Famous Authors, at Rest and at Email
Say there’s a room. In the room you have a chair and a desk. On the desk is a computer, with an internet connection. Then there’s another room, identical in every respect to the first room. Now, put two novelists in these rooms. Each gets his own room, but in order to be let out (for food and freedom), both have to have a long email exchange with one another about writing in the digital age. Say the writers in question are David Gates and Jonathan Lethem. Furthermore, let’s say that their intellectual agility is no less apparent in their written conversation than it is in their fiction.
Well, the PEN American Center has answered the call: Lethem and Gates, email after email after email, have chatted away an enjoyable 15 minutes of my time. Choice comment from Lethem:
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 My reading’s out of date, that’s part of what makes it distinctive, if it is.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.
And Gates’ choice response:
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.