To consider the bookworm who first attempted to write novels, a fan and voracious reader, Jonathan Lethem’s writing is all about influence. The trouble with fandom is sometimes you’re going to lose your audience if the references are not appealing, necessarily, or if they are not gotten, or are cribbed in some way that smacks of calculation. Lethem’s work cycles around the idea of the reader as adept, the seduction of influences, the segregation of highbrow from lowbrow and the favoring of the underdog, populism by way of speciousness. It also manages to be inexhaustively positive in the exaltation of limitations.
Thus, The Ecstasy of Influence, a collection of essays and odd pieces.
Lethem is a self-taught intellectual, and it’s clear from his discussions about it, that this something he is proud of, feels unique in, and hopes you, the reader, will identify him as such and thus, identify with him. He has that knack of the auto-didact that prevents him, sometimes, from speaking (writing) more directly, perhaps; though such enthusiasm is hard to begrudge. Lethem is that writer who takes know thyself as a credo, and rewards those who, like him, feel no shame in being self-congratulatory about it.
It must be difficult to know ones’ influences enough to say with confidence what their writing is like, as he does in “Against “Pop” Culture,” yet Lethem seems so self-assured in pointing his out that it’s hard to deny him. You have to believe him. And yet he sounds a lot like someone boasting because he knows no one else has these same specious, even archaic and mandarin (his word) influences. Yet it makes for an intriguing personal narrative that even creeps into his novel, The Fortress of Solitude.
The essay reflects perhaps the claiming of high culture over low culture artifacts of the contemporary status quo, ie., DeLillo over Graham Greene, akin to the argument that Franzen seems to make. Some artifacts, in other words, are “out of the canon,” and it’s thus a popularity contest to make the right claim. Lethem is adamant about how he’s unique, and he’d rather you know he’s more in solidarity with the losers. And don’t even try to call him “experimental.”
Or maybe he’s just saying you’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.
The art of a writer who can convince you he’s so mercilessly assimilated his influences wouldn’t need to call attention to them, but that wouldn’t be fair in an essay like “The Ecstasy of Influence.” That would be considered plagiarism. But often the plagiarist question is the unknown influence, when the writer “claims” they don’t know how that other writer’s words got in there, or of the wink and nod variety of Lethem, or David Shields. To simply utilize another writer’s words (appropriation) isn’t a crime unless it’s unattributed; it’s considered sacrilege in a work of fiction, usually.
How to put the MacArthur into perspective? It strikes me as being well-deserved, but he might not say so, nor would he want to talk about it. The idea of it forces him to find a new way to talk about all of his obsessions, and the result is “The Ecstasy of Influence”.
There might be a kind of arrogance is Lethem criticizing a critic (James Wood); after all, the very fact that this critic is writing about Lethem's book--and not in unfavorable terms--is a magnanimous gesture. It’s less on Wood because the author seems to be crying “but you aren’t getting all of my inter-textuality!” etc.
I applaud Lethem’s productivity, on the other hand, it’s a bit churlish to engage in the dialogue as he does.
Of course there is buying into and accepting the myth of greatness, which is only a construction; so many cited for greatness get slack and never reach the level of whatever got them there in the first place. We’re always disappointed in our heroes, ultimately. But the perception is there, and if you are not one of them, you are probably making your own contribution to the myth by engaging in the conversation. The danger in honesty and frankness is that someone will always perceive it as a weakness, as something to tear down because you are not willing to construct a false fortress around your image.
I think this game or role playing is probably the one thing I always think Lethem is actively doing; though I like what he says, I’m not sure it’s not carefully choreographed. But I think most writers would not choose to present themselves so earnestly. It’s a self-protective function. Just like in life, one constructs the image which reflects most favorably on them; for writers it is: don’t engage in criticism, praise others as you would like to be praised. In other words, don’t do anything that could hurt your market, your brand.
Lethem has gotten in the backdoor, the way Rick Moody has, I would say. They’ve arrived, and there’s no threat of self-destruction or false pretence to trying to save the world, or to present themselves as so above everyone by these golden artifacts they occasion to publish every ten years or so. Lethem began largely through a genre door. Make no mistake, these authors have to produce, but what does account for the scarcity of their name-making efforts? The point is that this is all about the maintenance of the myth, and not about any real impetus to actively being a writer; you have to give Lethem credit for acknowledging it.
The more abstract and turbid pieces of the collection (“Postmodernism as Liberty Valance”) show no publication attribution; it seems Lethem could have used a critical editor here. Often, the circling back of logic in such convoluted sentence making had me on the boards. I called uncle. And I’m not one who easily lets interesting thoughts go.
There are quite a few instances when my inner philistine felt really small (it’s smaller than my id to begin with), and I admit the impulse to jot down the word or reference Lethem tapped to add to my own collection.
He can seem almost too self-congratulatory, as in his spinning preface; he’d almost have to have already won you over, I think, for you to venture into the essays.
Maybe the best thing about reviewing is that the “I” never comes up, or maybe shouldn’t, it’s just the learned voice hovering over the proceedings, in the background. Sometimes Lethem’s “I” gets him carried away. In the pieces where it does occur, he could use some restraint--because when it’s not there, it is hovering in the background.
His voice is most appealing in the mode of interrogating and confronting his own long held obsessions (“Izations”) with comic book heroes. Here Lethem takes on an investigative reporter’s skepticism as he becomes a man on the street drawn into something like gossip mongering.
Since the pieces are all over the place, omniscient Lethem does a deft job of curating and editorializing as he shoehorns the oddments in. There are missteps in the collection (the turgid “Donald Sutherland’s Buttocks or Sex in Movies for people Who Have Sex”), and though Lethem makes ample excuse for them in the collection, it seems to me they do nothing to enhance his oeuvre, but subtly undermine it.
Through the inclusion of what amounts to juvenalia (two short science fiction stories) he makes a connection to that may be true, though it briefly send the reader flipping ahead to see how long they have to read until the next piece.
The Lethem of the nonfiction is in danger of being everywhere, being all things to all people, becoming tiresome through ubiquity. Yet wouldn’t any writer relish that particular soapbox? And I feel I’m only criticizing as he might expect; my immense pleasure, and respect for his work, ultimately overrides my small, philosophical quibbles. Lethem, a fan boy himself, has proven he can inspire this in his own work; it’s a kind of infectious enthusiasm that is a model of the writer’s life well-lived, and probably well-earned.
*This title replaces the one that was so ponderous that few read the post (Synthesizing Extrainstitutional Intellectualism), which itself was somewhat meant as a joke, was part of Lethem’s response to the New York Times, in a comment on the activities of a group of unemployed New York literati.