Saturday, May 1, 2010

The PEN festival

These writers from all over the world who have come to New York this week for the PEN World Voices Festival -- hasn't anyone told them about the crisis in publishing? Hasn't anyone told them that there are too many books already? Too many poems, too many essays, too many novels? Hasn't anyone driven it into their writerly heads that ordinary people are no longer reading as much as they used to, that book sales are down, that publishers are laying off staff? That bookstores are an endangered species, that libraries are underfunded, that the media -- whoever they are -- no longer pay attention to books, that review space is scarce, and that corporations don't give a shite about literature anyway? Who do these writers think they are, coming here still believing in the importance of literature? Someone's got to break it to them that this is the real world where serious literature is marginal, a useless anachronism, and that their services are no longer needed. There was no reason for them to unpack all those trunks filled with words.

Here writing is a hobby, an afterthought, something anyone with a laptop can do, a kind of therapy, something called self-expression. Easy, expendable, cheap. Something you do with your thumbs while chewing gum. If it's been professionally published, a book is an excuse for an afternoon social, a tea perhaps, or a topic to discuss while knitting. A pastime for women mostly, and a few broken men, those who have given up hope and stopped working for a better world. It makes nothing happen, although it can serve as a palliative for the dispossessed, inspiration for immigrants, or as a come-on to lure college grads into buying fancy electronic reading devices with stupid names. Here writing feeds Hollywood and Tee Wee, sells products, and bellows idiotic political slogans into a fictional space called the marketplace of ideas. It's a shrinking business, but that's okay -- here we're in the process of becoming a post-literate society anyway: we're gonna have our machines write to each other while we diddle ourselves with games.

Most of these foreign writers understand American English. What don't they understand about the place of literature in this culture? It squats at the margins, it's old and sickly, it's slow and boring,
it's so not happening. Don't they get it? Do they still believe that what they do is a subversive activity, speaking truth to power, that their words can get them in trouble? I bet they do, the saps.

You agree that writing is the highest art, and the most fallible, because dependent on human language, making metaphors which often come close to apprehending reality, but always seeming to fall short? What a sad lot these writers are. They get in their cars, trains, and planes and visit places, then try to describe what they've seen. They imagine worlds, create characters, fall under a spell, and then they tie words together in a doomed effort to approximate the inner experiences they've had. They sit in libraries, troll the web, keep voluminous notes on obscure subjects, building up a storehouse of incident and vocabulary. They look at the world lying in front of them and it drives them a little crazy, so they throw their words at it, like children spitting against a stone wall. I'm not gonna be the one to tell them that no one around here cares. I'm not gonna be the one to tell them that their books will only sell a couple of hundred copies in a country of three hundred million people. I'm not gonna tell them that they won't be interviewed on American radio or Tee Wee because they've got funny accents. Un-unh, not me.

I'm gonna sit in the audience -- one of a small band of misfits on the island of Manhattan -- and listen to them read or participate in a panel discussion or subject themselves to an interview. I will be attentive. I will stay awake. I will applaud at the end. I want them to believe that their work still matters because I need to believe it too. I need to believe it too, god damn it.


  1. Your post reminds me of a book I read a few years ago called "The Age of American Unreason" by Susan Jacoby. She explains and analyzes today's phenonemon of "junk thought" and the mass appeal of "infotainment." Her book also made me more observant that public figures and people I encounter day-to-day are increasingly less skilled at expressing themselves articulately in conversation.

  2. Marc: Funny but I was at Knopf/Pantheon when we published Susan's book -- the editor, Dan Frank, is a friend. We had fun selling more than a few copies. Though I'm extremely sympathetic to Jacoby's arguments and world-view, she was shooting at easy targets and largely riffing on Hofstadter's classic ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM IN AMERICAN LIFE, an easy thing to do during the Bush years. It would be interesting to revisit her book now that we have an extremely articulate President whose voice epitomizes "reason." Thanks for reading and writing -- I'm sure we'll have more to say to each other down the road.

  3. Paul, Thanks for the background regarding Susan Jacoby. When I read your response, I went back and reread the intro and she gave strong acknowledgement to Hofstadter. So, she may not deserve credit as the primary thought leader. But, she deserves some credit for her efforts to bring these issues to the forefront in a timely way.

    I agree 100% with your opinions regarding Obama. But I wonder …. was Obama elected because he is articulate and intelligent or because he has charisma and is skilled at leveraging the mainstream media? If we did revisit her book, I suspect we would conclude that the latter had the prominent role. While Obama’s election gives me some "hope for renewal," I perceive that the undercurrents that Jacoby describes (riffing Hofstadter)remain prevalent.