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Moving Literary Life Off the Page

Craig Barritt/Getty Images for New York Magazine

Before John Freeman became a respected editor of magazines such as Freeman’s and Granta, and edited multiple anthologies, he was an aspiring poet. Like many of us young writers, he couldn’t figure out how to get his writing life started, so he went into New York book publishing, thinking that might be the career route for him. For Poets & Writers magazine, Freeman writes a welcome personal narrative about how literary events were actually what provided the guidance and models he needed at that early stage of his career. He’d spent so much time in classrooms that he didn’t understand how writers conducted their professional and artistic lives. Interacting with authors offered the same kind of humanity that reading books did, except author events also inspired, educated, illuminated, humbled, and oriented him as a writer, giving him the directions he needed at that stage in his life. Candid, unscripted moments, pointed questions, casual off-the-cuff comments by everyone from Susan Sontag to David Foster Wallace – even the way they conducted themselves in front of the audience – it all left its mark on Freeman.

To this day, even after attending hundreds of readings, and giving hundreds more of my own, I find it hard to be cynical about gigs, readings, tours, and the like: Every single event holds the possibility that someone will leave changed—even the writer. The best writers on the road or onstage know that giving a reading or participating in an event isn’t simply a chance to say what they know. A good public event is more of a dialogue than that. An oral version of what writers do on the page, a reading has no predetermined outcome. In the sacred space of the public event, writers can try things out: a new idea, a way of seeing around what’s in front of us.

Having grown up in the heyday of post-structural criticism, which touted the idea of the abstract author, I was relieved when I started going to readings to see the forms I loved re-embodied, to see that the novel was made by a human hand, a heart, a mind. The more writers I saw onstage, the more physical the art form seemed to be, the more conceptual theory felt beside the point. John Ashbery seemed flattered by all the work done to figure out what his poems were about, but he also appeared, at good readings, just glad to be there. By the time I saw him read, much too late, he seemed to know his time was brief.

It’s funny reading this essay, because for me, it completes a circle. Freeman did the same for me at one AWP panel, where he and others spoke about how they think about editing, and how they came to it. I listened and filled pages of my tiny notebook with their ideas and anecdotes, and in turn, that simple panel shaped me. Such as: “If you’re not reading submissions that represent what America looks like, then you’re not presenting an accurate portrait of a time and place.”

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