By Eric Olsen
At the recent Iowa Writers’ Workshop 75th anniversary celebration, the concluding session was titled “The Writer as Public Figure.” I went with great expectations, silly me, looking forward to an interesting discussion on, I dunno, maybe the writer as “public intellectual?” You know, the writer as someone who writes for a general audience on topics of current import such as politics, culture, the economy, not necessarily from the point of view of an expert, but as someone who as a matter of routine in his or her work delves into human folly, perfidy, and sporadic nobility, and knows how to communicate complex insights in clear, simple terms. You know, the writer as someone who tries to make a difference….
But it turned out that what this “public figure” to which the title of the session referred was rather the famous and successful writer burdened with fame and fortune. The poor dear . . ..
But look, I don’t think I can be blamed for foolishly assuming the best. I mean, consider the panelists: Ethan Canin, MD, author of Emperor of the Air, Blue River, and Palace Thief, among other works, a member of the Workshop’s permanent faculty, and a Harvard-trained physician; Michael Cunningham, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours, author of several other novels including By Nightfall, A Home at the End of the World, Flesh and Blood, and Specimen Days; Jane Smiley, PhD, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of more than 20 novels, short-story collections, and works of nonfiction, including her most recent novel, Private Life, and the young adult novel True Blue, and a regular Huffington Post blogger on economics and politics and other matters; and Abraham Verghese, another MD, a physician on the faculty of Stanford School of Medicine and author of the best-selling and critically acclaimed novel Cutting for Stone.
Good grief, what a collection of talent, insight, and experience, I thought! Boy, are we going to get an earful.
And we did. It just wasn’t an earful of what I expected. Jane at one point did try to bring the discussion around to politics, and the fact she’s a regular blogger on the Huffington Post. And my ears perked up and I thought “Oh boy, here we go,” but Ethan Canin, serving as moderator, quickly brought the discussion back to the topic at hand, the burdens—gasp!—of fame.
Later, in response to another probing query about the horrors of bestsellerdom, Verghese dodged the question and said that he thought the topic of discussion was “something else.” He didn’t elaborate, but I like to think that by “something else,” he meant he thought, like I did, that the topic of the panel discussion was to be the writer as engaged public intellectual.
Verghese can be forgiven for such a misconception since he was born of Indian parents in Ethiopia, and in most of the rest of the world, writers are expected and expect to engage in the public discourse from time to time and hold forth on politics, culture, and the like. It comes with the territory, as long as the territory isn’t the U.S.
Richard A. Posner, archconservative appeals court judge and polymath, writes at length about the absence of rational and thoughtful public discourse in this country in his 2001 tome The Public Intellectual: A Study of Decline, stating that the public intellectual is disappearing “as a consequence of the absorption of intellectuals into university faculties in an era of specialization and professionalization.” Professors have a sweet deal, in other words. Why mess up a good thing getting engaged with life beyond the academy’s comfy confines?
Several years ago, I helped found and then run the first city of asylum program in the U.S., in Las Vegas of all places, and got to know a lot of very good writers from other countries who had tried to make a difference well beyond the comfy confines of the academy, and ended up in prison or shot at or otherwise persecuted for their efforts. Our program was part of a network of such asylum programs based in Paris. There were, at the time, 30-plus asylum cities in Europe and two in Mexico.
Until we started City of Asylum Las Vegas, there were none in the U.S. The asylum cities provided safe haven for writers and artists from around the world who were victims of censorship and persecution.
I found it interesting that none of the writers who ended up in our program got into trouble because of their art; rather, they ran afoul of this thugocracy or that one because of what they’d said or written in their engagement in public debate. The burdens of fame and fortune were the least of their concerns.
Our first writer in asylum was Syl Cheney-Coker of Sierra Leone, author of the novel The Last Harmattan of Alusine Dunbar and most recently Stone Child and Other Poems. He wrote a series of newspaper columns criticizing the thugs who’d ousted his country’s elected government. He literally had to run for his life one night when the thugs came to murder him.
Our next writer in asylum was the Chinese artist, poet, and philosopher Er Tai Gao. As a young artist, he’d had the audacity to write an essay titled “On Beauty,” in which he rashly suggested that without freedom, the creation and apprehension of beauty was impossible. For his trouble, he ended up in a labor camp on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert in western China, where three-quarters of his fellow inmates, some 2000 of them, died of disease and starvation. He was in and out of trouble with the Communist regime for years after his release, and eventually escaped from China with his wife, Maya, and made his way to the U.S. and then to (of all places) Las Vegas.
While Gao was in residence with City of Asylum Las Vegas, he completed a memoir of his years in the Chinese gulag and we had it translated and helped place it with HarperCollins. Titled In Search of My Homeland, it was released in 2009. HarperCollins did nothing to promote the book, and just let it go out of print. Of course, I’m sure the fact that HarperCollins is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who has vast business interests in China, had nothing to do with the book’s fate . . ..
Our third writer was Ammar Abdulhamid of Syria. A novelist and filmmaker, he’d had the temerity to criticize Syria’s latest dictator, Bashar Assad. For his trouble, Ammar and his wife and two young children were forced to flee Damascus in the dead of night, just a step ahead of Bashar’s thugs. This was five years ago, and Ammar’s criticisms of Assad were amazingly prescient, as recent events have proven.
It is this prescience that writers can bring to the table, if not specific expertise in a particular field. Or if not prescience, certainly the benefits of imagination, the vital precursor to prescience, that finely honed ability to think about what might have been, or will be and to tease out human emotions and motivations and rank stupidity and put them into believable and illustrative situations. And to present it all in clear prose free of academic jargon.
English majors understand human nature better than economists do. If, as Krugman [Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate in Economics] said, ‘homo economicus’ is perfectly rational, where did the folks who came up with this simplistic idea go to college, and didn’t they read, say, Shakespeare, Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, Dickens, Trollope, Proust, Zola, or even Freud?”
I like to think this is the point she was trying to make when the discussion was rather abruptly turned back to the more pressing matter of the awful burden of fame and fortune . . ..