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2023 PEN America World Voices Festival: Ottessa Moshfegh Asks Writers "Why Write?"

Updated: Feb 12

A headshot of American writer Ottessa Moshfegh.
Author: Ottessa Moshfegh

By Toyin Adeyemi, ALCG Books
May 12, 2023

On May 10th, the opening day of the 2023 PEN America World Voices Festival, Ottessa Moshfegh facilitated a panel discussion that explored the very essence of writing. Moshfegh, a well-known author whose first novel Eileen caused a stir, posed the question "why write?" to fellow writers Min Jin Lee, Rachel Kushner, and Akhil Sharma. This question, open-ended and broad, set the stage for an evening of discussion about authorial responsibility, literary aesthetics, motivation, and more.

But what if we were to slightly alter Moshfegh's question and ask, "for whom do we write?" The latter question lies at the heart of Moshfegh's origin story as a writer. When Eileen was published in 2015, reviewers began questioning what it means to write a "good" book. The novel's protagonist, Eileen, is hardly likable in a conventional way, yet readers were intrigued by her character. NPR's Jean Zimmerman called Eileen "charmingly disturbing, delightfully dour, and pleasingly perverse." The Guardian described Eileen as a character who elicits "sympathy and revulsion in the reader." Despite mixed reviews, Eileen went on to win the Hemingway/PEN Award for debut fiction and was shortlisted for both the 2015 National Books Circle Award and the 2016 Man Booker Prize. And now, in 2023, it has been adapted into a film.

Moshfegh's work suggests that she's impervious to the judgment of others. This is also apparent in her choice of panelists, writers including Akhil Sharma, whose story "If You Sing Like That For Me" features a 40-year-old married woman who sleeps with a 15-year-old boy. Sharma himself has stated that the story was based on his own sexual initiation at 15.

At the start of the event, Moshfegh told the panelists, "I am hopeful that what you say, the very words you use in the next hour, will resonate in me, or illuminate something in my mind that I have been too afraid or too stupid to see clearly." Rachel Kushner, for one, spoke about not feeling a whole lot of responsibility to readers. "When I'm writing, I write toward something, but not the reader," she said. "It's a higher expectation above me. It's much more a private dialogue with myself, something drawing me to a better version of myself." Min Jin Lee, on the other hand, feels deeply responsible to her readers. "People write to me if I get something wrong ... so I do feel a very strong sense of responsibility to my readers ... It's not a diary for me. I couldn't imagine sharing my diary."

The panelists also discussed literary aesthetics and what inspires readers to keep reading. Akhil Sharma pointed out that an interesting subject can carry flawed work a long way. "There are many books that are deeply flawed, but wonderful. For example War and Peace. The last 100 pages of it. Who cares what Tolstoy thinks about whether women should wear lipstick after they've been pregnant? Nobody cares. And yet [War and Peace] is an extraordinary work. There are many works that are very moving despite being in many ways, terrible."

The event wrapped up with questions from the audience, including a young filmmaker who wanted advice on how to pursue full-time work as an artist. Moshfegh shared that she had taken 9 to 5 jobs that fed her creativity on the side before ultimately leaving New York City to gain her footing as a writer. Kushner spoke about working at literary magazines, saying that it was a cultural education for her.

In the end, the panelists' varied responses to the question "why write?" all pointed to the same conclusion: write because it is what you love to do, and because you cannot imagine not writing. Aspiring artists were reminded to pursue their passions and seek out experiences that nourish their creativity. In the words of Moshfegh, take those 9 to 5 jobs that will somehow feed your creativity on the side.

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