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Friday, August 22, 2014

Writers on Parade

From the Vault Dept.: Here’s my account of an event in Saratoga Springs in 1987 at which a quartet of excellent writers were turned loose upon the public – and I’ll let E.L. Doctorow take it from here.


“‘THE WRITER AND THE PUBLIC’ is usually just an excuse to get a bunch of us together to talk about whatever we want to,” said E.L. Doctorow, speaking last night at Skidmore College. “But it’s not a subject that especially interests me.”

E.L. Doctorow | AP Photo by Mary Altaffer
Sitting in three rows of roped-off seats, the 80 students of the Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore joined a throng from the community Friday night to see E.L. Doctorow, William Kennedy, Russell Banks and Amy Hemphill speak on that topic.

It was the final event in the New York State Writers Institute-sponsored program, releasing the students back to the public even as that very subject was considered.

And it may have been an appropriate reinforcement of the intentionally solitary work a writer performs – the panel was hampered not only by a badly-equipped hall but also by the lack of showmanship inherent in the four representatives.

Which, in itself, is nothing to criticize: the panelists didn’t go there to put on a performance. Nevertheless, Kennedy, in introducing the gathering, suggested a few topics to concentrate on and warned the group from the outset that they would answer no questions about obtaining an agent or selling a book.

How do the authors regard the public? “I agree with Cornelius Vanderbilt,” said Banks. “The public be damned. Actually, it’s very hard to think of the public and the writer as being entities in opposition.”

Hempel had a somewhat contrasting view, suggesting that she thinks of three or four other writers when she is at work.

Doctorow recounted the story of a neighbor who, upon hearing a bookseller recommend “The Book of Daniel,” told its author she wouldn’t spend that kind of money on a book. “To me there are two kinds of public: the public we idealize, and the public we’re a part of.”

William Kennedy
As the conversation meandered through related areas, stopping at occasional “what did you think of the film of your book?” kind of questions, there were a few stabs at a political definition of a writer’s position. Doctorow suggested that “when you write politically, you use apolitical language – not your own. It’s a problem of language.”And there were a few interesting glimpses at the approach each of the authors takes when considering a new work (Banks: “It’s like an epileptic seizure. You know it’s coming but you hope you won’t be in the room with yourself when it happens.”)

The relatively passive perception of a writer in this country was explained by Doctorow as
a product of the frontier nature of U.S. history that made the lone hero so important to literarture, while Banks lamented that “the public doesn’t seem to rise up in fury every time we open our mouths.” Commenting on the reactions to his own novels, Banks said, “There are three or four or five other writers I can count on hearing from – and my mother. And she only gets as far as the first dirty part, so I make sure I stick that in in the first 40 pages and then go on to say what I want.”

The two-hour talk was plagued by the technical problems of the sound system, which rendered the speakers muddy and unintelligible.

The setting, in the new Bernhard Theater, was a sterile row of uncomfortable looking office furniture on a thrust stage with lousy lighting. There were moments when the slamming of the exits (as people left in frustration) all but drowned out the speakers.

It was an idea that looked terrific on paper but started out with a bad combustion, sparking only occasionally.

Kennedy’s pages of notes eventually became Hempel’s fan as the air conditioning failed to cool the room.

But Doctorow saw an even more fundamental problem. “The basic flaw in this convocation,” he said, “is that we’re being called upon to perform. And we’re not performers.”

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 24 September 1987

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