Lethem comes out swinging

Here’s writer Jonathan Lethem:

Fiction is a gigantic construction, a bauble. A novel is not life. That’s why it’s so pointless that this relentless baiting goes on, where ‘realist’ fiction is pitted against ‘anti-realist’ fiction as though one of the two has made some kind of commitment of integrity to be real, a responsibility the other has abdicated. Listen: every novel is a piece of wrought plastic. Readers may not wish to dwell on this fact, and I feel no necessity that they do, but writers, in order be intelligent about the innate properties of their medium, must come to grips with it. Fiction, like language, is innately artificial and innately fabulous. It’s made of metaphor. Language itself is a fantastic element. It’s not possible to plant words in the ground and have seeds grow up and feed on the results. It’s not part of the biological or mechanical world.

And some more, delineating my objections to the James Wood school of criticism more clearly than I ever could:

Look, let me be brutal. When you encounter the argument that there is a hierarchy where certain kinds of literary operations—which we’ll call “realism,” for want of a handier term, though I’ll insist on the scare quotes—represent the only authentic and esteemed tradition, well, it’s a load of horseshit. When you see or hear that kind of hierarchy being proposed, it’s not a literary-critical operation. It’s a class operation. In that system of allusions, of unspoken castes and quarantines, mimetic fiction is associated with propriety, with the status quo defending itself, anxiously, against incursions from the great and wooly Beyond. When ‘realism’ is esteemed over other kinds of literary methods, you’re no longer in a literary-critical conversation; you’ve entered a displaced conversation about class. About the need for the Brahmin to keep an Untouchable well-marked and in close proximity, in order to confirm his role as Brahmin. Once something has been relegated or outcast or quarantined from propriety, you’re seeing a kind of burnishing of class credentials, a hastening to the redoubt, a drawing-up of the drawbridge of the castle, because the moat is too full of terrifying fish and fowl. A critic who expends much energy on delineating quarantines—“This sort of material is legitimate” is testifying as to their own anxieties as to whether or not they themselves are on the legitimate side of some imagined moat or gulf. “We’re going to draw a line here, and feel very relieved and superior about the people on one side of the line and very disappointed and sorry for the people on the other side.” It’s not a literary critical distinction of any usefulness whatsoever.

And, oh hell, one more quote:

What’s left, then, in the residue of a reactionary environment, is cult hysteria. [Michel] Houellebecq is typical of the provocative, absurd figures that flourish in conservative times. In place of intelligent conversation everything is pushed to extremes. On one side we have the castle with its drawbridge raised—the vast environment of what’s actually going on in the world of writing and reading stranded outside the preserve—and on the other end we feature ludicrous figures of cartoon provocation. I personally don’t find Houellebecq that thrilling, just as I don’t find Lars von Trier the most nourishing filmmaker. A von Trier or Houellebecq dedicates far, far too much of their energies, their creative energies, to sheer provocation. You see a kind of mirror image of the reactionary impulse, a moral scold from the other end of the spectrum. The only message a Houellebecq or von Trier can convey is “Western society, and all that your propriety comprises, is totally bankrupt.” Well, fair enough. The problem is, I’m not terribly nourished in being scolded for being a citizen of contemporary Western culture.

Look, if none of that makes you want to read Robert Birnbaum’s interview with Jonathan Lethem, then I can’t help you. Mind you, I’ve never read a word by Jonathan Lethem. But, since he’s this expansive, articulate, and damn near argumentative in an off-the-cuff interview, I’m going to make a point of seeking out at least his collection of essays, The Disappointment Artist. I’ve been fooled before by articulate talkers–Salman Rushdie’s one of the greatest interviewees of all time, but I can’t get into his fiction at all–but I’ll take a chance on Lethem. You should, too.


About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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One Response to Lethem comes out swinging

  1. Michael says:

    “A critic who expends much energy on delineating quarantines—’This sort of material is legitimate’ is testifying as to their own anxieties as to whether or not they themselves are on the legitimate side of some imagined moat or gulf.”
    That’s classic — and very apt.

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