In June, my partner and I moved from Boston back to Brooklyn, where we last lived, separately, almost a decade ago. The cost of moving and the inevitable decline in square footage occasioned a (very) reluctant jettisoning of books, though you wouldn’t know it from visiting our apartment, where almost every inch of wall space is now taken up with self-installed shelves of questionable sturdiness holding “must-haves,” such as galleys of NYRB Classics from the late 2000s, giant undergraduate philosophy anthologies, and that book of Don DeLillo short stories that I swear is climbing out of giveaway boxes and following us, Toy Story-style, across the country.
All of which is to say that it sometimes felt like I spent
as much time lifting, sorting, stacking, shelving, and contemplating the
physical necessity of books as reading them this year. Nevertheless, I did read
a bunch of them.
I started the year reading My Tender Matador by the Chilean writer Pedro Lemebel, after learning about him in Alejandro Zambra’s Not to Read. Lemebel, who died in 2015, was a brave and outspoken gay activist, and his novel combines a high camp sensibility with grave political concerns in a way that’s reminiscent of his Argentinian predecessor Manuel Puig. Lemebel dares to enter the perspective of Pinochet, and is blessedly merciless in his depiction of the ugliness and emptiness of what lies within the dictator’s mind. I wish this novel was better known, and that more of Lemebel’s work was available in English, because my Spanish remains terrible.
Though Lemebel’s novel is fast, funny, and relatively short, I thought of it while reading Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, a nearly 900-page, deeply unfunny book. Like Lemebel, Grossman was determined, at all costs, to speak hard—impossible, in his case—truths about the governing ideology of his time. (His novel was confiscated by the Soviet authorities and not published until long after his death, in the 1980s.) After years of people telling me to read it, I was finally convinced to take it on over afternoon beers with an n+1 editor, who made it clear that our continuing friendship was contingent upon my reading it. OK, I haven’t finished it yet. But after a few hundred pages, I can safely affirm that it is one of the most emotionally intense books I’ve ever read—page after page of horror and empathy across the Soviet Union during the battle of Stalingrad, including possibly the most devastating letter—from a mother, being sent to a death camp, to her son—in all of literature. I cried while reading this book in an airport, and then on a plane, and then on a bus. So maybe read it at home?
Rounding out the nightmare political portion of the year’s reading, I was totally engrossed by Francisco Goldman’s The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop?, about the brazen murder of a Guatemalan bishop following his involvement in the compilation of a report detailing the military’s atrocities against civilians, many of them indigenous. It’s a fascinating and horrifying work of investigative journalism—if you liked Say Nothing by Patrick Raden Keefe (which I certainly did), you should read this, as well as the scabrously funny Senselessness by Horacio Castellanos Moya, which fictionally depicts the writing of a report very much like the one Bishop Gerardi was murdered over.
I read Her First American by Lore Segal after reading about it in a great essay on Segal’s work by Madeleine Schwartz. It’s a novel about an Austrian war refugee falling in love with an alcoholic black intellectual in New York in the ’50s. It may well be the perfect novel. It seems criminally under-known, or under-discussed at least. I read it around the same time as I read For Rouenna by Sigrid Nunez, an incredibly dark novel about a woman who serves as a field nurse in the Vietnam War, then returns home to a grim and circumscribed existence. I think the title might be holding this one back from becoming the modern classic it should be. That led me associatively, I think, to The Lover by Marguerite Duras, which I had pretended to have read for years. It’s really great! And Dorothy just put out a funky collection of her nonfiction, Me, that is well worth reading, too.
I read two and a half books of Proust—part two of The Guermantes Way through The Captive—and decided that he is not overrated. I also read a bunch of Annie Ernaux, and I’m currently reading The Kingdom by Emmanuel Carrere and Vernon Subutex by Virginie Despentes. I wish I knew French. I wish I was French.
I read excellent new books by my friends. Caleb Crain’s novel Overthrow and Andrew Marantz’s nonfiction chronicle Antisocial make a nice holiday pair, covering the surveillance state and the rise of the right-wing Internet with matching red and black covers. Adam Sachs’s The Organs of Sense is the funniest, smartest book about an eyeless astronomer you’ll ever read. And Miranda Popkey’s Topics of Conversation is the best novel of next year—I’m so sure of it that I’m not going to bother reading any other new books in 2020.
Finally, I listened to James Atlas’s lovely audiobook reminiscence of his friendship with Philip Roth. It’s a short, sweet New York memoir that captures the character of the great novelist and biographer, both now gone and deeply missed. Let it serve as an elegiac gateway back into their unruly, essential bodies of work.
“I’ve been working on the translation nonstop—it’s like I’m in a trance,” Magdalena Edwards told me in early March 2017, while preparing a gin and tonic at her house in Santa Monica. I walked there from my place—we live very close to one another. I had just returned from visiting my family in Italy. Outside I saw her three kids, two boys and a little girl, on their bikes. “You have to absolutely see what I made at school!” “Are you going to have dinner with us?” “Are you babysitting us?”—they all yell at me from the other side of the street and keep biking. I try to answer but they are already far, so I enter the house.
“How’s the book?” I ask as the kids come in. “Don’t run and take off your shoes,” Magdalena says, “We’re going to have dinner soon.” The kids are always with us. “The book is intense, but it’s Clarice, you know.” She has studied Lispector’s works for more than 15 years and we are both sure that she’s ready for this—she knows Clarice. I had never read Clarice Lispector before and all I knew was that she was a Brazilian writer, born in Ukraine. The older boy Théo, nine-years-old, wants to show me a magic trick with the poker cards that I have to pretend I don’t know. “My love, we’re talking about work,” she says. “Yes but just a second!” I understand immediately the situation: “If you need time alone, I can babysit the kids anytime,” I say.
This is the first image I have when I think about last year, when my friend Magdalena was deep in the process of translating The Chandelier, the book I’ve just finished reading. She’s out of town with her husband, Vlad, so I text her. “It’s disturbing,” I say, and she immediately replies, “Remember how crazy I was?”
The book is a traumatic experience even for a reader. How could she translate it, I wonder. And with the kids always around! The Chandelier narrates the story of Virgínia and her never-ending relationship with her childhood, especially with her brother Daniel with whom she creates the Society of Shadows, a sort of secret pact with “strange and undefined objectives” based on two mottos: Solitude and Truth. “Everything that frightens us because it leaves us alone is what we must seek,” Daniel tells her. Virgínia never forgets it. She can’t forget it as a young girl at Quiet Farm, where she spends her days playing alone in the forest or exploring the dark corners of the shadowy mansion, a house that belongs to her grandmother who is still alive but bedridden. And Virgínia can’t forget it when she moves to the city to try to become an adult, a journey of the self interrupted when she is called to return home to pay her respects to her grandmother.
“Better than Borges,” Elizabeth Bishop said about Clarice Lispector’s writing. How about darker than William Faulkner? And I can’t help but connect The Chandelier to As I Lay Dying and also Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. The three books open with the dynamic of a family and are set in the countryside, but whereas in Faulkner all the family leave the house for the specific reason of the mother’s funeral, in Duras and Lispector, the protagonists of the stories move to the city to emancipate themselves. In Lispector, it is through Virgínia’s eyes and feelings that the reader is shuttled between the events, even though there’s the sensation that really nothing happens, in what she calls “her girlhood without events,” in a life that “had gone on as if she hadn’t met anyone.” That nothing much happens in the novel (until it does) is neither a surprise nor a problem, despite the protestations of readers eager for the steady drum of narrative beats, especially given the opening sentence: “She’d be flowing all her life.” And then we get the opening scene: Virgínia and her brother Daniel in the forest watching the flowing water of the river, seeing something they’re not supposed to have seen, a secret they cannot tell anyone, the secret that “illuminated her against the world” and gave her “intimate power.”
Virgínia is always in the past, indissolubly linked to her life at Quiet Farm with the family. The family is her primary social nucleus, what trains her for her future life out in the world, first in the anticipation of school, and then in society; and yet it’s at school that “Virgínia would understand, disappointed, that everything had been seen years before” like an “unfurling of an oft-rehearsed scene.” The family is also the place, the ecosystem, where its members discover how to be together but alone, where they feel, like in Faulkner, that their aloneness “had never been violated” (Lispector writes that Virgínia’s intimacy “even if violated didn’t seem to be possessed”), or in Duras, where to rebel means to create a destiny: “I’m still part of the family, it’s there I live, to the exclusion of everywhere else. It’s in its aridity, its terrible harshness, its malignance, that I’m most deeply sure of myself, at the heart of my essential certainty, the certainty that later on I’ll be a writer.” Even Virgínia feels like she acts “according to a destiny,” but she can’t understand what it is, the only thing she can really do is explore the connection between her things, the things she loses when she moves to the city, trying to grow up and take on an adult life, things like the chandelier at Quiet Farm.
Presiding over all is her love for the brother Daniel, who has always rejected her: “Virgínia, every day when you see milk and coffee you like milk and coffee. When you see Papa you respect Papa. When you scrape your leg you feel pain in your leg, do you get what I’m saying? You are common and stupid.” She decides that Daniel is right, that she doesn’t want to be stupid anymore, she wants him to love her, she’s ready to do everything for him, hurting her parents or dreaming of pushing a dog into the river while watching him dying: “her goodness wasn’t preventing her badness.” But it’s never enough for Daniel, so that for Virgínia “Alone was the way she could wear herself out.”
Last year Magdalena wrote a one-woman play, I Wanna Be Robert De Niro, which she performed at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. In the play a translator named Madalena is fighting with Clarice: why is she treating Virgínia like that? She’s a young girl, she doesn’t deserve it, she needs protection. No answer from Lispector. Then the telephone rings. It’s the husband, there’s a problem with the kids. Can’t he figure it out all by himself for once? She’s working! That’s what she says. Madalena, almost despairing, then turns to De Niro, born in 1943, the same year Lispector started writing The Chandelier, for help in saving Virgínia from Lispector’s tragic narrative. The translator breaking ranks, a woman behaving badly in the name of another woman. But in Magdalena’s play this vision of the translator, Madalena, interceding is foreclosed by Virgínia herself. Who dares tell another creature filled with her own being-hood what to do? Who dares rewrite, overwrite, another person’s script?
Virgínia is alone in The Chandelier, but with a new force and a project: to free herself from the others. “To free herself from maternity, from love, from intimate life and in the face of other people’s expectations to refuse, to land hard and closed like a rock, a violent rock, who cares about the rest,” Lispector writes, only to retract everything 10 lines later: “But against what? Her fake power was waning with disappointment and slowly a troubled sadness was overtaking her, she wanted to rejoin right now the movement shared by everyone, being happy with them, accusing-offended very quickly with humility, without any power so that nobody could refuse her now, quickly, after she in a thoughtless gesture had sought, crazy, to free herself.” The eternal fight between subject and society, what to do?
Virgínia constantly suffers from nausea; Lispector says that “in secret she felt pity for everything…people were so ridiculous!, she felt like crying from joy and embarrassment at being alive. That was her impression.” She tries to love them, the others, but she feels that only when she’s alone she can understand things and that “nothing essential had been reached with her love.” And it’s especially with her friends that Virgínia experiences the highest point of her alienation, as here at a dinner party with friends:
The thin, confident women were chatting–they seemed easy for the men and hard for the women; and why didn’t they have kids? my God, how disconcerting that was. And if they did they treated them like friends, yes, like friends.
It’s a Sunday morning in 2017, spring is near and the temperature is rising. As Magdalena drives I’m at her side while the kids sit in the back. “Don’t fight! Stay quiet or I’ll bring you back home,” she says. “You’re too strict, mom,” her clever five-year-old girl, Viva, replies. “Oh well, in a few years you’ll thank me! Wait and see.” “Wait and see,” her seven-year-old son Max repeats to his sister with a wise nod and a wry smile that I catch as I glance behind. When we arrive at the Farmers’ Market the kids choose pain au chocolat and donuts from Allan at the bakery stand and run away to visit with Luis, who sells berries. They are authorized to take off because it’s a safe place and everyone knows them. Magdalena and I are drinking lemonade when she looks at me and says: “Above all, I don’t want the kids to see Vlad and me as friends! Am I wrong?”
Virgínia is always somewhere else. Sometimes they tell her something and she distractedly asks, what? She’s not only alienated from her friends at the dinner party, but even from that living room, the stage for the evening’s events, from its surfaces; she feels herself to be “a prisoner of luxury.” And most of all she doesn’t understand the city, she keeps dreaming about Quiet Farm, the black countryside, the forest, the river, all the landscape of her past. She hates the present to the point that she wants to turn it immediately into the future and for this reason goes to bed earlier every day. “Somehow whatever she would live was being added to her childhood and not to the present, never maturing her.”
Therefore she comes back home, but everything is changed. Even Daniel, the great rebel, had ended up married to a common girl with whom he shares nothing but a bourgeois life (the kind he had always despised before) and now he is accusing her, his sister, of having let him make the mistake. Virgínia realizes that “the place where one was happy is not the place where one can live.”
Lispector tells her story in a very personal stream of consciousness, which is too easy to reconnect to James Joyce because in Lispector the style is always memory and feelings; it’s not epic, it’s terribly familiar without being sentimental–thus there’s no space for self-pity, indulgence, or hope. She doesn’t even organize the points of view in chapters, but when you can’t foresee it, she just jumps from Virgínia to Vincente or Daniel or Esmeralda. Sometimes she writes down a cold sentence: “I hold myself back in order not to be loved by everyone.” But she goes forward, she takes the same line and, like in a poem, puts it inside another sentence, modulating words and sound in a way that forces the reader to read it twice and three times: “Who would have thought that that insignificant creature had just felt like someone who had to hold herself back in order not to be loved by everyone?” For sure, after reading Lispector, we know much more of how “horrible, pure, irrevocable” it is to live.
It’s the end of summer. Magdalena, Vlad, and I sit in their garden, in the dark. There’s only a light in the living room, which reaches us from the glass wall. The kids already sleep. We have cooked with them homemade gnocchi and now the kitchen is full of flour. “When you translate something like that—I mean, it’s hard because it’s like living in the mind of someone else. So you have to question yourself and realize that you’re a woman, you have a family, you live in society, so what you read and translate it’s also about you. But at the same time you have to be yourself and raise the kids—I don’t know. I like that they spend time with us, but I know that they need rules too. Ways to learn to shape their future lives,” Magdalena says.
“I think it’s great that we cook with them and they can understand that what they eat everyday is not free, that that takes time, and it’s the same thing with life,” Vlad adds. I go on: “Life is like literature: it wants the work as Scott [Fitzgerald] says.” We fall into silence. I try to imagine the kids’ point of view, making things with adults while they discuss literature, listening to them call writers by their first names as if they could be friends. And what about us? Trying to teach the kids to make practical, simple things to prevent them from becoming exploitative human beings. Will they be able to free themselves or will they conform to society? Will they find a balance between these two attitudes? Will they heap upon themselves “lies, false love, ambitions and pleasures” or will they choose to do the work, every single day, and fight for the life they really want? The three of us remain in silence. If I close my eyes I can see Tuscany. I see the countryside of my childhood and I am there.
So much of what I read is for work (editing Dorothy, a publishing project, and teaching at Washington University in St. Louis), but I did manage some stellar outside reading in 2016. These were my favorites of the “freebies:”
1. Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book: smart, unpretentious, unclassifiable. With an obvious nod to Sei Shōnagon’s 10th-century The Pillow Book, Buffam’s is a fragmented essay-poem-meditation on insomnia, motherhood, marriage, and other “hateful” things. It’s littered with lists, delightfully funny (or just delightful), such as “Moustaches A-Z,” “Things That Give a Dirty Feeling,” or “Jobs from Hell.” Here’s one:
SOUNDS I DON’T EXPECT TO HEAR
A rose opening.
Silence on the 4th of July.
The mating cry of the King Island Emu.
Hecklers at the ballet.
Foghorns in the Mare Cognitum.
A rich man entering Heaven.
A poor man entering the Senate.
2. Renee Gladman’s Calamities: It would be hard to overstate my sense of Gladman’s importance to contemporary American letters. Calamities is a series of short linked essays (or, as I’ve heard her call them, ditties) most of which begin “I began the day …” It’s embodied, subtle, playful, rare.
3. & 4. Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoon’s Came from Woolworth and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman: The Comyns and the Townsend Warner are reprints somewhat recently published in the U.S. by NYRB. I loved both to an aggressive degree, especially Lolly Willowes, which sneaks up on you with its ferocity, so sharp and erotic and free.
This fall I taught a new graduate course on desire, so have been eyeball-deep in amorousness: Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter and Eros the Bittersweet; James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room; James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime; Maggie Nelson’s Bluets; Roland Barthes’s The Pleasure of the Text; T Fleischmann’s Syzygy, Beauty; texts by Anaïs Nin, Roxane Gay, Joanna Walsh, Carl Phillips, William Gass, Catherine Belsey, and Marie Calloway; and, one of my all-time favorites, The Lover by Marguerite Duras.
Finally, my “year in reading” wouldn’t be complete without The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George and Suite for Barbara Loden by Nathalie Léger (translated from the French by Cécile Menon & Natasha Lehrer). These are the books I spent the most time with, the ones I was able to get seriously and satisfyingly intimate with. Meanwhile, here at Dorothy we’ve begun putting together a book we’re nuts about for Fall 2017: the first ever Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington.
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This year was unlike any other year in my life, to put it mildly. I was lucky enough that people wanted me to travel to their cities and talk about my book (and, I’m sorry to say, myself) for the better part of this year. Friends, I am here to tell you that there is nothing more soul-deadening than talking about yourself for weeks and months on end — or talking about a book that lives in amber, while your brain (ideally) does not. Grateful as I was for every last opportunity, the lack of a normal routine or schedule was upending in every way. For much of the year, I worried I’d lost the power (or will) to do any of the things that I knew would make me feel more like pre-publication me: read for pleasure; cook a proper meal; sleep peacefully; put in an honest day writing; exercise; pretend to meditate. All of my non-work reading this year was an effort to remind myself of my stay-at-home, solitary self. Although I have an e-reader for travel, I found I wanted physical books more than ever. I needed ballast but couldn’t afford too much extra weight. I needed slender volumes I could tuck into a purse or a coat pocket and take out during a flight delay, a train ride, or while having many a solo drink in many a hotel bar. Some on this list are old favorites I grabbed on impulse as I was leaving the house; some I acquired along the way. All have one thing in common — they are light in weight, but not in substance. So, in no particular order, here are some of the books I carried in 2016.
John Berger’s About Looking and Susan Sontag’s On Photography I reread for a project that might not live but who cares when the reading is that great. Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety also belongs on that pile. I don’t think I’ve had a nonfiction book recommended to me more by so many fiction writers than Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which I loved as much as the rest of the non-physicist world. Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City was an excellent reminder to turn off HGTV (Dear Ladies of Say Yes to the Dress, if an item of clothing moves you to tears you need to get out in the greater world a little more) and leave my hotel room and walk, walk, walk no matter where I was. One of my favorite literary magazines is One Story, perfectly pocket-sized, and I always had a few with me, old and new. Somewhere (Seattle? Portland?) I picked up Meghan Daum’s excellent essay collection The Unspeakable. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen went into the bag after Wimbledon, specifically so I could reread the Serena Williams parts, but of course I reread all of it. Missing Elena Ferrante, I packed what might be my favorite, if forced to commit at gunpoint, The Days of Abandonment. How have I never read The Lover by Marguerite Duras? An embarrassing confession, but I was so happy to have it with me as I waited out weather in some airport somewhere only to be told later that flights were grounded because Air Force One was landing; my irritation at that political inconvenience feels laughably (tragically?) quaint now. At the Mississippi Book Festival, I picked up Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn and Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time (after the powerful panel of the same name) and devoured both. My well-thumbed copy of Laurie Colwin’s Another Marvelous Thing lived in my carry-on for a few months because I never get tired of dipping in. On a train ride from Paris to Frankfurt, I read the beautiful and devastating The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam. An advance copy of the always great Tessa Hadley’s Bad Dreams and Other Stories fit my page requirement. Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different did not, but I packed it anyway because I didn’t want to wait. On a muggy, rainy afternoon in Cincinnati, I popped into a bookstore and am so grateful I bought Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing with Feathers and Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. I woke up in Germany on November 9th to discover the unthinkable had actually happened and was too busy — and too rattled — for most of that trip to read anything but election news when I could get the Internet to cooperate. But the following week in Barcelona, I pulled from my suitcase Eric Puchner’s new story collection Last Day on Earth. The book is out in February and it’s marvelous. What a relief to be reminded of the vital importance of books when it feels like the world around is crumbling. Worth remembering as we stumble together into 2017.
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Danielle Dutton is a writer, editor, and publisher who might shift the way you read. Author of Margaret the First, SPRAWL, and Attempts at a Life, her writing is compact and quick as it contemplates the strange banalities of domestic life. Her prose finds wonder in the uniformity of the suburbs, or the particularities of 17th-century aristocratic life. It’s funny and full of strange consequence.
Dutton also runs Dorothy, a publishing project, one of the best independent presses in the United States. Dorothy is dedicated to “works of fiction or near fiction or about fiction, mostly by women.” Dutton works on all components of each Dorothy release, including curation, editing, and design. In just seven years, with writers like Renee Gladman, Joanna Walsh, Joanna Ruocco, Nell Zink, Amina Cain, and more, Dutton has brought together the work of some of the most electric voices in contemporary publishing.
Each Fall, Dorothy publishes two new books simultaneously. This year, Dorothy continues its pattern of innovation, with genre-bending French writer Nathalie Léger and out-of-nowhere wunderkind Jen George. Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden seamlessly blends biography, memoir, film criticism, and auto fiction, as it contemplates the star of a 1970 art-house movie. George’s The Babysitter at Rest is a hilarious and one of a kind story collection that has already earned the adoration of writers like Ben Marcus, Sheila Heti, and Miranda July.
I wrote to Dutton to ask her about this year’s Dorothy releases, and her work as a curator, editor, writer, and reader.
The Millions: How did Suite for Barbara Loden and The Babysitter at Rest come into your hands? What was the process like of editing these books, and working with Jen George and Nathalie Léger (or Léger’s translators)?
Danielle Dutton: In the case of Jen George’s The Babysitter at Rest what happened was fairly straightforward: I read her story “The Babysitter at Rest” in BOMB (it had been selected by Sheila Heti for BOMB’s 2015 Fiction Contest), and I thought it was incredible. Totally unlike anything I’d read. After about three paragraphs I could feel my hands getting shaky. And this is very often the case, that it’ll take only moments for me to sense that I’ve found the right next book — when this is happening, in those rare and wonderful moments, I actually feel somewhat physically unwell. It’s like I’m literally being overwhelmed by what I’m reading. So, that’s one way I know I want to publish a book: vague nausea. Anyway, I got in touch with the editor at BOMB, who forwarded a message to Jen, for whom my interest was, of course, totally out of the blue, and the whole thing went from there.
With the Léger, Stephen Sparks, who manages San Francisco’s Green Apple Books on the Park, and is an incredibly smart reader and one of our most trusted advisors, put us in touch with one of the book’s translator’s, Cécile Menon. Essentially, he recommended us to her and her and the book to us.
In terms of the editorial process(es): with the translation there wasn’t a ton to do. We chose to Americanize spelling, and we did have a few lines here and there that we went back and forth about with Cécile and her co-translator Natasha Lehrer, but the book was very beautiful and basically ready to go (it had just been published in the U.K.). We worked more with Jen. She sent us a number of stories and we whittled it down to the five you see in the book, and then we worked with her on them, arranging and re-arranging, laughing — the raw material of Jen’s brain continually amazes me. Even her emails make me laugh. The process was, I think, really productive, collaborative. It’s been a delight getting to know Jen and getting to see her see her first book enter the world.
TM: The books that you write and the books that you work with at Dorothy tend to have levity — often a sense of humor — in common. What draws you toward lightness in writing? What’s it like to edit humor in other people’s work?
DD: That’s an interesting question, or series of questions. My first thought is that, editorially, we generally leave the humor alone — it’s either there or it isn’t. It’s more often what’s around the humor that might need attending to, the stuff that allows the funny parts to be funny, unburdened, or as you put it, light. But humor is one of those things like voice, if it’s good it’s because it doesn’t sound like anybody else, and then why would you want to mess with that.
TM: You used to work as a book designer at Dalkey Archive Press. Are you involved in design at Dorothy, too? What are your ambitions in the way you design books? What was it like working on the design of this year’s Dorothy books?
DD: Yes, I do all the design at Dorothy. I think the aesthetic of the press has a lot to do with my limitations as a designer, honestly. Essentially, I am not a designer. I wasn’t a designer when I got to Dalkey, even though I wound up being the book designer there for several years. Minimal was key! I’m actually quite pleased with some of the covers I managed to do there — the covers of both Édouard Levé books, for example, or of Mina Loy’s stories and essays. And I think — I’d like to think — I’ve found a way to make my limitations work at Dorothy as well, though the aesthetic I’ve developed with Dorothy is very different from the Dalkey stuff.
The first thing I do with each cover is find the right art. The art is my focus. I generally manage it by looking all over everywhere, scouring art school tumblers, raiding friends’ Facebook photo albums, just looking all over, really, hoping to find a piece that matches the writing’s energy. I don’t like a cover to be overly illustrative, or literal, but more collaborative with the text. The exception, actually, is the cover of Suite for Barbara Loden, which is an illustration of a still from Barbara Loden’s film Wanda. But something about it being an illustration of a still left space. It still felt open, suggestive, like a sketch.
TM: I was planning to ask you about your great new novel, Margaret the First, but then I realized that you haven’t been asked in interviews about your other new book, Here Comes Kitty: A Comic Opera. Here Comes Kitty is a narrative collage book constructed by you and Richard Kraft. What was it like collaborating on a book? How did you “write” it?
DD: Here Comes Kitty is really Richard’s book. He’s a visual artist and he had this series of collages he was working on based out of a Cold War comic book called Kapitan Kloss, which is about a Polish spy infiltrating the Nazis. Richard basically exploded the Kloss narrative with all these bizarre and wondrous intrusions: from Amar Chitra Katha comics of Hindu mythology to underground porn comics like Cherry to just a bunch of bunnies. As he was working on it, he decided it wasn’t quite chaotic enough, I guess, and he contacted me and asked if I would write a text of my own to accompany the images. Our idea was that the images and the text would be in some sort of conversation but neither would attempt to explain the other. To echo my answer about design above: the relationship would be more suggestive than illustrative.
Ultimately we decided (out of a shared love for the collaboration between John Cage and Merce Cunningham) to work separately, each thinking about the other, wondering what the other might be up to, but not knowing, just sort of trusting it to work out, and also being interested in whatever discordant notes might arise. I actually did look at some of his earlier work, as inspiration, to find the tone …and, conversely, Richard knew my book SPRAWL very well. So, yeah, for most of the time we worked with or toward each other remotely — one in Los Angeles and one in St. Louis. The result is, as we’d hoped it would be, a cacophonous book that is sort of rhyming and riotous at once.
TM: Between being a publisher, professor, writer, mom, etc., it’s incredible that you still seem to manage to find time to read. What are your strategies for carving out reading time?
DD: The vast majority of my reading is for teaching or for Dorothy. My strategy for fitting in other reading is pretty dull: I read a lot in the summer. For a while I was reading non-work stuff before bed each night (a long stretch there with Angela Thirkell novels), but I’ve slipped into the habit, at this medium-to-late stage in the semester, of watching TV at bedtime instead.
TM: Do you put books down? Or do you finish what you start? How do you prioritize your reading (beyond teaching and Dorothy)? The Angela Thirkell novels, for example — what kept drawing you to them?
DD: I do put books down, yeah, all the time. I’ll put them down after one page. That’s harsh, and it means I probably miss out on work I might appreciate, but if I’m not immediately interested in the writing it’s hard to justify the time. The Thirkell books are an odd exception. The writing isn’t great. There’s also a certain amount of problematic politics in them (they’re from the 1930s and ’40s). I started them because they’re a series set in the English countryside and I was looking for something easy, bedtime reading. That’s not what I’m normally looking for when I read, but I was feeling stressed out and wanted pleasant little stories about mostly happy people. I did actually grow to admire them more over time. There’s a wonderful sense of ease about them. This sometimes means the books feel too loose, or repetitive, but also they don’t feel labored. It doesn’t feel as if Thirkell was wringing her hands over them, and for some reason I find this refreshing. It feels a bit free.
TM: Seven years in, what’s the hardest part of running Dorothy?
DD: It’s definitely just finding the time.
TM: What’s the most rewarding?
DD: The money and power and fame! Also I really like working with these strange, brilliant writers.
TM: What’s something you’ve read in the past year that you’ve loved?
DD: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes: Or the Loving Huntsman
TM: What’s something you’re looking forward to reading, but haven’t yet?
TM: In the classroom, what’s a book that you love teaching, and why do you love teaching it?
DD: Just this semester I taught Marguerite Duras’s The Lover in a new course on desire, and it was incredibly satisfying, a very rich conversation, because it’s such an open text, there’s so much to wonder at — the politics, the way Duras writes sex, the way desire is enacted structurally. And then one of my favorite short stories to teach is Stanley Elkin’s “A Poetics for Bullies.” It’s hilarious, for one thing, but also it gets students to see what you mean when you harp on about how a character is made up of language, or what you mean when you say that there should be action in the writing itself.
Marguerite Donnadieu, known as the writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, was 70 years old in 1984 when her autobiographical novel L’Amant (The Lover) won France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt. (The popular film version, written and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, was released in 1992.) Duras was a sort of writers’ writer in France, and her 1960 film script of Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour had become a cult classic, but it wasn’t until The Lover that she became internationally acclaimed. Prior to The Lover, Duras authored some 30 works of fiction (her first novel, Les Impudents, was published in 1943 when she was 29 years old), directed 18 films, and wrote screenplays, plays, journalism, and essays. She is typically associated with the nouveau roman — a post-World War II approach to fiction developed and practiced most notably by Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, and Michel Butor — whose signature features Fernanda Eberstadt described in The New Criterion as such:
…addressed to the reader in the second person singular …in the present tense; what action there is transpires in cinematic, non-chronological quick-takes; the thought, often tinged with Marxist ideology, tends toward an inscrutable abstraction, a tricky relativism, a fretwork of paradox, in which life is found to be a death sentence, or silence a more telling form of speech… the deliberate banality of tone and obliqueness of narrative are used to describe bloodcurdling violence and extremes of sexuality….the nouveau roman — which has been called by some the “anti-novel” — served after the War as an eminently appropriate literary form for a demoralized nation.
Duras’s vision was indeed dark, and tragic. She was interested in the inextricability of eroticism and death. Her best-known works — The Lover (and its follow-up The North China Lover), The Ravishing of Lol Stein, Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Moderato Cantabile — explore passion in the extreme, its origins in madness and violence, and its ultimate unsustainability. In an earlier short novel, Ten-thirty on a Summer Night (1960), for example, the alcoholic protagonist Maria becomes obsessed with a murderer-on-the-run while vacationing in Spain with her husband and his (eventual) mistress. Maria fantasizes about harboring and carrying on an affair with the murderer (whose victims were his wife and her lover), only to be deeply disappointed when he commits suicide. In Moderato Cantabile, the violent murder of a woman by her husband prompts another woman near the scene, who is also married, to take up with a stranger in a café.
When asked by Leslie Garis in a NY Times interview about the allure of the criminal, Duras responded, “It exerts a fascination for me — all the people who abandon the golden rule of good conduct. Criminals are heroes for me.” That Duras would even mention “the golden rule of good conduct” might surprise her readers: both her life and her work are made of such drastically different stuff from anything polite society might encounter, let alone comprehend or embrace. She was born and spent her childhood in French Indochina, raised by her widowed mother, nearly destitute; Marguerite and her siblings roamed more or less freely. At age 15, she carried on an intense love affair with a 27 year-old Chinese man (the story of both The Lover and The North China Lover). She passionately loved her younger brother Paolo, who was mentally challenged, and consummated that passion sexually. She was a member of the Communist party and participant in the French resistance; a sometimes outrageous social commentator; and a serious alcoholic for much of her adult life.
I came to Duras as many Americans do — through Hiroshima Mon Amour and The Lover. All that darkness, tragedy, and indelicate conduct is, unsurprisingly, both captivating and exhausting. In these works, it is as if all was lost well before the dawn of humankind, and what remains is only to languish, albeit gorgeously (especially when it’s Jeanne Moreau or Emmanuelle Riva in the film version) and with a kind of sacred devotion. I love Duras for the sumptuous beauty she knew to be inherent in the starkest of suffering; but the Durasian experience I encountered and became enamored of this year is an atypical one, pre-Duras in extremis: the 1955 short novel The Square.
In 56 pages, a young woman and an older man, both poor and alone, meet on a park bench in a Square and do little more than talk. The woman is a maid to a wealthy family, and she has come to the park with the little boy in her charge. The boy announces to his young caretaker, who we learn is 20 years-young, that he is hungry. Duras’s objective narrator then informs us, “The man took this as an opportunity to start a conversation.” And off we go.
What do they talk about? Well, everything. The girl is isolated, and miserably overworked; as the two begin to talk about their lives, she declares that she is “full of hope,” waiting for a change, that change being only one possibility, and that is marriage. “One day someone must choose me,” she says. “Then I will be able to change.” The man, a travelling salesman, begins to tell her that he is beyond the possibility of change and doesn’t either imagine or hope for it: at first he says that marriage couldn’t possibly bring him the sort of change that she imagines for herself, but then it becomes clear that what he really means is that any sort of change is impossible for him.
You will change but I don’t think I will, or rather I don’t think so anymore. And whichever way you look at it there is nothing to be done about it…I mean a life can begin anyhow—a fact we do not appreciate enough. And then time passes and we discover that life has very few solutions: and things become established until one fine day we find that they are so established that the very idea of changing them seems absurd.
As with all original and arresting fiction, it is difficult to accurately describe the experience of their exchange; one simply must read it. Duras has rendered the conversation directly, providing little narration or stage direction, and no interior exposition at all. In other words, the characters develop solely through their spoken words, and the reader both apprehends and feels the “happening” of the encounter through speech and speech alone. It’s a style she became known for — long dialogue scenes with little commentary –but The Square exemplifies this form even more strictly than later works like Moderato Cantabile and Ten-Thirty on a Summer Night.
What’s also distinct about this early work is that these characters do have a sense of “good conduct” — each is genuinely curious about the other’s feelings of hope and hopelessness, their contrasting experiences of despair and survival. Repeatedly each apologizes for mis-expressing his or her own station, or mis-apprehending the other’s; and each kindly, but desperately, attempts to nudge the other toward a different way of living and seeing, while at the same time recognizing the presumptuousness of doing so: “I wanted to say…that I would be very unhappy if you thought, even for an instant, that I was trying to influence you in any way.”
We feel, gradually, and then acutely, the stakes that these lone souls develop in each others’ transformation: the man somehow needs for the young woman to change her stance on the necessary misery of her housework, and also on her resistance to travel, and change, and independence; the woman is desperate for the man to believe in the possibility of change in his own life, frightened by his apparent apathy and resolve: “But you, what will happen to you?…Something will happen to you or else it will only be because you don’t want anything to happen.” What’s revelatory as we journey through their conversation is how clear and muddled at once is the human necessity for both generosity and self-preservation: in their encouragements, urgings, and questioning, each reveals simultaneously how terrified she is to have her own worldview, her very survival strategy, shaken; and how gradually is his isolation beginning to open up toward something like hope — genuine, terrifying hope for someone else’s fate, and by extension one’s own, which, in the world of The Square, is the essence of love.
Some critique Durasian dialogue as wooden, and her characters as more representational than human (contra the lovable messy-ness of two other talky-talks that may come to mind, i.e. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy). The “flatness” of speech is indeed a trait of the nouveau roman, a re-fashioning of human beings as abstractions — as talking heads, disembodied and uninflected. The act of talk itself becomes a subject of both the dialogue and the novel — talk as loneliness’s antidote, and then as its cause:
“Time seems shorter when one is talking,” said the girl.
“And then afterwards, suddenly, much longer.”
When stylized dialogue draws too much attention to itself, self-congratulatory in its coolness and minimalism (Brad Pitt hocking Chanel No. 5), it’s irritating, it puts one off. There are other scenes in Duras’s oeuvre that have struck me this way. But in The Square, the characters express the real thing; they are humanity stripped down to profound simplicity. In this reader’s experience, it is Duras’s great accomplishment that, by the end of The Square, I am convinced that these two minds and souls are not only fully real, but that they are me.
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The first line of Suzanne Scanlon’s novel, Promising Young Women, is a knockout — “Ever since I heard Don Reakes say that the beauty contestant deserved to be raped by Mike Tyson, I wanted him dead,” — and from there the book only continues to deliver jabs of trenchant insight and fine-tuned language. The novel proceeds in a series of fragmented portraits that follow the young Lizzie, actress and wandering, suicidal soul, through a series of psychiatric institutionalizations, most significantly in the SS Roger, a ward for super-sensitives. Promising Young Women is a writer’s novel in its preoccupation with language and its many facets, and it’s also a performer’s novel in its concern for the performative, and especially in the (re)performance of texts it’s aligned with, like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Curtis White likens the experience of reading Promising Young Women to riding a wave: “The reader is driven before the story like something driven before a wave. And that is a deeply pleasurable feeling.” And Kate Zambreno, in her 2012 Year in Reading, called the book “a series of fragmented, poetic portraits…marked by Suzanne’s really gorgeous, wry, erudite voice.” Suzanne and I corresponded via email in a conversation that touched on the ways narratives are codified to create meaning, the liberating experience of reading and working with David Foster Wallace, and art as “the impossible trajectory of hope.”
The Millions: The epigraph for Promising Young Women contains three quotes; I’d like to focus on the first two, by Clarice Lispector and Ariana Reines, that allude to the inevitable interdependency of literature and life. Lispector’s quote, “She wanted to explain that that’s what her life was like, but not knowing what she meant by ‘that’s what it’s like’ or ‘her life’ she didn’t answer,” implicates language and all of its inadequacies (an idea you return to throughout the book) while Ariana Reines’s asks if a book can sufficiently construct other worlds and transport the reader between these worlds: “Can a book carry you into the world you have to pretend doesn’t exist most of the time, can a book carry you back out into what first made you alive.” With this in mind, how do literature and life intermingle for you as a writer, and also in what way does this interaction speak to your vision for Promising Young Women?
Suzanne Scanlon: I’m not exaggerating when I say that much of my identity has been founded or invented or re-created on the books I’ve read. I’ve always read that way — for instructions on how to live, as Flaubert put it. There have been times in my life when the worlds/ideas offered within a book — Virginia Woolf or Marguerite Duras or Shakespeare or Erica Jong — were immensely comforting to me — a balm, a relief from the limitation of the worlds/ideas most present in so-called real life. I guess I’m also very influenced by and interested in writing that, as Ben Lerner put it in an interview, recently, “collapses the distinction between art and life.” I wanted the referenced literature to be central to the life of Lizzie, she has collapsed this distinction in her mind (for better or worse), such that while she’s lying in the quiet room, having been administered a shot of Thorazine, she’s thinking about Virginia Woolf. That’s funny to me, and problematic and true; it might be as dangerous to her as it is her salvation.
TM: I’d love to hear you talk about the performative aspects of writing as an actress and theater critic — how does writing character in fiction compare to taking on a role as an actress? What inspiration does your writing draw from theater and acting?
SS: As a theater student, I was very early educated on a voracious reading of plays, of going to the theater — part of why I went to college in New York. Theater has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember and I think the world of it is great training for a writer. I recall very well the excitement of my first exposure to Beckett, Ionesco, Chekhov, Caryl Churchill, Wallace Shawn, Karen Finley, to name only a few playwrights — it was simply magic to discover these writers. And in a contemporary sense, I think some of the most interesting writing these days is happening for the theater (Young Jean Lee, Annie Baker, my dear friend David Adjmi, to name a few); there’s an attention to language, to rhythm, and an openness to experimentation that isn’t always valued in (mainstream) fiction. There’s also a playfulness, an awareness of the futility/absurdity of language, the artifice — but with a persistent sense of hope, which is taken for granted in the theater. Erik Ehn once said that the theater is about “the impossible trajectory of hope” and I never forgot that. I suppose that’s what I think all art should be.
TM: You touch on the power of spoken language in your story (or is it an essay?), “How I Lost My Dictionary,” where the narrator is carjacked by a boy claiming he has a gun that he never reveals: “This is a stick-up. If you say something, does it make it true? If you call your finger a gun, does it make you powerful? Do the words matter?” In Promising Young Women, it seems that the psychiatrist’s diagnoses function in the same way — if Roger says Lizzie is sicker than he thought then this becomes truth. In what way do words matter, especially in the ways they define identities and catalyze interactions? In what way is life a performance?
SS: Thank you for reading that piece! Yes, that’s long been a concern and, at times, obsession of mine. The way narratives get codified and repeated to create meaning. There was a time when this terrified me — the way that naming, labeling, delimits identity. As a parent, I see it anew: how a child may take to a label s/he is assigned (shy, smart, naughty, etc.) and then live up to it; the way families begin very early to assign, and repeat narratives (the lazy one, the difficult one, the responsible one). When Roger uses the term “Designated Patients” this speaks to the same idea — there is always a scapegoat, one to play the role — we like to limit identity and are less comfortable understanding the self as a fluid, multivalent thing. If we did accept that, we might see that we are all more alike than we could bear.
TM: Many reviews of Promising Young Women have remarked on the number of literary allusions folded into the relatively short novel — from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Ariel, from Joyce’s “The Dead” and Ulysses,, from Tolstoy and Melville, too. You’ve also borrowed scenes and structural devices and integrated them into Promising Young Women, and specifically scenes from The Bell Jar. This strikes me as a form of acting, perhaps in the sense of adopting roles of other novels and acting them out within your own. It also seems like an intriguing, fresh take on allusion. Could you talk more about the literary ancestors and allusions and borrowing, and how these play into the novel for you?
SS: Well, you know David Foster Wallace, who was my teacher at one point, does this throughout his work — he samples, alludes directly and indirectly — this is something I learned reading his work, and also through things he said. Reading him was mind-blowing: Wow, you can do that?! It was as if he gave me permission. I didn’t realize what fiction could be. I can say that about many writers, I guess, but for someone alive at the same time as I was — it felt huge. I remember reading “The Depressed Person” for example, and thinking, wow, so you can take that language and turn it around, make it do something else? Perform it, yes. I think his work is very performative, hysterically shifting, constantly referencing other works, other writers, while becoming his own.
Taking on the role of Plath, of course, using her words — well, it is easier in a novel than it is in real life. Just as Lizzie plays a woman who puts her head in the oven, I can play with Plath’s novel. I feel quite privileged, in fact, to be able to learn from Plath — to recognize her genius and the truth of her writing — and yet to have lived in a moment which has allowed me to approach it as one voice among many, one within a dialectic.
TM: The artist/writer Alexandre Singh recently laid out his own beliefs on the simultaneity of art-making by referencing Borges’s idea, that “every new artist causes the past to become deeper and richer. The past isn’t a dead, fixed place but one to which we’re constantly looking back to, discovering things, seeing things anew.” How do you envision this playing out within your writing? (Or do you?) To what extent do you see literature as enabling a dialogue with writers past and present (and future)?
SS: I do love the idea of the past as a shifting place, open to revision — and I like his idea that interviews are fictions! Yes, I feel like various dead writers are dear friends of mine — from Woolf to Plath to Duras to DFW — their lives and lessons and warnings and urgings are constantly informing my own, challenging my own. In this book, in writing in part about my mother’s death, I was both performing her life (which is supposedly fixed in the past, a space we are meant to leave behind) and her death. I was inventing a mother and then finding a way for her to die, to allow her to die. To move her to that place so that I might move there. I don’t know if that was conscious, but that’s how I see it now. For years I longed to speak to her, to get her advice, and I suppose a comfort in writing is being able to create her as much as I create a self.
TM: I was impressed by the verve and tone of the narrative voice — from the striking opening line, “Ever since I heard Don Reakes say that the beauty contestant deserved to be raped by Mike Tyson, I wanted him dead,” to aphorisms like, “There is a kind of loneliness that comes from being with people.” Much is said about the failure of communication, about the gaps between what is said and what is conveyed, about distances that cannot be bridged, about the utter failure to find the words, to convey messages. Very few writers who attempt this are able to communicate this breakdown so well. And yet this focus on the failure of language, its limitations, this occurs with a novel that, of course, relies on words. Would you speak more to the general weariness here, and also specifically the weariness towards language — the gaps and spaces?
SS: Well, yes, a general weariness. But I think the joy of writing is the feeling of reaching across or through those gaps. I love this essay by Susan Griffin where she states that her favorite moment in writing is “when the writing falls short.” I, too, find that exhilarating — that even at times the awareness of its limitation is comfort. This essay is in John D’Agata’s Next American Essay which also contains an essay by Annie Dillard, who is always working toward and around and through these gaps. I am not wearied when I read a line, a paragraph of hers or a line of DFW’s. I’m regularly thrilled by the movement toward or across that impossibility.
I suppose there was a time when I felt like Lizzie the narrator — that it was a waste to even try. The older I get, the more grateful I feel to have the chance to try, to work within and against a tradition.
TM: One of the things that Lizzie says she learns on the S.S. Roger — the psychiatric ward for super sensitives where Lizzie is a patient — is that she’s a cipher: “I am an empty thing. A fragmented mutating subject.” This is central to Lizzie’s desire to try on identities through acting, and is echoed through the novel’s structure. The novel, too, is a fragmented mutating subject, told from various overlapping perspectives. I’m wondering if you could talk about the role of this structural system in Promising Young Women (or other structural systems you were/are drawn to). Did you consciously define the novel against the traditional male bildungsroman, with its phallic Freytag triangle and climax? Also, in this sense, are there other literary influences to this novel/your writing, that aren’t as conspicuous as, say, the Plath?
SS: No, it was not consciously defined against the bildungsroman, though I have been interested in what I read as female bildungsroman (like The Bell Jar or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening) and so in that way it’s a subversion. Many of my favorite books are fragmented in structure, resisting linear plot or redemption — perhaps especially work by women — Lydia Davis, Claudia Rankine in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Maggie Nelson, also The Lover, Jesus’ Son, Beloved, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I think that while revising certain sections of PYW I was rereading both The Bell Jar and Infinite Jest. These novels might seem dissimilar but both are kind of anti-coming of age stories and both, of course, contain descriptions of depression that feel inspired, true.
Also, my editor, Danielle Dutton, is a brilliant writer and reader and her vision for fiction and this book truly made these fragments cohere, essentially made this a book. There was a time when I saw these as a collection of linked stories, but she saw it as a novel.
TM: The phrases “Promising Young Women” and later, “Girls with Problems,” are such taglines for the ways that young, attractive, women are romanticized, and even exulted, for their dependencies, their great sadnesses and weaknesses, and who become projects for the men, like the psychiatrist and like the boyfriend, who want to or need to help. While the book exposes these clichés (much like it maligns Friends, whose laugh track and faux cheery camaraderie alienate Lizzie) does participation in this system become a self-fulfilling prophecy? How does one break from the loop, and where does Lizzie and the SS Roger fall into this?
SS: Honestly, I don’t know how to break from the loop, save from becoming an artist who is both outside and inside. I think getting older helps, too. It’s much easier not to be a young woman, though everywhere you go you’re told to feel bad about getting older. I think Lizzie wants to be part of this system as much as it wants her. I think it is a mutual dependency. I don’t see it in black and white terms; one can be exploited and helped all at once. But yes, self-fulfilling prophecies abound — as with the naming of someone ill or sick; she lives up to this idea of herself, which is an idea that she, on some level, wants/needs to believe at this point in her life. Part of her breakdown then becomes a gift, a breakthrough — a total embracing of an identity in order to exhaust it, perhaps, to wear it out. If that makes any sense.
When author Pauls Toutonghi set out to write his first book, he made himself a promise: he would not be another stereotype of “the debut novelist writing about his life.” So Toutonghi penned a “really terrible” World War Two novel followed by a cringe-worthy attempt at experimental fiction—a choose-your-own-adventure rip off. He never wrote in the first person, lest readers assume he was writing about himself. He didn’t sell either book; his career—or lack thereof—was a disaster.
Eventually, Toutonghi gave up on his rigid strategy of avoidance and did what any smart writer does: he let the story and characters lead him, instead of the other way around. Toutonghi is half Latvian, half Egyptian and was raised in the U.S. He sold Red Weather, a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old Latvian-American boy, followed by Evel Knievel Days, about a young Egyptian-American man in search of his father. Toutonghi wrote both books in the first person. And yet, he considers this less than a complete success: “I was reading Dickens,” he wrote in a recent essay for Salon, “who kept himself away from the page…and I can’t help wondering if anything is lost in the frank disclosures of our modern, first-person, memoir-driven fiction.”
This is perhaps the greatest hang-up of the modern novelist—that fiction is somehow unsophisticated or inherently cliché if it is rooted in the writer’s own life, and that writers should be creative enough to invent entirely new worlds and find drama only in the unfamiliar. None of that is true, of course: Bookstores are full of beautiful novels like Toutonghi’s, and reviewers often celebrate autobiographical debuts. And yet this fear of self-reliance can be limiting, almost crippling.
But if you talk to writers who have taken the autobiographical plunge, you’ll hear an almost universal relief—that writing about yourself allows you to follow your best instincts. Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers, spent a long time writing books that even his wife was unimpressed by. His problem, he decided: He was too afraid of seeming like “the white guy feeling sorry for himself.” But hey: in some way, that’s what he was. “I needed subject matter that was familiar to me if I wanted to go the distance.”
So where does this fear come from? Today’s literary criticism, for one. Laura Miller, who reviews books for Salon, is often turned off by coming-of-age debuts, particularly from writers who have just come of age themselves. She has some words for, say, white girls from Connecticut: “Your book could be really well written,” she says. But “you feel like you’ve read a million of them. It’s the story about this person growing up and learning to live and to love and whose parents get divorced and the mom dies of cancer. It feels like watching an episode of Law and Order—but that’s not really fair, because Law and Order is reliably entertaining.”
Even the New York Times can be dismissive like this. In 2005, when Deborah Solomon wrote about Jonathan Safran Foer, she praised him for avoiding “the usual rites of first-noveldom. He never wrote a tremblingly sensitive account of his adolescence, a novel featuring toxic mothers and passive, gone-to-sleep fathers, a novel abounding with malls and S.U.V.’s, and suburban anomie. Instead, he found his inspiration in the darkly fragmented masterworks of European modernism (Kafka, Joyce, Bruno Schulz)…”
But do not be fooled: Everything Is Illuminated is a wonderful book, both highly innovative and emotionally powerful, but it is also a coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical story about a young white man coming to understand himself. Solomon would never belittle Foer’s book by writing in these exact terms, but when she speaks of “the usual rites of first-noveldom,” she’s not making a neutral statement. She’s making a derogatory one. She’s throwing all of these other books—and which books, by the way?—into the dustbin, castigating them all as navel-gazing and small-minded.
And you wonder what kept Toutonghi and DeWitt from writing about their own lives.
Some writers were fortunate enough to begin writing before reading much literary criticism. “I felt free to take from personal experience,” says Justin Torres, author of the critically acclaimed and heavily autobiographical debut novel We The Animals. After the book, he says, he’d often meet writers who came out of MFA programs and seemed to believe he’s navel-gazing. “You’re mind-gazing,” he corrects. “You’re turning yourself outward, challenging your own assumptions and trying to make meaning out of life. I love Dickens, but thank god not everyone tries to write like him.” (In fact, Laura Miller cuts Torres a break here because We The Animals is based on Torres’s experience growing up gay and underprivileged in upstate New York. “To be crass,” she says, “his book was unusual in the type of people it was about. That was refreshing.”)
When writers ask Torres, “Why write fiction if you want to write about yourself?”, he tells them there’s a magic in translating personal experience into make-believe: “The composites become characters, and the scraps of lived experience morph, so that what you end up with is wholly transformed.”
And the transformation is key. There are a finite number of experiences in the world and the trick is how to present them in a way that is both relatable and unique. It would be idiotic for a young author not to write a book based on her adolescence in Connecticut, if that’s what she’s compelled to write. And if her protagonist has a toxic mother or hangs out at the mall, it would be disingenuous not to include those details. But including them doesn’t necessarily mean you’re painting by numbers or writing a story that is narcissistic. “You just have to ask yourself, ‘What can I bring to literature by writing about this?’” Torres says. To him, authors who write outside their own experience have the exact same challenge as those writing close to the bone: how best to say something valuable. “There’s a lot of people writing formulaic gunslinger Cormac McCarthy fiction,” he says.
The literary world didn’t always dismiss autobiography. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway are all rooted in their authors’ lives. It’s impossible to trace this hang-up back to its origin, but Toutonghi has a suspicion of what triggered it: a resistance, especially prevalent in the MFA world, to the commoditization of fiction.
Literature is an art, of course—though like in any art, there are those who hate to also think of it as a business. Writers who are overwhelmingly focused on craft and style might believe that writing the story of one’s young life is too crass, too obvious, and, god-forbid, too sellable. “Writers see that autobiographical work is more marketable, so many move in that direction,” Toutonghi says. And the purists do the opposite.
Whether the market is really dictating authors’ subject matter is debatable, but it’s certainly true that right now mainstream publishing will unabashedly use an author’s back story to sell his or her book. Two recent debut novels that share similarities with Everything is Illuminated—The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht and No One Here Except For All of Us by Ramona Ausubel—have been marketed with the author’s life as a selling point, as if biography is the ultimate “truth” of their stories.
That’s certainly news to emerging authors. “I didn’t realize my life would be the thing I’d be talking about in the interviews,” Torres said. Patrick DeWitt told me that most interviews about his novel Ablutions revolved around parsing the imaginary parts of the book from the real ones. “It became sort of a drag,” he said.
But there’s an upside to this marketing hook, at least for me, as I shopped around my own debut: a semi-autobiographical, prep school novel called The Year of the Gadfly. Editors clearly saw the autobiographical material as a positive thing, and a potential way to market the book. Until then, I’d been so embarrassed about writing from my life that throughout my three-year MFA, I never told anybody where the story originated. I was just another white girl from Connecticut after all (well, actually, Washington DC, but same difference), writing about a young woman coming of age. I spent years feeling like a failure before I’d even started writing, all because I was terrified of producing a cliché. If only I could have written a World War II epic with a chose your own adventure twist.
But I never would have finished writing that sort of book. The Year of the Gadfly took me seven years from conception to publication. And my personal connection to the story was a key part of my stamina. It’s what fueled me to work so tirelessly in pursuit of truly unique characters and a compelling plot. My editor bought my book because the manuscript kept her reading all night. To her, to me, and hopefully to my readers, that’s all that really matters.