New York Times best-selling authors David Baldacci, John Grisham and Jodi Picoult paid tribute to the influence that American novelist Mark Twain has had on their writing styles in a panel discussion Wednesday evening.
More than 2,000 people gathered in Woolsey Hall at a Yale-hosted benefit for the Mark Twain House & Museum to hear moderator Malaak Compton-Rock, the wife of comedian Chris Rock, lead Baldacci, Grisham and Picoult through a lively discussion that celebrated Twain’s legacy. While the three authors entertained their listeners, who had paid $25–$65 to attend the benefit, with stories from their childhoods and other anecdotes, they also discussed more serious topics such as the future of publishing in an increasingly digital era.
As Compton-Rock asked the panelists to reflect on how Twain’s work has resonated with their own writings, all three authors praised their Twain’s ability to pen financially successful novels that also addressed important social issues.
Baldacci said Twain “created a genre all by himself” and symbolizes the values of an American writer. Baldacci added that he can only hope to reach the popularity among readers that Twain achieved and still maintains today.
Grisham, a lawyer and state legislator who now writes crime novels, said his childhood friends were enamored with the rebellious Tom Sawyer, the namesake of one of Twain’s most famous works.
“I was Tom Sawyer,” Grisham said, to a roar of laughter from the audience. “We wouldn’t do bad things, but we would bury a dead cat and all. We played hooky from school. The police eventually suggested that we disband the new Tom Sawyer club.”
While many of the anecdotes about Twain and his novels were light-hearted, Compton-Rock eventually directed the authors’ discussion to the timely topic of the future of publishing in an industry increasingly dominated by digital copy.
Picoult and Grisham both said digital sales of their most recent works surpassed the print sales for the first time. But Picoult said sales of her books have risen on the whole, adding that as long as people are still reading, she is not concerned with what form a book takes. Baldacci echoed Picoult’s sentiments, saying he cares more that people keep reading than about what format they choose.
While the authors seemed to accept the ongoing shift from print to digital media, they expressed reservations about a movement toward self-publishing — one that made national headlines Sunday when The New York Times reported that Amazon.com will soon begin selling manuscripts directly from authors to customers on its website.
Though finding a publisher is a daunting task for most writers, Picoult said the publicity those publishers provide has remained invaluable to authors and that the firms lend legitimacy to an author’s work. With self-publishing, Picoult said, the public has yet to find a way to “separate the wheat from the chaff.”
Before the panel began, Jed Rubenfeld, a professor at the Law School, said it was “fitting” that Yale hosted the forum for the Mark Twain House. While Twain never officially studied at Yale, he holds two honorary degrees from the University and famously dubbed Hillhouse Avenue “the most beautiful street in America.” Twain also participated in Scroll and Key, one of Yale’s senior societies.
Baldacci, Grisham and Picoult have altogether sold more than 400 million copies in print.