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The Speed of Literature, and Life

Image – iStockphoto: Valery Ambartsumian

‘The Desire To Change Everything’

In an edition of the interview series First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing [1] excerpted at Literary Hub [2], the Chilean-American author Isabel Allende says to Mitzi Rapkin, “Literature can maybe change minds, but few people read.

Provocations graphic by Liam Walsh

“Few people allow themselves to be influenced or changed by books,” she says. “It takes a book sometimes decades, sometimes centuries, to have an effect, while journalism is very immediate and very powerful. You have minutes of something on TV, and you can create much more impact than a book can do in many, many years.”

Allende–who has more than 23 books to her name, 74 million copies in 40 languages–is speaking, it turns out, not only as the author we know but as a journalist.

When “the great boom of Latin American literature was a bunch of men” early in her career, she says, she felt she was likelier to be a writer in journalism than in literature.

“I found a job in a feminine, very avant-garde magazine,” she says, “that started to deal with feminism early on when it wasn’t an issue in Chile yet. I had found my perfect niche, and that’s how I began writing. I wasn’t thinking that I was giving a voice to women. It was just random energy and the wish—the desire—to change everything, to change the society, the culture, the religion, everything.”

And it might surprise readers to learn now that she sees books as a slow medium, if you will, by comparison to journalism.

One reason this has resonance today, of course, is that there are so many political books going to market, covering the fray from both sides of a lot of aisles, not just from the classic conservative and liberal stances. Penguin Press’ January 21 release of Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig’s A Very Stable Genius [3] arrived at No. 1 in new releases at Amazon, not just in politics but overall.

And yet that, of course, is a book by journalists. Rucker and Leonnig are at The Washington Post. And just making such books current by the time they’re out is no walk through the park. Authors talk of adding new last chapters and addenda at the last moment to account for the latest complication (or tweet) in a current-affairs context that just won’t stand still.

One of the most prominent examples of the moment in direct and timely political content is a memoir that’s almost writing the political scene rather than vice-versa. Leaks and passage descriptions from the manuscript of the former White House national security adviser John Bolton’s The Room Where It Happened [4] (Simon & Schuster, coming March 17) are driving much of the discussion around the impeachment proceedings, particularly the question of new witnesses rejected by Senate Republicans for the trial.

Nevertheless, I’m not sure I agree with Allende in her assessment of the relative impact–or the relative speed of impact–of journalism over books, even literature.

And that’s my provocation for you today.

‘The Beginning of Terror’

Among Michael Cunningham’s novels, By Nightfall [5] (Macmillan/Picador, 2011) is one that has a particularly fast and potent impact.

It opens up a restless understanding of the distance that can exist even inside the most buttoned up of affluent marriages, the art dealer Peter Harris being suddenly caught up by a completely unexpected impression of himself and others.

Cunningham uses the Rainer Maria Rilke line “Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror,” and uses the present tense to discover Peter’s descent into self-doubt.

At one point, Cunningham writes, “Mizzy is becoming—Peter’s not stupid, he’s crazy but he’s not stupid—his favorite work of art, a performance piece if you will, and Peter wants to collect him, he wants to be his master and his confidant (remember, Mizzy, I could blow the whistle at any time), Peter doesn’t want him to die (he really and truly doesn’t), but he wants to curate Mizzy, he wants to be his only … his only.”

A visceral immediacy stays with you as you read this book, disturbing and curious, relational politics upended. And it’s something swifter than Allende seems to be contemplating, not least because there’s a protective urgency set up in the reader as Peter’s confusion gives way to naive certainty.

On our political landscape today, obviously, nonfiction treatments of so many difficult and dangerous social and civic moments must be built to move quickly to market, as authors and publishers expect them to be overtaken by new titles quickly because of the manic energy of our political life. But to my mind, there are books, both fiction and nonfiction, that can move with the speed of journalism through your perceptions, reordering and reshaping your viewpoints and rationales in a single sitting.

Still, I can’t say that Allende is wrong, either. Probably more than less literature (of all genres, not just literary work) seems to live in a different dynamic, a kind of parallel corridor to the searing rush of news flashes.

But I’ll give you two more exceptions to Allende’s observation to consider: Joan Didion’s The Last Thing He Wanted [6] and, as I’ve mentioned here before, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach [7], both from Penguin Random House / Vintage.

And what do you think of the comparative impact of books and journalism? What do you make of Allende’s sense of a slower way into the culture for books than news? Do you have a ‘By Nightfall’ in your reading life that turned you around as fast as breaking news? 

About Porter Anderson [8]

@Porter_Anderson [9] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [10], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [11] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [12]