Three novelists who met up Bennington College fifteen years ago look back at their lives and their works. I met novelists Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Lethem, and Joseph Clarke at The Bowery Bar in New York and we had a little literary round table. Bret Easton Ellis is of course the writer of four works of fiction including Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, and The Informers.
Jonathan Lethem is the author of four books including Gun With Occasional Music, Amnesia Moon, Wall To The Eye Wall To The Sky, and As She Crawled Across The Table. Joseph Clark is coming out with his first work of fiction in next Spring, Jungle Wedding, and soon will follow with a novel, Nord Eliot.
Due to the recent release of the film version of Easton's American Psycho, Easton once again finds himself in a very controversial spotlight.
Alexander Laurence: It's a muggy day. It's Friday the 13th. Isn't this a great day to be here at the Bowery Bar? (laughter)
Joseph Clark: We were thinking that we should do it on the 12th, and then we thought "What the hell!" Some people think it's a lucky day.
AL: One thing that I wanted
you guys to talk about was the whole "Bennington Writing Phenomenon."
I'm making this into a category. What is this phenomenon? Talking previously
with Bret and Jonathan, I think that the decision to be a writer had already
happened prior to attending Bennington College. By the time you went to
Bennington, say between 1982 and 1986, we find that there are other writers
forming their identities at this crucial moment. The ten or so writers
of your milieu turned out to be mostly very different writers. In other
words, there appears to be no definitive style that predominates. The
amount of writers coming out of Bennington has decreased rapidly since
1985. Could you all tell us what it was like going to
Jonathan Lethem: It's nothing but a happy or unhappy coincidence. The fact that we were all there, and with each person like Joseph who turns up now, who's also publishing out of those years, it's more and more like a freakish marvel, but I don't know what it is beyond that.
JC: Did you go there because it had a reputation?
JL: Not at all. I was admitted as a painting student. I got there on the strength of my portfolio.
JC: I went there because it had a reputation for writing, plus it was a John Dewey type of school: no grades. Did it have that reputation?
Bret Easton Ellis:
Yes it did. But I also went for the very simple reasons as you mentioned
that it had no grades. You got in solely based on your portfolio. It had
nothing to do with your grade point average or your SAT's. That really
appealed a lot to me. I can't figure it out either actually why so many
writers published from that class, from those two years in particular.
At other places like Brown or Yale, or places where a lot of writers go,
like Columbia, I haven't seen any campus where it was so focused on this
one age group, this one class. I think it's a coincidence. I don't think
that Bennington particularly has a better writing program or more proficient
teachers, but for some reason there was a bunch of really talented writers
JL: We were really all there during the same four-year time span. You can't draw any meaningful line through all the work.
BEE: The fact that there were so many types of writers who were going off in different directions, and there were a lot of empty slots that needed to be filled in a way. So you could say, the fact that there were so many different types of writers, publishing only wanted "this kind of book." But I don't know if that is really true. If people knew that they would doctor it up. I didn't go to Bennington because I had read about it, in terms of fiction or anything. I also went as half a music major and half a creative writing major. For me one became more overwhelming than the other.
JL: That may be part of what happened, that there was a synergy there, and that was exciting there. It drew people. I already knew that I wanted to write I was probably already moving away from the painting. The energy probably pushed me further into writing.
BEE: I have to tell you at Bennington that I didn't know that you wanted to be a writer. I read recently in The Voice that you weren't really turned on by the scene. You were very right about it. There was a certain type of writing that was trendy and accepted those years that we were there. It was very minimalist and very Raymond Carver-ish. It was very pervasive among the students.
JC: I wasn't into it.
JL: It didn't fare that well.
BEE: It's true. Other writing that came into those workshops got rejected. The timing was wrong for people who wanted to write a different way. I could imagine people wanting to pull away from the whole rich people talking in non sequitars with very minimalist setting, which a lot of writers were doing at the time.
JL: Bennington was such a small school that if anything predominated, it predominated completely. There was no room for a second tier of voices.
JC: Do you think that it was the faculty pushing that sort of style?
BEE: No, I think that it was the students who were really pushing it.
JL: It's funny that you should say that because I think it was a combination of the two, but I think the faculty was ultimately more inflexible. Because I think that some of the interesting kinds of writing that wasn't welcome there, in fact, our generation of readers is very open to.
JC: I was reading a lot of Don Delillo at that time. I remember buying White Noise then, and it blew my mind.
JL: I checked End Zone out at the library, and it was the first time it had been checked out since the year it had been published.
BEE: I know people who reading Great Jones Street and who were then also reading Cathedral, and they thought the styles were not totally dissimilar. There was a lot of thing that Delillo was doing that could be applied to minimalist technique, that was really prevalent at the time.
JL: I'm certain that the reading protocols were more open ultimately. The kinds of writing that could be liked were more open than what was functioning well in the workshops. There's a tendency for workshops to close down and become relatively pedantic, even if they're very intense within that range they are functioning.
BEE: The teachers were also sick of so much sloppy bad writing, that at least with minimalist writing (laughter) the stories were very short, the sentences weren't that messed up, because it was basically "I walk into the cafe and sit down. He orders a bagel. We share a beer." How could you fuck that up?
JC: But then Jill Eisenstadt wasn't writing like that.
BEE: No, Jill wasn't. But there was a little bit. Jill had an element of it there, I think.
JC: I don't remember Donna Tartt's work then.
BEE: Kind of an element of that too. There was a certain sort of milieu and a certain of character and a certain sort of sensibility that was at the forefront there, I think, that were really about repressed closed people in unhappy relationships and taking a lot of drugs and getting drunk and spending money. I remember a ton of stories about that. It was about boyfriends and girlfriends. You know, they would always end like "I'm sitting alone. It's dawn on commons. I don't know where to go." These were the stories at the time. Whether it was Donna Tartt or Jill Eisenstadt or myself, whatever, that was fairly prevalent at the time.
JL: At some level my radar was that I had to work the margins there. I benefited from the energy, but indirectly. I never took a fiction workshop but I sat in sometimes. I didn't even take independent study. I took a poetry workshop class and swapped manuscripts with people. Jill and I sat in a room off campus and read to each other a couple of times. In the summer of 1984 I remember having several long talks with Bret during the summer workshops. I learned more about Bret's tastes over that break than I had before.
JC: That was the first time I heard Bret read.
AL: What were you working on at that time?
BEE: I had a workshop and my
teacher was Mary Robeson. At the time she was the queen of the minimalists.
There was a time believe it or not when short story collections were really
big and she would get great reviews. Such a book would go through four
printings. She along with Ann Beattie and Raymond Carver is really considered
one of the people who brought to the forefront minimalist writing. Mary
was sexy and young. She was a popular teacher. She got drunk with all
the students. Minimalism became attractive to a lot of people who were
there. "I want to be like Jim Robeson and Mary Robeson, fuck the
students, and get drunk every night." They had really good pot. That
was the situation.
AL: You brought up briefly the fact that short story collections were at one time a respectable thing to do. Now in publishing, story story collections are like an afterthought, and if you have a successful novel maybe a publisher will cash in on the success with a collection of stories, in lieu of the next novel.
BEE: I'm not going to raise my hand. But I know what you're saying.
JC: I hope that I can get away with it. My first book is a short story collection.
BEE: The Informers was
a short story collection. The reason is purely - - and I hate to be this
crass - - purely economical. Because of the way that publishing is set
up and because of the way that the bottom line figures into 98% of what
goes on in publishing, short story collections don't sell as well as novels.
I was so shocked when Knopf published The Informers - - which I
said this is a book of short stories - - they didn't put short stories
anywhere on it and they also didn't put a novel anywhere on it.
JL: Knopf was very coy about that. You can still announce yourself, or create a reputation, with a debut collection of stories, but the expectation is then that you will raise the ante by writing an important novel.
JC: Some of those stories in The Informers I remember reading in a workshop.
BEE: That's true. Most of the stories were written before 1986. When Rick Moody reviewed The Informers, he said "When I was hanging out at Bennington, I remember someone had a copy of this vampire story. What the hell is Bret doing? Does he really need to fulfill a contact?" Rick, the answer was yes.
JL: I got a similar book of stuff that was lying around, but I disguised it as a novel, so I got away with it. It's Amnesia Moon. There's stuff in there that dates before Gun, With Occasional Music. It took a while to weave it all together, but there was stuff in there written in '84 or '85.
BEE: Really. Amnesia Moon seems so thought out in terms of a plot and narrative, that's hard to imagine it being separate pieces. You know that Donna Tartt began writing The Secret History in 1982, and it was published in 1992.
JC: Were any of your stories in The Informers inspired by Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone? We were reading him back then.
BEE: My stories? No. They were all inspired by Raymond Carver and Mary Robeson.
JL: Some of those stories in The Informers are a lot more funnier than anything Raymond Carver ever wrote. I feel that's the aspect of Bret's work that people miss. That vampire story is criminally funny. No one should be allowed to write another vampire story ever again.
AL: Joseph. Can you tell us a little about your formation as a writer? You are coming out with a collection of stories early next year, called Jungle Wedding, published by Norton.
JC: I wanted too much to be a writer when I was seventeen. Wanted it really badly, very ambitiously, in all the wrong ways. I was writing, for whatever reasons, to please my parents, to please the world....
BEE: Terrible reasons by the way.
AL: What sort of writing were you doing?
JC: I went through a period
of time when I was really influenced by the South Americans, and then
the god-awful thing happened, I made it all the way through Gravity's
Rainbow, and then I read it again. I got completely influenced by
that, and was writing stuff like Pynchon. When I was at Bennington, I
think that I was influenced by the early Denis Johnson, Don Delillo, Stephen
Wright, Tom McGuane, and Jim Harrison.
JL: Another thing about Bennington besides what was overtly there, there was still a legacy. Bernard Malamud was still around sometimes.
JC: There was a joke about him that on a certain day in October, Bernard Malamud took his annual walk across campus.
BEE: And John Gardiner was there. I never really felt that there was a specific Bennington sensibility about how you should write.
JL: I wouldn't call it a sensibility, but I would say that there was echoes of greatness around there if you wanted to search them out. I actually sat at Malamud's feet for a couple of little talks and soaked in his aura. And then there was the whole legacy of Shirley Jackson living at Bennington. Hertraces were everywhere there, and if you had read her stories when you were living there, you realized that she was a realistic writer.
AL: Did you two, Joseph and Jonathan, read Less Than Zero when it came out in 1985?
JC: I didn't read it right away. I read it after I heard Bret read in a workshop. For some reason, I had bought it and hadn't read it, but after I heard him read I was laughing so hard. I got all the sardonic, droll, dark humor.
BEE: I was reading a very serious story about my mother's illness and I remember hearing the heckler in the audience. Thanks.
JC: Bret and I could talk about
books in common, and we liked some of the same writers. He came from such
a completely different place and background than from where I came from,
which is rural Pennsylvania, that I was fascinated by where he came from.
Having talked to him and other people
JL: For me frankly it was complicated
that Bret published a book so early. I knew that I was ambitious and by
most measures I was a prodigy. I felt like a prodigy most of my life and
yet here I was just warming up to this process and here was someone right
along side of me had blown off the top of
BEE: I think that is not an
atypical response. I think that a lot of people had a complicated feelings
toward that book being published while we were all still in school. With
the Less Than Zero thing I think that there was an immense amount of fascination
and a kind of feeling that on one level if someone here can do it maybe
it's opening a gate that we can go through, on the other hand I think
that there was a ton of jealousy and people thinking that this book isn't
that good and there was an undeserved attention
JC: There's also the thing with literature majors and the hierarchy of the academies, that maybe it wasn't literature. And it's still out there. "Well it ain't Faulkner!" Of course it isn't Faulkner.
BEE: I always get suspicious when I hear the word "literature." My feelers start going up. Who said that? Where did that come from?
JL: I always think of confused used bookstores that have a literature section and a fiction section. (laughter) There's no order who's in which one.
AL: Let me ask this: What is appropriate subject for a novel written presently and what is not? Maybe people reacted to such books as Less Than Zero because they had a prejudice as to what's literature and what's appropriate subject matter.
BEE: There's no topic that's off limits for a book. It's really what a writer brings to the material, and how he investigates it and discusses it and feels it out and works with it. You can write about anything.
JC: I would have to agree. I think that the people who are designating things as literature or not are people who are holding onto the idea of the Modernist voice, and the Modernist book, and that goes right up to and ends with Carver. The end of late Modernist writing which I would say Carver would be. I know people who are mimicking when they write the sound and the look and the feel of literature as they know it. They have obviously read all the great 20th century American writers. But that doesn't interest me at all because it has nothing to do with being alive today. The thing with Less Than Zero and with White Noise and other books, is that's what it is like. There's the cadence of TV, film, products, advertisements coming into the narrative. There's so many books written by thirty-year-olds that are written like they are in the 19th century. There's no cars. There's nothing, purposely.
BEE: I think less and less. We're all products of everything that we have assimilated whether it's movies, rock & roll, fiction, comic books, tons of stuff that we have assimilated that really comes through some way unconsciously into our writing.
JC: Think about even fifteen years ago now which we are coming close to being, that was not acceptable, and not as accepted as it is now.
BEE: I think that no one cares now basically. I don't think that anyone cares except a coterie of writers somewhere. I don't think that agents particularly care, publishers care, or editors care. But it's interesting that it's a concern of yours. It's not really something that I really think about. I don't think of writing that consciously in terms of where I'm going to be in terms of this canon.
JL: I think it's hopeless and paralyzing. If you make a prediction in that context, you're doomed to fail. You'll be wrong about how it turns out. But as far as my influences, the organic mulch of influences, they were set so early. The books I read as a teenager, the films, the rock & roll l . . .. It always cracks me up that critics will often receive newly published books as if they were written in ten minutes as a reaction to a book written written six months before. Given the mechanics of publishing, this is literally impossible. It is so far from the deep ruminative sources of what I end up writing. If something written echoes with something else published in the same year, or five years, it is a mere coincidence.
BEE: I find myself being influenced by things left and right, not majorly into a way that has completely changed my temperament, or what I want to write about. I find reading a really great writer, you can suck it in and it can completely influence you, and you want it to affect your work somehow. I know that I have come to Delillo a little late, but I feel that the book that I am working on now is really totally influenced by him in some way. He's gotten into my system and now I see things his way. It's hard to write a contemporary novel without thinking of Delillo.
JL: As She Crawled Across
The Table was heavily influenced by Delillo. It was inevitable. For
a while, he offered, as you say, a set of eyes to see through that seemed
compelling than any other windows. But for me my influences from film
are just as vital. If I go to a Howard Hawks retrospective and absorb
BEE: Right. Howard Hawks for
you, Robert Altman for me, in terms of, if I had to choose a director,
in terms of just having someone who enters a milieu and just floats through
it and doesn't really push the hard sell narrative.
JC: Did either of you read David Foster Wallace's essay about television and fiction writers? It's in his new book of essays. It's pretty seminal and it's been quoted a lot I've noticed.
AL: Was that the essay that he attacked Bret and blamed him for a lot of stuff?
BEE: He was hard on me in another essay I read, not that one. He blamed me for a lot of stuff and at the same time thrash me. He called me Alice Cooper. (Laughter) I still think he's very very smart. David, you're very very smart. He's a very intelligent guy. He is.
JC: In the essay he talks about
White Noise a lot. He brought up the idea how that in his workshops recently
a voice is creeping into fiction by people in their late twenties or early
thirties. The constant critique by older faculty members, often in their
fifties and even sixties, is that it's too much about
BEE: What a revelation! That's so boring.
JL: I'm a bit allergic to manifestoes.
Novelists are always so much smarter in their novels than they are in
these position papers. He's definitely a lecturer. There's been a rash
of these defensive passive-aggressive
BEE: Remember when Jonathan Franzen did it? (laughter)
JL: I wasn't going to name any names.
BEE: There was a lot of people who were doing it. That Harper's thing. Well . . . I like Jonathan. I think that he's a very talented writer.
JL: Twenty-Seventh City is a wonderful novel and he should write another novel.
BEE: But that wasn't a wonderful essay though. It was so self-congratulatory. It's like something that you think about but you don't need someone else to type it up and put it in the December Harper's. It's very obvious. In a way though it's interesting because rarely does anyone want to write about writers and what's going on in publishing at this time. It's just not a sexy topic in some ways. You shouldn't complain in public. Or do it through your fiction. It's always more forceful.
AL: What did you all think of Brad Morrow's new novel and the article about him in New York magazine?
JL: Haven't read it.
BEE: No desire to read that book. Everyone told me it was terrible. It was a real shitty book. Someone said "You got to read the last paragraph." So I went down to The Strand Bookstore, and picked it up and went "Whoa!" The churchbells were chiming because someone fell in love. I had a feeling it was a lowbrow but literary book.
JC: It was "literature."
BEE: Exactly. It's exactly what publishing houses want. They want lowbrow literature. I think that book fit the bill. Even with all the publicity about it, I don't think it was that successful. Boy, was that a depressing article at the same time. Why didn't you read the article, Jonathan?
JL: I read the article! I can quote from the article: "There nothing less interesting than the commodification of literature" said the novelist who permitted this article to be written about him over a three-year period.
BEE: These articles don't help.
AL: Can a novel compete with other mediums which basically assault the viewer like film, television, or rock & roll?
BEE: I think that by it's very nature the novel can't compete. It's a different kind of assault if a novel is powerful. All those other mediums makes for a passive experience. Why it can't as assaulting is because you're holding the book and you're pulling the strings and deciding when you're going to stop. You're creating everything you see in your mind. It's your own vision. It can never be that sort of assaulting or overwhelming experience that a movie can or a rock concert. You're in control in many ways when you're reading a book.
JC: And I think that you get in trouble as a writer if you do try to consciously compete.
JL: Yeah. It's a false issue completely. Novels work there insidious means on you, and it is a collaboration. The reason that novels can be ultimately more unsettling is because of the complicity, because you participated. But novels were never in competition in that same sense. In the history of the novel, there's this only this one strange moment, this Dickens moment, when they really were, across the board, a popular entertainment. What novels did was go back to their previous position which is, not in a class sense, an elite activity in that it is a chosen self-conscious arena.
AL: Kind of like stamp collecting.
BEE: Poetry readings.
AL: The novel is not dead. That's good to hear.
JL: I think that's always such a silly thing.
JC: It dies every year.
JL: I'm working on a novel that might be dead but.... (laughter)
AL: Who are some of the other writers who went to Bennington that we didn't mention? Joseph told me about Lawrence David who has a few novels out.
BEE: Lawrence David. Yeah. Donna Tartt. Jill Eisenstadt.
JL: And Nancy Hertzberg
BEE: April Stevens. Angel Engels?
JC: All these people graduated around the same time in 1985-86.
JL: You know who's having a lot of success right now who went to school with us? Reginald Shepard.
JL: I don't know if you have your eye on the poetry world at all but he's been in the last three year's Best Poetry.
JC: He won the Yale younger poets award. I remember him. I think he also wrote a memoir or a novel recently. Who was the person you mentioned?
BEE: Mylen Levine. He wrote one extraordinary novel. He was there then. He was so wasted on drugs the whole time that he didn't really get his shit together. His manuscripts were always covered with hair and sauce, and all this crap. You had to wipe it off to get to them.
JC: He was a wreck. You should have seen his room at Bennington. Whoo. Fuzzy sandwiches.
BEE: He wrote one book called The Pacific Revelation. It took place in Venice. He finished it in 1992. I read it. It blew me away. Very difficult and very long, but with long stretches of being lucid and funny and readable, and then there was difficult stuff being thrown in. It was kind of like Pynchon. I sent it everywhere. The silence was deafening. No one got it. No one understood it. These were all big agents and editors. Then slowly trickling down, they said "We really like it but we can't do anything because it's too hard and we can sell only 500 copies. He wrote another book which is pretty good, then he has this new book which I've seen and it's the most accessible. I don't know. I hope that it works out for him. He's really talented.