Copyright 2007 Ben S. Pollock
“In light that your entire talk focused on the importance of the imagination and getting at truth through invention, Mr. Rushdie, would you analyze, discuss or comment on the widespread public infatuation with memoir?”
The UA moderator cut the 15 minutes of Q-and-A precisely. I wasn’t next at the microphone but the one after that. Yet by gosh I’ll ask my question. Here.
Wednesday was this term’s top-level public lecture, by Salman Rushdie (previous visitors have included Isabel Allende, Benazir Bhutto, Ehud Barak, and Ben Stein, Al Franken and Dave Barry).
Rushdie in the precise 60 minutes of “The Role of the Writer in the 21st Century” made about six points to say the role is indirect, and the more indirect the more effective. Making up useless stories — with no morals — generally works best and lasts longest. This lengthy Brick is not a transcript but a subjective summary.
1) “There is no role,” unless it is the writer’s nature to write with that sort of gravitas. Arthur Miller had it, especially in Death of a Salesman, whose line of “Attention must be paid” still resonates. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Rushdie said, “changed the conversation” society was having; Lincoln confirmed he listened.
Yet good books by writers who do not take a political or societal role do change a reader. Rushdie cannot write a book with the intention of it helping people, or with a plan it will be one readers love.
(Rushdie makes you wish English professors lectured like him. My Beloved observed a down-to-earth regular fellow, who didn’t at all mind her question, at a reception afterward, about his weekend with Bono. I was awed at how he referred to many books and world figures, but not presuming the entire audience was as well-read. He summarized precisely enough of each reference so all of us could get his points. That is a talent speakers should envy. His hand gestures carried emphasis through the audience of 1,200 to 1,400, but the beard stroking was more of a tic.)
2) “Literature is about what is unexpected.” Otherwise it is “tedious, boring.” This follows from the first point because books that try to have a moral or a message — a role — generally are predictable. If you know what will happen to the protagonist then why bother reading. For this Rushdie used Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities as an example of a pretentious waste of time. This is different than his sincere appreciation of “bad literature,” as an audience member asked in the Q-and-A. That, Rushdie said we need just as sometimes we need “junk food like a burger and fries.”
“No novelist knows how his book will turn out,” meaning in the execution foreseeing just how the story will end. Rushdie plays on words here, as he also means “turn out” as impact. 1984 as a prediction book fails because Soviet socialism failed, though a few years after 1984. But Orwell didn’t set out to write a “role” book — not prophecy or warning that if we do nothing this will happen — but was writing about his world of 1948. Rushdie does not like “what if” books, such as speculation if Hitler won. “Hitler lost, and it’s hard enough to understand what does happen, what did happen.”
He comments on Joseph Heller’s Good As Gold and later will say Catch 22 is one of the best satires in emphasizing the importance of comedy as a component of writing to surprise. “Comedy often gets it right.”
Novels with morals tend to fade. Novels that ask questions that they do not answer with pat responses tend to survive. The journey not the answer is his point. The caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland notes that in a story you start at the beginning, go through the middle and at the end stop. True enough but too simple, he said. Novelists like to start in the middle and move back and forth, “squashing the caterpillar” on the way. In a good novel, “the end is just that, the end, the story simply stops, a blank page after the last page.”
“It is a luxury for us to talk about literature in this way when the world is so dark now.” Yet, “Literature needs frivolity.” He praises the humor of the Israeli David Grossman and Nicaraguan Gioconda Belli, whose countries have been in crisis for decades.
Rushdie notes Kurt Vonnegut recently died but his Slaughterhouse 5 and Heller’s Catch 22 “bring lightness” into the darkness of war. Rushdie effects a pun meaning both sunlight but also lightness of heart brought by their raucous slapstick.
Yet, our world takes real frivolity too seriously, with Paris Hilton as his example. This is not what Rushdie means by writers’ sound use of frivolity. Now “is a time to insist upon the seriousness of serious things.” He points to Fitzgerald and Melville as writing of their times, which preserves them. The impact of Tolstoy’s War and Peace is so great that people’s view of a real general fused with how he embellished him, a rare example of “literature replacing history.”
One paraphrase in the Demzette caught this precisely:
“Literature is a powerful tool that can tell the story of the human condition, record or rewrite history, he said. Literature can introduce frivolity in times of seriousness and seriousness in times of frivolity.”
To be sure, Rushdie spent little time commending the serious side of literature. It doesn’t often work, and it doesn’t often last, went his argument, again and again.
A few days before Wednesday’s lecture, I hit the library to check out any of Rushdie’s books that I had not read. Most of course were out. It was more than fortunate that Haroun and the Sea of Stories was still there, because although it is a children’s story from 1990, it mirrored most of the author’s points in Fayetteville: If a story is useless, that does not mean it’s useless.
The evil Khattam-shud to our young hero: “You’d have done better to stick to Facts, but you were stuffed with stories. … what’s the use of stories that aren’t even true?” (author’s italics) The author repeats that question word for word throughout the book, written after his first months in hiding.
3) “When you look backward, literature tells you who you were.” Twain’s Huckleberry Finn explains America, many have said, he notes. P.G. Wodehouse described England as it almost was.
He notes that Wodehouse was a contemporary of Fitzgerald and speculates on how The Great Gatsby would have ended happily if Bertie Wooster’s butler Jeeves had shown up and as usual solved everyone’s problems, Wodehouse living in fact near the novel’s Long Island setting.
“At this time, we don’t understand one another, we fear one another [and so forth]. Literature can tear those walls down” that these miscommunications erect. The Afghan novel The Kite Runner explains one culture to another beautifully.
4) “Literature reminds us that we dream.” Rushdie points out the importance of the tales of the Arabian Nights when he was a child in India. (Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story (am now reading) employs a magic carpet, actually a flying flour sack. Coincidence?) It is important to know “stories are not true,” realizing this is liberating. “The fictionality of fiction” gives us “a world that is not and never was,” and from this comes truth.
The literal meaning of the Greek “metaphor” and Latin “translation” is the same, “to carry across,” from one place to another, from likeness to unlikeness. Here Rushdie gives examples of metaphors, of comparisons, noting, “We are the animal that dreams.”
“Recognition and surprise” also are at the heart of good stories. As an example, he notes the difference of British and American humor with the former often taking as a starting point, “Wouldn’t it be funny if …” and the latter beginning, “Isn’t it funny that. …” The first uses surprise, as in Monty Python: Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a Ministry of Silly Walks. The second uses recognition, as in Seinfeld, Isn’t it funny that Kramer does such and such, which we see in ourselves.
Both forms work, he said.
5) The New. “The idea of The New is at the heart of the intent of the novel.” Rushdie returns to Saul Bellow, whom he mentioned in his opening joke about a long-ago P.E.N. conference with Bellow, Norman Mailer, Gunter Grass and himself. Bellow’s The Dean’s December has a scene with the dean interpreting a dog’s barking as wanting the universe to be bigger. “The novelist sees borders then tries to push them out. This is a contentious act.” It makes the novel “both dangerous and endangering,” this pushing against the frontier.
One of the great values of literature, Rushdie says again, is “that it is useless, in that it is not useful.” He again cites Alice in Wonderland, in not what a story must do or might do; “it helps by simply being.”
6) “Writing: Nobody owns it.” The heart of the writer’s job is the creation of a story that stands on its own, no country, no economy, no entity of any sort owns it. “The greater the writer, the more direct and particular his voice.” We writers, he says, work all our lives to refine that voice.
I was ready to do almost anything to get out of work to see Rushdie, only partly because of the fatwa against him, a concrete example of what many writers face indirectly, subtly or subliminally. In recent years when I finally began reading his novels — Haroun makes five — I saw a skilled storyteller, a seductive intellectual. Would he explain himself in Arkansas?
Yes, and then some, especially because my getting halfway through Haroun before Wednesday night complemented all of his lecture points, as seen from his version of Baum’s Oz.
In childhood, when I began reading in a line from Sendak to Vonnegut, I thought imagination was so vital that any reliance on personal history was cheating, lazy. As an adult teaching myself to write, I have seen in many Paris Review interviews successful authors detailing how they fashion narrative arcs on their life stories, either from a different angle in successive books or a different span (adolescence, first marriage) for each. And changing the names.
Sure, what happens to Haroun, or actually his father, Rashid, comes from Rushdie’s predicament. But the talking fish and talking bus and the card-shaped Page Army? That ain’t memoir. Somewhere in all this is a lesson the writer in me has striven to learn, to understand and to apply.