What's power of the pen? Authors jot answers

Saturday, September 25, 2010

As thousands of readers converge on the Mall Saturday for the National Book Festival, we asked some participating authors to ponder the power of their pen. In this age of maximum distraction, when reading often loses out to texting, tweeting and other semi-literary activities, we posed the question all week on the Post's Political Bookworm blog: Can writers change the world?

-- Steven Levingston

Here are excerpts from their answers:

James McGrath Morris (author of "Pulitzer: A Life in Politics, Print, and Power"):

"Writers have sparked revolutions, remade politics, culture and economics, caused us to rethink our place in the cosmos, inspired mass migrations, shaped our love lives, altered our waistlines, and kept us up at night. From his desk in the British Museum, using a pen as his only weapon, Karl Marx inspired a worldwide wave of revolutions."

Judith Viorst (author of the children's book "Lulu and the Brontosaurus"):

"Can writers change the world? I'll settle for a few hearts and minds, grateful for those readers who write to let me know, 'You've touched me,' or 'You've helped me understand.' I think writing is about making a connection, and sometimes that connection can be broad enough and deep enough to prompt a large number of people to think about the world in a different way. And maybe some of those people will then go on to try to change the world -- that's their job. A writer's job is to write."

Bruce Feiler (author of "The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me"):

"Writers should be wary of trying to change the world. Too often such pretensions lead to stultifying prose, self-righteous bloviating, or empty propaganda. I certainly know this from some of my own failed writings over the years. Writers should entertain, educate, nudge, and inform. They can try to elevate. But ultimately they should tell the truth and leave the social change to others."

Wil Haygood (Post staff writer and author of "Sweet Thunder: The Life and Times of Sugar Ray Robinson"):

"When I think of this question, I think of James Baldwin. Can writers change the world? Baldwin apparently thought so. Witness his works: 'Notes of a Native Son,' 'The Fire Next Time,' all those beautiful and trenchant essays that he turned out in the '60s. To this day, for those who constantly contemplate who we are, how we got from there to here, he remains required reading."

Jane Smiley (author of "Private Life"):

"Every time writers write, they do change the world -- they make it conform to their own inner sense of reality, which is always subjective. Fiction writers are not only allowed to do this, they are required to do it -- readers go to fiction for a renewed or refreshed sense of what reality is. Some novels have made such compelling sense of the world that they have motivated readers to address social issues -- Harriet Beecher Stowe's 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' is the most famous example. Dickens had something of the same effect -- he shone a light on various dark corners of English society of his day, and motivated readers to act to correct the abuses."

Phillip Hoose (author of "Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice"):

"Can writers change the world? Are you kidding? Yahwey didn't whisper the Commandments to Moses and trust him to remember them. Moses carried a tablet -- which, come to think of it, looks like a Kindle -- back down the mountain and read the rules to his tribe."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company