Rushdie and Oates - What an evening
Format of the evening?
The theatre stage had three chairs. Moderator Colin McEnroe sat on the left, Oates in the middle, and Rushdie on the right. McEnroe asked his own set of questions for the first hour, and the last forty-five minutes to an hour (can’t exactly remember when it ended) was for written questions from the audience (very few of these were asked—maybe four?). Several video cameras taped the talk and projected the feed onto a huge screen behind the speakers.
Why was the talk fabulous?
I never imagined I’d sit in the same room with (three rows from, even) two of the most treasured writers of literature in English. For almost two hours, Oates and Rushdie spoke of writing and humanity with passion, wit, and humor; I didn’t want the evening to end.
Intriguing questions asked?
The very first question moderator Colin McEnroe posed was, “Do you feel you have an obligation to make the world a better place?” Both authors said no and went on to explain that novelists usually don’t write from such an imperative, although Oates ended up naming important books that did fulfill such a mission (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, The Jungle, Nicholas Nickelby).
Later, McEnroe asked the two to talk about the recent attention on writers who fabricate and plagiarize. I was surprised at Oates’s strong response in defense of Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan. “Leave the girl alone. She’s a teenager,” she replied and took the New York Times to task for publishing twenty articles on her since the story broke, wondering, “Don’t they have more pressing things to write about?”
What notable things did each author say about writing?
So many gems, too many to recount. Here are a few:
Oates was asked by an audience member whether she considered herself an optimist or a pessimist, considering the darkness of her novels. Oates answered by describing the process of writing a novel as a masochistic endeavor, but one that proved that she—and, she figured, most other novelists as well—were optimists just for taking on the task. Rushdie agreed.
Oates compared writing a novel to a death-defying swim across a large body of water. You crawl up on shore, cold and exhausted, and then a critic walks up to you pointing to a piece of paper and says, “Here’s what you did wrong.” She said that anyone who succeeds in writing a novel in the first place should be applauded.
Discussion turned to criticism and reviews. Rushdie said there are two categories of reviewers, those who are good at writing about what they don’t like about a novel, and those in a much smaller group who can explain why a novel is good and why others should read it. He also cited novelist, poet, and critic Randall Jarrell as saying a novel is a long piece of writing with something wrong with it. Their insights into criticism versus the Herculean task of writing a novel helped me see the big picture a bit more clearly.
I was moved to hear Rushdie describe the sort of neglect ironically suffered by The Satanic Verses after the Ayatollah’s fatwa. The attention heaped on the book prevented it from being regarded in the usual way—readers deciding whether or not they liked the prose or the characters, whether they would recommend it to their friends, etc. He also noted that readers of TSV are almost always surprised to discover it is a very funny book.
What inspires them?
No one asked what inspired them, but on a related note, Oates said that she is very interested in writing about the generations of her parents and grandparents, and not so much about her own peer group. She denied, however, that there were any sordid or dark secrets in her own past that she consciously works out through her fiction. I got the idea that her home life with her “low-maintenance’ husband and her work life as a Princeton professor are fairly quiet.