Christopher Hitchens to replace Alexie for PEN keynote

Hmm. Professional smoker and torture victim Chris Hitchens is replacing novelist Sherman Alexie as keynote speaker for the “Arthur Miller Freedom to Write” lecture. This is a very bad move.

To be honest, I have read much more of Hitchens’ work than I have Alexie’s. Part of that reason is that the former is bafflingly prolific and comfortably controversial. The latter, while I’ve loved a number of his stories, is just in a whole different universe from Hitchens. I’ve got my book list, and tend to go through it more slowly than I’m comfortable admitting.

Alexie was scheduled to give a speech about the future of writing, that mind-numbingly banal subject that everyone with a keyboard is hyperventilating about. But he had a way of approaching it that seemed interesting. For his speech, a blurb said that he would talk about his idea that: “To survive, we will likely become dual citizens, continuing to live and write as analog artists, but also embracing and expanding the aesthetics of digital literature.”

Attacking it from the dual-citizenship perspective makes sense, and I would have liked to listen to Alexie, who is Native American, to elaborate on that a little further. I’m not a dual citizen, nor am I of mixed race, transgenered, or have other kinds of competing legacies making up my identity. But in the capacity that I, white man, can be empathetic with it, I’m empathetic with it.

I’m not saying that writers learning how to use an iPad is the same as growing up as a transgendered or mixed race person. Farthest thing. But I think that for some writers, and especially publishers, this digital thing is going to create an uncomfortable identity for a little while.

The essential difference, though, is that this “identity” is really just about how to make money. I don’t know anyone under 30 who is overwhelmed by endless information, at least not in the same way that the old people are. (Personal note: I find that the way that younger people are overwhelmed by The Online is connected to a kind of existential dread, whereas older people are just kind of befuddled by this wacky new tool. Like parents who only recently discovered Facebook and use it for very specific purposes, e.g. keeping up with family photos, rather than having it influence and direct increasingly large parts of your actual life.)

I am not convinced that this is really about anything other than intellectual property rights (which it should be) because these new fears are just like the old fears. Afraid that your book is going to get pirated on the iPad? Well, how many books have you borrowed from friends, or libraries? Worried that books are going to die out? You shouldn’t, because there’s a very profitable paper industry that, believe it or not, has gotten increasingly profitable over the last decade.

Of course, how one makes money, and how much of it, is as big a factor as anything else in what makes up one’s identity. So this dual citizenship thing feels like it’s really just two parts to a greater whole.

Now, as much as I hate listening to technophobic/illiterate people pontificate about the perseverance of pulp, it’s still a worthwhile conversation to have, even if it’s getting a tiny bit stale by now. Hitchens, on the other hand, will likely give a speech on his favorite subject, radical Islam, and tell us how lucky we are for being able to write what we want.

This is certainly true, and the number of bloggers and writers who are persecuted and/or killed every day is infuriating and scary. But Hitchens is basically in the hospice of editorial writers: he’s run out of ideas and is surviving not because he’s growing and changing, but only because he has not yet fully deteriorated.

So, congrats PEN. You’ll probably sell a bunch of tickets with the Hitchens pick. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t kill the whole PEN festival, but he’s certainly ending on a whimper.

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