Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Ian Bogost & Chris Schaberg: Object Lessons, a series about the hidden lives of ordinary things

We launched Object Lessons in June 2013 as a home for lucid, imaginative, concise writing about specific things—from conches to neckties, cinnamon ferns to sewing needles. Since then, we’ve been swamped with submissions from a staggeringly wide array of writers, thinkers, and scholars.

The essays for the series exist in two forms: essays (~2,000 words), published on The Atlantic website; and short books (~25,000 words), published in small, beautifully designed print and electronic editions by Bloomsbury.

By ‘things’ we mean pretty much anything—as long as there’s a story to tell, or a lesson to be gleaned. So far, we’ve published essays about subjects as varied as the potato, the pit latrine, the placenta, and the Domino’s Pizza. As for books, the first batch will be published in early 2015, on the remote control, the driver’s license, the drone, and the golf ball.

When we conceived of the series, we wanted it to become more than just another boutique list meant to be published more than it was meant to be read. For one thing, we wanted Object Lessons to be accessible: the essays are all freely available online; the books are priced at $16.95—affordable, even collectible. And we wanted this accessibility to be reflected in the writing itself, as well as in the book titles: one or two words, no colons or subtitles. Locks, lily pads, lipstick, limestone...

We also wanted to welcome writers of different ilks, with varied motivations. Our authors range from novelists, poets, and artists, to philosophers, historians of science, videogame critics, graduate students, and media theorists. Our standards are simple: write well about an ordinary object in a tantalizing way.

Thanks to Bloomsbury we have a reliable (if modest) advance budget for our non-academic book authors, and thanks to our editors at The Atlantic we can pay our essayists a small fee for their contributions. (We ask full-time employed academics to forego fees, so that we can pay working writers a bit more.)

We are often surprised by the proposed projects for the series, and just as frequently surprised by the results: Who knew that so many people would want to read an essay about the TI-83 graphing calculator? Or a dead, giant squid?

Perhaps the best sign of a promising Object Lessons book proposal is the feeling, upon hearing the idea for the first time, that the object in question is an unviable subject for a book. Not that it couldn’t be written about, of course, but that everything one could imagine saying has already been said many times over. Such was the case when we first read Harry Brown’s inquiry about a book on the golf ball. Is there anything more to say? It turns out there’s a lot to say. Brown’s approach to the golf ball is both obvious and totally novel: he presents it as a subject that mediates between the natural and the human worlds. Now the book is under contract and we can’t wait to read the final manuscript.

When we were first discussing the series, we began rattling off random lists of things. Wide varieties of objects, when seen in list form, tend to take on curious qualities. Clustering objects together helped us get a sense of the scope and range of the series—its possibilities and potentials: band-aids, bundt cakes, cuttlefish, aircraft carriers…vacuum bags, bottle caps, flying buttresses…Blow Pops, slime mold, sawdust…magnesium, bone marrow, bilge pumps…crabgrass, Kleenex, engine coolant…lodgepole pinecones, dryer lint, dental floss…honey, hurricanes, heliotropes, hatred…morel mushrooms, molasses, landing gear…copper wire, cruise ships, Velcro…tampons, tigers, trademarks, trash…cilium, silt, slugs, suitcases…dirt, dioramas, interstellar nebulae…windshield wipers, wonder, inchworms. We even installed an Object Lessons topic generator on our website, which spits out topics unsullied by our idiosyncratic interests as series editors.

This approach to soliciting material seems totally counter-intuitive at first. Rather than starting from a subject domain, like foodstuffs or painters or electronics, we’re casting as wide a net as possible, inviting writers to meditate on a subject they might not be able to write about anywhere else.

The essays we have published read kind of like this, by sheer accumulation and coincidence: glass, the shipping container, the key, the toilet, the ice bucket, the blanket, the fake bird in movies, the McRib, the jet bridge, the refrigerator, the biopharmaceutical Enbrel. In part, what makes an Object Lesson legible is the fact that the reader has no predisposition toward its subject. Why not read about blankets? Why not write about light switches? Once the initial skepticism wears off, the fear that the exercise amounts to little more than an Andy Rooney sneer, then the work of writing an Object Lesson can begin.

The question is not just what can count as an object, but what is the story to tell, the hook or through-line that makes it worth reading about? In theory, everything might become a topic for the series—but it’s up to the authors to convince us that they’ve found a unique angle or a compelling story. While each object teaches a lesson, as told by a human writer, the series hopes to push us to see those things as commensurate with, or even more compelling than our human experience of them. The lesson should fade from our view, even as we get a glimpse of it. Object lessons, at their best, should be strange, alien encounters.

From the outset we wanted to create a series that people would want to be a part of. (An imaginary snippet from a meeting between two people on the street: “Oh, you wrote the Object Lessons essay on gouda cheese? I’m proposing an Object Lessons book on tank tops!”) The response has been overwhelming, and in retrospect we weren’t quite prepared to handle the onslaught. Our authors reading this now are probably wondering why we’re wasting our time advertising rather than editing and publishing. We’re sorry and we love you!

The series is also our own modest contribution to the dynamic, shifting landscape of publishing. It’s part online, part in print. The book proposals are peer reviewed by the editors and/or members of the advisory board, but it’s a relatively swift and open process. We move fast when we want to get a book under contract. We work closely with our essays and book proposals, editing and reshaping, in a very hands-on fashion. We’re taking the thematic organizing principle of an academic series, and gearing the end products toward a crossover audience, for both academic and general readers. It’s a perfect series for up-and-coming writers, and an equally perfect series for more established writers who are looking to work on an interim, shorter project, or who may want to write for a wider audience.

When a book is ready to publish, we’ll excerpt part of it on The Atlantic website, as a way to promote the title. And conversely, we may bundle our favorite stand-alone essays into Object Lessons grab-bag volumes once a year or so. The collaboration between The Atlantic and Bloomsbury, along with editorial coordination based out of our home institutions at Georgia Tech and Loyola University New Orleans, provides the series with a broad platform for publicizing each essay and attracting potential authors. There’s a lot of noise about the “future of publishing,” but most of it is either dire warnings about the end of writing or Pollyannaish celebrations of its replacement by technology and TED talks. Perhaps modest, concrete efforts like Object Lessons offer a better model for thinking about how to create and share ideas in the near future.

You can read more about the series and propose an essay or book on the series site at objects objects objects dot com.

About the Series Editors

Ian Bogost is Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, Founding Partner at Persuasive Games LLC, and a Contributing Editor at The Atlantic. Bogost is author or co-author of seven books: Unit Operations (2006), Persuasive Games (2007), Racing the Beam ( 2009), Newsgames (2010), How To Do Things with Videogames (2011), Alien Phenomenology (2012), and 10 PRINT CHR (205.5+RND(1)); : Goto 10 (2012).

Christopher Schaberg is Associate Professor of English and a faculty member in the Environment Program at Loyola University New Orleans. He is the author of The Textual Life of Airports: Reading the Culture of Flight (2013), and co-editor of a forthcoming collection of essays called _Deconstructing Brad Pitt (2014).

Monday, February 24, 2014

Aisha Sabatini Sloan: On Collage, Chris Kraus, and Misremembered Didion

For the last fifteen years, I’ve misremembered the reason why Joan Didion writes. Mr. Girion had us read her essay “Why I Write” in the eleventh grade, and what resonated most was when she said, “I remember a particular woman in the airport.” I always thought that it was the fact of the woman at the airport that captivated me. If she had not been there at that time, in that way, in shadow or in of a certain kind of light, the book might never have happened.

Earlier in the essay, Didion describes how images fuel her when she works: “When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges.” She says, “You can’t think too much about these pictures that shimmer. You just lie low and let them develop. You stay quiet.” Because the idea of an image of a woman in the airport reminded me of the moments when I feel compelled to do something artistic—when I’m bored and waiting, idly or actively gazing at people while we wait to board the plane—I latched onto this airport woman as a key to understanding my own way into writing. Over time, this woman took on the air of a creation myth for why I’m attracted to nonfiction in particular. Actual people with actual lives in an actual airport breathing the actual air and perceiving, subconsciously or not, that we share the same space.

Just like the day when my neighbor, Kay Parker, moved away from our apartment building, and I ran upstairs to a legal pad, flooded with this thing that I’d never felt in this particular way, or if I had, that I had not yet connected to the act of writing until that moment. It is the accident of the world as it exists that puzzles and drives me to the page. Like a conversation I had with some writer friends last night about collage. That silk-screened photograph of JFK is on the upper right hand corner of Rauschenberg’s canvas, next to an eagle and above a parachute. The undone feel of the composition, the realness of the image and the roughness of the paint, suggest the ways in which we can’t go back. Just like how the house can’t be un-robbed. The bike can’t be un-struck. And if you want to get political about it, your great, great-grandmother can’t be unborn into slavery. Your parents can’t uncross the border. Now what.

But in all this time, until re-reading the piece today, I forgot this one important detail about Didion’s vision of the woman at the airport: the woman wasn’t there. The sentence was, in fact, “I could tell you that I remember a particular woman in the airport” [emphasis added]. She explains: “I made this woman up, just as I later made up a country to put the airport in, and a family to run the country.” After Mr. Girion’s class, I went out and bought A Book of Common Prayer, the novel Didion wrote while under the influence of this imagined woman in an airport. I navigate the scenes and sentences as one would an interactive exhibition of Didion’s brain. For years I was confused about the plot, but I was never confused about the fact that it was fiction. I just had it in my head that there had been a flesh and blood moment at the root of that fiction. As it happens, in “On Keeping a Notebook,” Didion writes, "I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters." And I can’t say that the truth or fiction of the woman in the airport matters to me now either, so much as it matters that I resonated with the feeling behind the idea of “seeing” that woman in a moment of waiting, that the image of her shimmered.

On an episode of Louie, Louis C.K. gets into a fight with a woman at Ikea when asked if he likes a rug. “It’s a rug,” he says. “It’s fine, that’s the level of passion that a rug warrants. It’s a rug, it doesn’t solve all my problems, but it doesn’t make me angry. It’s a rug, it doesn’t smell bad. It’s flat, it’s blue, it goes on a floor, it’s not coated with AIDS, and it’s not a portal to another place. It doesn’t make me come, but it’s fine.” This is how the world feels most of the time. In writing, I notice myself trying to pretend that this is not the case. I feel pressure to be consistently fascinated, or to make my thoughts appear this way on the page. But if it were not the case that things are mostly boring, why would it matter that some things, sometimes, shimmer?

Recently, a friend lent me the essay collection, Video Green. In it, Chris Kraus starts off with a longer, segmented piece entitled “Art Collection.” There are some very important sections about the LA art scene, about the way the art world has been held hostage by MFA programs. These are at once theoretical and critical of what theory can do to art. Then she talks about a very nice real estate lawyer in LA, and a man who crossed the border from Mexico and opened a gallery. She talks about moving to Hudson Falls, New York, where a poet and art collector named William Bronk lived. His poems are, she writes, “intellectually elegant, annealed and raw… tiny arguments for the power of intangibility, mounted with a gravelly kind of pragmatism.” Also, she tells us about an S/M affair that she began online with a man named Martin.

Again, I’m brought back to the boredom of Didion’s airport. Or the boredom of waiting in the car while running errands with my father, which is how I first discovered magazines like Granta, stuffed into a bag with a newspaper or tossed onto the floor of the back seat. Kraus writes for a while about something that bores or bothers her. Then she talks in a slightly less academic voice about something she admires. And then she leads us, with little warning, to a moment of actual, physical excitement. All the while describing a man who, quietly and alone, enjoyed art in his room. This shift in subject matter can’t help but make the earlier sections seem dry, and the unceremonious turn is executed with a kind of cockiness that I appreciate. “What?” She seems to be saying. “I’m just telling you a story.”

I like how Didion admits to daydreaming when she should have been paying attention. In “Why I Write,” she describes how it was difficult for her to finish her degree because she let her mind flit toward random images instead of the lecture on Milton. “In short my attention was always on the periphery, on what I could see and taste and touch, on the butter, and the Greyhound bus.” Maybe what I am trying to say is that I like essays that remind me of traveling. They lie low. They don’t try quite so hard to prevent me from being bored. They are confident enough to admit that they are nothing more than a rug, and in doing so, have the ability to take it out from under me.

Aisha Sabatini Sloan's book of essays, The Fluency of Light: Coming of Age in a Theater of Black and White was published by the University of Iowa Press in 2013. She is currently a contributing editor for Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Cassandra Kircher: On E.B. White, Adoption, and Writing Hybrid Reviews

Every time I read E. B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” it sends my head floating, and I feel so close to White’s words that they seem suspended inside of me. It’s an essay about memory and family and returning to a place that has been a part of a person’s life since childhood. I love the description of the outboard motors sounding like mosquitoes. I love the togetherness of father and son. I love the storm at the end. And I love the way that White negotiates what he calls the grooves of his mind as he reflects on the past at the same time that he is experiencing the present. He published the essay in his early forties, and I know now that it might take that much time to appreciate the patterns in our lives.

There’s a lake in my life like White’s, and I’ve come to realize over the years that having a lake of your own might be a prerequisite for falling in love with “Once More to the Lake” in the way that I have. At least this has been my theory the past couple of semesters I’ve taught the personal essay, since most of the students who read White aren’t very enthusiastic about his lake or the quiet everyday, life-and-death events that happen there. I sometimes think it’s only students like Cory, a young woman who used to vacation at a White-like lake in Maine, who defend White’s essay. After reading “Once More to the Lake,” Cory went on to write poems about her own lake and the loons that live there and the father that fished by her side.

My lake is in the upper Midwest, surrounded by birch trees, and I’m writing about it now in another essay that begins with the same two paragraphs I began this piece with, an essay—in fact—that I began with the Daily Essay in mind, and then I riffed right into my own life and couldn’t let go, pretty much abandoning White and my thoughts about his relationship to the essay. That first piece I wrote was about loss, not the kind that reverberates from White’s final sentence about his son and the chill of death, but the kind I experienced the afternoon I realized my uncle had given my brother the deed to the family cottage—and what that distancing from my lake feels like. I didn’t leave White deliberately. I wandered away, the way White thought essayists are supposed to, the way a good hiker does when, walking along a river, she sees a new plant or tree and ends up off trail all the way back to the car.

Juggling my lake experiences and White’s essay got me thinking about the kinds of book reviews that negotiate a reviewer’s own life and a work of literature created by someone else. There seem to be more of these around lately, published primarily by journals focusing on nonfiction. Fourth Genre publishes them and Brevity. A nonfiction session at this month’s AWP will focus on defining what its panelists have named the “essay/review” (although the term essay-review was used to describe a piece by Lorrie Moore in the New York Times Book Review that has nothing to do with Moore’s personal life). I’m not sure what to call them: Hybrid? New? Personalized? They seem to be more described than labeled, even though most journals that publish them don’t mention anything about them on their submissions pages (DIAGRAM excepted which has been publishing this kind of review about all genres, not just nonfiction, since 2004).

The first one I wrote was for Brevity. I was—I thought—reviewing Ned Stuckey-French’s The American Essay in the 20th Century when Debbie Hagan, a Brevity editor told me to “… be aware that the book reviews [in Brevity] are a combination of personal narrative and book review, the intersection of what we read and our personal lives.” I wanted to tell her I knew that, but I’m not sure that I did. I knew that the reviews I’d read in Brevity were different (i.e., short?), but until receiving Hagan’s email I was planning to review Stuckey-French’s book in the same way that I’d reviewed On the Outskirts of Normal for a different journal a few months before: pretty normally. Now I was told to go ahead and write about myself in addition to the American essay in the last century. I can’t remember if I found that conflation terrifying, but I started again, eventually replacing my first paragraph with a point of “intersection” between reading Stuckey-French and my life, a point that focuses—conveniently—on E.B. White:
The first time I read E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake” it seduced me. I was in graduate school when a professor assigned it, and the essay brought back scenes from all the years I had once spent at a lake in northern Wisconsin. The same lake my father had gone to as a boy. The one where I hoped to take my own future daughter or son….
Of course, Stuckey-French’s book focuses on a topic much larger than this one essay, but White was his hero as well as my path into whatever it was I was writing.

There’s a good chance that Brevity, just as it published some of the first online flash nonfiction, also published some of the first hybrid flash reviews about books of nonfiction when Dinty Moore started publishing them on his website around 2006. I felt my way forward into my review of The American Essay in the Twentieth Century by remembering Hagan’s advice (above) and by rereading the reviews in Brevity, reviews usually following a loose, three-part convention: 1) begin with the personal; 2) transition to a focus on the book being reviewed; 3) end back with a brief nod to the personal. It’s the formula I ended up co-opting, writing a chunky first paragraph all about me, and then shifting gears to get to what I thought of as my real subject:
“Once More to the Lake” nudged me into what White calls “the grooves that lead back. You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing.” The same essay, indeed all of White’s work, helped lead Ned Stuckey-French back in time, though in a less personal and sentimental way, to an understanding of White’s place in the essay’s development.
Dinty Moore shifts gears in a similar way, though from his book-subject to his personal life, in a review of Brenda Miller’s Blessing of the Animals:
“The dogs are barking. All over Mexico, it seems, dogs are barking, and its 3 a.m. and a crescent moon hangs low in the sky.”
    With this simplest of details, the opening to one of Brenda Miller’s marvelous essays, I’m transported back to San Miguel de Allende, a cobblestone and cathedral town filled with donkeys, street vendors, and American ex-pats in Mexico’s mountainous bajío region, where I had the good fortune to spend four weeks last summer. For me nothing beats lying awake in bed, with the windows open….
When I finished my review of The American Essay in the Twentieth Century, I decided that it lined up pretty well with its Brevity peers and sent it in, almost forgetting that I had been negotiating new terrain until a friend (a writer, but not an essayist) read it. “What,” he asked—curious, puzzled, earnest (and he’s not an earnest friend)—“is this?”

It wasn’t the conventional review I’d written a few months before on Debra Monroe’s On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain—my friend had read that one as well. In that review I’d written a line that Monroe liked well enough to want it tattooed on her body or cross-stitched on a sampler for her wall. (I learned of this second-hand through Facebook.) One of the many reasons that I liked her book about adopting a daughter while living in a small, conservative town where she lived as an outsider was because I, too, had lived in a small, conservative town and had adopted a daughter, a daughter who was sick the day I met her when she was eighteen months old and stretched corpse-like across my lap, not trusting me even in her heated sleep. I understood Monroe’s book and her experiences at their core, but no one who read my review would know why. I wonder now if hybrid reviews aren’t more accurate, if there might be something almost dishonest or disingenuous about withholding a writer/reviewer connection, like my own adoption information, from a reader. After all, the writer of a book of nonfiction is reaching for truth about his/her experiences. Shouldn’t a reviewer of how those experiences are represented in words do the same?

My friend that day wasn’t worried about my review being different from the conventional reviews that, according to Frank Donoghue in The Fame Machine, have been making or breaking authors since 1751. Instead he was worried that I had written so much about the summers of my childhood vacations that I was obscuring Stuckey-French and his central argument about White’s role in saving the personal essay from extinction. When writing that first review I hadn’t thought of myself as standing in front of my subject, waving my arms like a bratty kid, but when I started writing a second hybrid review, this time on Kirstin Iversen’s Full Body Burden: Living in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, my friend’s concern had become my own. Who was I, I wondered, to start spouting off about my ten years living along Colorado’s Front Range, the setting of Iversen’s book? What could I contribute to the nuclear horror-story that had happened at Rocky Flats, a plutonium trigger manufacturing plant that was in Iversen’s childhood backyard? In writing about Full Body Burden, I committed what must be an academic sin by publishing two separate reviews on Iversen’s one book: a hybrid review for Brevity and a much more conventional review for Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment. (I also—more sinning—featured Full Body Burden along with Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge and John Hersey’s Hiroshima in a longer multi-book review focused on nonfiction written in response to the nuclear age.)

Why do I like writing these hybrids? Any essayist knows that, in Edward Hoagland’s words, “Essays belong to the animal kingdom, with a surface that sparks like a coat of fur.” They have what Carl Klaus calls a “nominal” subject dancing and twirling with a second, usually more important, subject. By definition, a hybrid review is an essay. You don’t have to hope that the sparks will show up and start flying. And when they do, when the animal is up and running around, there’s payback for the reviewer—insights arrived at when your life is filtered through literature. Before writing about The American Essay in the Twentieth Century and Full Body Burden, I hadn’t made connections that writing the reviews helped me make:
E. B. White is Stuckey-French’s hero, and in many ways, he is mine—not only did I swoon over “Once More to the Lake” all those years ago, but White’s work, as much as any other essayist’s, also attracted me to a genre that I hardly knew existed.
Reading Full Body Burden on a flight to Boulder last spring, I wasn’t feeling the weight of a book in my lap as much as I was feeling the weight of guilt, of not paying attention all those years ago. If only I would have acted, I could have tried to shatter the silence as Iversen has so powerfully and beautifully done.
Conversely, reviewing On the Outskirts of Normal helped me to better understand Debra Monroe’s life and book and to see parallels between Monroe’s experiences and my own. I can’t, however, pull out a couple sentences from that review, as I did from the Stuckey-French and Iversen reviews, to illustrate any personal insight I reached about my own adoption story or the many years I lived in a small town.

From their beginning, traditional literary reviews have been panned Goldilock’s-style, in various ways, as too positive or too negative, too bland, plentiful, elite, dumb, comprehensive, pretentious, derivative, or obsolete, but never just right. Elizabeth Gumport, in her 2011 n+1 article “Against Reviews,” argues that we should just get rid of reading and writing them altogether because they’re “pointless” and because “…the new age requires a new form,” one that she doesn’t describe, although it’s possible she might like the intimacy of the hybrid form as well as its focus on the reviewer’s own experiences instead of what she calls “a modified recapitulation of what already exists” (i.e., the book itself).

I was driving home from work a couple of weeks ago when I heard a review (a conventional one) of Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch and gushed so much about the book to my husband that he bought it for me the next day. I had fallen for George Eliot’s Middlemarch the nine months I lived in Oxford, some of the dreariest and saddest of my life, and the book had taken a place in my memory as a close friend. Mead’s book interested me, in part, for that reason, but as I listened to the reviewer describe My Life in Middlemarch, I was reminded of the hybrid reviews I’d written. It sounded as if Mead was writing a personal narrative about her own life and its relationship to Middlemarch at the same time that she was doing a biography of Eliot and a review, or critique, of Eliot’s masterpiece. When I read Mead’s preface the next day, I found the question that I didn’t even know I was looking for. A journalist for years, Mead used five questions to frame her Middlemarch project. One of these—What would happen if I stopped to consider how Middlemarch has helped my understanding of my own life?—hit me in the gut. When writing hybrid reviews, I had been addressing this question to some extent, but more by chance than by design. Explicitly adopting this question when writing my next hybrid review and replacing “Middlemarch” with the book under consideration could make a difference not only to my life and other people’s lives, but it might also help define a kind of review that ends up being more important and relevant than we now know.

If someone had asked me to describe the cover of My Life in Middlemarch the first few days that I owned it, I would have mentioned concentric circles and, perhaps, my intuition that the cover was not memorable because it only depicts part of an obscure scene that must be England and part of a young woman who might be Eliot or Mead. This morning, however, I realized that these circles are really something as concrete and specific as a vinyl record, either an album or a 45 rpm single, and that the cover is a visual representation of personal memory, of returning to a place and time over and over and over, and of the grooves, even though you don’t see them, that take you back.


Thanks to Ned Stuckey-French, book review editor at Fourth Genre, Debbie Hagan, book review editor at Brevity, and Ander Monson, editor of DIAGRAM, for answering my email inquiries about hybrid reviews. Thanks also to Patrick Rudd, librarian at Elon University and Jessica Brown, Elon student, for helping me to research the history (or lack of history) of hybrid reviews.


Cassandra Kircher has recently published nonfiction in South Dakota Review, Cold Mountain Review, Apalachee Review, and Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks. She is the winner of Flyway's 2010 Notes in the Field contest and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011. She teaches nonfiction at Elon University.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Jonathan Lethem on Nonfiction Vs. Fiction, Margins, and Teaching -- with Dave Mondy

Q & A with Jonathan Lethem

I’d been thinking about the boundaries of Creative Nonfiction – and realized that one of my favorite writers of both fiction and nonfiction loves breaking boundaries.  

Jonathan Lethem’s early novels were noted for being bizarre/brilliant hybrids, leading up to the bestselling Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was named Book of the Year by Esquire; this was followed by The Fortress of Solitude, a genre-juggling, oft-lauded bildungsroman. Other acclaimed collections and novels have continued apace (along with a MacArthur Fellowship).  His nonfiction work includes the essay collections The Disappointment Artist and the iconoclastic The Ecstasy of Influence, which plays with plagiarism (among other elements) – and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book.

I called him at his office at Pomona College, where he currently teaches, after the release of his most recent novel, Dissident Gardens, and we touched on a lot of topics, including:

The Teaching of Writing:

Pretty busy right now?

Jumping from books tours to teaching to the next thing – it’s kind of like a triathalon.

Speaking of teaching – I reread your essay, “The Disappointment Artist,” where you give some space to the notion of Creative Writing programs possibly being like a pyramid scheme. It’s funny, because when I first read that essay, I had no interest in an MFA, and thought, “Yeah!” Now that I’ve gone through the MFA process, re-reading the essay, I see it’s a really nuanced piece.  Is it weird for you, teaching writing?

Oh, I’m completely enmeshed now!

But you had this reputation as an autodidact. Dropping out of school, working in a bookstore, writing for years and years on your own—

People cast me like that.  Like this feral creature that now works in a zoo. But it’s much more modulated….  Sure, I dropped out of college, and didn’t earn any degrees the hard way – I did the “honorary” thing. 

But back then, I went and re-created for myself a lot of the experiences that typify writing school.  I looked for peers and mentors, I hammered together a regular “workshop” – an appointment for myself, people I could show manuscripts to.  We talked shop, shared gripes, encouragements. 

A community.

Yeah, I wasn’t off in some hut, off on an iceberg. It helped – I got off my high horse about certain things I was trying, because they were making people roll their eyes. I realized I needed to apply myself more diligently to revisions.  And I became mildly socialized, in the way a writer needs to be socialized, when submitting things and being rejected… And then eventually I replaced that with the lucky professional stuff: Having an agent and an editor.  But the point is, I wasn’t alone.  I wasn’t some wolf boy. A lot of what I constructed looks a lot like what I’m participating in now, but from the other angle.

Being more on the mentor side.

Helping people not be too esoteric about themselves. Seeing that there are craft aspects to even the most inspired or iconoclastic writing choices.  And also, the other thing I was doing those past years: I was reading an enormous amount – everything I could think to read, I read. And that’s what I insist that everyone who is trying to be a writer has to do
That’s cool to hear, because I’ve told my students that.

So you teach, too.

I’m a part of the whole thing now. Any advice?

Ha, well, now that I participate in the Ponzi scheme… I just try to give a lot of humble, individual attention to each person who comes my way.  Realizing there’s not one big method – realizing writers and writer’s manuscripts are pretty individual.  And if I can help them – which I can, at least some of the time – that’s okay.  It’s good.  It’s a human act.  Even if it takes place within this giant house of cards, right?

I totally agree.  I think there’s this economic pressure to perform right after graduation. Instead of saying, “How great that, for four years of your life, you get to write, become a more whole human being?” There’s an economic sense that if a student doesn’t become a professional writer right after graduation—

Well, that’s not a very likely situation. Setting out to do that is like setting out to become a superhero.

Which some of your characters have tried to do.

And here I am, teaching… But really: writing is a human thing. It’s a social participation that’s completely worth it.  And necessary.  For everyone, from the amateur to the Big Ol’ Pro who we like to put on a pedestal and routinely wrench off a pedestal, they’re all doing the same thing… They’re trying to make space for their own thinking in the bigger conversation.

On Writing from the Margins:

Speaking of making your own space, and education – there’s a lot of spots in your work where a younger person finds an older mentor, usually an outsider artist…

I guess I identify very easily with people working from various vital margins.  I see those “marginal” operations as, paradoxically, much more central than is often given credit.  A lot of the environment is made up of a lot of people feeling like they’re marginal.

In your latest novel, Dissident Gardens, you dive into the history of American Communists, which is a history that gets pretty short shrift elsewhere. Is that part of the margins?

Well, similar to another one of my novels, The Fortress of Solitude, there’s a witnessing aspect.  I don’t claim to be a social documentarian. All I’m trying to do is say: Lives were lived like this.  These lives… are included.

They were here.

I just want to say what I know.  In a “can I get a witness” fashion… I’ve picked material that means something to me in way beyond any [political] statement I might make about it.

On Fiction vis-à-vis Nonfiction (and Process):

I don’t want to ask the “where do you get your ideas” question.  But you write a lot of fiction and nonfiction, so let’s say you get a notion – how do you pick if it should be, say, fiction or essay or whatever?

It’s so different for different projects.  It’s hard to make one overarching statement.

But you have to! It’ll make for a better interview!

Well, okay… Usually, I have a whole rumbling pile of different influences, things that are bothering me, that are charged for me – fraught – in a way I don’t understand.  And I’ll think, “Oh wait, here’s a cool idea… someone would love this.”  And who knows if I’m right or not… but then that conjoins with something I’m trying to work through emotionally or intellectually or both. Perhaps it’s some part of a previous attempt that left me unsatisfied.  Something I glanced off of and want to go at more directly.

To try to get it right?

Just to open up a new area of exploration for myself.  Exploring something I can’t think about clearly… until I begin writing about it.

You’re learning by the actual act of writing.

I learn a lot by writing. I learn… what I suspect.  What I wish for.  What I mean.  What I feel.  And also, I just learn stuff.  Because what I’m writing about will force me to go out and just read a lot to figure out some subject.  The project drives me to an intellectual experience I’ve been wanting to have.

And so you just start working.

It’s all been sitting there, rumbling in a weird slag heap in my imagination.  And I start organizing it by starting the project.

So rather than thinking about a specific genre, it sounds like it’s a more intuitive process.

I guess there’s been very few things I’ve mistaken for being an essay that were really a story.  If they’re calling up both those impulses at the same time, then I usually try something short and end up with something weird. There’s a lot of pieces like that in Ecstasy of Influence.  Like “Proximity People.”

Or “My Internet”?

Yes.  Where I’m using my image-making or storytelling muscles to work out some thought.  But I’m not going to the trouble of working it all the way up into scenes and characters.  The voice is the character.  But mostly, my stuff organizes itself pretty naturally into genres.  There are things that only fiction can do.  And then there are things that only work with that special game of first-person confessional.

But there is overlap. In a lot of your fiction, there’s first-persons confessing.

Yeah. And the nonfiction draws on what I do as a fiction writer, too. But [for nonfiction], there’s a fundamental stance that’s called up when I say: “This is me.”  The work will be electrified by that primary gesture: Me Telling You.

That’s such a great distinct definition of memoir, “me telling you.”  I don’t know why I’m asking so much about definitions and delineations in an interview, when I’m not even sure if they really matter…

Well, listen, I’m a great destroyer of category and genre – but that represents a tremendous degree of engagement with category and genre, too.  To be thinking about categories, fantasizing about how they can be melted down and violated in interesting ways, is to be pretty fascinated with them.

You have to like taxonomy to bother messing with it?

Absolutely – there are a lot of great writers out there that have no interest in messing with it. Someone like, I don’t know, Dostoevsky? Who is standing totally at the center of one giant operation, never questioning its edges, he’s just vomiting out gigantic fictional vistas… And I’m here asking “What is a novel?” He’s forgotten that question.

It’s the water he’s swimming in.

Exactly.  But someone like me, I’m doing a bunch of things – short stories, essays, weird provocations, quasi-essays, novels – and I’m touching the edges, the shore, all the time.  Trying to futz with it.

And I guess your most transgressive futzing, at least at the time, was the title piece in The Ecstasy of Infuence?

Sure, because I’m messing around with the boundaries between my voice and other people’s voice – which is one of the boundaries we take most for granted.  If you take from other people’s voices then… you are plagiarizing.  Right?  So if you want to mess with that boundary: “Oops! Get away from there! Don’t look there!”

And by messing with that, you sort of became a spokesman for various Open Art groups, or for sampling culture. Just like, say, after Motherless Brooklyn you got involved with various Tourette’s organizations.  Is that stuff still happening?

I get pulled into things, but I’m kind of a dodgy guy, you know?  I don’t really like the identities I get offered.  The causes I’m offered to be the poster boy for – I don’t get into to being the poster boy, not for very long, at least.

“Evasive” is a negative way to say that I’m just kind of restless. These things I write about – they mean a lot to me. But eventually, I feel like I’ve expunged the exploration – I don’t have any more to say.   They’re things I was really interested – still am, in a way.  But it’s no longer a live wire for me, electrifying for me to touch.

And that’s important – you need that.

I’m always looking for that next problematic situation that will give me that sensation of having to figure something out.  

On the “Truth In Nonfiction” Debate:

I have to say, with all the talk of boundaries, and fiction and nonfiction – there’s one question I’ve never experienced in your work.  The whole “truth in nonfiction” debate – I’ve never found myself reading your work and asking: Is this true?

I guess that’s fair.  Because I don’t ever claim the memoirist's position.  Maybe I’ve self-inoculated?  By writing fiction, and doing the Ecstasy of Influence piece, and by writing so many things that are self-questioning.  I write a lot about memory, I assert, “Maybe this happened?”  So that issue doesn’t crop up for me… I’m not a Problem Case.

Not that I don’t write things that could be questioned on those terms. 

But that’s not really the relationship that you have with the reader. Every writer has a unique relationship with their readers, so it’s hard to come up with hard and fast rules. 

No.  Let’s go further.  It’s not hard to come up with hard and fast rules.  It’s impossible.  There are no hard and fast rules.

Everything should be judged case by case, maybe?  I mean, there’s the James Frey problem, sure, but then you have people questioning someone like David Sedaris about little details when he never claimed to be writing journalism

Yes! Right!  Of course.  You brought up the word “journalism.”  Well, Sedaris never presented his stuff in those terms, with the word “journalism.”  All of this is journalists migrating their standards for internal journalistic accusation over into a different kind of writing.  Which is a total botch.  It doesn’t make sense.  It’s wrong.

But it does seem to pop up a lot in memoir and essay.

Not just there.  Even in fiction, there was the “scandal” that attached itself momentarily to Ian McEwan about his research and sourcing.  Moronic.  I mean, absolutely moronic.  But that was journalists projecting their… what?  Ethics?  It’s like kabuki etiquette.

That’s a great way to put it. It sort of explains why these “scandals” sometimes seem so absurd to me. For example, another author whose fiction and nonfiction I like: John Steinbeck.  I saw somewhere that someone was going back to Travels with Charlie to find out if he really went to all the places in that book.

Oh, good lord! Whatever.  Where do we stop then – what’s next?  It’s like not liking a film because you find out some of the lines were dubbed.  “What?  They did that in post-production?  A travesty!”

That’s hilarious.  And I didn’t mean to get us distracted into this debate.  Mostly, I just want to go back to what you were talking about, when talking about working on new projects.  About just going after whatever is gnawing at you.  That feels like good advice.

Not just what gnaws at you.  Go after what delights you.


(the above collage was created by Dave Mondy from an author photo and covers of Lethem's books) 

Dave Mondy has won several awards for his travel writing, and has also written for public radio (A Prairie Home Companion) and toured several one-man shows throughout the country. He recently graduated with his MFA in Creative Nonfiction, and is publishing new work in literary magazines while also writing a column on sustainably-sourced liquor and beer (for which he enjoys doing research).