Book Festival book reading controversy about books!

Today The Biological Imperative devotes an entire blog post to a stupid question asked by a bald man at a book reading. And I am glad. It was a silly question and it deserves to be ridiculed on the blogs.

The set-up:

Last night the blind professor, Selvi, and I threw back a few drinks and then attended a Virginia Festival of the Book reading at UVA’s Culbreth Theater. The program – Wayward Sons – featured Colm Toibin and Nathan Englander, both terrific writers. [Englander is not Israeli, as Selvi states on her blog. He’s from New York. But strangely enough, he used to work out in the same Jerusalem gym as Benjamin Netanyahu.] In person, Toibin is eloquent and charming. Englander is spasmodic (a nicer word than “spastic”) and equally charming. After reading from their respective books, they reclined in the velvety green armchairs onstage and fielded questions from the audience.

The stupid question:

Selvi paraphrases the question in question like this: “We Americans come from nothing, we inherit nothing. What influence do your cultures have on your writing?” I would paraphrase it more like this: “Toibin, you’re Irish. Englander, you’re Jewish. Hence you automatically have more culture in your little fingers than all Americans put together. How does that make you feel?”

My long-winded conclusion to the controversy:

I liked Nathan Englander’s answer. I couldn’t tell if it was tongue-in-cheek or not, but he said he didn’t identify as a Jewish author. He just assumed the whole universe was Jewish. There’s no need to specify that his fictional characters are Jewish, because their Jewishness is a given. He said that at a certain point in his formative years, he “was shocked to find there are non-Jews everywhere.”

This seems to be the same operating principle of the man with the question, except he was entirely lacking in self-awareness. The question man seemed oblivious to his own American culture and just assumed it to be “the norm.” He seemed to be saying that America doesn’t have its own distinctive myths and religions and culture – that there is only 1) American reality, and 2) the weird stuff outside of American reality.

I also liked Colm Toibin’s response to the question. He spoke highly of James Baldwin and how he didn’t feel pressured to write “black” novels. He also said that once, in a discussion of “gay literature,” he’d “forgotten[he] was gay.” Because he doesn’t define himself as a gay author writing for the gay universe from a gay perspective. He’s just a writer who happens to like dudes.

As a writer, it’s especially easy to be blind to the pervasiveness of your own culture and your own world view. You write what you know and assume that it’s normal. But good writing penetrates what is universal, not what is specific to certain demographics. It’s not helpful to call someone a “Jewish author” or an “Irish author” or a “black author.” Critics don’t have to compare Nathan Englander to Philip Roth in every book review just like they don’t have to compare me to Flannery O’Connor because we’re both Caucasian lady geniuses (the critics might not be saying that in so many words, but they’re thinking it).

Under the gun, we all have to admit that our culture informs who we are and how we write. The ethnic, national, and religious environments in which we were raised give distinct form to our thoughts. Even in America! Even in a barren wasteland! Even in an ant colony! But we can still define ourselves outside of our cultural trappings. We can still challenge ourselves to move beyond the unquestioned boundaries of our youth. If a novel is only about specific circumstances, it’s a throwaway. If a novel is about life which happens to take place in specific circumstances, or even within narrow, insulated parameters, it’s worth reading. My Life is always worth reading.

6 Thoughts on “Book Festival book reading controversy about books!

  1. I never get things wrong. But sometimes I take liberties with the truth for the sake of alliteration. It’s called artistic license.

  2. Pingback: More on culture and literature « Charlottesville Words

  3. Oh, brother. I was at that reading, too, and actually got up and left after that question, it annoyed me so much. Perhaps I’m just too impatient in general, but I can’t stand the self-contempt contained in the idea that “we” — whomever that’s supposed to be — have no culture. I couldn’t tell if the guy meant we Cvillians, we Virginians, we white (if Elizabeth will excuse the term) book festival-going-types, or, as you guess, we Americans.

    Back in my Iowa City days, Michael Fedman came to town with his show “Whad’Ya Know.” While interviewing people in the audience, he asked one woman where she was from. She answered, “Nowheresville.” When pressed, she finally admitted to being from Burlington, Iowa, but went on to say, more or less, that Iowa was an unlivable backwater. For her, Iowa City, being a college town and all, served as a barely acceptable outpost of civilization.

    I sensed the same self-contempt in the questioner at the reading.

    “Culture” is not something some people have and others don’t. It’s not something that is transmitted only via NPR and validated by a university degree. It’s also where you’re from and what forms you, for good and for ill. It’s the soup you’re simmered in, and as the woman on the radio talked about Nowheresville, I wondered what one of the musicians on stage — a guy who has produced Grammy-nominated albums and toured with Lucinda Williams — was thinking. He, too, called Burlington home.

    Aaargh. That’s how I felt and feel about such people and their idea of culture.

    Anyhow, sorry for the ramble.

    One final note: the idea that we Americans came from nothing and inherit nothing could, with equal plausibility, be turned on its head: We Americans come from everything and inherit everything.

  4. Thank you for the wonderful “ramble.” You said it much better than I did.

  5. I suppose I’m a Canadian author with American ambitions. I love north american culture, most of it, and the many facets that are found within it. It’s great that we can choose what we identify with, and leave those who aim for nothing with their own ambitions.

  6. Pingback: The Blog of Wistar Watts Murray » My too-tight Obama t-shirt fits me just fine

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