One of the benefits of living where I do is that the New York State Writer’s Institute is located here. Last night I got to see the acclaimed novelist Jennifer Egan, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for A Visit From the Good Squad (my review), and was here to talk about her most recent novel, The Candy House (my review).
Goon Squad has a secure place on the list of “The Most Important Novels in My Life.” The Candy House explores in depth some of the minor characters from Goon Squad and includes a throughline on how technology is dominating our lives. While not as compelling as the earlier novel, this one still displays Egan’s brilliance and originality, particularly around structure, diversity of character, and time.
An author in person is not necessarily as fascinating as their work on a page. I once went to a Tom Perrotta event (Little Children, The Leftovers), and as much as I admire and have been influenced by his work, he was a dull and uninspiring presenter. Two different skills, of course: writing and presenting. Some of us, like Egan, have both.
Her fiction is brainy yet accessible, thought-provoking yet entertaining—and she is the same way on stage. She read a short passage from The Candy House, engaged in a conversation with a moderator, and took a few questions from the audience. I had read The Candy House when it first came out about a year ago and was dismayed by how much I’d forgotten it. Egan talking about the characters and their storylines prodded my memory, but what I like best is when authors talk about their writing process and routine, the challenges they faced while working on a book, and their take on the role of writers in contemporary society. I relate to those concepts and feel just like a writer who’s won a Pulitzer, except for the part about winning a Pulitzer.
A couple of things Egan said stood out to me. She said writers have to be on top of their game today because the competition for audience is fierce in this era of the omnipresent phone and scrolling through feeds. It hadn’t been that way for nineteenth and early twentieth-century novelists because they were pretty much the only game in town. No television, no streaming, no internet, no movies, no radio.
She also said that literature readers are part of a resistance. We’re resisting the pull of the easy media fix, circumventing the swamp of technological domination. We’re investing our time in art. We’re discovering and experiencing empathy through the lives of characters unlike ourselves. I’m proud to be a part of this resistance. It means we’re fighting against forces of antagonism for a worthwhile cause.
Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of us. I estimated about one hundred people in the audience. That’s a paltry turnout for such a highly-regarded writer. But then, there’s a lot competing for our attention.