Bookstores, book publishers, book buzz, book critics, book prizes, bookish people, non-bookish people, the state of books in the world and the state of the world in general — all these things and more were scrutinized, filleted, examined and discussed Thursday night at the Guthrie Theater in a freewheeling hour-long conversation between two “ferocious and brilliant advocates for readers and writers.” So said Britt Udesen, executive director of the Loft Literary Center, who introduced the speakers — Marlon James and Lisa Lucas.
James, of course, is the Jamaica-born, Booker Prize-winning writer who teaches at Macalester College in St. Paul, and Lucas is the executive director of the National Book Foundation, the first African American to hold that role and most definitely a fierce advocate for all things book. (Follow her on Twitter, where she practically lives: @likaluca. Follow James on Facebook, but only if you dare. “That’s what I do when I’m not writing,” James said. “I start fights on Facebook.”)
But if he’s testy online, in person he’s witty, thoughtful and eloquent. Lucas is intense and quick, and together they had great chemistry.
The rough theme of their highly entertaining talk was “Can Literature Make a Damn Bit of Difference?” Two minutes or so into their talk, they answered that question. (The answer is yes.)
“People who are anti-literature know this answer already,” James said. “That’s why they try to get rid of it. They know full well its power. It’s the friends of literature who wrestle with this.”
This is why, for instance, so many people — anti-literature people, James would say — support the government’s plan to end funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. Lucas urged the audience to fight for the NEA — get your book club to write letters, she said. Make phone calls. She worries in particular about the fellowships that will end if the NEA dies — fellowships that give writers the time and space to do their work.
Literature, they said, doesn't just open your mind and your empathy to other ways of life (though they agreed that is important). It helps develop your brain, your concentration, your critical thinking skills,
And yet, Lucas said, she is frustrated by teachers who treat books as something dull and important that children must be forced to read. “It’s like spinach — like, ‘This is good for you,’” she said. “Books are fun.”
If nothing else, James said, "I know that all the people I believe in believe in books. All the people I learn from never lost that. Any person you look upon as a guiding light — the people who can change the world" believe in books.
That said, “I also think it’s cool to teach someone to critically hate a book,” James said. “Like, I have read this book and here are 15 things wrong with it. It was mind-blowing to me when I realized I could say this book does not stand. Books are worth fighting for, but they’re also worth fighting over.”
This brought the conversation to book reviews (gulp!), and Lucas noted that most reviews these days are positive, and certain “big books” tend to have a buzz that is hard to penetrate critically. “When everything is getting positive reviews it’s tricky for people to take it seriously,” she said. “Having a vigorous debate over literature actually means we're alive.”
The two talked for an hour in front of a crowd of about 450 people and then took questions for another 30 minutes. Udesen said it was the largest ticketed event the Loft has ever done. It was the second in the Loft’s new “Big Ideas” series that puts literature at the center of community discussion.
It should be no surprise that hundreds of people turned out on a lovely spring evening to hear two people talk about books.
“It’s crazy here,” Lucas said, looking out at the crowd. “The literary community here is unstoppable.”