Wednesday, May 9, 2012

PEN World Voices Festival 2012: New Technology & Conventional Literature Strike a Balance

I had the total lit-nerdy thrill to attend some exciting events during the 8th annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. PEN American Center is the American chapter of International PEN, which is a literary and human rights organization that fights for the freedom of expression of writers all over the world. This year, PEN American Center's festival celebrated the ways in which literary expression expands across multiple artistic and technological mediums. The festival took place in various New York venues, from April 30th through May 6th, and included such authors as Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Tony Kushner, Marjane Satrapi, Brian Selznick, and Salman Rushdie (who served as the Festival Chair).

From Margaret Atwood arguing for the internet as a useful literary tool, to Jennifer Egan discussing how Power Point worked conceptually and structurally in her novel, the festival events I attended proved that literature is evolving with (and not being destroyed by) new technology. The festival also showcased writers like Marjane Satrapi and Brian Selznick who are breaking literary conventions with their genre-challenging and medium-crossing narratives.

Highlights from my experience at the festival, after the jump.

Margaret Atwood © George Whiteside

Thursday night, I kicked off the festival by attending a discussion with author Margaret Atwood and editor Amy Grace Loyd, at the New School, about how the internet is changing literature. While Atwood discussed her concern over how limited privacy and security are online, she also championed the web as a place for artistic and political communication and assembly. Furthermore, she argued that technological advancements in communication—like the internet—can coexist with conventional storytelling and even influence literature in plot and style. Proving Atwood’s point, Jennifer Egan discussed her use of Power Point in A Visit from the Goon Squad, also at the New School, on Friday. Egan initially found Power Point formally appealing but was able to make it function within her novel contextually. Using the “cold” aspect of Power Point in a section of her book where she felt the narrative to be sentimental, allowed her to strike a tonal balance. Both Egan and Atwood were as engaging and entertaining in person as their printed words. Atwood especially entertained with her playful dry, frank humor and her witty dynamic with Loyd. I was proud to raise my hand when Atwood asked her twitter followers to put up their hands!

Jennifer Egan © Pieter M. van Hattem

Another (but totally different) sense of pride came over me during the Marjane Satrapi event at the MoMA, also on Thursday night. As an Iranian-American, I love how Satrapi expresses her own cultural hybridity and embeds Iranian history in her art. I was ecstatic to see her speak before screening her new film Chicken with Plums (which I will review in full, in a near future post). Satrapi, in discussion with graphic artist and editor Francois Mouly, talked about her visual and literary work. She argued that the graphic novel was not a genre but its own unique medium where images can both replace and work with words to create “a really specific language.”

© Sony Pictures Classics

Brian Selznick is also an artist creating stylistically unique narratives with books like The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was my favorite film last year and listening to Selznick on Saturday at the New School, in discussion with fellow writer David Levithan, was a beautiful way to wrap up my first PEN festival. Although he had been writing children’s literature up until it, he stated that he didn’t set out to create a children’s book with The Invention of Hugo Cabret. What began as a novella and a fascination with George Melies grew into a novel where illustrations work as “purely visually narrative work.” Influenced by both silent films and the late Maurice Sendak‘s wild rumpus pages in Where the Wild Things Are, Selznick wanted visuals (illustrated pages) to guide the plot forward, without having text constantly move the story along for readers. Although Selznick was weary of a film adaptation, he was pleased that John Logan’s script retained the importance of books. Selznick believes the film adaptation “inverted” his novel, which “celebrates movies but is about the importance of books” by “making a movie that celebrates books…but ultimately…(is) a movie about the importance of movies.” This thematic inversion was logical to him since it reflects the medium shift from book to film.

© Scholastic Inc.

Overall, the festival presented a hopeful stance about the future of literature, in the face of new technology. The discussions and events proved that literature was evolving with, and transitioning into, new mediums while still being able to retain the attention of readers with extended narratives within the more conventional medium of books.