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Find more The Written Word
The world of books has seen major changes since my first novel was published 30 years ago. It was hard for me to find a publisher for a story about a woman PI set in the Midwest. Indeed, one editor wrote that a book set in Chicago had regional interest only, and not enough people read in the Upper Midwest to make it profitable to set a novel there.
At the same time, there were many more publishers to approach than exist today. We live in a world of conglomerated publishers and booksellers, and we writers are frequently told that we are not creating stories or characters but “brands,” like Crest or Charmin. In such a world, it is hard to remember that we are storytellers above all, not accountants, marketers, or vending machines.
I went last year to the Oriental Institute’s exhibit on the history of writing. It was thrilling to sense my own small voice connected to a chain of storytellers that stretches 6,000 years into the past. Buffalo roamed freely here when the ancient Sumerians brought the written word to life. Every book we read, every equation we solve, even the hate-filled e-mails sent by federal judges and legislators, we owe to that Sumerian miracle.
Writing probably developed so that accountants could keep track of property ownership, but it quickly became the purview of poets. And it is to poets, musicians, and artists that we turn when we celebrate our joys or need help in enduring our sorrows.
Every writer’s difficult journey is a movement from silence to speech. We must be intensely private and interior in order to find a voice and a vision—and we must bring our work to an outside world where the market or public outrage or outright censorship can destroy our voice.
This is not a new problem. When Melville published Moby-Dick in 1851, the reception by both public and critics was hostile; during Melville’s life, this astonishing novel sold 500 copies. In a bitter weariness, Melville wrote Hawthorne: “The silent grass-growing mood in which a [person] ought to compose—that can seldom be mine. Dollars damn me.”
Melville lived through times as turbulent as ours—American slavery, the Civil War, the change wrought by industrialization. But ours is a time that thrives on slick one-liners, and on lies, made easier to swallow because we devalue the written word.
The first thing our forebears did when they landed in Massachusetts was to establish public schools. They knew something we don’t, that an educated citizenry marks the difference between slave and free. For the same reason, slaveholding states made teaching slaves to read and write a major crime.
Today, one in five American adults can’t read or write well enough to handle a job application, let alone read a novel. Many states look at the Iowa Reading scores for third-grade boys to predict the number of prison beds they’ll need 10 years down the road: there is that high a correlation between illiteracy and prison.
It took a twelfth-grade education to follow the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which took place a few years after Melville published Moby-Dick. The Kennedy-Nixon debates required that listeners have a tenth-grade education. To understand our era’s candidates? Sixth grade.
Whether we chisel our words on clay tablets or upload them to e-tablets—or use my own favorite delivery vehicle, the printed book—we’re pretty well sunk if over a fifth of our audience can’t read. We writers have a selfish as well as a public duty to work for a literate nation.
In the cacophony of sound that fills our broadband waves, amid the lies and shrill self-promotions, it is also crucial that we writers, we storytellers, move away from thinking of ourselves as brands. We need to move into Melville’s silent grass-growing place and find the essential truths that fiction can lay bare.
It may be true that we tell the same three or four stories endlessly, but they are also forever new, as our imaginations and our own historical context shape them. My own stories are in the vein of “hero versus monster”: Marlowe versus the wicked temptress, Theseus versus the wicked Minotaur, V. I. Warshawski versus the wicked corporation—they all have the same narrative arc.
But these fictions tell essential truths, the truth about our emotional lives, what we fear, what we want, what we need. I’ve always wanted to know the truth, that slippery, unknowable trickster, about myself for starters, and the past, and the stars—how can light a billion miles away look like a jeweled piece of fruit you might pluck from the night sky?
Writing is also a form of auto-surgery: the closer we cut to our own bones, force ourselves to emotional truth, the more authentic our voices will become to those who read our work.
As the poet Sappho wrote, more than 2,600 years ago, “Although they are only breath / Words, which I command / Are immortal.”
What we remember from Sappho’s time, and from Melville’s, are not brands or spreadsheets but poets. For in the end, that breath which becomes the word made visible, the written word, is what endures.
Sara Paretsky, the acclaimed author of the V. I. Warshawski mystery series, celebrating its thirtieth anniversary this year, is a tireless advocate of libraries and free speech. This essay was adapted from a speech given in Chicago on March 1, 2012, at the annual conference of the Association for Writers and Writing Programs.
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