"We're really into co-parenting," New York magazine "Breeding" columnist and author Amy Sohn said. "I mean, we only have a part-time nanny." The assembled crowd nodded sympathetically and shifted in their folding chairs, especially the children, who were beginning to get restless. They'd liked it better when Neal Pollack had been reading from his parenting memoir Alternadad a bit earlier. He'd used the word "shit" a lot, prompting a four-year-old girl in the second row to shoot me a way too knowing glance. Clearly, we were at the Brooklyn Book Festival.
The festival consisted of: hordes of people thronging booths set up along Borough Hall Park, each representing a small press or literary magazine or extremely motivated author, or a corporate Festival sponsor such as Target. Most Festivalgoers were pushing demanding toddlers in expensive strollers. All the men looked like John Hodgman and all the women looked like Miranda July.
Amy and Neal were both wearing really dorky shoes: black Nike running shoes for Neal and practical low-heeled, square-toed boots for Amy. Clearly, they were parents. They were speaking on a panel called "Mom and Pop Culture," which was moderated by the estimable Ayun Halliday, who has been writing wittily and incisively about parenting way before Neal or Amy's kids were born. She actually asked some tough questions! Like, to Neal: "The motto of your website Offsprung is 'for parents who don't suck.' What parents do suck?" He sidestepped: "If you think you don't suck, come on in."
There were other times, though, when Neal was less adroit at keeping his foot out of his mouth. When asked if he was grateful to his son Elijah, he answered maybe a bit too honestly, "If my other book had been successful, I would've followed down that road." He paused. "But I'm trying to do other stuff now. I'm sure [he chuckled] my literary career will be long and varied." No one else laughed.
Amy mostly came off as smart and assured, however, making us almost suspect that every time we've read a column of hers and thought "Oh god, she's got to be kidding," she actually has been, well, kidding! She talked about getting turned down for playdates in Park Slope after writing about her ish with stay at home moms. She also said, "When I had a kid, it seemed natural to me to start exploiting it for material." At least she is honest.
One of Ayun's final questions was, what do you think of the backlash against parenting memoirs? "I didn't know there was a backlash," deadpanned Amy. Again: Was she kidding? She went on to say that people seem to have a big problem with parents openly seeming to complain about their children, which is pretty far down on our list of our problems with most parenting writing. (The list looks kind of like this: "1) self-indulgent 2) self-indulgent 3) self-aggrandizing 4) self-indulgent...")
Neal's theory was that complaining about one's children is a venerable Jewish tradition. "If you don't like our books, it means you're an anti-Semite!" Amy rolled her eyes at Neal. "I think people are just jealous, actually." It was hard to discern Neal's facial expression through the terrible wraparound Oakley sunglasses he wore, but he seemed to nod in agreement.