Does writing change anything?
A butterfly flaps its wings in India, and we feel the breeze on our cheeks here in New York. A throat is cleared somewhere in Africa and in California there's an answering cough. Everything that happens affects something else, so to answer "yes" to the question before us is not to make a large claim. Books come into the world, and the world is not what it was before those books came into it. The same can be said of babies or diseases.
Books, since we are speaking of books, come into the world and change the lives of their authors for good or ill, and sometimes change the lives of their readers too. This change in the reader is a rare event. Mostly we read books and set them aside, or hurl them from us with great force, and pass on. Yet sometimes there is a small residue that has an effect. The reason for this is the always unexpected and unpredictable intervention of that rare and sneaky phenomenon, love. One may read and like or admire or respect a book and yet remain entirely unchanged by its contents, but love gets under one's guard and shakes things up, for such is its sneaky nature. When a reader falls in love with a book, it leaves its essence inside him, like radioactive fallout in an arable field, and after that there are certain crops that will no longer grow in him, while other, stranger, more fantastic growths may occasionally be produced. We love relatively few books in our lives, and those books become parts of the way we see our lives; we read our lives through them, and their descriptions of the inner and outer worlds become mixed up with ours — they become ours.
Love does this, hate does not. To hate a book is only to confirm to oneself what one already knows, or thinks one knows. But the power of books to inspire both love and hate is an indication of their ability to make alterations in the fabric of what is.
Writing names the world, and the power of description should not be underestimated. Literature remembers its religious origins, and some of those first stories of sky gods and sea gods not only became the source of an ocean of stories that flowed from them but also served as the foundations of the world into which they, the myths, were born. There would have been little blood sacrifice in Latin America or ancient Greece if it had not been for the gods. Iphigenia would have lived, and Clytemnestra would have had no need to murder Agamemnon, and the entire story of the House of Atreus would have been different; bad for the history of the theater, no doubt, but good in many ways for the family concerned.
Writing invented the gods and was a game the gods themselves played, and the consequences of that writing, holy writ, are still working themselves out today, which just shows that the demonstrable fictionality of fiction does nothing to lessen its power, especially if you call it the truth. But writing broke away from the gods, and in that rupture much of its power was lost. Prophecy is no longer the game, except for futurologists, but then futurology is fiction too. It can be defined as the art of being wrong about the future. For the rest of us, the proper study of mankind is Man. We have no priests; we can appeal to no ultimate arbiter, though there are critics among us who would claim such a role for themselves.
In spite of this, fiction does retain the occasional surprising ability to initiate social change. Here is the fugitive slave Eliza running from Simon Legree. Here is Wackford Squeers, savage head of Dotheboys Hall. Here is Oliver Twist asking for more. Here is a boy wizard with a lightning scar on his forehead, bringing books back into the lives of a generation that was forgetting how to read. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" changed attitudes toward slavery, and Charles Dickens' portraits of child poverty inspired legal reforms, and J.K. Rowling changed the culture of childhood, making millions of boys and girls look forward to 800-page novels, and improbably popularizing vibrating broomsticks and boarding schools. On the opening night of "Death of a Salesman," the head of Gimbel's department store rushed from the theater vowing not to fire his own aging Willy Lomans.
In this age of information overkill, literature can still bring the human news, the hearts-and-minds news. The poetry of Milosz and Herbert and Szymborska and Zagajewski has done much to create the consciousness, to say nothing of the conscience, of those great poets' time and place. The same may be said of Heaney, Brodsky, Walcott. Nuruddin Farah, so long an exile from Somalia, has carried Somalia in his heart these many years and written it into being, brought into the world's sight that Somalia to which the world might otherwise have remained blind. From China, from Japan, from Cuba, from Iran, literature brings information, the base metal of information, transmuted into the gold of art, and our knowledge of the world is forever altered by such transformational alchemy.
[Last week we honored] the memory of Susan Sontag and Arthur Miller, great writers, intellectuals and truth-tellers. The old idea of the intellectual as the one who speaks truth to power is still an idea worth holding on to. Tyrants fear the truth of books because it's a truth that's in hock to nobody; it's a single artist's unfettered vision of the world. They fear it even more because it's incomplete, because the act of reading completes it, so that the book's truth is slightly different in each reader's different inner world, and these are the true revolutions of literature, these invisible, intimate communions of strangers, these tiny revolutions inside each reader's imagination; and the enemies of the imagination, politburos, ayatollahs, all the different goon squads of gods and power, want to shut these revolutions down, and can't. Not even the author of a book can know exactly what effect his book will have, but good books do have effects, and some of these effects are powerful, and all of them, thank goodness, are impossible to predict in advance.
Literature is a loose cannon. This is a very good thing.
Salman Rushdie, the author of nine novels, including the forthcoming "Shalimar the Clown," is president of PEN American Center. He gave this speech April 18 at the PEN World Voices Conference: "The Power of the Pen: Does Writing Change Anything?"