Stephen Elliott on the Progressive Reading Series
San Francisco writer Stephen Elliott, the author of “Happy Baby,” “Looking Forward To It,” and “My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up,” is also the founder of the Progressive Reading Series, which raises money for progressive political candidates. The series’ first event this year is Saturday at 7:00 pm at the Makeout Room.
I interviewed Elliott by IM on Wednesday evening.
You founded the Progressive Reading Series as a way to raise funds for progressive political candidates. Is that still the goal?
Yes. Well, the first year, 2004, we raised money for MoveOn.org. The point was just to get authors more involved in the political process. Then, in 2006, we became more targeted, and picked individuals, like Nick Lampson, running against particularly evil incumbents, like Tom DeLay. We figured our donations were too small to really matter to a big organization like MoveOn. But for a congressional challenger, a few thousand dollars can go a long way.
What is a typical amount you raise for a congressional candidate?
We raise $2000 to $3000 each reading. Some times we do more than one reading for a candidate. In election years we do 10 readings in San Francisco. We also help other groups with events. For example, we facilitated getting Rick Moody and Curtis Sittenfeld to high end house party in Pennsylvania that raised $40,000 for two really good congressional candidates.
I say “we facilitated,” but what I really mean is, I sent Curtis and Rick an email asking if they would go do this reading because I thought it was a good idea.
And the money raised comes from voluntary donations at the door?
It’s $10 to $20, sliding scale. We also sell books donated by the authors. And if people want to buy tickets in advance, they have to make a $20 donation to that month’s candidate.
But $10, considering the lineups, is not very expensive. Like, in 2006, there was a reading featuring Jane Smiley and Jonathan Franzen. You’d probably expect to pay more than $10 to see them read. And then the money goes to a good cause.
How do you choose the candidates to support?
They have to be challengers, for starters. They have to be running for the house. They have to win their primaries and be in competition against someone we dislike. In general, they have to be reasonable on Iraq. Like, we wouldn’t give money to anyone who thought invading Iraq was a good idea. And we wouldn’t give money to a candidate who is “pro-life,” a.k.a. “anti-woman.”
(In this week’s reading) we’re supporting Charlie Brown, a candidate in California’s 4th district. He’s a solid candidate. But the most important thing is that he’s poised to replace Rep. John T. Doolittle, who is an Abramoff crony. Dolittle is completely corrupt and will probably be in jail within the next couple of years.
We supported Tony Trupiano in 2006 because he was the first candidate endorsed by ImpeachPAC, who were looking to build support for impeaching Bush, which we support. But we also supported Tammy Duckworth, which I regretted a little bit. She wasn’t liberal enough for us. But she was an Iraq vet, and we’re strongly supportive of Iraq vets running for congress.
I kind of liked her. She seemed to have gumption.
She had that. And she had a view of the war grounded in real world experience.
The names of writers you’ve already mentioned, and the names on this year’s schedule, are pretty impressive. I’m not sure how to phrase this question, but basically, it’s how do you manage to get these way-grade-A authors to come to some little bar in the Mission District?
We’re offering these authors a chance to be political, and they want to be political. In fact, they jump at the opportunity.
It kind of started in 2002 when I edited my first anthology of politically inspired fiction. That was a fundraiser for Oxfam. And I’m asking all these well known authors to contribute and everybody is totally into it.
I looked for conservative/republican authors to contribute as well. And I had the strangest realization. There are no Republican/conservative literary authors. Not good ones, anyway. That’s how I found out that literary authors were political and liberal.
There’s that Mark Helprin guy. And Martin Amis, perhaps.
Right. Everybody mentions Mark Helprin. But if there’s only one guy, Mark Helprin, then that’s basically the same as nobody. One exception is not enough to break the rule.
But to your point — how do you account for the fact that most literary authors are liberal?
At first I didn’t understand it. Then I read George Lakoff’s book Don’t Think Of An Elephant. Lakoff said that conservatives believed in the stern father. They liked people to tell them what was and wasn’t true. They respected authority. That’s why they were so into talk radio.
While liberals wanted to participate. They’re all about town halls. That’s why they like blogs. Everybody has a voice. They’re into the nurturing mother thing. And all of this is really about empathy. Liberals have empathy. They’re able to imagine themselves in other people’s shoes. And that’s crucial if you’re going to write literary fiction. Because the definition of literary fiction (depending on who you ask) is: fiction driven by character development. Empathy is key. Liberals, and writers, have empathy.
Who comes to the Progressive Reading Series? A literary crowd, or political activists? Do you have any sense on how active politically the attendees are?
That’s an interesting question. I would say it is firstly a literary crowd. But there’s also a lot of political people who might not go to a reading but come to these because there’s a political meaning attached. A lot of people come because it’s just really cool to see these amazing authors in a place like the Makeout Room. It’s just such a fun night.
I’ve been amazed for years that it’s possible to get 200 people to crowd together to a literary reading — young people!
Yeah. i love that. There’s kind of three things going on. We’re raising money, which is great. We’re linking politics and literature, which is great. And we’re promoting literature in its own right. Like, we have all these famous authors, but we always have at least two authors on the bill who are not famous. Often we’ll have one author who hasn’t even published a book
You’re very supportive of emerging writers.
I definitely like to think I am. I take a lot of pleasure in finding an author who hasn’t been noticed yet but is writing killer stuff. I think we’re all like that. We all love finding some gem, like a record nobody else has listened to yet. And then telling everybody how great it is.
But you have to balance the support for emerging writers with the authors that can draw a really big crowd. If you don’t have a headliner then you don’t raise any money and you don’t get a big audience for these lesser known writers. So it all works hand in hand. And I think some people are a little turned off by that.
But you know, in general, San Francisco is a very nurturing place for emerging writers. It’s not a competitive literary environment.
OK, finally, what have you been working on lately?
Well, I have a new anthology coming out this month called Sex For America. It’s an anthology of politically inspired erotica. It’s a really good anthology and there’s a lot of local writers, including Daphne Gottlieb, Michelle Tea, Liz Henry, Peter Orner, Charlie Anders, and Michelle Richmond.. There’s also Jerry Stahl, Anthony Swofford, Jonathan Ames, James Frey, and Jamie Attenberg. About a third of the writers in the book are from the Bay Area. Which makes sense, when writing about sex and politics — where else would they be from?
It’s really great exploring the intersection of sex and politics in fiction. Which is what this book does.
We’re actually going to have copies of the anthology for sale on Saturday. It’s the first time anyone is going to be able to get a copy. Then the book release party is at the end of the month at the Center For Sex And Culture, and all the money raised will go to support the center.
The event is Saturday, Jan. 19 starting at 7:00 pm at the Makeout Room, 3225 22nd Street near Mission in San Francisco. Details and a map..
The SF Chronicle wrote about the series in 2006.