A Kind of Vast Fiction
From: Jonathan Lethem
To: David Gates
Subject: the old transmission
Hey, David. As I was saying to my 2,472 friends the other day, these certainly are strange times in the history of the boundary between the human persons and the written words. What (if anything) is your strategy—given your life as a teacher (I’m a teacher again; this question’s of more than mild interest), as a working journalist, as a witness to the digital quarantine-crumbling of all those distinctions between writer and reader, text and commentary, original and copy, private and public, book and computer, and so forth—for holding onto whatever it is we’re supposed to still be holding onto, as ‘literary’ writers? On my good days I think the old transaction, the old transmission, between a single writer and a single reader between hard covers (or ‘hard covers’, whatever) is still thrumming along nicely, perhaps worth more than it ever was precisely because of all the signal and noise rebounding around outside. But not every day’s a good day, I’ll admit here, though I try to keep up a brave face. Not to tempt you into any unwilling pontification, but are you able to find any encouraging words for your students (I know mine are baffled)? Or for me? And why aren’t you on Facebook?
From: David Gates
To: Jonathan Lethem
Subject: “Waldo, what are you doing out there?”
I may be slow on the uptake—no DOUBT I’m slow on the uptake—but I don’t see much sign of such bafflement among my students. They seem to be writing short stories and novels, mostly of a conventionally realistic sort—though some of them have major romances with Beckett or Barthelme, which I try to foster, or with such contemporaries as Kelly Link—and hoping to see their work between hard covers. You’d think it was still 1953. Going to an MFA program these days may seem like training to become a farrier or a wheelwright, yet some of my students do manage to get their books published. (I know, I know, for what THAT’s worth. But what was it EVER worth? When exactly WAS that Golden Age?) Nor do I see much sign of their not knowing the difference between writer and reader, text and commentary, and so forth. I’m pretty clear on those distinctions myself, so maybe I generate a force-field that repels postmodern thinking. And I say this having just read David Shields’s Reality Hunger, which I know impressed you as it did me; it makes as strong an argument against conventional fiction as I can imagine. It’s helped clarify for me why I can read so little fiction these days, and why I can’t stand most of what I’m now writing myself. It doesn’t, however, explain to me why fiction works for me when it works for me—not that this is an explanation I need. So yes, I do believe in “the old transaction, the old transmission,” since I still experience it on good days, and see my students experiencing it. As you say, not every day’s a good day, but that’s a lot to expect. What else would I believe in? And why in God’s name would I be on Facebook? (“Henry, what are you doing in there?” “Waldo, what are you doing out there?”)
From: Jonathan Lethem
To: David Gates
Subject: a story about two writers
Yeah, well, you’re calling my bluff here—the bafflement is probably my own, projected onto my students and injected into my classroom. I don’t know if I’m generating exactly the reverse of “a force-field that repels postmodern thinking,” but I have done this and that to foster self-consciousness and anxiety regarding these matters in myself, in my stories and essays, and sometimes in my teaching. Yet I’d admit here that that’s to some degree a kind of *dutiful bafflement*, an obligation to the present moment, like I feel I’m meant to open my practice to the latest advances in pharmacology when all I really want to do is thump folks on the knee and see if it springs upward. So, finding I agree with you more than I do with myself, let me turn this question on its ear: how is, and how does it feel (if it’s true) that we happen to occupy the most completely postmodernism-resistant artform, after all? I mean, I’m no David Shields, but I’ve made my own passing gestures at appropriation, and yet fiction—the old transaction, the old transmission—just seems to springily retake the basic shape that it was put into by Austen and Dickens (a shape only mildly deformed, in the end, by your Becketts and Barthelmes), time and time again. Because, yeah, that’s what my students are writing too. I mean, compared to music (maybe) and the visual arts and film (absolutely), and even poetry, I think (assuming you’re of the Ashbery-acknowledging school, as opposed to lining up in the Billy Collins-makes-me-feel-like-that-never-happened-and-I’m-relieved column).
But, but, but: you say you can read little fiction these days: wanna tell me what you *do* think has changed?
As for Facebook, I have to admit that after all these years of believing myself a proud Luddite I have to look at the fact that I’m writing you on a computer with a wireless signal (despite having written four novels on a Selectric typewriter—I hope to stick around long enough to be the last living human who can make that claim), that I’ve got a cell phone (even if I don’t know how to use the camera), and that yeah, I’m *sort of* on Facebook now, and just call myself a “late adopter.” Yet I use Facebook weirdly, under a pseudonym, and I think I only manage to do it because I regard it as a kind of vast fiction, a tapestry-novel that we’re all writing together, playing at personae (shades of Shields!). Just as I recall reading an introduction to a collection of Robert Sheckley’s short stories where he confessed that the only way he could find his way into a voice for writing an introduction to a collection of stories was to pretend he was writing one more story, about a writer who’s writing an introduction. And just as I’ve more or less solved the problem of participating in this little exchange with you by thinking of it as a story about two writers having an exchange. (They’re not bad guys, these two, they just don’t know what they’re talking about.) My first-person voice isn’t non-autobiographical, I’d never deny those overtones, but it isn’t *me*, you know? I know you know.
From: David Gates
To: Jonathan Lethem
Subject: Don’t follow tweeters
I’m not taking a Luddite position at all. I’m delighted to have a cellphone and wireless internet—I only wish it were faster up here in the woods. I rely heavily on Google and I waste time watching old country-music clips on YouTube. (I recommend “Punish Me Tomorrow,” by Carl and Pearl Butler.) It’s just a matter of taste and temperament. Participating in whatever vast fiction—though Shields might think you were demeaning it calling it that—“we” might be creating sounds excruciating to me. I’m not a great fan of “we” enterprises anyway, unless they’re five-piece bands with a pedal steel guitar. Nor do I want to provide information for the advertisers and marketers for whose benefit Facebook seems ultimately designed. (“A hip capitalist is a hip pig,” as I used to say, back before I thought I could possibly be implicated.) Nor do I feel an urge to tell the world at large what I’m doing or thinking—except in some magazine, backed by advertising money, at so much a word. (Nice work if you can get it anymore.) If you’re looking for bafflement on my part, here it is: I don’t get why people voluntarily present themselves for online inspection. Sure, fine, okay, it’s not really “themselves” they’re presenting, but rather some constructed “self.” Don’t we do enough of that when we’re offline? I don’t get Twitter either. I love you like a brother—who else on God’s earth would come up with the phrase “dutiful bafflement”?—but I wouldn’t want to “follow” your 140-character broadcasts about this or that any more than I assume you’d want to “follow” mine, if I were to start issuing them. (Don’t follow tweeters, watch the parking meters.) Many people I’m fond of are involved in this stuff; I hope they bear with what they take to be my oddness as I bear with what I take to be theirs.
But we were talking about fiction—I mean, non-vast, one-writer-one-reader fiction. I still get transported by books like, oh, Junot Díaz’s novel. And maybe one or two transporting books every few years is all we ever had anyway. Part of my problem with fiction is purely personal, though hardly unique: like a lot of writers, I review fiction and teach fiction-writing, and over the years I’ve come to associate reading new or unfamiliar work with professional obligation rather than with pleasure. It takes something strong now to break through my analytic coldness of heart—even in (and perhaps especially in) my own work. If I begin writing something and can see where it’s going, I don’t want to go there. I think that’s part of Shields’s objection to fiction: that he’s no longer surprised, that he’s impatient with the tropes he’s seen a million times before. Whether the reality for which he claims to hunger is any less trite is another question.
From: Jonathan Lethem
To: David Gates
Subject: Salingerian elephants
Yeah, that *was* nice work back when we could get it, being paid to present ourselves for inspection: Advertisements for Ourselves. When there’s no hierarchy in self-aggrandizement the pros fall back on silence, exile, cunning, huh? Yet I feel an old trap snapping shut, where the novelists are supposed to shut up and blunder through the dark woods like Salingerian elephants with day-glo targets painted on their backs, entitled only to subvocal grunting when their periodic utterances are filleted in the instantaneous opinion-marketplace. Isn’t there some other version of literary practice wherein a ‘man of letters’ would leap into this realm of commentary—at 140 characters a minute, or by whatever units of dispersal it was shoved into—without too much complaint or compromise? I’ve been reading G.K. Chesterton, and that mofo had something to say about each breaking info-packet as it came across his desk (newspapers published four times a day, or whatever it was), and boy was he usually both right and terrifically vivid in so doing—his “occasional” journalism still reads like breaking news. Come to think of it, so does yours, my friend, when you lower yourself to it.
But another question: so, you’re Googling and YouTubing, if not Twizzling or Fnorgling, fair enough. But are your *characters* doing the same? Do you find it as difficult as I do to get this un-Brave, no-longer-that-New World onto the page in any credible way?
From: David Gates
To: Jonathan Lethem
Subject: I guess “living” is the word
I suspect you’re inventing Twizzling and Fnorgling, though I wouldn’t swear to it. Anyway, snow knocked the power out at my house for the past day or so, and I’ve been living in the eighteenth century: reading by candlelight, no running water, sending only a quick e-mail by dialup, from a computer running on its battery. It’s a good corrective for the nostalgia I claim not to have.
No more “hierarchy in self-aggrandizement”? Well said. Yeah, I got the memo too: goodbye and good luck from the gatekeepers, upon retiring to the beach houses they presciently bought in Costa Rica. (They can have the exile and cunning; I’m fine with the silence.) Still I’m one of the lucky ones: while I could pass freely through the gate, I sneaked out enough canned goods to stock my snowy little survivalist compound.
Well, let me try to be less metaphorical. Chesterton IS ever-fresh, and I’ll bet he never considered occasional journalism as “lowering” himself. Neither do I. When I did it regularly—for something like twenty-five years—I worked at it as hard as I did at fiction, and I usually found it wonderfully satisfying. It’s odd how writing is writing is writing. Hell, when I read your essays, it’s hard for me to imagine that your heart isn’t in them as much as it is in your fiction. But do novelists NEED to be out in the “instantaneous-opinion marketplace”? I mean, it’s fine with me if they WANT to. I’ve spent years myself clamoring to “weigh in” on the latest book by so-and-so, and if I couldn’t be part of “the conversation” about such and such—that is, if Reviewer X got the gig instead of me—I felt like a wallflower. But in the long run, is there much use in contributing to the noise of cultural commentary? (I trust that you’re not suggesting novelists respond when their OWN work is “filleted” in the marketplace of opinion; that’s a game nobody ever wins.) There’s always a new book, always a new movie, always a new record, displacing last week’s new book, movie, or record, to be displaced in their turn by next week’s products. And there’s no shortage of commentators. Does “weighing in”—from the stand point of one’s oh-so-unique personal aesthetic, of course—help one’s own work? Okay, sure, maybe, in terms of forming that aesthetic. But the constant focus on whatever new products are coming down the line can also foster a sense of one’s OWN work as one more product in the marketplace—which may be accurate, but hardly helpful. Ultimately isn’t it one on one—you in the room with your work, the reader in the chair with your work—with the clamor at a distance?
As to your other question, I have no idea how to handle this new mode of living (I guess “living” is the word) in fiction. I probably spend more time e-mailing and reading online than I do having non-virtual human contact—and I bet I’m not that unusual. If my characters were like that, would their lives be eventful enough to write about? On the other hand, if I write about people for whom the internet is—as far as the reader can see—peripheral or nonexistent, am I not essentially writing historical fiction? In the last story I finished, I used the expedient of sending my main character on a vacation where she’s sworn to limit her internet and cell phone use. And how do you deal with the problem of writing something that may be dated by the time the book comes out? My novel Preston Falls, which appeared in 1998, has a now-hilarious account of an e-mail exchange—“He hit Send,” and so forth. And I just received a piece of student fiction which mentions Facebook and Skype in adjacent paragraphs; my instinct is that this is showing off, but maybe it’s no different from Jane Austen mentioning a fortepiano and a huswife on the same page. Do you have any rules or principles or theories about this stuff—whether or not you throw them out in practice?
From: Jonathan Lethem
To: David Gates
Subject: explicit retro-stupidity
Well, let’s just say I waste hardly any of my time Fnorgling anymore, after a very brief infatuation.
Rules or principles or theories—uh, no. But in fact, I did find myself wanting to explore the ‘virtual life’ to an extent in Chronic City—not to weigh in with any pontifical conclusions, more just to describe the weirdness of the screens now hedging us all around, half-acknowledged. My silly solution to the problem of writing something that would ‘date’ was akin to my approach to particle physics in As She Climbed Across The Table (where I made my character a resolutely obtuse humanities professor who proudly didn’t ‘get’ science): I gave my characters a dial-up modem, and burdened them with explicit retro-stupidity on the whole matter of the internet. Once they were firmly ‘dated’, I could advance them heedlessly into the “future” that’s already everyone’s taken-for-granted past: eBay, for them, constitutes a mind-blowing excursion into cyberpunkery. Sort of like writing a book about characters who still think it’s revolutionary to smoke hemp. Which it may be.
So, did your immersion into dialup and candlelight—which sounds, incidentally, like the play Noël Coward might write if he’d lived to see 1996—really only correct your nostalgia? Myself, I’ve set up a second computer, devoid of internet, for my fiction-writing. That’s to say, I took an expensive Mac and turned it back into a typewriter. (You should imagine my computer set-up guy’s consternation when I insisted he drag the internet function out of the thing entirely. “I can just hide it from you,” he said. “No,” I told him, “I don’t want to know it’s in there somewhere.”) In fact, you ask me whether I feel there’s any difference between my fiction and essay—well, not (I ardently hope) either quality or commitment-wise (in that sense, yes, writing is writing), but lately, à la David Shields, process-wise I find I do want to Google while I essay, and while I’m always certain I need that other, internet-disabled computer for writing fiction. I just finished a long essay/short book on the subject of a film—John Carpenter’s They Live, since you ask—and though I’m proud to say I believe no one else could have written the thing (or would be likely even to have tried), and it doesn’t consist either of any radical intertextuality (or borrowing or stealing), my short chapters really do launch themselves, again and again, directly out of the immediate act of reading old reviews, research, blog entries, et cetera (and the book’s going to feature a lot of this stuff in the form of epigraphs, for disclosure purposes, but also the fun of it). Whereas with the fiction, despite the fact that I always admired the novel’s voracious engulfment of all kinds of nonfiction modes, and of reams of research and factuality, I’ve suspected lately that the penetration of ‘information’ from pretty much anywhere has suddenly become the least interesting move I can make. That fiction, from where I sit, now wants to go more deeply into what it alone can do—subjectivity, language, eccentric unsupported supposition, deep expressionist lying.
And—putting writing aside for a moment—wasn’t it a relief to quit checking your email? I’ve been guessing that being offline will soon be the new luxury. Expensive safe zones in remote locales, coffee shops bragging of “No WiFi,” etc. I tried to persuade Yaddo that they ought to get ahead of this curve, and reinstate a Cone of Silence approach to art colony life, but no cigar. I appear to be alone in this. They’ve even begun ruining airplanes, an experience redeemed only by its deep baffle of inaccessibility from the noise of connection that trails you everywhere nowadays, by installing wireless signals. (Fortunately you still have to pay, and I’m cheap.)
No, no, I won’t be baited: novelists absolutely don’t need to be in any instantaneous-opinion marketplace, I was apparently contradicting my own beliefs there in a (useless) attempt to bait you. Novels and the novelists who labor over them are, essentially, elephants, steamships, space probes. Slow-moving, slow-reacting, uselessly out of touch in the reaction-time marketplace, even before its digitalized redoubling. Half the time I’m interviewed by working journalists I seem to need to spend correcting their impression that I’ve written a given novel out of some sudden impulsive reaction to last week’s headlines, or out of feelings of rivalrous inspiration connected to other novels published a year or two before my own. Apart from the logistical impossibility of my writing anything in reaction to work I couldn’t possibly have read in time—sometimes I really do feel this patronizing urge to walk them through the timeline—I just don’t turn my thinking quickly enough to do it if I wanted to. The books take three or four years’ thinking about before I even begin the two or three years’ work (and then they sit at the publisher, fermenting, I suppose, for another nine or fifteen months). My reading’s out of date, that’s part of what makes it distinctive, if it is. In that sense, I suspect Hemingway was being quite honest when he talked about going into the ring with Turgenev, even if the ‘writing-is-fighting’ paradigm seems quaintly blustery to us now. Hemingway might have simply been making the point that for a novelist, Turgenev is still breaking news, hot off the presses.
From: David Gates
To: Jonathan Lethem
Subject: an absolutely clean machine
Ah, News That Stays News. The old sweet song writers sang each to each in Atlantis, as the sidewalks sank and the tsunamis loomed. Still, quaint as it seems, I agree. Lots of Shakespeare’s local and topical allusions are lost on us—just as yours or mine will be lost on those mutant future readers, if we’re lucky enough to have any, and so what?—yet there he still is, staring straight at you.
I’m just joshing about mutants, by the way. I doubt the new technology is going to render people unrecognizable, any more than the old technologies did: moveable type, the automobile, the radio. Remember when people used to call LSD “the last fad”? Which I guess means that I don’t really have to learn about a new species of human—perhaps by becoming one myself—in order to continue writing fiction. (For me, the whole woo-woo aspect of the internet, in which “reality” is always in quotes and everything’s an appropriated simulacrum of an appropriated simulacrum, doesn’t offer much in the way of inspiration; I’ve done LSD, I’ve read Borges.) I admit, I got worried listening to an NPR show the other day, which dealt in part with people “branding” themselves on the internet. You already HAVE a brand, it seems, whether or not you wanted one—now it’s just a question of whether or not you’re going to “manage” it. From this perspective, the instantaneous-opinion marketplace is only a noisy corner of a much larger marketplace, a TOTAL marketplace, in which people traffic in their very selves, or at least in the crafted images of those selves. Scary stuff, until you reflect that Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Dickens—to mention only them—knew all about it years ago. What are the Wife of Bath, Falstaff, and Mr. Micawber if not self-branders? (Or, to use Harold Bloom’s much kinder phrase, “free artists of themselves.”)
Still, even though I’ve established that the new technology’s no threat to me whatsoever, I like your idea of an internet-incapable computer. Thank you. I’m going to get one of my laptops spayed immediately. I’ll also need to strip out the music player and all the games (solitaire is the only one I know how to play now, but believe me, I can learn), and whatever other beguilements I’m forgetting. True, I’ve already got an unelectrified cabin on the top of my hill where no internet rays can reach and where I can, in theory, write for as long as my computer’s battery lasts; it’s just that I’m usually too scared to go up there. It might be less confusing if I brought an absolutely clean machine along. Or a yellow legal pad and a black Bic medium point.