Thursday, April 05, 2007

Lethem on Writing, Reading, and Other Things...

The only thing I’ve ever read by Jonathan Lethem was the introduction he wrote to The Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick. Despite the critical praise Lethem has received for both Fortress of Solitude and Motherless Brooklyn I, for some reason, can never bring myself to buy his books. Most times, I'll go into the bookstore with every intention of finally buying a Lethem novel, but usually, after a quick perusal of the blurb on the back, I’ll put it back down with promises that I'll buy it later. The interview he recently gave to the AV Club (the surprisingly serious-minded entertainment supplement to The Onion), has me wondering if I should try again...maybe. On reading, Lethem says:

... The Fortress Of Solitude might be an exception in this, but for me, when I was a reader only, I was a very fast, voracious one. I would skeletonize the books that I read, and the things I skipped are the things I now skip as a writer. I wasn't really very patient with long evocations of clouds and trees and buildings and landscape, nor did I pause over elaborate descriptions of the facial characteristics or clothing styles of the characters. I always wanted to know what they were doing and saying. And also what the mysterious big idea of the book was, what the metaphors were. So I would rush to those things, and I would be very cursory as I read the descriptive stuff.

Now, there’s something you don’t hear writers admitting to everyday. I can’t admit to not skipping certain, overlong descriptions myself but I’d also venture to say that sometimes “facial characteristics or clothing styles” could be a writer’s hint to the “mysterious big idea.” Sometimes, it could be dangerous to skip those things the author has worked so hard to include. Lethem and I, however, are in perfect sync with this:

The other thing is that, I think, sometimes visualization in writing works by a kind of homeopathic process. The less you offer, the more readers are forced to bring the world to life with their own visual imaginings. I personally hate an illustration of a character on a jacket of a book. I never want to have someone show me what the character really looks like—or what some artist has decided the character really looks like—because it always looks wrong to me. I realize that I prefer to kind of meet the text halfway and offer a lot of visual collaborations from my own imaginative response to the sentences. And so I think that I invite the reader to do the same thing.

And this quote, an extension of an article he published in Harper’s magazine last month, is interesting commentary on the artist’s place (or birth) in the larger culture:

The image of the artist is sustained by this great myth of iconoclastic individual genius. A lot of great stuff is made up by individual iconoclastic geniuses, and that's fine, but a lot of other stuff comes burbling out of collective culture. That gets invented one way and then used an entirely different way, and different people work on it, and you end up with this sort of puzzle.