‘The Desire To Change Everything’
In an edition of the interview series First Draft: A Dialogue of Writing excerpted at Literary Hub, the Chilean-American author Isabel Allende says to Mitzi Rapkin, “Literature can maybe change minds, but few people read.
“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 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 (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 (Macmillan/Picador, 2011) is one that has a particularly fast and potent impact.