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“Daddy’s Girl is splendid memorable, precise, true.” Donald Barthelme DADDY’S GIRL by Beverly Lowry WATSON & COMPANY OPEN TUES-SAT 10-6. SUN 10-4 BOOKS AND THE CULTURE Writers at the Ramparts Maybe By Gail Caldwell “Why does this panel on ‘American’ writing look like a ship docked at Ellis Island?” Lawson Inada, poet “Are we in a crisis or a funk?” Jules Feiffer An overflow crowd of more than 3,000 people showed at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York the weekend of October 9 for -the American Writers Congress. Spon. sored by the Nation Institute, the Congress proposed to address the crisis writers face in an era of unprecedented government cutbacks, censorship and publishing conglomerates. Hoping to draw 1,500 participants, the coordinating committee planned for 2,000, got that plus fifty percent, and had to turn away people at the doors all weekend. This success in numbers had its good and its bad points. On the plus, it signified an enormous response by American writers, from New York to Texas to Oregon, to a cry for action during a desolate era for the state of letters. On the minus, it meant that the Congress was more wildly disorganized, frenzied and crowded than most conventions are. Which is a lot. Most gatherings of this size, despite their unique goals, highlights and failhres, have a fairly predictable structure. The majority of the people there are looking for a job, an affair or a revolution. Misspelled name cards, smoky and brightly lit rooms, familiar faces and intimate bathroom conversations \(“Didn’t first convocation, when one suspends Gail Caldwell is a native Texan now living in the Boston area. one’s disbelief long enough to land in the netherlands of anonymity in The grand ballroom. Thus it was with a mixture of exhilaration, panic and subtle cynicism that I found my place in the sardine atmosphere of the opening keynote of the Writers Congress to hear Victor Navasky, Toni Morrison, Studs Terkel and others tell us why we were all there. I had the distinct misfortune to be directly in front of a slightly disheveled and more than slightly drunk unpublished poet, who spilled scotch on my notebooks and grumbled or giggled at every word forthcoming over the mike. Finally, in the midst of the welcoming speech by Navasky \(editor of Nation and one of the key idea people behind the tinct, if absurd, stand: “I knew it!” he slurred. “We’re being taken over by the Left.” Sobriety aside, perceptiveness was not the man’s strong suit. A brief glance at any Congress brochure would assure even the most casual reader of the political and social implications of the call for writers, more aptly labeled progressive than left. The state of the union does not speak well for writers any more than any other profession. A sharp rise in libel suits and censorship by both the government and special interest groups threatens both the writers’ and the reading public’s right to know. Reaganomics have all but ended federal subsidization of the arts. And the ever increasing centralization of the communications industry not only has effectively put a damper on who and what gets published, but has also relegated the role of even the published author to an easily replaceable worker on a long assembly line. “We are toys held in contempt by publishers,” said novelist Toni Morrison in the keynote address. She warned the audience to not succumb to martyrdom: “And the misery does not validate the work it outrages it.” This theme echoed again and again from the halls of the Writers Congress. And while the news was grim, the spirit of the crowd at the Roosevelt was far from somber. Determined to make a dent in the facade of the literary power structure, the Congress devoted much of its four-day agenda to the concept of organizing writers. At the final plenary session, the standing-room only ballroom crowd almost unanimously passed a resolution endorsing the principle of a national writers union, with an accompanying celebratory scene straight out of Norma Rae. The union organizing committee has its own national congress planned for a year from now, and plans are currently in the making for a number of regional conferences to address the problems writers in specific areas face. The nightmare stories recounted at the Congress about the power of the northeastern publishing conglomerates were far from overstated. The rise of a literary-industrial complex began some twenty years ago with the big publishing mergers. Today, only fifty corporations now control half the nation’s books, newspapers and periodicals in other words, half the entire print media of the U.S. Small wonder, then, that in a society as culturally and ethnically pluralistic as this one, we are force fed homogeneous and whitewashed stereotypes in the literature made available to us. The glut of the information age has intensified this phenomenon to where it has become something of a selfperpetuating monster. The reading public has come to expect, and therefore desire, the kind of traditional mainstream writing the big conglomerates promote. Or, as Virginia author Mary Lee Settle put it, “If you go into a store with nothing in it but grits, potatoes and cabbage, what the hell choice do you have?” Of course, the contradiction here is that there is no real “mainstream” writing in America, any more than there is a mainstream culture. The best of the writing of this century has always come from the voices within a specific culture or region, the voices in touch with their roots. Whether those roots have been in a Chicago slum or the deep South, the dust-ridden Salinas Valley or a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, the most profound and intimate American writing has found its way to our bookshelves not because, but in spite of. names like Random House and Doubleday. The disdain and suspicion toward the communications industry expressed at THE TEXAS OBSERVER 23