I don’t usually like going to public appearances by artists. I don’t normally like readings; I don’t normally like director screenings; and I don’t normally like writer Q&As. You’d think that I would; I used to be in the celebrity interview game, after all, and there’s nothing like talking directly to a creator to gain insight into a work of art. (Unless, of course, you are an adherent of reader response theory, or, in other words, a communist.) But here’s what invariably happens when you go to any public appearance by an artist in which there is any interaction with the audience:
The biggest blowhard or the most damaged person in the room dominates the Q&A.
If I have seen it once, I have seen it a million times, and believe me, I have seen it a lot more than once. The people who tend to take up the most time at such public appearances fall into one of two categories: the Windbag or the Shattered.
The Windbag is by far the most commonly encountered of the two. He — and the Windbag is not always a man, but is a man frequently enough to make betting a fool’s endeavor — has read the same book or seen the same movie as everyone else in the room has, or else why would he be here? But he wants you, and not just you but everyone up to and including the author of the work in question, to know that he has understood it in a way far more meaningful and profound than anyone else. His appreciation for the art under consideration is so deep and significant that it must be made clear to anyone within hearing range of his smug and slightly too loud voice. It goes without saying that the Windbag understands the work more than you do; it is possible (and, from the Windbag’s perspective, desirable) that the Windbag understands the work more than the person who created it. The curious thing is, though, that given the opportunity to expound at length, which opportunity he pursues the way a drowning man seeks out the air, none of his observations will seem at all interesting.
Either he will make some completely banal and obvious comment making it clear that he has mistaken text for subtext, or he will make a connection to another work so obscure — and this is a real jackpot for this species of bore, one-upping the author by playing connect-the-dots to some barely-known and barely related cultural object — that it provides no insight or enhancement, but only goes to prove that the Windbag has read or seen or heard something you haven’t. That, of course, is the kick for the Windbag. He is engaging in a variety of mansplaining, to be sure, but the goal here isn’t necessarily sexism, and the Windbag can sometimes be a woman. The goal is just to establish the Windbag’s specialness, to prove that he knows something you don’t, that his life has been a rainbow of cultural opportunities the navigation of which has left him and him alone properly equipped to truly appreciate the nuances of the subject at hand, even if he doesn’t actually seem all that interested in it or engaged with it. The point is not to provide a new perspective on the work, but to stand in front of a crowd and say “look at me” as if you have accomplished something — indeed, something more than the idiot all the other chumps came here to see. It’s the intellectual version of hecklers or drunk guys aggressively dancing at the edge of the stage.
The Shattered is sort of a dark mirror of the Windbag: he or she, and here we encounter something more like equality, is just someone who is broken by life, either physically or mentally or, in many cases, both, and wants someone to pay attention to them. The Windbag has at least read or seen the artwork under discussion, even if he only wants to use it as a springboard for talking about himself; the Shattered often has no idea what book, movie, or play is being talked about, and doesn’t care in the least. All he sees is a bunch of people and a microphone that anyone is allowed to step in front of and talk, and that’s all he needs. The Windbag isn’t especially creative, and part of the reason for his attempts to prove that he’s smarter than anyone else in the room is because he feels slightly guilty about not having created anything worthwhile himself (although this, if you were to ask him, is the fault of the conspiracy of mediocrities that surround him). The Shattered, on the other hand, has no problem in that regard; he’s probably walking around with dozens of notebooks filled with his elaborate manifestoes, masterpieces, and/or catalogues of oppression.
The Windbag at least nominally has a question about the art that he uses as a springboard to illustrate how smart he is. The Shattered, conversely, just starts talking as soon as he steps up to the mic (and while it’s easy to write the Shattered off as too damaged to be responsible for his actions, he’s always got the knowledge to know when these events are happening, the money to go to them, and the wherewithal to get there in plenty of time to sit right next to the microphone), telling whatever tale of woe has been circulating constantly in his head since the last time he ruined everybody’s meeting. What’s interesting about these people, insofar as anything is interesting about them, is that they are perfect antidotes to the idea that we must always give voice to the voiceless. Certainly our society, as any other, engages in a program of deliberately or inadvertently silencing the speech of certain groups of people it deems undesirable; but these two, rugged individualists both, prove that just because we are in the habit of not listening to certain people doesn’t mean they have anything to say.
I was lucky enough to run into both of these people in succession at the recent Printer’s Row Litfest; the first, a Shattered man who hung around every reading rambling from a battered pad of paper about various lunatic conspiracies by psychiatrists to frame him as unstable and feminists to deny him the use of a ‘sexual surrogate’, simply jabbered on until someone asked him if he had a question at which point he blurted out a flustered, incomprehensible query and skulked back to his seat right next to the mic to await the next questions. The second was a sneering woman with a pet theory about autism, a full-gas Windbag who had some unique and utterly irrelevant point that had exactly zero to do with the topic the readers had been discussing but was clearly eager to take advantage of an unearned audience to rank the whole crowd out about her personal obsession; and she was furious that the Shattered guy had gone on for so long that she didn’t get a chance to bore everyone with her stories that showed how much brighter she was than the people on stage. It was one of those rare cases when one evil cancels out another, like when a cop pulls over the dick who cut you off in traffic: you don’t want to see either of them win, but it’s nice to see one suffer at the hands of the next.