Marlon James in conversation: “All the people I believe in believe in books.”

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A report by Laurie Hertzel for the Star-Tribune.

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.”

2 thoughts on “Marlon James in conversation: “All the people I believe in believe in books.”

  1. Reblogged this on Wadadli Pen and commented:
    ‘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.”’

    I remember I was doing a workshop once and integrating music and film and all the stuff that I love as I do, including stories (short stories and books, and poetry in its many forms), and though the registration had been capped the numbers in the end proved to be more suggestion than fixed fact; but I adjusted. Many of the originals stayed – some admitting that they hadn’t come knowing what to expect but were glad that they had. One man stuck his head in at one point to ask if he could join because we looked like we were having so much fun. And, you know what, we were. I have to make it fun, because if they’re bored, I will be; and if I’m bored, they will be. Of course, that workshop was a teachers’ workshop about creating interest and excitement around the literary arts (creativity through the lens of the literary arts, really), excitement and practical tools that they could then take in to the classroom, so maybe my sell-muscles were on peak. But it brings me back to a point (and admittedly not fully-evolved point) I was making to a friend that maybe we should stop insisting that this and that and the other subject that we think should be (for me English, lit, history for someone else, something else) mandatory, and rather encourage it, make it so appealing that even the most reluctant student wants to stick his head in the room and ask, can I join?

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