James Wood Keynotes the 2016 PEN New England Literary Awards



I hope I'm not gonna be too much like you might remember Gabriel Conroy enjoys his story of the dead who fears that his after-dinner speech is a little too high-minded I think I should have come with more jokes but I'm saying something serious I hope so I hope the high-mindedness will be will be allowed ger as you are – – I know – get out of this room I'm sure and go to the exhibition for novelists and short story writers this is an age of extremes on the one hand there's an enormous production and consumption of fiction from the Pulitzer prize-winner to a popular hybrid that might be renamed Fifty Shades of hungergames fiction from the most popular to the more rarified still retains a fair amount of its old prestige on the other hand I think we're living in an age that exhibits quite a lot of hostility to fiction writing and storytelling even when or especially when it thinks it's praising friction this hostility I think comes in two large forms utilitarianism and distraction both indifferent but overlapping ways Menace the writing and reading of serious literature and seek to replace or minimize it by utilitarianism I really mean a many-headed monster that's part pragmatism part neuroscience part evolutionary biology part social science a monster that roars for its ransom while spewing data utilitarianism is you know constantly asks us to justify what we do in the name of usefulness benefit function you read fiction then justify it by proving that it makes you more empathetic in 2013 some of you remember the New York Times reported that recent research had shown that reading even a small amount of Chekhov is good for one's empathy what was new about this study was that exposure to literary fiction like Alice Monroe or Chekhov see to make people more empathetic than if they were exposed to popular fiction or even to nonfiction they also striking by all accounts was the relatively short exposure required participants read for only three to five minutes before being asked to undergo various empathy tests eg looking at photographs of people's eyes and working out their emotional states from the visual evidence what's not to like the better the fiction the better the sympathy it would be hard to find a neater emblem of capitalist America three minutes of check off taken every day like a pill will strengthen your empathy muscles science proves it you believe in God then science will either tell you the prayer has been proven to have healing powers or eeveelution airy psychology will tell you that you're hardwired to believe in an illusory God you teach literature or writing or philosophy say then don't be surprised if the government starts ranking universities and university departments by how much their graduates are earning by the age of 25 a newish movement sometimes called the quantified self offers to incorporate technology and wearable sensors so that all aspects of a person's daily life can be measured and processed food intake motorized arousal mental performance blood oxygen and so on future technology will perhaps allow for the proper measuring of our daily dose three minutes of Chekhov reading the popular application of such utilitarianism can be seen almost any week alas in a typical David Brooks column in The New York Times where in almost all choices and decisions to write poetry to live in the suburbs to marry at 29 rather than 19 to go in here Bruce Springsteen live a passed through a pragmatic pragmatic prism what does it do for me and what does it do for the fabric and functioning of society do MRI machines show that certain parts of my brain loyally light up when I'm engaged like a good citizen in such activities we live in an age well at when a one well-known Harvard professor of psychology a popular expert on happiness can essentially shill on TV for Prudential mutual funds and one is very surprised or shocked about it let's bait make happiness work for us at the same time rapid advances in technology are making it harder and harder to summon the kind of concentrated attention on works of consummate literary achievement that are needed in order to do them justice we're living in an age that sherry Turkle has characterized as one of distributed presence fewer of us have the time or inclination nation needed to devote ourselves to a serious reading of any text we consume in fragments instagramming snap chatting scrolling a napping our way through an overwhelmingly visual world as nobody really writes letters any longer so soon emails may be too wordy and bulky doubtless to be supplanted by texting or perhaps just liking and unliking the window has been replaced by the screen and our world is dominated by these canny icons from the smallest which are rarely out of our hands certainly out of mine to the largest the flawlessly born pixels in River Rhine flow of light in Times Square or Piccadilly Circus the fluorescent gods and goddesses staring down in in luminous surveillance from every cityscape an abolition of privacy surveillance combines with a drastic intensification of privacy everyone coddling his little relationship with his little device or to put it a bit differently it's the abolition of privacy in the simultaneous privatization of privacy of course just as there is serious and life-saving neuroscience just as one day the balance of my life might well lie in the proper functioning of an MRI so digital technology has liberated millions of lives I'm not only grateful for the fruits of scientific advancement I'm mindful of the fact that a great deal of Technology is fundamentally morally neutral and that to decry it is like complaining about electricity still utilitarianism I think and digital distraction converged to enforce an overweening rhetoric of success both the natural allies of the language of business the aim is always successful living a successful life the measure of success and the tools are empirical we're always looking for what can be found quantified tabulated proven explained pragmatic utilitarianism provides the frame with with within which technology goes about its brilliant business always promising to make our lives more efficient quicker more liberated more informed more healthy and if the Apple answer to be believed more individual more beautiful even more musical remember that about the song what can we do as writers and readers of literature in a new age of triumphant utilitarianism and technology technological vainglory what are the prospects for people like us how do we ensure that literature stays vital and important perhaps we should consider this hot historical moment as offering paradoxically a great opportunity for literature for literature as a site of concentration critique surplus stillness at the eye of the storm here are a few ways in which light literature might go about asserting itself justifying itself to borrow the language of utilitarianism first critique and resistance it won't be lost on any keen reader of Dostoevsky that our age is in danger of repeating some of the crude utilitarianism of the 1850s 1860s and 1870s we need to borrow I think stop of the moral passion that drove Ruskin Dickens Arnold Whitman George Eliot Tolstoy to take up arms against the ruthless industrial complexes of their age in his novella notes from underground written in 1864 Dostoyevsky fiercely engaged with Russian and British progressivism and Miller ISM is it true he asked that everything is getting better and better to have explained everything about where we came from and how we function is not said Dostoevsky to know where we are going and our massive technologies of knowledge cannot explain a great deal about the sported and self-watering mysteries of human motivation for instance says da Stef's is underground man we don't always do what is in our best interests because we don't always want it sometimes we want to harm our own self-interest to sabotage ourselves to live with a scandalous lack of pragmatic success maybe nowadays we seem to lack Titanic figures like Tolstoy and George Eliot yet contemporary literature in recent years has powerfully mobilized itself against some of the political and technological presumptions of the age some of those writers are in this room others are people like Marilyn Robinson David Foster Wallace Don DeLillo josé saramago tissue Cole Carlo vicunas guard Michelle Welbeck these writers don't agree with each other variously they mount their critiques from religious or leftist or conservative positions but they are fierce resistors nonetheless we feel their writing to have a force of moral outrage they appreciate and explore our age but when necessary they unlike it second concentration by this I mean that one antidote obviously to distraction is an insistence on concentration and that art insists thus by virtue of having form this might sound like a trivial or automatic attribute of course books have form but I think it's crucial life is essentially formless and Technology though full of cute discrete objects is essentially formless – it's protein has to be it's about the process of becoming its proud of its built-in obsolescence 5s is always becoming 6 6 plus 6s 7 and so on technology dreams of infinity it should do more than more than more where do you want to go is it's right and perpetual mantra the question mark dangling enticingly and notice that when video games are extolled for their fiction making qualities the emphasis is always on the multiplicity of options and choices the game player we tell can choose many possibilities from tempting menus but literary form while of course expansive and multiple also has a certain negative power it shows us where things stop it places an almost sacred border around the artwork and says this is not identical with the claims of the world this is a space that demands a certain degree of strangeness different supplication really universally human relations stop nowhere sent Henry James of fictional form and he went on the eternal problem of the artist is to draw a circle within which such relations merely appear to stop that circle is form and as Henry James understood the stopping of an endless prolongation may be forms most important virtue the place where everything seems to stop and seems to have its own perfect justification and maybe we that feeling is strongest in short stories and in poems which have such concentrated emblems of form one thing such form powerfully allows us to do is to measure the length and shape of our lives life is relatively formless but written lives are more shapely without being too pious about it I'd say that's nothing religious or perhaps liturgical about this life measuring the Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in says the psalmist in Psalm 121 fiction in particular gives us formal insight into the shape of someone's life we can see the beginning and end of many fictional lives their developments and errors stasis and drift and of course not just fiction nonfiction too how about that wonderful poem that Duane Betts just read his second poem that we just heard it does this in different ways by sheer scope and size the long peopled novel full of many different lives many beginnings and endings but also by contrack compression and concentration the novella that radically compacts a single life from start to finish as in the death of Ivan Illich or stoner or Denis Johnson's train Dreams or Alice Monroe's the bear came over the mountain and partly by turning the present into past although we move forward through a story the story is already complete we hold it in our hands every time we return to a novella or a novel or a story we've already read we affirm the strangely expansive but also negative power of fictional form its ability to hold an animate and stop a life for our scrutiny third unnecessary surplus against technological pragmatism with its insistence on what could be precisely measured explained justified and of course not decrying the existence of the importance of such measurement we rely on it every single day when we cross a bridge of driver car or go up in a plane but against that tendency art insists I think on the gratuitous the inexplicable the cloudy the mysterious I don't mean by this that storytelling doesn't clarify of course it does I'm not arguing for mystification or superstition so much as for a kind of margin of beauty a hinterland of surplus always more than is necessary or merely useful or merely functional for many fiction writers detail plays the role of the gratuitous the extra the thing in itself that is irreducible and intrinsic because it can't quite be accounted for or pragmatically justified there's a moment early on in Madame Bovary where flerbert' describes how when the window of Madame bovary's house was open villages villagers could hear her playing the piano and flow bare pauses to linger on one of those villages quote the bailiffs clerk often stopped to listen as passed on the road bareheaded shuffling along in slippers holding in his hand the notice he was about to post when I teach this book I like to ask my students to explain why flow there stops to notice the bailiffs clerk why is he there none of us me included can quite answer the question none of us can account for the little surplus of detail all the spilling over not just a clerk but one who is bareheaded and shuffling along in slippers why bareheaded why in slippers you could say that you could say that something pragmatically instructive can be learned from Emma Bovary life for sure but what is the use of a detail like this literature is made up of millions of irreducible details they stick out of the frieze of form like hands begging us to touch them forth and finally fiction allottee utilitarianism and pragmatism make use of the real because the real of course is eminently usable and on the other side digital technology because it's centered on the screen rather than on the page tends to emphasize story making perhaps rather than storytelling fantasy video gaming virtual reality experiments and so on somewhere between the real and the purely hypothetical lies literary storytelling that's to say the narration of a story that is invented but not escapist imagined but not fantastical fabricated but not untruthful made up but not a lie what Thomas Mann once called the game of not quite to the artist wrote Thomas Mann new experiences of truth are new incentives to the game new possibilities of expression he believes in them he takes them seriously just so far as he needs in order to give them the fullest and profoundest expression in all that goes on man the artist is very serious serious even to tears but yet not quite that not quite seems important to me it preserved the preserves the fictional in storytelling reminds us that the artist offers something to us but also withdraws from us finally refuses to give us everything which is to say the artist refuses to make her story identical with the world close to the world but not quite art is the nearest thing to life said George Eliot it's a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the bounds of our personal lot the nearest thing to life but not the same thing as life our age has in different ways a terrible reality hunger to adapt the title of an anti fictional polemic by the writer David shields the artist of distinction of course feeds that reality hunger but at the same time offers a kind of food on a special plate that will not quite beat that hunger either that will not quite fit into the more of the hungry reality reverencing pragmatic data-crunching monster the artist sets down this slightly perplexing but very delicious food and the reality monster looks at it and slinks away provoked bemused and fittingly disappointed thank you you

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