Phyllis Rose has been named keynote speaker for the first session of the 31st Key West Literary Seminar, “Writers on Writers.” She will deliver the annual John Hersey Memorial Address at the San Carlos Institute on Thursday, January 10, 2013.
Rose’s 1978 biography of Virginia Woolf was in the vanguard of feminist reevaluations of literary figures and the first Woolf biography to examine in equal measure the life and work of the great modernist. In Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages Rose continued to explore the intersection of life and art by considering the institution of marriage through the examples of the marriages of Victorian writers like Charles Dickens and George Eliot. Her humanist impulse as a writer and reader is suggested in the prologue to Parallel Lives: “we are desperate for information about how other people live,” Rose writes, “because we want to know how to live ourselves.”
We had a brief chance to talk with Rose this week, about her forthcoming book, The Shelf, her plans for the keynote address, and about writers riding their bicycles in Key West.
Littoral: You told us a few months ago that your next book, The Shelf: An Adventure in Reading, will explore “the actual ground of literature” by reading and reporting on an entire shelf of fiction (LEQ–LES) at the New York Society Library. What else can you say about it?
Phyllis Rose: I chose that shelf more or less at random and set myself the task of reading all the books on it. Random—or alphabetical order, which amounts to the same thing—is a radically democratic selection device. I wanted to consider the experience of reading fiction, of what we get out of it, of the many ways in which it works on us. I also wanted to dwell on the shape of writers’ lives, and this is where the book meshes with the topic of this year’s seminar, “Writers on Writers.” But who is a writer? Biography favors the famous and successful; literary biography no less so. My shelf reveals that a writer can be many things, a person who is read by many, a person who is still read after hundreds of years, or a person who, however great their work, is not read at all—among others.
L: Did you know John Hersey? What can you tell us about the talk you’ll give in his name?
PR: I am keenly aware as I prepare this talk that it is the John Hersey Memorial Lecture. I am inspired by the moral seriousness of his writing as well as its elegance. I used to see John Hersey riding his bicycle in the streets of Key West, although I did not know him. Later I knew his widow Barbara and loved her, as everyone did who had the honor of knowing her. I think of her, too, in writing this talk, wishing she were with us to hear it and hoping she would think it worthy of her husband.
In my working title, “Can Writers Ride Bikes?”, it’s John Hersey I’m referring to. It’s important to my talk that we live in Key West in a community in which great writers are part of our daily life. We see them at Fausto’s, at the airport, at the library book sale, on bikes. Is the man we see on a bike in any meaningful way the same man who wrote Hiroshima? Or do we have wholly separate selves, our social selves and our writing selves?