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Can writers change the world? Jane Smiley, Evan Thomas and Phillip Hoose respond

With the National Book Festival fast approaching (Sept. 25 on the National Mall), we have asked participating authors to ponder the power of their pen. In this age of maximum distraction when reading -- and the influence of books -- often lose out to texting, tweeting and other semi-literary activities, we posed the question: Can writers change the world? We're providing answers from a range of Festival contributors -- historians, novelists, childrens writers -- over several days. Jane Smiley, Evan Thomas and Phillip Hoose offer today's perspectives.

Jane Smiley is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and active literary critic whose latest book is "Private Life," which Marie Arana described in The Washington Post as "a brilliantly imagined, carefully chiseled story." She added: "It's not often that a work as exceptional as this comes along in contemporary American letters."

Here is Smiley's response:

In fact, 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. If the novel is highly plotted and suspenseful, then the world seems less mundane; if the novel is romantic, then the world seems to hold out possibilities for unique or exciting forms of love; if the novel is dark but realistic or logical, then the world seems, at least for a moment, to make sense, if not to be a happy place. The novel depends for sense on a traceable sequence of cause and effect, so novels almost always seem to make some kind of sense of the world.

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. "Black Beauty," by Anna Sewell, exposed routine abuse of horses and gave horses a point of view. Usually, though, writers change the world in retrospect -- that is, they make pictures of the world that may seem idiosyncratic to their contemporaries, but come to seem like real history to subsequent generations. Many modern readers can't think of Victorian England without thinking of "A Christmas Carol." Dickens was not seen as a realist writer in his day, though -- more of a sentimentalist or a polemicist. Now, his works have come to be the face of Victorian England to millions of readers.

Many of us novelists wish that we could change the world, and feel powerless to do so. But really, we can have no idea what the effects of our writings will be.

-- Jane Smiley will speak on Saturday, Sept. 25, in the Teens & Children tent at 12 p.m. and in the Poetry & Prose pavilion at 4:35 p.m.


Evan Thomas is an author and an editor at Newsweek. His latest book is "The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and the Rush to Empire, 1898"," which James McGrath Morris said in The Washington Post is "a cautionary tale about how the psyche of powerful and ambitious leaders may matter more than fact -- or even truth -- when the question of war arises." Thomas is at work on a biography of President Eisenhower.

Here's his response:

President Eisenhower liked to say that he never read the newspapers. Actually, he read five (his favorite was the now defunct New York Herald Tribune, a bastion of moderate Republicanism and probably the best written paper of its day). Eisenhower is not the only president to pretend not to read the papers. George W. Bush said the same, though he seemed to have strong opinions about what was in them. Actually, all presidents pay close attention to what's written about them in the press. John F. Kennedy read Time Magazine so closely that he was able to spot when its editor, Otto Fuerbringer, went on vacation, at least according to Time-Life's longtime White House correspondent Hugh Sidey.

Do writers change the world? Yes, every minute of every day, and not just writers in the grand sense but hacks, as newspaper writers sometimes refer to themselves. No matter how much technology changes the delivery system, the written word is still the most powerful tool of change. The means can be pretty crude -- leaks, spin, outright lies -- but in our country the written word is the way we consider what we will do and ponder what we have done.

-- Evan Thomas will speak in the History & Biography tent on Saturday, Sept. 25, at 1:30 p.m.


Phillip Hoose won the National Book Award for “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.” He is also the author of “We Were There Too!: Young People in U.S. History.” His picture book “Hey, Little Ant,” co-written with his daughter Hannah, has more than 1 million copies in print in 10 languages.

Here is Hoose’s response:

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.

Writers are still shaping the world. Who knows what J.K. Rowling’s literary legacy is? Millions of children and adults started reading again. They read imaginative stories of hope and courage, love, loss and challenge. Currently, Steig Larsson has directed attention to the abuse of women through the unforgettable Lisbeth Salander.

I myself have set out to change the world by changing the way history is presented in this country. I spent six years researching the book We Were There Too: Young People in U.S. History, a collection of 70 or so stories of children and teens who helped shape the nation. I intend to give young readers a better chance to love history by showing them through exciting stories that without the courage, conscience, caring and labor of people their own age this nation would be very different.

-- Phillip Hoose will speak in the Teens & Children tent on Saturday, Sept. 25, at 11:10 a.m.

By Steven E. Levingston  | September 20, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Tags:  Jane Smiley's Private Life; Evan Thomas's The War Lovers; writers impact on the world; can writers change the world?  
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Next: Can writers change the world? Wil Haygood, Margarita Engle and Henry Petroski respond

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