Brow Beat

Neil Gaiman, Gloria Steinem, and Other Writers Weigh in on Occupy Wall Street

Neil Gaiman in 2009.

Photo by Darryl James/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the writer Jeff Sharlet emailed novelist Salman Rushdie to suggest a petition for writers who support Occupy Wall Street. Rushdie loved the idea. So Sharlet enlisted the help of fellow journalist Kiera Feldman, plus the assistance of literary magazines n + 1 and Tin House. The website for Occupy Writers went live on October 13. At first a petition and list of signatories, the site soon began publishing: poems by Alice Walker, prose by Francine Prose, and more.

But why writers? Is there something specific about being a writer, rather than simply a citizen, that draws them to support the movement? I asked several of the prominent writers who’ve signed the petition this question over email.

“In truth, everything I do or see or think I do as a writer,” Neil Gaiman, author of The Sandman, responded. “But supporting Occupy Wall Street seems to me less about being a writer or a citizen, and more about being a human.” After “an enormous series of criminal acts,” Gaiman said, “nothing fundamental appears to have changed.” He also pointed me to a blog post about two recent jail sentences, and to a remark made by Francis Bacon: “Money is like muck, not good except it be spread.”

According to Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket (who, last week, published a widely shared list of observations concerning the movement), “Injustice makes for a great story but a bad world. As someone who writes stories and lives in the world, Occupy Wall Street is to be reckoned with on both fronts.”

Journalist and activist Gloria Steinem said the movement has particular resonance for storytellers and other artists “because individual expression—unique and part of the human community—is a measure of democracy. For millennia, we’ve been sitting around campfires telling our stories and making group decisions. That’s in our cellular memory from almost all of the time humans have been on earth. Occupy Wall Street could help get rid of dangerous hierarchies and light new campfires.”

The novelist Hari Kunzru made a less primeval case for the specific role of writers. “We live in a period when the ideology of finance capitalism is presented as common sense, and uses the language of freedom and human development to promote the agenda of the class that is now becoming known … as ‘the one percent.’ It seems to me that this is mystification.” “As a writer,” he continued, “schooled in the slipperiness of language, I can help by exposing this ideological mystification, so that a more honest assessment can be made.”

Fellow novelist Jennifer Egan, who won the Pulitzer Prize in April for A Visit from the Goon Squad, said the movement engages her primarily “as a citizen—specifically, as a citizen who moved to San Francisco as a little kid in 1969. I have a vague memory of what social protest looked and felt like, and I’ve wondered ever since if—and when—a large group of Americans would become frustrated enough with unfairness at the top to interrupt their own lives and devote themselves to speaking out about it.”

That question of timing also occurred to former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. “The only thing that surprises me about Occupy Wall Street,” he wrote, “is that it didn’t happen sooner.”