At our Literary State of the Union event, we had the good fortune of hearing from several DC-area writers in response to the following prompt: “What Does Being a Writer Teach Me about the State of the Union?” We are delighted to be able to share two of their responses.
Alexandra Petri is a humorist and columnist for the Washington Post and author of Nothing Is Wrong and Here Is Why, a Thurber Prize finalist.
I was working on my speech about what being a writer teaches me about the state of the union, but then I got an email from a disgruntled reader in response to a column I had written, and I got distracted.
The email subject line was “Threat”—which is always a good way to start an email! I wish I had the confidence to send more emails with a subject line that just says “Threat.” Short and to the point!
“Ms. Petri”, the email said, “You made a point that if more Republicans are elected to political office on November 8, that Americans will have to worry more about the demise of Democracy. You failed to do your fact checking to view the latest NY Times/Sienna Survey. When asked about THREATS TO DEMOCRACY, registered voters, by 60%, believed that YOU, the MEDIA, were a MAJOR THREAT TO DEMOCRACY and more then 65% responded that YOUR articles are using inaccurate facts to deceive Americans. Maybe if YOU AND OTHER JOURNALIST (not plural, confusingly?) WOULD PUT AWAY YOUR PENS AMERICANS WOULD HAVE TO WORRY LESS. Da ta da ta da. YOUR ARTICLE VIVDLY ILLUSTRATES YOUR INCOMPETENCE AND BETTER YET WHY AMERICANS by a significant majority BELIEVE JOURNALIST ARE A MAJOR THREAT TO DEMOCRACY… Thank you for your time.”
I wanted to respond. Here is what I wanted to say.
Dear Steve, (his name was Steve) the joke is on you. I don’t know about other journalist, but I actually HAVE put away most of my pens. I do the overwhelming majority of my writing in a WORD PROCESSOR or on my phone in a Notes file. A more effective thing to say would have been to tell me to “get out your pen” or “pick your pen up” because my handwriting is like a doctor who is writing something on top of a sledgehammer that is currently in operation, and it is illegible even to myself. Telling me to put away my pen will not work. You will have to do better if you want to silence me.
Also, I am sorry for briefly ragging on your spelling and grammar. Lots of wonderful people spell words all kinds of ways. The problem with your email is not that you said “then” instead of “than” or implied, confusingly, that I was one of only two remaining journalists on earth. The problem with your email was that its subject line was THREAT and it said I was a threat to democracy because I was a journalist.
I saw the same poll that you did, and it depressed me. I think the people who believe I am a threat to democracy are confused! They are thinking of something else. A threat to democracy is when people say they won’t accept the result of an election that they don’t win. A threat to democracy is when a demagogue gets up in front of a crowd and says that some people aren’t people, and the crowd claps and cheers. A threat to democracy is when a mob of insurrectionists storms the Capitol to try to stop votes from being counted. I think those are much more threatening than anything that I am doing. I don’t even carry a pen anymore. Let alone a sword.
I am a writer. It’s what I do. I love words. I try to use them to get my point across. I’m working on a polite email to Steve to explain what I just said to you. I’m not sure I am good enough at words to make him think I’m not a threat to democracy. I hate that it’s on me to convince him.
That’s what being a writer has taught me about the state of the union.
Alice McDermott, National Book Award winning novelist and essayist, has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Pulitzer, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
The state of our union?? Certain bleak quotations do come to mind. It’s tempting to say, for instance, with W. B. Yeats, that in 2022, “the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Or, with D.H. Lawrence, “The sympathetic heart is broken. We stink in each other’s nostrils.”
Or with William Faulkner, “Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?”
Or, perhaps, When will I be blown away? – by an unregulated AK47 or a 500 year storm.
Given the present state of our literary union, it’s also tempting to acknowledge, even as we gather in his name, that Faulkner was racist. And sexist, too.
(I recently learned that on the very day he died, his beleaguered wife went out and bought an air-conditioning unit for what was now her bedroom alone – a gleeful realization on her part, I’m sure – because he had banned air-conditioning from the house while he was alive. In Oxford, Mississippi, no less.)
We might also declare, in this, the Centennial year of Ulysses and The Wasteland, that T.S. Eliot was an anti-semite, and poor repressed Jimmy Joyce never quite understood the creepy ramifications of his leering male gaze.
It’s worth noting as well, I suppose, that the censors who once plagued Joyce are having a heyday still: school boards on the right, sensitivity editors on the left – morality clauses in our publishing contracts, even if there’s nothing of the sort in our politics.
In brief, in 2022, it’s tempting to say that we’re a mess, all of us: readers and writers, critics, creators, consumers, citizens – the quick and the dead.
We’re all vain and troubled and biased and fearful and angry and despairing. And shallow. And stupid. Unrepentant, reprehensible, self-righteous, indignant, intolerant, endlessly foolish.
Which leads me to propose that the state of the union is pretty good for the likes of us.
Because, honestly: What stories would there be left for us to tell if all of our fellow human beings were now, and always had been, perfectly wonderful?
The good news is our union is rife with drama and comedy and heartache and foolishness. All the stuff of great literature. So go write.
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