Government & Politics

Confessions of a literary impresario: Love's labor not lost

Los Angeles-based writer Matt Sumell reads at a Room 220 event on May 3 at the Antenna Gallery Outdoor Auxiliary.

I ordered an obscure novel from an independent publishing house in Brooklyn on May 11, 2011, the day the book was released. A few hours later, the publisher, whom I’d never met, emailed me and asked, having noticed my mailing address, whether I knew of anywhere in New Orleans that the author and his cohort might do a reading. They were embarking on a Southern book tour and didn’t have a New Orleans date. I had launched the blog Room220: New Orleans Book and Literary News a few months prior as an arm of Press Street, a local literary arts nonprofit that also runs the Antenna Gallery—thus, I had a venue and a means of publicizing the event. We hosted the reading, and it was a success.

Since then, under the Room 220 banner and with the support of Press Street, we have organized and/or hosted 12 events featuring 43 writers—most of whom work in prose. The events have attracted audiences of anywhere between 10 and 150 people. . We’ve featured critically acclaimed authors who have published with the most prestigious journals and houses in the country—most notably essayist John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose book Pulphead received rave reviews in the New Yorker, the New York Times, Bookforum, and elsewhere. On his blog Sullivan said that of all the places he visited on his tour, New Orleans was the hardest to leave. We’ve hosted far less well known authors from Mexico, South Africa, and China, as well as California, Michigan, Georgia, and Mississippi, and more than a dozen from exotic locales such as Uptown, the Bywater, Mid-City, and Gentilly.

We try to give the readers and their readings the treatment—long-form interviews and original portraits, glossy flyers and e-blasts. Each event is a bit of a procedure, and, at the end of the day, each is quite a bit of work. Along with overseeing the nonevent-related content on Room 220, I spend an average of 20-30 hours a week essentially volunteering for this project. New Orleans needs a lot of things more than it needs cool literary events, which is essentially what my efforts amount to. The question recently dawned on me, after a year of Room 220 readings: Why do I keep doing this?

Well, for one, because people keep asking me to. Besides Sullivan’s visit, every single Room 220 event has begun as someone else’s idea. Writers want to read their work, promote new books, and the two primary places where that sort of thing happens in New Orleans—at book stores or in the university context as part of an English program—are not known to be   bastions of fun. The literature enthusiast’s more acute predicament is that we write and read alone. We know there are others who share our interests, but there is nothing inherent in the production and consumption of texts to connect us. Literary events like Room 220‘s provide a venue for book nerds to commingle. If there’s one result of this venture I’m proud of, it’s been the creation of (temporary) artful and intellectual environments outside the realm of academia. It’s why we generally ask readers to keep it short—so there’s plenty of time to drink, talk, and hang out.

When I told my friend that I had begun to ponder my motives for putting on literary events, she replied brusquely: “You do it for the same reason anyone works for free, because you’re trying to shape the world into what you’d like it to be.” My “duh” moment was reinforced by Press Street board president Anne Gisleson. “Yeah, that’s what we’ve been doing with Press Street for years,” she said. Indeed, the collective has been among the busiest arts entities in downtown New Orleans since it was formed in 2006, organizing a wide and inventive array of projects and programming simply because its members wanted to see them happen.

Of course, criticisms—mostly leveled by me at me—abound. Readers at Room 220 events have been embarrassingly male and white. I’m hoping that deepening relationships with groups such as the MelaNated Writers will help in that regard, and also bring some of our audience to their events. I’m also vowing to lower the preponderance of dudes on my dockets.

At the same time, even though cultivating an environment for public intellectualism is great, it’s tough not to look at the crowd of relatively well-off (i.e., not impoverished), mostly white attendees at my events and not think of the great population that could be served with other types of book-related efforts (such as those by 2-Cent or Big Class). When Sullivan came to town I worked with Gisleson to have him visit her class of high-school students at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Room220 arranged something similar with the Bard Early College program and a group of international writers who came down from the University of Iowa. We plan to make it standard procedure for out-of-town authors to visit public school classrooms. Press Street members are also working to launch a full-blown education initiative once the Antenna Gallery finds a new home.

New Orleans seems to me particularly accommodating to the kinds of things we’re trying to do. You don’t see the pretentious sneers common in so many other American centers of culture, and people here are used to having fun on the cheap. Very simply, there’s just not the glut of literati putting on book parties that you’d find in, say, Brooklyn. That makes for an air of interest and excitement surrounding the events we do. More than anything, a year or so after starting to do Room 220 events, I feel grateful for the people who have helped make this happen—especially Gisleson and the folks at Press Street—and, of course, the writers and the people who come out to the events. Here’s to another year.

Nathan C. Martin is the editor of Room 220: New Orleans Book and Literary News and a copywriter at Loyola University New Orleans. His work has appeared recently in McSweeney’s, Next American City, and Pelican Bomb.

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  • Please put me on your enlist for 220 events. Thanks, good luck!