This week’s podcast discussion is with the author Jonathan Lethem. This connection has probably meant more to me than previous connections. For one thing, it’s been ongoing since the inception (very much was the inception) of Seen & Not Seen, and anyone who has read that work knows how important my connecting to Lethem has been to me at a personal level. So I was a bit daunted by the thought of trying to get everything into a couple of hours’ conversation, which of course we didn’t. Here are a couple of things I wanted to bring up with Jonathan Lethem that I didn’t get to.
Considering how much we have in common, the chances of our ever meeting were slim. It’s not as if we met at a David Byrne concert, a Marvel comics convention, or a Philip K. Dick conference. (Dick was our connection—how manly can you get?) The distance between our worlds—or the smallness of the overlap between them—can be guessed at by looking at our respective audiences. Mine is small, his is large. And yet I have a strong feeling that, so far at least, I have probably brought more people to his work than he has to mine (I know a fair number of people who had never heard of Lethem before I introduced them).
This has to do with one of the run-through threads in our conversation: the margin and the mainstream. This is a subject that’s central (and circumferential) to my whole experience of Lethem and the context he provides by knowing him (Lethemia, for short).
In our first recorded exchange, Jonathan said something about how my initial reaching out to him might have signaled a sort of stalker energy, had it not been for other, leavening factors. We didn’t explore this idea much, though I wanted to, because our conversation moved so fast and opened up so many possible avenues to go down. The notion of stalking (a sorcery term from Castaneda as well as a social and legal one) suggests a psychic intimacy (that of predator and prey) but also complicity. The best sort of predator identifies so fully with its prey that it becomes one with it, literally once consumption/consummation occurs. A mirror image is created by whatever gazes into it. To a similar though not equal degree, a literary public figure such as Lethem is created by readers’ responses to his work.
Both Lethem & I (who are readers of each other’s writing, as well as writer-commentators on things the other has written) are seeking a similarly lost object, hence we are lost (immersed) in the same fevered quest. The correctness of our orientation (the healthiness of our obsessions) is confirmed by the improbability of our meeting: it’s not that our shared interests led us to the same spot in the cultural noosphere; it’s that our interests seem to be sourced in a similar driving “wound.” If so, it’s that wound which determined where we ended up on the battlefield—convalescing loudly inside a literary margin for the functionally infirm.
Meeting Lethem is a step towards that eternally evasive but quest-defining, quest-ending discovery—that the seeker is really what is being sought. One measures a circle, beginning anywhere.
To explore the abyss, start wherever you are standing.
In his afterword to Seen & Not Seen, Jonathan Lethem writes something about how including him in the writing of the book (both in the writing process and the content being written) must have seemed like a high-risk endeavor for me. It’s true that it did (and does, the process goes on with this post), but it occurred to me before our first talk (another thing I wanted to bring up but didn’t) that, in certain respects, the greater risk is Lethem’s. As a dweller on the margins, my profile is low and whatever exposure I might inadvertently invite by revealing my stalker-like interest in Lethem (and the literary establish-ment he represents), it isn’t going to change my circumstances much. For Lethem, securely established within the mainstream and with many more eyes upon him, the same does not apply.
What’s margins and what’s mainstream? What do I as a writer want to achieve by writing? Connection: to communicate meaning effectively. Communication isn’t complete until it’s received, and the only way to know it has been received is through dialogue.
To reach a thousand (or a million) readers with my work sounds desirable; but what if the work is being incompletely or even wrongly received? How does that compare to reaching a single reader and knowing that he or she has received more or less exactly what I set out to communicate? In the first case, no real connection has occurred; in the second, we have contact.
All this came into my awareness while thinking about Jonathan Lethem and the difference between my margins and his mainstream.
What happens when a writer makes it to the mainstream? His work enters the cultural discussion (he becomes relevant); it is reviewed by major periodicals, optioned for movies or TV shows, makes it on book lists and becomes part of book clubs, maybe even gets onto school or university curricula. More and more people read the work because they want or need to be part of that discussion, to participate in the zeitgeist. They come to the work within a context of social agreement and the corresponding pressure that creates. It’s no longer a simple or clean relationship between an author and a reader; it has become part of a larger social tapestry which includes all the usual elements of power, status, acceptance, approval, and so on. The focus is accordingly less on the work itself or on those embedded meanings which pertain to the author’s own personal exploration process, and more and more on the cultural “relevance” of the work, i.e., how it helps reinforce the meaningfulness of our values and our connectedness to one another via those meanings and values.
There’s very little space in a writer’s social maneuverability between marginal/unknown and overrated.
Being marginal means having hardly any readers but being deeply appreciated by them (even to a degree appreciated for being marginal). Being successful means having lots of readers who read your work because they have been directed to read it by the culture and who feel, to whatever degree, an obligation, not only to read but to like the work because it is literary—i.e., culturally valued. Reading and liking the work becomes a measure of our connection to and place within the dominant culture. (Perhaps this is why I hardly ever get any “likes” on my blog posts? Maybe margin-oriented readers don’t “do” cultural affirmations?)
Naturally, this creates a backlash of disappointed readers who are more critical than they would otherwise have been if their expectations hadn’t been raised by all the hype, as well as readers who are predisposed to be critical simply because of the hype. This isn’t altogether wrong of them either—since such readers are expressing an awareness that truly meaningful voices become diluted and even polluted via this cultural appropriation of their meanings.
Something along these lines seems to have occurred with Nic Pizzolatto and the second season of True Detective. The meanings were obscured because the cultural baggage that had accrued around Pizzolatto and the show, after the first season, prevented many viewers from connecting to the core content, those deeper meanings that Pizzolatto was exploring and trying to communicate. The backlash against Pizzolatto and the show snowballed via social media (Salon even ran an “article” consisting exclusively of the more snarky tweets about the show), and an environment was created in which anyone who did connect to the show’s deeper meanings became more and more marginalized, their voices (increasingly sheepish in most cases) drowned out by the growing roar of the crowd.
In crowds, things happen that can only be understood via an understanding of crowd psychology. Edward Alsworth Ross wrote back in 1903:
One result of reciprocal suggestion is that association in a crowd renders every psychic manifestation more intense. Masked by anonymity, people throw off customary restraint and give their feelings exaggerated expression. To be heard one does not speak; one shouts. To be seen one does not simply show one’s self; one gesticulates. Boisterous laughter, frenzied objurgations, frantic cheers, are needed to express the merriment or wrath or enthusiasm of the crowd. These exaggerated signs of emotion cannot but produce in suggestible beholders exaggerated states of mind. Insensibly the mental temperature rises so that what once seemed hot now seems luke-warm, what once felt tepid now seems cold. The energizing and intensifying of the feelings by means of reciprocal suggestion will be most prompt and striking when the members of the crowd are in an excited state of mind or meet under agitating circumstances. In this case the impulse to the unbridled manifestation of feeling is rife from the first, and the psychic fermentation proceeds at an uncommon rate. [“Moot Points in Sociology. IV. The Properties of Group-Units” American Journal of Sociology Vol. 9, No. 3 (Nov., 1903), pp. 349-372.]
Mimesis means that people in a crowd imitate the dominant behaviors being exhibited, so that the behaviors, emotions and opinions that are dominant quickly become amplified. The amplification means that, to stand out in such a crowd, opinions not only need to be expressed more loudly but also more emphatically, belligerently, and vitriolically. Naturally, any voice that doesn’t echo the dominant tone and value set, that doesn’t concur with the ever-louder collective voice, will be shouted down at best; at worst, it will targeted for more vitriol.
This also applies when the crowd-feeling, or group think, is seemingly positive: any voice that questions the general agreement to praise is seen as an interloper and a threat, and risks being scapegoated. This, I think, is the nature of collective cultural “discussion,” to become primal, tribal, mimetic, to close ranks and shut down all discussion in favor of dull, hypnotic chanting: “One of us, one of us, one of us.” This is not really an appealing or productive environment for a writer (or anyone) to enter into. It is not a milieu conducive to, or even tolerant of, the shared exploration of delicate interior meanings with other similarly searching souls. And yet this is the milieu of the mainstream.
Most established writers are understandably cautious about seeming to criticize their readers or the culture that has elevated them to a position of influence, so I won’t know for sure unless a similar sort of elevation happens to me. But I suspect that the first thing any sensitive writer is likely to feel on making it to the mainstream is: how the hell do I get back to the margin?