Penned In

Critical Inquiry 13 (1):1-32 (1986)

Abstract
“Writers don’t have tasks,” said Saul Bellow in a Q-and-A. “They have inspiration.”Yes, at the typewriter, by the grace of discipline and the Muse, but here, on Central Park South, in the Essex House’s bright Casino on the Park, inspiration was not running high.Not that attendance at the forty-eight PEN conference was a task. It was rather what Robertson Davies called “collegiality.” “A week of it once every five years,” he said, “should be enough.” He, Davies, had checked in early, Saturday afternoon, and attended every session. In black overcoat and black fur cap, he had a theatrical, Man-Who-Came-to-Dinner look. In the lobby he made a great impression.Why not? After all, weren’t writers here to be seen as well as to see each other, to make as well as take impressions? A month before, I’d spent a couple of hours at the Modern Language Association convention. There were thousands and thousands of scholars and critics there. Some of the most noted make a career of squeezing authors out of their texts. An author, wrote one tutelary divinity, “constitutes the privileged moment of individualization in the history of ideas, knowledge, [and] literature….”1 Not content with auctoricide, deconstructionist critics went after texts. “Il n’y a pas de hors-texte.”2 Since there’s nothing that doesn’t belong to the text, texts are interchangeable. And it’s not that superfluous, mythical being, the author, who decides they are, but his readers, at least those readers capable of erecting on his miserable pedestal—the poem, the story, the novel—a memorable explication.Ah well, was my thought, for some people a corpse will serve as well as a person. Indeed, for intellectual undertakers, hit-men, and cannibals, as well as for those who suffer the tyranny of authority, corpses are preferable to their living simulacra.Few authors at the PEN conference were troubled by these critical corpse-makers. They were here to see the authors behind the books they’d read, to swap stories and opinions, and to make clear to each other what splendid thinkers and noble humans they were outside of the poems and stories which had brought them here in the middle of winter and New York. In this city, more than any other in the history of the word, the word had been turned into gold. If one were going to abandon the typewriter for the podium, what better place to do it? In 1985, Richard Stern was given the Medal of Merit, awarded every six years to a novelist by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He is the author of, among other works, the novels A Father’s Words , Other Men’s Daughters , and Stitch . His third “orderly miscellany,” The Position of the Body, will be published in September 1986. This essay is part of a longer work. Stern is professor of English at the University of Chicago
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DOI 10.1086/448370
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