World Books @ PEN World Voices Festival – A Critical Thought or Two

Widening literary perspectives is admirable, but as the festival matures somebody at PEN has to decide what World Voices is supposed to be.


By Bill Marx

My admittedly small sampling of the 5th Anniversary of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York last week left me feeling baffled. I attended seven events: the prevalent atmosphere was of a gathering running on fumes, chugging along on earnest autopilot. With fewer big names attending than in the past – can you expect the same superstars to come year after year? – the World Voices Festival appears to be evolving from the heady excitement of its early days into the La Brea tar pits of good intentions, a global literary PSA.

Ironically, the theme of this year’s festival was “Evolution/Revolution,” but only one of the panelists I saw explored the idea – perhaps nobody else knew or cared. Ironically, World Voices needs to consider a revolutionary/evolutionary reconsideration of its purpose: it is exhilarating to bring together writers from around the world, to fight the good fight to widen literary perspectives. But now somebody at PEN has to figure out how to present these international voices in a compelling way, to decide, as the festival matures, what it aims to be. Or is the whole thing just about mastering the logistics of face time?

Is the festival about marketing? Then why were there no books from some of the participating writers for sale at the end of the readings? Is the purpose of the festival to learn about new or neglected authors? Then why, in the panel on the Russian master Andrey Platonov, was there no expert on the author? A woman in the audience who read Russian tried to answer questions on how the writer reinvented his native language. Rooting for his genius is fine – but wasn’t there somebody free in New York that night who could have offered detailed insight into Platonov’s art?

Why at a panel on literature and politics — a venerable but still dicey topic — was there not a single question from the audience? Could the chloroform of platitudes have sedated the crowd? Is the festival about contributing to the serious discussion of the considerable challenges facing international literature, such as the sharp-elbows politics of translation or the considerable virtues and vices of globalization? Then why at the “This Critical Moment!” panel, which featured reviewers from the National Books Critics Circle, was there more articulate cheerleading than nuanced discrimination or evaluation? The criticism never arrived, with or without an exclamation point.

For me, this year’s standout moments came when I learned something. Art historian T. J. Clark, reading a passage from the supposedly gloomy Platonov, dramatized the prose’s vibrant emotional registers, from the grotesque and the sentimental to the humorous. Or when there was a rare moment of feisty disagreement. At the “Where Truth Lies: A Conversation on the Art of Fiction” panel writer Roxana Robinson, in response to a pointed question about the role of humor in the novel, suggested that tragedy was the highest form of art. She used a quotation from Joyce Carol Oates to back her up. (Name a tragic novel by Oates.)

The other writers on the panel, their tragicomic feathers ruffled (aside from a laid back Horacio Moya, who was the standout at last year’s Thomas Bernhard panel), came to passionate life, defending the honor of comedy, suggesting that glum and depressing did not lead to catharsis. A profanity was uttered! The organizers should find ways to encourage civilized friction, lively interaction, rather than contentedly ringmaster round robins of readings.

After five years the massive size of World Voices has become problematic; although this was a reduced version of earlier festivals, perhaps it is time to think even more about quality rather than quantity. It isn’t just about the running around New York to catch the different sessions. A panel of four or five writers talking for around 90 minutes (reserving about 15 minutes or so for questions from the audience) leaves little time for substance. Fewer panels with a reduced number of writers would encourage a sharper focus: the panels would come closer to what they are billed to be – conversations rather than potted Q and A sessions. The relaxed talk between Israeli David Grossman and Leonard Lopate rolled along with ease while, perhaps because scheduled interlocutor Daniel Mendelsohn couldn’t make the session, the “conversation” with Hungarian author Péter Nádas turned into a series of abstract questions and thoughtful answers.

Frankly, the panels that worked best for me this year were the smaller affairs, such as the partyish atmosphere for “Four/Négy” at the Hungarian Cultural Center, which is located in a loft. The event was low key and chatty, with none of the snap-to-attention, get-out-your-your-notebook atmosphere of a cavernous lecture hall. Frankly, some of the events scheduled for the larger venues didn’t draw all that many people – the panels could have been held in a loft, though that would have meant the writers would have had to mingle with the hoi polloi.

Chad Post over at Three Percent has been thinking along these lines and suggests the creation of a salon:

What I envision is a restaurant or hotel lobby that would be accessible basically all day and night, where authors could come and go as they please, and readers would have an opportunity to ask a follow-up question to a particular discussion, or simply get their book signed. And since this would be a central meeting point, a bookstore could have all of the works of all of the authors on display at all times, providing a real opportunity for readers to browse what’s available and actually buy books. (That’s sort of the point, right? Getting readers interested in these authors?)

A meeting place makes sense to me. Online publicity, Facebook, and YouTube are making it easier to hear from and about the world’s literary voices. So PEN should make the most of the fact that the authors are available, in the flesh, to discuss issues and books. The PEN World Voices Festival will have to become leaner and more personable, come up with more provocative discussions and apply savvier marketing smarts if it is going to stop its slide into the staidly superfluous.

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