journal-of-ideas

Can Literature Save Us? And Why Do We Need Saving?

This article appeared in the Aspen Institute’s IDEAS magazine in November 2016. 

November 17, 2016
By Carole DeSanti

The subject of book awards in the United States is a thorny one. Awards have the power to shape public conversation; to make or break careers; to thrust individuals, subject matters, and certain qualities into the spotlight—while marginalizing others. Yet the major players on the scene are so tenured—the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the PEN Literary Awards, the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, the Man Booker Prize, and of course the Nobel Prize for Literature—that they can often seem preoccupied by a single aesthetic, even stagnant. And so the inauguration of the Aspen Words Literary Prize, a major new recognition of literary achievement focusing on fiction with social impact, will allow the Institute’s Aspen Words program to think about how to shine the spotlight on literary works with meaningful values. We have long needed to widen our lens of literary recognition in the United States and, especially, to diversify and become more far-reaching and inclusive. At a time when new ways of absorbing literature—electronically, through audio, or via traditional print—are proliferating, the need to foster creativity that has an impact is all the more pressing.

I’ve had a troubled relationship with literary awards. As a young reader growing up in a Midwestern Rust Belt suburb, I remember bypassing all of the books with gold seals emblazoned on the covers—the Newbery and Caldecott medalists, singled out as distinguished contributions to children’s literature—that were always prominently featured in our local library’s showcase. For some reason, I mistrusted those golden stickers. Clearly, went my reasoning, these were the books the adults wanted us to read. And not just adults but East Coast foreigners. I had an early sense this was a stuffy, teacup-rattling lot, possibly corseted, who couldn’t possibly understand my reality. When I tell this story now to my colleagues in publishing, they shake their heads and laugh. But as a kid I began sneaking up to the forbidden “adult stacks.” With a reach not even as high as the shelves, I had a thrilling scent of the hunt and knew my own prize would lie in the shadows of the lesser-known.

As an adult reader, I’ve granted amnesty to awardees—especially as I now know many judges and the hard and good work they do. I have found many admirable books with their help. But I know that a certain kind of book is not likely to show up on the award lists, and especially the fiction lists. How to describe this book? It’s a little elusive. A work of high quality but of conscience. Maybe a bit transgressive; less wedded to the status quo. Perhaps it feels like the work of an enlightened mind, not just a clever one. Or it is the writing of a person without connections or pedigree, with a fresh way of seeing the world. Plenty of forces range against the discovery of such works, though.
As an editor starting out, I found myself amid a small cohort of young editors and writers-to-be. Most of us hadn’t come from the halls of privilege, and we thought it would be a good idea to diversify an industry that was rapidly shrinking itself into a battered stepchild of the glossier entertainment conglomerates. We wanted to publish books that reflected and improved the worlds we had come from and we found ourselves in. Books that tackled race, class, sexuality, trauma, violence, healing, recovery, nutrition, spirituality. It was a grassroots movement of sorts, with the agenda only to widen the culture’s scope of what might be heard. There was plenty to be done.

One component of the project was to recharge the culture’s starved imagination. Another was to find a way to talk about social conditions, life conditions, and enliven readers’ minds to the possibility of agency. This led us into a sticky area. Centuries of novelists from Jonathan Swift to Ruth Ozeki have done exactly that and found enthusiastic readerships. But within the industry, to be explicit about such a mission was to risk ridicule, stink of political correctness, and stand accused of slapping limitations on the creative process.

But still. Legacies of such work had been passed down—these were the classics, evergreen and alive in the minds of readers. So, we proceeded by stealth and daring. For the peace of mind of our managers, we couched projects in terms of commerce, not society or (God forbid) social change. Readers voted with their feet—and increasingly, with clicks. They wanted splendid works of imagination, escape, entertainment, comfort, solace, reflection, and truth. Readers wanted to find insights into present conditions, see the frameworks for ideas change, and imagine a better and more just world.

We find ourselves now at a new cultural moment. We carry forward biases about subject matter, literary experimentation, hybrid forms, and translations—though once they break through, many books with these characteristics are embraced and beloved. Witness the explosion of interest in the Elena Ferrante novels. There is a ferment of new voices and of new ways to encounter and absorb them.

What we need most are ways to discover the works we individually and collectively need—that are as diverse as the populations and communities we now are. The stigma has fallen away from integrating social issues into art, as Americans search for ways to solve problems that have accrued, unaddressed, for generations. And so the Aspen Words Literary Prize—coming from a tradition of finding and weaving ideas into society as well as recognizing talent and distinctive quality—is especially welcome. It’s time to reward worthy work seriously and substantially—and sooner in the careers of hard-pressed authors. As readers, we still need the different drummer. The writing that squarely and beautifully addresses inequality and injustice and the state of the world as we find it. Writing that without dogma, artifice, or self-consciousness, is able to take a point of view on those values. The story that makes us feel more alive, more compassionate, less impatient, wiser. It’s hard to know what it is until we see it.

Carole DeSanti is vice president and executive editor at Penguin Random House and a member of the Aspen Words Creative Council.

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