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PEN World Voices: Recap

The fifth annual PEN World Voices Festival ended on Sunday, and based on the attendance at the few events I went to, it was pretty successful. I wasn’t able to attend as many panels as I would’ve liked, which is sort of a plus and minus for the festival—there’s a lot to choose from and you really do need to choose.

This might sound biased, but the two events that I found the most interesting were the two that Jan Kjaerstad was on: “Where Truth Lies” and “Faith & Fiction.”

Aside from Jan’s presence, the one thing in common between these panels was the fact that both were actual roundtable discussions, rather than panels where each participant presents some prepared remarks. From talking with some other attendees, I’m not the only one who prefers the actual discussion panels to the serial presentation one. No matter how good the guests are, when they each read their prepared remarks, there’s a tendency for the speakers to become compartmentalized, with little interaction between the various viewpoints. And besides, with rare exception (like Paul Verhaeghen’s wonderfully imaginative and funny speech), these opening remarks tend to be a bit dry and don’t lead to the sort of debate and disagreement that can make a panel fun to watch.

The Where Truth Lies featured Jan, Horacio Castellanos Moya, Marlon James, and Roxana Robinson. Noreen Tomassi of the Mercantile Library did a wonderful job moderating, keeping the discussion relevant and interesting, and creating some tensions that fueled the debate.

One of the most interesting divisions—to me anyway—was the huge difference between Jan’s belief that “form is greatly underrated” and that it’s the novelist’s job to make things strange and provide readers with a new way of seeing. With only a limited number of “masterplots” (a point that a couple panelists disagreed with, which was sort of odd, especially since the dissenters used examples that sort of proved that there are limited archetypes but that the difference is in the details, something that no one would dispute), the novelist has to “make things new” and can utilize form to accomplish this.

Roxana Robinson—whose aesthetic ideas ran so counter to mine that I’ll never ever read her books or her New Yorker stories—completely disagreed, arguing that a writer is just there to write, not to think of the audience of changing someone’s way of seeing or anything at all like that. She also made a comment about a recent Joyce Carol Oates interview in which JCO referred to tragedy as the highest art form, which is what she personally aspires to in her work. (Someone in the audience thankfully called bullshit on this, pointing out that JCO’s work—and Robinson’s by extension—isn’t actually tragic, just glum.)

This kind of schism is what makes for an interesting discussion, and in this case it really seemed to present two different literary approaches—writing to entertain and tell a story versus writing to create art.

There wasn’t such an obvious split in the Faith & Fiction, panel but Albert Mobilio—who is consistently one of the festival’s best moderators—did a masterful job sustaining a really interesting discussion about fiction and religion that featured Jan, Ben Anastas, Nadeem Aslam, and Brian Evenson. All of the panelists were fantastic, each having his particular viewpoint and responding thoughtfully to one another to create a truly interesting discussion.

Not to mention the panel awesomely opened with Albert quoting James Wood—something to the effect that novelists are skeptics, but novels act religiously—and Jan immediately stating that James Wood is a overrated . . .

A lot of the events were recorded and will be available on PEN’s podcast page in the near future. And for more information about particular events, be sure to check out the World Voices Blogs page, which has write-ups on nearly all of the panels and readings.



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