(A shortened version of this Q&A will appear in volume 14 of The Chaffey Review.)
There is simply too much to write about Jonathan Lethem in one article — or an entire book, for that matter. He is a prolific writer whose style is characterized by a blending of the real and fantastic, keen social awareness, Dickensian maximalism, Pynchonian exaggeration, and cultural appropriation. All that is to say Lethem is one eclectic innovator of a writer. He has published nine novels, five short-story collections, one novella, two collections of essays, a contribution to the Deep Focus series about the movie They Live, a contribution to the 33 ⅓ series about the album Fear of Music by The Talking Heads, a comic book, and more that there isn’t time to list.
(Not to mention, he is always reading something interesting!)
From the collegiate level onward, he is an autodidact. Like writer Cormac McCarthy, Lethem dropped out of college. He was interested in reading what was not (yet or still is not) institutionalized in English and writing courses. Maybe, too, beatnik wanderlust tugged at him stronger than the conventionality of the classroom. In his essay “Defending The Searchers” Lethem notes a stifling air that can accompany academia. He begins by describing the formation of his obsession with the movie The Searchers, and he cross-cuts to his experience sneaking into a professor’s class at Cal to ask if he can read the professor’s academic article he is writing about the movie. The professor wearily remarks that he has not completed the essay, and Lethem reads into the exchange. He describes the professor’s enthusiasm for The Searchers as
an old boot of pride lodged at the bottom of a stagnant lake of academic ennui, that reflexive self-censorship of real enthusiasms (17).
He compares the professor to grad students he has taught, writing:
By then I was familiar with how so many grad students, hunkered down inside their terrifying careers, spoke of teaching loads, job postings, anything but the original passions at the cramped secret center of their work. Now I saw it was the same for the professor. Or worse. Armies of yawning undergraduates had killed that part of him (17).
Regardless, in 2010 Lethem received an honorary doctorate from the Pratt Institute and became the second Roy Disney Professor of Creative Writing at Pomona College after David Foster Wallace.
Also, Lethem has been influenced and infatuated with the writings of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick since he was fifteen. Lethem describes in his essay “You Don’t Know Dick” that
Philip K. Dick (1928–1982) is the only prolific author whose whole life’s work I can fairly claim to have read through twice…” and was “as formative an influence as marijuana or punk rock — as equally responsible for beautifully fucking up my life, for bending it irreversibly along a course I still travel (76).
Aside from Lethem’s own writings, evidence of Dick’s influence on the course Lethem still travels is his co-editing with Pamela Jackson of the 944-page selected journals of Philip K. Dick. The collection is entitled The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), and they document the epiphanic and hallucinatory visions Dick experienced.
Lethem is also a defender and practitioner of cultural appropriation. He started the Promiscuous Materials Project inspired by Open Source theory, the Free Culture movement, and Lewis Hyde’s non-fiction book, The Gift (Random House, 1983). Promiscuous Materials allows selected stories by Lethem to be adapted into short films and plays. This allows others to appropriate his work — while keeping within the terms of his agreement with his publisher — in the way he has benefited from appropriation in his writing.
Lastly, it is an honor to say that Jonathan Lethem was generous enough to answer nine short-interview questions via email:
1) When did you start writing? Why did you start, and where were you expecting your writing to go?
I began because of my love of reading, and of books, and authors, and the ambiance of bookstores and libraries — I wrote to pull myself into that world that I loved, and to make myself known to it, and visible within in it, even if in a very small way.
2) Do you have any favorite novels or authors? If you could pick 3–5 writers to recommend, who would they be? Why?
Many of my favorite writers are those who create an enormous world for you to lose yourself in, a world that rivals the real one: Charles Dickens, Robert Musil, Mervyn Peake, Balzac. But then again I love those who create small, strange, dreamlike worlds, worlds like cartoons or puzzles for you to marvel at: Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Kafka, Stanislaw Lem. Much of my own work can be described by the tension between those two attractions.
3) What inspires you? What helps you be more creative?
Nearly everything has the power to inspire me, when I look at it with fresh eyes. It is usually either other art — music, film, paintings or sculpture — or travel, or miraculous life occasions, births, deaths, etc. — that refreshes my eyes.
4) What are you most grateful for (e.g. family, other people, running water, specific writer/artist, etc.)?
Running water is very nice! Thank you for reminding me to appreciate it. More typically, I give thanks for my luck in friends, colleagues, and family. And I’ve been treated very well in my publishing life.
5) What is one memorable experience you have had at a reading or literary event you would like to share?
In Milwaukee, in 1998, a 14-year-old girl told me that Girl In Landscape was her favorite book. I’ll never forget it. There’s nothing that means as much to me as the books that reached me when I was that age, so to provide that for someone felt extraordinary.
6) You have experience teaching — what do you think is the most rewarding aspect of teaching? Why?
Your own students teach you how to think clearly about what your intuitions have taught you about reading, and writing — in the attempt to impart it to them, you find out what you think. And it deepens my relationships to the books I teach; they become a part of my brain in a unique way.
7) What do you think the purpose of reading is (e.g. empathy, personal therapy, imagination, etc.)?
All of those things sound good, but let’s not forget pleasure, escape, diversion, enchantment! We can be a very utilitarian society sometimes, and distrustful of pleasure. The best books always provide it.
8) If you could focus one issue the world faces and make progress on it, which would you choose? And why?
Right now I suppose the unmistakable answer would have to be global warming. But the moment that disaster is averted, if it can be, then poverty.
9) If you could give one piece of advice to a young, aspiring writer today, what would it be?
Keep reading! And read everything, and never stop. The writing is always, always an extension of the reading life.
If you liked the article, then hit the ❤ button below, and, if you cannot get enough, then you can support and learn more about Jonathan Lethem by following the links below:
You can buy his books here.
You can visit his website here.
You can learn more about his Promiscuous Materials Project here.