This week the University of Tampa opens another chapter of Lectores, its biannual series of readings, discussions and more from renowned literary minds. The lineup for the series, which runs from Jan. 3-10, includes Karen Russell, Pulitzer finalist for the spectacularly good novel Swamplandia! (Russell takes the place of Denis Johnson, who is ill); poet and novelist Ben Lerner; former McSweeney’s publisher Eli Horowitz; and Deborah Treisman, fiction editor for The New Yorker.
Lectores, named for the readers hired by Ybor cigar factory owners to boost worker morale, is a major organizational challenge for anyone, let alone a busy college professor. But series founder Jeff Parker, head of UT’s MFA in Creative Writing program, rallies the herd of cats that writers are wont to be. In advance of their Lectores gigs, Treisman, Horowitz and Lerner shared their insights on reading, writing and the future of fiction.
Verse vs. prose: “When I’m writing poetry, I think I’m most attuned to language as material — I mean the sound and rhythm of it and not just its referential sense. I also want to tell a story, to occasionally make the language dissolve into what I’m trying to depict.”
Lerner’s advice for writing students: “One risk is that you start ‘crowd-sourcing’ your writing… Instead of developing a hardheaded art, you become aesthetically fickle. Some students seem so focused on writing that they don’t read anything except their peers’ work in workshop, and that’s lunacy…. It’s like [Wallace] Stevens said: Writing is just a very intense form of reading.”
On the “texture of et cetera itself” (a phrase from his novel, Leaving the Atocha Station): “The book is full of miscommunications, contradictory signals, etc. …. But miscommunication isn’t all bad: I think a lot of literature begins at the point where other modes of communication break down. Maybe that’s why we talk about ‘breaking’ into song; it’s a heightening of mundane language, but it’s also a collapse, a breach.”
Much too much specificity: “One of the reasons a lot of contemporary prose is boring is that it thinks that stacking together a huge amount of visual detail can produce a realistic image of the world. But no quantity of adjectives is going to be equal to the experience of thinking and feeling and seeing in time, with all the hesitation and confusion and misinterpretation that involves. So I’m more interested in artists who can enact the texture of experience — even if that means an experience of vagueness — than artists who just describe and describe and describe, as if literature were doomed to being an incredibly inefficient camera.”
What’s lacking in today’s literary world: “I’d love to see more support for the short story form in the media. The U.S. has a number of very good journals and quarterlies that publish stories, but the monthlies and weeklies have, for the most part, backed away from fiction, which diminishes its role in the culture as a whole. With publishers also reluctant to publish story collections, writers are less likely to challenge and expand the possibilities of the form.”
The virtue of fiction: “Ultimately fiction teaches us empathy and understanding. A well-written story about the victims of a bombing in Kenya, say, will involve us more and teach us more than a news headline and a factual account would.”
New Yorker elite vs. new bloods: “On average, 20-25 percent of the stories we publish in any given year are by writers who haven’t published fiction in the magazine before. That seems a decent balance to me. One thing to keep in mind is that fiction writing has become a profession: people with literary ambitions take university-level courses, and agents looking for new writers scout out talent among first-year MFA students. It’s rare for someone with real talent and ambition not to be noticed quite early in his [or] her career — which means that it’s rare for someone of real developed talent to submit to us without having first signed on with an agent.”
Top three authors not read enough: “Some writers who meant a lot to me before I was in this field were Mavis Gallant, Andre Dubus, and Jean Rhys. In the pool of writers most important to me, you’d have to include Nabokov, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen — none of whom are the least bit neglected.
Most crucial Ping-Pong pointer (Horowitz co-authored Everything You Know Is Pong): “I think a great place for anyone to start is the Cuban Revolution. Ping-Pong was a vital part of Fidel Castro’s inspiration for the Revolution, [for] his military tactics. … I spent a lot of time trying to unravel it. It takes speculation, as with any work of history, but there’s a kernel there.”
McSweeney’s eclecticism: “I don’t think [diversity] was part of a philosophy. It was more a part of the people involved…. The goal was to pursue whatever seemed interesting and trust that. It was a general way to approach things. … We were approaching it like readers.”
On good writing: “There’s a tension both to the story being told and how it’s being told — and both those things supporting each other. So it’s neither plot without style or style without plot, craft without heart or heart without craft.”
What is yyyhhhqqq.com? “It’s purposely broad,” says Horowitz on the URL for McSweeney’s digital projects. “I think things that interest us most are editing and design. … We’re trying to have all of those elements coexist in an organic whole [to] create projects that feel genuinely new. Also things that are sort of uncategorizeable, things that use new kinds of style and techniques to tell stories — like The Silent History, which is a novel in the form of an app.”
Um, a little more on this Silent History? “It’s a novel that tries to use the special capabilities of an iPhone or iPad to tell a story in a new … way. It’s got the story and word craft that you would look for in a novel, but with the capabilities of the technology. Also, we’re calling it a ‘serialized exploratory novel.’”
The University of Tampa’s Lectores series runs from Jan. 3-10. All events start at 7 p.m. and are free.
THURS., JAN. 3: Poet Arielle Greenberg & poet/novelist Ben Lerner, Oxford Exchange.
FRI., JAN. 4th: Novelist Karen Russell & poet Erica Dawson, 9th Floor, Vaughn Center.
SAT., JAN. 5: Staged reading of Denis Johnson’s play Psychos Never Dream by A Simple Theatre followed by a discussion led by Creative Loafing editor David Warner, Jaeb Theater, Straz Center.
SUN., JAN. 6: Publishing panel with Eli Horowitz (former publisher/editor, McSweeney’s) & Deborah Treisman (fiction editor, The New Yorker), Reeves Theater, Vaughn Center.
MON., JAN. 7: Fiction writers Jessica Anthony & Jason Ockert, Falk Theatre.
TUES., JAN. 8: Fiction writer Mikhail Iossel & novelist/poet Enid Shomer, 9th Floor, Vaughn Center.
WED., JAN. 9: Novelists Terese Svoboda & Tony D'Souza, Falk Theatre.
THURS., JAN. 10: Novelists Tibor Fischer & Amy Hill Hearth, Falk Theatre. ut.edu.