Why Jonathan Lethem Loves Meta-Nonfiction and Hates Superhero Flicks

An interview with the writer about his new essay collection, The Ecstasy of Influence


Julie Jo Fehrle

In 2006, Jonathan Lethem sat across from Bob Dylan at a seaside hotel in Santa Monica. Later, recounting the meeting in a essay for Rolling Stone, Lethem described the singer this way: "the expressions on Dylan's face seem to compress and encompass versions of his persona across time." This description could also apply to Lethem's new collection, The Ecstasy of Influence, which investigates the way a writer's public persona and private self refract one another.

It's not your garden-variety essay collection. Lethem offers a career-spanning mélange of widely variant writings: long-form cultural criticism, incisive blog posts, short (and very short) fiction, personal reminiscences, textually approprative mashups, self-consciously fannish music writing, brief and evocative Borgesian meditations. It's not Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, it's "the gang's all here."

We encounter Lethem's adolescent, painfully worshipful homages to Phillip K. Dick alongside rhapsodic, incandescent pop cultural criticism alongside behind-the-scenes investigations of the taboo subjects novelists aren't supposed to acknowledge (tedious interviews, negative reviews, the elusiveness of book-tour bathroom breaks). Short introductions place each work within context, telling us why, in Lethem's view, it flopped or flew.

Crucial to the book's project is Lethem's attempt to unpack the authorial "I": to show that we are all as multifarious and shapeshifting as Dylan, containing within us not only many alternate selves, but a deep well of overt and covert influences. The book's title essay, "The Ecstasy of Influence," appeared in Harper's in 2007 and caused a stir for lifting passages wholesale from other writers, tweaking them, and stringing them along like beads. In Lethem's view, artists—and not just artists but anyone who employs speech—constantly borrow, crib, and genuflect; by embracing and celebrating our influences, the essay argues, we transmute appropriative anxiety into creative ecstasy.

Gradually, a refracted portrait of the author emerges: his obsessions and development over the years, as well as his slow transformation from obscure outsider (Peter Parkeresque comic geek) to celebrated insider (wordslinging cultural arbiter).  As a whole, the explodes Jonathan Lethem's own authorial mythos, separating the flesh-and-blood human from the literary boldfaced name. He sits across from the public version himself, and watches as his influences surface and his previous incarnations flit across his face.

I spoke with the author by phone, and we discussed his troubled relationship to nonfiction, the joys of appropriation, and why he hates superhero movies.



In the book's introduction, you write about how "nonfiction" is a troubled and troubling term for you because it suggests objectivity, belying the artifice and constructedness that goes into any written work. Is one of the projects of The Ecstasy of Influence to acknowledge—and explore—authorial self-consciousness within nonfiction?

Semiconsciously, I was teasing at that idea all through the book. It's something that I inherit from my own inclinations. I was writing fiction for so long before I ever tried the most perfunctory kind of book review, let alone a personal essay. And I came to writing fiction, in the first place, out of being an art student. From the beginning, I wanted to make stuff. I wanted to make paintings and sculptures. And so the idea of artifice and craft and artificiality seemed really like the baseline condition of my gesture to begin with. The idea of verifiability or objectivity—these characteristics that writing inherits not from the arts but from journalism or scholarship—those weren't native to me in any way. I was a failed student. I had never written a thesis, let alone a dissertation. I'd never done any journalism. I wasn't even a person who kept a journal. I just wanted to make stories.

Essentially, I finally tiptoed into this role when my editor at Salon, Laura Miller, sort of beguiled me into reviewing a couple of movies. And then I wrote an essay or two for her about my relationship to books. There I was, suddenly doing this thing that I didn't identify with. But the way I got into it—the way I could become interested in it—was to realize that nonfiction had this useful resemblance to writing stories. That actually, you had to invent a voice. You had to invent the formal terms of the piece you wanted to write. And you had to get it aloft the same way you would a piece of fiction. And so I always think of the non-fiction mode of being secretly a subset of my inclination to make artifacts. To make stories.

So one thing that you're doing in these essays is making that hidden part of nonfiction or journalism—the constructed part—apparent and on the surface.

Yeah. Turning the cards over as I play them. I like nonfiction that does that. I'm drawn to essays which play in a little—well, what would you call it? "Meta-nonfiction." [Laughs.] Letting the contrivance reveal itself, or teasing at the edges of being objective. For one thing, it always makes the criticism utterly more persuasive for me—when people build that kind of awareness into it. I'm terribly suspicious of a falsely objective critical voice—so I've invented one for myself that passionately, helplessly disqualifies itself by admitting subjectivity or personal bias everywhere it can possibly do so. It's attractive to me not because I'm trying to prove something so much as I'm trying to explore a mode that I find very compelling.

The book's introduction extols self-consciousness in writing, generally calling for work across the disciplines that accounts for, and reckons with, its own authorial decision making, as well as its indebtedness to other works. "What appears natural in art," you write, "is actually constructed from a series of hidden postures, decisions, and influences."

Yeah. Though you receive all sorts of messages as you invent yourself that you're supposed to be a natural, somehow. It's the same advice the batting coach gives to the batter: "there's no time to think and hit. Just hit."

I was as vulnerable as anyone—or susceptible, I should say—to the myth of naturalism in the artist's relationship to their work. And I tried to be obedient to it, but more and more I just realized that the curlicued cognitive/linguistic reality of writing was not allowing me to play that game. It wouldn't be honest of me to play that card as a writer and say: "Yeah, I don't where it came from. I just wrote the thing." That sort of "wild man" posture that our culture's so enamored with. That anti-intellectual artist who says, "Don't ask me! I just threw the paint on the canvas. Am I supposed to be the critic, too?"

I started to find this really wearisome because it didn't seem to me to be the nature of what happened when you mucked around with language. When you get involved with language, you're in the realm of metaphor, self-consciousness, philosophical implications, all sorts of things—by its nature.

So you'd like to subvert the myth of the genius originator, the genius who toils in isolation in order to produce something wholly original.

I've tilted against this image in all sorts of ways. The "Ecstasy of Influence" essay does this quite explicitly by exaggerating wildly in the opposite direction—insisting that all art is crowd-sourced even if you think you're sitting in alone in a room making it. I feel it as an instinctive correction that I want to offer.

But it's worth saying that I grew up valorizing art and artists. My father was a painter who was an heir to the modernist image. And, like everyone, I didn't only rebel against my inheritance—I also absorbed it totally. I have my sacred idols. I have Hitchcock, and Bob Dylan, who I think about as these sublime, Promethean figures who invent things that never existed before. But I also—I guess I like to tickle that image, by also noticing the sublimated fact of their collaborative or appropriative tendencies, which are there to be observed.

Let's talk about the title essay, "The Ecstasy of influence," which you refer to in the introduction as "the eye of the storm of this particular book." The essay samples author writers' work in much the same way a Public Enemy track mixes and matches and slices up pieces of pre-existing audio. Does the essay dramatize the kind of borrowing that artists do—whether they're writers, musicians, painters?

Not just as artists, but in our use of everyday language—through the use of our cultural commons of language, any living person is connected to this stuff.

So the essay dramatizes the unconscious cribbing and borrowing and referencing that we do naturally and seamlessly when we're writing or speaking.

My deepest wish for this piece is that it be understood as exactly the word you use--the dramatization of something already present. It's not a sudden, new postmodern development. It's not like we had to wait for digital methodologies to make this possible, and then suddenly art changed. It was always that way. And like a Public Enemy track, I'm trying to exemplify it and celebrate it in this piece, and make it unmistakable.

Do you think "Ecstasy" is, in any way, is a literary ancestor of David Shields Reality  Hunger? I didn't see your essay mentioned very often in the reviews of that book, or in the controversy it stoked. Is there a lineage there?

Absolutely. I know there is, because David and I were in constant communication. It was a very interesting kind of somersault that we did. We were already friends—we became much better friends as a result—but we were working without awareness of each other's projects. He was already working towards that book when I published the essay. He wrote to me with a degree of anxiousness, ironic anxiousness, because he said "I fear you've anticipated my book's project so completely that I'm just going to be late arriving." But I doubted that. I knew what he's capable of, and I asked him to show it to me.

I do think that the irony is that in looking for a more provocative gesture, one I never would have made, he ended up attacking the novel. That became part of his project. When you speak of the controversy around his book, and wonder why my essay wasn't called in to testify more often, I think it's because the controversy mostly concerned—and I think unfortunately mostly concerned—his attack on the novel. When people were outraged, when people wrote rebuttals Shields' book, they tended to ignore, or mostly put to one side, the arguments that were common between his book and my essay, in favor of defending the novel. Because that was where he really hung himself out there. But my essay isn't really in any sense relevant to that particular part of his book. Still, I feel that the two pieces are in total dialogue, and I know that we were in dialogue as he was working.

Is there a way in which it's possible to borrow that's closer to stealing or plagiarizing, which actually does diminish instead of enlarge possibilities ?

Sure. It's urgent for me to say—it's the most basic reassurance, the most basic walking-back kind of step that I tend to do anytime I talk to people about this essay. I've been provocative, I've used the word plagiarism as if it was a good thing. But there's a thin crust of deplorable behavior that anyone could consent to calling plagiarism: misrepresenting someone else's work as your own without doing any imaginative, transformative work on it, and eradicating the transparency. There's two standards—transformation and transparency, and you want both, ideally. And at least, you want one.

Sometimes transformation can betray its antecedent work, even if it does give credit. One of your essays excoriates Christopher Nolan's Batman adaptation The Dark Knight—you seem to generally dislike film adaptations of superhero comics. Do the Marvel and DC movies exemplify a kind of borrowing that diminishes, instead of amplifying? They big-screen superheroes seem to be the opposite of the kind of ecstatic influence we've been discussing.

The movies insist on transforming a form into another form, and yet the results fall into a hideous void between them. The mystery of the evocativeness of a comic book panel, the stillness-in-action, and the secret silence of the gutter between the two panels, is something that's just fundamentally inaccessible to film.

The nearest I've ever seen to someone really reaching for that was that really aggressive and sort of horrible Frank Miller movie, Sin City. Which was still compelling because they seemed to be aware of the problem, and were trying to seize control of it. But it's a little bit like, playing rock and roll on a harp or something. Movies are actually a very, very poor fit for the comic aesthetic.

The entrancement of film is that the reading protocols are invisible. You give yourself to a film, ideally, in a gigantic darkened auditorium: and it washes over you. It makes its own reality inevitable. And you don't have to ever think about your efforts in reading or constructing it. You can't slow or speed up that experience (I mean, now technically you can, but you don't want to, you want to succumb). It masters you totally.

The seduction of a comic is secretly the exact opposite. People don't think about it, but you learn to read a comic book. It's a very complicated reading protocol. A very active one. It's like you're in a damp world and you have to keep striking matches to light it up. You're constantly working to decide—do I read the words in the panel, do I read the word in the box at the top, do I look at the picture, do I skip ahead and look at where the pictures are going to go later on, do I do it fast, do I do it slow, do I read every word, do I mainly see it? What am I doing here? You're always deciding how to make the narrative come alive. It's actually a much more complicated form of reading than reading text! Because you're making these switches from the visual to the verbal. So one is a completely globally active reading protocol, and the other is this sublime, passive dreamlike surrender. And I don't think you can ever get from one to the other. They're almost opposite ends of the aesthetic experience.