Jonathan Lethem: The literary world is like high school

In a Salon exclusive, the \"major author\" reveals the downside of getting into the cool kids club

Published November 17, 2011 1:00AM (EST)

 Jonathan Lethem  (Mara Faye Lethem)
Jonathan Lethem (Mara Faye Lethem)

The novelist Jonathan Lethem began trying his hand at nonfiction back in the 1990s, for this very publication. He's since proven himself a modern master of the form, having just published his second collection of criticism, essays and autobiography, "The Ecstasy of Influence." The new book includes the now-famous title essay -- a defense of collage and appropriation that's revealed at the end to be patched together from rewritten snippets of other writers' work -- originally published in Harper's magazine. It also features a new and currently much-discussed response to a mixed review of Lethem's novel "The Fortress of Solitude," written by James Wood for the New Yorker.

"The Ecstasy of Influence" is in part an attempt to discuss the things artists and writers rarely talk about -- how much of their work is borrowed from other artists and how much they care about their critical reputations, among other things. So I called Lethem (who is, full disclosure, a friend), to find out what on earth he was thinking.

For someone who once vowed never to write nonfiction, you've developed something distinctive: a very memoiristic, even confessional approach to criticism.

My fourth novel, "Girl in Landscape," was catalyzed by my ferocious interest in this film "The Searchers," and yet the book itself couldn't say that. So in the aftermath, I started writing an essay that was a very personal, tormented, structurally crazy piece. It was the first place I confessed how much not going to college affected me, how powerfully quitting an institution affected my life's course. Then I was asked by Glenn Kenny to contribute to his undersung, marvelous anthology of writers on "Star Wars," which contains the most outrageously brilliant piece by Lydia Millet on Darth Vader.

Yes! That essay is tremendous.

An incredible piece of writing. I realized that I had a method and I wanted to write a series of essays to complete the sequence. That ended up becoming the collection "The Disappointment Artist," which was about the problem of cultural obsessions, how if you tried to make the artwork explain you to yourself, you were destined to feel betrayed by it. "The Fortress of Solitude," too, was about exploring the strengths and weakness of making yourself through readings of culture: the culture of street life, your parents' bohemianism, the beginnings of hip-hop culture, arcana like experimental film.

Which leads to the question of influence and this new book. There's an consistent argument here that the pristine and heroic originality that many people expect from artists is an illusion.

Yes. Of course, the flip side is that the book is also about the permanent power of my fannish reverence for things. I don't want to be cast in some debunker role, where I'm saying all art, even if you sit alone in a room to do it, is accidentally crowd-sourced or that every heroic image of creativity is a pathetic windsock.

No, no, but that's not the same thing as refusing to make a fetish of perfect originality.

Which is a great fetish except when it causes us to feel unnecessarily betrayed if we see the little man behind the curtain. It's a mistake to ask our cultural creations to be immaculate, perfect and greater than our human selves because actually they're made by our human selves, which are wonderful without being immaculate, and without a Promethean independence from anything else. People are social animals and our artworks are social animals, too. In a conversation. That's actually what gives them their life.

Another running theme in this book is how novelists -- especially novelists who have had some success, as you have -- are expected to behave in public. What bothers you about that role?

This goes back to when I was in art school. I watched prep school boys get there, and within months of arriving, they'd switched from being cheeky, Lacoste-wearing guys who liked to drink beer to being mumbling, dungaree-and-scuffed-workboot guys who liked to drink beer. I realized that there really is a set of scripts around being a painter or sculptor. I'd already seen it in the grown-ups around my father, who is a painter. Watching an 18-year-old invent this self made me see how constructed the personas of the painters and sculptors mumbling around the scene had been.

There was a way to be an artist, and it was kind of comical to me. It meant you had to be inarticulate in a specific way. You were supposed to say, "I don't know, I just made the thing," in this Cro-Magnon style. That meant you were a real artist.

What is the novelist's script?

There are variations. I had the strange benefit of moving through the first decade of my writing life in a chameleon way -- I was alternately a Bay Area writer, a New York writer, a science-fiction writer and a crime writer -- so I got to see those different scripts.

It wasn't until I published "The Fortress of Solitude" that suddenly it became possible that I was "major." That's a very specific script, although one we like to pretend doesn't exist. Our major novelists are simply our major novelists, right? They're free! They can do whatever they like.

Well, actually, I saw all kinds of weird constraints attached to this. There were enormous privileges, and I always want to rush to say that. What an incredible journey for me, especially for someone who came to writing in an eccentric way and still wanted to do eccentric things. Sometimes someone would name the five or six "promising young men," and I'd be one of them. Cool, great! I should say that I'm really honored that people think I could be important in the way they want me to be important. It affects me and changes me to be in that position. This book acknowledges that it's a two-way street.

But I could also see certain structural injunctions. Those fascinated me.

What were some of those constraints?

One of the most obvious was not to do minor or silly books. That's a really strange injunction if you look at literary history because most every novelist we accord major prestige did all sorts of things. The only way for me to obey, "OK, now you're major: Stay major!" was to only write books as long, sorrowful and widescreen as "The Fortress of Solitude."

It was a really meaningless injunction for me, but it was certainly there. I guess I frivolously -- and some would say hopelessly -- tried to negotiate with that by doing other kinds of books.

Someone like Jonathan Franzen would be the embodiment of that idea of a major novelist; he publishes big, serious books, infrequently. What are the other things a major novelist is supposed to do?

Ignore critics is obviously one of them. I came to see it as a strange, very Kabuki kind of thing, very performative. Your job is to have a lot to say up to a point. We want our novelists to be voluble and strong-minded and have opinions and impress us with their command of cultural matters. Then they publish a novel and are supposed to fall silent and become a bulletin board upon which things are tacked.

Perhaps people want to believe that serious novelists only engage in a higher discourse. To talk about critics or discuss how other people see your work is stooping.

I'm sure that's right, but my confession is that I'm already stooped. I'm a fan, I'm a reader, I'm in the culture.

Talking about the the script is also something that you're not supposed to do, because it's talking about success and failure and the limitations of the things that people fantasize about happening to them. Norman Mailer talked about his career as if it were a work, a project, and people felt angry and betrayed by that. It's crossing a line to raise these issues at all.

I like the idea of the arts as Lewis Hyde describes them, a gift economy in which there's a transference of value outside the commercial realm. I believe in that deeply, but I don't believe that the power of it rests on not saying what's happening around us. It's part of the world, and part of my world. I do think that I have a job, and that is honesty. People do ask me about this stuff. Sometimes I just want to answer them.

The novelist is supposed to be visible, but also to be above any desire to be visible.

I'm crappy at being above things. I keep wanting to deflate the platform underneath me and point out that it's only an air mattress.

Many readers also come to literature with a longing to get beyond the pettiness of the world. There's a dream that you can finally escape small-p politics, competition, envy -- all the things that are evoked by the label "high school."

You would think that the more I rose into this status called "major," the more privileges I appeared to enjoy, the more free I would feel, the more I would have left "high school" behind. I would have graduated. In fact, in many ways it was the opposite.

When I was a marginal, dark horse operator, I felt very out of "high school." I could talk about all the different things I was excited about, talk about out-of-print writers and my love of vernacular cultural things -- pop music, science fiction, Hollywood film. I could do high/low at once and no one was patrolling that. That, to me, felt like graduation.

But after taking on more importance in my publisher's view and some critical frameworks, I felt handed a script that was a lot more like "high school." There were things it wasn't cool to say. There were people you weren't supposed to mention anymore. When I got to be one of the cool kids, all I was supposed to do was answer questions about the cool kids and act like there were no other kids around.

When it came to influences, I was never to be asked about any other writer than Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace or Michael Chabon. And I guess they were asking those guys about me. I kept trying to break out of this weird little cage, saying, "Those guys are fine, they're nice guys and I like reading them, but for me the energy happens to be coming from all these other places." So if you want to ask me about this book, stop asking if I wrote it as my version of "The Corrections." I started writing it three years before I even knew of the existence of "The Corrections." I couldn't break out of that conversation.

It was so silly, but it spoke to the desire for there to be a literary [Mount] Rushmore, to replace Updike, Roth and Mailer -- or whoever it might have been in their mind's eye, the great writers who are always battling each other in Valhalla. "We need a young group to be doing that!" So I couldn't enjoy any of the polymorphous freedom that I'd had before. I was basically being asked over and over, "Well, are you afraid your backup quarterback is going to take your job?" It was totally high school!

Probably the biggest transgression you make in this book, though, is the essay about James Wood's review of "The Fortress of Solitude" in the New Yorker. What response have you gotten? Has anyone said, "You shouldn't have done that."

Yes, of course. Concerned friends have heard about it and got anxious that I was in some kind of distress.

You mean, they thought that you were so upset that you couldn't restrain yourself?

Yes. I can't fix that impression because it's so basic, so large a part of the script. I have no interest in treating this as a crisis because that wasn't how I experienced it. It matters enormously that I wrote that piece so many years after the review ran.

If not pique, then what inspired it?

My piece is a memoir. It's a reflective piece on a strange aspect of my experience as a working novelist, one that tends to go unnamed. It's really about my own surprise at being disappointable by James Wood. While thinking that he and I probably disagree about a lot of things, and therefore thinking that he might not like my work, I discovered that I'd still been thinking that he conveyed a tremendous power of insight and it would be very striking to me how much he would see, even if he disliked my work. This was a piece of innocence I was carrying around with me, not knowing that it was innocence.

To be clear, it's not so much that you were expecting a more positive review as that you'd expected the review, positive or negative, to address the book for what it was.

Actually, what I really wanted to talk about was something that was still very interesting to me years later: How much I'd wanted to experience even a negative review from James Wood and how much that desire had gone off the rails for me and what that suggested.

What I hadn't anticipated was that I could be disappointed in a stranger way by his efforts because with that review they became evident as cursory in a way that I don't want the leading literary critic of the moment to be cursory. It disappointed my sense of the quality of the conversation that we all hoped we were in. I wanted to feel that the kind of critic he was, writing at that kind of length would account for the book itself. It could be rejected, but first I wanted it to be accounted for.

Yet reviews are not really written for the author.

If you think of a review as a kind of Consumer Reports, offering a thumbs up or down, then, fair enough: Who cares what the author thinks? But, implicitly, when someone weighs in in a certain measure, with a certain tone, and when they publish books called "How Fiction Works," there's a proposition they're entering into that they're doing more than that. They're becoming part of the development of the art in a public space. So by implication, they should be wanting the authors to meditate seriously on what they said.

Is there a particular critical ethos you favor?

Too many different kinds to pick just one. Updike had a good list of things to do when reviewing. There's a great essay by Randall Jarrell, "Poets, Critics and Readers," where he says that we demand Keatsian negative capability -- the willingness to step out of your self -- in our artists, so why don't we ask the same of our critics? It's not that there are very few ways for art to be done right, but that there are so many ways.

And it's important to note that you can ignore me completely. I don't have the power to change the nature of things, only to remark on them. I'm not in charge of James Wood. It's also important to say that most people don't care about novels in the least, and in the larger scheme of human affairs, James Wood and I are not only deep allies, but practically the same person. He and I are passionately devoted to 99.9 percent of the same things

Have you had reviews that you felt did account for the book, even if they were also partly negative?

Sure. I've been mixed up, exalted, exasperated and fascinated by some long, committed pieces that weren't just raves. The John Leonard piece [in the New York Review of Books], for sure. He said some things I'd dreamed of hearing anyone -- let alone John Leonard, who I revered -- saying about me. And in the same breath he said things that seem willfully obtuse and hostile and then things that I puzzled over and that changed me and my writing because they seemed to really look into it.

So that would not be a disappointing review?

Well, it was not easy to undergo, but it left my sense of excitement at being in that kind of conversation undisappointed.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Fiction James Wood Jonathan Lethem The Ecstasy Of Influence