17-18 Segment 1: Jonathan Lethem on literature and his decades-long career

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Jonathan Lethem is the award-winning author of Motherless Brooklyn and other novels. His latest book is an inside look at his thoughts on literature. He talks to us about the importance reading, what inspires him, and how he feels about tough critics.

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Guest:

  • Jonathan Lethem, author of More Alive and Less Lonely

Links for more information:

Jonathan Lethem, Novelist

Gary Price: Jonathan Lethem is an acclaimed novelist. In 1999, Lethem published The New York Times bestseller Motherless Brooklyn and over a twenty-plus year career, Lethem has won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction and has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. His latest book is not a novel though; it’s a collection of reviews and essays on literature titled More Alive and Less Lonely.

Lethem: A young novelist, brilliant young novelist named Christopher Boucher put the collection together also gave the title to the book itself. When he found that phrase, “more alive and less lonely” inside one of my essays, but I never would have spotted it and thought to make it the title of a book. But it comes from not so much a book review, as a memoire piece about the odd friendship I developed with Thomas Berger, a now deceased novelist who was one of the great American writers of the 60s, 70s, and 80s who was of the greatest generation. He fought in WWII and lived into his 80s, he died only a couple of years ago. He wrote “Little Big Man.” And he and I wrote letters; when I was a young writer I sent him a couple of my earliest short stories and he began very generously corresponding with me and we had this long epistolary friendship, but we never met. I wrote about how strange this was to have an important friend who was also this sort of mentor and somewhere in the essay I say that getting his letters, every time I checked the mailbox and there was another one from Thomas Berger I would feel more alive and less lonely.

Price: Lethem says publishing such a collection of smaller pieces like this is helpful to him as a writer, so that he doesn’t live in a bubble of his own fictional worlds.

Lethem: I think that participation is like a fairly healthy admirable stance to take at least for some portion of a writer’s life if you’re going to be doing this for a while to not be utterly talltistic [sic] inside your own work, but to creep out and write some reviews or judge an award here or there or edit a magazine, edit an anthology. I this point I have done all of those things and I’m glad. It just makes me little bit less narcissistic.

Price: Many of the pieces in Lethem’s book are reviews, which are sometimes negative in nature. This isn’t something Lethem takes lightly.

Lethem: I do feel that there’s a community and I’m offering it a kind of service and I try to do these things in good faith. Of course what qualifies as good faith, that’s a moving target and it’s problematic or uncomfortable if you are presented with work that other people are claiming is really important and accomplished and maybe you’ve been been inclined to take their word for it, and then you take a close look because you’re writing a review or judging an award and you’re like, you know what? That’s kind of hype. I’m not personally really drinking the Kool-Aid on that one.

Price: But Lethem says mostly writes positively about the work of others. He says this isn’t just some happy accident, but something he does intentionally.

Lethem: Another kind of responsibility you have is to yourself to stay healthfully engaged, not to become a kind of a hired killer or a mercenary assassin and I just don’t think writing a lot of negative reviews helps me go through my days or through my life among other human beings in a very nourishing way. So mostly I’ll just try to defer occasions where I’m not excited about something I’ll look for something I’m excited about instead. And there are very rarely situations where I feel like it’s really a crucial duty to cut something down to size. So I haven’t done it, especially.

Price: Though he doesn’t like to cut things to size, that doesn’t mean his work isn’t occasionally criticized openly. An especially pointed article in the New Republic recently named Lethem one of the five major novelists currently working… and then completely dismisses the work of Lethem and his peers. Lethem says he tries to keep criticism like that in perspective.

Lethem: You wake up every day and you have to remember to be just so grateful that anyone’s talking about your work in the first place. And I really do try to center in that frame of mind. It’s incredible to me if I think back to my first aspirations just to publish, just to have anyone read it, just to have a story in a magazine that I can hand to my dad and say, look I’m a writer. You know, the fact that I’ve been allowed to set up shop for decades now and publish my quite eccentric novels one after the next often without any rhyme or reason to my larger career schemes such as they are, I just write what I like and people seem to pay attention to it and sometimes I am discussed as a major author, well that’s an incredible honor, so whatever.

Price: And Lethem says criticism is a part of the job, especially after you’ve been publishing novels for decades.

Lethem: If you do this long enough you do become a proxy for the establishment. “These guys have been around too long, they’ve bored us or they’re overrated and so it’s time to topple them from the pedestal.” It’s part of the ecosystem of being a writer who’s been around for a while. That kind of piece is going to be written about you. When I was young I thought there was nothing more wearisome than the novelists who’d been around a long time, you know? And of course many of those people I still read and some of them I’ve dismissed. Not everything’s for everyone. But the idea of the John Updike or Saul Bellow, these kinds of dinosaur figures that took up so much oxygen, it makes a lot of sense that people sometimes want to clear out some space.

Price: As for Lethem, he likes to keep his eye on the future as the Roy E. Disney professor of creative writing at Pomona College.

Lethem: I’m seeing fledgling apprentice, people just beginning to explore what they might do. I’m looking at the writing of 18 and 19 and 20 year olds, and these are the writers who are also looking at the youngest published writers just ahead of them who are all writing dystopian fiction. And one of the things I see is there’s been this, finally, graduation out of anxiety about genre that nobody cares any more. It can be science fiction or crime story, but thanks to some unholy combination of popular culture and literary critical embrace of writers like Philip K. Dick and the pervasive influence of young adult fantasy and even young adult dystopian fiction, right now they’re all trying to write like that and they’re all thinking that that’s perfectly literary and appropriate and I’m inclined to agree with them. And I think that’s a pretty thrilling situation, because back in my day, young man, I really am getting old now, it was regarded as a kind of dubious proposition that a dystopian story could also be  seriously intended. It was something that you had to do defiantly.

Price: As for his own works, Lethem says he’s always allowed what he enjoys in the culture to influence his writing.

Lethem: Personally I’m a huge filmgoer and I’m energized by that kind of storytelling. I grew up looking at paintings, reading comic books, listening to pop songs and voraciously gobbling down novels of all kinds. High and low, things that were regarded as kind of genre or disreputable and also Kafka and Dostoyevsky and whatever turned me on seemed eligible. The energy that I derived from seeing great storytelling in film or fascinating, perplexing bizarre worlds that I encounter in films, that goes straight into my books. I don’t mean in a sense of my books are just written out of a kind of wish that I could make movies instead. I’m very committed to the narrative language of fiction; it’s my native language it turns out. But I have a great appetite for the kinds of things that I encounter in film and I try to engage with all of that stuff directly.

Price: Lethem says that sometimes he even engages very specifically with something he’s a fan of.

Lethem: I can point to film residences and film influences and places where I’m trying to do call and response to a movie that I love. Chronic City is a novel of mine from 2007 I think, that’s got a very strong conversation in my mind anyway with Hitchcock’s Vertigo. It’s not that that’s important for the reader necessarily, but that’s part of where the energy for the novel came from for me. So I don’t see any quarantine between these things. I like it when a filmmakers get interested in my writing because I think it seems natural.

Price: But regardless of where the inspiration comes from, Lethem says writing a novel is always a journey into a world that feels new and interesting.

Lethem: For a novel to worth spending three years on it has to represent a kind of an immersive puzzle to the writer – a set of intuitions or emotions or inklings that are boundlessly interesting and also perplexing. Things you want to figure out, feel your way through and into. You know, if it’s just some sort of open and shut case, “here’s what I want to say and this would be a good way to say it,” you’ll bore yourself silly and then of course you’ll bore your readers silly and you’ll seem to be smugly pontificating through the mouthpiece of fiction. Fiction is not some sort of easily legislated axiomatic thing where you’re like, “I’ve got a very good tale and a good theme and I’m going to stuff the theme inside the story and deliver the product.” For me personally, for it to be valuable either as the writer or the reader it’s got to be much bigger on the inside than on the outside. It’s got to be a kind of world you can get lost in.

Price: Jonathan Lethem’s book More Alive and Less Lonely is available now. For more information about all of our guests, visit our site at viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.

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