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One of the highlights of this year's PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature was a talk between writers E.L. Doctorow, Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis. New York Times chief film critic A.O. Scott asked the authors about America and its role in the global political culture at The Times Center.
The Sunday before the talk, Doctorow (Homer & Langley, Ragtime), Atwood (The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace) and Amis (Time's Arrow, The Rachel Papers) had written essays for The Sunday Review section of The Times on the subject.
Roughly 100 writers from 25 countries were in New York City from April 30 to May 6 for this year's PEN festival.
Doctorow on why America is becoming increasingly unexceptional, "in terms of our secret warrant-less searches of people's homes and businesses and records, and our data-mining, and all the subversions of what we think of as life in the United States."
Atwood on what America should be: "I think with a lot of countries, you don't ask the question, 'What should it be?' But America has always had that question, 'What should it be?' because it did start as a utopian community. So it is always examining, 'What should it be?' as opposed to 'What it is.'"
Amis on Trayvon Martin and American law: "Is it possible to confess to the pursuit and murder of an unarmed white 17-year-old, white 17-year-old, and be released that evening without charge? And I wanted to be told, 'Yes.' But in fact, as we all know -- it's one of the public secrets of America -- is that this happens all the time."
Atwood on Herman Melville's Moby Dick: "I think that Melville designed it very carefully to represent a number of different segments of American society. It wasn't for nothing that he named the ship after an extinct native tribe and put three harpooners in there from different parts of the empire and made the owners two hypocritical Quakers."
Doctorow on Edgar Allan Poe: "Did I ever tell you I was named after him? [Atwood: No.] I think it was my father's idea. He was philosophically inclined but he was busy supporting us during the Depression and couldn't give vent to his literary and philosophical being but he named his child after a writer he admired ... A few years before my mother died, I finally asked a question, I said, 'Do you realize you and Dad named me after an alcoholic, drug-addicted, delusional paranoid with strong necrophiliac tendencies?'"
Atwood on being a smart, but not necessarily an intellectual, politician: "What you probably want is somebody who's got some political smarts or somebody who's at least smart enough to avoid sinking the entire fortune of a country in some really ill-advised, unnecessary war."
Amis, responding to Atwood's point: "And anti-intellectualism exists in many English-speaking countries, but the American variant is worship of stupidity."
Atwood: "And that's a different thing."
Amis: "It is an entirely different thing."
Click the link above to hear the full PEN festival talk, which took place on May 2 and opened with remarks from Carol Day. Or watch a video of the talk below.