A Conversation with Jonathan Lethem

Jesse England, E-Book backup (ongoing)


In 2007, novelist Jonathan Lethem published an essay in Harper's ending with a grand reveal: "every line I  stole, warped, and cobbled together." The patchwork includes dozens of sources — part of a Steve Erickson novel, something from a Pitchfork review, a quote from an interview with Rick Prelinger. Sandra Day O'Connor and Ralph Waldo Emerson are stitched in too.  

The Ecstasy of Influence, now the title of his recent collection of writings, often addresses the process of integrating and "cobbling together" ideas and culture to make something new. Yet, stories Lethem relates of hosting "mailing parties" for the Philip K Dick Society or working in a bookstore seem like snapshots from pre-digital age. Recently I talked with the author about our rapidly dematerializing culture as well as appropriation as an art practice:



JM:  Have you ever tried to imagine what kind of career path you would have had without a culture of physical objects?

JL: It’s really interesting because I do think of the procedural experience of having to dig, having to find out what, let’s say, all of those names in the back of Greil Marcus’ “Stranded” were. Now when I read that collection, I see it put together like his esoteric nod to the history of rock and roll and like 80 percent of it was terra incognita. I didn’t know the names at all, and I couldn’t just go skimming around and get a little taste. I had to make each and every one of those things that compelled me —because of the name or his description — a search. I’d have to go find some broken down piece of media, some old vinyl or something, and you know, the delay that inserts, the relationship to time. I spent a lot of time thinking about a culture that wasn’t right at hand.

I might envision a given song or movie for five or ten years before I’d lay hands on it at times, and that creates this sort of personal, fictional vision. It’s like having a book unread on your shelf and just staring at the jacket or the title or what you’ve heard about it, and having it emanating all this promise. Books I guess, can still do that, but it’s a really peculiar thing for me to think about how I would relate differently.

I mean, I was advantaged. I grew up in New York City. Compared to other versions of access in our generation, I had great access. My parents had a good record collection and really interesting books on the shelves and pointed me to them. There was no quarantine. I was in New York City and there were great repertory houses and I started going to them when I was 14 or 15 years old, just gobbling down some curators’ ideas of cinema. I was getting all these versions of importance or interest out of the obscure past or out of other national cinemas. So in that way, it was like I was surrounded. I didn't even think of myself as deprived.

The strange thing that the question sets up is an image of me, or anyone my age, as somehow suffering from a drought. But I wouldn't have, of course, had the comparison. I wouldn't have had any notion that I was lacking materials. I still had to make really complicated priorities for myself because there was so much that seemed so compelling, potentially compelling. And it wasn't too hard to get a hold of it. But I did, in retrospect I did have these kinds of limits and always a physical relationship — a movie theater that smelled a certain way. What it was to go to the Thalia and watch Bunuel films. It's associated for me with the feeling of that lobby and the strange loneliness in that place on a Thursday afternoon and the other people who would be there present or the kinds of record stores where I would at look at things or the bookstores and the way the objects themselves felt and became talismanic. And the way my own room was changing if I brought these things! It wasn't like I could close the computer and it would all go away. It was like I was changing my body practically. To just start accruing all this stuff like armor, like an exoskeleton. 

JM: I'm sure your consumption of culture now is different though. Do you have a Kindle or an iPad? Are you an ebook reader? I'm sure you have MP3s, at least.

JL: I have a lot of MP3s! I'm going to qualify this in a number of different ways. I've always been a very late adopter. I mean even MP3s, I didn't have them after other people I knew did. Something about me always sort of wants them to become a little more part of the world. It's like I need to believe in them by seeing people form attachments before I make that move. I've got a friend who teases me because he remembers me saying that I would probably never bother with email. I knew a few people who were doing it and it just didn't seem that appealing to me. Now I'm ten years into an unbelievable promiscuous emailing binge that will never end. So I've been a late adopter a lot of times with tech. I wrote novels on an electric typewriter after it was possible to begin writing prose on computers. I just wasn't quite there. I wasn't ready to make a move from something that felt very important and material and personal to me. So who knows what I might do later on, but I've never read anything on a Kindle and I haven't even really had an iPad or a Kindle in my hands. The nearest I've been has been in the seat beside me in an airplane when I feel smug because they have to stop reading when the announcement goes out and my book is still open.

I think as a writer about the shape and heft of a book. And so I think the reason I am attached to reading them is I’m writing into that form. For better or worse, I still think of where physically my hands would be turning the pages. Feeling, oh, maybe now I’m ten pages from the end. And so some of those things are sacrificed in the Kindle.

Also, the kind of doubling back that I do as a reader seems very fundamental to pages. I’ll keep my finger sometimes even three or four pages width in two places in a book. Because I’m interested in doing a doubling. It’s very much a part of the physical object to me. 

JM: It’s almost like screens in that sense that you have the multiple views at once.

JL: It is, yeah. But the other thing, the conversation that I don’t ever hear — the single object versus the single object; Kindle versus the book. I have this very, very intense, lifelong relationship to the roomful of books. And the idea of walls of these objects. Rooms that are given over to them – libraries, bookstores, or personal collections. And I don’t hear this description very often, that even if somehow they could make a Kindle that you held and it would be like a book in every regard as you held it – the paper would feel papery and the weight would feel weightful and so forth, you’d hit refresh and it would be a different book — but you only have the single object. But I actually feel that I would be even more hard-pressed to give up these kinds of rooms and the sense of orientation with a spatial field of books. That’s so crucial, so formative, for me. 

JM: I had a funny experience the other day where I was waiting for a bus that was very late and my book was out of batteries.

JL: I don’t want my books to get out of batteries. 

JM: You probably know this — I want to say there is a writer who travelled around with a suitcase full of books. There are probably a lot of them but there’s one who is known for this. 

JL: I think most famously – Somerset Maugham writes about his steamer trunk full of books that had to go everywhere with him. I think more than one person has bragged of this or confessed this. That’s another thing – it’s funny because, ironically, if someone wants to have the dummy argument with you: “Oh wait, you don’t have a Kindle yet?” Their surest foot forward, the one where they think they have won the argument before it has even begun is they’ll say “for travel.” “Come on, for travel. You must.” But in fact, one of my most precious interactions with my books is when I’m going for a trip that is long enough that I don’t need just one. When I’m going for a two- or three-week trip, you’re not relocating your office; you’re not shipping a whole bunch of stuff ahead of you, you’re really just packing exactly that range of things you might want to read. And it is a kind of visualizing of a grouping of things that you want to have with you, and then packing them and having them with you. That has got a lot of charm, actually. Sure, I would save space with just the Kindle, but even that, I’ll express a little bit of resistance on. There is something about taking the cluster of three or four books and visualizing I’m going to read this one, start it off, but then I’ll have this particular one waiting. I won’t have very many choices. I’ll just have the ones I’ve brought. There’s something so intense and clarifying about that selection.

JM: Because you consume so many books and films and a lot of other things, how do you think that comes out in your original work? How is that blended into something? I’m thinking of Richard Nash’s project Small Demons — what it does is it cross-references the metadata. So for example, with Empire of the Sun it will show all the movies that are referenced there. It will show all the actresses; it will show all the proper nouns as images from Google Search or another service. I feel like your books are probably covered with a lot of interesting references as well. Is that something that you think a lot about in terms of making the work time-sensitive?

JL: There’s a number of concepts that I grapple with frequently and sometimes in conversations that are frustrating to me because the terms are circumscribed. But this won’t be that. To take the simplest thing first – and I’ll offer what may be by now kind of a rote defense of temporal references – David Foster Wallace has that great quote which I stole and injected as a paragraph of The Ecstasy of Influence essay, where he is talking about being in a writing class with someone who he calls “the gray eminence.” And the gray eminence is criticizing his characters’ uses of recent technology or references to recent cultural things as not being timeless enough and wrecking the fiction for posterity or for anything but a kind of immediate reader. And then Wallace sort of reflects on how this guy’s fiction is of course full of all his personal stack of technologies – cars, telephones, and mimeograph machines or whatever it might be, and all sorts of cultural things that seem quite natural and embedded in the texture of mimetic reality to this guy. And he realizes this is just generational anxiety, anytime that you are getting this pressure.

The fact is, fiction is made up of reference. Obviously, you could make a scale and put a Kafka parable on one side, and you could have Thomas Pynchon on the other side or somebody, Mark Leyner, I guess, or somebody who exfoliates into innumerable culturally sticky arrows pointing in all directions. But most of us are in the range in-between. And it’s okay. It’s just okay. It’s what it is. You do this. You make reference. In fact even Kafka, you find there are things that are immediate to his culture. Scholarship is endlessly proving that he was looking at a particular film or something before he wrote. So he may not wear it on his sleeve, but it happens anyway. We’re not abstract expressionist painters. We’re using language and we’re using culture and narrative and human life. We’re immersed in stuff and some of it is often wanting to be referential in a pretty specific way. And if you read Dickens, in fact, the texture of his London is all over — the advertising jingles of his day and street names and so forth. And so at some point I just inoculated myself against that anxiety totally. 

To widen the framework to the question that really engages me and that for me is a consuming one — well, I just feel like I am cursed with, in a way, an autism about the injunctions or the inhibitions against, first, knowing when you're borrowing and, second, saying so. I just always can tell the flow of other people's rhythms — spoken, written — the flow of musical or filmic echoes into my work is constant. It's tangible, it's enjoyable, and I don't really understand how I could be expected to somehow play at barricading myself against what happens, which is that you make work out of everything that's at hand. Everything inside yourself is eligible and you usually find that eventually you're using most everything that's in there and you use your friends, yes, and your family and people you never got to know, but you heard them say a line in a restaurant or on television when they were a bystander at a bicycle-pedestrian accident or anything. You use characters from other people's fiction. It all gets in there. It all gets transformed. That's also automatic. The blessing and the reason to take in so much is to see it all transformed. And to see how that unifies your work and makes it personal and makes it fundamentally authentic.

I'm not really interested in worrying about divisions of originality versus sourcing or appropriations. I'm interested in the authentic, vivid, remarkable, and intimate. I want to feel the grain of another person's intelligence and voice and expressivity and their own version of this kind of helpless intensity that that they feel in the face of existence. Just being alive, being subjective, living in a world of humans and their stuff. It's overwhelming and so the art I like and the art I try to license myself to make doesn't pretend to have control over that plenitude, but to just abide, just to be inside it and make something. And if you do that, it guarantees what other people might tend to call originality, but I just avoid the word as much as I can. What they mean by originality is that it just feels intensely real and persuasive and necessary. Personal. Not borrowed in a pointless way.

JM: This reminds me of what Simon Reynolds said at the Goethe-Institute a few months back. He was commentating on your essay, The Ecstasy of Influence and said that the power of that essay was that you're a novelist known for your originality. Were you aware when you wrote it that it would perhaps come across with more authority coming from you as opposed to someone better known for appropriation in his or her work?

JL: First of all, I am honored that Simon was making this remark, and I swelled to hearing anything like this, but, at the same time I sort of want to play at it and say, “Well I may be known for my originality but, I am not known to myself for my originality.” Because, I think of my work as super-extensively sourced and I am really going to be insistent on that. Mostly when people see things as original it means they don’t know where they came from. It’s kind of that simple but, I don’t mean that as “Whoa snap, I can’t believe you said that, it’s so mean.” I mean that I don’t know where everything came from either, who does? Things come from places largely and then they get recombined or spun or give a different flavor or different emphasis. I can think of a 100 precursors to almost anything I’ve done and honestly, sometimes you don’t stand on the shoulders of giants. Sometimes you stand on shoulders of dwarfs. There are things that I thought. “Oh, that’s minimally interesting, but I think there is something about it I can improve and turn into my own.” Other times you are conscious of a series of precursors that no one else would ever spot or think about unless you pointed it out — and I’m that dope who is always pointing it out. For originality is really truly an overrated concept except as a nice form of praise. It’s like you want to say “wow.” It’s a way of saying wow.

What I think Simon is trying to say — I’ll backtrack a little bit. I’ve come of age inside the family of a painter who’d been trained in an era of modernism. He’d studied in Paris and then Columbia. My father’s first attempt was to be an abstract impressionist but he was a little too late to be a modernist. So he, along with everybody else, went back to figuration and he arrived at a style, which in a very, very loose way, you could say he was an early post-modern painter. I don’t think he identifies with it. That word very few people do comfortably. He devised a kind of a figurative expressionism and started using some collage elements and this was the beginning of the 60’s. He taught me about the twentieth century and I couldn’t help noticing that just about every single art gesture except that of the abstract expressionists was a collage gesture. The cubists, the dadaists, the pop artists, everybody was grabbing stuff. Ad Reinhardt and Mondrian even. You just saw that art was made of appropriations and references in a very enthusiastic way. Simultaneously, I was being schooled at the low end, you might say, by Bugs Bunny — Warner Bros cartoons, which were exhilarating. One of my earliest private aesthetic experiences, because it wasn’t confirmed —my parents didn’t hand that over to me. They did a lot of great stuff. And it was all jokes about references outside the frame, many of which I didn’t understand but, I liked them anyway and this was really important. I could think that it is very funny for Bugs Bunny to pretend to be Edward G. Robinson without having seen an Edward G. Robinson movie. I could think that The Barber of Seville sequence was hilarious without knowing what The Barber of Seville opera sounded like. And, in fact, there are lots of even more temporal things. They make jokes about contemporary news events and those cartoons and stuff that has been forgotten, lost completely. And that just made me feel — ok, this kind of embedded referentiality and borrowing and parody within powerfully expressive, in this case, powerfully ludicrous artwork — good! It's all good. I like it.

And this carried over to one of my earliest and most formative literary experiences, which was Lewis Carroll, and I still think there's almost no text as central for me in becoming a writer as the two Alice books. You can't help noticing, even at eleven or twelve, those things are loaded with all sorts of arch-borrowings and references and pastiches and parodies. And then you could also get the Martin Gardner “Annotated Alice” and find out what a lot of those things are. And it was, again, all good. So from high and from low, I was just like, this is what it's about. It was in my body. It was basic. 

So when I then found myself in an atmosphere where people were putting up barricades or quarantines or expressing this anxiety that you aren't meant to be so influenced or so referential or that you better temper it or sublimate it or pretend not to be, even when you are, I just didn't get it at all. And, again, my organic aesthetic response was right there with me when sampling first emerged in music. When I heard the first Public Enemy record or whatever that moment was and I was like, “Crazy quilt of sonic collage. That's music. Great music. I'm all for that.” 

I had no reservations and I had to really always work not to think that people who were protesting or, you know, made indignant about it, "That's not music" or something were not in total bad faith because I just thought, "It's you versus the entire 20th Century, dude. Everything points to this. How could you possibly misunderstand?" 

And when I then also developed my specific ambition to be a writer and to work in this arena of narrative and fiction, which is in some ways very staid. The art form has some very staid elements and the world of its reception has a lot of, let's say, pre-modern biases still floating around. And I realize, writers and novelists are among the most not-yet-up-to-speed on appropriation. I'm not just in an average arena here. I'm in a real retrograde zone.

Well, it amused me. It didn't necessarily seem really important or my big problem because the kind of reference I do actually doesn't, unless you point to it, you know, I'm not going to get sued. I'm never going to get sued for what I do, but when the arguments began to emerge from what we would, I guess, pretty much agree simply to call "the copyleft", right? And then suddenly there's really energetic stuff going on. Lawrence Lessig and, artists like Negativland, who are provocateurs, or The Tape-beatles. Also the arguments that emerged, the legal arguments and the legal feats for someone like Hank Shocklee. Suddenly it was politicized on both sides and the digital age led to the backlash. The very industry that, of course, had digitized their entire catalog suddenly didn't want you to use it that way.

And there was a political discourse. It was very compelling to me. I knew which side I was on very definitely, and when I listened to it, I didn't hear my own voice. I heard two different kinds of voices, both of them very persuasive and appropriate in their very different ways. One was like the, legal intervention like Lawrence Lessig, Siva Vaidhyanathan. People who were lending their brilliance to shoring up the rights of artists from the outside, not working artists. And they would tend always to offer a kind of nuanced or a pragmatist position about ideas of copyrights, for instance. And then there were artists, but the artists were all tending to the avant-garde side of say, Cory Doctorow. They were provocateurs. They were interested in web-based activities specifically, for the most part, or digital activities. They were making work often that was defiantly illegal or provoked cultural norms about appropriation and they were strident. They were funny, strident, they were pissed off, they were irreverent, and this was also very persuasive to me and appropriate, but I didn't hear about someone speaking passionately in the copyleft perspective from the middle of a career, of a normative regular kind of, "I've got a publisher. It's a big publisher. I make my living by copyrights. My work doesn't get my sued so I have no personal stake in somehow giving myself more elbow room. You know, I'm not in Hank Shocklee's position or something on being on the verge of losing my tools." 

And yet, I wanted to say, even for one such as me who could just placidly go along ignoring this whole fuss, I actually have a very powerful motive for throwing everything I have, rhetorically, passionately, emotionally onto the side of the copyleft, and the reason being that the other side tells a lie about what artists do and how they really think and feel and thrive. And also, there is a risk for every artist of damage being done not just to the ethos of how art is made, but to the actual traditions and behaviors. If more and more people really buy into this image of the Promethean isolated creator who's only legitimate because he invents out of nothing — and it really informs the culture and the laws and the way art is taught and the way art is received — it's propagating a dangerous befuddlement about how we really go about things. We're in a really messy area. We pick stuff up and we fool around with it and it's stuff. It's stuff that's around us. Some of it is owned, in some sense, by someone else and some of it isn't, and sometimes we don't even know, and sometimes we're doing it half consciously. And we must. We must do all of these things. There's no other possibility.

JM: Have you thought about at what point is it maybe ethical to cite someone else for any contributions to your work? 

JL: There are all sorts of ethical judgments we can make about these behaviors. You know, morality is the grave level of life and death and ethics is the next layer up. Some of these I would even put at another thinner layer of civility or courtesy. You can make lots of judgments about ethics, civility, courtesy, etc, but it's really, first of all, important to specify this is not actually a moral area. Even though people will express enormous amounts of indignation and righteousness about it, these are not generally life and death matters. Very, very often they're much, much less like matters of livelihood than people make them out to be. It's very hard to hurt someone else's livelihood by plagiarizing them for instance. It's just about impossible to even in the most aggressive and pernicious way, to take away, unless you literally have access to their computer and you steal their draft before they can publish it, under your own name. It's just really hard to do anything. It could be totally yucky, but it's not really actually very easy to make much of a dent in their livelihood. These are not mostly moral matters. These are ethics and norms and matters of courtesy and protocol and so forth. Well yeah, we can make lots of judgments in that zone. I do all the time. I think lots of people do. The really crucial thing to say about those is, when the question comes, just as it did from you, "is there a point?" To say in each specific case, yes, there is, but the generalization still works. You can't say, "So here's how we're going to do it." It's actually always very individual, I think.

When I'm challenging people to think about it this way, the suggestion I always use is that we talk about music because people can really latch onto these feelings in music and the reference is usually familiar to everyone. Also there's a lot of transparency in that realm. There are sort of two primary axes on which we make the individual judgment. One is: degree of transformation and the other is degree of transparency and or citation. In other words, how much do they really make something different out of what they appropriated? And how much did they make it easy to see that there was someone else’s gesture behind their own? Every single appropriating gesture can be looked at on both of these axes and sometimes something will score very high on one but score very poorly on the other or sometimes it's a mixture. So take my dummy examples: Willy Dixon, great blues man, was radically appropriated by Led Zeppelin and for a long time this struck people as a kind of hideous example of kind of exploitative appropriation because they took his name off the songs until they were literally sued into putting his name back on the songs. Because they were fabulously wealthy white guys running around the world having sex with groupies, while he was like and old black guy, who we tend to sentimentalize as the victim in this scenario and I think there's every reason that we have those kinds of feelings about it. It scored terribly poorly on the transparency — they're unbelievably world famous, he's not a household name. They specifically deleted his name from his own compositions. Just egregious gesture on the level of transparency or citation. On the other hand, on the level of transformation, those Led Zeppelin songs do not sound like Willy Dixon to me. They took his composition and they made something very different and that difference was so earth shattering. First of all, it made them wealthy and it changed music forever, the whole genre of music was basically piled on top of this gesture, so it was a totally high score on transformation. They did not just play those songs the way Willy Dixon did. The transformation was staggering, in fact that's probably why they thought they could get away with the appropriation. They didn't seem to have a relationship anymore to some people. So that's one where you have a very high score on one side. It's like the fiddler crab image, the transformation is organic and the claw of transparency, terrible. Let's flip it, lets find an opposite example: Paul Simon goes to Africa and he hears some stuff he likes and he puts out this record, which if you've never heard any African music, ever in your life, it's the most radical, mind blowing, extraordinary record anyone's ever heard called Graceland. It changes everything. How could this be? What are these sounds? They're making my head spin! If you know anything about African music, especially if you know quite a lot about African music, it was like, that is so wearisome. He basically took Soweto sound and he laid a thin layer of neurotic upper west side Jew stuff on top of it. It's just like Paul Simon nattering away over the top of African music. So the claw of transformation very poor, very inadequate for a lot of people. But on the other hand, what did he do? He not only credited these guys, he put them in a van and he drove around the country and he played on stage with them. Right beside them. The claw of transparency is the most amazing gesture ever. He was just like, "Hey, don't look at me, look at these great African guys!" It was like if Willie Dixon was the lead singer of Led Zeppelin. So he has reversed it completely. Now, in an ideal world every appropriative gesture would have Led Zeppelin- level transformation with Paul Simon-level transparency. That would be great. We don’t always get that. We often get some imbalance or some weird mixture or we’re not sure. Also, we’re not always sure. Sometimes things come also from somewhere else. Or there’s a common denominator or whatever. It’s like it’s not always so clear-cut. So you have to look at each and every gesture and decide how you feel about it. You can’t make a law about it. 

But I’ll add even on to that, that there are also really important differences medium to medium, even in the capacity to cite. T.S. Elliott has this appendix to The Wasteland where there are all these citations. We’ll put aside the fact that probably no one ever bothers to read that. But it’s there. He tried. It’s right there. But if a painter makes a canvas, it does not have room for footnotes on it. And a lot of art, the form doesn’t invite the same kinds of embrace of transparency. The specific gestures just don’t work. So what do you do? There might be follow-up. You could speak in an interview, you could make a gesture. But you know what? Not everyone wants to do that. Not everyone wants to be interviewed about their work at all. They want to just make it. And that’s okay.

This is one of these places where I just want to keep reminding people that art is not principally in the moral sphere. It’s not really about do we feel like this is a good purpose or not. It’s more about – Holy shit! What’s that? And that is what it’s for. And how does it make us feel? The ethics and even the morals is mostly about what happens inside of us on meeting it. Which is why, ironically, we are so prone to feeling betrayed by the artist in some way. Because the art does something so extraordinary to us that then we find out some detail. “Oh! He stole that from Willie Dixon.” “Oh! He beat his wife.” “Oh! He picks his nose in public.” “Wait a minute. He made that thing that changed my life. This is incongruent. I don’t like it!” That’s why we get so betrayed by the knowledge of appropriations, because we’re holding art to this very weird standard where it is actually about us. It’s about our own lives. It’s not about the artist’s life. Sometimes we want to be fooled, too. It’s silly that people can be so complicated, but then again we don’t have any other model. And a lot of us want to be fooled at the same time we get angry that we’re fooled. We want the artist to be a kind of Houdini who does magic tricks. And then we simultaneously want to find out that it’s an esoteric, comes from an esoteric place where we could never understand how the magic was made. And we want the cards to be turned over so we can understand and make the person seem humble and normal and like us. And then we get angry at them for just being a normal humble person. So what we want is very problematic.