Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Worlds Literature Festival 2015:
2. The Whirligig of Time

Gabriele D'Annunzio in Fiume

The whirligig of time was very much the subject of our first provocation, by Chris Bigsby, who started by exploring and expanding on the term reputation, by adding estimation and notoriety, to which others eventually added fame, success, prestige, stature, esteem, position, distinction, prominence. There were at least eight tentacles for our octopus here.  Chris went on to consider those whom we now regard as great but who were neglected at the ends of their lives: Hermann Melville and John Williams (who wrote Stoner), among them, but concentrating on the writer he himself has written about with such distinction, Arthur Miller, the estimation of whose work has gone up and down depending on where you were, in the US or in Britain. Was Miller accepted by Americans as the representative of all they considered best? Probably not. Was he regarded by Brits as what we thought a good liberal American should be. Probably yes.

But who is this ‘we’?  Are we the only ‘we‘ worth talking about? That question did arise afterwards, as did the notion of value, a much more complex term depending on who assigns it, and Erica Jarnes'fine distinction between success and reputation. Is selling more books an indication of reputation, or indeed of value? Amit Chaudhury talked of the way reputation was constructed in terms of nationhood, but also of how some were required to run counter to the established narrative. How do revivals of reputation occur, asked Cathy Cole. Jack Wang pointed out that despite not being regarded as a true-blue or red-blooded American Miller was still on school reading lists. 

Susan Barker lamented the lack of women among those considered important (importance being another term related to reputation), a problem pointed out in private discussion later by Dave Wilsonwho remarked that all the names discussed at this session were white, male, and anglophone. Anna Funder did, on the other hand,  confirm the substantial reputation and stature of the Australian writer, Christina Stead. She talked of the importance of history and wondered how far literature was perceived as an aspect of history (or vice versa for that matter). Deborah Smith brought us back to the question of women’s writing and how it was evaluated according to different criteria in different places: in the west along feminist lines, but differently in other places with other histories and cultures (Catholicism and Buddhism were offered as examples in later sessions.)  Reputation might simply be a kind of noise, a form of agreement. It might in fact be constraining if if meant publishers would demand more of the same from any successful author. 

The dangers of success were (briefly) to reappear in D J Taylor’s provocation the next day.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s provocation on D’Annunzio was spellbinding and very much to the point, since her subject not only pursued reputation but understood perfectly how to get it. He was the genius of the publicity stunt, a polymath, brilliant at many things including poetry, seduction and rabble-rousing rhetoric. Reputation is not a sufficiently grand term for him: celebrity, superstardom, megastardom need to be introduced. D’Annunzio is born into the first age of mass media. He steps on people, he exploits people, he charms and discards people, he leads them into battle and into a fierce nationalism anticipating Il Duce whom he regards as vulgar. There was a lovely phrase Lucy used about D’Annunzio giving action the lasting power of symbol - and maye that is what it takes. Dan then added another word to the growing lexicography of reputation by referring to D’Annunzio as a brand. Branding and mass media are very much of our age, but they begin with D’Annunzio. The poet as life as mask as symbol.

In the discussion afterwards Vesna talked of “the art of lifemaking”. Others talked of the way suicide fixes the author as indentity, fate and destiny and how it makes us read their works in a different way. Stefan Zweig was mentioned as an example of fame arrested and amplified by suicide. Mishima was another such.  Jon Cook suggested that Allen Ginsberg’s public life was an extension of his poems. Lucy pointed to the line from Romanticism to Fascism. Amit mentioned Tagore who became a world celebrity, admired chiefly as a sage and purveyor of mysticism, rather than as was what he was in India: a poet. Chris Bigsby pointed to Mailer and Hemingway as conscious constructors of their own images. Consideration of the image and the self-image led us in the direction of social media. At one level inflation of the self appears comical: at another, venal and potentially disastrous.

Note: any name not linked has been linked above in the same post or in a previous post on the festival.

The next session, on Wednesday, was about Creative Writing. As the first step in establishing a reputation? As a bestower of reputations? Its own reputation?


Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

Nell Zink was a completely unknown writer until she wrote to Jonathan Frantzen who pushed her into the public domain. I think that to find any kind of fame these days you need to be promoted by a well-known person. I'm still waiting for it to happen to me!

Best wishes from Simon R. Gladdish

Poetry Pleases! said...

Dear George

I meant, of course, Jonathan Franzen. It's fatal not to look these names up, isn't it!

Best wishes from Simon