempts to seem genuine during an interview, and his examination of the purpose of sports framed through the lens of the San Antonio Spurs' decision to rest players during some high-profile NBA games.
In his new new book "Chuck Klosterman X: A Highly Specific, Defiantly Incomplete History of the Early 21st Century," Klosterman pulls together some of his most notable articles from the century thus far.
"I just write about what I find to be interesting. Any time you try to anticipate what people want and give that to them, it never works because people can sense that. They can sense the calculation and reasoning behind writing something," Klosterman said.
In her novel "The 12 Lives of Samuel Hawley," Tinti tells a man's life story through the events that led to his 12 bullet wounds while exploring the evolution of a father and daughter's relationship in a two-pronged coming-of-age tale.
"We all carry physical scars or sometimes mental scars with us from our past into our present, and scars have stories. And they're stories we usually only share with the people we're the most intimate with," Tinti said. "I thought, 'What if I try to tell a man's entire life story and only tell those stories.' That's where this book began."
During a panel called "Disruption: Feminist Digital Culture," authors Doree Shafir and Ellen Ullman talked about misogyny in the tech world. Ullman, who recently published "Life in Code: A personal history of Technology," shared a story about a male colleague who touched her inappropriately. She wonders whether she should have sought revenge or told anyone about her experience.
"'I'm going to do my job and let him know he can't get me,'" she thought at the time. "As I look back on it, maybe I made a mistake."
Doree Shafir's nonfiction book "Startup" is about a young women's travails navigating a male-dominated tech company. She says equality of power will lead to equality of treatment.
"The best way to combat this is structural change. More women need to be promoted. More women need to be making the rules," she said.