Babble-on revisited

Pale, embittered writers ignore Club Med guests.

Published April 21, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When Salon Books left the bookish brood at Canczn's Club Med last Wednesday, the guests were voicing the hope that they'd be able to cozy up to the visiting writers the club had flown down for a one-week literary forum called Word Up! Imagine their visions: a top-of-the-morning snorkel with William Vollmann, a piqa colada with Richard Ford and a late-night boogie with Jay McInerney. But as it turned out, writers and guests were separated as strictly as church and state.

"I felt like the gentile in the Temple," complains Robert Smith, a retired history professor and fledgling novelist from Long Island. "I felt that I would be expelled for saying the wrong thing." At first, some guests thought that Club Med's seating assignments would force the writers to mingle with the guests, but the authors, critics and editors wrangled their own tables. Even for the field trip to the Mayan ruins of Chichin Itza, the literary folk went on their own day, on their own bus. "They simply did not mix," Smith says. "They found a community within a community."

Smith, who attended all the forums, also dissed the sometimes hectic scheduling. "They would have a reading from 4:45 to 6 o'clock and then a debate until 7:30. They didn't give you enough time to change out of your trunks for dinner." But while he found fault with some of the programs, he was elated with others, especially a presentation by Jonathan Ames, a novelist ("I Pass Like Night," "The Extra Man") and performance artist. In his show, called "Oedipussy," Ames describes a summer camp episode in which a 21-year-old youth seduces a 31-year-old nurse and unwittingly fathers a child by her. Smith was also impressed with Brady Udall, the author of "Letting Loose the Hounds," and with David Eddie, a Canadian writer whose first collection, "Chump Change," will be out this July. Smith reserves most of his wrath for moderator Erroll McDonald, Pantheon's executive editor, whom he dismisses as "pompous and self-important."

"Bobby's very critical," Smith's wife, Pauline, observes a bit more even-handedly. "I think the writers were intimidated, too. You may have a way with words on the page, but that doesn't mean you're going to sparkle." Pauline Smith, a retired junior high school teacher, enjoyed the disco at Club Med, but not for the usual reasons. In the early evenings, the club set up translation booths there for the French-speaking writers and critics, enabling an international panel to discuss the state of international literature. Later, she adds, the disco would be invaded by younger, less scholarly types -- "intent," as her husband puts it, "on other pursuits."

John Jones, a real estate lawyer from Binghamton, N.Y., also enjoyed the international forums. "It was interesting to hear from lesser-known writers that they get a better critical reception from the French critics," Jones says. "I also didn't know that there was such a dividing line between serious literature and pop literature -- that some writers would trash the John Grishams of this world and put themselves in another category." Jones, too, was a fan of Udall: "Brady Udall had a different approach than the other writers. He only needed a quick few words. He was laid-back and self-effacing."

Jones says that he would go back. Despite Robert Smith's ample reservations, the five-visit Club Med veteran wouldn't mind another Word Up! experience, either. "I enjoyed it," Smith admits. "It's such a change from the usual Club Med shenanigans."

By Craig Offman

Craig Offman is the New York correspondent for Salon Books.

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