Last night brought the closing event of the 2008 Fall for the Book Festival: an appearance by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours, accepting this year’s Fairfax Prize. Over the years, the festival has boasted some great closing night events: a warm and funny talk by Pat Conroy, for example, and a chat about writing and publishing by Dave Eggers, and then last year a reading of a quirky story-in-progress by Jonathan Lethem (a story that was soon after published by The New Yorker). But to my mind, last night’s event may have been one of the most articulate in terms of what it means to be a writer — and in terms of offering a challenge to aspiring writers.
Cunningham didn’t toss off practical advice; in fact, he said explicitly at one point that he had little of such to offer on the subject. And though both gracious and downright friendly, he wasn’t exactly inspiring in the easy sense of the word; in fact, he admitted at one point that “hardly anyone gets to be an actual, published writer,” underscored the “enormous odds” against us, and spoke against some of the excuses that many of us (present company included) might offer about why that novel of ours isn’t done yet, or done well enough. “No one reads, or should be expected to read, a mediocre novel and say, ‘I’ll bet this would have been brilliant if the author hadn’t had to tend bar at an Olive Garden.'”
But in his talk, which began by equating writers with murderers, he stressed the idea of “turning a ruthless eye onto the world… an eye that sees everything and cares more about accuracy than it does about anything else,” and he said that a book’s greatness can be judged by how well “its author has turned his or her attention onto a world of whatever dimensions, and done it justice.”
In his closing remarks, Cunningham raised a high bar for those of us trying to make our way as writers: “A great writer is someone who, and a great book is something which, tells us over and over and over, sentence after sentence after sentence, that it all matters, every mote and star, every bomb and birthday candle…. Writers, the important ones, won’t allow us to imagine that anyone or anything is beneath our attention. Writers are ruthless, they need to be, because any vision that allows for laxity, that permits the ‘good enough’ sentence or the fuzzy detail or underrealized character, isn’t, can’t be, equal to the world it portrays and to the people who, with considerable difficulty, live in it.”
Take it to heart. I sure did.
For another quote from Cunningham’s talk or for full information about this year’s festival, visit www.fallforthebook.org.