You're so nauseously nice: Getting Insulted by Authors
Somewhere in New York this week, Bill Ryan might be found standing in line after an author's reading, waiting his turn for a few words and a signature. While some people get nervous waiting to speak to an author, Ryan is often more nervous than most. That's because he's not just hoping for an autograph -- he's hoping for an insult.
It started six or so years ago. Ryan was at a reading at BookCourt in New York; author Maggie Pouncey signed books and then -- there was a lull. This is how Ryan tells it:
I'm not sure why I asked her for an insult. It sorta popped into my head. Her face morphed from "practiced pleasant face" to "incredulous and slightly alarmed, but ready for the punchline," almost like I'd asked her to sign my book using her newborn's blood. I had to embellish. I made up more backstory --
This is the backstory: He'd gone to a reading about four years before by prizewinning short story writer Charles D'Ambrosio at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. After the small crowd dispersed, he told D'Ambrosio he was a struggling writer. "He drank some coffee with me, told a couple stories about starting out," Ryan says, then inscribed his book with a profane yet cheerful exhortation to get writing.
-- [and] claimed I'd been collecting insults since that day with D'Ambrosio. Really! It's not weird at all, asking for insults! You're in good company!
So she was my first.
Ryan is tracking them all on his excellent blog, Insulted by Authors. He also writes about the readings he attends, even if the authors fail to insult him. "It's difficult to imagine an author I'd prefer sit across from during a long train ride through some stimulating European landscape," he writes of Salman Rushdie's reading. "His warm-up talk was filled with anecdotes about fellow authors and intellectuals, stories whose heroes weren't inevitably Rushdie himself."
A lot of times, the signatures and Ryan's commentary about them can be profane. I wish I could share Amy Sedaris' insult with you -- but it's far too filthy.
Part of the fun is seeing how the authors react. It's not fair to spring it on them, but there it is. It is fun. It's like sneaking my way into a Presidential press conference and tossing a curveball in with all those softballs the reporters throw; or, maybe more like tossing a water balloon alongside the softballs. Not sure. I get the same smug or horrified looks from the people behind me in line as I'd likely get from the press pool for asking President Obama what his favorite ice cream is. People love looking down on effort and sincerity.
Some authors take it in stride, some love the idea, some hate it but grit their teeth, some roll their eyes, some love showing me how stupid the idea is (and by proxy, how stupid I am), some can’t deal with it and flat-out reject. It's the last group who I can't understand. I mean, it’s their prerogative; no one owes me a damn thing. But -– really? You can't play along?
Who has played along: Sedaris; Jonathan Safran Foer; Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Harding; Jennifer Egan, who just won the National Book Critics Circle Award; Joshua Ferris ("The Unnamed"); Rick Moody ("The Four Fingers of Death"); Adam Ross ("Mr. Peanut"); David Means ("The Spot"); and Rosecrans Baldwin ("You Lost Me There"). He believes that A.L. Kennedy ("Original Bliss") tied for best burn with novelist David Mitchell, whose illustrated insult on the title page of "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" appears above (with its dirty word redacted).
When someone doesn't play along, Ryan's dander gets up. He explains on his blog:
As a self-effacing, wanna-be writer whose rapidly diminishing chances of ever becoming even a second-rate publishing author is paced only by his readiness to disarm his detractors by throwing his ego under the bus — to laugh at himself, his missed chances and self-inflicted miseries — I don’t particularly like people who take themselves too seriously.
That was the opening to his post about one writer who did take herself too seriously, or at least didn't see the humor in what Ryan was doing: Nicole Krauss, reading at the Brooklyn Public Library in October 2010.
The thing is, Bill Ryan -- who has a day job, which Glenn Kurtz ("Practicing: A Musician's Return to Music") wrote he should keep -- loves books and reading. He has hundreds of first-edition books in his apartment. "I'll never sell my books because I love them too much, especially after I've been insulted. Yet I refuse to read them because it'll lower their value. Why do I care about their value if I'm never going to sell? I don't know."
Indeed, Ryan is a man who can contain contradictions. Who can raise the value of books he won't sell, who can prize an interaction that ends up insulting him (good naturedly!) because it raises the level of interaction to something more than simple routine.
Someday, he might be insulted by the authors on his wish list: George Saunders, David Sedaris, Sam Lipsyte, Junot Díaz, Stephen Hawking, Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, Charles Bock, Jeffrey Eugenides and Nicola Barker. He knows a few -- Joan Didion, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth -- are long shots. (He thinks Joyce Carol Oates is a long shot, but I think she'd probably do it, if not with her most recent book). Who'd he miss? Breece D’J Pancake, Donald Barthelme, David Foster Wallace, Truman Capote, William Wharton and Edward Said.
Contemporary authors, be prepared -- he might be coming for you. Well, not too prepared.
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photos: left, David Mitchell's redacted insulting autograph. Right, Bill Ryan. Credit: Bill Ryan