PEN World Voices Festival Takes Over New York

For this week, at least. PEN, if you’re unfamiliar, is an organization devoted not only to the spread of literature but also the fight for freedom of expression worldwide, especially in regions where citizens can be harshly punished for speaking out. Though May 5, you can immerse yourself in that globalized culture, as PEN is offering a blockbuster schedule of workshops, discussions and interviews emphasizing “writers’ impact on political transformations in recent global hot spots such as Burma, Palestine, South Africa, Haiti and Guantanamo Bay.” Below, some events you won’t want to miss:

In more local terms, “Life After Your MFA” with Lynne Tillman, author of No Lease on Life, should appeal to the adrift young author—whether or not he or she actually bothered to attain a creative writing degree. (It’s not too late to accept me with a full scholarship, Columbia!). For the more ambitious among us, there’s “Earl Lovelace on Reclaiming Rebellion.” The acclaimed Caribbean author doesn’t visit often, so get a taste of his post-independence politics while you can.
Then, for my money, if you want a good old-guy event, skip the award ceremony for Philip Roth, which promises to be a bore, and catch “Obsession:Lewis Lapham on Smoking” on Wednesday evening. The long-time Harper’s editor, also the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly, is perhaps the last human being who can get away with smoking in a New York office building (it helps when your name is on the magazine). He will appear onstage in conversation with a psychoanalyst, though not his own.
Lastly, for those who’d like something more on the “free” side of things, Friday there’s an outdoor indie book fair and public stage featuring music and even a chapbook binding lesion. That goes from 10:00 a.m. through the early evening in the cobblestone streets of NYU’s Washington Mews, so get there early and get wandering.

Philip Roth Retiring At Age 79

Sapped of all his ideas about masturbation, Jews, and masturbating Jews, legendary author Philip Roth is throwing in the towel at age 79. 

Roth first announced his retirement last week in a French magazine. Speaking at length to the New York Times, the writer explained he is finally ready to retire after a 53-year-long career in publishing. Well into his late 60s, Roth was picking up awards for novels like The Plot Against America and The Human Stain. His retirement comes not just because he’s getting up there in age; he literally thinks he’s run out of ideas. "I sat around for a month or two trying to think of something else and I thought, ‘Maybe it’s over, maybe it’s over," the author said. He continued:

"I know I’m not going to write as well as I used to. I no longer have the stamina to endure the frustration. Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time."

Philip Roth has certainly kept those failures well-hidden.

Roth’s plans now include cooperating with his biographer, Blake Bailey, and learning how to use his new iPhone. (He bought a book called iPhone For Dummies. Adorable.) He’s also "collaborating on a novella with the 8-year-old daughter of a former girlfriend," which either sounds like he is not really retiring or he is being Catfish-ed in real life.

Roth told the Times that interview would be his last-ever, but for some reason, I feel like he won’t go all J.D. Salinger on us forever. Especially not with a novella coming out.

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‘New York Times’ Review Of J.K. Rowling’s Adult Novel: “Harry Potter Isn’t In It”

New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani, contrary to popular daydreams, does not have such a great gig. As far as I can tell, her duties are to act as lightning rod for vitriol from cranky authors—Jonathan Franzen infamously called her the “stupidest person in New York City”—and read every new Philip Roth book to the bitter end. Often she is obligated to use the word “limn.” Likewise, reviewing The Casual Vacancy, J.K. Rowling’s 500-page career move into the world of adult-targeted fiction, is a thankless task. So Ms. Kakutani elected to talk about Harry Potter the whole time.

With two paragraphs of perfunctory plot summation crammed in at the tail end, and just one icky example of Rowling’s prose, the column could mark any writer’s cold reception. Except that we apparently need it repeated to us, a few dozen times, that there’s no magic here, it’s “Muggle-land,” the climax is not a battle between good and evil wizards, Hogwarts doesn’t really exist, and that really, no joking, kids won’t like it. There are seventeen separate mentions of Harry Potter. Here’s one telling passage:

In some respects “The Casual Vacancy” is grappling with many of the same themes as the Harry Potter books: the losses and burdens of responsibility that come with adulthood, and the stubborn fact of mortality. One of the things that made Harry’s story so affecting was Ms. Rowling’s ability to construct a parallel world enlivened by the supernatural, and yet instantly recognizable to us as a place where death and the precariousness of daily life cannot be avoided, a place where identity is as much a product of deliberate choice as it is of fate.     

Yes, those wonderful themes of aging, death, identity, choice, and fate—monumental elements of narrative that were never available to us before Harry Potter showed up in a basket on our doorstep. I get that we want to weigh any art against the value of the work that preceded it, but if this book is such a departure, do I really need an exegesis of the old stuff? Which, by the way, had its fair share of clichés and tedium and clunkiness, though I’d never point that out for fear of being beaten to death with brooms.

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