For book lovers, the closest thing to reality TV is a public edit, in which an author critiques student essays in front of an audience. I attended my first one last Friday night, in the wood-paneled library of Pembroke College. The audience sat in a semicircle, facing a coiffed man in a three-piece suit who had prepared comments on pieces of fiction by two Cambridge students, both of whom were in the room. Like tourists on the savannah, we watched as the hyena, standing now, eviscerated his prey. When he finished, he waited for an authorial response but was met only with meek mumbles. He sat down to robust applause.
During intermission, I walked to the college chapel and lingered in the entrance, which was strewn with bags and coats. Listening to the evensong practice, I reflected on what I had learned: 1) thank god my piece hadn’t been chosen, and 2) never introduce a hand bandage at the end of a story—it’s always the first thing you notice about a person.
In the second act, writer and critic Adam Mars-Jones, spoke buoyantly and self-deprecatingly about things literary. I’m sure that the two victims from earlier in the evening appreciated his advice that you can be productive without being confident. But somehow, we ended up on the same theme: the reader has the only power—to surrender, either to the world of the story or, more likely, to throw the book down the trash chute (which, incidentally, is where I once found a worn copy of Infinite Jest). Of course, as soon as I got home, I was unable to resist adding Mars-Jones’s Pilcrow to my Amazon cart.
Reader’s Note: Every day for the next couple of weeks, we’ll be presenting new entries from “Along the River Cam.” Check here for the latest post.
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