Having It All

A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem

by by Drew Dickerson

illustration by by Katy Windemuth


“Genre bending” is a term that has recently come into a strange sort of critical vogue. In light of literary fiction’s increasing concern with the detective story, the comic book, and television, readers were left in want of a quick phrase to attach to such writers as Michael Chabon, Margaret Atwood, and Junot Diaz. From this particular pack of contemporary curator/collector-novelists, Jonathan Lethem has emerged as literary celebrity, his sprawling novels ransacking a very idiosyncratic cannon. The 2003 publication of Fortress of Solitude saw the making public of some of his most personal, emotionally engaged material— to enormous success both critical and commercial. In the time since, he’s written on Bob Dylan, sparred with James Wood, and put together an essay in defense of plagiarism composed entirely of quotations. There was a time in his life when he used to write while walking on a treadmill. We talk here about The New Yorker, a fictional place by the name of Camden College, and Robert Coover’s gang.


The College Hill Independent: First off, I was hoping to talk about genre. There’s a lot of talk about science fiction currently in literature. But it seems to me most writers are writing about reading sci-fi as opposed to writing sci-fi proper.

Jonathan Lethem: The thing to say about science fiction, and really also about crime fiction—because for me they seem to have an equal sway over my imagination and my coming of age as a reader—is that when you first meet these things, the word “genre” isn’t in your head. It’s just about storytelling and iconography and images and things that quicken your pulse and make you lean forward. So these appetites and fascinations develop in a much more native way. And now I find myself in these sophisticated conversations with people because critics and readers have become really self-conscious of genre boundaries. But the fact is my interest, my organic appetite for this stuff, didn’t come because I was like: “Oh these are really interesting genres.” I was just turned on by the writing and the stories. And I was simultaneously discovering other things I liked, some of which turned out to have been examples of what people would call literary fiction. For me it was all mashed up together. The things I liked were the things I liked.  A desire to have it all—to have that kind of energy, that fascination with some of these popular forms. Early on I worked strongly within the classical formats. I’d write a dystopian book or I’d write a horror book. Now these things are more chaotic and more inborn in my storytelling. I feel much less obedient to fashion.

The Indy: You talk a lot about influence, most obviously in “The Ecstasy of Influence”, but also one of the more publicized bits of trivia about you is that the only real jobs you’ve ever had, aside from being an author, is working in antiquarian bookstores. I was wondering if you understood that past as contributing to the lexical quality of your work.

JL: That’s a great way to put it. Yes, absolutely. I would say that there are two really direct and really extensive ways that my years in used bookstores have a sway over the writer I became. And that is: one—that I was always entrenched in out-of-print, obscure reading, older reading. I was never very influenced by the idea of the contemporary. And even when I thought I was sniffing out what was contemporary I was usually 15 or 20 years behind the curve, still thinking that Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover were breaking news when, in truth, in the mid ’80s they were sort of out of fashion and forgotten. And there were all of these what came to be called the Dirty Realists that were supplanting them. But I was always interested in the outré, partly because those were the books that wouldn’t sell from used bookstores and you’re with them longer. And they’re cheap to take home, sometimes free to take home because nobody is buying them. And the other way that I think I’m informed by the used bookstore clerk I was for so long is this curatorial gesture. That I tend to want to bring in other writers, bring them into view. But it also infiltrates the writing itself, where I find myself making lots of explicit references and naming a lot of my sources rather than leaving them unnamed. In a way, it’s sort of like I’m still working at that bookshop saying “Look at all this great stuff.”

The Indy: It’s interesting to me that you talk about yourself as distinct from the Dirty Realists, or what otherwise might be called the Literary Brat Pack—

JL: There’s overlap. The Literary Brat Pack members were the younger part of the ‘80s generation. But with Dirty Realists I’m thinking of the Raymond Carver short story writers, who, at the time that I was inventing myself as a writer, were the hot names. But I kind of didn’t know it because I was still reading stuff from the ’60s and ’70s. But you’re right—those writers directly influenced the people you’re calling the Brat Pack. Their instinct for mentioning brand names and using a flattened affect and direct style rather than a postmodern maximalist style was very strongly connected for sure.

The Indy: I mentioned the Literary Brat Pack to connote people like Ellis or McInerney. The disassociation you make in the distinction in style, but also the disassociation you implicitly made by dropping out of a place like Bennington —I wonder whether or not you see maximalism at all as a classed movement, reacting against the people of the “Camden College” of the ’80s?

JL: Right. Obviously a great exemplar of my generation of maximalist or postmodern writing is Wallace. He did it himself very explicitly. He satirized Ellis and gives a lot of evidence  in his essays of being oppressed by, or disgusted by, those younger writers who’d come to prominence just before he was working. When in fact Ellis and Wallace were the same age. My own relationship is a little more peculiar because, as I say, my sense of the contemporary was so inadequate. I was reading no one when they were first published. And that even included my friends and acquaintances at “Camden” or Bennington or whatever you want to call it. I was aware of them and sort of reacting against them socially, but in terms of my writing I wasn’t reading them so much as I was just reacting to the whole milieu of that particular college and distancing myself personally from it. But I wasn’t even tempted to think “Oh, Gee. I’m going to be one of these writers.” Or “Oh, God. I better not be one of these writers.” It just didn’t seem remotely possible to me that what they were doing could be relevant to my work. The very youngest writers I feel a powerful identification with tend to be Delillo and Coover and Barthelme. Which is not to compare myself to anyone, but that’s just where, for me, the relational energy comes from.

The Indy: It’s interesting how you wear these influences so flagrantly. It seems like sort of a generational thing.

JL: Right. Well, I have felt for a long time—and it’s weird how Bennington is implicated in all of this in a strange, very particular way—to understand the environment that my generation of novelists was born into and reacted against, you need to rediscover an argument that was made by John Gardner, when he published On Moral Fiction and basically denounced what, for convenience’s sake, we’ll call the postmodernists.  Another name for them is Coover’s Gang. Because Coover was explicitly the gang leader over at Brown. He was holding these conferences and inviting all those guys and basically acting as if literature—with a couple of uncomfortable exceptions like John Updike who just wouldn’t go away—was exclusively dominated by himself, Bath, Barthelme, William Gass…who am I forgetting?

The Indy: Gaddis?

JL: Gaddis, of course. Gaddis and Pynchon were less likely to appear in person at those gatherings, but they were certainly part of his orbit. And then Gardner comes along and says that the entire literary landscape is bankrupt and corrupt and ironic in a poisonous way, that readers were being malnourished by this and that we need a whole new vision of American writing. It was exaggerated, hysterical, over-compensatory. But he also struck a nerve. There were readers and critics who felt that there was something missing for them. The postmodernists got very powerfully on the defensive and, in a way, never recovered their dominance. Say a writer like John Barth, who won the National Book Award, who had a crazy book like Giles Goat-Boy be a big New York Times Bestseller—I mention him to my student now and he’s forgotten. And Coover himself is published by small presses now. Whereas a book like The Public Burning was a big bestseller, comparable to something like Jennifer Egan’s book. But do my students really know who Coover is? No. And so that landscape was toppled by Gardner. And that’s the world that Wallace is responding to. When he’s doing his manifesto, or when Franzen is doing his manifesto, in a way they’re recapitulating.  You need to have it all. You need both. And it’s hard. And I’m doing my damnedest when I write not to pick one of those two teams to be on, but to encompass everything that can be known by the heart and the head. So I just don’t accept the breakdown implicit in those binaries.