continued from The Distinguished Lecture Part 1: Preparation
My husband can be a bit obsessive about being on time. And to him, on time is not precisely on time. On time is no less than 5 minutes early. In this case, the doors for the even opened at 6:30 and we arrived no later than 6:25.
Since we arrived into a crowded lobby, I had no complaints. We made our way slowly to the back row of the main level, taking seats in the center where the back row transitioned from folding seats to chairs on a platform. And we proceeded to watch the theater fill. Not once, not twice, but three times an announcement was made asking people to please move towards the middle.
It seemed no one had expected such a large crowd. And this event was competing the the Transiberian Orchestra!
There were introductory remarks by the man in charge of the Distinguished Lecture series and then Sir Rushdie was introduced by the President of Boise State, Bob Kustra. And then, at last, on to the stage walked the man we were all waiting to see.
He received a standing ovation before saying a single word. And told us, quite politely, that we were supposed to stand at the end.
I had expected an interesting accent from a man raised in India, having lived in London and then New York. But he did not have a strong one to my ears. More what I would call an English affect than accent. He spoke clearly and articulately. And he began by asking why would we all have braved the chill weather to see a writer speak.
He spoke of the role of literature and particularly the role of the novel. The current news media seems more to propagate fear than understanding. Shit expands to fill the feeds until there’s no room for anything else but disaster after disaster. A novel is a way to experience the lives of others, in other cultures, and find understanding.
We are creatures of story, story animals. And we have a fundamental right to story.
Politics and literature both offer stories, but only literature advertises its stories as fiction.
Even in the United States, there have been attempts to censor books like Harry Potter, because they encourage the practice of witchcraft and evil. This does not mean that censorship is correct, but rather that “crazy assholes are here, too.”
Some of the themes in the lecture I recognized from Joseph Anton. Sir Rushdie used the example of Charlie Brown and the football to illustrate how character defines destiny. Charlie Brown can never kick the football, because to do so would be to violate his very character. But when chaos intrudes, it is no longer character that defines destiny. Being a good person doesn’t stop the suicide bomber from choosing to detonate near you.
Novelists no longer have the luxury that Jane Austen did to write of a contained space, ignoring the wars that rage around it. The public and the private have been conflated, and a novel that ignored the world to that extent would not be able to have the same impact.
He spoke of the self as being multiple and fragmented. Human characters are broad and inconstant, but we are being asked, even forced at times, to choose single definitions to fit ourselves in. Convenient chyrons to choose sides. News channel affiliations so we only listen to people we agree with.
Art outlasts tyranny. Pushing boundaries is the job of the writer.
That was the end of the lecture, but a question and answer period followed a second standing ovation.
One questioner asked about getting students to read literature, which brought about an answer I liked. “I kind of resist the idea of the usefulness of books.” It tickles me to think of literature as useless, but he did not mean that in the sense of having no use, but rather, I think, that literature should not be a tool. Or not be created as a tool. An author should not set out to create a teaching moment, a path to show the reader the way. Rather, “when you love a book, it changes you.” That might prove useful to you, but the way you use it would rarely, if ever, match an author’s intent.
The ordinary life of a book is to receive varied responses. Love, hate, indifference. All are part of what stories naturally elicit. “[S]tories are not true.” Self-evident words, perhaps, but worth reiterating from an author whose untrue stories caused his life to be turned upside down. Fiction functions through its fictionality, not its verisimilitude.
I was disappointed that the only people who got to ask questions were male, because time ran out and the women hadn’t gotten in line soon enough. Sir Rushdie was whisked away and I was not the only person in the theater who would have been willing to listen to him speak for hours more.