Writers, Academics and Publishers Unite to Trace New Directions in American Writing




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Oct 03, 2014
by Jonathan Elbaz
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Writers, Academics and Publishers Unite to Trace New Directions in American Writing

"Defining America" marks the twelfth session examining American Studies Fellows from "Defining America: New Writing, New Voices, New Directions" on the Schloss Leopoldskron terrace.

A diverse group trickled into Schloss Leopoldskron last Saturday: novelists and academics, Ph.D. students and seasoned professors, optimists and skeptics—all seeking the “new" in American literature. These 56 people from 26 countries were hunting for cutting-edge ideas at “Defining America: New Writing, New Voices, New Directions,” the twelfth session hosted by the Salzburg Global Seminar American Studies Association (SSASA).

So what is new? That depends on whom you ask.

Writer and professor Karen Tei Yamashita warned of the “future Asian cyborg” stereotype emerging in the Western consciousness, a day before Cornell professor Mary Pat Brady presented the poignant poetry written by victims of the U.S. border crisis. Publisher Julia Kostova heralded an era of digital and print coexistence, just a day after writer and academic Christopher Bigsby posited that really there's nothing new and we’re looking in the wrong places anyway.

Evidently, it’s difficult to isolate the few major trends in American literature because contemporary writing is so varied and meanwhile entangled with identity, politics and technology. During four days of lectures and discussion at the Schloss, central ideas began in one place and eventually were pushed in a dozen different directions.

Bigsby, a core faculty member who helped plan the session, owed this dynamism to the organizers’ emphasis on gathering diverse voices, not just a group of academics interested in promoting their doctoral theses. 

“When we were planning the session, I said that there ought to be writers at the session, not just academics talking about writers, but actual living writers, moving amongst us,” Bigsby said. “And there ought to be someone from the world of publishing, particularly someone who knew about the new digital revolution. You have to disrupt the way academics can isolate themselves from the actual business of writing on the one hand, publishing on the other, and I’m tempted to say reading on the other.” 

This diversity of people and ideas, matching the diversity of new American writing, was the propulsive force of the session. Because no final product or report was needed, many of the discussions were allowed to float into whatever areas the participants suggested.

Fellows got insight into the creative processes of authors like Susan Straight and Karen Tei Yamashita, and later examined digital publishing platforms that could tectonically shift the roles of authors and readers. They investigated Bollywood representations of disability and American foreign policy, and meanwhile studied Chicano literature, mixed race novels and lizard, yes lizard, evolution.

One defining aspect of the session was the mix of first-time Salzburg Global Fellows with the SSASA veterans who had attended sessions in the past.

Salzburg Global—originally called the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies—was founded in 1947 to exclusively examine American Studies. One of the three founders thought the only way to get Europeans to talk to each other after World War II was to discuss something totally foreign: the emerging superpower across the Atlantic.

“In 1947, how do you get people together who had been shooting at each other… and have a conversation about the future,” said Stephen Salyer—Salzburg Global President and CEO—during the session’s opening presentation. “Most of the people wanted to reach across the table and continue the war. So three young people came up with the idea that we’d use American Studies, something that almost nobody in Europe knew anything about, as a core curriculum.”

Salzburg Seminar focused solely on American-themed topics until 1950, when the organization started integrating more global issues. In 1994, when only a thread of the American Studies foundation remained, “Defining America” co-chair Ron Clifton started the American Studies Center and subsequently held more than 30 sessions in nine years. Then in 2003, Marty Gecek sparked the creation of SSASA, which hosts annual American Studies sessions covering literature, foreign policy, economics and other subjects.

Ultimately, the diversity of participants at “Defining America” was only constructive in a venue like Salzburg, where everyone isn’t itching to leave the site immediately after lectures end. Many participants praised the session as being totally unlike the conferences they’ve attended in the past. 

“Usually you go to conferences and everybody has to give a paper, then there’s a Q&A, it’s over in a half-hour, and then everybody goes out to lunch somewhere,” said session participant Alexandra Ganser. “You stick with the people you already know. Here you have a joint lunch and you sit a table and there will be other people every single day. It really builds a sense of community."