Hemon’s line about “other people’s tragedy” (and even his specific example of “a Katrina novel”) reminded me of Anya Ulinich’s story “The Nurse and the Novelist,” which appeared in PEN America 9: Checkpoints and prompted considerable discussion. (His remarks elsewhere in the conversation echo his contribution to our latest forum.)
AH: Here is the news, Mr. McCann: novels do not solve problems, though ideally they cause some. And if a Katrina novel would be a noble effort, that does not mean it would be any good—and if it is not good, then the pain and suffering and humiliation would have been misused for a literary tryout. You don’t practice your craft on other people’s tragedy.... published. Literature operates slowly, it is always inching toward bliss, never quite getting there.
CM: But I’ve never even dreamt that novels can solve problems. If they could we’d have no problems, or more likely no novels. And you’re right, the Guantánamo novel will probably take twenty years. But here is the flipside of the news: Stories have to be told over and over again, lest we forget them. Here, I think you make a mistake. You’re assuming once told is always told. Which I fear is the problem of how history is presented.
And Colum’s reply called to mind his recent op-ed in The New York Times (where Hemon, too, has occasionally appeared), about the way fiction can shape our ideas about history: “Kennedy and Johnson traipse along feeling the weight of the things they have carried, and Bill Clinton sounds out the saxophone alongside the white noise.”
Fellow PEN America contributor Lydia Davis also showed up on the op-ed page of the Times recently, with a piece called “Everyone Is Invited,” published on Christmas Eve. Davis also conversed publicly not long ago, participating in a live chat on the website of The New Yorker. One reader asked about her story “Jury Duty,” and got this illuminating reply: “I don’t think too much before I plunge in and write the story. I knew I wanted to write about my experience of it, and then I found the form—David Foster Wallace’s question and answer, with the question blank.”
Lastly, a transcript of the recent PEN event honoring Natalia Estemirova is now online at HELO magazine, for those who couldn't be there.
P.S. As another update to the posts below, see this post on The Daily Beast about the New Year’s Eve rally for Liu Xiaobo, featuring a transcript of E.L. Doctorow’s closing remarks about what happens when a nation’s “poets and writers and artists, its thinkers and intellectuals, are muzzled in silence.”