Reporting Live from Writerdom

"It seemed a tawdry response to a serious inquiry."

That was Salman Rushdie tonight commenting on the radical Muslim response to his Satanic Verses. And based on his explication, I'm now bound to believe him. Mostly.

Well here we are at the end of day two of the never-ending feast of words, words, words.

My first impression is that Dutch people, of the neo-Calvinist sort, are tall, blond, and rather smart. Rather. And there are a lot of them.

This isn't so much intimidating as spooky, in the non-horrific way, in the way that accidently landing into any single-culture ethnic pool would unnerve you, whether it was with the Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn or the Amish in western Pennsylvania. The last time I found myself in the middle of what used to be the norm, ethnic uniformity tied to geographic place, was when I lived in British Columbia and I would visit my friend Mark Klassen down in Abbotsford. That was Mennonite country; Mennonites with the Francis Schaeffer memorial u-shaped, funny-lookin' beard.

It's not bad, mind you, it's just so much of it, cultural oneness (sameness?); and white, not the old-school Calvinist tighty-whities, these are the friendly kind, Christian Reformed kind, but white nonetheless. Everywhere. And super cordial.

At one point prior to the introduction of Thursday evening's plenary speaker Luci Shaw, the Mistress of Ceremonies asked the crowd of approximately 1900 persons how many were in book clubs. 60% raised their hands. That's 1140 people. That's a freakin a lot. I've never been in a book club. Never. I thought, man, I'm not in Kansas any more. 1140!

It's just a different deal.

Otherwise, things have been mostly good. My schedule today began with an early seminar with Neal Plantinga, member of the Plantinga Family of Philosophers Empire, (on why preachers should read more books and poems), an interview with Lauren Winner (ever sharp, ever self-deprecatingly witty, and an INFJ like Phaedra), a session with Don Miller and his droll sense of humor, and an afternoon artsy testimony with Mako Fujimura.

Tonight we listened to a rambling discourse on religion and literature by Mister Satanic Verses himself. Two things he said that stood out. One, he likes to digress. Two, he prefers transgressive treatments of religion to reverential ones, which he finds mostly boring. He was waggish in the way that erudite Cambridge graduates can tend to be, but his digressions overcame him and we quickly lost him. I wrote in my notebook a comment and showed it to John Wilson, sitting next to me, "His digressions are becoming transgressions." So tedious.

This is the third plenary speech that I've found less than, well, what I thought they would be. Luci, as much as I love her and have heard bang-up talks by her, rambled quite a bit, and Alice McDermott spent the first thirty minutes of her 70-minute talk reading an excerpt from her latest book. She followed it with a peroration on art and suffering, which while important, and in moments stellar, didn't add, I felt, anything new to the subject. The one thing she said that I did quite like was that artists ought never to offer antidotes to suffering. Antidotes are for doctors, she said. Artists ought to help people lean into the pain, redemptively.

I hate to sound crotchety here. I'm not. I'm just finding what I guess I've found in many other places: that a great artist does not necessarily make for a great communicator. They might even be a great teacher in the classroom. But the art of speech-making (public rhetoric) is a difficult art not given to all. Many of the writers here would gladly and quickly agree with that and make no bones about it. So it's ok. There's a lot of rich stuff happening in classrooms all over the campus. Why fault a writer for doing what she does best, writing and reading.

I sign off here with immense gratitude for this conference and the excellent organization visible at every turn. Tomorrow I look forward to a session on reading and the future of literature in a visual age, a seminar which explores contemporary Catholic writers, book-buying at a book-lovers fantasy island, and many interesting conversations with interesting folk.

I close with an apt comment by George McDonald:

"The best must be set before the learner, that he may eat and not be satisfied; for the finest products of the imagination are of the best nourishment for the beginnings of that imagination."


Popular Posts