In this interview, MFA fiction student Sophia Mansingh talks to writer and chair of the Columbia University fiction program Sam Lipsyte. Lipsyte is the bestselling author of Home Land; Venus Drive; The Fun Parts; and The Ask. He has also been published in The New Yorker, Tin House, The Washington Post, The Paris Review, and Playboy. He was a 2008 Guggenheim Fellow.
Lipsyte’s work is characterized by a dark acerbic wit and mordant humor while his protagonists are often the vanquished and the defeated, and tormented by a brutal, oppressive world. His new novel, Hark, deals with the rise of a wellness guru and near-messiah (Hark Morner) and his mediocre followers and promoters who think they know him.
In this interview, Lipsyte discusses “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes—an important essay about severing the link between the text and elements of the author’s identity that may help the indolent reader find definite meaning in the text. The implications of the death of the author are profound and greatly influence literary discourse today.
While the Death of the Author provides the reader with much-needed interpretative freedom and establishes the text in a larger context of all writing, it shatters writers’ conceptions of themselves as singular unified sources of their texts and reduces them to mere “scriptors” of cultural stimuli. To young writers who are just starting out and half-familiar with the concept, this can be problematic.
I’ve been watching a lot of your other interviews because that is how I began researching for this one. And I came across an interview of yours with Nick Mount at the University of Toronto…
Yeah. That was many years ago in Canada.
Well, it’s a 20 minute clip where you talked about studying continental theory while at Brown, which you said confused you, and you felt you weren’t quite prepared for the Death of the Author. I want to really parse that because it resonated with me deeply. So I would really like to know how you dealt with the Death of the Author in your own writing because I think when we study literary criticism seriously as undergraduates, we often struggle with transitioning to the supply end of the literary landscape as MFA students.
Yes—that’s a good way to put it. As I’ve said before, I come from a home where there were journalists and writers. It was like growing up in a religious household and getting to college and being told that, “God is dead!” And everyone around you is saying, “What’s the big deal?” [Laughs].
It’s just a little traumatic at first.
Going back—when I think about it, it wasn’t the theory or the literary criticism that was the problem; it was that I had not been properly educated enough to deconstruct this large edifice—this canon—because I wasn’t that steeped in it yet.
So I could have used more years—which I later did—reading the stuff that the literary criticism was in reaction to, pivoting from and looking at, etc. So I think that caused some of the confusion for me. Later, as I was able to read more books—both novels and theory—a lot of things made more sense, and I was able to use some of the literary criticism in a productive way to frame my practice. But for a little while, as an undergrad who had really come with naive romantic notions of what a writer was and what it meant to write fiction, it was disappointing. And I had to kind of rethink a lot of my notions of what it meant to be an ‘artist.’
Do you remember specifically what you needed to rethink?
I think some of it had to do with the idea of the artist being this lone heroic figure rather than somebody who might be part of a community of artists. I think some of it might have had to do with understanding more about the interplay between the writer and the reader, about what gets created between them.
There is an understanding that awareness of literary criticism and philosophy ruins your writing; did that affect you?
Only in good ways. For me, it hastened the process that had to occur anyway. I had turned myself into a fairly nifty high-school writer who could write polished energetic prose that got me pats on the head and prizes and medals, and I thought that’s what it was all about. I was a sort of a performing creature. I was mimicking a lot of other voices and other writers, which was a thing that a lot of apprentice-artists do, and it’s fine to do it. I hadn’t really come to understand what all that meant for me. And what I could contribute that would be different. What I’m saying is, when you are like that—when you are someone who has learned to write pretty well, and everyone is patting you on the head and telling you how great it is—you begin to ask questions of yourself. Am I just giving them what they’d like to see more of? Is it just reinforcing some used thoughts? Can I do things to strip away some of my old habits and rebuild my work to make it more interesting, less predictable? To make the familiar strange and the strange familiar, as the saying goes.
Were you ever anxious about influence?
As a younger writer you might worry that you’re writing too much like the people that have excited you and given you permission to write—the people that are the reason you’re writing in the first place.
The idea of originality is a tricky one. It’s really about your particular odd combination of influences, experiences, desires and fears and how they all coalesce and find language. It’s not necessarily about being original in some whole way but to create a slightly different angle on reality. And a very charismatic personality on the page.
One of the ways that I have found to negotiate that anxiety has been to understand that I am not one single person or single set of ideas or ideological impulses. Maybe all I can do is honor the human multiplicity within me.
Did you find the Death of the Author freeing in that respect?
The Death of the Author doesn’t mean anything to me anymore. It was something that I wrestled with when I was nineteen. I find it was really about asserting the power of the critic. It was a battle that I wasn’t really a part of. The Death of the Author just allowed the critic to become the dominant force in discourse so that literary study wouldn’t just be about deferring to these deity-like authors, to some idea of their history, or to treating the text as some sealed-off space, as in the New Criticism, but about how we’re interacting with the text. Everything from Roland Barthes on. But these are all ancient debates. They were already ancient when I was in diapers. I had to step away from it and realize that these developments were great and fascinating. And they informed my thought about literature, but only to a degree. Because after a certain point, I am going to get into a room by myself and pretend to be the author and write a book. And then try to write another one.
When you were in your late-teens or early twenties, which authors influenced you, and did that change over the course of your career?
There were writers who had a certain charged relationship to their sentences that excited me and a way of looking at the world that excited me and got me especially interested in the short story. Writers like Leonard Michaels, Barry Hannah, Grace Paley, and later Diane Williams. And others. And what you find out is that you can’t be another person. As someone said to me, “you can’t be first, but you can be alone.” And this maybe contradicts what I said earlier about community, but I actually don’t think it does. You can work in a community of artists and still try to stake out a little bit of territory that’s yours.
At a certain point in my twenties I was trying to write like all of those writers. Thomas McGuane was another one. Stanley Elkin was a big influence on me. Earlier than that, writers like Beckett, Kafka. The Man Without Qualities was a book I always loved. Even books like Moby Dick and Blood Meridian were very important to me. Thomas Bernhard was important to me. But I didn’t necessarily try to imitate those writers. I just drew inspiration from their example. The example being somebody fully committed to their project.
Speaking about commitment to the project, what kind of research did you do for Hark? There is a ton of stuff in here about archery, and Pickering, NY.
I made all that up! [Laughs] I did do a lot of research about archery in various world mythologies and histories just to cherry-pick some famous mythological archers and stories. But the research about the ‘waffle-boom’ town wasn’t research—it was fantasia. I based it around post-industrial towns in upstate New York, so I guess I did know a little bit about it.
Where do you start with the writing process?
I usually just start writing. And as I’m going there are certain options that appear:
- Stop Now—This is terrible! (And that’s 80% of the time.)
- Keep Going—Let’s see what happens. And then I might go for a while. And if I do that, I’m just moving from sentence to sentence for a long time. Just to seeing where it leads me. And then suddenly I’m in a place and there are people and things are happening, with certain patterns, images, and sounds occurring on the page, and I discover what it is I’m writing. And if it seems contained in terms of time and space then maybe I tell myself this is a short story or if it occurs to me that it’s opening up more and more, creating new tiers of possibility then maybe it’s something longer. I pursue that, and I just see where it leads me. If it’s something that feels dead when I sit down to it, then at some point, I cut bait, as they say.
As a young writer, what did you struggle with in the writing process?
When I wrote my first novel I said to myself, and this is just the same thing I hear from students all the time, “But I don’t know how to write a novel! How can I write a novel?” And as we all know, no one knows how to write a novel until they write a novel, and then they only know how to write that novel. I struggled with anxiety about whether I’d be able to create something in a long form. I struggled sometimes with questions of structure and with the notion that there were these things that a novel or short story had to have and if you didn’t have them, it was somehow deficient. A particular kind of plot, pacing, or character development, until I realized that most of the things I loved were deeply deficient in some ways and super abundant in others. There wasn’t this equal distribution of the elements of fiction in every piece of fiction. Does that ring true to you?
Yes, it does! I’ve been having trouble with narrative structure because it’s so subconscious, and I don’t think I ever really paid attention to it as a kid.
I almost had to get back to the way I read as a child and feel a more organic relationship to structure rather than something that is superimposed later on after you’ve created your world.
How did you go about doing that?
I am writing, on some level, realist fiction. I just try to stay in the world and in the consequences of the world and feel it out rather than think there was some perfect structure out there which if only I could figure it out would apply and fit perfectly.
You mentioned the dominance or critics in the literary landscape. Do you personally pay attention to critics, and do you read your reviews?
Well—sometimes they make me cry. They can be very devastating. You start to read reviews, and you realize that there are smart reviews that praise you and smart reviews that attack you and dumb reviews that praise you and dumb reviews that attack you, and you learn to distinguish among those categories. You consider them and think about them. Although, sometimes you can tell that something else is fueling their vitriol, and it may not be about your book at all. At times, reviews that have been negative have had criticism that I’ve found useful. It’s part of the business. We all make a decision to publish, and so we put ourselves out there for the judgment of everyone else and that can be a very vulnerable place. You develop a thick skin. You have to.
Is Hark Morner based on someone? I couldn’t figure it out—there were way too many people to choose from.
All of them! All the ones you’re thinking of.
When I was watching the video of your University of Toronto interview, a suggestion for Jordan Peterson came up.
That’s disturbing! I don’t like hearing that.
Although I think that might have had to do with the internet history of the computer I was on.
When I was writing the book, I was very much aware of all of the ways people are desperate for somebody to tell them what it all means and what they’re supposed to do. We lack real political or spiritual leadership in this confusing, troubled time. If you look back at history, I think you will see various figures rise up, purporting to have an answer or a way, and some of them are very successful and end up founding religions that have millions of followers, and some of them fall by the wayside. We’re at a place where people are listening to disparate voices that are at the margins and saying sometimes interesting and sometimes frightening things.
There is a quote from Gary Shteyngart at the back of Hark, which says, “if Hark doesn’t make you stalk Sam Lipsyte and try to break up his marriage, then you are not human.” (I guess this is a question of authorial intent) but what does that mean?!
[Laughs] I don’t know. I was grateful that Gary gave me a supportive quote for the book. I love Gary. I don’t know exactly what it means, but it seems fairly positive, and I guess my publishers thought it was positive and they put it on the book. I guess it just means that Gary Shteyngart might start stalking me. [Pauses] Maybe that’s not a bad thing.