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In her keynote lecture from the PEN Working Day at the 2011 PEN World Voices Festival, Toni Morrison discusses the loss of public life exacerbated by the degradation of private life, and literature’s role in the modern world:

As a simultaneous investigation of human character in time, in context, and in space, in metaphorical and expressive language, [literature] organizes the disorienting influences of excessive realities—heightened realities, virtual realities, mega–, hyper–, cyber–, contingent–, porous–, nostalgic–. It can also project an alleviated future.

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Rushdie Brings PEN Festival to Close - NYTimes.com
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How much is too much?
Norwegian writing sensation Karl Ove Knausgård has been meticulously documenting his life for years. His acquaintances flock to bookstores to find out if they have been included in his latest volume. Knausgård works closely with a lawyer to avoid legal entanglements, but isn’t afraid to stoke controversy. The title of his book deliberately references Adolf Hitler’s screed Mein Kampf, a work censored until recently in Germany, in a challenge for readers to think for themselves.
Knausgård’s My Struggle is a 3,600-page work in six volumes that focuses intensely on his personal life—from his father’s alcoholism and death to his own failed marriage—and raises compelling questions about ethics and surveillance in literature today. He participated in the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival.
Click here to read an excerpt.
Photo ©Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center

How much is too much?

Norwegian writing sensation Karl Ove Knausgård has been meticulously documenting his life for years. His acquaintances flock to bookstores to find out if they have been included in his latest volume. Knausgård works closely with a lawyer to avoid legal entanglements, but isn’t afraid to stoke controversy. The title of his book deliberately references Adolf Hitler’s screed Mein Kampf, a work censored until recently in Germany, in a challenge for readers to think for themselves.

Knausgård’s My Struggle is a 3,600-page work in six volumes that focuses intensely on his personal life—from his father’s alcoholism and death to his own failed marriage—and raises compelling questions about ethics and surveillance in literature today. He participated in the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival.

Click here to read an excerpt.

Photo ©Beowulf Sheehan/PEN American Center

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Etgar Keret & George Saunders: Imagine That!

Etgar Keret & George Saunders: Imagine That!

The following talk was adapted from a conversation that took place as part of the 2007 PEN World Voices Festival.


 
George Saunders: I was amazed by your stories, by the quality and quantity of imagination, and the unbelievable overflow of ideas. So I wanted to ask a question that’s probably unfair. Can you pick a story, and talk us through the process—where the seed of the idea was, and how you arrived at the finished story?

Etgar Keret:
Well, there’s one story, I’m not sure I know its name in English correctly. I think it’s “Actually, I Do Have Hard-Ons Lately”? Something like that?

Saunders:
Oh yeah. It’s “The Quality of My Hard-Ons is Very Excellent Lately,” I think.

Audience: “Actually, I’ve Had Some Phenomenal Hard-Ons Lately.”

Keret:
That’s it. With that story I can tell you something about the process. I was sitting in a café and somebody with a cell phone at a table nearby said that sentence. He really said, “Actually, I’ve had some phenomenal hard-ons lately.” I looked at him, and he asked for a beer, and then I left. And I kept saying to people I knew, “I was sitting next to this guy, and he said this sentence.” And they’d say, “Um, okay.” And I’d say, “No, no! I really feel that there is something in this sentence, something in the grammar of it.” If he hadn’t said the “actually,” say, it would have been a different sentence, you know?

So I tried to invent this guy in my head. And the first thing that came to mind was that he had an affair with a woman at work. And what makes him feel best about this affair is that whenever they go to dinner, he can ask for the receipt, and it’s tax-deductible because she works with him. So he can cheat on his wife and on the IRS at the same time.

Saunders:
Incredible aphrodisiac.

Keret:
And the thing he likes about it is that when he does his accounting, and he staples the receipt, it’s a very nostalgic moment. He can think about this affair—and he can do it next to his wife, because he’s doing the accounting. And he can pet the receipt a little bit and then staple it. This was the image that came to mind for this guy in the café. It’s what was hiding behind that sentence. And I thought, “So this is the guy. Now what’s his story?” And the first answer was, “He likes his dog.” Because I felt this loneliness and this threat of sexuality—the idea that you have to fight so people will be convinced that you actually have some phenomenal hard-on.

Read the full interview here

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Mo Yan

Biobibliographical notes

Mo Yan (a pseudonym for Guan Moye) was born in 1955 and grew up in Gaomi in Shandong province in north-eastern China. His parents were farmers. As a twelve-year-old during the Cultural Revolution he left school to work, first in agriculture, later in a factory. In 1976 he joined the People’s Liberation Army and during this time began to study literature and write. His first short story was published in a literary journal in 1981. His breakthrough came a few years later with the novella Touming de hong luobo (1986, published in French as Le radis de cristal 1993).

In his writing Mo Yan draws on his youthful experiences and on settings in the province of his birth. This is apparent in his novel Hong gaoliang jiazu (1987, in English Red Sorghum 1993). The book consists of five stories that unfold and interweave in Gaomi in several turbulent decades in the 20th century, with depictions of bandit culture, the Japanese occupation and the harsh conditions endured by poor farm workers. Red Sorghum was successfully filmed in 1987, directed by Zhang Yimou. The novel Tiantang suantai zhi ge (1988, in English The Garlic Ballads 1995) and his satirical Jiuguo (1992, in English The Republic of Wine 2000) have been judged subversive because of their sharp criticism of contemporary Chinese society.

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