The Subject Sam

a conversation with Sam Lipsyte

by by Drew Dickerson

illustration by by Diane Zhou

I first encountered Sam Lipsyte (’90) a little over a year ago after picking up The Ask, his third and most recent novel. Upon reading the rest of the writer’s available material, I was floored by how consistently dark and funny he remains throughout his body of work. The Lipsyte setting is institutional. The Lipsyte protagonist is the slack-jawed everyman. His substance and style are inextricable and his sentences feel as though they couldn’t be syntactically otherwise. Since 2001 saw the publication of his first novel, The Subject Steve, he has worked at a steady and impressive clip: his bibliography now includes three novels and a book of short stories with another collection, The Fun Parts, forthcoming next March. In 2011, HBO announced interest in People City, a television comedy to be developed by Lipsyte. Though the project’s future is murky at present, rumblings of all variety are ongoing. We corresponded by email about sentence structure and the future.

The Independent: I believe I read somewhere that you were a Semiotics concentrator at Brown, though the department later changed its name to Modern Culture and Media. What do you think the value of a theory-oriented education is? Would you say that your work is at all theoretically concerned?
Sam Lipsyte: Actually I was an English concentrator, with honors in creative writing, but I took a bunch of Semiotics classes. Some of the discourse rattled me at the time, and I resisted in playful ways, but it was all of enormous value. It gave me a fresh worldview that seemed to corroborate what I was beginning to think and feel. I just needed a better grip on the old regime at the start. But that wasn’t theory’s problem. I was a reasonably bright, silly kid from New Jersey. I didn’t know shit. Most of the stuff I read as an undergrad didn’t really open up for me until later. And it informs my work quite a bit, both as something a few of my characters might have experienced in their own intellectual lives and as a force that helped shape their perspectives (as it often has mine).

Indy: Is anything happening on the People City front?

SL: Well, it seemed to be a corpse for a while, but now there are some odd stirrings.  Not for TV, necessarily, but for something potentially far more interesting. We’ll see.
Indy: One complaint that people have about writing MFA programs is that it creates a uniform aesthetic. The advent of these programs maps pretty well with the rise of Raymond Carver style minimalism in the ‘80s. Does an MFA aesthetic exist and, if so, do you think that it is as Carver-beholden as some would like to paint it?

SL: Jesus, I’m usually pleasantly surprised when students have read Raymond Carver. I read him as a kid, but I think those days of Carver-worship are long past. When I first started teaching at Columbia everybody wanted to be Sebald. Then it was Bolaño. They also have a great interest in my old teacher, Gordon Lish, who edited those Carver stories that dominated MFA programs in the old days, along with publishing and teaching many amazing writers.  But where I teach there are so many grad students in fiction that a house style is impossible. This is a boon. People can come at things from very different angles.

Indy: I’ve heard that you have a short story collection coming out in the near future. What can we expect to see in The Fun Parts?

SL: You will see a lot of the stories I’ve written recently, and a few older ones that people might have missed.

Indy: It feels like you—with other contemporary writers like George Saunders and Ben Marcus—are often categorized as humorous writers. What is your relationship to comedy? Do you think humor precludes attention paid to the well-crafted sentence on the part of the writer and/or reader? Where does the distinction between humor writer and humorous writer of literary fiction begin and end?

SL: Are we categorized that way? I always think of the humor section in a bookstore. You know what I mean? The autobiographies of comedians, the book tie-ins for John Stewart or Colbert or The Onion. But that’s not what you mean, is it? I guess I get that sometimes, the idea that I’m a humor guy who happens to write books, but that’s not how I think of it. I’m a fiction writer, and my relationship to comedy is connected to my relationship to tragedy. I have tragic elements in my work, or if not technically tragic in the Greek sense, serious, sad elements, and I also employ comic elements. My novels are comic novels, but all good comic novels are quite serious. Robert Coover, a giant of literature who just retired from Brown, has written some of the funniest prose I’ve ever read. Saunders is a brilliant writer who along with his other gifts can be insanely funny.  This helps deliver some of the most dire and moving stories we have. Marcus has a dry and wicked sense of humor in his work, but again, it’s in the service of his serious and affecting innovations. Rather than preclude attention paid to the sentence, writing something funny demands far more attention to every morpheme of a sentence than anything I can think of. You can always cobble together some borrowed ideas about the ‘way we live now’ and pile on the clunky, ponderous prose until you’ve squeezed readers into glazed submission. Often they’ll give you a prize for it. But for the brave, smart and, yes, often very funny writers, it’s always about attention paid to the line.