Literary luau

Club Med tempts vacationers with pale, bitter novelists.

Published April 14, 1999 3:47PM (EDT)

Famous for its fun-loving philistines, Club Med now wants to welcome the people of the Book. Such sun-seekers as Jay McInerney, Gish Jen, Susan Minot and William Vollmann have been flown down to Canczn to attend a forum called Word Up! and give the vacation spot a literary face lift. To pay their dues, the writers only have to show up at nightly powwows with resort guests and take writerly pokes at such thematic marshmallows as "The Globalization of American Literature."

As part of a program to broaden the organization's appeal in North America, Club Med has initiated this bookish fiesta, and plans to hold two more in the next year. In a press release, Club Med CEO Philippe Bourguignon explains why the company has turned over a new page: "'Reading is fundamental!' Like travel, it has the power to transport us to other places where we can discover other selves, other cultures. Good writing always compels us to embrace expressions of difference." But do good writers have the same effect as their good writing? Salon decided to check in with the holiday-makers and see.

It turns out that many of Club Med's guests didn't know that a literary ambush awaited them. Once they arrived, however, they couldn't miss the theme. Word Up! signs greeted them, as well as author photographs. "The villagers have been very supportive," says Edwina Arnold, the publicist for the event -- referring to the staff at the Club Med Village, not the citizens of Canczn. "Villagers" put together "book trees," actual trees on which the participating authors' works are displayed.

John Jones, a 40-year-old real estate lawyer from Binghamton, N.Y., first heard about Word Up! when he got on the airplane. "I just stumbled across this pleasant surprise," he said. "I only came here to get sleep and relax." Jones, on his second visit to Club Med, seems pleased with the program. Interested in the writer's life, Jones hopes to spend a little quality time with a few novelists. "I want to know what they do and can they make a living at it." Even though he didn't plan on a bookish vacation, Jones, who read "Memoirs of a Geisha" not too long ago, plans to go to all the symposia and is happy with his encounter with new names. "Now I have an expanding list of future authors," he said.

Pauline and Robert Smith, a retired couple from Long Island returning to Club Med for the fifth time, also didn't know about Word Up! until their flight. Like Jones, they were pleased. "It's a lovely idea," says Smith, a former home economics teacher. Jones last read Alain de Botton's "How Proust Can Change Your Life," and was quick to point out that she was also an Elmore Leonard fan. "I don't just read recipe books," she told Salon.

Her husband, Robert, is a former history professor at Brooklyn Tech, and according to other guests -- including his wife -- is already kicking up a little Canczn dust. A fledgling novelist, Smith has reservations about the forum. "I don't know if it's a conference for the writers or the guests." During one of the first symposia, which discussed the influence of American writers abroad, Smith found there was too much dirt thrown at John Grisham. "The bitterness surfaces readily," he reported. "So I asked the writers what the difference was between good literature and bad literature -- and by the end, James Crumley told me that 'If you don't know by now, you'll never know.'"

Despite the verbal sand-throwing, the Smiths also plan to continue attending the forums. But Robert has some reservations about writers in general. "My experience of writers is that they think of the public as poor benighted creatures who don't know anything." Is this, indeed, the sad reality of writer-reader relations? Stay tuned until next week, when Salon reports on the progress (or lack thereof) of writer-guest interaction at Club Med Canczn.

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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