On Thursday, Feb. 18, author Salman Rushdie received a standing ovation from the 3,000 in attendance for his lecture, “Private Lives: Literature + Politics in the Modern World.” Parts history lesson, literary survey and modern-day critique, Rushdie’s 45-minute talk at at UNC Asheville’s Kimmel Arena examined the role and evolution of the novel over the last four centuries.
The British-Indian writer, whose work The Satanic Verses famously provoked death threats from the Ayatollah Khomeini, began by highlighting the novel’s early impact on social change. He used Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, and its subsequent influence in improving the educational institutions for the poor, as his initial example. He then went on to remind the audience of the famous meeting between President Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe, where Lincoln allegedly said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book [Uncle Tom’s Cabin] that started this great war.”
The crux of Rushdie’s lecture focused on the modern writer and the role of the present-day novel. With the advent of the Internet and the emergence of the information age, does the novel still play as vital a part in informing and shaping the public, or has its influence dwindled?
“The Internet is not a place for information,” Rushdie told the audience, “but a place for trolling, paranoia and ranting.” He went on to say that with the shrinking of the newspaper industry, correspondents are being replaced by more and more opinion columnists, substituting truth for truthiness.
“The world is becoming fictionalized,” Rushdie said. “The real has become a problem. That’s where the work of the novelist begins.”
In Rushdie’s view, the modern writer is obliged to move away from the private lives of characters and toward the public arena. This, Rushdie conceded, raises a problem, in that the novel as a form likes to be private. The idea that a man’s character determines his destiny — the essence of the novel — risks getting lost to the larger issues, if not properly handled.
And yet, Rushdie said, writers can no longer ignore these larger issues due to the very nature of the modern world. “We live in a time of identity politics where we are asked to define ourselves as this or that,” he said. The novel knows better. It understands the contradictory nature of man. And this, Rushdie said, helps people better understand each other.
The job of the modern writer, Rushdie went on to conclude, is to try and open up the universe to show people all of its possibilities, and to push boundaries, like the writers of old. Of course, writers will get push-back. Just as Ovid’s words landed him in exile, today’s writers also risk many dangers in their pursuit of truth. And yet, as Rushdie pointed out, the Roman Empire has since collapsed, while Ovid’s words live on.