The word mortification contains the French word for death. Though it started out as a term for self-flagellation, it now signifies a humiliation that makes you wish you’d died. Writers seem to have more opportunities for humiliation than most, as they tend to be shy folk forced out of their warrens to give readings to half-dead audiences. This collection, edited by poet and British publishing veteran Robin Robertson, gathers shamefaced reminiscences from a quirky range of literati. Some of the experiences seem more about pathos than humiliation, as with Margaret Atwood’s first ever book signing, in the middle of the men’s sock and underwear section of a Canadian department store. Julian Barnes recalls his clumsy conversational gambits at his first literary party, while Rick Moody writes of a reading at which one of the three audience members had been offered a store discount to stay.
You could file some of these anecdotes under Stupid Things Done Under the Influence (Irvine Welsh shits his pants at a football match). Others involve meeting heroes (Colm Tóibín’s disappointing Norman Mailer encounter) or lit-world faux pas (Claire Messud’s confession that her book had been rejected by 10 publishers). Several authors admit to their eagerness to win a literary honor. But the most frequent cause of embarrassment is the publicity tour. Witness Andrew O’Hagan’s description of his excruciating appearance on Good Morning Chicago; not only is he forced to go on after former child star and crowd darling Dana Plato, but he discovers that he’s being interviewed on live TV about the wrong book. Searching for a speck of positivity in all this, though, O’Hagan suggests that a writer might benefit from making note of his abject failings. “In the true black night of humiliation, in the bloodletting hours,” he says, “a writer becomes most fully and most properly himself.”