Lethem & Smith, Monzó & Coover, Ford & Hazzard & more: conversations @ PEN World Voices

As I’ve mentioned before, one-one-one conversations are among my favorite World Voices events. This year, several of the pairings seem especially felicitous.

On Thursday (7 pm, Center for Jewish History), Michael Orthofer of The Complete Review (and its Literary Saloon) will talk to Israeli writer Eshkol Nevo about home, living under threat, and the art of breaking up. (Orthofer knows international literature as well as anyone, so I’d love to make this one—but I'll be elsewhere.)

On Friday (3:30, Deutsches Haus), Robert Coover will talk with Quim Monzó about the latter’s new book, Gasoline, out soon from Open Letter. Monzó has been compared as a writer to Coover, whose influence he has acknowledged—and whose work he has translated—so that should make for an interesting discussion.

Similarly, Richard Ford has expressed his admiration for the work of Shirley Hazzard (whose novel The Bay of Noon was just shortlisted for the Booker Prize for... 1970), with whom he’ll talk on Friday night (7 pm, 92nd Street Y). The evening will feature readings of Hazzard’s work by friends and admirers, including Annabel Davis-Goff and others.

The following afternon, Jonathan Lethem talks with Patti Smith (1 pm, Cooper Union). If you’ve read Lethem’s The Disappointment Artist, then you know this should be good—and apparently Smith and Lethem are both big Bolaño fans.

Later that day, Philippine-born writer and Miguel Syjuco will talk with his former teacher, Nicholas Jose, now the director of Australian Studies at Harvard. Syjuco won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize for Illustrado, which will be published in the U.S. next week.

And on Sunday I’m going to talk with Rawi Hage (3 pm, FIAF), whose excellent book Cockroach was excerpted in PEN America 10: Fear Itself.

If you can’t make it to the events themselves, audio (and, in some cases, video) will go up within a week or so after they take place. So stay tuned.

1 comment:

King said...

Another go-round of the PEN “World Voices” International Writers Festival is upon us. Last year’s included such overwhelmingly exciting highlights as Rick Moody “interviewing” fellow Insider Mark Z. Danielewski. Compelling stuff. This year well-hyped Insider Jonathan Lethem is given cred by being paired with punk retread Patti Smith, who was relevant thirty years ago but now is in the phase of cashing in.

The question is why every year PEN blows half-a-million dollars on a writers festival no one’s heard of. It’s not easy to spend that amount of money on a week of readings.

Thoughts come to me of the last days of the Soviet Union when the leading apparatchiks—generals; ministers—lost control of events and spent most of the time drunk. American lit is filled not with dynamic personalities, but ticket-punchers; literary bureaucrats and conformists. It faces accompanying institutional decay and inertia.


It’s curious that the rise of PEN’s World Festival was simultaneous with the takeover of the American book industry by multinational conglomerates like Bertlesmann and Murdoch’s News Corp. It’s in the interest of these conglomerates to develop a showroom of international literary figures whose products can be sold in a variety of markets. This is no different than Ford producing a vehicle which can be sold in Europe, or India, or America, with few changes. Local individuality and local control are gone in the name of cost-effectiveness. Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Orhan Pamuk, Paul Auster, Jhumpa Lahiri, Pico Iyer, Laila Lalami, Michael Ondaatje, Ian Buruma: stables of jetset writers who subscribe to the same multinational ideas and belong to the same affluent and sophisticated international intellectual class. A highly-placed well removed elite.


PEN’s World Voices is designed supposedly to end America’s cultural isolation, to make the nation more global and sophisticated, like New York. Where, then, do the geniuses at PEN with their half-million dollar festival budget to spend hold their International Festival to be able to reach us ignorant folk? In the center of Manhattan itself!

This shows that the festival show isn’t staged for the American masses, but for the conglomerates—for global decision makers in their Manhattan skyscraper offices. (And, to be fair, for other NYC plutocrats who help fund the outfit.) PEN has to justify to their puppetmasters their existence as puppets. Standard bureaucratic practice.


Established American writers caught up in the giant machine-system are so comatose they can’t contemplate change. With their stunted imaginations the thought never enters their heads. PEN staffers, supposedly serving PEN writers, receive comfortable paychecks ensuring their silence. Money maven Karen Kennerly made $77,000 as PEN exec Director in 1997. Ten years later Director Michael Roberts received close to triple that. Quite a pay spike. One can guess at the current Director’s pay.

Status quo doesn’t change itself. It has to be forced to change, through pressure; leverage. The REAL interest of the American literary world is to change, before, like the Soviet Union, it simply freezes up and collapses. PEN members need to wake up and take back their organization. They need to embrace the adventure of change.