Ben Lerner on the Porous Boundaries of Literature, Truth, and Plagiarism
Highlights from BAM's Eat, Drink & Be Literary
On Tuesday night, Ben Lerner took the stage at BAM as part of their Eat, Drink & Be Literary series—a truly delightful (and remarkably well-organized) event that offers music, dinner, wine, a reading, and a great literary conversation on stage. In his conversation with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, Lerner discussed the bleed-through of literary genres (including fact, fiction, and whatever counts as political speech these days), selling out, and the responsibility of the artist in these trying times. A few highlights from their conversation and the following audience question and answer session are below, edited for length and clarity.
On fiction and plot:
Well I’m told that my novels don’t have plots. I think all kinds of things happen, personally, but I must have a very low threshold for what constitutes an event. In part, because it’s the event of thinking, it’s the texture of a mind [that interests me]—I think novels are really good at depicting consciousness. A lot of my favorite novels are as patterned as they are plotted, and I think that I think a little bit more in terms of motif than plot, although both [my] novels also, to a certain degree, do tell stories, and they also narrate their own construction in certain ways. So that the taking shape of the book in your hands is an element of the plot. And not in the sense of telling you that plot’s impossible, in a deconstructionist funhouse way, but actually trying to make the story of reading and writing, and the way fact becomes fiction, and fiction becomes fact, and the way you communicate across time through a book, like actually make those wondrous things live possibilities while reading.
On the porous boundary between fact and fiction:
There’s a version of myself in both [10:04 and Leaving the Atocha Station], although everybody else tends to be made up. Part of it is that the first novel [especially] was really concerned with the possibility of authentic aesthetic experience, which is a really traditional novelistic concern, like am I having the right feeling before the painting, or as in Stendhal, am I really participating in a battle or is history passing me by? It’s a very traditional concern. I thought that if there was some blurring of the boundary between the historical author and the narrator, that that would energize that concern. … [With] the second novel, which is kind of about how the fictions we tell become facts, how they can be subject to change, it again seemed to me like blurring the boundaries between those two books, making a kind of diptych, raising questions about the relation of historical authorship and fictional authorship, was again—it was important to the book to have that charge. So I don’t, in a prescriptive way, feel like one should or should not write with an avatar of herself, but I felt like it was thematically necessary in both works. … I think I’ve really rooted in the first person, where syntax can be such a mechanism of characterization. It’s not only in the first person where that happens, but [in the first person] you really get to know the narrator not only through his ideas but through the process of ideation, through the process of what it feels like to be in his head.
When Deborah Treisman called Lerner out on the scene in 10:04 where the Lerner-character complains about the obnoxious editors at the New Yorker editing his story, when in real life it was she who had edited Lerner’s story in the New Yorker (the same story that appears in the novel as his character’s work), and he had been offended at his edits—until he eventually came around:
Um. I was never offended. I initially disagreed and then came to understand the wisdom of the edit.
Part of the backstory—and it’s different for everybody—but my poetry is never edited. I mean, it’s edited by friends all the time, but when you give a poem to a magazine, for better or for worse, it’s very rare, not unheard of, but very rare that there’s editorial feedback. And in fiction, of course there’s a lot of editorial feedback, and at the New Yorker that feedback is very good. But I think, what I was narrating was actually the author of the story not having a clear instinct—he has this kind of knee-jerk reaction that his work can’t be touched, and part of 10:04 generally is him learning the kind of malleability of fiction, and the impossibility of controlling any fiction, so I think that’s how it links up, in part. But the other thing about that is that when I wrote that story I had no imagination of the novel, but one thing I’m really interested in is, it’s kind of like a Duchampian readymade, but it’s a little different: that story, although it’s word-for-word identical to when it was in the New Yorker, is a totally different story, even with identical language, in the novel, because there’s this frame around it that changes it and charges it in all these different ways and that’s part of what the book is about. So there’s also a section in 10:04 which I originally wrote for an essay about an artist for an essay that was about art vandalism that also I kind of inserted into the work, thinking about what happens to language when it moves from outside the frame of a fiction into the frame of a fiction. I’m really interested in that effect. So that was part of why the New Yorker story was there. It was a good edit. I actually don’t remember what the edit even was, but I’m sure it was.
Treisman: It was the part about making up the letters for the archives.
Hmm. Yeah, which became a really important part of the novel, yeah.
On the difference between writing poetry and writing fiction:
Poetry just feels like much more of a push-pull relationship with material. And I never want the language to dissolve into what’s being narrated; it always feels like more thingly, which doesn’t mean that I don’t care about what the language is referring to, but I feel less in control of that. It’s a different compositional speed for me; I can’t go to the next line unless I’ve basically solved the problem of the previous line. I’m not saying it always works, but I feel that way—whereas in prose I feel like I can write a paragraph where I know I’m just getting to the next thing, and that paragraph’s gonna be a problem later that I can fix. In in the language game of poetry it’s very hard to go on—I can’t go on until I feel like I have some resolution to the preceding line. I wish it were otherwise, actually, because it makes me really crazy. Fiction and non-fiction feel the same to me… so the different genres are all in one larger syntax, and sometimes what I feel able to do in one is based on what I did in the other, but the real answer is I don’t know. The best and worst thing about writing is that I don’t feel like you know how to do it by virtue of having done it.
On writing as sociology:
Maybe the [term] echo chamber is good, in the sense where you can kind of show all the Englishes in the English in order to produce a less sanitized image of the state of American English in a particular moment, an irreducibly plural thing. In a really traditional sense, [novels] are about the individual’s relation to the social, which is always mediated by language, and produces comic kinds of disconnects, or tragic kinds of disconnects— a good novel is producing, not in any universalizing way, one vector of what it’s like to be alive now. A rich texture of the present communicated in that book. I think it’s really good at that, the novel.
On whether Lerner’s poet friends thought he was selling out with Leaving the Atocha Station:
Well, only when it started getting attention.
Certain poets, and by no means all poets, but certain poets have a really exaggerated sense of what fiction writing means. I used to think that if your book got reviewed in the New York Times, you made like 10 million dollars or something. So I think what happens is that, in innovative poetry communities, one of the things that’s often a source of real pride and real consternation—and I have a lot of respect for it and a lot of problems with it—is the idea that difficulty and the smallness of the community is what protects it from recuperation by the market. Difficulty has a really complicated history in innovative art-making. There are parts of it that I still really struggle with and believe in and there are parts of it that I think can be really stultifying—like when the only mark of participation in a literary community is the smallness of the community. When that really becomes dominant, then it can become really fetishized and dangerous. But that’s not how serious poets I know think. I think people, even when they know better, have complicated investments in genre identity.
On why people hate poetry:
I think one of the things that’s interesting about poetry is that more people dislike it than can agree on what it is, a lot of the time. … I think poetry is in great shape, in a lot of ways.
One of the things I argue [in The Hatred of Poetry] is that we use the word poetry to denote a kind of possibility that can never be actualized by specific poems. What we ask…is that you write a poem that’s at once irreducibly individual—it’s your most intense interiority—and that it’s sharable by everyone. And that that’s actually not possible, and that fantasy of universalism, of a reconciliation between the individual and the social, would need another technology than a poem. It would need a revolution.
Which is not to say that poems can’t be part of the revolution. The arguments are always the same, the arguments are: this poem doesn’t speak for everyone. And then they pretend that Whitman’s poems spoke for everyone. Which is a really interesting—they always say, well what about Whitman, as if Whitman’s impossible project was realized in the past. I mean, does this country look like Whitman’s impossible project was realized in the past? Whitman, in his journals, says “I’m the poet of the master, I’m the poet of the slave.” Like, no you’re not.
On political plagiarism and racist subtext:
Well, plagiarizing is really interesting right now. Like the Melania plagiarism or Le Pen—there’s this big article today about Le Pen plagiarizing these speeches—and I think that part of that’s about a belief that the political language is so bankrupt that it’s just about putting the language in certain mouths. Like Michelle Obama’s language can be put in Melania’s mouth—it wasn’t that different than what Rudolph Giuliani was doing there, which was this mocking quotation of Obama—and I think the real message there was: get this language out of bodies of color and put it back in white bodies where it belongs. I think that was the racist subtext to that kind of plagiarism. When Le Pen does the same thing—I mean it’s not the same thing, because it’s not racialized in the same way—but [when she] takes another candidate’s language, she plugs that kind of political speech into this new kind of hateful nationalism. So the truth of those moments is the fact that they don’t write their own speeches. We all already know—I mean some people are involved to a greater or lesser degree—but I think there’s a level of bankruptcy to political speech, where plagiarism just becomes this way of moving language into different subject positions and then debating what kind of subject should be in power.
On the use of images in his work:
One of the things I’m interested in with images is just to remind us of the power of captioning. You know the Wittgenstein thing, the duck/rabbit, the multistable figure where you can see it as a duck or you can see it as a rabbit? … For me, part of what a novel does is that it’s very invested in seeing as. You put an image in the book and then you invite the reader to see it as this, or as that, and that emphasis on the way text can subject images to redescription is really fascinating. It’s one of the things that interests me most about the novel.
In many scenes in 10:04 there are these moments of looking together. What I really like about having two characters, or a character looking at an image in a novel, in the time of the narrative, is that the reader and the character are looking at the image together. It’s a fiction, but the time of narrative and the time of the narrated touch briefly, and that to me is a really important moment of possibility; producing that correspondence. I think it lends a charge to the rest of the work.
On the responsibility of the writer in the current political climate:
This interesting thing happened to me the day after the election. And you know, there’s a serious debate about whether the day after the election was really a new moment or just a horrible confrontation with a reality that precedes it, and I think it’s both. But I got these two emails from poet friends that were both only kind of joking. One email said: finally the political conditions for poetry mattering have arrived! And I knew what he meant—I mean he wasn’t actually celebrating, but he meant that the language matters more now, the arts matter more, they’re under attack; everything you do that’s a resistance to the fascist capture of the state, however small, is vital. And the small communities as pockets of resistance where art-making can happen are more important than ever. And then I read the next message, from another poet friend of mine, who said: well finally it’s just clear that we can quit writing, because of the total irrelevance of the practice. And I feel both those things. I guess I would also say that I think that there’s a danger in thinking that literature all has to be relevant when the model of relevance is set by the dominant political culture. There’s a way in which literature can be reduced to the speed of the 24-hour news cycle, and just sort of back-and-forth posting, and that it’s actually important to have a slower pace and gestation for thinking about literature and form. But none of us should think that a commitment to the arts, however we approach it, lets us off the hook from all the other kinds of action that we have to be taking.
So I don’t have a clear sense of how what’s changed in the political moment is going to enter my writing. I think it will, and I think that it’s going to be about experimenting with modes of topicality and new modes of imagining community, but also protecting the weird way that literature is a space for imagining alternative kinds of value. To me, insofar as we can generalize about the arts, it’s a space where we try to imagine forms of value that aren’t dictated by price. That doesn’t mean it’s totally pure and not caught up in the market, or the market is only bad, but I think that’s more important than ever when it’s foreclosed. But all that said, I don’t think that means that you can think that your poem or your novel is sufficient direct action and can be the whole thing you’re doing.