Archive for the 'Literary Salons' Category


the unreliable narrator

Here is a guest entry by Diana Spechler, author of the new novel, WHO BY FIRE.  I asked her to talk about the subject of her literary salon, which we called Write or Wrong:  The Unreliable Narrator Defines Virtue.  A short description of the salon was this:  One person’s morality is another person’s evil.  How do we know our principles are virtuous?  And how can we be so sure that people who seem evil are that different from us?


At Book Group Expo a couple of weekends ago, Susanne Pari moderated a panel (comprised of Andre Dubus III and me) about the unreliable narrator.  Before I was asked to be on the panel, I hadn’t really thought much about the word “unreliable” in connection with the three narrators in my novel.  I panicked a little.  I couldn’t believe I was being relied on to reliably present my narrators as unreliable.  What if I couldn’t deliver?  Fellow authors and readers would forever consider me unreliable.

I employed the sometimes-reliable Wikipedia.

An unreliable narrator, I read, “is a narrator whose credibility is seriously compromised…due to psychological instability, a powerful bias, a lack of knowledge, or even a deliberate attempt to deceive the reader or audience.”

Okay.  But doesn’t that describe, like, I don’t know, every person in the entire universe?

Perhaps not everyone suffers from psychological instability, but who doesn’t have biases?  Who doesn’t lack knowledge?  Who never deliberately attempts to deceive his audience?

Take me, for example.  While I was writing my novel, I suffered many episodes of psychological instability, like the time my computer crashed and I lost three days’ work, and I stood in my apartment in my bathrobe, my head thrown back, screaming and trying to yank my hair out of my scalp.

And bias?  Yeah, try telling me my nieces aren’t flawless.

Lack of knowledge?  Okay, I lack a little knowledge now and then.

And do I attempt to deceive my audience?  Yup.  At Applebee’s, where I was once a waitress, I was trained to “up-sell” by using “sizzle” words (i.e. “How about a nice, refreshing, frosty iced tea?” or “Wouldn’t you like a juicy, delicious glistening steak?”)  Look.  You can take the girl out of Applebee’s, but you can’t take Applebee’s out of the girl:  I am to this day a frequent user of sizzle words.

So.  Of course my narrators are unreliable.  How could I, the most unreliable of narrators, create reliable narrators?  By the same token, how could my mother, who often blurts in fits of emotion, “Diana,  you’re perfect!” and who has told me all my life that anyone who doesn’t like me is “just jealous,” have created a reliable daughter?

Unreliable begets unreliable.  We are a culture, a planet, a galaxy of unreliable narrators.  We push our agendas.  We avoid eye contact.  We screen our phone calls, dye our hair, guard our passwords, and wear slimming colors.  We say things like, “You’ve never looked better,” “I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love you,” and “I’ll call you right back.”

But I digress.

My point is that the Unreliable Narrator panel wasn’t scary at all.  It was awesome (I know: “awesome” is a sizzle word).  I loved every second of it.  But by now you don’t trust me, so I really shouldn’t bother to tell you what I think.


What is the bge literary salon?

The Literary Salon concept appeared first in 15th century Venice when an elite group of women began gathering informally to talk about literature, politics, science, and art.  The French picked it up about a century later and, as the French do so well, made it extremely fashionable.  These gatherings were so informal that they were frequently held in the bedroom, where the hostess would lead the discussion — once her friends clustered around on chairs and stools — from a reclining position in her bed.  I am passionately devoted to reviving this custom, and I await the day when Ann Kent, book group expo’s founder, gives us the go-ahead.

Until then, we’re committed to creating an ambience of intimacy in bge’s literary salons.  Each one — this year there are 20 — is meant to reflect the more relaxed book group experience, where conversation is predominant.  Book group readers love to talk as well as they love to listen.  To that end, our moderators open up to questions and comments from the audience only about fifteen minutes into the hour-long salon rather than follow the common “lecture” or “interview” format where the audience is given a rushed few minutes at the end.  This precipitates a discussion or “group conversation” that reflects a particular audience’s interests and it helps the authors feel less like they are performing.

In this photo from last year, authors Elizabeth Gilbert, Po Bronson, and Sara Davidson are probably being amused by one of moderator Sam Barry’s bon mots, which is to say that he’s doing what he does best:  cracking them up.  All three of these authors had written books involving inspirational journeys.  Kathi Goldmark, our Author Liaison and Maven of Clever Salon Titles, called this one “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been”.

All of our salons are topic-centered, so the conversation is not only about the books of each author, but about a topic that each of their books addresses in some way.  Some of this years’ topics are marriage, grief, strong women, and the definition of virtue.  The Expo is a two-day event with an opening salon each day at 10:00 am (doors open at 9:00 am) and 9 more salons running until 4:00 pm (doors close at 5:30).  There are three salon locations, which means that 3 salons occur at the same time for the rest of each day.  Click here to see the full schedule so you can get a head start on choosing which ones you’d like to attend.

In this photo from last year, Khaled Hosseini and I are smiling at an amusing comment from the audience.  Don’t ask me to remember exactly what.  As usual, I’m hiding my toothy smile.  No, Khaled and I did not coordinate colors before this Friday evening salon, but we each noticed that our blues matched perfectly.  Naturally, we complimented one another on our fashion taste.  I’m just glad y’all can see his face; he has a simpatico face.  Not like many doctors I’ve known.  Must be the storyteller in him.