The Situation in American Writing: Alexander Chee
In 1939, The Partisan Review sent out a questionnaire to a number of prominent writers,
asking them about literature, politics and their identities. While the questionnaire hasn’t been completely forgotten, we felt that these specifically political questions were rarely being asked of our writers. Considering that 2011 was a year of global unrest, we felt that it would be particularly relevant to update The Partisan Review’s questions. (For the curious, here are the original questions.)
Alexander Chee is the author of the novel Edinburgh. His writing has appeared in GQ, Bookforum, n+1, and The Morning News, where he is a contributing writer. He is currently working on his second novel.
2011 was the year of the Arab Spring. There have also been massive protests in Greece, Spain, Britain, and most recently, the United States. Does literature have a responsibility to respond to popular upheaval?
Probably. Just not in the way any of us would expect. I think if it has any responsibility at all it is to defy the expectations of the current moment, to understand us in a way more deeply than is perhaps available to us now. But perhaps this question is about something else together, points to something that is more about writers and contemporary American fiction and the way it is both created and consumed?
I remember reading Mavis Gallant as a writing student to understand how to include the political lives and histories of my characters, because she did it so gracefully. I did it because I was being told writing about politics was to make something unwelcome, or unpleasant, and yet it was something I wanted to include, to do. I had noticed her stories always included the politics of her characters just as a way to make them whole. It was a small but important moment in my life, both the realization of what was needed, and the lesson, but I do think it speaks to this thing we can almost see about contemporary American fiction as a whole.
Do you think of yourself as writing for a definite audience? If so, how would you describe this audience? Would you say that the audience for serious American writing has grown or contracted in the last ten years?
I write for an audience in the sense that when I write I am aware that someone, somewhere, will want to read something, and if I’m fortunate, it’s me they pick. But I think to do more than that is to do something arch to yourself that you’ll want to take back later. I feel very deeply for the various communities I am a part of as a person and who have in turn embraced my work, but when I go into that room, it’s a little like voting — whatever your party, when the curtain closes you are alone with your conscience. And in this case, your imagination.To be literal about audience, though, we all write more or less for women. Women read more than men. I don’t say that to be shitty, I say it remembering a market study we did at OUT Magazine when I was the assistant editor during the startup. The figures were staggering: lesbians out-read everyone, bar none, and bought an average of something like 21 books a year. Straight women were next, at 17. Gay men were next at 12, and straight men… 1.
We used to joke about that in the office quite a bit. The guys who were dragging the straight male average down.
I do think the audience for serious literary work has recently grown. I know it is a little popular to mock the boom in the MFA, or NaNoWriMo lately also, almost as popular to mock these things as it is to take part in them. But taken together, and including the complainers, the ruckus on the whole suggests to me an excitement about American writing that literary culture in the US is almost able to match, though not just yet. I think part of that is the economics of it and part of that is the politics of it. By which I mean you can urge writers to respond to things like the Arab Spring or OWS as much as you want and if publishers don’t also get behind the work, there’s nothing. Or you can complain of the MFA producing too many polished writers who may lack passion (they’re just students, give them time!) — but in a time of declining advances and declining arts funding, the MFA allows communities of writers to work and learn from each other meaningfully. We can yell about whether student writers subscribe to magazines, but what if they aren’t paid very much? We can yell about American fiction’s qualities, but when publishers are held to stockholder demands, can editors take real risks on acquisitions, or support the development of young writers? Would V.S. Naipaul’s first novel, The Mystic Masseur, for example, have made it out of a sales meeting today? Would he have been allowed to publish the four novels that eventually brought him to his great work? I use him as an example because he likes to complain about how there are no more great writers, and yet he won’t look at what might be knee-capping a generation.
And I say “yelling” because a holistic critique that includes the economics of people’s lives could prove instructive, but usually what I see is someone holding up one end of things and yelling into the internet that all is lost.
Also, I am thinking of, for example, the longreads trend and the digital single, the recent surprise growth in the sale of hardcovers — just as we were being told these things were no longer of interest, they are of interest. This suggests to me we did go through a decline, but I don’t think people stopped buying books because they weren’t interested in literature. I think it was partly because the cost of books vs. the wages paid in the US, this made books increasingly untenable. And then if you did spend the money, well, the book was often not as durable or beautiful an object. As Richard Nash so eloquently put it recently, we saw the “shittification” of the book as an object in the last ten years — books printed cheaply in China on cheap paper. So if you did shell out 25.00, say, you ended up with something that cost about 3.00 to make physically, and it wasn’t going to last. And then this last year, I was at a friend’s party and there were all these excited people wanting me to recommend books to them, excited because they loved… reading on their phones. And some were straight men! It was amazing to me. They all told stories of how they had drifted away from reading serious books and now they were excited to read again. It was strange but I understood — somehow, this thing no one expected to take seriously had become important, and by that I mean the ebook. I remember when publishing moved toward it and then turned away back in, I think, the late ’90s.
I am not an ebook evangelist, though — I’d say I’m an everybook evangelist. And I’m optimistic. I think ebooks have brought back an audience to reading serious work that had left the barn, and I think this is happening because many serious-minded people are working hard to fix these things, to innovate, and so I will say, we’re actually at the edge of a new golden age. We just can’t see it yet.
Yes. And I think literary criticism is immensely valuable, to me and in general, and I say that as a reader and not just a writer who wants people to review his work. Literary criticism is one of the ways we report back on what we are all doing as a culture, it’s another way to understand our world.
I remember sitting with a publishing executive who was bragging about cheaper ways to advertise her house’s books than advertising in the New York Times Book Review. The alternatives she suggested struck me as inane and short-sighted for the reason that publishing has for some time used book reviews as defacto ads for free all the while somehow not acknowledging that if they didn’t advertise, the newspapers would shut those sections.
I can’t think of a single major industry that doesn’t advertise what it means to sell and make a profit on, but there it is. In any case, they were hoping somehow that book reviews would just keep going for the good of us all and continue to provide free ads while receiving no ad revenue to support them, and we’ve seen how well that worked.
Unpaid book bloggers have unfairly been criticized for wanting to keep a conversation around books going at a time when these reviews were closing. And for that reason I think the animus of book review sections to book bloggers always struck me as wrong-headed.
But that strikes me as describing something that happened years ago. I don’t know that we’ve moved to a non-professional realm exactly, as much as we have a non-professional realm that is reinvigorating the professional. The LA Review of Books, for example, is such a hopeful sign in these times — and that is some very professional people beginning a book review and creating a great deal of excitement around it, but using the strategies of bloggers, beginning digitally and heading toward print after first creating a splash and a demand.
What I’m wary of with bookblogging is getting three thousand reviews of the same five books in a season: “And now, MY review of [insert hype book here].” I think the nonprofessional realm you speak of is at its best when it is free of cant and pitching and politics, and it’s just a reader who loved a book or felt passionately about it, enough to write a response.
Have you found it possible to make a living by writing the sort of thing you want to, without other work? Do you think there is a place in our current economic system and climate for literature as a profession?
In stretches, but only in stretches. Sometimes I feel like a skipping stone that hopes to fly. Sometimes it really feels like flying. I’ve had a wonderful career by anyone’s reckoning of it but the fact is, advances and magazine fees have largely declined, or rather, we’ve seen a middle vanish, much like the middle class. We’ve seen book advances go to five million or five thousand, and that does no one any good. But we’ll see what happens next. I know exactly how lucky I am to have anyone pay attention to me or pay me for what I do, believe me. Is there a place in our system? I think there’s a need. But then I feel like every conversation always comes back to how “our current economic system” is one that for now seems increasingly rigged to get everyone to work for free except five people who get paid everything. I think we need to Occupy Publishing.
I remember the arrival of the expectation that I would write for free — the “write this and get your name out there” thing. It came right after I’d managed to get out of working in restaurants. And I thought, “Doing this is how I end up as a waiter again.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not above waiting tables, but it was never the dream.
Which brings me back to digital: a friend whose debut novel’s paperback was cancelled for lack of sales in hardcover has been given an ebook edition — this revives her from the grave. I hope more major publishers do this to young writers they foreclosed on previously. I think this will make a long-term difference, in both publishers’ bottom lines and the nurturing of new voices. Publishers once made a great deal of money off of midlist writers over the long term, and the blockbuster strategy is a shortsighted one. I think the return of the midlist is one of digital’s biggest as-yet-untapped possibilities.
Do you find in retrospect, that your writing reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organization, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?
Someone once asked me what it was like to be a gay writer, and I said, “They give you the parade before you get to the stadium as well as after.” As an emerging writer I think I had a lot more support visibly than some of my straight peers, likewise with the Asian American communities I found through the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. It was nice to get fan mail before I’d published a novel. But when I write, I’m just at home trying to figure out an idea.
I think over-identifying with a community is as dangerous as insisting you’re apart from them. It’s a strange thing.
How would you describe the political tendency of American writing, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?
I remember after 9/11 there was reported a collective writers’ block. No one could think of anything that seemed to matter as much as that event. And out of that came the “who will write about it first,” “who will write about it well,” etc. It felt like the something that just kept happening to us, with new permutations of itself in ways we didn’t expect. It still feels like that. And the annual observance of it and the various ways it is used now, we get sucked in again. It’s like we’re all still digging out somehow.
But of course, it seems one chooses 2001 to start for two reasons — to comment on life after 9/11, and to comment on the new century. The two are wedded, and we’ll see for how long. I remember getting into a spat on Twitter for tweeting of the MFA that of course in the age of Bush young Americans would think they needed papers in order to write a novel. “You can’t blame that on Bush!” I remember some people saying. I wasn’t. Bush isn’t the author of the age of Bush — he’s not smart enough for that. The American people, though, who let him be there, they are the author of that. This automatic deference to tall nutty rich white guys who try to charm their way out of their ghastly body-count-heavy mistakes is slowly dissolving, and with it, I think, much of the deferential thinking that ruled that first decade of the century. But it can’t go soon enough for my taste.
Over the past ten years, America has been in a state of constant war with a nebulous enemy. This war has extended to fronts throughout the world. Have you considered the question of your opinion on an unending war on terrorism? What do you think the responsibilities of writers in general are, in the midst, of unending war?
This last few years I’ve traveled extensively, more than ever before, and often through countries like Italy, Greece, France, Spain — where I found, again and again, high unemployment among the young and a commitment to austerity, which was code for attacks on funding for social programs, education, and the arts. Never on the military, never on subsidies for oil.
My opinion of unending war? It is untenable — look at the new reports on the suicides of the enlisted — but it is also what the American military industrial complex wants above all things, and as an idea, it predates 9/11 — Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld were men schooled in what many think of as the first attempt to create a permanent war, the Vietnam War.
It is now our greatest export intellectually. We were allegedly leading the world in democratic reforms, but at some point that became teaching the world to use capitalism to undermine democracy, this in turn allowing companies to create the economic crises that institute these “austerity reforms.” Countries that once imitated our best behaviors now imitate our worst. And they do so because we have allowed a global elite to come into being that has decided the existence of the middle class is a mistake. This crew makes money off of firing people, foreclosing on their homes, and even off of their deaths. It is no longer in their best interest that you have health insurance, a job, education, unemployment insurance, or are even alive. Google “life insurance speculation” for example — there’s a reason your bank keeps telling you you have a life insurance policy available to you.
Meanwhile here in America we are like a people asleep and dreaming on top of something we both know and don’t know is an enormous weapon aimed at the whole world, including every one of us. What is the writer’s responsibility? I suppose it is to do whatever you can when you wake up and see this is true.