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Rilke once said that fame is the sum of misunderstandings that accrue around a name. Grace Paley, a much beloved short story writer, poet, teacher, and political activist, died in August of 2007. Since then, as the year of memorials ended, tributes began proliferating throughout the country. Two documentary films were made on her life; a special Grace Paley Award For Short Fiction was created at the annual AWP Conference of American creative writing programs; and images and quotes from Grace Paley were splashed onto political banners and posters for a myriad of causes and political organizations. One journalist, Nora Eisenberg, writing in Alternet, came close to describing the Paley charisma, writing that Paley was “small, playful, and adorable but an inimitable powerhouse, whose art, and activism shook up the world of letters and the halls of power. . . A year of memorials . . . replayed her spirited activism and arrests, her wild and wise stories, and her remarkable face, which maintained into age and infirmity a child’s quick smile and mischievous gaze.”

But many falsehoods, sentimentalizations, idealizations, and distortions have also accrued in the four years since Paley’s death. Why—with the abundant availability and accessibility of biographical information, has there been a need to develop a political and social icon that has outweighed the literary value of her writing? This raises another, perhaps more threatening, question: why, how, and to what consequence do these many “misunderstandings” add up? How did gossip supplant literary biography—and undo the power of literature itself—and what more questions does this raise? That is, does this loose and uncontested portrayal of an important writer reflect, somewhere, the powerlessness and secondary place literary work is now taking in America’s culture of celebrities? Will literature run below the pedestals of manufactured icons, and become an invisible river drying up beneath us?

The “Legacy” of Grace Paley by Leora Skolkin-Smith over at The Quarterly Conversation.

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