What a week in literature!
This past Tuesday, my wife and I went to see Salman Rushdie speak as the inaugural writer in this year’s Portland Arts & Lectures series. I’ve heard him on the radio several times and I’ve enjoyed his appearances on The Daily Show, so I knew the guy was not only brilliant but also funny. But live, in person? The man was hilarious! Whether it was his impression of New York police and his demonstration of the difference between how American cops and armed British cops carry their sidearms (“American police shoot innocent people, while British police shoot themselves in their own asses” — it’s a long story, but it was a riot), or his detailed lambasting of Fifty Shades of Gray and The DaVinci Code (“Jesus didn’t speak French!”), or his description of word games he likes to play with other writers (only an audience of lit nerds would laugh hysterically at changing Salinger’s title to “The Pitcher in the Rye”) — by the end of the evening, the crowd was in stitches.
Afterward, we stopped by the afterparty to see what was what, and while I didn’t manage to find my writer friends Kerry Cohen and James Bernard Frost (who were there, eating cheese) or Literary Arts program coordinator Mel Wells or director of programs and events Susan Denning, I did get a chance to shake Rushdie’s hand.
I just want to say that again: I shook Salman Rushdie’s hand!
I had been threatening all night that if I got to meet the man, I would tell him how much I loved him in Bridget Jones’s Diary, just to see if he would laugh at that. But when it came down to it, I succumbed to fanboy awe and chickened out. Instead, I giddily said, “I just wanted to thank you for coming here! It’s such an honor!” I expected him to nod and thank me and move on to the next fan pushing closer to him — the room was packed and Rushdie was the gravitational center of all movement — but instead, he switched his glass of wine to his left hand so he could shake my right, and he said, “Oh, thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure, simply a marvelous trip.” I told him I’d missed his radio interview earlier in the day, and he said how much he’d liked doing that, but his favorite experience was meeting with students at a local high school. I said, “Oh, good! You know, that is such a great program — I’m so glad Literary Arts does that, gives these students access to a writer like you.” Rushdie said it was actually the other way around: “I found the students invigorating. They inspire me.”
A mere two days later, I woke up and checked the Internet (stupidest thing you can do, getting online before you’ve even gotten out of bed, except for yesterday) and I leapt out of the blankets and stood shouting in the bedroom: “Oh my god! Oh my god! Alice Munro!”
But that’s not all! Alice Munro is the first Canadian to win (yeah yeah, Saul Bellow was born in Canada, but he was raised in the US). And in 112 years, Munro is only the thirteenth woman to win the prize, which is a pitiful ratio but she’s helped move women one prize closer to literary equality. And, most exciting for a writer like me, she’s won the Nobel based solely — solely — on a career writing short fiction. (I know, some people like to pretend that Lives of Girls and Women is a novel, but they’re wrong. It’s a story cycle. Trust me: I’m teaching that form in a college course right now, and Munro’s book in on the syllabus; we start it in a few weeks.)
As far as I know, no other Nobel laureate has ever won solely for short fiction. Plenty of prose winners have written short fiction, but in explaining their reasons for the award, the Nobel committee always cites the strength of the writers’ novels. Munro has never written a novel. So this is a HUGE validation for short fiction as a form. Especially considering the so-called “decline” the past couple of decades of the short story — or rather, of story collections, which, if you’ve ever so much as glanced at the publishing and literary agents markets, you’ll know are often denigrated as “unsellable.” So as a guy who still considers short fiction my most comfortable form of writing and who is currently working to publish a collection of short fiction, this is very, very exciting news!
I also want to give a shout-out to Malala Yousafzai. She’s not a writer in the same way that Rushdie or Munro are, but she is an inspiring advocate for education and has written a book. I mention her, though, because while she was overlooked — unfairly, in my estimation — for the Nobel Peace Prize today, she’s still an extraordinary human being whose words are worth celebrating.
Finally, a plug for my friend Hosho McCreesh, who has had not one but three books out this year, the most recent of which, A Deep & Gorgeous Thirst, is officially out as of this week. And even though the release party happened on Sunday down in Albuquerque, you can pretend you were there by listening to a reading from the release: