Salman Rushdie’s lecture Tuesday night, at Duke University’s Page Auditorium, was technically “sold out,” although tickets were free. So it seemed appropriate that Rushdie began his engaging and witty talk, “Public Events, Private Lives: Literature and Politics in the Modern World,” the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute’s Distinguished Lecture, by talking about Charles Dickens.

As Rushdie recounted for the audience, Dickens was probably the first really famous novelist. In his travels to America, he “perform[ed] greatest hits from his works”—spicing up the act by adopting the different voices of his characters—for packed houses, and was chased down the street by fans. Dickens was the 19th-century prototype for the rock star (and he “invented Christmas,” as Rushdie put it, with a wry grin).

Dickens’ overexposure also led to his demise, Rushdie said. That may not be quite accurate, historically—although Dickens grew ill during his second American visit, in 1867-68, it wasn’t until over a year later that he had a stroke, and another year after that until he died. But it seems plausible that the poor health that befell Dickens during his wintertime American travels weakened him and made him vulnerable to the maladies that finally killed him.

In any case, opening with Dickens was shrewd on Rushdie’s part. Without saying so explicitly, Rushdie essentially anointed himself the Dickens of his time, and he may be right: Like Dickens, he is not only wildly, peerlessly famous (and a Londoner), the author of many beloved books, but also, like Dickens, imperiled by exposure. Hovering over everything Rushdie does is the legacy of what he called “the excrement that hit the ventilation system” after he published The Satanic Verses in 1988. In what was surely the bloodiest valentine ever sent, on Feb. 14, 1989, the Ayatollah Khomeini “sentenced” him to death.

As Rushdie gleefully pointed out, the author of the novel is still alive while the author of the death threat is not—in fact, the Ayatollah died just months after issuing it. Rushdie concluded: “All I can say is, do not mess with novelists.”

That got a laugh, as did many lines of Rushdie’s on Tuesday evening. He is a disarmingly funny and topical public speaker. His talk included glancing references to Paris Hilton (“the transformation of a second-rate hotel in France into a third-rate human being”), Tiger Woods, Donald Trump (an ineligible presidential candidate, Rushdie quipped, because “I don’t think that hairstyle can be elected; I think it’s unconstitutional”), the Peanuts comic strip, and other popular touchstones that kept his audience entertained. Rushdie showed a stand-up comedian’s sense of timing and delivery. Noting that Khomeini died right after calling for Rushdie’s death, and that Pakistan’s president “banned Shame,” Rushdie’s third novel, “and then died in a plane crash,” the author cracked: “Dictator eradication appears to be a service I can perform.”

But of course Rushdie’s real and very serious service to the world is as a storyteller, and despite the long and wide-angle title of his lecture—and its mass-market laugh lines—what it boiled down to was really a no-joke defense of the art form of the novel. Citing Dickens again, along with writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Arthur Miller, Rushdie noted that writers’ work has always been not merely telling entertaining stories but “bringing the news.” (When Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he is reported to have said, “So you’re the little lady who started this war.”)

There are more ways to get the news than ever, Rushdie observed, “but the more news media there are, the less news there is.” That is why, he argued, we need novels. He acknowledged that “there’s something about the novel form that is parochial,” mentioning Jane Austen’s politically bereft books (and, more puzzlingly, Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s pointed critique of bourgeois culture). But after conceding that “many writers do wonderful work which is entirely contained in the private arena,” Rushdie nonetheless held that “we can’t any more ignore” that writers have, more than ever, a responsibility to bring the news of our time. Only writers can give a full enough, a broad enough, a balanced enough report.

The 9/11 attacks deepened that responsibility, Rushdie said, because they brought down the towering assumption of literature, with us since Heraclitus, that “character is destiny.” The people who died in the World Trade Center attacks had the destinies promised by their characters taken away from them, Rushdie said. From that, he made the larger observation that the public world “shapes private lives to an extent [greater than] ever before.”

The novel is valuable, a human restorative, Rushdie argued, because it “understands the self as plural, contradicting, awkward, mutable”; and because it aims for broadness and pluralism in character and narrative approach—it tries to tell the whole story, including the parts omitted or suppressed by official, often demagogic accounts. The more broadly we identify ourselves—and books can offer us the broadest of identifications in their deliberate slowness and breadth of news-bringing (and they’re less suppressible than movies, TV and theater)—the less likely we are to find that “the thing that [gives] you your identity [is] your rage.”

In other words, novels make us more tolerant people, and as a result a more tolerant world, less subject to tyranny. Novelists wrest narrative control back from tyrants, on behalf of all readers. “Art proves to be very durable and survives the tyranny,” he said, adding that the art may survive but the artists sometimes do not: “Writers are much weaker creatures than the ideas they release.”

Rushdie himself escaped assassination, but the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was killed; other attacks related to that novel’s publication and the Ayatollah’s death-threat killed or maimed others. Rushdie took the opportunity last night to come to the defense of the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, recently arrested and kidnapped by Chinese authorities. His whereabouts remain unknown.

Rushdie is firmly in the secular humanist tradition, essentially old-fashioned, very pre-postmodern despite his foundation-shaking books. It is ultimately a generous tradition, one dedicated to the idea that every single one of us has a unique character that can cleave to moral uprightness, to the rule of law (which he put right behind freedom of speech as the foundation of civilization), and practice individual goodwill. For him, character is destiny, still, irrespective of its modern impediments and degradations and the encroachments of the public sphere on our private lives. As a writer, he sees his work as necessarily devoted to bettering the world, albeit by sometimes pointing out its flaws and its evils and its narrow-minded orthodoxies.

Rushdie quoted a line from Saul Bellow (and, it turns out, an older essay by Rushdie himself): The central character in Bellow’s novel The Dean’s December “hears a dog barking wildly somewhere [and] imagines that the barking is the dog’s protest against the limit of dog experience. ‘For God’s sake,’ the dog is saying, ‘open the universe a little more!’” That, Rushdie added, is what we ask great art to do. We, unlike dogs, are storytelling animals: storytelling is how we open the Universe a little more.

Still, you don’t get to be the most famous writer on earth, the Dickens of your time, without a chip on your shoulder—that iron beam of combativeness, moral or otherwise, that drives not only the novelist’s career ambition but also his or her sense of righteousness; the need to stand for something and against that something’s enemies. There is in the great artist in fact a bit of necessary and even slightly tyrannical closed-mindedness. No wonder, then, that one of the other sources Rushdie quoted in his talk, which drew from many springs of his erudition and from the patient spirit that every novelist needs to have in order to write good books—and to survive the maledictions and death threats of tyrants—was this old, supposedly Japanese proverb, which he delivered with a sly and mirthful leer: “If you sit by the river long enough, the body of your enemy will float by.”