Interview by Dinesh Raghavendra, Steven A. Michalkow, C. Derick Varn, Jayaprakash Sathyamurthy. Jake Waalk, and Joseph Brenner
Jonathan Lethem is an American novelist, essayist and short story writer. His first novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, a multi-genre work that mixed elements of science fiction and detective fiction, was published in 1994. It was followed by three more science fiction novels. In 1999, Lethem published Motherless Brooklyn, a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novel that achieved him mainstream literary success. In 2003, he published The Fortress of Solitude, which became a New York Times Best Seller. In 2005, he received a MacArthur Fellowship. His most recent book is Dissident Gardens. We decided to speak to him about New Wave science fiction, and its relationship to mainstream literary writing as well as other developments in a writer’s life.
Do movements like the new wave achieve any sort of lasting impact, however small? Or do the new elements they introduce inevitably become modified into tropes and cliches that achieve the opposite of the original intention (like steampunk starting in part as a critique of the very era it now celebrates)?
That’ll teach me to ask for new questions!
Of course they do. I recall (since you mention Steampunk and new wave) my up-close witnessing of the Cyberpunk provocation. This was at the Claremont Hotel in Oakland, at a gathering called SerCon
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker and John Shirley sat on a panel, like the Beatles on a Hamburg Rathskeller stage, and more or less announced that the entire science fiction field apart from them was calcified, corrupted, and defunct. Bruce Sterling, who was their equivalent of Andre Breton, dismissed skeptical inquiry with terms like “You’re simply not culturally on-line.” It was arresting and ridiculous and emboldened nearly everyone in the room, even if it was in the form of outrage or a vivid fear of irrelevance. Now, was that a “movement”? Like most, it consisted of different aesthetics pulling in different directions, decorated with a few bold gestures of manifesto and sartorial style. But it made everyone feel that something had happened, was happened, needed to be prevented happening, or — something. And it launched careers. It made other people write angrier and weirder in resistance to claims they found oppressive or bogus. All of this is needed, even if it passes and becomes inexplicable, or is co-opted into some plastic replica afterwards. Needless to say, writers are divergent, eccentric by their fundamental natures, and don’t make effective “movement” participants. But they make good times to live through.
Most tropes grind down into banality. What tends to shear off is the political urgencies, the vitality of context, and the acute irony or self-awareness. You begin with Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man and you end up with Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves. Many things live long enough to become their own opposite. Like All in the Family, whose Archie Bunker was conceived in outrage, a bleaker anti-hero than Walter White, but became a teddy bear.
You have consistently managed to occupy the space of an important, fringe-speculative literary voice. How do you keep from ‘normalizing’ as a writer?
I’m glad you don’t think I have. Due to the way several of my recent books have gotten longer, and the fairly normative profile with which they’re presented by my publisher — “big American writer” being one of the most hidebound formats possible — I suspect some people would disagree with your premise. I don’t. I think the books are as strange as ever; they’re strange to me, stranger in many ways, since I’ve grown to encompass new traits, new capacities, new influences and ambitions. Even when they’re larger they’re larger as “gestures”, not “statements” — I’ve pretty much avoided statements like the plague. Keeping myself abnormal is also a matter of continuing to accept eccentric assignments, even when they seem to divert from the main work — accepting them is my main work, at times, as evidenced by The Ecstasy of Influence collection. Continuing to write short stories has helped keep me surprised, and humble — they break me out of my certainties as a novelist. Actually listening to my students, too, and reading what they recommend me to read. I suppose it also helps that I don’t even know what it would mean to normalize. Or even completely understand your question, come to think of it.
The way Phillip K. Dick and a number of other science fiction authors wrote and spoke of their work implied a desire to be taken more seriously. They wished for their works to be seen as genuine literature rather than something secondary or tertiary to the core of literature. Today, the literary world increasingly seems to have accommodated that desire, but what does that mean when high literature itself seems increasingly like a genre with its own cliches?
Listen: Everyone wants to be taken seriously, which is sometimes really damaging to the careers of movie comedians (but then again I wouldn’t want to be without “Monsieur Verdoux”, “The King of Comedy”, late Jacque Tati, or “Broken Flowers”). There are some special conditions pertaining to the pulp fiction genres that arose with the fiction-magazine-boom of the early 20th century, where a handful of really fascinating writers — some of them modernists manqué, some of them surrealists manqué, some of them transcending even those loose generalizations — found themselves sort of ghettoized by the ideology and readership and social protocols attached to bushels of other writing that nobody took especially seriously, mostly for perfectly understandable reasons. In particular cases, the injuries can be heartbreaking — I’ve spent a lot of my life wishing that people knew that Samuel Delany was as essential a writer as this country has produced, and Delany’s not only alive, but a very articulate advocate for his own situation! It’s also true that in our lifetimes — well, mine — literary surrealism, and literary reflexivity, and elements of the fantastic, have been very much in fashion (Barthelme, Coover, etc., as well as a certain selective interest in “new wave” SF), and then again very strongly out of fashion (Raymond Carver, et al, et al) and then again somewhat in again (spearheaded by Latin American ‘magic realism’ but then involving a porousness in English-language writing between what used to be consider the fantastical and the mundane). But, but, but — making categorical defenses of wide categories or modes or subcultures of literary activity no longer, for me, sheds as much useful light as I’d prefer. The effort is better spent reading individual works, individual authors, and characterizing their peculiar virtues and functions. In the really larger framework, which as you get older and live through a few variations in fashion — and which your question’s terms seems to beg — there’s only one way to look at all of this: Time sorts stuff out. I think it’s really dicey trying to measure ‘the present state of high literature’ against — well, against anything, or even to suggest you can somehow identify what that present state consists of, its contours or parameters or anything more than a few very likely — but by no means certain! — canonical items in the checkout bin of posterity.
When I think about the “New Wave” period of science fiction, I cannot escape the fact that the radicalism of the 60s and early 70s punctuates that work either directly or indirectly. Should we think of such a political context as a necessary ingredient if we want to see a similar burst of SF creativity? Either in the creation of the work or in the reception of the work?
Great question. I don’t know if I have an answer. Of course, at its worst, such seeming correspondences are probably no more than fashion, in the literal sense — superficial paisley-spangled Radical Chic. But then again, nervous, traumatic, potentially transformational times may create a susceptibility, even an appetite, for nervous, traumatic, potentially transformation gestures by writers and readers. Since I’m pretty much always feeling that way, the appetite never went, and never goes, away.
The more time I invest in Former People, the more I think our critical task is to share with people our thoughts on how to read as much as what to read. As you have been investing more and more of your time into teaching creative writing at Pomona, I’ve noticed that you have regularly stated that you spend a great deal of your time teaching students how to read. How difficult has this task become over time? Do you find that certain books become increasingly harder (or easier) to read over time for new generations? Is this something we should be concerned when we judge the literacy of younger generations or is this just the sentimentality of older generations?
J.M. Coetzee is very articulate on this subject in Diary of a Bad Year. His aging writer character — close enough to himself to be totally persuasive, but fictional enough to place us in an imaginative relationship to ourselves, as well as to Coetzee — seems to accept, however wearily, that part of the responsibility of the aging writer, or the aging human, is to become a kind of advocate for older frameworks, political, social, literary, even simply syntactical, ways of seeing that are evaporating before his or her eyes. Even when in a losing cause. In a world characterized by both amnesia and velocity, there’s pretty much always some urban renewal project overturning the ground beneath our feet, and therefore plenty of urgent and ethical work to be done in the matter of testimony and witnessing, archiving, and building dioramas and temples to vanishing ways of thinking and being. Trying to keep a text alive as it becomes potentially inexplicable to a newer reader is pretty honorable work. The key is, of course, making keen selections, correcting for sentimentality, and managing your temperament so you’re not one of those off-my-lawn types. It’s work.
What do you see as the motivations of cyberpunk authors building noir and neo-noir tropes and mannerisms into their science fiction, and do you see the work of Raymond Chandler and other hard-boiled authors having a strong influence on that prose style as well? It seems to be a thread even in your own works, particularly “Gun with Occasional Music.”
I didn’t see it in their prose style, no, not especially. I actually began Gun partly in a kind of irritation at the idea that Gibson and some of the other cyberpunks were being called “hard-boiled”. I was a rather pedantic student of that genre at the time and I saw it as obeying laws as strict as a sonnet, and much as I admired Neuromancer it didn’t seem to me to give evidence of any interest in playing by those rules (it actually seemed much closer to Pynchon to me). So I set out to create a dystopia which paid strict homage to Chandler, Ross MacDonald, James Crumley, and a couple of early James Ellroy novels; obviously, I was thinking of the Californian-first-person-gumshoe tradition. But of course very often when people use the word “noir” they merely mean “dark”, or “dark and mannerist”. Which, if I got off my high horse, did loosely characterize the difference between, say, John Shirley or K.W. Jeter and the vast majority of the stuff a genre SF-reader would have been encountering right around that time (which is to presuppose that the weren’t reading a bit further back in the field to encounter Ballard or Disch). But that’s not a “genre”, not in the sense that a sonnet is, which is the sense I’d prefer, because it actually means something. (For that matter, Film Noir isn’t really a genre, not the way a hard-boiled detective story is, or a western. It’s a set of stylistic signifiers that cross through different narrative approaches, and within which theses approaches become melded.)
To my ear, you can sometimes find something akin to the genuine primordial hardboiled style — a Hemingway-Hammett-Ring Lardner kind of stripped-back, corner-of-the-mouth American vernacular inflection — in some contemporaneous “classic” SF and fantasy — Heinlein’s toughest books, like “The Puppet Masters”, or in some Bester or early Simak or Sheckley, or Richard Matheson. Which only makes sense, given the time-frame.
You use a very interesting phrase to describe new trends (literary or political) as “urban renewal project[s] overturning the ground beneath our feet.” Have there been any particular “beatification” projects in recent literature that you find particularly plastic, shoddy, or worth resisting? At this point in your career, do you see these renewal projects as external affronts to literature or internally generated bad thinking or a little of both?
Let me make certain I understand: are you tempting me to poop on somebody’s idols? I probably won’t take the invitation, but let me creep up to its threshold. Beatification is a suspicious word, and nearly anything that’s been taken as sacred is “worth resisting”, if only to test it a bit against our resources of skepticism and irony — we all have some, don’t we? Please don’t tell me it’s only me — no, no, one glance at the Comments Section reassures me I’m not alone. At worst, if we’re utterly cynical in saying “bosh” to what we’re offered as sacred, we’ll be awash in a transforming love, since that’s what a skeptical encounter with the beatific should result in. On the other hand, though, I find tremendous sustenance in all sorts of things that are plastic, and sometimes even shoddy. Some of the most delicate offerings are both, and if it what such offerings require is sometimes a collaborative act, one in which the reader must prop up the preposterous confabulation through their own efforts, by a kind of steady loving attention that causes the shoddy plastic item to resemble a glorious marble sculpture or brass fountain, it may be the more extraordinary experience. I’ve baked some shoddy plastic things into crafts into which I’ve heaped my belongings and sailed my whole life around the continents of literature. I don’t even know what I’m talking about anymore.
Really, the only kind of beatification I object to is that which degrades the supporting context in its favor — the claim that such-and-such is the “only” writer, or novel, or voice. Because literature is the genius, and it is multivocal above all.
I think I’ll leave it at that.