Ludvík Vaculík’s novel The Guinea Pigs is charming and unsettling at the same time. From the outset, Vaculík disarms the reader by treating the tale as if it were being read to us by a parent at bedtime. “Our family,” the protagonist tells us, “is originally from the country.
Most writers sidestep the problem of the audience, the reader, by saying that they write first for themselves, the things they would want to read. Problem solved. However, the matter is compounded by the needs of the publishing industry, which today (or since its inception?) tends to, has to, view the book as a product that it must sell. This involves identifying a target market and producing books that the target market will spend its money on.
On the closing day of PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, I had front row seats to listen to two giants of the literary world, Harold Bloom and Wole Soyinka. Both events took place in the exquisite Beaux-Arts Celeste Bartos Forum at that temple of the book, the New York Public Library. First up, From Anxiety to the Anatomy of Influence, where Paul Holdengräber picked the octogenarian mind of the often controversial Harold Bloom.
Short of traveling the world, the best way to learn about other people and cultures is through literature. Yes, yes, yes… the news, nonfiction, movies, and other media are fine conduits for showing us glimpses into the lives of others. But nothing delves into the essential psychology of people like literature does. Nothing can get into the hearts and minds of the beautiful and dastardly people of this world like good fiction. Literature allows the time and space necessary to really mine a person’s psyche, the context of a situation, and the dreams and nightmares of people and places so far… far… away.
I’ll be the first to admit that the Brainwave: The Dreamers event sounded a bit hokey. Things didn’t start out so well at the (awesome) Rubin Museum when I ordered a gin & tonic in the stylish K2 Lounge. “Is that a drink?” my server replied. She returned ten minutes later and served me the crisp beverage … in a wine glass. Minutes later I found myself on the third floor amongst some masterpieces of art and sculpture, on what felt like a combination of a scavenger hunt and a round speed dating.
Day three of PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. Event number four for me, at a fourth location. One of the joys of this weeklong event is discovering new and unusual places. So far I’ve been in the sexy Standard Hotel, the very cool Chelsea Lighthouse, an old gymnasium in Little Italy, and now the charming Greenwich House Music School—all new to me. Looking ahead, I’m scheduled to cover six more events in six more locations. Variety is the spice of life, and of PEN World Voices!
While I have gleefully immersed myself in his nonfiction and long-form essays, I have not read The Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, or The Pale King. Post-event discussions revealed that I wasn’t the only one in the audience at PEN World Voices Festival’s Everything and More panel who had not dipped his toes into David Foster Wallace’s fiction. Such is the draw of the deceased writer-philosopher genius.
Event: Opening Night: Written on Water, PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature 2011
PEN American Center is taking it up a couple of notches this year. The hub of this year’s World Voices Festival of International Literature is centered in the über-hip Chelsea and Meatpacking neighborhoods of Manhattan, specifically at the Standard Hotel and the High Line Park, both head turning features of this snappy area, where supermodels and Diane von Furstenberg brush up against the Hudson River and some of New York City’s most exciting architecture.