THE RELATIVE STAR POWER OF the authors at the National Book Festival on the Mall in Washington was easily discerned from the lines of people waiting to have their books signed.

At around noon, I walked through and jotted down approximate rankings. Judith Warner, who writes books describing the persecution of economically successful, well-educated working moms who might be mistaken for big winners in today's society, had only a handful of readers awaiting her John Hancock. Andrea Mitchell of NBC, who in her memoir worries that her journalistic independence has been compromised by her socially advantageous marriage to the chairman of the Federal Reserve even as it gains her increased access to the rich and powerful, had even fewer.

Among the big winners in the autograph showdown were (lo, I am sad to report) Jonathan Safran Foer, the precious young prince of wit-lit, whose slacker signature-seekers were still only about two-thirds as numerous as the young woebegone women queued up to see Diana Gabaldon. But not even Gabaldon's historical fantasies outdrew the real thing, for the longest line belonged to David McCullough, the two-time Pulitzer-winning historian who's riding high on America's enduring and healthy fascination with its own history of great achievements and great achievers.

Getting books signed by a favorite novelist or historian or children's author may seem like a trivial activity next to that of hearing these same authors talk about their work, but about a third of the festival was reserved for book signing. Anyway, listening to the talks, one wonders if the organizers should have given over more space to book signings.

John Irving, in jeans and a green T-shirt, answered questions from Washington Post Book World editor Marie Arana, who led the "conversation" with far more wide-eyed wonder than really seems appropriate off the set of Sesame Street. Many of the working details about Irving's writing were of no more than passing interest, though one is amused by the vanity and numb-headedness of certain statements.

"I can't imagine as a novelist or a screenwriter beginning with a political agenda," says Irving, whose one screenplay was for The Cider House Rules (based on his own novel). This movie was so pro-abortion that Planned Parenthood set up special screenings of it to remind people how terrible life (oops) was in the days before abortion was legal.

Another statement from Irving: "Until my first son was born, I had nothing to say." Irving's putative ideological opponent, Tom Wolfe, also spoke with concern about people becoming writers at too young an age to have experienced anything worthy of a book. (I don't know where Jonathan Safran Foer was at this exact moment.) Wolfe has been working this routine for over 25 years, though his case for reporting and research as the great antidote to the provincialism of the American novel certainly took a knock with his last book, I Am Charlotte Simmons. One need only read Wolfe's adrenalized description of the bland interior of a chain-food restaurant to realize that there are some things too commonplace to report.

In his stump speech at the festival, Wolfe accused the American novelist of being Europeanized into an aesthetic of psychology and self-regard, but two of his favorite examples of great nineteenth century novelists were Zola and Balzac. Wolfe allows no room for debate on aesthetic grounds, for instance those advanced by Willa Cather in her essay "The Novel Démeublé," in which she calls Balzac's ambition to catalogue every last sight and sound of Paris "a stupendous ambition--but, after all, unworthy of an artist."

The same goes double for Wolfe and I Am Charlotte Simmons, where, again, "the property-man has been so busy on its pages." After recently reading an excellent reported novel that epitomizes the great dramatic potential of Wolfe's method--Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, a harrowing account of life among the drug-dealing, welfare-scamming, teenage mommies and baby-daddies of the South Bronx--I felt absolutely parched for less oppressive fiction. There is far more to be said for the blessings of imaginative art than Wolfe lets on; for one thing, it gives you something to read between Richard Price novels.

As the festival proceeded, antiwar protesters passed through carrying very unliterary signs to the march being staged a few blocks down the Mall. Possibly the most popular was a reprint of that once-ubiquitous poster proclaiming that "War is unhealthy for children and other living things." But this cloying insertion of sentimentality was not the only side-effect of the nearby protest. Because of the crowds, the sky above the mall became an aerial parking lot for low-flying helicopters. Over in the poetry pavilion, Donald Hall could barely make it through a short poem without his softly rounded consonants being crushed by the whap-whap-whapping of rotors overhead.

But Hall hung in there, prompting me to think I should definitely go buy his volume with that wonderful poem about a chair and an old man in Connecticut. Yes, there are probably many chairs and old men in the state of Connecticut, but his were special. Really. After his own excellent reading, Hall was joined by Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and a poet himself, for a celebration of the 150th anniversary of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Whitman might be said to have labored under a rather modern, anti-Wolfian preoccupation with his own thoughts and his own body, even as he took a ravenous before-the-fact-Wolfian interest in the great, untamed and underreported life of the United States of America.

The main interest in the Whitman celebration, though, was in hearing Gioia read from "Song of Myself." But first one had to sit through a hagiographic introduction given by one of Gioia's underlings, David Kipen, the NEA's director of literature. Gioia, apparently known to his staff as The Man Who Has Changed Poetry, speaks with such good-natured deliberateness and clean enunciation he could almost be a news reader. But not a Whitman impersonator. Scholarly and civilized, the NEA chairman has nothing of the hobo, the freelance prophet, or the yeller in him.

In "Song of Myself" Whitman refers to his own verse as "barbaric yawps," a phrase Gioia read aloud with a most even, and even politic, West Coast pronunciation.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.

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