The Enlightenment or GTFO. At Tablet Magazine, Liel Leibovitz comments on the PEN American Center shenanigans but might as well be talking about certain parties angry at this year’s Hugo nominations or those advocating avoidance of straight white male writers:
Can you imagine Balzac arguing that a novelist mustn’t scrutinize the poor and the rich alike, as the poor—poor souls—are too underprivileged to pass through literature’s relentless magnifying glass? Or the Bard abandoning Othello lest someone walk away convinced that all Moorish generals were murderous thugs? That would be—to borrow a phrase associated with Wallace Shawn, another of the letter’s signatories—inconceivable. Writers, real ones, grasp for as much of humanity as they can hold in their embrace. Their motto is the one forged by the Roman playwright Terrence millennia ago: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” I am a human being; nothing human is alien to me.
To the dolts who declined to partake in the PEN gala, Terrence’s words are as much a lifeless relic as the language in which he wrote. They, and the hordes of others in their circles, ask of a work of fiction not whether it is a thing of truth and beauty but where it might fall on a spectrum of insensitivities, real or imagined, and just how ill-at-ease it might make some readers feel. In Whitman they seek only affirmation of his homosexuality, in Woolf something to say about gender and power. They see no splendor in the leaves of grass, nor the beauty of the pale footfall of the light emanating from the Lighthouse. They seek nothing but confirmation of their preconceived notions, narrow and hard.
It’s bad enough the PEN refuseniks seem so intent in slandering the dead for being what they were not or rationalize some speech as more equal than others with greater contortionism than Cirque du Soleil acrobats. What’s worse is their relativist hand-wringing tacitly justifying the Charlie Hebdo massacre. As Adam Gopnik at The New Yorker said, “The whole end of liberal civilization is to substitute the criticism of ideas for assaults on people.” But I’m sure these days advocating the superiority of Enlightenment principles is punching down.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. There’s a lot to love in this WSJ interview with the Nigerian author, from her criticism of American grocery stores to her observation that “When we talk about the developing world, there’s this idea that everybody should be fighting for the poor” (why is it we so often imagine Africans as existing solely in two groups — either impoverished shack dwellers or jungle rebels — and never consider the possibility of an African middle class?). But what struck me most was this:
She does, however, experience bouts of depression, “the crazy writer illness” that she thinks is common in her field. “There’s something comforting about that, because you feel you’re not alone,” she says.
Some days she writes for 12 hours straight; other days she can’t bring herself to write at all.
“I wish I could write every day, but I don’t,” she says. “When it goes well, I ignore things like family and hygiene, but other days, when it’s not going well, I read the books I love to remind myself of how beautiful and essential and nurturing words can be, and I hope that doing that will bring my own words back.”
Adichie seems like such a — well, like such a real writer.