Magnuson ribs Plimpton; Merkin waxes neurotic

An evening dedicated to extemporizing authors is a microcosm of the literary scene.

By Maria Russo

Published September 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

At last week's benefit performance for the Moth, a New York group that invites writers and performers to tell "lightly rehearsed" stories at hip nightspots, Ann Magnuson was having trouble pronouncing Viagra. "Vee-agra? Vye-agra? Which is it?" Scanning the well-dressed audience at a fashionable downtown bar, she turned to the lanky gray-haired gentleman reclining against a pillar: "Mr. Plimpton? Can you help me out?"

George Plimpton smiled graciously and murmured something inaudible. The audience, meanwhile, was unsure how to respond to this very public ribbing of a literary icon. There was a moment of silence, then a collective, uncomfortable "Oooooh," as in, "You meanie!"

Magnuson's jibe may have fallen slightly flat, but it was still a breath of life in the ordinarily hyper-polite New York literary landscape. It may even be a sign of exhilarating side-swipes to come, as authors of every stripe learn to develop the kind of public persona that gives an increasingly essential boost to literary reputations and book sales. Opportunities abound to perform the role of author: book tours, readings, panels and innovative venues like the Moth.

The Moth assembled a nice sampling of the current roster of literary types, including the indefatigable, patrician Plimpton, in his 70s and still hawking tales of evenings spent drinking with Hemingway at the Floridita; the ballsy, sexy Magnuson, a veteran of the downtown performance art scene who detoured to Hollywood to star in the sitcom "Anything But Love" and is now back in New York working on a novel; neurotic New Yorker writer Daphne Merkin and Mike Albo, a strikingly original gay monologuist who's just sold his first novel. In its third season, the Moth still seems to be living up to its glowing press coverage. Obeying their 12-minute time limit, the performers told well-shaped stories that still included plenty of riffing.

The only exception was Merkin, who broke the Moth's rules by refusing to speak rather than read and began with an oddly squeamish remark -- "I'm glad I didn't bring my mother!" -- a reference to the naughty story Albo told of an adventure that began in a Chicago sex club. Having subtly dissed her fellow performer, she then nervously insulted the audience with asides like "Emily Dickinson -- has anyone here ever heard of her?"

If Merkin came off as schoolmarm, though, Plimpton was old school. He may have been a couple of decades older than the rest, and his story may have boiled down to a series of loosely related name-dropping anecdotes -- none of which featured a single woman, and all of which he's probably told 500 times before -- but he was by no means a fish out of water. In fact, today's performing authors may want to cop some of his raconteur moves. It could be argued, after all, that the literary scene has come back around to the "Moveable Feast" model on which Plimpton cut his teeth in 1950s Paris.

Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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