The Power of the Pen: Entire Discussion
SALMAN RUSHDIE: A butterfly flaps its wings in India and we feel the breeze on our cheeks in New York. A throat is cleared somewhere in Africa and in California there’s an answering cough. Everything that happens affects something else, so to answer “yes” to the question before us is not to make a large claim. Books come into the world, and the world is not what it was before those books came into it. The same can be said of babies or diseases. Books, since we are speaking of books, come into the world and change the lives of their authors, for good or ill, and sometimes change the lives of their readers too. This change in the reader is a rare event. Mostly we read books and set them aside, or hurl them from us with great force, and pass on. Yet sometimes there is a small residue that has an effect. The reason for this is the always unexpected and unpredictable intervention of that rare and sneaky phenomenon: love.
One may read and like, or admire, or respect a book and yet remain entirely unchanged by its contents. But love gets under your guard and shakes things up. Such is its sneaky nature. When a reader falls in love with a book, it leaves its essence inside him like radioactive fallout in an arable field. And after that there are certain crops that will no longer grow in him, while other stranger, more fantastic growths may occasionally be produced. We love relatively few books in our lives, and those books become part of the way we see our lives. We read our lives through them, and their descriptions of the inner and outer worlds become mixed up with ours; they become ours. Love does this. Hate does not. To hate a book is only to confirm to oneself what one already knows or thinks one knows. But the power of books to inspire both love and hate is an indication of their ability to make alterations in the fabric of what is.
Writing names the world, and the power of description should not be underestimated. Literature remembers its religious origins in some of those first stories. Stories of sky gods and sea gods not only became the source of an ocean of stories that flowed from them but also served as the foundations of the world into which they, the myths, were born. There would have been little blood sacrifice in Latin America or ancient Greece if it had not been for the gods. Iphigenia would have lived and Clytemnestra would have had no need to murder Agamemnon and the entire story of the House of Atreus would have been different. This would have been bad for the history of the theater, no doubt, but good in many ways for the family concerned. Writing invented the gods and was a game the gods themselves played, and the consequences of that writing, holy writ, are still working themselves out today, which just shows that the demonstrable fictionality of fiction does nothing to lessen its power, especially if you call it the truth. But writing broke away from the gods and in that rupture much of its power was lost. Prophecy is no longer the game, except for futurologists, but then futurology is fiction too. It can be defined as the art of being wrong about the future. For the rest of us, the proper study of mankind is man. We have no priests, we can appeal to no ultimate arbiter, though there are critics among us who would claim such a role for themselves.
In spite of this, fiction does retain the occasional surprising ability to initiate social change. Here is the fugitive slave Eliza, running from Simon Legree. Here is Oliver Twist asking for more. Here is a boy wizard with a lightning scar on his forehead bringing books back into the lives of a generation that was forgetting how to read. Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed attitudes towards slavery, and Charles Dickens’s portraits of child poverty inspired legal reforms, and J. K. Rowling changed the culture of childhood, making millions of boys and girls look forward to 800-page novels, and probably popularizing vibrating toy broomsticks at boarding schools. On the opening night of Death of a Salesman, the head of Gimbels department store rushed from the theater vowing never to fire his own aging Willy Loman.
In this age of information, in this age of information overkill, literature can still bring the human news, the heart’s and mind’s news. The poetry of Milosz and Herbert and Szymborska has done much to create the consciousness, to say nothing of the conscience, of these great poets’ time and place. The same may be said of Derek Walcott. Nuruddin Farah, so long in exile from Somalia, has carried Somalia in his heart these many years, and written it into being, brought into the world’s sight that Somalia to which the world might otherwise have remained blind. From China, from Japan, from Cuba, from Iran, literature brings information, the base metal of information, transmuted into the gold of art. And our knowledge of the world is forever altered by such transformation or alchemy.
This week, we honor the memory of Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller, great writers, intellectuals and truth tellers. The old idea of the intellectual as the one who speaks truth to power is still worth holding on to. Tyrants fear the truth of books because it’s a truth that’s in hock to nobody. It’s a single artist’s unfettered vision of the world. They fear it even more because it’s incomplete, because the act of reading completes it, so that the book’s truth is slightly different in each reader’s inner world. These are the true revolutions of literature, these invisible, intimate communions of strangers, these tiny revolutions inside each reader’s imagination. And the enemies of the imagination, all the different goon squads of gods and power, want to shut these revolutions down and can’t. Not even the author of a book can know exactly what effect his book will have. But good books do have effects and some of these effects are powerful and all of them, thank goodness, are impossible to predict in advance. Literature is a loose cannon. This is a very good thing.
MARGARET ATWOOD: Does writing change anything? I took this question literally, and I’m reading two pieces. One is about our feeling as writers—probably not, we think sometimes. And the second is the opposite answer. The first piece is called “The Tent.”
You’re in a tent. It’s vast and cold outside; very vast, very cold. It’s a howling wilderness. There are rocks in it, and sand, and deep boggy pits you can sink into without a trace. There are ruins as well, many ruins. In and around the ruins there are broken musical instruments, old bathtubs, bones of extinct land mammals, shoes minus their feet, auto parts. There are thorny shrubs, gnarled trees, high winds, but you have a small candle in your tent. You can keep warm. Many things are howling out there, in the howling wilderness. Many people are howling, some howling grief because those they love have died or been killed. Others howl in triumph because they have caused the loved ones of their enemies to die or be killed. Some howl to summon help, some howl for revenge, others howl for blood. The noise is deafening. It’s also frightening. Some of the howling is coming close to you, in your tent, where you crouch in silence hoping you won’t be seen. You’re frightened for yourself, but especially for those you love. You want to protect them. You want to gather them inside your tent for protection.
The trouble is your tent is made of paper. Paper won’t keep anything out. You know you must write on the walls, on the paper walls on the inside of your tent. You must write upside down and backwards. You must cover every available space on the paper with writing. Some of the writing has to describe the howling that’s going on outside, night and day among the sand dunes and the ice chunks and the ruins and bones and so forth. It has to tell the truth about the howling. But this is difficult to do because you can’t see through the paper walls, and so you can’t be exact about the truth, and you don’t want to go out there, out into the howling wilderness, to see exactly for yourself.
Some of the writing has to be about your loved ones, and the need you feel to protect them. And this is difficult as well because not all of them can hear the howling in the same way you do. Some of them think it sounds like a picnic out there in the wilderness, like a big band, like a hot beach party. They resent being cooped up in such a cramped space with you and your small candle and your fearfulness and your annoying obsession with calligraphy, an obsession that makes no sense to them. And they keep trying to scramble out under the walls of the tent. This doesn’t stop you from your writing. You write as if your life depended on it. Your life and theirs. You inscribe in shorthand their natures, their features, their habits, their histories. You change the names of course because you don’t want to create evidence. You don’t want to attract the wrong sort of attention to these loved ones of yours, some of whom, you’re now discovering, are not people at all, but cities and landscapes, towns and lakes, and clothing you used to wear, and neighborhood cafés and long-lost dogs.
You don’t want to attract the howlers, but they’re attracted anyway, as if by a scent. The walls of the paper tent are so thin, but they can see the light of your candle. They can see your outline, and naturally they’re curious because you might be prey. You might be something they can kill, and then howl over in celebration, and then eat one way or another. You’re too conspicuous. You’ve made yourself conspicuous. You’ve given yourself away. They’re coming closer, gathering together. They’re taking time off from their howling to peer, to sniff around. Why do you think this writing of yours, this graphomania in a flimsy cave, this scribbling back and forth and up and down over the walls of what is beginning to seem like a prison, is capable of protecting anyone at all, yourself included? It’s an illusion—the belief that your doodling is a kind of armor, a kind of charm—because no one knows better than you do how fragile your tent really is. Already there’s a clomping of leather-covered feet, there’s a scratching, there’s a scrabbling, there’s a sound of rasping breath. Wind comes in. Your candle tips over and flares up and a loose tent flap catches fire, and through the widening black-edged gap, you can see the eyes of the howlers, red and shining, and the light from your burning paper shelter. But you keep writing anyway, because what else can you do?
When we say “Does writing change anything?” we usually speak from the point of view of the writer. But if you take the question a couple of levels back and realize that a lot of people in the world can’t write at all, just the ability to change from being somebody who can’t write to being somebody who can makes a huge difference in that person’s life and then in the life of their family, and then in the life of their community. This poem is called “A Poor Woman Learns to Write.”
She squats, bare feet
splayed out, not
graceful; skirt tucked around ankles.
Her face is lined and cracked.
She looks old,
older than anything.
She’s probably thirty.
Her hands also are lined and cracked
and awkward. Her hair concealed.
She prints with a stick, laboriously
in the wet grey dirt,
frowning with anxiety.
Great big letters.
There. It’s finished.
Her first word so far.
She never thought she could do this,
This was for others,
She looks up, smiles
as if apologizing,
but she’s not. Not this time. She did it right.
What does the mud say?
Her name. We can’t read it.
But we can guess. Look at her face:
Joyful Flower? A Radiant One? Sun On Water?
NURUDDIN FARAH: On my first day at school, a teacher, a man who was teaching me and who knew my name, asked me what my name was. And I said I couldn’t remember. And I was struck hard time and time again, but I insisted I didn’t know, and the reason is that I have never liked direct questions. And if somebody comes to me and says, “What is your name?” I never remember. And therefore when I received the question that said, “Does writing change anything?” I thought, Let me read this passage from Maps and then ask the audience if writing changes anything.
The man who was brought to circumcise me, when my turn came, made me sit alone, insisting that I read a few Koranic verses of my choice—and that I wait for him as he honed the knife he was going to use against a sharp stone he had come along with. I was overcome by fear—fear of pain, fear of being lonely, fear of being separated forever from Misra. (She wasn’t there anyway; she wasn’t allowed to come. In her place, there came a man, one of my many uncles.) The sticky saliva in my mouth, the drumming of fright beating in my ears, the numbness of my body wherever I touched, felt: my legs, my hands, my thighs, my sex, what pain!
Then the man asked me to look up at the heavens and to concentrate on anything my eyes fell on. There was an aperture in the clouds and there was a bird which I spotted, a bird flying high and in haste towards the opening in the heavens. I concentrated on the bird’s movements, concentrated on it until it became a dot in the heavenly distance. To mask my fear, I invested all my energy in the look, and the bird’s flight reminded me of similar flights of my own fantasies. When I looked again, I couldn’t see the bird. I could only see a tapestry of clouds which was woven in order to provide the bird with a hiding-place. The world, I told myself, was in my eyes and the bird had flown away with it, carrying it in its beak, light as a straw, small as an atom. Now that I had lost sight of the bird (I wasn’t sure if it was an eagle or if it wasn’t!), there was nothing but sunlight for a long while, and the sun was in my eye and it blinded me to the rest of the cosmos. Until the bird re-emerged out of the sun’s brightness, beautiful, feminine, playful, and it became again the center of my world and I was inside it, in flight, light as are children’s fantasies, impervious to the realities surrounding me, and then, sudden as bushfire, ZAK!
It is such a horrid territory, the territory of pain. And I crossed it alone—no thought of Misra, no amount of consolatory remarks made by the uncle who had come with me, and no verse of the Koran could’ve reduced the pain or even eliminated it altogether. Do I remember when the pain lodged in my body which it lived in for almost a month thereafter? It entered my groin first. Or rather, that is what I seem to remember. I recall thinking that I had seen the bird’s apparition and that the rest of the world had been small as a speck in the sky—then the man pulled at the foreskin of my manhood, producing, first in my groin, then in the remaining parts of my body, a pain so acute my ears were set ablaze with dolorous flames. These flames spread gradually—then my feet felt frozen, my eyes warm with tears, my cheeks moist with crying and my throat dry as the desert. It was only then that I looked and I saw blood—a pool of blood in whose waters I swam and which helped me cross to the other side so I would be a man—once and for all.
I saw the man break an egg. I couldn’t tell why he did so. Perhaps the idea was to reduce the pain or help stop my losing any more blood. I thought that the white and yellow of the egg mixed well with my own blood and the colors which I saw, the beauty of what I saw, took the pain away, for at least a few decisive seconds. My bare thighs were spotted with cold sprouts of pained hair and I rubbed them, smoothing the hair-erections so the blood would return. I was helped to stand, I don’t remember by whom, and was led away from the spot I had been sitting on. Possibly, the eggshell was the hat my manhood wore, possibly not; possibly, once the skin was pushed back, I was bandaged with cotton or other similar material, although I cannot remember anything save the pain, which made me faint. I awoke. Alone. On a bed.
JONATHAN FRANZEN: To the extent that the written word is a word of political utterance, it obviously can change something. Probably at least 50 percent of the time for the worse. For every Germinal there’s a Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for every Silent Spring there’s a tract by Rush Limbaugh, if not several. For every Communist Manifesto there’s the same Communist Manifesto put to a different use. For me, tonight’s question is interesting only as it pertains to really good books, to writers like Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy, to writing that’s too multifaceted or ambivalent or delightful to be socially effective. The question then becomes, Can the kind of writing that can’t change anything change something? And here I think at best we’re talking about very personal and subtle interior changes. I definitely feel as if I’ve been changed by Austen and Tolstoy, and yet the more closely I look at the relationship between the self and the words on the page, the more mysterious and tricky things get. I’m going to read a pair of little stories on the subject of this trickiness by the American fiction writer Lydia Davis. The first one is called “Almost No Memory”:
A certain woman had a very sharp consciousness but almost no memory. She remembered enough to get by from day to day. She remembered enough to work, and she worked hard. She did good work, and was paid for it, and earned enough to get by, but she did not remember her work, so that she could not answer questions about it, when people asked, as they did ask, since the work she did was interesting.
She remembered enough to get by, and to do her work, but she did not learn from what she did, or heard, or read. For she did read, she loved to read, and she took good notes on what she read, on the ideas that came to her from what she read, since she did have some ideas of her own, and even on her ideas about these ideas. Some of her ideas were even very good ideas, since she had a very sharp consciousness. And so she kept good notebooks and added to them year by year, and because many years passed this way, she had a long shelf of these notebooks, in which her handwriting became smaller and smaller.
Sometimes, when she was tired of reading a book, or when she was moved by a sudden curiosity she did not altogether understand, she would take an earlier notebook from the shelf and read a little of it, and she would be interested in what she read. She would be interested in the notes she had once taken on a book she was reading or on her own ideas. It would seem all new to her, and indeed most of it would be new to her. Sometimes she would only read and think, and sometimes she would make a note in her current notebook of what she was reading in a notebook from an earlier time, or she would make a note of an idea that came to her from what she was reading. Other times she would want to make a note but choose not to, since she did not think it quite right to make a note of what was already a note, though she did not fully understand what was not right about it. She wanted to make a note of a note she was reading, because this was her way of understanding what she read, though she was not assimilating what she read into her mind, or not for long, but only into another notebook. Or she wanted to make a note because to make a note was her way of thinking this thought.
Although most of what she read was new to her, sometimes she immediately recognized what she read and had no doubt that she herself had written it, and thought it. It seemed perfectly familiar to her, as though she had just thought it that very day, though in fact she had not thought it for some years, unless reading it again was the same as thinking it again, or the same as thinking it for the first time, and though she might never have thought it again, if she had not happened to read it in her notebook. And so she knew by this that these notebooks truly had a great deal to do with her, though it was hard for her to understand, and troubled her to try to understand, just how they had to do with her, how much they were of her and how much they were outside her and not of her, as they sat there on the shelf, being what she knew but did not know, being what she had read but did not remember reading, being what she had thought but did not now think, or remember thinking, or if she remembered, then did not know whether she was thinking it now or whether she had only once thought it, or understand why she had had a thought once and then years later the same thought, or a thought once and then never that same thought again.
A second story. Slightly sunnier, and as with Margaret, the sunnier thought is shorter. This story is called “Happiest Moment.”
If you ask her what is a favorite story she has written, she will hesitate for a long time and then say it may be this story that she read in a book once: An English-language teacher in China asked his Chinese student to say what was the happiest moment in his life. The student hesitated for a long time. At last he smiled with embarrassment and said his wife had gone to Beijing and had eaten duck there, and she often told him about it, and he would have to say the happiest moment of his life was her trip, and the eating of the duck.
ANTONIO MUÑOZ MOLINA: Right in front of me, on a crowded subway train, a woman is reading Marcel Proust. I have never seen her before, and most likely I will never see her again after one or the other of us gets off the train. Yet I have the feeling of having met a silent accomplice, someone with whom I share a secret, a hidden treasure. She smiles faintly as she reads, unaware of my looking at her and remote from the clanking noises of the train, pleasantly alone in spite of the crowd that surrounds her. I recognize the smile on her face, and would like to make out which of the volumes of In Search of Lost Time she is reading at the moment. But I don’t want to seem obtrusive, even creepy, as I am not in a Latin country, and I have learned that in the United States, you should not stare at people the same way you could in Spain or Italy.
What exactly is prompting her to smile? I can’t help wondering. Who, among the many memorable characters invented by Proust, is she reading about? What faraway place has she been transported to? As the number 6 train rushes downtown, so absorbed in the words written by someone a century ago, she won’t even raise her head when the train screeches to a halt at 59th Street. This is the subtle power of the pen—one of them at least. The image of someone reading a novel on the train is more or less commonplace these days. Yet, when you come to think of it, it is a kind of miracle as well.
At the moment the woman opened the book and plunged into her reading, some sort of cosmic yet invisible shift took place. She is no longer on the train on this workday morning. She has fled, at least partially, to a different country. She is surrounded not by solemn, sleepy New York subway riders, but perhaps by the haughty guests at an elegant Parisian dinner. She is living in this present moment, between 8:50 and 8:55 A.M., and at the same time in the half-imagined, half-remembered evening Marcel Proust wrote about, and also in the actual time during which Proust—asthmatic, insomniac—was writing, when day was undistinguishable from night because the thick curtains were always drawn. A dying man trying to put off the end so that he could finish the same novel this lady in front of me reads so effortlessly. Even with a smile on her face. Maybe she’s finding out some truth about herself. Maybe Proust is influencing her ideas on love or jealousy, is modifying the way she perceives the passing of time or the nature of memory. Had I not read Proust myself, would I be able to notice smells and flavors and sounds the same way I do?
Does writing change anything? It is easy to generalize when all these big questions are raised, but as a writer of fiction, I’m not personally fond of general ideas and solid statements. I see this woman in front of me and I know how profoundly her actual life is being transformed by the pages of a novel. Like radio waves, the ripples of writing expand invisibly and constantly in all directions and they are even more powerful because they reach us at our innermost self. You cannot fully read a book without being alone. But through this very solitude you become intimately involved with people whom you might never have met otherwise, either because they have been dead for centuries or because they spoke languages you cannot understand. And nonetheless, they have become your closest friends, your wisest advisors, the wizards that hypnotize you, the lovers you have always dreamed of.
When I was twelve, a white-haired novelist who had written in French and who had died at the beginning of the twentieth century changed my life forever. Reading Jules Verne’s novels, I fell under the spell of an imaginary world, adventure stories and cartoons far beyond the actual experiences of my life, yet more exciting and full of promises than anything my own life could offer me at that time. The world was wider than the small and backwards Spanish province I was born in, and the lives I came across in those novels appealed to me far more powerfully than any personal expectation I could figure out for myself. There was something more for me to learn in those books—the very fact that someone had imagined and written them, this man with a white beard who very soon became a kind of father figure for me, a hero to model my own future after. I would never be a farmer like my father and my grandparents were. I would not work as a clerk in a store or an office. What this man did, I would do. Come what may, I would write books.
For the last thirty-seven years I have been trying to fulfill that childish whim, and I don’t know whether something I have written has brought about a small, enduring change in the life of my readers. Judging from my own experience as a reader, I always try to follow this maxim: Be careful what you write and how you write, because you never know who might read your words, how and where they are going to resonate. In the late ’30s, Cyril Connolly was painfully aware that by writing a couple of lines in an article he might send a young man to die in the Spanish Civil War. Very often, writers complain bitterly about the futility of their solitary endeavor, but our contemporary world, for better or for worse, was created by the writing of at least two self-absorbed graphomaniacs: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx.
The train has come to a bumpy stop and at last the lady in front of me raises her eyes from Proust as if awaking from a pleasant sleep. Now she looks at me and there is a flash of curiosity and then recognition in her face as she stealthily takes in the title of the book I am reading, which happens to be Aharon Appelfeld’s The Story of a Life. For a second, our eyes meet before I get up and leave the train at 51st Street—two fellow Freemasons exchanging a secret signal in an unfriendly environment, both of us temporary exiles, seeking shelter in other people’s memories or fictions.