It was my pleasure to have the opportunity to see Salman Rushdie, live and in person on April 18th. It was even better than seeing Amy Tan at the FPL (which was pretty cool--she's a funny lady). This post will be dedicated to his talk, which was wonderful and lovely and interesting. This is the first in a series of posts dedicated to summarizing his talk, and then maybe me talking about his talk.
His talk was titled "The Role of the Writer in the 21st Century", a topic that he called an old chestnut, but on e that needs to be addressed. He began by telling a story about Saul Bellow: Bellow was once asked why American writers had abdicated their responsibility to write against the power of America, to criticize and to call attention to abuses of power. Bellow's answer was that "We don't have obligations, we have inspirations"; thus, we cannot prescribe to a writer what he or she should write--and the role of the writer is that there is not one. Each writer must strive to be the writer that he or she can be.
He then moved on to the question: What does literature do? It pays attention, was his answer, it looks at the lives of the individual. Rarely does a book actually affect the world (a book like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin might be an example, since it sparked the abolitionist movement and the Civil War in many ways). But for the most part, literature doesn't cause great changes, but through reading a book and loving a book, both the reader and the writer are changed in some small, unpredictable way. So books can change the world, but only one reader at a time. Literature is about the unexpected, about the inevitable because after all, what is expected is boring. Dull. And books that deal with the improbable are infinitely more interesting to read.
Literature, however, is not about how things are going to turn out. Writers don't know the future. He told a funny story about a man--Gary from Michigan--who would send letters (the same exact letter) to writers asking them if they thought civilization was going to survive as it currently existed. Most dismissed him as a dealer trying to get an famous author's signature. However, Angela Carter decided to write him back and told him "Yes, civilization will survive as we know it". He never wrote back again. But the point of the story was that writers are not indicators of the future; they are firmly planted within their time. For example, George Orwell's 1984 was not about what would happen in 1984--it was about what was going on in 1948 that frightened him. Rushdie concludes this point by saying that literature is in danger if it tries to tell you what's going to happen. That's just not what it is about.
Next post: So what is the novel for?