Rise Up!

by jkatejohnston


10 December 2013

Dear Max,

I’ve been mostly awake since about 11:30. Now it’s almost five, and I’ve decided that sleep isn’t going to happen for me. Plus it’s morning. I spent the time in bed looking at the clock, fantasizing about less-obscure writing projects and listening to podcasts: America’s Test Kitchen (sparkling wines, smothered pork chops, ginger snaps with real snap), The Moth Radio Hour (foster teen has to give up her baby for adoption, but it all ends happy, after a long and shitty time), BBC on rape in India (the Beeb is against it); Morning Edition (Obama speaking at Nelson Mandela’s memorial; self-censorship of Pen writers who think the NSA gives a flying fuck about them).

This last story drove me out of bed. It was so deliciously absurd. The PEN American Center (a kind of club to promote the self-importance of writers—no need!) did a survey of American authors, and 1 in 6 has avoided speaking or writing on a subject because they thought it would subject them to surveillance. Another 1 in 6 has “seriously considered” self-censorship, but presumably forged bravely ahead. My favorite part was about an “unnamed American poet” who believes the government is targeting her because of a poem she wrote about young people turning into jihadists. Oh sweetie pie. You’re a poet. No one gives a shit about you—certainly not the government. This is a good thing.

So!—Writers of America, Unite and Fight! You Have Nothing To Lose But Your Grip on Reality! Not To Mention All Sense of Proportion!

There’s something so touching and lost about all this—a kind of longing to be relevant, to be more than decoration. I mean, you think of Soviet Russia and how important writers were, and they were wonderful, and they really did risk it all. Think of Solzhenitsyn, “that old non-bender” as Alan Stephens said, committing his writing to memory and then destroying it, hiding it under rocks, doing time. I remember reading The Gulag Archipelago for dear life the first time we went to Las Vegas—talk about a shot heard round the world, and only heard because of an incredibly unlikely series of risks and miracles. And the contrast between that and the boring, boring permissiveness of Las Vegas, and Vegas is just a concentrated example of our familiar world, where there is no government censorship and (more importantly I think) no real social censorship either, so that you really can say anything, but that turns out to present its own set of problems. Like what do you write about when the field is so open?

I wonder what Nelson Mandela would have thought about the oppression suffered by all those poor PEN American writers. He probably would have been nice about it. The way you have to be nice to babies because how can they know any better?