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When a Literary Event Hits A Bit Too Close

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Photo credit: Leslie Shipman, the National Book Foundation

If you were in the audience at the Morgan Library yesterday evening and noticed an almost unshakable, unstoppable gale of laughter, well, that was me. I knew that any event featuring National Book Award winner Richard Powers (above, with your humble GalleyCat correspondent) and literary critic John Leonard would be amazing stuff, and the informal conversation comprising the second half of the evening was chock full of observations about the state of criticism, blogging’s place in the literary world, cognitive dissonance, Kurt Vonnegut‘s death, the need for endings and narrative and when the questions went to the audience, why Powers’s piece on using voice recognition software to write his novels has garnered him the most responses of anything he’s written.

But it was the first half, featuring the New York premiere of a new piece by Powers (the world premiere, so to speak, happened late last month at Penn State) that caught my attention immediately and held the audience pretty much in thrall the rest of the way. “The Moving Finger” recounts the curious adventures of a Powers-like narrator as he stumbles across the seemingly anonymous blog Speculum Mundi, whose Latin-named proprietor rants in “Camille Paglia meets NOVA” style about neuroscience, the relevance of literature and other topics to make it “12 percent more accurate than the leading literary blogs.” Slowly, Powers takes his narrator through startling cognitive changes that have him converge and diverge with the blogger in startling ways.


So why did it hit so close for me? A few reasons. First, the meta-resonant irony of having Leonard read the part of the blogger in light of the critic’s recent comments that “it’s going to have to be the lit blogs that save us” with regards to book reviewing. Then there was how well Powers hit every trope of blogging and its related activities – the posting regimen, checking incessantly for a new post, RSS feeds, Technorati searches and fragmented reading – in a way that wasn’t just marking them off a checklist but making acute commentary on how we read, how the human brain is affected by what is still a fairly nascent form of networked interaction and how even passivity can be seen as an aggressive stance.

So yes, I was pretty moved by the piece, and wished rather wistfully that the National Book Foundation (who organized the event in tandem and recruited the Morgan as the venue) had reached out more aggressively to bloggers to attend. Because even though the dramatic reading was warmly applauded, I’m not sure how many in the audience really got all the “inside baseball” nuances like I did. Then again, as long as the work entertained and enlightened – and the piece certainly succeeded on both fronts – the extra resonance may not matter so much. But I still feel rather privileged to have been amongst the audience and echo Ed Park‘s assessment: “I left the auditorium a different person than I was when I entered.”

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