Occupy Writers: A Mirror of and a Stimulant for the Occupy Movement

“I love the Occupy Wall Street Library,” Jeff Sharlet tells me. He is the best selling author of “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” and someone who has spent a lot of time here at Liberty Plaza Park recently, observing the general assemblies, tweeting his thoughts and filing reports on the Wall Street occupation. “I've brought a lot of books there. I took a book, I like having it because it says, 'Occupy Wall Street Library' on it.”

Sharlet is also the brain behind Occupy Writers a collection of authors, poets, playwrights, journalists, cartoonists, and others (anyone who self-identifies as a writer can get on the list) who have signed onto a simple statement: “We, the undersigned writers and all who will join us, support Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement around the world.”

The simplicity of the solidarity statement mirrors the simplicity of the movement's message and yields the same result. Absent a long and complicated manifesto of specific demands and principles, it is possible to engineer broad appeal. For Occupy Writers, the appeal extends from prestigious award winners like Salman Rushdie and Alice Walker (and even, at press time, five US poet laureates: W.S. Merwin, Maxine Kumin, Robert Haas, Robert Pinsky and Billy Collins) to David Agranoff, author of the entrancingly titled “The Vegan Revolution with Zombies.”

On Occupy Writers' list, each name, however known or unknown, is a banner name, featured with equal prominence through what Sharlet's collaborator Kiera Feldman calls “the great democratizing factor of alphabetical order.” (“Don't scrutinize the alphabetical order too carefully,” she warns me, “because we're inputting all of the entries by hand, sometimes at 4 in the morning.”).

But full equality, on the Occupy Writers list as at Occupy Wall Street, does not imply the suppression of individuality. “Some leftist movements,” says Sharlet, “suppress ego, pretend we are all egoless creatures. Nothing about this asks you to do that.”

By way of ensuring individuality, writers on the list are invited to submit short pieces, stories that illustrate the writers' drive to be a part of the movement. Lemony Snicket's contribution generated so much traffic that Occupy Writers crashed, prompting Neil Gaiman, another signatory, to come to the rescue, posting Snicket's “13 Observations” on his own site. But even these entries are corrected for equality by brevity, which is not only the soul of wit but, it turns out, a democratizing factor of its own. “There are writers who are better than other writers,” says Sharlet. “Pound for pound, I'm no Salman Rushdie. But in a paragraph, anybody's got a shot.”

Why start such a list in the first place? According to Sharlet, “Writers can be isolated and focused on individual creative powers and forget they live in a world. Occupy Wall Street is the perfect movement for writers; a movement defined by a moment of political imagination that mainstream media has a hard time grasping. Our stock and trade is imagination. That's what we do. So we of all people ought to be excited about this, ought to be able to grasp the fact that this might be something new. We of all people ought to be able to understand that we don't have to constrain this thing to a list of demands. Stories aren't always open-ended, but we don't always know what a story is.”

Feldman offers a reason for the list that highlights practicality rather than a philosophical affinity between writing and occupying: “Celebrities provide a way in for people.” An independent journalist who has received publication in The Nation and elsewhere, Feldman herself only visited Liberty Plaza Park for the first time when it was erroneously announced that Radiohead would contribute an impromptu performance to the movement. “Maybe this website can be a way of getting writers to cover small-town occupations, where there are just a few people in tents. That is a public service and a contribution to the movement.”

Quite apart from reaching out to potential occupiers, Sharlet sees the list as a way to reach out to the objects of occupiers' rage. After all, writers are, by and large, part of the 99 percent, but even the 1 percent read. “Most of these writers are middle class folks, but some of these big name writers might write the kinds of books Bloomberg takes with him on vacation.”

Feldman sees the list facing the same challenges of scale that the occupation itself. As Occupy Writers expands, it will require new arrangements to accommodate it – a prospect that faces the denizens of Liberty Plaza, who are currently engaged in a hefty debate over the future shape of the movement. “If 20,000 people write in after some jolt in publicity, how are we going to deal with that? That's great, that's what you want. In that case, it might end up being that we need to get someone to design a database or mechanize updating the site. We're crossing the bridges as we come to them.”

So is the occupation and everyone is finding out how difficult it can be to cross bridges. Alice Walker, in her contribution to Occupy Writers, a poem to Prof. Cornel West on the occasion of his first arrest in service to the movement, recalls an earlier time, when crossing actual bridges resulted in severe beatings:

brother cornel. brother west.
what a joy it is
to hear this news of you.
that you have not forgotten
what our best people taught us
as they rose to meet their day:
not to be silent
not to fade into the shadows
not to live and die in vain.
But to glorify
the love that demands
we stand
in danger
shaking off
our chains.