Johns Hopkins Gazette: October 6, 1997

Leaving Their Mark

Text by Leslie Rice
Photos by Louis Rosenstock
Some of the best of The Writing Seminars' past, present and future made a pilgrimage to Baltimore last week to wish the venerable department a happy 50th anniversary. From Thursday through Saturday, graduates from all over the country gave readings, participated in discussion panels, attended a crab feast and reacquainted themselves with favorite faculty and fellow students.


Russell Baker charmed the audience Thursday night with his elegant wit and a chapter from his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Growing Up. Baker, a Hopkins '47 graduate, majored in Writing, Speech and Drama, a precursor to The Writing Seminars.

"I told a reporter at the Sun today that nobody likes to be read to, but I suppose you all are the exception," he told the audience.

And like it they did. The New York Times columnist and host of the PBS program Masterpiece Theatre sent the audience into fits of laughter with an excerpt about Uncle Harry, "the biggest liar God ever sent down the pike," a man who claimed to have been shot between the eyes in World War I and found in his young nephew a kindred spirit with a common fertile imagination and love for the outlandish.


It would be a daunting task to follow Russell Baker, but poet Molly Peacock (M.A. '77) was up for the challenge. She read selections from her four collections of poetry, poems full of passion and dark humor.

"Looking out into this audience I feel the need to explain something," she said before launching into another poem. "If you've never worn clip-on earrings, I very much want to tell you that they hurt. Almost as soon as you put them on."

And with that she launched into one of the highlights of the evening, a poem called "The Fair" about her mother's death and Peacock's intense guilt and regret for having doomed her mother into discomfort for eternity by dressing her mother's body in her favorite pink dress and clip-on earrings.


Writing Seminars graduate (B.A. '51, M.A. '52) and emeritus Professor John Barth read from his latest novel-in-progress, Floating Opera II. He sent audience members on a breathless, careening journey on the Chesapeake Bay with a crusty, fast-talking gender-confused narrator right before a major hurricane. The narration was so fast and furious that Barth helped the audience along a bit with the occasional prop such as the asterisk (left), indicating the narrator's footnote.


On Friday morning, Mark Strand, Johns Hopkins University's Elliott Coleman Professor of Poetry and former U.S. poet laureate, introduced a reading by David Greenberg (M.A. '95), whose poetry has been published in The New Republic.

"David came to us a real poet, his poems were already publishable, his comments in class were brilliant, the class was his," said Strand. "In other words, I am introducing the student whose excellence I had the least to do with."

Strand himself is the author of nine collections of poetry, the most recent of which is Dark Harbor: A Poem (1993). Other works include The Continuous Life (1990), Selected Poems (1980). He has written humorous columns for the New Yorker and is the author of Mr. and Mrs. Baby, a collection of short stories.


On Friday afternoon, John Astin (B.A. '52), perhaps best known as Gomez Adams from the TV series The Addams Family, read selections from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, including the essay "The Poetic Principal" and Poe's famous poem "The Raven."

"It was here at this school where I learned to love learning," said Astin, here with John Irwin (left) and John Barth, as he explained why he still loves to visit the Homewood campus. Like Russell Baker, Astin graduated with a major in Writing, Speech and Drama, one of under 10 people who actually graduated from Hopkins as a drama major, he says.

But Astin got emotional when he talked about being nominated for a scholarship by a professor despite some bad grades because the professor believed in Astin's ability.

"After that I became inspired," he said. "I couldn't get enough, I was taking 27 credits and signing up for every play and workshop. It was truly some of the best years of my life."


Friday morning, after bagels and pastries, Writing Seminars graduates James Boylan (M.A. '86), Barbara Fischer (B.A. '93), David Greenberg (M.A. '95) and Bill U'Ren (M.A. '94) read selections from their poetry, novels or short stories. All were given introductions by members of the department's faculty who were particularly influential to their growth as writers.

Dixon, Irwin Lead Talk On The Literary Novel

For many writers the problem of writing isn't so much expressing oneself as it is getting anyone to read what has been expressed. It too often resides in the reality of getting published. The selling of literature has seemingly shifted from showing the world the beauties of literature to a sort of political arena, where both the fate of the literary book and the literary writer may be at stake.

On Saturday, Sept. 27, concerned and interested poets, novelists and essayists put away their readings and gathered in Gilman Hall on a more serious note with attempts to wrestle with the question, What is the fate of the literary book?

As part of The Writing Seminars' 50th anniversary weekend members from different sectors of the literary world offered different perspectives on the issue. The discussion was led by Stephen Dixon, author and Writing Seminars professor; John T. Irwin, former chairman of The Writing Seminars; Alice Quinn, poetry editor and deputy fiction editor of The New Yorker; and Brian Weese, Bibelot bookstore owner.

"The problem we are facing today is that people are not reading books other than ones by fellow writers," said Dixon, two-time National Book Award nominee and author of 19 books and hundreds of short stories.

Dixon also suggested that along with the limited scope upon which the general population reads books, certain types of literary works, such as fiction and poetry, are suffering because the business of publishing has also developed different aims.

"Publishers want to make money. They aren't concerned with the love of literature. They want something that is going to sell," Dixon said.

Alice Quinn, who has worked for The New Yorker for 10 years, said the situation is not as bad as people may think.

"Literary fiction is not despised," she said. "It's healthy."

Quinn pointed out that editors are looking for the right work. The problem that many editors face is gaining support for works they may feel are significant. She suggested that first-time writers shelve their first books and publish their second book because the author will have probably produced a much richer piece of work than their first.

"Books must be a more polished gem to appeal to a wider audience," she said suggesting that the fate of the work and the author lies in the author's hands.

"Fiction is not endangered," said Bibelot's Brian Weese. "It is part of our cultural dialogue."

Weese offered more of a sense of how books are handled after submission to agents and publishers. In his Baltimore area stores Weese said he deals with works differently than some larger chains, giving books a longer stay on the shelves.

"In some stores a book comes in and only stays on the shelf for a month, and this affects the fate of the work and the author," he said.

John Irwin, editor of the Hopkins Fiction and Poetry series, stepped in to offer his knowledge of working with a small press like the Johns Hopkins University Press.

"Smaller presses are taking up the slack for the big presses," he said. "They are providing first-time authors and poets with outlets that will boost their chances with commercial presses," he said. "So those first-time authors shouldn't have to shelve their first book," he added.

Irwin also mentioned that smaller presses are keeping certain genres alive and maintaining the vitality of special interest books that many of the larger presses don't consider.

So, what is the fate of the literary novel? No one said for certain. But everyone agreed that there were some concerns about its future and the fate of the writer. With technological advances and changes in the cultural make-up of American society, the fate of the literary novel will most likely be affected. Those whose fates will most likely prevail will be those writers whose art reflects life in the best way in which people know it.

--Stacey Patton

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