The last lecture
Even the most dedicated readers retain only grains of the thought that slurries through their brains, and I suspect that for the public lecture, memory approaches the vanishing point. I have attended nearly every discourse hosted by the Aspen Writers’ Conference since its inception and I ask myself what has stuck. Scouring my mind in alarm, I am completely blank and I console myself, as I do with reading, that as for ideas, it is good that my mind has been there, and as for facts, I have filed them elsewhere – under, say, Knowledge of Philip Larkin. It’s not that I possess no memories of having attended. I remember, for instance, a midafternoon in City Hall when James Dickey was introduced as the author of a number of well-known works, including “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” On gaining the lectern, Dickey gazed out and drawled, “I do believe that Huck Finn is one of mah better books.” I also remember Joseph Brodsky analyzing “The Convergence of the Twain” in an impenetrable Russian accent, and I assume my lasting familiarity with Hardy’s poem derives from staring for an hour at its clear Xeroxed English. Especially vivid is the question-and-answer period after a lecture by Joyce Carol Oates, whose somnambulist delivery veiled the sharpness of her remarks. “You say you teach literature,” began the first question. “What books do you teach?””I teach in Toronto,” she declared as if asleep. “That means I can only teach Canadian literature, because Canada is still trying to be a country.””You’re so prolific,” a woman commented. “How do you use your time so well?””I don’t use my time well,” Oates replied dreamily. “I spend most of it staring into the Detroit River.” “I’m a housewife,” declared an aggrieved voice. “I have to scrub and vacuum and clean and run the washer and dryer, which takes hours and hours, when I really want to be writing. What do you suggest?”Oates came awake. “Do you realize that about 2 percent of humanity lives on the level of the middle-class American housewife? You’re fortunate enough to have a house. I suggest that you scrub your floors on your knees if you have to, and bless every square inch.””Will the great American novel ever be written?” asked a man.”It already has,” Oates replied swiftly. “It’s called ‘Moby Dick.'””I’m just a manual laborer,” said a scruffy young man. “I’ve never had much of an education but I want to write. Is there any hope?””What kind of work do you do?” asked Oates.”I’m a carpenter.”There was a good answer to this and Oates found it. “I know of one carpenter who made it big.”Even on these colorful occasions the actual presentation left no residue, and I didn’t know whether to blame the unmemorability on the speakers or my own brain. Then, up from Denver to deliver the final lecture in 1984, came Joanne Greenberg.The reason I had not heard of Greenberg is that she had published her best-known book, “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden,” under the pen name Hannah Green. Her appearance at the Aspen Community Center was the culminating event of a conference run by a novice, which is to say, after 10 days of tension-generating snafus. Stout but solid, 50ish, she took charge of the podium with an air that brooked no nonsense; this was a woman who had prepared for her novel about the deaf, “In This Sign,” by not speaking for a year. She began by naming all the books she had liked that year, making even “My Search for Warren Harding” by someone named Robert Plunket sound promising.She began the body of her lecture by saying that she liked to sing – in a chorus, around the house, for friends. It was purely a diversion, for fun, and it had never occurred to her to make money by singing. Similarly, she knew a number of people who painted and sculpted with a fair amount of skill, using their art to decorate their houses or to give away to friends. For some of them, to make a profit from their artwork or their music would even spoil the pleasure. Writing was the one artistic pursuit whose practitioners thought they had to work always as professionals. It had somehow become a disgrace to write without aiming at publication. The payoff always had to be in sales. This, she asserted, was a mistake.Warming to her theme, she introduced her example. An acquaintance brought her a Holocaust memoir, thinking it would make a terrific book, a movie scenario, a TV show. He didn’t realize that it was badly written and would go nowhere. If he tried to market it, he would be competing with Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Victor Frankl – and she continued with a list of names I didn’t retain but whom she referred to as heavy guns. “We’ve had Holocausts hot and Holocausts cold,” she boomed. “After all the novels and memoirs and miniseries on TV, the Holocaust has become a genre.” If her friend tried to put his ill-written account into contention with the heavy guns, he would encounter only frustration and defeat. On the other hand, if he didn’t write with the idea of publishing, he could write what and how he wished. He could use real names, rather than disguising them for fear of being intrusive or provoking a lawsuit. The record could be a marvelous gift for his friends, his children and grandchildren. Whether the theme was the Holocaust, the Gulag or something milder, more people should consider writing journals and even well-written letters, not for publication but for an audience of family and friends – and for the sheer pleasure of writing itself.Her prepared talk was brief and she opened the floor to questions. Novelist Harry Crews, the conference’s Southern bad boy a year after Dickey, leapt to his feet. “It is a libel, a libel, to call Elie Wiesel and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writers of a genre!” He was almost tongue-tied with outrage.Faculty member Ellen Douglas, remaining seated but quite stripped of the ladylike composure that seemed her fixed persona, broke in. “Harry is right!” she barked, proceeding to defend him after cutting him off. “Writing is serious business. It is to be taken seriously by the serious people engaged in it.”Kathleen Spivak erupted next. “I’m a poet and I teach poetry. As far as I’m concerned, writing is an act of communication. That act is completed by publication.” As she spoke, Crews lurched abruptly out the door.Ellen Douglas spoke again. “I’ve spent the last 10 days teaching my students to be professional and now, on the last night, this person shows up and tells them they should act like amateurs. That’s a disservice to everything we’re trying to accomplish. Miss Greenberg is addressing an audience of apprentice writers, not a bunch of hobbyists.”What followed was a free-for-all that lasted for three-quarters of an hour and I was only sorry that novelist Herbert Gold, the fourth faculty member, wasn’t present to log in. Throughout the turmoil Joanne Greenberg maintained her poise and her humor. It wasn’t she who decided that the Holocaust was a genre, she explained. It was publishers and reviewers. She had learned this from experience, for she had tried to place no fewer than four student Holocaust manuscripts with publishers, only to have them summarily dismissed. She was not suggesting that no one should aspire to publishing, only that those without talent shouldn’t waste their time and wreck their lives chasing a goal that would elude them. If they were more realistic, they might enjoy what they were doing.”But why do you publish?” interjected a student.She began a detailed reminiscence of her beginnings as a writer. Writing came naturally to her, like a sport for which she was equipped. For instance, she had written medieval romances, novels in Old French, Genesis from the point of view of the serpent.”But why do you publish?” pressed the student.”She’s getting to that,” snapped another. “Let her finish!”Her husband told her that a historical novel she had written would appeal to others. She should send it in. She did, and got such a nasty letter back that … It was the only sentence Greenberg didn’t complete.”You’re living disproof of everything you’re telling us,” declared a third student in the brief gap.Kathleen Spivak, visibly calmer, spoke again. Teaching creative writing involved two thrusts. One was to keep the student from publishing before ready and the other was to get him or her to that point. Why couldn’t the Holocaust memoirist have been given such treatment, protective but nourishing? The Holocaust, Spivak added, was an unfortunate example. As one of the century’s major disasters, it was too emotionally charged. “How do you think I feel?” asked Greenberg in an obvious reference to being Jewish. “Remember that it’s they, not me, who decided the Holocaust is a genre.””Who’s they?” asked a student.”The publishing industry. What I call New York.””Isn’t there an element of luck involved?” asked another student.”To be lucky, you need to have something to have luck with. If you have a bad manuscript, you have nothing. To hold up the promise of publishing to someone without talent is just bullshit. I’m sorry Harry Crews isn’t still here. He likes Saxon words.”A mild-looking man who looked vaguely like Dwight Eisenhower stood up to state that he thought the audience had been rude. There was a burst of applause from roughly half the room, mostly those who had not spoken. Did even a writers’ conference in Aspen have a silent majority? Greenberg replied that no one owed her an apology; she would rather stir things up than be dull.I was a silent majoritarian myself, but my brain kept up a running commentary. When it came to a calamity like the Holocaust, I thought, surely we should have all the documentation we could get, written well or ill. But in using so loaded an example, Greenberg had done her best to subvert an already unpopular truth – that many aspiring writers didn’t have what it took to publish, and that perhaps those without the capability should write toward some other goal. In such a forum, the pill needed sugar-coating, and instead her example had injected venom; perhaps a year without speaking had left her tone-deaf. But her argument also had its validity, and the fury of her opponents seemed out of proportion to any offense. Unwittingly, I thought, Greenberg had offered herself as a convenient target at a conference full of frustrations that had nothing to do with her, and she had triggered the chase instinct of the pack. During the most grueling question period I had heard after a public lecture, she maintained a cool, sharp-witted exterior. At last she adjourned the fracas, assuring that she would be willing to stay and talk with anyone who wished to continue the discussion.As I walked out with the not-so-silent majority, I discovered Harry Crews sitting outside the door, smoking and waiting for a ride home with Ellen Douglas. “I admired the way Ellen kept up her composure, talking in that beautiful Mississippi speech,” he drawled to Kathleen Spivak. “She didn’t blow up and storm out like I did.” In the guise of apologizing, he was transparently boasting of his own colorfully short fuse and was being something he professed in his lecture to dislike: the professional Southerner. As if to confirm his badness, he went inside to fetch Douglas and was thrown out for carrying a cigarette.I listened to departing students: “The woman was condescending.” “She held her own.” “She needs to learn the difference between assertion and aggression.” All of that was true, I thought, and also Greenberg had accomplished something rare. She had delivered a lecture I would actually remember. 1984Bruce Berger’s books include “The Telling Distance,” winner of the Western States Book Award, and “Music in the Mountains,” a history of the Aspen Music Festival. This essay is from the forthcoming “The Complete Half-Aspenite,” to be released at the end of the summer.”
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