Magazine article World Literature Today

A Girl in Litland: The 2016 Neustadt Prize Lecture

Magazine article World Literature Today

A Girl in Litland: The 2016 Neustadt Prize Lecture

Article excerpt

The first two books I wrote were for children. When I published my first book I was twenty-one. I soon gave up on writing children's literature when I realized that I didn't have the very particular god-given talent that only the exceptional writers for children possess. I still believe that the career of the children's author- with the gift of a Lewis Carroll-is the most joyous career a writer could wish for, and it is, at the same time, a "natural" choice: writing for children means living in an extended childhood. I say this because adults work at jobs that are useful, while children work at tasks that have no practical application. Literature, too, is a nonuseful task. It has no price tag, there can be no compensation for it-just as a child's drawing has no price tag-nor can it be manipulated, though many people are hard at work at precisely that, "manipulating" literature. Even writers, after all, do not hesitate to manipulate.

At a historical turning point for the cultural community it was decided that literature, this useless task, should be granted a more serious standing. The status of modern literature began at the moment when it became a subject of study at universities, and this happened only several hundred years ago. Any standing is vulnerable to change. In other words, a vast amount of time is needed to build a pyramid, even more to maintain it, but only a few short moments to tear it down. In this sense literature, as a system of knowledge devised and built by hardworking people over the centuries, is a fragile creation. Those who work at literature should keep this in mind. Perhaps it would be apt here to think back to Ray Bradbury's cult novel Fahrenheit 451 as well as to the many postapocalyptic science-fiction movies. There are no books to be seen in the latter. At least I haven't seen one. And besides, when the time comes for everybody to start writing books-and that moment, thanks to technology, is upon us-there will no longer be literature. This is because literature is a system that requires arbitration. The arbiters used to be "people of good literary taste": theoreticians, critics, literature professors, translators, editors, and, don't forget, the attendant mediocrities: the censors, the salespeople, the "Salieris," the ideologues of various stripes-from religious to political. Today the market has anointed itself as arbiter, as have the readers. The market is allied with the "majority reader." Authors are no freer as a result-along with politicians and entrepreneurs, today authors are expected to please the consumer, to lobby, blog, vlog, post, tweet, to be liked, to spread with diligence to their digital fan base who will support them and buy their books.

I was born into a world in which the first technological wonder was the radio. I remember waking up at night and turning the big dial to move the red line across to the stations inscribed on the display while I listened to languages I didn't understand. Our radio was called a Nikola Tesla, and it had a green eye that glowed in the dark. I was born a few years after the close of the Second World War in a small country, poor and ravaged by war, where there was a pressing need to manufacture goods that were more utilitarian than those from a toy factory. That's why I got my first "real" doll when I was already too big to play with dolls. In my early childhood, what I found sensational had nothing to do with toys but with books, the radio, and Hollywood movies for grown-ups: the text, sound, and image gave me the illusion of flight from my provincial little town into the grand, thrilling world. I envisioned the world with the help of books, and the role played by interactivity-to use contemporary jargon-was huge. The field of the imagination is more circumscribed today; the cultural industry has satisfied every need we could only have dreamt of before. Here are our "prechewed" products (Anna Karenina for Beginners), or streamlined, readapted, and commercialized versions of original works (Anna Karenina and the Zombies), or experiments such as the use of hologram books. …

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