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in conversation

The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know,
 what you don’t want to find out’

                        —James BALDWIN

Garth GREENWELL’s celebrated 2016 novel What Belongs to You explored the relationship between an American teacher and a young sex worker in contemporary Bulgaria. The novel’s three distinct parts trace the emotional complexity of desire and give an account of the anxiety that intimacy can provoke. Greenwell is a profoundly sensitive reader of not just the messy transactions that occur between people, but of also the spaces in which they interact. In the 2011 essay ‘On Beauty and Distance’ he writes of the gay scene in Sofia, imagining a thread that connected cruising spots in Bulgaria, with places of his youth and adolescence. He notes that in amongst them he ‘was struck by the similar nature of these places I’ve haunted, privacies carved out of public spaces, at once intimate and anonymous, lawless and yet inscribing their own lines that must not be crossed’. Greenwell finds connections between seemingly disparate places and experiences through exposing the mechanics of intersubjectivity.   

Greenwell spoke on the phone to Katie Da Cunha Lewin about writing and reading, across a time difference of 6 hours.

I firstly wanted to ask you about writing about people; specifically, the way in which your fiction writing is full of exchanges between strangers, or people who don’t know each other very well. You seem to have a supreme affection for moments of tender contact between people. I wondered what draws you to these kinds of moments?

I do think it’s true that the bulk of what I’ve written has taken either the monologue form or the form of two people confronting one another. I’m drawn to charged moments of intimacy. It seems to me there is a multitude of information in such charged moments that we are taking in that we are not aware of, non-verbal modes of communication. It think it’s an interesting project to try to perform that lyrical operation of expanding time, slowing time down, in order to try to unpack some of that information. It seems revelatory to me. That was Henry James’s modus operandi in a large part: slowing time down and trying to unpack all those currents of information. I also think I’m drawn to those moments due to the fact that my earlier education in art was as a poet. The lyrical address is central to how I think about writing and art-making. And before I was a poet I was an opera singer. The aria and the duet are the dominant containers for meaning in opera, and I think that does have something to do with my sense of the shape narratives can take; the operatic duet is probably behind those charged moments of intimacy.

Going back to what you said about Henry James, in re-reading some of your work I was thinking about the length of some of your sentences. And in James we always get these modifiers: there’s a clause, something that changes it, and then something that alters it again. I was thinking about that in your work, and the way you are talking about extending time, but also the way that a sentence tracks thought or thinking as it’s happening… 

This is the thing that I admire most in Henry James: His sense that the way to illustrate emotion is not to label it but to instead approach it through a kind of echolocation. There is this attempt to come at something, and then to slightly change the angle of approach and then slightly change again, an attempt to say what something is by saying what it is not, or what it is not quite. That to me is more faithful to the quicksilver nature of emotion than to apply a label of emotion, which to me is rather a blunt instrument. I think my affinity for a certain kind of syntax actually comes not directly from James – although James is behind all of these forebears – but from a tradition of poetry. Three of my most important teachers were poets: the very great American poet Frank Bidart (who is, for me, the greatest living American writer, and who writes in very long, psychologically expressive sentences); Carl Phillips, who is a proponent of this extraordinarily beautiful baroque syntax; and then Jorie Graham, who is – in a different way – drawn to a syntax of infinite expansion. Even before I read any of those people I was reading the English poets of the 16th and 17th centuries. The sentences of John Donne in his poems (and even more so in his prose) are to me an inexhaustible trove of syntactical possibility, for example. And behind that, another touchstone for me is St. Augustine’s Confessions. I taught myself Latin using Wheelock’s [Latin Workbook] one summer because I wanted to read The Confessions in its original language, as I was so moved by the syntax in translation. Syntax is the central formal property of literature for me. My ideal for syntax is that it functions in prose in the same way that an orchestral accompaniment in an aria functions. I often feel the communication of emotion in operatic aria comes less from the melody than from the texture of the orchestral accompaniment; and that is something that syntax can do, a service it can perform, which is to really be psychology. I think James is probably the apogee of that in English language literature, but it probably came to me more directly through the poetry of the Renaissance and through these Latin language writers that I came to love very early.

I wondered, both with regards to the poets that you were just talking about and in terms of the inexhaustibility of possible forms – starting off with poetry, moving onto opera, and on again into prose – are these poets distinct in their influence? Do you see them as  in conversation with your own work?

To me they are certainly in conversation. I think divisions between genre and certainly the divisions between writers of particular genres are very artificial to me. The idea that one is either a novelist or a poet or a non-fiction writer or a playwright just seems really silly to me – an unfortunate consequence of a certain kind of professionalisation in intellectual life.

It’s very mysterious to me why I began to write prose instead of poetry. I’ve said often that Bulgaria made me a novelist, and it’s true that Bulgaria was the first place where sentences arrived in a way that I knew were not broken into lines. That was a new experience, but really, I think it was the end of a long process of moving from more purely lyric utterance to narrative, and I think that process was probably to do with teaching in high school. I began university as a music student, then switched to literature, and then I immediately took an MFA in poetry at St. Louis and entered an academic PhD in literature at Harvard where I spent three years. While I was pursuing my education I lived in books. The most important relationships that I had were with books. I was very alienated from my body for much of that time, very alienated from external reality where I lived. I would move every couple of years, and when I was thinking about graduate school friends would advise me to think carefully about where I was going to live. I remember how foreign that felt to me, because I thought all I need is a room of books; what does it matter where I am? So, after three years at Harvard, I quit and went to teach high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Not having a car, I biked 8 miles every morning to get to the school where I was teaching through the incredibly gorgeous landscape which is South-East Michigan. It’s a landscape of extreme climate, and I was biking year-round, so I was aware of the world in a way that I had not been for a very long time, and aware of the relationship between my body and the world. I was seeing deer in the morning, seeing egrets and herons, and then these things started appearing in my poems, which themselves became much more outward looking and invested in the world outside my head.

And then, the more important thing; after a life in which my most profound relationships were with books and poems, I was all of a sudden thrust into a very intimate, very intricate relationship with 70 adolescents. The big surprise to me was how much I loved my students. I’ve never been someone who wanted to be a parent, one of the certainties of my life is that I don’t want children, but I discovered a very new feeling there. A feeling which I had no idea I had the capacity for, a kind of dis-interested love. A love that is not primarily motivated by what one wants in return but is instead absolute in its concern for the well-being of others. I became interested in other people’s lives in a way that I had not been to that point, and that too pushed me towards narrative, toward thinking not just about lyric utterance but about these subjectivities in relationship.

I really love how you describe the care that you have for your students. I’ve been teaching for the last four years in various different places, but mostly at the University where I did my PhD. I hesitate to use the word responsibility but I certainly feel aware of the significance that first point of contact for an idea or impression carries…

Well, I wouldn’t shy away from using the word “responsibility.” Maybe the worry with the word responsibility is that it casts too much significance on the teacher’s role, but it does seem a relationship for which one should have reverence. I’ve taught at the University level before, and I’m teaching at the University just now and I love that. Teaching at the secondary level – 15, 16-year olds – and seeing them every day, creates a very intense set of human relationships. I did feel a real sense of responsibility. It’s a very sobering thought – it’s true at the University level and its intensified at the secondary level – that you have no idea what effect you are going to have on these people’s lives. Something you have said offhandedly, or in passing and without great thought, has a real effect on them and can wound them or spur them on. You are in a really weird position as a teacher, where, on the one hand, you are utterly powerless, your students won’t listen to you and won’t do what you tell them to; and in another way, you have all of this power which you don’t want. You have a significance that you don’t intend to have. It does seem to me that it is a responsibility, and it is something towards which one should have a kind of reverence.

I can also see how that awareness you are describing could affect your writing and spark an awareness of your effect on other people, a way of trying to understand how one person can engage with another…

Going back to those small moments and exchanges between people, the journey you’ve taken into narrative makes so much sense having read your work. I’m thinking particularly of a scene in What Belongs to You
in which you describe a little boy in a train carriage. It made me think about the strange, painful exchanges there are in looking at children; I recently saw a young boy, about 10 years old, stand nervously behind his mother. His hand rested on her arm whilst she spoke to an acquaintance on a train platform. That hand and his face together reminded me so much of a certain kind of anxious contact, an anchoring one needs in childhood, a bodily reassurance… I really felt so much empathy with him in that moment. It also made me think about this also strange proximity and distance between oneself and other people that one is constantly trying to work out and unpack as one moves through the world. I wondered whether, in your observations of others, you think in terms of a distance or proximity? A way of making contact with or of preserving a kind of protected interior between yourself and the world?

That scene is really crucial to the book; when I wrote it, the book made sense to me for the first time. There are a series of encounters with children and childhood over the course of the book. In the first part, the narrator watches a father and daughter by a river and, when I finished that section of the story, I really agonised because I felt I couldn’t justify it. And then the second section was all about childhood. When I wrote that scene about the boy on the train I really felt those other moments connecting and binding the book together.

The narrator of the book is always flailing between demanding distance and desiring proximity. In some ways, that is the motion that has always defined his life. I think of this relationship between the interior of the self and the exterior of the world as one of transaction. It is simply a fact of human life that we are cut off from others and that our profoundest experience of ourselves and of our own subjectivity is fundamentally uncommunicable. I’ve talked about the ways in which art and (maybe) particularly literature is our best technology for communicating across this divide, but it remains a divide. We can never give another person an unmediated experience of our own subjectivity. To me and my particular temperament, this is the fundamental tragedy of our experience; another temperament might see it as the fundamental comedy of human experience. But nevertheless, we do have certain intimations of a union across that boundary. One of the things that moves us about children is we imagine they have access to this: when the narrator looks at the girl and her father, or the boy and his grandmother, he projects a fantasy of this union onto them, one which he has no access to. Like so much else, there is this ideal of union, candour, transparency, a kind of transpersonal intimacy that is impossible but offers necessary direction and orientation.

Your descriptions make me think of a scene in Don DeLillo’s book Libra. Someone describes his young daughter, and how she loves telling him secrets, and he describes how a fact of growing up is the realisation that you have to have these secrets to be a person. Being alive is to have secrets... In What Belongs to You, in that moment, the narrator imagines the transparency of the boy’s desires. Perhaps we are so fascinated by children because they haven’t learned the necessity of secrets and so we are drawn to their openness whilst knowing full well that one can’t live in that way?

Yes, I do think that subjectivity is bound up with privacy; as much as we long for union we also long for privacy.  Secrecy, holding things back, deceit, these are necessary to our sense of ourselves as selves. It does seem true to me to say that the birth into personhood is the birth of a sense of the self as something that can’t be shared. The Freudian idea of an oceanic sense of union with one’s parents one has as infants does not seem entirely bankrupt to me. The idea that one isn’t fully aware of the boundaries of a body, where one body ends and another begins – it seems plausible to me, and it seems plausible that it would be a moment of trauma to experience oneself as a self. A lot of literature deals with this; something like Elizabeth Bishop’s poem In the Waiting Room is about an entry into personhood – one’s sense of being locked off from others that is at once a source of deprivation and a sense of loneliness. But it’s also quite a delicious realisation, a source of richness in one’s life.

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic 
(I could read) and carefully 
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson 
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
--“Long Pig," the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
--Aunt Consuelo’s voice--
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was 
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I--we--were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
--I couldn’t look any higher--
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities--
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts--
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How--I didn’t know any
word for it--how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.
Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth 
of February, 1918.

If we continue to think about psychoanalysis, the mirror stage is about the realisation of what you are not, this fracturing is at the very basis of your identity. When I first learnt about this I was horrified by this idea; I was trying to apply this concept to my own upbringing, wondering when my identity had first been fractured! A few years on from that, I find something very comforting in the “fracture” because the idea of wholeness is a kind of dream; it’s illusory, you’ve never had it. You can perhaps have a nostalgia for that oceanic union between yourself and your parents that you described but actually in coming into consciousness, it’s always been fractured. In our experience of loss there’s a reminder of our selfhood, of the necessity of losing something and how foundational that is.

Yes, I think that’s true and I think it’s also one of the deep themes of literature. Hardy has that wonderful poem ‘Before Life and After’:

A time there was – as one may guess
And as, indeed, earth’s testimonies tell –
Before the birth of consciousness,
When all went well.

Or you think of Wordsworth, projecting onto pre-verbal childhood the wisdom of philosophers. It’s obviously a projection; we can never know exactly what children are experiencing. I do think it’s illusory, and never really existed. A sense of apartness and exclusion is necessary to any sense of personhood.

This takes me to another question I had about Walt Whitman: you make some references to Whitman across your writing and I wondered if you had a response to Ben Lerner’s idea of Whitman’s ‘democratic failure’ in his volume The Hatred of Poetry? Lerner sees Whitman’s failure as a constitutive part of the formation of his poetry – that it is in a desire of multiplicity and our subsequent realisation we can never achieve it that we find another kind of way of understanding relations with others. He writes that ‘Whitman comes to stand for the contradictions of a democratic personhood that cannot become actual without becoming exclusive.’ I wondered what you thought of this reading and if it chimed with your own reading of Whitman’s ‘sympathetic reach?’

I have not read all of his book, but I think Ben Lerner is extraordinarily brilliant. In that sentence you quote the idea seems slightly banal because I think that’s true of all questions of personhood of any coherence. Any identity depends on exclusion and inclusion and, in fact (and this is another way of thinking about proximity versus distance), our whole lives are going to have to exist as a constant negotiation between inclusion and exclusion. These are biological necessities: we have to take some things in and we have to expel others in order to live. I think that’s true biologically, psychologically, socially. In what I know of the book, this idea of a democratic failure, and of the failure of poetry… well, I think yesand no, because failure is built into all art, into anything ideal, and so, therefore, it’s built into poetry and democracy. It’s also true that a concept of failure does not exhaust things like poetry and democracy: they are not only failures; they also give one some bearing on or orientation in the world, a necessary orientation.

I think it’s really interesting the way you describe that; partly why I asked the question was because I was also wondering about the use of word “failure” in this description and wondering what the inverse would be – how we could measure its success. In this section of the essay, Lerner is talking about Whitman’s sense of a utopian democracy in which he can be everyone, where to be an American is to have a profound empathy with everyone and that ability to envision yourself in other positions and how (and if) the poem can contain that – and obviously the poem can’t do all that, of course it will fail! I think what’s important about Whitman’s poetry is what you termed a “sympathetic reach.” Readers tend to find his reaching out towards others, that calling out in an inclusive way, really affecting… And I’m always really surprised at how effective my students find his work; they are very taken by his address, even his use of ‘you’ and ‘I,’ which sounds so simple…

Yes, I think that’s the profound experience of reading Whitman. It’s a question of whether one takes that experience and is struck by wonder at the extent to which it succeeds or one looks at the grand claims that Whitman makes for democracy and sees how grievously they fail. Obviously, these aims are unattainable, and one can see the poems as failures for not enacting the kind of magic they claim for themselves, the magic of repairing an America that’s been fractured by Civil War. Of course the vision is not sustainable, the ideal is not realisable – but this is the point of any kind of orienting limit experience: It orients one to the truth of something which is not apparent in everyday experience. Maybe these things are precisely what Wallace Stevens is talking about when he speaks of ‘necessary fiction’ – fictitious experiences that have a meaningful role in the world. To me, in America right now, we are suffering a great deal from a kind of overly confident scepticism about precisely those values that Whitman held, that imaginative faculty he claims for himself so strongly: the faculty to imagine himself into the experience of other people across divides of class and language and race and gender.  We’ve talked a lot in this conversation about my sense that we are locked into our subjectivities, and I think that’s true, and for that very reason the only way we can live together is through a kind of faith in this imaginative faculty that we have to cross that divide, even as we recognise that the crossing is fictitious, that it is ultimately going to fail. One is never going to be able to imagine oneself perfectly into another’s experience, and nevertheless there can be a success in the exercise of that faculty that is more important than the failure. If we insist that if this is not perfectly successful then it is worthless, then we haven’t just given up on the ideal of literature, or being able to write another person’s experience; we’ve given up on sympathy and democracy and solidarity in a way that I am not willing to accept. I think we should recognise that when Whitman says ‘I am the man; I suffered, I was there’, this is deeply problematic and there are all sorts of ways we should subject that to examination and critique, but also that the ideal it expresses shouldn’t be disavowed.

But it is literature that facilitates that kind of empathy, that kind of reaching out. For me, I guess my utopian hope for literature is that it’s always about a kind of recognition… John Berger is the perfect example of a writer whose work explores recognition in all its forms, or as direct confrontation, an acknowledgement of one another in terms of ‘I’ and ‘you.’ This also reminds me of an essay by Leo Bersani in which he says, speaking of an encounter with an artwork, that ‘We are neither present in the world nor absent from it.’ This is where solidarity comes from, right? That we are all experiencing this kind of proximity and distance to go back to what we were talking about before, that there has to be a way of reaching towards each other.

I also wondered about your writing on sex and desire coupled with the use of screens and technology. In What Belongs to You, you describe a moment in which Mitko scrolls through images on an adult website, and where the narrator notices one image in which Mitko embraces another man, supposedly unselfconsciously, but with his arm bent so you realise that it’s staged. You note that, even though the audience might be hypothetical in this image, the camera renders this moment a performance. I wonder what you think about performance and desire? Can we ever extract our desires from our self-consciousness? or do you think that our ability to narrate back what has just happened makes it all the more performative? What does it do to narrate sexual experiences back to ourselves or to others?

This goes back to what we were talking about before: if we are alienated from others we are also alienated from ourselves. Most of us, in all of our existence, don’t have any immediate experience of ourselves, of our own consciousness, at least to the extent that there are aspects of my consciousness that only emerge in the medium of language. I don’t present this is a universal experience; there is probably a great amount of variation as to the extent to which one’s subjectivity is produced in words. But certainly, my experience of my own subjectivity is that I encounter it in language, which means its mediated. This is a paradoxical thing. In moments like what the narrator experiences with the boy on the train, moments of artistic receptivity, when one feels that everything is charged with a significance or coherence that one can then represent: I feel that I am experiencing the world in a way that is more intense, more present than at any other time. But then it’s also true that I am estranged from that experience because I am, in this vampiric way, making use of it – or planning to make use of it – and the coherence that I feel being delivered to me is being imposed by me in a way that falsifies that experience. I think authenticity is one of these orienting ideals that is in very large part fictitious.

This is making me think in your story ‘An Evening Out’ in terms of how one could be authentic, or what a more authentic version of a self might be – there is a moment in which you describe the desire to be foolish: ‘but there was so much pleasure in being a fool, why had I spent so much of my life guarding against it?’ We are caught between wanting to be free from policing ourselves but then also worrying about going too far.

I think this is a dialectic we are constantly navigating. Obviously, we wouldn’t want to be in a world where we are simply free to experience our drives and desires without restraint, but then a world where we are constantly policing ourselves is also hellish. What interests me is the way one navigates between those poles, especially in moments when these duelling impulses are put under pressure, which makes them more visible or more easily felt. I guess that this goes back to your first question about charged moments, moments that highlight these dichotomies where each term is absolutely necessary and under pressure becomes more visible.

The narrators of both ‘An Evening Out’ and What Belongs to You are very anxious about that revelation but then also so drawn to it and return to it. These are such messy, difficult emotions. And then also if we think about your writing on cruising and queer spaces in which there are other ways of communicating which are much more about looks and codes between people… What’s so interesting is that perhaps these moments are not so structured or formalised and that narrative can give voice to those exchanges which can’t be formalised or can’t be identified as only one kind of thing?

Certainly in ‘An Evening Out’ the characters have had a very formalised relationship. And so the question is: what happens when that structure is no longer there? What possibilities are they left with? What line still exists that can’t be crossed, or can only be crossed with great regret?

I’m interested in formalised relationships, like the relationship between teacher and student, or like the relationship of cruising. Cruising is an incredibly formalised activity, which is one of the things that was so fascinating to me in Bulgaria. It was formalised to such an extent that it was a language I could speak. The exchange between sex worker and client is also a very formalised relationship. And yet there is a way that these relationships can be structured by these forms and yet not exhausted by them. I’m interested by that remainder of a humane feeling and intimacy that escapes the structure, as between the narrator and Mitko in What Belongs To You. I like the way you characterise that messy emotion. I am immediately put off when I feel like I am sure of the emotional response a work of art expects of me. Especially if it’s a monochromatic emotion. I’m interested in art that makes me uncomfortable, I like how art can make us unsure of where we are morally or ethically. That seems to me to be at the heart of what ethical significance literature can have. Very often readers have very strong feelings about whether they sympathise with Mitko or with the narrator. In writing the book, I felt very sympathetic towards both of them and loved them both, but I also wanted the reader to feel discomfort in any position they might take in relation to them. I don’t want the reader to have an easy place to stand in relation to these characters. The narrator of an ‘Evening Out’ does something wrong, but I don’t think it’s very easy to feel superior to that transgression or simply to condemn it. That complexity made it a difficult story to write, but also, I hope, a story worth writing. I don’t like art that is too sure of itself. The minute I feel like a novelist is judging their characters I put down the book. Really, almost always, what happens between human beings is infinitely complex, and the great utility of literature lies in its ability to attempt to engage with and unpack that complexity.

That’s really nicely put. And that doesn’t feel like what you as “writer” are asking the reader to do at all in any of your work. Is there an example of a writer where you think they really do judge their characters?

What’s coming to mind actually are books that are quite moralistic, but that I still love. Zola, for example. I’ve been on a Zola kick for quite a while, reading novel after novel. I find him such an uncongenial writer! The stance he takes towards his character is one of absolute and infallible knowingness. To me human beings are irreducible mysteries; to Zola, they’re open books. He sees these deterministic forces that are driving their actions and that’s it, that’s all there is. And yet he’s such a great writer, and at his best moments, I feel like the art defeats the theory. In Germinal, there is an extraordinary moment, in a procession that turns into a riot, and as a character is passing the houses of the rich she bends over and flips up her skirt and moons them. That’s so wonderfully superfluous, it’s a moment of pure literature. I guess what I’m saying is what I said earlier is a lie: there are plenty of moralistic books I love. The final third of every novel I’ve read by Zola is flawed by his determination for the narrative to become a lesson, but I still think they are great books. So, ignore what I just said!

But you are reading them for different reasons, right? So in Zola you understand his particular political moment and its coming from a wider desire to situate his characters in a particular ideological conflict. One writer I’m thinking of is Flaubert: his judgements of his characters are that he just thinks they are idiots. I love that. I read a Sentimental Education recently and he just despairs of his characters, even in Madame Bovary he makes fun of Emma, but his judgements are that they are silly bourgeois people.

I’m re-reading Madame Bovary at the moment and yes, he’s really savage. But it’s also a kind of savagery that to me does not preclude love.

I do have a prejudice for books in which I feel the author’s basic attitude to her characters is one of love. Love that doesn’t exclude satire and recognizing the fundamental silliness of human beings, but that also sees their vulnerability. But the truth is that art is always bigger than any statement we can make about it.

But that’s also the power of any aesthetic experience, that it’s totally changeable and unpredictable.

Right, that’s what one wants. I would never want to be so governed by theory that I couldn’t be surprised by what compels me in art. In this sense, the experience of cruising is consistent with the experience of art. There’s a wonderful moment in Reinaldo Arenas’s book Before Night Falls where he talks about working in the national library, going through the stacks, and allowing himself to be drawn to particular books and pulling them off the shelves. It’s exactly the way he describes cruising on the beach and having relationships with men. One of the reasons I think cruising is such an important human activity is because it’s an arena in which we can still be surprised by desire. I think a potential problem of dating apps and websites is that they allow us to overdetermine our sense of our own desires and to filter out things that really just make the world smaller for us. The goal, not just of art but of being a person in the world, is to strive to have that ever-larger sense of what the world can accommodate or – to tie it in with Ben Lerner – what the demos can accommodate. That it is a human endeavour. In that constant negotiation between inclusion and exclusion necessary for any coherent identity, we should see our goal as being an ever-greater inclusion.

Garth GREENWELL is the author of What Belongs to You, which won the British Book Award for Debut of the Year, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards, including the PEN/Faulkner Award, the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, it was named a Best Book of 2016 by over fifty publications in nine countries, and is being translated into a dozen languages. His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, A Public Space, and VICE, and he has written criticism for The New Yorker, the London Review of Books, and the New York Times Book Review, among others. He is the 2018-19 Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi.

Katie Da CUNHA LEWIN is a researcher and writer based in London. She has a PhD on the novels of J.M. Coetzee and Don DeLillo. She is the co-editor of Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives published by Bloomsbury. She tutors in literature, theory and visual culture at the University of Sussex, and teaches courses on literature and film in venues across London.

The poem ‘The Waiting Room’ is exerpted from The Complete Poems 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux,Copyright © 1979, 1983 by Alice Helen Methfessel.


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Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

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