Saturday’s talk was a conversation between Paul Beatty, author of Man Booker prizewinning satire The Sellout, and Ethan Canin, author of A Doubter’s Almanac, chaired by Daniel Gray. Both books feature unconventional, even problematic, scientists and father figures, and both are set in California. It was a bit jarring to me, as a Californian, to find myself listening to two of my countrymen discussing works set there at such a remove.
The Sellout follows ‘Me’ – son of an eccentric social scientist father, and lifelong victim of that father’s racialised psychological experiments – through the tribulations and contradictions of growing up in Dickens, the (fictional) last ‘agrarian ghetto’ of Los Angeles. A Doubter’s Almanac follows Milo, a womanising mathematician and Canin’s most polarising character, who solves the famously difficult Malosz Conjecture but is unable to do the same for the problems in his personal life. Both of these books deal, in a rather abstract way, with the concept of genius: as an attitude (Beatty’s ‘genius of blackness’), a way of looking at the world, or even a type of idiocy.
According to Beatty, a common reaction to The Sellout is to say something along the lines of ‘this is so outside of my experience’. The risk and payoff of writing ‘outside ones experience’ was a running theme throughout the talk, with Beatty making the point that this statement when directed at him specifically represents an odd double standard: readers who are bad at maths do not, for example, tell Canin this about his book. What is it about the fictionalised black experience specifically that evokes this reaction?
Overall, and despite some technical difficulties which made it difficult to hear the beginning of the talk, the audience were engaged and responsive, and asked interesting questions – though the authors didn’t always answer them. Beatty and Canin are both lively, humorous speakers, and played off each other, keeping the conversation flowing from tangent to tangent, though hardly ever actually speaking about genius, which Canin even called a false construct at one point. It occurred to me that somehow, at these events, the authors always find a way not to talk about the topics they’re asked to talk about. But perhaps that is the nature of genius.