Narrators in the 21st Century: Trust No One?
Photograph by Editrix
by Elias Tezapsidis
Christian Lorentzen→ CL (host, Senior Editor London Review of Books)
Elif Batuman → EB (Author POSSESSED, Staff The New Yorker)
Ben Lerner → BL (Author 10:04, Leaving The Atocha Station)
Christine Smallwood → CS (Columnist Harper’s)
Lorin Stein → LS (Editor The Paris Review)
Contemporary narrators feel entitled to their own realities now more than ever. The internet has created this fascinating binary, one in which individuals can become extremely aware of their circumstances or get lost in a delusional microcosm they created for themselves. How much one knows, in addition to how much one cares to be in touch with – the always suspect – notion of “reality” determines how believable a narrator appears. The more realistic a narrator is often rises as the more credible one, one worthy of the reader’s trust.
Earlier this week it was revealed to me in rather uncomfortable circumstances that I am not very in touch with reality, yet again. Never fun to re-remember, but perhaps a valuable reminder. Until the moment other writerly people I share a cubicle with corrected me in a bar that served $2 beers, I was fully confident Sasha Frere-Jones was a woman. Sasha Frere-Jones is a man. I quickly moved on to talk about how cool I thought it was that “she.. I mean, I guess, he wrote on this cool gay artist who voices the silences and ruminative grief of gay men.” I didn’t remember the name of the young musician who the critic praised at that moment. But if they had read their New Yorker issues they would have known who I was talking about. Thus, at least for those most on top of topical realities, I would not seem the crazy ignorant dude I felt I was for the 15 seconds after I was informed of Mrs. Frere-Jones misterhood.
About three days passed and another such surprise was there for me at the Brooklyn Book Festival, on stage: Lorin Stein, apparently, is also definitely not a lady! I wondered, once again, how I had managed to see the name under titles I had read and never figure out the gender of the writer. I was in the Brooklyn with the purpose of attending the panel, hosted by the London Review of Books, to listen to the opinions of writers on the changing role of the narrator in modern fiction.
The discussion was casually moderated by London Review of Books editor Christian Lorentzen, who had questions for all the participants. Elif Batuman was wearing a purple dress, moving around her seat — perhaps it was a stool — a lot and often saying much more with her eyes than her voice let her. Ben Lerner looked the way he looks in all the pictures you have seen of him, sporting a beige shirt that failed at hiding the armpit stains his nervousness was probably causing. The shirt could have been yellow, though. Christine Smallwood was wearing red lipstick and jeans, not moving around her seat at all and saying things only with her voice.
The biggest surprise of all: Lorin Stein was — and still is, obviously! – a man. Not only did I make the same erroneous assumption about two writers’s gender twice over time, but also I got confronted by the broader reality for both cases within the span of a few days. Does that assumption indicate something about me? Does it hinder my credibility as a narrator? Does that really matter in creating interesting storytelling? Perhaps after the talk I would be able to answer some of the aforementioned questions.
I decided to try to pay attention as fully as I possibly could: I took my phone out and started typing texts for my friend who wanted to be at the event but couldn’t make it because she got too fucked up the previous night and this was happening far from her and at 11am. As I began sending this series of messages, I was hoping she would appreciate them and not be annoyed by my possible accidental waking her up before she wanted to be awake. As always, I indulged and did what I thought I would value more in her position.
It is 11.13ish, I think. which is pretty good. Usually lit shit starts superlate so this is somewhat impressive. is u ready for dis??
CL starts with a joke about the familiar narrative trope of gaining an audience’s empathy/trust through victimhood→ easy way to create empathy for protagonist
CL: Last night my bag got robbed from the trunk of my car, including many items such as my favorite corduroy pants. Thankfully they left my books though: Sheila Heti’s “How Should A Person Be,” Tao Lin’s “Taipei,” Bolano’s (UNCERTAIN OF TITLE), (TWO MORE BOOKS I COULD NOT HEAR THE TITLES OF), and Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila”
[Crowd laughs; CL seems endearingly hungover? He is pretty funny, or at least he knows how to make the audience laugh. Meanwhile, I am wondering why he is still carrying the Heti and Lin, which are no longer recent titles, but whatever. Also, i realize that his voice and intonation sound nothing like I expected them to, as someone who had never before met him/ heard him off twitter.]
*END OF PAUSE*
CL: Though they did steal two books, and they were both by BL… It was in Williamsburg, so the thieves were hipsters, obviously.
CL introduces the panel, which is comprised of: EB, BL, CS, LS. This feels a tiny bit uncomfortable to me, because it sounded like people started clapping/ applauding during the introduction of BL, which is pretty weird and suckupy? It particularly feels weird because even BL does not seem to welcome it. Clearly we all dig someone to be here instead of drunk-brunching hard with last night’s sex-adventure. Just don’t applaud at the fucking intros, people! It’s awkward.
CL initiates convo by bringing up the most current literati staple: Knausgaard.
CL: How does Knausgaard pull this off? How is he able to maintain the attention of the reader as he robs the narrative of value?
BL kind of disqualifies the question by stating that what Knausgaard does great is that he gets equally excited in narrating a simple, ordinary task as he does when he narrates an important event.
[BL’s affinity for narrative tangents that are not always dealing with matters of life and death is evident. The hyperspecific, intensely focused minutiae which his characters are exposed to trace an interiority the reader can follow through text.]
CL (using an upbeat tone, as if to generate more enthusiasm from his next question) : Sooo. EB! You wrote something for the LRB posing the degree question… “Get A Real Degree.” I was wondering if you still maintain that position?
EB: Noooo. That was such a long time ago. I have changed my mind on MFAs… All writers I admire today teach MFAs!!
[Then EB must have divulged in the traditional discourse topic of the differences in Western education from the Russian system of memorization and learning facts rather than focusing on critical thinking. The narrator was momentarily distracted at the time, because nothing substantial was being said. at this point some in the audience—and probably CL, too, since he remained on this question still–seemed somewhat annoyed at the lack of a more authoritative answer from EB. It seemed like she was saying something, but her something was not a particularly resonant one with this crowd.]
EB: Cold War narrative of different education in Russia: memorizing vs problem-solving focus. It is a question of voice. Voice meaning honesty to life experience, uniqueness of one’s experience… I mean, everyone’s experience is different in some capacity; we all experience things differently.
The cheesiness of this non-response seems to trigger the next question from CL, this time directed to LS, who will ignore the question until it comes back again much later in the conversation.
CL: What are your thoughts on the know-nothing narrator?
LS: Let me go back a second to clarify something about why Knausgaard works well: Knausgaard is not about value. The point is gaining the trust of the reader as a narrator, giving purpose to the reading experience. Compelling storytelling is the point.
A unanimous approving nod appears through the heads of the crowd, who seem to agree with LS’s point. CL’s next inquiry is directed toward CS, and is informally phrased to juxtapose Lydia Davis to Knausgaard. In a BOOKFORUM piece, CS described Davis as “a theorist of the arbitrary. The fact that she makes it look so easy—so arbitrary, even—is part of the fun.”
CS: I think that it is actually important to distinguish between these two cases: the significance of whether the narrator is pursuing an understanding of reality. There is a difference between pursuing reality through fiction and using reality–such as autobiographical elements–to construct more “traditional” novels. “What is the goal?” is an important question to ask. For instance, Kraus sets out to do a very specific thing in terms of form: she fictionalizes her life, without hesitating to use real people.
CL’s next question is perhaps the most intrusive/ disrespectful—and also the most interesting to endeavor getting answered—and is directed toward BL.
CL: How autobiographical is your fiction?
Suavely but with the determination and gusto of someone who — rightly so — thinks he shouldn’t have been asked such a question about his creative process, BL refuses to respond. He just picks up from another direction instead.
[The way in which BL tweaks the dialogue reminds most well-read narrators of Solnit’s introduction to “The Faraway Nearby,” in which she challenges form by embracing the artificiality of storytelling, ultimately using it as a strength. Interspersing elements both real and counterfeit proves effective in building a moving saga. Solnit’s writing often draws heavily from her personal life, as she generously provides anecdotes and experiences of her own.]
BL: I use the material of my life because I don’t know how not to do that. Wallace Stevens thinks that the most real comes through fiction, which I find to be a liberating approach.
CL: EB, what do you think about this fiction/ non-fiction divide?
EB feels that with non-fiction “you get more slack.” She turns her head toward BL and looks at him as she compliments him intensely.
EB: I was telling Ben how grateful I am that he exists! In a novel you are inventing a world.
She then shifts from further commentary on the brilliance of her colleague, and adds to the arguments pro-fiction, as a category. Specifically, the questions of privacy that may be polemical in non-fiction do not pose problems for fiction. EB reverts her attention to CS, and asks her—somewhat aggressively—to share her views on Kraus.
CS: You’re being so nice today!
Her friendly sarcasm gets a giggle from the audience. EB recognizes the comic laughs about it, before she explains that’s how she always “is.” Then she returns to the Kraus question, not realizing she’s mixing up BOOKFORUM with n+1.
BL: I am curious to hear more on your thoughts on Chris Kraus’s “I Love Dick,” which I loved, but… you didn’t. You wrote that piece on how privacy is gendered, and I was curious to hear what you have to say on that.
(simultaneously CS and CL respond)
CS: No [HARD TO HEAR REST OF SENTENCE] CL: Nah, that was Gumpert for n+1…
*SOMEWHAT LONG, AWKWARD PAUSE*
The minimal discomfort experienced following this mistake feels rewarding. To ensure I am not misrepresenting the objective reality, I scan the people around me and notice they are wearing smirks of satisfaction, like the one I am trying to hide, perhaps unsuccessfully.
It feels peculiar that even in such highfalutin panels of esteemed individuals, the same dynamics that existed years ago in classrooms are apparent: the more average thinkers overparticipate and keep being vocal relentlessly, while the thoughtful, deep thinkers stay quiet. Thankfully someone breaks this cycle.
*END OF SOMEWHAT LONG, AWKWARD PAUSE*
LS: The question of seeking the real is not really a question. What actually matters is the urgency, and regardless of how the author approaches matters of privacy, good work shows urgency.
EB seems to take this comment personally as a response to her curiosity. She says “SNAP!” and moves her head in a way for the audience to understand that she is performing being put back in her place.
LS (almost apologetically): I didn’t mean that as a criticism.
[CL must have at this point directed a question about the real/made-up status of BL’s “Leaving the Atocha Station,” to which BL will respond in the next line.]
BL: The characters of the book were fictional. But they became real after they were created, somewhat… This strange thing happened in my case with that book, and going to Spain, and thinking about the concept of language and translating. I really believe that, the things you write about in fiction then come true. Well, only the bad things.
CL: How do you manage to manipulate time so effectively? How do you break so many rules, and do you do that intentionally?
BL seems to accept the compliment, which is deserved and fair. But after accepting it, he begins to show that he doesn’t want to accept full-credit for it; he realizes there is only so much to Ezra-Pound-make-it-new.
BL: The novel is a form that offers itself to present contradictions, create an image of totality. I don’t think I am the first writer to do those things with manipulation of time. Virginia Woolf did all those tricks, for sure. All I did was contemporize them.
CS: I was wondering if we could go back to the question that came up earlier and was left unanswered, that of the know-nothing narrator?
LS: Yes, that was actually the question I had told CL to ask me before we sat down for the panel, but then I realized that perhaps it was not quite the right question when trying to understand the role of the narrator in the 21st century.
EB thinks that the game of the unreliable narrator is a dangerous one. LS disagrees, he thinks that the unreliable narrator can still create novelistic momentum.
LS thinks that his taste in books is anachronistic; he believes that people no longer enjoy the reading of characters who are, they prefer characters who seem/ perform. He almost sounds anti-meta in a refreshing way, he wants his fiction to be free of the limits reality imposes on it as a genre today. LS believes that the reading audience today wants to feel as if reading is watching television. “Many novels today try to make readers forget that they are reading,” BL agrees.
Sadly, the panel reverts to talking about whether writers should attempt writing as if they are writing for TV. Of course, BL plays devil advocate, bringing up this show you may have heard of called “The Wire” (I hear it’s GOOOOD!) and “wasn’t “The Wire” Dickensian?” Which, CS informs us, it wasn’t!
CS: IT WAS ZOLAESQUE! I am sorry, that is just one of my pet-peeves…
BL: Okay. You are right. The thing I am trying to get at is that you don’t get free by pretending the forces controlling your life don’t control your life.
Ultimately, it seems like the closest the panel gets to consensus is admitting the strength historical fiction presents as a genre. They share an understanding of historical fiction’s critical appeal and the freedom it gives to the writer. EB adds that historical fiction relieves the writer of what is based on reality. LS brings up Hilary Mantel as a modern example of a writer who structures narrative in a compelling fashion in historical fiction, “there’s something egalitarian about how she does it.”
CL returns the focus to the imaginary, addressing BL when he asks about the significance of “Back To The Future” in 10:04. The following question is also directed to BL, who seems to no longer be sweating at all, the armpit stains being no longer visible.
CL: Would you consider writing science-fiction?
BL responds in a smart, clever way in defense of fiction, by saying that what 10:04 touches on science fiction, which—of course—is a lie. Isn’t all writing of fiction some sort of sci-fi?
BL: We are always writing sci-fi, just to less exaggerated fictions that simulate a closer image of reality.
It seems that one of the biggest advantages of writing non-fiction is that the writer no longer needs to fight to make the writing believable, it simply needs to be true. But can you imagine a world where everything had to be true?
Again there was something like sadness. CL, EB, BL, CS, LS, you are wonderful writers, serious writers. If I weren’t sure about that, why would I be transcribing you! When are you going to stop pretending that you’re only pretending to be 21st century narrators?
CL starts with a joke about the familiar narrative trope of gaining an audience’s empathy/trust through victimhood → easy way to create empathy for protagonist
[A NAME THAT YOU, THE READER, WILL ASSUME IS A WOMAN]
Cover image by Gregory Wass
 That is a reference to Ben Lerner’s ending of “Leaving the Atocha Station,” pg 168. But if I directly quoted it I might ruin the adventure for someone, so I shall not.
About the Author:
Elias grew up in Thessaloniki, Greece, prior to attending Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. It was there that he discovered he was too neurotic and OCD for the Midwest and had a low-tolerance for the MN-nice. The move to NYC post-graduation seemed like the logical next step, and since then downtown New York has been home.