Tom LeClair is a trickster. Like a kid with a good wink, it’s nearly impossible to tell when LeClair’s being serious. The author of six novels about deception (and not-quite-revelation), LeClair’s newest, Lincoln’s Billy, purports to be a riveting tell-all account of Abraham Lincoln’s “true” personality. LeClair’s Lincoln, like the author himself, is one seriously artful dodger.
After spending Easter weekend poring over Lincoln’s Billy, I met with LeClair, who lives in the same neighborhood as I do, to discuss his work. LeClair spent decades studying (and judging) the canon — writing hundreds of book reviews for the New York Times Book Review, Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and many others — before making his own foray into fiction with the 1996 publication of Passing Off.
Andrew Mitchell Davenport: You began your career as a literary journalist — interviewing novelists and writing reviews — and as an academic critic of contemporary American fiction with In the Loop and The Art of Excess. Why did you begin writing fiction?
Tom LeClair: I was tired of carrying heavy books back and forth to Greece where I was spending summers and sabbaticals, and I had just finished The Art of Excess about the biggest and best and most important American novels of the 1970s and 1980s. What was I going to do next, devote a decade to Finnegans Wake? I’d wanted for some years to write about basketball, which I’d played since I was a kid, and about Greece, where I’d lived on and off for a decade, so I took a leave of absence, moved to Athens for a year, hit the playgrounds, and combined the two interests in a novel about an American basketball player who passes himself off as Greek to play in the Greek pro league.
But, of course, I couldn’t just walk away from those books I’d been hauling back and forth across the Atlantic, particularly Coover’s Universal Baseball Association and DeLillo’s End Zone. Though I’d not written a word of fiction, at least intentionally, before I took leave of academic criticism and America, I wanted to write the basketball equivalent of those writers’ sports novels. Greeks have a word for this: “hubris.” Passing Off passed through many revisions before it was published in 1996 when I was 52. But despite the frustrations — the editor who published Infinite Jest showed finite attention to Passing Off when he told me “baseball in Greece” would be a tough sell in America — I enjoyed being obsessed with something besides playing basketball. Now I could be obsessed with writing about it in the morning and playing it in the afternoon. Obsession became both method and subject. Even before Passing Off was published, I began work on a novel about an obsessed man in The Liquidators, another manifestation of hubris because I wanted the novel to be both a sequel to and retelling of Absalom, Absalom!, the great novel about failure in America. I failed for a few years and published two other novels — Well-Founded Fear and Passing On — before The Liquidators was released in 2006. Published by a small press, it, predictably, failed, but I still think of it as my best novel. Dedicated to Stanley Elkin, The Liquidators has some of his stylistic energy and obsessional fascination with Americana.
Would you say the Passing trilogy (Passing On and Passing Through after Passing Off) also manifests obsession?
Maybe initially laziness. I had a protagonist/narrator in Michael Keever whose dumb athlete’s voice I enjoyed working in. Without any of my literary knowledge, Keever was also a transparent eyeball, so I put him in jobs that interested me: first Terminal Tours, which took terminally ill people on bucket list trips, and then Queen City College, where Keever teaches Creative Non-Fiction and is expected to coach a co-ed basketball team. Passing Off is an environmental novel; Passing On is applied thanatology; Passing Through is an academic comedy. That is, their subjects and modes are different, but I suppose all three manifest an obsession with deception, for Keever constantly passes himself off as something he is not and then pretends his “autobiographies” are not fictions. “Bring `em to you, fuck `em up,” says one of Key’s coaches, Murray Jacobs, the Master of Loathing, a tip of the hat to DeLillo’s Murray in White Noise. My tricky point guard Key takes Murray’s advice off-court, producing texts for which there may be no key, no certain unlocking. And like the Greek Key, the design that zigzags and goes around in a mobius strip, the trilogy loops back on itself, the third novel imitating the fiction within a fiction of the first. The trilogy is so damned complicated to keep track of I may never chase Updike’s Rabbit and write Passing Away.
You’ve mentioned two novels by DeLillo. Do you think of him as a major influence?
I wrote a book about his work through White Noise — In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel — and since then some people think of me as DeLillo’s caddy. They call me up, hoping I will grease their way to my man, The Man. So I’m a little sensitive about this matter. We were neighbors for a time in Athens, we both had fairly close brushes with terrorism in Greece, we had and have little use for popular culture (except sports), we admired the same writers such as Gaddis and Pynchon. I almost forgot. We were both educated by Jesuits. We were both order of the “spanikopita” at Taverna Kyklades in the Lower East Side. We’ve been friends for 35 years. So why does no one ask me if I’ve influenced DeLillo? He quotes from me in Mao II, where the caretaker of novelist Bill Gray’s reputation has, like me, a French name. Cosmopolis is about “my” systems. Sure I’ve been influenced by him, but there’s a major difference between our writing: DeLillo is a poet writing fiction, I’m a critic writing fiction. He’s Lincoln, I’m Billy Herndon, Lincoln’s junior law partner, friend, critic, interpreter — and caddy.
Lincoln’s Billy seems to be a new direction for you: historical fiction.
Yes, the material is new. Or actually old: the life of William “Billy” Herndon, Lincoln’s most important biographer, who died in 1891. But why did I choose Billy? Because he was a man obsessed with writing a full and frank biography of Lincoln when everyone else was doing hagiography. Because, like the protagonist of The Liquidators, Billy was a failure from 1865 until 1889 when his biography was finally published, after which the publisher failed and Billy was impoverished. And because, at least in this autobiography I compose for him, Billy may be unreliable, possibly because he realizes that Honest Abe, the friend and obsessive storyteller that Billy trusted his whole life, may not have always been a reliable narrator. Obsession, deception, fabrication — all my old “-ions.” But the stakes are higher in Lincoln’s Billy because much of it is factual: facts about an important man, Herndon, that most people don’t know, facts about a vulgar bull-shitting Lincoln that most people don’t want to know. But separating the factual from the fictional will require readers to get outside my text. And now that I’m saying that, I realize that my novels have often wanted to have a centrifugal effect, encouraging readers to find out more about the information contained in the fictions — information about global warming (before Franzen and others latched on to it), Kurdish refugees, world-wide mausoleums, Algerian feminism, the history of lead. Yes, the history of lead in the “Museum of Lead” chapter in The Liquidators. Like many of my characters, Billy was an altruist, and I feel that something like informational altruism is a motive for my writing. But — and why am I confessing this? — selfishness and a desire for centripetal effect are also present. Because the narrators are all possibly unreliable, I “compel” readers to become re-readers of me, me, me. Ultimately, though, I’m a good guy because the re-reading is supposed to reinforce the readers’ curiosity about the “real-world” subjects I introduce. John Barth was once called a “cheerful nihilist.” I suppose I’m an “earnest gamester.”
If you were reviewing Lincoln’s Billy what would you say about it?
Before saying anything, I’d do some reading in the sources listed in the Acknowledgements. I’d probably read this interview. Then I’d re-read the novel because after this interview I’d know this fucker LeClair is probably playing a game with me, against me, for me. I’d note all the explicit literary references (Emerson, Stowe, Twain) and unearth the buried allusions or quotations (Poe, Melville, Faulkner) and realize that just as Billy is constructing his Lincoln (for the book is really Billy’s Lincoln) from observations and stories, LeClair is constructing, at least partly, his novel from other American stories about trust and about race. I credit you for recognizing the sentence in the novel from Benito Cereno. I’d credit the author for his intertextualizing and for rehabilitating a man much traduced by his abolitionist-hating biographer, David Donald. But I think the LeClair the critic who wrote The Art of Excess would say the novel is truncated, too short to have large effect, too little like the novels deemed important in that book. LeClair the author of Lincoln’s Billy would reply that he’s no genius and that because the novel purports to be Herndon’s autobiography, a document written on his deathbed, the book can’t be a prodigious historical novel like Pynchon’s or DeLillo’s or Vollmann’s. I guess book editors (some for whom I’ve worked) and my reviewing colleagues agree with LeClair the critic for Lincoln’s Billy has received scant attention, but it’s early yet.
You’ve been writing about new books for more than forty years.
Fifty years if you go back to my M.A. thesis and Ph.D. dissertation.
So what is the high point in the life of LeClair the critic?
My headiest days as a book critic were when I was a National Book Award judge for fiction in 2005. I received hundreds of free books, was paid to read them, was put up in a fine New York City hotel, got a free lunch when the other four judges and I decided on the winner, got a free dinner at the awards ceremony, and heard an astonished gasp from the audience when William Vollmann’s Europe Central was announced as the winner. The gasp indicated that two other novelists and I had judged that a little-known and difficult collection of stories by an unlikable author was the best — the most ambitious in subject, the most original in form — fiction of the year. The two other people on the panel were not so much judges as promoters. One wanted to give the award to a family friend; the other wanted to reward the distinguished author of a made-for-movies novel. After arguing about literary quality and cultural importance for several hours with these two, I decided that in the future I would think of myself as a book judge rather than book reviewer.
And the difference is?
Reviewers are considered hacks. Some judges in our courts are, of course, also hacks, but generally judges know the history of the law, examine precedents, consider particulars and ambiguities of evidence, listen objectively to opposing arguments, and carefully explain their opinions. Reading online comments about some of my reviews, I realized many readers consider book reviews personal opinions. I wanted my reviews to be like legal opinions, well-founded, well-reasoned, and as fair as I could make them without donning black robes and buying a gavel. I also wanted to treat every book I reviewed as if it were up for a literary award. About 300 works of fiction are nominated by publishers every year for the NBA, and only five are finalists, so many are called but few are culled. For the past six years, I’ve been writing an omnibus review of the fiction finalists. I usually find two or three of the five unprizeworthy — mediocre, unambitious, and uninspired compared to Europe Central. As you can see, someone with standards as high as mine could suffer nosebleeds and neglect by reviewing venues under great pressure to publish positive reviews that will be liked and linked.
But you keep getting assignments, keep writing reviews.
Back when the New York Times Book Review was edited by literary people like John Leonard and Richard Locke, I’d get maybe six assignments a year. Now I get one if an editor there can find a book sufficiently long and complicated enough to interest me. Lately I’ve mostly been writing for online venues such as the Daily Beast, the Barnes and Noble Review, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. I welcomed the free and wide-open space online could offer, and I’ve received some good novels from them, but I’ve come to dislike how reviews are presented and promoted. Right underneath the link to your review at the Daily Beast is the number of times it has been shared on, I take it, three platforms. The Barnes and Noble Review identifies a review as “posted by” the author, as if it were written by some amateur Amazon poster, and at the bottom of the review you find how many times it has been liked and tweeted. I understand crowd sourcing, but this kind of immediate quantitative measure of a review can discourage one from being a judge. Citing the statistics is like surveying casual observers in a courtroom how they feel about a judge’s decision. Of course, positive reviews are going to get better stats than negative reviews. It’s the reverse of Gresham’s law in which bad money drives out good. On the Gresham Internet, good reviews drive out bad ones even if negative judgments are necessary to book culture if reviewing is not to become an adjunct of big publishers’ advertising departments. But I have to say that editors at these two places have never tried to edit down my negative critiques, unlike an editor at LARB who wanted me to ease up on a novel. Her requests made me believe the book was written by a close relative.
You did manage to get published a long takedown of Lydia Davis.
Yeah, let’s put a link to that in the text. Lydia Davis’s work is to literature what hacks are to judges and what content providers are to imaginative artists. That review is probably as good a summation of my literary values as anything I’ve written, that and the introduction to What to Read (and Not), my e-book of essays and reviews currently marked down at Dzanc. Now if I could just get assigned a book by the uber-narcissist and literature-denier David Shields my life would be complete.
People on the outside of the reviewing process wonder how books get assigned.
People on the inside wonder the same thing. When I was writing in bygone days for The New Republic, The Nation, Atlantic, and BookForum, I would, as a professor and academic critic, be asked to read serious books by well-known authors. In the last decade or so, the process has changed. Now book review editors, no doubt overburdened by the amount of books they receive, want you to query them about a book you would like to review. A query increases the chance of a positive review that will be shared, etc. Judges in our courts don’t cherry pick the cases they want to hear. I dislike the querying process, how it undermines judgment and encourages back-scratching, but queries are the way that reviewers who are, after all, a penny a dozen remind editors that we exist.
Why, besides the desire for advertising, do you think magazines and newspapers work this way?
Literature used to be news. As Pound said, “News that stays news.” When I first started reviewing, I wrote for the Saturday Review of Literature, a weekly mass-market magazine you could find on every newsstand. How many corner newsies carry the New York Review of Books? Literature has become one of many entertainment options available to the contemporary consumer. There’s not much reason to judge entertainment, a thumb up or down will do. Besides, “judgment” has become a word encrusted with negative connotations. It sounds elitist. We have a literary magazine called The Believer, a saccharine and carelessly edited support system for whatever. Can you imagine a magazine now called Passing Judgments? I rarely agree with James Wood at the New Yorker, but he has a bench from which he can deliver and explain his judgments at some length. The Washington Post’s “Book World” had Jonathan Yardley before it closed down. I was a bi-monthly staff reviewer for Book Magazine before it went defunct. Salon has Laura Miller, but she can, she says, rarely get into the magazine a review of fiction. Time has that silly Lev Grossman, who refuses, he says, to write a negative review. In general, though, regularly appearing book critics provide a consistency of judgment with which one can agree or argue. When freelancers — like me, now — took over in a time of decreasing book coverage, you got a random band of query-writers and self-proposers. If you’re not a pensioner like me, you become a petitioner at the gates. I will say some of that old consistency and independence can be found in regular book bloggers, but they are sometimes — and I know I’ll catch shit for this if our interview has a Comments section — amateurs with no obvious qualifications for judging new books in the context of literary history. The word “amateur” has its origin in “love,” and we have to love book bloggers for helping to keep reading — if not literary criticism of a high order — alive. Some of the bloggers are also careerists, hoping to jump from volunteer work into paid freelancing, maybe even in one of those anachronistic media outlets that kills trees to inform and advertise.
Why do you think fiction, along with poetry, lost its status as “News that stays news”?
There are multiple and obvious causes which you and the readers of Full Stop know very well, but the one that makes me angriest and that may not be as readily apparent is academics’ abdication of literature that challenged college students. I’m not talking about forgetting Great White Male Books for political reasons, or even sacrificing the word “literature” for “semiotic text,” but pandering to students, giving them easy reading so they will like their instructors. Instead of Portrait of a Lady, Daisy Miller. Instead of Beloved, The Bluest Eye. Shorter and simpler and unlikely to rearrange students’ brain cells. The importance of literature, its ability to exert massive cognitive dissonance, was diluted. Instructors didn’t want to be judged by their students. Of course not, for more than half of English classes in universities are taught by adjuncts who are like freelance reviewers, petitioners or panhandlers. Even tenured professors abdicated. But what I found by teaching, for example, a course that went from Moby-Dick to Absalom, Absalom! to Beloved and Gravity’s Rainbow was that students valued the contact with intellectual ambition and artistic mastery. “So this is what literature is!” “So this is the reason people devote their lives to it!” The last few years that I taught contemporary American fiction I always included Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, a book at least as challenging as the four masterworks I’ve just mentioned. At the end of the course, I asked students — not all of them English majors — to write about the novel they thought was the most important work in the syllabus. More than half always chose House of Leaves. It was news to them. Because it was unique, it might stay news. Here’s what I hoped by being unlikeable: after reading a book like Danielewski’s, the students would see through facile, crank-turning fiction — and the reviewers who praised it for its accessibility in the new Dominion of Like. I might mention that, asshole that I was, I didn’t allow students to use “like” as a verb in my classes because “like” says more about the person saying it than the book it refers to. I tried to make my lit students into law students, judges in training.
I hesitate to ask this, but could it be that the “scant attention” you mentioned earlier is one reason you’re frustrated with the book reviewing biz?
Could be, but I think “disgusted” might be a better word than “frustrated.” And disgust applies to myself as well. To be online, I’ve queried and proposed, cherry picked and plucked low-hanging fruit, and I may have found reasons to like books that will be forgotten in five years though my reviews will still be “up” to remind me of the judge’s lapses and compromises. In my dotage, I’ll just have to remember that I did say online that Morrison’s God Help the Child was a book she shouldn’t have written, that Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge was a mere, Mr. Softee entertainment, and that Lydia Davis was the Empress of Fiction with no clothes. In an essay explaining why he doesn’t print negative reviews in Time, Lev Grossman praises our online access to “opinions about books”: “Now they’re thick on the ground, they’re everywhere, you can roll around in them to your heart’s content.” But are the “opinions” of those writing in the Dominion of Like informed and neutral and, just as important, courageous, like the judgment calls of officials in stadiums packed with screaming fans who want the team they like, the team they love, to win? I was mistaken earlier in offering the law judge as a model. I should have chosen the line judge in a football game because law judges are insulated from the mob, but line judges hear the crowd’s one-eyed opinions and personal insults just as online reviewers see the discouraging stupidity and inexplicable hatred of readers in the Comments section. A magazine or newspaper will occasionally print a letter to the editor about a review, but the letter will be civil discourse. It’s a shit-rasslin’ free-for-all online. But while some comments cause a deep disgust, they also illustrate the continuing need for critics to show what informed and thoughtful judgment is.
On a positive note, who do you judge the most interesting younger novelists working today?
Younger than me would take in just about everybody, but I’ll mention a few, one to a country: Joshua Ferris in American English, Tom McCarthy in British English, Michael Helm in Canadian English, Daniel Kehlmann in German, Juan Gabriel Vasquez in Spanish. I review few translations, so the list is limited. I also review few books by women, perhaps because editors know I’m most interested in the kind of science-influenced, intellectual novels mostly written by men, but I want to mention one such book: I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita in Japanese-inflected English.
One last personal question that someone wanted me to ask you, a question far afield from the others. Is it true that you’re a professional ping pong player?
I once won $150 in a tournament, but in fact I’m a professorial ping pong player. Every Friday night for the last five years, I’ve put on my costume of a bow tie, suspenders, and baggy pants to become “Professor Ping Pong” at SPiN, Susan Sarandon’s Manhattan table tennis club, where I’m paid to keep score and referee a professional tournament, as well as add some gravitas to the festivities. But as you will see the question is not far afield at all. People at the club want to challenge me and take their selfies with me. Beautiful young women ask me to humiliate the boyfriends who have been humiliating the girls. I once taught Woody Harrelson my sidespin serve and kept score for Justin Bieber. I appear (on the periphery) in YouTube videos. People I don’t know say “Hi, Professor” on the street. I’ve become the pong sparring partner of the well-known novelist Jerome Charyn. After publishing nine books and hundreds of essays and reviews, I am better known as Professor Ping Pong than Tom LeClair. Why should I worry about bringing the news about books that will remain news? I myself am news that stays news until, as Hamm says in Beckett’s Endgame, I “play and lose and have done with losing.”
Andrew Mitchell Davenport is a middle school teacher, and a writer, in Brooklyn. You can find him on Twitter here.