Teaching us what it is to be human … Babel’s Russell Banks

As novelist Russell Banks admitted during the first lecture of the 2012-2013 Just Buffalo Literary Center‘s Babel season, he is the series’ first participant with a clear “American accent”. I’m not sure if that fact made my brain marginalize his inclusion because he wasn’t some international luminary from an exotic corner of the world or not, but his very brief time at the podium left me wanting. I love the work picked as his showcase piece—well, the movie based on it anyway for which I gave a perfect score—as well as his choice of subject mirroring the unavoidable political climate of the day. Perhaps my disappointment therefore truly rested in his decision to read from a prepared essay instead of a more captivating, off-the-cuff exchange.

I guess I’ve been spoiled by the past five seasons of authors. His constant looking down at papers in front of him distracted me often and I found my mind drifting. Heck, it distracted him once too as a lengthy pause towards the end came after losing his own place in the material. The biggest shame of all, however, comes from how wonderfully candid and contagiously jovial he was in the looser, in-the-moment question and answer period following his talk on literature’s ability to cause political change. Yes, the questions themselves lacked any real panache as they delved into The Sweet Hereafter, but his responses were always well thought out and fantastically entertaining. If only the whole evening possessed that same sense of spontaneity.

Banks is clearly an intelligent man with some really profound points to make on the subject of his profession. Acknowledging how hard it is to ‘make a significant difference’ in government policy—explaining the joke of Presidents and heads of state ceremonially passing out awards and shaking hands when they’d really like to push the artists aside and get back to ‘real’ work—his words on two pieces of literature that did were insightful. Speaking on “protest novels” The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, he had no qualms relegating them into the category of argument over art. They were written with a distinct purpose and utilized cliché, tried and true templates, and a lack of nuance to drive it home.

Using the term “true novelists” for those involved in narrative fiction with artistic merit was probably his most intriguing bit of rhetoric. I’m sure he didn’t intend for it to be a slight to Sinclair and Stowe, but I kind of loved the fact it was. To him, poets and novelists cannot involve themselves in such a public sphere as government because their professions need the solitude of introspection to succeed. Once artists like Norman Mailer find themselves entering politics, they lose all credibility because they’ve compromised their internal vision by the needs of everyone else. For Banks the term “public intellectual” is an oxymoronic sentiment that cannot exist since no one in power would ever take one seriously. For artists to be labeled “entertainers” means being marginalized with little pull besides the equally powerless hoards willing to listen.

But this is okay to Banks because we need their sense of decency and morality in art. We should be happy writers don’t find success in office because we need their unfiltered humanity more than the watered-down compromise of attaining votes. In a world constantly reshaped and evolving to the point where we’ve dehumanized our youth into a consumer group, it’s the job of novelists to help remind us we aren’t simply numbered commodities. According to Banks a true artist shouldn’t think about his audience, but instead put his ideas on paper and be true to the characters and story he is bringing to life. To him change occurs on the edges, one person at a time. There is always a higher truth and his work especially helps explain the gray areas where right and wrong work to uncover the truth.

With other tidbits comparing the Presidential debates to “American Idol”, the ego necessary to name a town after oneself like Paul Smith, New York, and the fact that his ideal reader may be an incarcerated, former Weather Underground terrorist, Russell Banks definitely didn’t lack intrigue. Unfortunately, those more personal asides all came in the Q&A after the more serious dialogue on politics and art was disseminated from his pulpit. Great ideas and insight for sure, I personally just wanted more about his process, his subjects, and his heroes like Hemingway and Faulkner. Wanting to take a break from speaking on the dark worlds of his novels during his current book tour, I think what he avoided was exactly what I had hoped to receive.

Babel 2012/2013 Season:
Nuruddin Farah (Somalia) – November 7, 2012 – Links
Alexandra Fuller (Great Britain/Zimbabwe) – March 7, 2013 – Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
Julia Alvarez (Dominican Republic/USA) – April 3, 2013 – In the Time of Butterflies
Buy your tickets today by clicking here.

Courtesy of Bruce Jackson.

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