Ben Greenman and Being a Literary Provocateur

Ben Greenman is a writer who pokes, prods, and sets readers off balance in hopes of generating emotion and thought — and maybe, sometimes, simply because he feels like it. This is a man who has purposely inserted typos in his books.

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One of the more prolific of modern-day American writers is The New Yorker's Ben Greenman, whose latest novel, The Slippage, came out in May via Harper Perennial to positive reviews from The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and others. Next up, out today from Grand Central Publishing, is Questlove's memoir, Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlovewhich Greenman co-wrote. But Greenman isn't just prolific. He's also a provocateur.

Greenman is a writer who pokes, prods, and sets readers off balance in hopes of generating emotion and thought — and maybe, sometimes, simply because he feels like it. In the creation of work, he's not afraid to break the rules, to go outside of the lines, to create new dialogues and make people, including himself, uncomfortable. This is a man who has purposely inserted typos in his books. And though he admits that with the Internet he tries to read "zero reviews," he's not afraid of reader reactions that may be less than positive.

Now 43, Greenman has been at The New Yorker since 2000. He cut his teeth at the Miami New Times and, in high school, at the Miami Herald, where he was offered a job after winning every category at the paper's annual parody contest. Since then, he's authored books including Superbad; Superworse; A Circle is a Balloon and a Compass Both: Stories about Human Love; Correspondences; Please Step Back; Celebrity Chekhov; and What He's Poised to Do. He's ghostwritten for Gene Simmons, Simon Cowell, and, most recently, Questlove. And he's produced nearly uncountable shorter works, from an etiquette column in Brooklyn magazine to humor pieces in McSweeney's to compositions for Gawker (circa 2007) and an array of charts and graphs that frequently carry more meaning than they do words. As he explains on his I <3 Charts Tumblr, "My interest in charts springs primarily from my disinterest in charts," which is pretty representative of the way he tackles story-telling in all its shapes and sizes.

The eldest of three siblings, Greenman confesses that he's had some issues with the rules since he was a kid. While he could certainly follow them, doing well at school and in task-based achievements, "whatever the rules are, I just thought they were stupid." Now that he's an adult with two kids of his own, a coveted job at The New Yorker, and a substantial publishing history, the breaking or at least the twisting of the rules has turned into a characteristic of his work. He's self-aware about that, as he admits when we meet at a restaurant in Union Square: "You can effect being a rebel all you want when you're the rebel who went to Yale and works at The New Yorker."

The examples of his form of provocation in The Slippage are subtle, enough so that S. Kirk Walsh wrote in the book's review in The New York Times, "With its conventional, linear narrative, this novel represents a stark stylistic departure from Greenman’s previous seven books." But there are weirdnesses and purposeful inconsistencies engrained in its pages, to be sure. After all, at the heart of The Slippage is the idea that a graph itself might become so unmoored that the viewer can no longer tell where he's standing in relation to it, as one character explains to another. Greenman's speciality is a kind of slippage: pulling the rug out from under readers, and not only pulling out that rug but perhaps changing it for something else entirely, altering the format of reader expectations to reveal something new and surprising about the reader himself. Calvert Morgan, his editor at Harper Collins, says of Greenman, "Writing, like all art, involves a play between creative chaos and control, and Ben embodies that play better than any writer I know. Invention is a form of breathing for him."

And so, in The Slippage — which Morgan calls "one of the most elegant, restrained performances I’ve ever seen from a writer—and yet still marked by the exquisite sense of irony that’s at the heart of even Ben’s funniest work" — you'll get streets that run parallel that are later perpendicular, a subtle description of a setting that you're never quite sure where exactly to place, plane rides that take longer in one direction that the other, and so on. There are a million little ways of destabilizing or subtly shifting the atmosphere in a book, and Greenman is practiced at the art, having honed it for years. "I think of [the provocation] increasingly as stealth," he says. "With Superbad it was pretty overt." That's the novel in which he inserted typos on purpose [gasp] as a way to give readers ownership, to help them have a relationship with the book. "It’s like getting sweater caught on a nail. You’re a participant," he explains. "I like that idea in an artwork. You’re reading along and it’s in one register, then becomes unnecessarily unpredictable. In normal life, plenty of unpredictable things happen. It’s not always comfortable, it’s a provocation." It's worth noting, too, that it's a provocation from a still, unchanging object, a book, written by a writer who isn't immediately on-hand (as he might be on the Internet) to respond to your questions, criticisms, and concerns. Maybe in that way Greenman's provocations are more like the Internet, or a way to allow for Internet-like connections in print material.

Of course, Greenman has gotten responses, to his books and to other work, too. While at the Miami New Times in the early '90s he and music editor Greg Baker grew impatient waiting for the new Springsteen record. They decided to simply make one up as a lark. They called it Parking Free and wrote a review for it. But the AP picked it up as if it had leaked, and "the public was furious," he says. Springsteen's people were not thrilled, either: "We got a phone call from their PR people."  

In 2003's Superworse, Greenman created a fake editor named Laurence Onge, who hates his work and is constantly saying Greenman doesn't know he's doing. From that Foreword comes this withering sentence from Onge, "It is not to much of an exaggeration to say that without my intervention, the book would have been a welter of unresolved ideas, less a carefully assembled mosaic and more of a gallimaufry of brightly colored tiles thrown together without regard for reason or rhyme."

Why create an editor who hates the work of the writing he's "editing"? It's a way of pointing out the weirdness of things considered simple, accepted truths. A way to allow the reader to have a different kind of relationship with the book than the expected one. And maybe even a way to get Greenman off the hook for any criticisms — if the editor is already saying it, what's an unhappy reader to complain about?  "Jokes like these are an Easter egg hunt," he says. "It’s not like I’m trying to be inscrutable, but I’m trying to ask questions without answering them — 'Isn’t it weird authors have people like editors?' — Yes, it’s weird, and here’s an example." Also in Superworse, there's a fight scene between two men with the same name, see above, which makes sense for a few sentences until "you start realizing this is unfollowable, the only loser is me," Greenman explains. "It's an exercise the function of which is to aggravate. How arbitrary it is that we have different names?"

Not everyone understands the Easter egg hunt. Some people get mad. Others are confused:

Of emails like that one, Greenman says he's not quite sure how to react. "I can't tell whether they are sometimes just repunking me — taking something I have done as a way of pushing the envelope and pushing it even more."

In March of 2013 Greenman wrote a piece in The New York Times titled "True Lies." It was a reaction to the class-action lawsuit against Lance Armstrong for "fraud and false advertising" in his memoirs that came in the wake of the cyclist's doping confession. Greenman claims he's filing suit against "the publishers of more than a thousand novels" because those books "are marketed as fiction when they blatantly contain elements of truth." It's a fine piece of satire, but in this case, the joke was on Greenman, too. He learned that the piece was being taught in an AP English class, and there, the first time through, a number of the kids did not understand it as satire. In the students' minds, a new story was created: "Ben Greenman is such a dope, The New York Times published this piece by this guy who’s an author who doesn't even know this stuff. In the world we have to deal with misunderstanding as much as we understand," he says. "In a weird way, who am I to say they’re wrong?"

Perhaps the provocations ultimately get at the author's sense of unease regarding his own role in creation. "I’m making something up and asking people at some level to believe me, and that’s odd," he says. When he was teaching grad school, he tells me, he was floored by an experiment in which he passed out a short story for his students to read and then asked them what it was about. He'd italicize one line — “he wrote this story the year of his mother’s death” — and that became the immediate, universal focus. "All they could do was see that piece through that prism. I thought, that’s really strange and disconcerting. You think of how little all the other words weigh."

Now, with the Questlove book, Greenman weaves his subversive style into nonfiction. "That whole book is built that way —internal dialogue, voices challenging narrative, unraveling the way a memoir works," he explains. Chapter one of the book, for example, begins with a conversation between the characters of Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson and Rich Nichols, Thompson's co-manager, in which they dissect the very idea of a memoir:

So what’s this gonna be, Ahmir?

A memoir.

The fuck does that mean?

You don’t know what memoir means?? A life story, told by the person who lived it.

I know what the word memoir means. But what about the idea? What does it mean to you?

Well, that depends. This book should be different. I don’t want it to be your average book.

No matter the subject, "structurally it's all provocation," says Greenman. "I’d like to keep asking those questions in ways that are not easy to answer or comfortable for me. In the overall project, I hope, I’m wearing shoes on my hands. Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with me." Once a rule-breaker, always a rule-breaker.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.