More to Say: Ann Beattie on Her New Collection of Essays, Donald Barthelme, and the Chinese Spy Balloon
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Acclaimed fiction writer Ann Beattie joins co-hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell to discuss her recent LitHub essay about Donald Barthelme’s short story “The Balloon” and the Chinese spy balloon. She also talks about her recently published first collection of essays, More to Say: Essays and Appreciations, in which she writes about the work of authors, photographers, and artists she admires, including Elmore Leonard, Sally Mann, John Loengard, and her own husband, visual artist Lincoln Perry.
Beattie explains why as a nonfiction writer, she prefers close looking and reading; considers defamiliarization in the hands of Barthelme and Alice Munro; analyzes former visual artist John Updike’s depiction of the natural world; and reflects on developing increased comfort with writing about visual art. She also reads excerpts from both her Lit Hub piece and the essay collection.
From the episode:
Ann Beattie: What I was trying to talk about—with what Barthelme was doing and how he defamiliarizes the world—has a lot to do with his quixotic sense, his sense of humor, and his ability to recontextualize things so that, automatically, it’s as though two images are superimposed.
So we have the balloon of our imagination, which is probably some prototypical balloon, some generic balloon of our childhood. And then we have a different attitude toward balloons when we’re adults. And then still we have a different attitude when we find out that there’s something mysterious that is attributed to China and is supposedly a spy balloon. And this would have been right up his alley. I mean, he would have been down in the street corner handing out copies of the story.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: Yeah. It’s interesting to me because it seems like balloons as objects are on this fulcrum between fear and delight in almost the same way that spying is.
AB: I think it does just what you’re saying. It makes it a little bit juvenile, you know? We understand this is a story in The New Yorker by someone who’s quite erudite, who knows so many fields other than just the field of literature. But he’s knowing those fields at the same time that he’s mocking them. So he’s playing on all those emotions we could potentially have: the fact that we like balloons, the fact that we’re afraid we’ll always lose them… but that would mean that it would be the size of something we could lose. This balloon is absolutely enormous, as Barthelme describes it in the story. There is truly no getting around this balloon, so to speak.
Whitney Terrell: The other thing that I remember about that story… he has a really great essay called “On Not Knowing” that I teach sometimes. It’s also an essay about art commentary and about his idea of trying to make art that wasn’t easily digestible, that couldn’t easily be described or given meaning to—trying to create art that resisted easy interpretation.
And “The Balloon” seems to be like that. I don’t know how that reconnects to the Chinese spy balloon… except that people find it interesting because it’s toy-like, because it’s goofy. The Chinese have sent this balloon over to look at us! What could it possibly be doing?
AB: Right, exactly. Everybody thought that was simply incredible—how interesting that, so many years ago, Barthelme conjured up something that… when people were reading it as a piece of fiction, which is how it was published in The New Yorker, I’m sure it provoked a lot of responses where people censored themselves. Like, “Oh, this must be important. He’s very intelligent. We’re reading yet another story by Donald Barthelme, who knows the world of art, the world of literature, and certainly the world of New York very, very well.”
What I said about 14th Street was true—it’s a buzzword. New Yorkers will say “I never go above 14th Street,” and some of them aren’t kidding. That’s the line of demarcation between the village and going uptown, which is a totally different modus operandi.
VVG: Speaking of writing about art, writing about these objects and visuals that teeter in this… not exactly an uncanny valley, but something like a messier world of interpretation—your whole essay collection, More to Say, examines the work of other writers and artists. The book is described as “essays and appreciations,” and that caught my eye. Because some of the pieces are reviews, but you also write about the limitations of that form, like what Whitney was just talking about: the difficulty of describing things and things that resist description. These seemed to be the things that you appreciate the most. So I’d love to hear you talk about what you think a good review can do, what its limits are, and why you turn to appreciations and their possibilities in addition.
AB: I was happy when I decided to wear my heart on my sleeve and say it is appreciations. In a book like this, I have an advantage that, let’s say, a staff writer doing book reviews covering the arts doesn’t have. Almost always, these were assignments I could have turned down or that were self-generated. People wanted me to write about what I wanted to write about, so that’s automatically an advantage. So that’s why I was able to call them appreciations. I mean, had I not appreciated them, I wouldn’t have done it.
You ask a good question about what the limitations of reviews are, and you’ll talk to anybody doing what I’m doing—I’m primarily a fiction writer, not a nonfiction writer—and they’ll grumble “the audience doesn’t quite get me,” or “the audience doesn’t understand my allusions,” or “this isn’t popular anymore.” And what I have to say about that is if Barthelme was still alive, he would love to satirize that, too. He’d made fun of us for condescending and making fun. In other words, what people would say isn’t unilaterally true.
There are plenty of people out there who would understand every allusion in Barthelme’s story, many of which I may have missed. And certainly there are plenty of people out there who would understand the way that I structured these essays. But for me, it was really just close looking, and it was a wonderful opportunity to stop whatever else I was doing and put myself in a frame of mind that… first of all, I tried very much to relate to not the biography of the artists, but the world of the artists, what I thought the artists were trying to do. That tended to lead me to the kind of interpretations that I came up with.
WT: I really enjoyed the book, and you wrote about so many writers that I really care about. I thought that was extremely pleasurable. Among those writers was Alice Munro. In your essay, “Alice Munro’s Amazingly Ordinary World,” you talk about how Munro defamiliarizes—a word you used just a little bit ago with Barthelme—ordinary life in her book, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship Marriage, which is also a book that I love. I was struck by that word, defamiliarization. Why is that so important to you? What makes Munro’s style of defamiliarization so distinctive?
AB: Well, I must admit that I’m a little loosey-goosey with that concept. Sometimes what is conventionally meant by defamiliarization isn’t so highfalutin that it needs that word. It’s merely that something that is well known already, or has been many times seen, it is a way to re-present that thing, to make it glow for the reader or for the viewer. And that’s not that easy to do. Barthelme, of course, was an absolute master of it. And that was at the core of everything he was trying to do. But for the defamiliarization as I’m throwing around the term really has to do with seeing the ordinary in a new light. And that’s because the person who wrote the piece has recontextualized it, has moved it from where we would expect to see it.
Here’s a great example. My husband and I live in Maine in the summer and there used to be a summer playhouse called Habitat Theatre in a little town called North Berwick, Maine. And we went there once to see a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream and little did we know that the introduction to this was going to be Muppets coming up through the floorboards and saying “doo-wop doo-wop doo-wop,” stating these famous lines from Shakespeare. It was hilarious. I mean, it certainly didn’t hurt Shakespeare. It wasn’t meant to be derisive. It was meant to be catchy, you know? And so defamiliarization is often simply used that way. It’s a new way to invite people into the ordinary.
• More to Say • More to Say (Godine) • The State We’re In • “Richard Rew’s Sculpture,” by Ann Beattie | The New Yorker • “John Updike’s Sense of Wonder,” by Ann Beattie • “Ann Beattie Wonders What Donald Barthelme Would Have Made of the Spy Balloon” | Literary Hub
• “The Balloon,” by Donald Barthelme | The New Yorker • “On Not Knowing,” Not-Knowing, by Donald Barthelme • “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” by Alice Munro • “Couples,” by John Updike • “Spring Rain,” by John Updike | The New Yorker • “As I See It,” by John Loengard (ThriftBooks) • “The Runaways,” by Elizabeth Spencer | Narrative