JULIET GELFMAN-RANDAZZO: This is City Arts & Lectures. This week we’re presenting part 2 of Crosstalk, in which our past speakers talk across, among, and around one another.
Over the next hour we’ll be putting some of our recent guests in conversation, exploring their common preoccupations and internal debates within the literary landscape today.
My name is Juliet Gelfman-Randazzo, and I’ve worked for City Arts & Lectures since 2018. In 2019, I began the loooong project of transcribing the thousands of events in our archive. I started with the most recent, working my way backwards. As I listened, in quick succession, to recent literary guests in conversation, I noticed moments where they seemed to be responding to something someone had said in an event months earlier or later. Crosstalk is my attempt to make that web of conversation a reality–to replicate my experience listening to these writers talk.
MEG WOLITZER: Novels are kind of like Jenga Towers, you know, if you can take it out and it still stands, take it out.
JGR: Meg Wolitzer is the author of many novels, most recently The Female Persuasion.
OCEAN VUONG: For myself, when I see something interesting, I write it down in my notebook. And when you start to write the novel, you connect them…
JGR: Ocean Vuong is a poet and author of the explosive debut novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
OCEAN VUONG: I mean, what is a novel but a, you know, a list of interesting things? You’re just moving bodies through interesting things.
JGR: Today City Arts & Lectures guests from the past few years are discussing genre. What is a novel? What is autofiction? What is poetry, a fable, creative nonfiction, a short story? Does perfect writing exist? Here’s novelist, and now author of the short story collection Grand Union, Zadie Smith.
ZADIE SMITH: I think there are probably more perfect stories in the world than perfect novels. I think novels are, by definition, not– they’re kind of imperfect and the perfect ones are so unusual they become like freaks in the culture. Like Great Gatsby is like a freak event. Everyone still talks about it, like how does that happen? A novel is more of a messy thing. I have to say, I love them for that reason. I kind of love their imperfections and I just love that access to another consciousness over the long run. It’s so interesting to me…But short stories to me are about perfection. I’m not a perfect sort of story writer, but I can think of many examples. But a novel for all their embarrassing, you know, silliness is probably where my heart is.
JGR: Autofiction, autocriticism, literary memoir, creative nonfiction, the poet’s novel, and more of these genre-blurring narratives are having a moment. This is not to say these are new forms–but they are being utilized to new ends, and by groups of people who haven’t wielded them as such before. In new hands, how do these forms, renew, revive the form, regain prominence, or transform our conception of “the novel”? Again, Ocean Vuong.
OCEAN VUONG: I think a lot of it is informed by poetry, is informed by poetry and how it is a form that requires fracture in order to realize itself. And I think a lot of our culture, beginning with the false myth of manifest destiny, and how that myth enters our creative process, a lot of writers are told that they must fill the page. They must get to a quota. They must get the word count. And we’re told that we must conquer the white space. We must fill it endlessly. We must overwhelm it. And even the metaphors we use to create is metaphors of war. I’m wrestling with the muse. I’m fighting the sentence. This book is kicking my butt, right? It’s always the language of warfare, to use, to create something where we have our utmost freedom. And I felt like it’s such a detrimental way to think. Particularly in the form of a novel, which requires you to keep going. To extend the temporal reality beyond a certain page. Unlike the lyric poem.
The epistle allowed detours. It also allows the plot to move along steadily. One of the things you give up is a lot of plot. But I knew I wasn’t interested in plot. I was inspired by Miyazaki’s films, and particularly a Japanese form of narratology called kishōtenketsu, where plot is forgone and conflict is forgone for proximity. One could argue that plot is the woodchipper where all bodies are fed into. All characters serve the dominant force of plot, and plot has a very phallic trajectory, right? It’s like climax, right? I mean, I never went into a fiction workshop, but I dipped into fiction craft books, and at one point I saw what was called an inverted check mark. And so it’s–you know, you start from the bottom and you climax, and then you decrescendo and you kind of have your cigarette. I thought like, is this the only–I’m not against that, by the way. It’s fine. But I’m like, is this the only way, is to see a novel’s trajectory in the same way a man sees the end of a sexual encounter? Is a finishing? And it felt like a very patriarchal tradition and I wanted–and it’s fine, there’s plenty of works that that works well. I love The Odyssey. Again, I just thought, you know, what would happen if it didn’t? What would happen if there is no story, traditionally. Then when you let go of plot, what you gain is people. And so this book can be seen not so much as a tour bus moving through a decimated landscape, which is what often writers of color are expected to perform. Be a tour guide of a smoldering world. What if it wasn’t that? What of it’s more of a gallery? A portrait gallery? Surrounded by the faces of these people. And that you move through the book on your own terms. But most importantly, these people get to stand on their own terms. Including the white characters.
BEN LERNER: The very persistent great American novel discourse, which is traditionally is very much a racist and masculinist discourse.
JGR: Here’s autofictive novelist and author of The Topeka School, Ben Lerner.
BEN LERNER: It’s about a white guy who can write the novel who can speak for everyone. It’s a Whitmanic fantasy where everyone is included, but the reason why everyone is included is because there’s one white guy who has transcendent access to all the truths and can identify everyone as in their appropriate place or whatever. Yeah, that’s a bankrupt model, absolutely. Part of why I’ve been drawn to writing novels that use biographical elements, the attempt to not pretend to have perfect access to other voices, but dramatize the effort and the limits of access to other voices, is like a way of saying, “there’s no omniscience here. There’s no transcendence here,” right? I mean, I’m trying to like use this very particular material that I don’t pretend would be of interest to everyone to make a kind of artwork I need to make. I think those universalizing claims on behalf of artworks or the claim for a narrator to have a kind of omniscience or universal access are definitely suspect and problematic claims that we shouldn’t repeat.
MARLON JAMES: For the most part, I think the term genre fiction is bulls***.
JGR: Marlon James is the author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, the first in a fantasy trilogy rooted in African legend, as well as multiple works of historical fiction, including A Brief History of Seven Killings.
MARLON JAMES: One of the problems with it is that when a writer such as myself writes in genre, they think I’m slumming. It just shows us how much they, how strict they were with genre. I think sometimes we do have this sort of patronising idea about genre, and this idea that you know, it’s not literary, it’s not high brow and when a writer like me do it, I’m sort of elevating it. I’m like, no, I’m not elevating s***. There’s so much snobbery in the whole idea. I actually don’t mind if you want to call it, you know they call it genre fiction and I don’t necessarily mind the title, what I do mind is the snobbery behind it. I, to this day, have yet to have an awkward discussion about representation with a crime writer. I’ve never had to talk to them about how to write a Black character. I still think there are literary people who simply exit that whole idea by just never writing anybody other than a white man or white woman. What–only one of the writers on The Wire was Black? I may be wrong, but only one that I know of. Meaning that the crime writers do the work. Look at other genre fiction, let’s look at Chick Lit. Which again, people don’t have a very high opinion of. But Chick Lit is the only genre where women work. Because I read some literary novels, and I’m like how do the women in this novel eat? It’s like, what do you do at 2:00 p.m.? And I don’t think the literary writers do the work. We just assume the privilege. And then when you get called out on it, you’re, “oh you’re censorship,” and like, no, people are just saying you wrote a whack ass character. You don’t get to escape critique.
JGR: Creative nonfiction writer and essayist, Rebecca Solnit.
REBECCA SOLNIT: And there’s a way people shut down when the language is dead and stale. And one of my big influences is Subcomandante Marcos and the zapatistas, who created a poetic, new, revolutionary language grounded in metaphor and experience of actual place, in myth and dream, but also in humor and things like that. That was such a sense that political writing doesn’t have to be deadly.
When I was younger, nonfiction was really treated like the handmaiden, or you’re supposed to enter the house of literature by the servants’ quarters, you know novels and poetry and a little bit of playwriting were what was taught in creative writing programs. And nonfiction wasn’t creative nonfiction yet. You know and it’s even nonfiction, it’s like non-white. If non-white is defined by whiteness, nonfiction is defined by fiction as the kind of end all and be all and measuring stick. And then one day, way too late in life, I realized that not only is a lot of contemporary poetry a kind of essayistic nonfiction–the novel is the weird thing over there and poetry is over here with us–but also, that nonfiction was everything else. And that fiction was this particular specific thing that arose, but that manifestos and telephone directories and bestiaries and atlases and guidebooks and histories and memoirs and it was kind of everything. Fiction was okay, you get to carve out this little pinacle, but we get everything else. And it is all these different forms of how to convey information that don’t have to be the kind of bourgeois narrative that the novel, as it evolved in the 18th century and Western Europe is, and that’s kind of liberating.
SALLY ROONEY: I love the early novel, the early 19th century and Victorian novels in English. But I guess I felt like I wanted to break out of those conventions.
JGR: Sally Rooney is author of the novels Conversations with Friends and Normal People.
SALLY ROONEY: Firstly, because they’re so loaded, in terms of class and gender, and also because I felt like, when the circumstances change, the forms of expression have to change. So it felt like we are experiencing these radical changes in our cultural circumstances, and like the, you know, the onus is on me in some way to respond to those in a, with a fresh artistic response, like with using new tools. I sometimes feel as though my novels are like a failed attempt to write an unconventional story. I tried to write something new, and then I found that I was completely boxed in by the form of the novel and ended up with something that was just completely a novel in every way. Like I was like, “Oh, I’ll do something different.” And then turned around and looked at what I had done and was like, “Oh, this is literally just a novel.” I vary between feeling disappointed in myself and sort of like self-critical about my inability to break out of that form.
BEN LERNER: I just think like novelistic conventions are great because they’re things that they create patterns of expectation you can strategically disappoint.
JGR: Again, Ben Lerner.
BEN LERNER: They’re not great just because you fulfill them in the most expected way.
JGR: Eileen Myles is a poet and most recently the author of the collections Evolution and Afterglow: A Dog Memoir.
EILEEN MYLES: I feel like I’m such a genre, I don’t know what to call it, queer or something. Because it’s like all these books I’ve written are, you know, like Chelsea Girl was called a memoir, and this is called a memoir. I was like, I’ve never written a memoir, I would never–I hate the word memoir. I would never write a memoir. But when it came to it–because it’s so sentimental and memory. But when it came to being about a dog, I thought, I do feel sentimental, and it is my memory. And so I called it a memoir, but then it just wound up being such a trippy, completely fantastic, utterly novelistic book. It is the most novelistic thing I’ve ever written. So I think what’s so great about form is that it’s like the dog, it’s ahead of you and it’s telling you something that you don’t already know. And it’s basically leading you into spaces that you couldn’t have imagined.
I’ve been obsessed with this thing lately, which is writing that lets you watch it become. It’s not a new idea. It’s kind of process, but at certain points I thought, well, they know that this is not true. This is like an invented thing. Yet, and then it would start to move. And I realized that just the act of composition and the act of invention–part of the pleasure in making it and of doing it was performing that in front of the reader and watching the reader. Cause it was like, there was a dog, the dog was dying, and I knew what I was doing when the dog was dying, which was just basically being their scribe. But then when the dog was dead and I was like, how do I keep the book going? I felt like I was inviting the reader to watch that act of invention. And I’m interested in that in all things. It’s sort of like whoever or whatever, allowing us to look over the shoulder and not act like this is, you know, some kind of seamless imaginary thing that you’re supposed to put faith in. You know, it’s sort of like what you put faith in is the act of making art.
JGR: Rachel Cusk is the author of the Outline trilogy, a series of autofictive works centered around a female protagonist who acts as a conduit for the voices and experiences of those she encounters..
RACHEL CUSK: There are some writers who are, miraculously to me–well they begin closer to their goal than I did. And I seem to have taken a route of needing to experience things in order to know them and so much of my work is documenting sort of that process. So I guess this form was a kind of recoiling from the sort of brutal-er aspects of that process of I suppose midlife kind of Jungian crisis and loss of sort of identity. So how to find a form in which I could represent that, which is essentially loss of institutional forms of being. And the novel for me, the sort of conventional narrative novel, didn’t work for that. The memoir didn’t work for that. So I really needed to find something that was neither narrative nor autobiographical. I think my view of the novel was constrained in some way, I suppose by my reverence for literary form, and increasingly, as I sort of went through life and and experienced it in pretty ordinary ways, but distinctly female ways, I couldn’t see how to describe that in the novel as I understood it.
I mean, all I knew at the beginning was that for my purposes as a reader and as a writer, and I think for all of us as human beings, the drift of language away from truth is incredibly problematic and it’s almost the first sign that something is seriously amiss in the sort of social fabric. I encountered that feeling as a writer in terms of the conventional contemporary novel, which seemed increasingly to sort of disavow any connection to the self and personal experience. To me the need for the world to be verified, to be able to say, “I know this because I saw it, because I experienced it,” is really the sort of correct moral position for any artist. And as I say, the novel has become a form in which making things up is highly valued. And distancing oneself and disavowing and disowning your material and saying “none of this is about me and none of this happened to me and these are all invented characters.” There’s definitely a theory, and it’s a sort of Knausgaardian theory, that we’re all sort of infected by a century of narrative, in film as much as in novels. Of sort of the story sort of interfering with our sense of reality.
JGR: Where do these forms–in recent years, popularized by Ben Lerner, Sheila Heti, Maggie Nelson, Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk, Karl Ove Knausgaard–come from? What are some of their lineages?
EILEEN MYLES: Well, I think New Narrative is absolutely the secret most influential kind of writing in America today. You know?
STEPHEN M. BEST: Share the secret.
JGR: Again, Eileen Myles.
EILEEN MYLES: They were poets, mostly in San Francisco. Theory was huge in the ‘80s. There was some great poetry that came out of that. And it produced a lot of work and a lot of theory and a lot of discourse. But there wasn’t a whole lot of sex and performance in it, you know, there wasn’t a lot of sex in it. And so I think that the poets of that time, who are some of my friends who live in this town, were like, “then how do we get to write about sex?” And they were like, “we’ll just leave poetry and write prose.” And so it became a whole kind of gang of post-poets who started writing fiction. Bob Glück, Camille Roy, Kevin Killian, Dodie Bellamy. Part of the idea was, if you were writing a novel, it wasn’t like separate from the world. It was continuous. And so the character in my novel would be Eileen Myles, which for a whole part of the literary world would mean then that’s a memoir. And it was like, no, it isn’t. But the gesture of saying that the main character in this book has the name of the author, means that the book and the world are continuous. The book is not separate from the world, the book is in the world. And so some of these things have happened, some of these things could happen. And I think that blurring started earlier too, with like New Journalism, Joan Didion…When you’ve got people like Ben Lerner or Sheila Heti, or people who are getting much more mainstream, or what’s his name, Knausgaard, who I’ve yet to read. I was like, how is Knausgaard not New Narrative? It’s like, you know, like what an amazing idea. My Struggle. But it is telling the story of a human life in all directions with lots of aesthetic realizations along the way, and lots of sex.
JGR: Again, Ben Lerner.
BEN LERNER: I do think that since we live in a moment in which a lot of life is lived or whatever the word is, pursued with like, you know, digital avatars or whatever, that some of the concern that’s often described as like autofiction amongst writers, like writers using autobiographical material probably is an opportunity to be slower and more critical about the self curation and social performance that’s part of our identities. Like, I mean, I think that there is something that’s probably timely about it. I also think it’s like as old as the novel, the kind of mixing of fact and fiction and the dramatization of the blurry boundary between art and life. There’s this thing that happens a lot now of like grouping all the writers who use some kind of autobiographical material in their fiction, and it’s a very different group of writers. There’s somebody like Knausgaard, who I’m very interested in, who’s like thing is to kind of reject literariness and I’m going to write down every experience I’ve ever had and I’m going to embrace formlessness and I’m going to tell every detail about my marriage and like all that kind of stuff, and it can be a kind of riveting and disturbing project. But that like I have nothing in–like I’m a big believer in literariness and structuring an artwork as carefully as possible, and always bending the quote unquote facts to the truth that the literary form might achieve. So I think it has to be kind of like work by work.
RACHEL CUSK: This this idea of verifying–I think that’s what autofiction is doing.
JGR: Rachel Cusk.
RACHEL CUSK: It’s saying, you know, in the end, the only thing morally that I can recognize as true or I can impose my moral being by using myself, and I think it’s a very misunderstood genre. It’s seen as sort of narcissistic, whereas In fact is completely the opposite of that. It’s almost erasing yourself. It’s basically saying I’m going to use myself to prove things about the world. And I mean I am doing something of that sort also, but I’ve come at it from a much longer road of canonical, more sort of scholarly, I suppose, reverence for literary form and for the novel itself and that’s kind of where I began, was in great reverence for what had been written in the past.
JGR: Again, Sally Rooney.
SALLY ROONEY: I’m reading Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel, which so far I’m really enjoying. It’s sort of a survey of like 18th century novels: DeFoe, Fielding, Richardson, and about the sort of socio-political conditions that generated the English-language novel in that century. There is definitely the rise of individualism at that time and the rise of urban spaces. So like the movement away from small rural communities where everybody literally knew each other and knew each other’s families and knew everything about one another, to urban environments, which are largely anonymous, where you cannot know the background of the people that you’re dealing with. And so that’s one of the big moves that makes the sort of world of the novel more possible. And the breakdown of old social sort of aristocratic forms and the rise of the merchant capitalist class and all of the factors to do with the rise of industrial capitalism in Europe. And also the sort of philosophy of individualism, the idea of the individual as being sort of the base unit of society, which I often forget, has not always actually been there. It feels like such a philosophical presumption for me that it’s actually hard to imagine growing up in philosophical circumstances that didn’t emphasize the individual and like the rights and obligations and duties of that individual as sort of the basic unit of all other thought. But that is relatively new. And so the novel sort of coincided with, and also kind of helped to produce that way of thinking.
JGR: Some, like Rachel Cusk, defend the writing of the self from a moral standpoint–a sort of ethical barometer for approaching writing, which has merits in an age where we’re seeing gross transgressions on the parts of authors appropriating identities they can’t begin to accurately depict, and that have actively harmful repercussions for whole groups of people. Perhaps this autofictive response is a radical reaction to the fire some have come under for telling an experience some might say they don’t deserve to tell. Others might say this is an overcorrection, when a more nuanced solution might be found. Is there still a place for more traditional fiction within this literary landscape? Can writers still write lives that are not explicitly their own? Again, Ben Lerner.
BEN LERNER: I don’t have a kind of abstract commitment to like writing books that involve clearly autobiographical material. I think the themes that I was interested in in the novels kind of lent themselves to working with that material. But I also think kind of all, I mean, maybe this is obvious, I don’t know, but I feel like all writing involves the biography of the person who’s doing the writing, the question is, when is the work of art intensified or made more interesting by foregrounding or acknowledging the relation between the artwork and some of the forces that were compelling the artist who was making it.
JGR: Again, Rachel Cusk.
RACHEL CUSK: Character does sometimes exist, but only in places where it can be noticed, because other things don’t change very much. I don’t believe that individuals are special in their character in the same way anymore because their character can’t affect. One of the ways that the contemporary novel has gone wrong is by almost treating character as exceptions rather than rules. The thing that is extraordinary or there is only one, you know, I don’t believe that that is true to contemporary experience. I think much more that we’re not imprisoned. And not so long ago, I mean even in my own childhood, parental authority for instance, the characters of one’s parents, could imprison you. And that is increasingly not the case, and I mean the sort of weeping and wailing that goes on among people who care about intellectual or artistic values, the decrying of social media, the feeling that that has sort of ruined language and expression. I don’t believe that at all. And I think it has liberated all of us from the authority, I guess, of character.
I’m trying to create associations that anyone could see. You know, I wanted in these books to write literally something that if somebody else was there, or passing or, they would have seen exactly the same thing. And it’s the only thing that the book does, or the narrator does, is notice. A vulnerable child, on the back of a moped, sort of at the same time as a man is telling you about his vulnerable child. So it’s those kinds of links that to me seemed probably about as sort of unstructured as you could go, while still saying, this is a created work, a structured work. I felt sickened by in the end, the lengths writer and reader go to convince each other and themselves that there is no link between the book and the person who wrote it. And the overvaluing of this thing, imagination, where a writer says, “okay, I’m going to research brain surgery, and my narrator is going to be a brain surgeon, and I’m going to spend pages and pages convincing the person reading the book that I am in fact a brain surgeon.” There seemed something so dishonest to me in the end in that construction, both for writer and reader. It almost amounts to me to kind of pornography, I guess, where you know, I’m going to make things up and then I’m going to transfer those imaginings to your head so that you can imagine them too, without anything passing through reality. So I just wanted to make the world of the book as indistinguishable from what someone might imagine my world looked like as possible. And yeah, one consequence is that people, when they talk to me about the book, very very often say, “oh the bit when you,” you know duh duh duh, so that’s the price I pay, is it’s completely assumed that I’m just, you know, writing about myself.
ZADIE SMITH: I think of a beautiful example of the inward writer is Rachel Cusk, right?
JGR: Here’s novelist Zadie Smith.
ZADIE SMITH: She has a very strong sense of selfhood and then the books that are a kind of measurement of the other and the self. The self, in Rachel’s case, is usually correct. The others are usually wrong, but it’s a very formal relation. And it’s striking and the books are great because it’s, that’s genuinely her sensibility. That’s how she is in the world. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of sensibility, but there is another kind of artist. Actors are a very common example. Comedians are another. Who are always, from childhood, wondering about everybody else. And processing everybody else and taking everybody else through their minds. Ventriloquizing them, doing their voices. I mean, I saw it with my brother who’s a comedian. One of the things comedians have is a great ear. They can do everybody. Fiction has some relationship with comedy and some relationship with acting.
You can’t really imagine how people view the world. It’s impossible to know whether the purple you see is the purple they see. So fiction exists in this impossible realm. It’s literally impossible, but trying to give access, which cannot be proved. I could not tell you definitively. It’s all imagined, but it’s like this moment of what if you could enter these various consciousnesses? And in NW I just wanted to make that difference explicit. They are, like all of us, like me and you right now, living completely different realities in the same time space. That’s human life. It’s wild.
JGR: This is Crosstalk, from City Arts & Lectures.
MARLON JAMES: I think there are lessons that invented story can tell you that the facts can’t.
JGR: Again, Marlon James.
MARLON JAMES: I remember somebody saying, fiction is the lie that tells the truth. That’s one of the dumbest things I have ever heard a person say. I was like, fiction is not a lie, fiction is fiction. You know, there’s a difference between me distorting truth and me inventing something that has nothing to do with it. A fiction is a creation, a lie is a distortion. I think that the original tellers of epics realized that, and there’s some greater truths, if we’re going to stick with that word truth, or some greater wisdoms, I’m using it as a plural, that you get from the invented story. I mean, we already know that, that’s what fables do. That’s what allegories do. A fable is there to teach you something deeper. The Musicians of Bremen there were never any singing donkeys or so on, but the fables are telling you something, without even necessarily being didactic. And I think that’s the same thing. I think, you know, truth is one thing, and the facts of a story are one thing, and you can learn from that. But there are things you’re going to learn from me spinning this yarn that me just telling you what happened is not going to tell you. And I think that in the ancient traditions and old traditions people understood that and people knew that. Let’s even leave Africa and go to Greece. There are things that you’re going to learn from the historians recounting war, and there are other things you’re going to learn from the dramatist telling you about Medea. And both are universal truths they are telling you, they’re just not telling you the same thing.
ZADIE SMITH: That’s one of the things fiction can do. You’re like reanimating this person.
JGR: Here’s Zadie Smith.
ZADIE SMITH: But at the same time, I kind of want to retain this like Brechtian principle that you know that this is not real, what I’m doing. Even when, you know, if you have a gift for realism, you can fool people quite well. You know, it feels real. It smells real. It sounds real. But I think sometimes the problem with that is that you read the piece, you have the emotions, and you feel that you’ve done something, and really you haven’t done anything. So I was interested in whether it was possible to write a story, which is both fully felt–cause I remember all those like postmodern experiments of our youth. And you’d read it and you’re just like, “Oh, I don’t give a shit about anyone in this book. I don’t care about these characters. I don’t. Good for you that you’ve told me you’re an author and this is a novel, but I still don’t care.” But I’m interested in the idea of whether you could do both, like have the distance and also have the feelings simultaneously. Like, believe this man was real and also keep your critical head on, simultaneously. So that was the point. I don’t know if I managed it, but that was the idea.
JGR: Here’s novelist Sally Rooney.
SALLY ROONEY: It is important to be critical of that instinct, that sort of the myth-of-progress instinct, that like you begin with the early novel and then it just kind of chugs along, in a linear form. Whereas in fact, there’ve always been sort of competing tendencies within the novel. I mean, like the canon that we’ve decided now is the canon was not actually always perceived as such. Right? So we have one linear story that we’ve imposed on the sort of evolution of the novel as a form, but that story does not really tell us a whole lot, or it tells us one thing, but it doesn’t tell us loads of other important things. It’s actually more important to visualize the whole thing as a complicated collection of data points.
JGR: A complicated collection of data points is a pretty good description of what we’re gathering here, as we hear from these writers who fill such different spaces in our cultural appetite. Connecting these dots, we’re left with what looks like a sort of literary constellation–sometimes patterns appear in recognizable forms, and just as often the whole thing looks like a glittering mess of sparks, at times lost behind a corner of cloud. Some points are parts of larger patterns, others serve to guide us as we direct our view into a new genre, trend, or aesthetic we weren’t previously attuned to.
There are many ways of interpreting this data. One thing that seems clear is that all of these writers, whether they view themselves as writing in more or less traditional forms, consider their work both existing within a longstanding tradition of genre or form, and as it bends to represent new realities, or a new perspective.
For our final segment of Crosstalk, we’ll be cinching together some ongoing discussions these authors have previously touched upon. First, some of our writers will be speaking to cancel culture–the contentious concept of striking from the cultural ledger figures who have villainous personal histories–whose actions are deemed too abhorrent to allow us to continue consuming their work. Here’s poet Ocean Vuong.
OCEAN VUONG: Walt Whitman–one of the questions my students ask me is what do we do with Whitman? What do we do with all of these terrible men, right, in the canon? And I think, well, one of the worst things we can do is sweep them off the desk, because then we stop thinking about them. And if we stop thinking about them, someone else will go along after we die and write something that looks like propaganda, something that is either or. And that a lot of literary education happens with either or. Here’s a great writer, here’s why. And I think that has, that education has failed us. Because we only learn how to like or hate. What’s more useful, I think, is that Walt Whitman radicalized the poetic American line according to the King James Bible at a time where America was falling apart, leading towards the Civil War. He was also racist. Those are simultaneous truths. And we honor ourselves by holding them and asking “why?” How did the thinking triumph and how did the thinking fail? And then we can decide for ourselves and do what Emerson said, in that reading is sifting for gold. I think that work is much more challenging and it requires careful reading and rigorous and vigorous collective education. And sometimes we don’t have enough resources to do that. But if we just sweep it off, if we just cancel Whitman, what we do is we surrender the agency to think upon him. We basically say, “Oh, get it away.” But in order to do that, we have to be really confident that after we die, the big etch-a-sketch that gets erased, when we’re gone–we have to believe that Whitman won’t come back. Right? And that is not guaranteed. And I’m not even sure that’s better. I’m more interested in thinking, in a milieu that was predominantly racist, that was leading towards Manifest Destiny, that was vamping up the genocide of original peoples on this continent, at that moment, someone decided to write in a way that ruptured the consciousness. Why, how, when? And how does it influence us the rest of the way? That’s really exciting to me and it’s very difficult. It’s very hard. But if we do it well, we allow ourselves a moment to critically disentangle the monolithic realities of our culture and our literary canon, and to see it for what it is: messy, wrong, beautiful, possible. And as the living, we get to say, this is how we will see it. This is how we will consider it. And from what we consider, we can do better. But in order to do that, we have to take a long, hard look.
REBECCA SOLNIT: There’s a funny way we think like, okay, now we’re totally awesomely woke, and there’s always more waking up to do.
JGR: Here’s essayist Rebecca Solnit.
REBECCA SOLNIT: Cause sometimes you get this total arrogance of like, oh people were total barbarians when they weren’t as hip as we are about transgender identities and racial politics and stuff, and I’m just like, you’re not inherently more awesome than people were 30 years ago. You’re lucky because somebody woke you up.
But I also feel like we always have to assume the last alarm clock has not gone off. We are not the most woke human beings can ever be. I’m old now, I’ve seen people think we are so damn woke, you know in the 1980s and the 1990s and etc, and I was like, hey, there’s more to come.
JGR: Here’s critic and novelist Ta-Nehisi Coates.
TA-NEHISI COATES: When you talk about founding fathers and you talk about–I was at some school, I think it was Hofstra, and there’s a statue of Thomas Jefferson, and they were trying to get it taken down. And you know, there’s this movement to get all of these statutes taken down and, you know, I actually have different rules for different people, like I don’t think all…
MICHAEL CHABON: Wait, I want to hear them. What are your statue rules?
TA-NEHISI COATES: It depends, I think in certain places, you know, statues should come down, and certain other places they probably should not…
MICHAEL: Oh, so it’s not by person…
TA-NEHISI COATES: It’s about person and place actually. Yeah, yeah. Thomas Jefferson at Hofstra should come down. They just put that Jefferson statue up out of some sort of admiration for Jefferson. But I think Jefferson is not worthy, you know, of–I just don’t think he’s worthy of the platform at Hofstra. I probably would not go to UVA and say they should take Jefferson’s statue down. But I would say there should be like a plaque added to it.
MICHAEL CHABON: like a footnote.
TA-NEHSI COATES: And I would probably have a conversation about how Jefferson is taught. I might–I don’t know if they do this, I’m just in fantasy land now–I might mandate that every, you know, student coming into UVA understand what, like there are other things I would do.
MICHAEL CHABON: What about Mount Rushmore?
TA-NEHISI COATES: I’m fine with Mount Rushmore. Because I think, yeah, yeah. Yeah. And here’s why. If you destroy Mount Rushmore, you erase the fact that there was a point in history where somebody thought Mount Rushmore was a good idea. You have to remember that.
MICHAEL CHABON: I think that’s a really good point.
TA-NEHISI COATES: You have to remember that. I’m not a fan of erasing history. I think because the monuments themselves oftentimes tell a story. And you don’t want the society to forget that at one point someone thought this was a good idea.
I think you’ve got to balance the two impulses, you know what I mean? I think people do need to recall the fact that it’s a statement on the country itself, that at some point in history people thought putting, say, Andrew Jackson on money as a good idea. You know what I mean? That like people were that oblivious. Cause if you do it right, it serves as a reminder to current generations. So I think those things need to be balanced.
JGR: Often, words thrown around when discussing these matters are totalitarian in nature–words like censorship, or cancellation, that connote suppression of information. The irony is that this line of argument has been most effectively wielded by extremists, in order to defend figures and works that have persistently silenced large groups of people, whether by direct influence or incidentally.
What most of these writers are arguing for, on the other hand, is a structural, more inclusive form of free speech–one that includes the voices of those who have been historically silenced. Who are we not hearing under the bellowing of those who figure the loudest in our cultural memory? How can we create a speech that is not just free, but fundamentally accessible, for so many who have not been able to make themselves heard?
This question of who and what to turn the volume down on also, at times, transcends author biography, eking into the realm of topics considered gratuitous or inappropriate. Is sex or violence too graphic for literary fiction? What are some of our cultural hangups when it comes to the inclusion of these topics in our books? When is sex or violence used to harmful ends, or in an unjustifiably manipulative manner? Again, Ta-Nehisi Coates.
TA-NEHISI COATES: The story, for whatever reason, of the slave has been written in that kind of visceral way. It is actually somewhat of a hurdle you have to cross with African American readers to get them to engage. And I get it. If it weren’t me, there probably would be a hurdle you had to cross too. You know, if I were the consumer. Obviously, slavery depended on torture, you know, it depended on deeply gruesome, you know, acts of violence. See there is no absolute truth, right? There’s no absolute thing that happened. And so I heard, you know, no disrespect, you know, George R.R. Martin one time he was called on how, you know, sex is depicted and rape and all that. And he said “well this is, you know, this is the Middle Ages, this is what life was like.” No, there’s no f***ing what life was like.
MICHAEL CHABON: It’s a made up world.
TA-NEHISI COATES: That’s just a made up world. It’s a made up world. This is fiction. This is fiction. You know what I mean? And in fiction there’s a camera and there’s somebody behind the camera and the camera chooses what they want to show, what they want to emphasize, et cetera. There is an essence of truth, but there’s no, you know, retreat to verisimilitude. So there are choices that are made, right, about how you show and what you show. When you depict violence a certain way, you somehow re-inflict the violence, or you propagate it. The thing I think about the most is how in the vocabulary of rape there’s this idea that you use the word “survivor,” not the word “victim.” And I used that word you know mostly out of respect, but not understanding why. And it was only through writing this book that I came to understand why. And a large part of that is because there’s a thing that somebody does to somebody, and then the society says, you know, you are the thing that they did to you, and thus you know you are robbed of your identity, you are stripped of it. I just find the effects of violence, the long term effects of it, more interesting.
MICHAEL CHABON: Exactly. The scars.
TA-NEHISI COATES: The wreckage it leaves, and how people work to remake themselves and heal, much more interesting than the actual act itself.
JGR: Again, Marlon James.
MARLON JAMES: I’ve always objected to people who say that there’s lots of violence in the book. Because it’s not that there’s a preponderance of violence, as there’s a resonance to the violence, and there’s a difference between preponderance and resonance. I don’t have a lot of violent scenes but the violent scenes resonate. One of the problems with violence, particularly in film, is there’s all this violence, but there’s never any suffering. There’s all this violence, but there’s never any consequences. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, children die every year from violence, it’s not just a person was firing a gun at you. And I believe in that, I think violence should be violent, I’ve said that. And I also believe in writing explicit violence. I think–I’ve always challenged the whole idea of subtlety. I remember, I was in my MFA program I wrote an explicit sex scene and a person says, “you know, if you just show us the desire then you don’t have to show the sex.” I was like, “why is it have to?” I was like, don’t bring your little WASP morality, repressive morality on me.
You know violence should be violent and sex should be sexy. There are two types of sex I do not like. One is space break sex. So space break sex is like, “he came to my room.” Big space break, “the next morning.” So you got space break sex, or you have what I call indie film sex. Where they’re clearly not attracted to each other, they’re just being coolly compulsive, the sex always sounds like fap fap fap fap, and they enjoy the cigarette more, and at the end of the sex and the cigarette is a good hour of self-loathing. Also known as British sex. I think most people, I would assume, have some degree of satisfaction with their sex lives, and that there is nothing wrong with writing a sex scene as sexy. Or, you know, a violent scene as violent, or a romantic scene as romantic. I think sometimes literary fiction authors are afraid of sliding into sentimentality. Either that or they’re having really crappy sex. These are important human actions and human interactions, and I think they should totally be in fiction.
JGR: Again, Sally Rooney.
SALLY ROONEY: I was just interested from the beginning in writing stories about romance and sort of sexual obsession and infatuation, and then to grapple with those topics in a way that offered some kind of resolution or forward momentum. It felt like my characters inevitably were heading towards actually getting into bed together at some point. I couldn’t just keep suspending the release of that feeling for the entire novel. So then they’d get in there and then I would be like, “Oh, well now I guess I have to write about this.” And of course I tried just doing the “afterwards they,” and I still have used that sometimes in both the novels I’ve published, but I did try at least a couple of times to like attack the scene straight on and to attempt to do something interesting with it. And they were tricky to write, but they felt important because that’s so much of the energy of the novels, I think, is like a kind of sexual energy. And so if you’re going to try and do that without letting your reader actually have any window into what these people’s sex lives are really like, it feels like a little bit dishonest or coy. And in fact, my editor did suggest that she thought at times I was a little bit too coy. And I tend to agree with her that sometimes I held back because I was like, “Oh, if I say that, it’ll be embarrassing.” And I try not to let those things interfere with what I’m doing too much. But I think once or twice I was like, “Oh, if I use that word, that’s going too far.” I mean, I’ve actually had handwritten letters sent to me from people who hate the use of swear words in my work, which, I know that for some people it just destroys the experience of reading itself. And of course, your entire novel can’t be tailor-made for somebody who sent you a handwritten letter saying, “please do not use the F word in your novel.” But nonetheless, I feel like, oh, but I don’t want to use language in a way that punctures the smoothness of the scene in a way. So it’s hard, it’s really hard, and I think with sex scenes particularly hard, though, I will say, I think this argument probably extends to scenes generally.
MEG WOLITZER: My feeling is that everything that you put into a novel, into a scene in a novel, is a way of creating almost like a bouillon cube concentrate of these people’s lives.
JGR: Again, Meg Wolitzer.
MEG WOLITZER: Novels don’t take place on one particular day. They take place on a concentrate of that day. And I think sex is a great way to show a million things. It’s a way to show the way people are with each other, the way they wish they were with each other, their awkwardness, their history, so many things. And I just felt that maybe in my desire to write my full, you know to write with the full weight that I could, that there shouldn’t be things that I would shy away from. I once did a panel with a couple of writers and afterward this young woman writer came up to the other people on the panel and said–and she was referring to sex–“how can you write about the things you do? I know that I have to see the parents at my kid’s school in the morning.” And I thought, if you’re going to not write about things for people you might not even like, what are you doing? So I guess I felt that it was a great way to show a concentrate of things. To really raise the stakes, and put things in the kind of small sphere of the bedroom.
JGR: Here’s Sally Rooney.
SALLY ROONEY: If I’m trying to portray a moment in these characters lives, which for them is deeply sexually fulfilling, there is a sense in which I want to convey that in a truthful way, and to convey it means not making it really unerotic and unsexy on the page. Does that make sense? It’s not like I’m trying to titillate the reader, obviously, but that I’m not trying to foreclose on that possibility for the reader either, that they’re reading it going, “Oh God, this is so awful and difficult to read, and awkward.” I mean, of course some of the sex scenes are like that and supposed to be like that. And sometimes human sexuality involves that range of experiences, but I also want to be open to the possibility of like, interesting and fulfilling sexuality as well.
JGR: But this is not to say that language should just be used to any end–it has repercussions, and as everyone has noted, context is important. Here’s Rebecca Solnit.
REBECCA SOLNIT: There are some really ugly metaphors out there that equate–that dehumanize, and you can see them constantly trying to construct new metaphors around immigrants. That they’re vectors of disease, that the nation is a body and this is an invasion. And the overlap between homophobia and fear of penetration by immigration is a big part of the right-wing, you know, and it always has been. This weird language where the border is, you’ll be penetrated, and then you won’t be your pure awesome John Wayne-like masculine shutdown self. And it’s kind of like, dude, if you don’t want to be penetrated, just stop eating, drinking, and then just don’t breathe. And like, get back to me after ten minutes.
JGR: These are morally murky conversations, and ones that we are all mucking through together. Sifting through the sludgy sediment that forms the basis for cultural canons is painstaking, laborious work, and there are not always easy answers for the ethical questions that arise in the process. Most of our guests are in agreement: censorship is dangerous as it presents the possibility for forgetting loathsome parts of our legacies. Language should be used to reflect the widest ranges of experience, without editing out the embarrassing or extreme parts. Framing of topics and language requires careful consideration. Few defend cancellation completely–rather, if our guests come to any consensus, it is one of addition, of amending, or supplementing, as opposed to striking from the record.
Next, our guests will speak to the opposite of canceled content, addressing and ruminating on the writers they admire.
Our guests have been implicitly speaking to each other, sometimes referencing one another’s work directly, but for the most part, discussing their own writing, process, way of seeing the world. For this final segment, we’ve compiled moments of writers speaking explicitly about the other writers they’re engaging with, and sharing community among. Here’s the poet Ocean Vuong.
OCEAN VUONG: I want to take a moment to just acknowledge the incredible act that continues to be charged with power in the achievement that is There, There, and what Tommy did.
JGR: Tommy Orange is the author of the novel There There.
OCEAN VUONG: I think it’s one of those books that it’ll take maybe half a century before we realize how radical and genre-changing it is in the discourse of American letters, particularly at the moment when you’re reading it halfway through, and Tommy sort of stops the story, shining this light on the history of Native American life in this country. And I think it’s such a subversive act in turning one’s own story into a Trojan horse. And to make it a dangerous and compassionate moment of knowledge-giving, as well as telling a story, which is kind of what we ask for when we buy a novel. To be entertained, to sit back and be told something new. And Tommy does that, but halfway through he says, “well, hold on.” And he comes out from behind the curtain and he says, “you can’t just get the entertainment without the deadly facts.” And he did that. So thank you so much.
TOMMY ORANGE: Thank you, Ocean. That’s incredible to hear. One could argue that you found a sort of stealthy way to do that throughout the novel that you wrote. That way that you zoom in and out of metaphor and image, like with butterflies and moths and certain kinds of relatives and how they relate to this country and how they relate to your heritage. You did not come out and part the curtain, but you seamlessly did the work in the narrative in a three act sort of way, in a very true-to-the-novel form. You did this seamlessly.
JGR: Novelist Michael Chabon on Ta-Nehisi Coates.
MICHAEL CHABON: I loved when you were blogging for The Atlantic. And then one day, you know, a lot of books come into your house when you’re a writer, and I had really loved your work. And then I was looking like one day at our shelf and there’s this book sitting there with your name on it called The Beautiful Struggle. It must have come in. I saw it, wait, that’s the guy, the guy’s name on the spine there… And I just picked it up. I loved it. I wrote you a fan letter. I’ve read you, loved you, watched you. My relationship with you, my friendship with you, all started with my admiration for you.
JGR: Again, Zadie Smith.
ZADIE SMITH: It’s so interesting to me, I was talking to Rachel Kushner recently, an extraordinary novelist. When I’m reading Rachel, I think it feels the same, when she’s reading me. The main revelation is, I don’t know how to put it, but Rachel is not me and I’m not Rachel. Like she thinks completely differently. Her whole way of seeing the world can be differently, and that’s the bit that I find amazing. And you don’t really get access to that. People don’t show you that much of themselves. It’s not that her books are autobiographical. They almost never are. It’s just the consciousness, the way she sees, is interesting to me and that you get to see it at length.
JGR: Documentary filmmaker Astra Taylor.
ASTRA TAYLOR: Okay, so who is Rebecca Solnit? Yes, I think we all know who she is. That’s why we’re here. She really needs no introduction. She’s the writer of essays and books that I know that many of us love, most recently books like The Faraway Nearby or Men Explain Things to Me, The Mother of All Questions, so many books. She’s the namer of things that were unnamed. She’s a maker of maps and field guides. She’s a historian, someone who looks at the past, and a visionary, someone who helps us look to possible futures. She makes connections. She gives us courage. She’s a feminist. She’s an environmentalist. She’s a lover of beauty and justice, a chronicler of social movements, and literally a chronicler of movement. Her book Wanderlust: a History of Walking had a huge impact on me. It actually influenced my film Examined Life, which is a film that is a series of walks with philosophers that I showed here 10 years ago, that brought me into the circle of City Arts & Lectures, and now I’m here interviewing Rebecca. And these are the sorts of connections that she loves–these things that happen, one thing leading to another, that we can’t see in advance.
JGR: And as Rebecca Solnit, so too, us, at City Arts & Lectures. When we pair artists and interviewers, there’s so much research we can do, so much conjecturing of the chemistry the two will spark, but ultimately, what unfolds on stage is the culmination of a combination of factors–connections that occur, one thing leading to another, that we cannot envision in advance. With Crosstalk we’ve attempted to do just that–to allow our guests’ voices to slip off the stage, to whisper through the walls of the Sydney Goldstein theater, and talk over and directly with one another, at least in your ears. That’s it for Crosstalk, from City Arts & Lectures, but, like the bits you heard throughout, these are conversations–and they’re ongoing, ever expanding, and expectantly awaiting the addition of new voices.
This has been Crosstalk, from City Arts & Lectures. We’ll talk to you next time.
Crosstalk was produced, written, and hosted by Juliet Gelfman-Randazzo.
These conversations and broadcasts are produced by City Arts & Lectures, in association with KQED public radio San Francisco.
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Original music composed by Will Freudenheim.
The founding producer is Sydney Goldstein.
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