The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues
APR 2019 Issue
Books In Conversation

LYNNE TILLMAN with Elizabeth Block

With the reprint of a "great American novel," American Genius, A Comedy, Lynne Tillman has perhaps now (if not already) set her literary/conceptual art legacy for generations to come. A prolific, interdisciplinary, and unusual cultural producer and observer, she has never played by any rules but her own. I have followed Tillman's work since I was a teenager. While many "writers" and "critics" long to be innovators, she is one of the few true ones. When approached to interview her work on the occasion of her new publication, I was thrilled and terrified. How could I do her justice? She was nothing short of gracious. Many writers bemoan that they have to resort to small press publication in this historical presence, as if it signifies a career failure. While Tillman's early novels, No Lease on Life (1998) and Cast In Doubt (1992), were published on large presses, Tillman will have made an immortal career from primarily outside mainstream literary presses.

American Genius, A Comedy, by Lynne Tillman (Soft Skull, reprint edition 2019)

Elizabeth Block (Rail): You had given an interview in Hyperallergic upon the 2018 publication of Men and Apparitions. In it you discussed Gertrude Stein (from What Would Lynne Tillman Do?) You said, "Stein saw language as a medium of consciousness—a vehicle for movement and change rather than a system of referents." Is it fair to assume Stein influenced your first novel, Haunted Houses (1987)? I see it also holds Stein's famous essay, "Composition as Explanation?" It seems to inform your thinking across media and concept.

Lynne Tillman: That essay helped me understand why the avant-garde bothered me, why its sense of itself as in advance of others disturbed me, and I thought it was wrong. In the case of Haunted Houses it was what I could write at that time, in that moment, and of that moment. It was as it was then—it came out in 1987—and I felt it did what I wanted it to do, in writing, in thinking, in its "weird" structure—that three protagonists never meet in the narrative. I didn't need to return to it. Not then, anyway.

Rail: I'd like to go into that titular quote a bit more, to explore the question of whether you are really a writer or a conceptual artist. I understand, technically, you are a writer. But that label seems limiting when describing you, especially when one considers your entire oeuvre and how your work has been received and interpreted within the arts. Composition, even for Stein, cannot just refer to words, it explodes into all the arts, except that is, new genres such as social practice and variations. This definitely applies to you.

Tillman: The title "Haunted Houses" came from HD's book about her analysis with Freud, Tribute to Freud. In it she wrote, "We are all haunted houses." To think of a person as a ghosted house seemed right to me, and that haunting continues. I tried in my way to do that in Haunted Houses. I'd rather be considered a conceptual artist than an "experimental" writer. I don't know if anyone but you, me, and ten other people might agree. I never call myself "experimental." Wouldn't that be for others to decide, whatever that means to them? I've written against the rubric "experimental writing." It's a genre, repeated again and again, and is recognizable, so what is the experiment. Maybe "it" proves itself as acceptable in that genre

Rail: I completely agree with you.

Tillman: My effort in novels, especially, where I have the scope to carry through an idea, is to narrate a concept. In Men and Apparitions, it was, how does someone live in a glut of images? How does living in that glut affect consciousness and behavior. How do images affect psyche formation, say, and choice of love objects and self-definition? In Cast in Doubt, the concept was to address modernism and postmodernism through its characters' beliefs and behaviors.

Rail: At the Marres Centre for Contemporary Culture (2011), for example, an exhibition based on your celebrated character, Madame Realism, was mounted as a feminist response to the interior of that space, wherein the critic, Mooseje Goosen remarked, "It reminded me of the story of Madame Realism waking up as an art catalogue: 'It dawned upon Madame Realism—in fact it was impressed upon her—that explanations were as complex as what they are meant to explain.'" Usually, a writer is asked to write in response to an art exhibition, not the other way around. While I could name (but I won't) less skilled or more predictable "experimental" writers who have exhibited their writing in art contexts, no writer (with the exception of perhaps, Chris Kraus) has gained the respect of visual artists as have you. How does this change your perception of yourself as a "writer," and the world's perception of yourself as a "writer" in the expanded field? Or am I reaching?

Tillman: I was really surprised this exhibition was planned. Madame Realism appeared to be an image artists found useful. That she, this fiction, an image made from and of words, had applications for their work, and elicited responses. You're right. It's usually the other way around: a writer writes about a photograph or painting. Maybe the fact I did studio art in college, worked with artists Ron Gorchov and Doug Ohlson, affected how I think and write, and not only about art. I'm curious, very curious about people, too, and want to know what I don't. I can't say I know what I don't know—for one thing, what is unconscious to me—but I believe artists I have written for trust me to do my homework. When I write for an artist's catalogue, say, I try to address the work, without a hidden agenda, and hope I'm not trying to prove a point that excludes or elides the work. When I do a public convo, say, or write an essay, I work hard to learn about the art work, its chronology, the ideas. If I am respected by artists, as you say, and I hope so, this is probably why.

Rail: Susan Sontag, In On Photography, wrote, "The camera as phallus is, at most, a flimsy variant of the inescapable metaphor that everyone unconsciously employs." How do you (or does Zeke) feel about this in relation to Men and Apparitions?

Tillman: Zeke never mentions the camera as phallus, even though Freud is part of his reading, that isn't an idea he trucks with. It wasn't on my mind. Maybe it's obvious or in a way not as important as when Sontag wrote that book, the late 1960s, early 1970s, and then it was very influential, and for a long time, much less so now. A lot of thinking and theorizing has happened since Sontag wrote that book. What Zeke focuses on, from Sontag, is how she read a photograph as representing death. That does shut down a conversation about photography, I think. Anything can represent the past, really. Any object that exists has the past in it. If you're a Marxist, it's human labor. I implanted another idea in his mind, to deflect "death," or the insistence on death and photography: it's that the viewer of a photograph is alive and looking at it, giving the viewer some agency.

Rail: Sort of like Barthes's "punctum" (Camera Lucida)? Or with the #MeToo Movement offering a very different cooptation of the phallus?

Tillman: There are many approaches possible to the way we read, generally, or interpret. After reading Juliet Mitchell's book on feminism and psychoanalysis, in the late 1970s, she helped me understand Freud's work as descriptive not determinative. Desire is too complicated to say it is this or that, what we want and why. The contradictions in humans. What patriarchy instills proceeds before and without thought. I'd like to imagine a world that was different, but I don't know that I can. I'm not a goddess person, never have been. It doesn't help me even to imagine that time. About the punctum, that explosive moment of impact or excitement or tearing away: I think about how when a photograph excites or breaks open, it becomes a picture. And it doesn't picture what's in the photograph. It can't be seen.

Rail: With the exception of a catharsis and resolution, I believe there are many similarities between American Genius, A Comedy and Aristotle's notion of "comedy." I don't say this with disappointment, as I value the contributions of the Greeks (even as I like to undermine classical structure). But I want to say/ask if you feel that writing it in the first person sometimes is a deliberate stylistic choice of mimicking autobiography to create a feel of intimacy, even as it is more of a Steinian composition (as I cannot in this moment in history dare call it postmodern)? In fact, this brings me to another question. In today's present, the comedians, who speaks in the first person, are considered the leaders of the resistance. In many ways, your book can be reinterpreted not as postmodern Tristram Shandy but extended stand up absurdist comedy. What do you think of this interpretation?

Tillman: I like your idea that I'm toying with autobiography. It's not. But it can be read like that. Autobiography and memoir are also fictions, they have to be, to some extent, because memory isn't reliable, and, certainly, writing them the narrator is even more unreliable than anywhere else. It is that one POV, only. Using "I" creates intimacy, don't you think? It has that immediacy. "I" is anybody's "I." But it is also not only the narrator's or specific to the narrator.

As for comedy and stand up, your question is so cool, because recently my editor/publisher/friend Richard Nash asked me, after I did a reading from AGAC, about stand up and my relationship to doing it. That night, the way I read some sections struck him as funnier than he had found them when he read them. Maybe the narrator of AGAC could have done stand up if she had more confidence or a different sensibility. I'm not sure about Aristotle's ideas about comedy and AGAC. I'm no expert. From what I've read, which is not much, they're less clear than his ideas on tragedy. Comedy happens to ordinary people, not kings and queens, and, in a comedy, bad fortune turns to good. Something like that. In part it's a class distinction, ordinary people don't experience tragedy, because it needs to be on such a grand plane. Or that the great can't be funny. Which is at base base. I often think about Propp's idea that any narrative entails a reversal of fortune. Think about Schitt's Creek. Rich to poor. That tragedy could happen only because the upper class denies the humanity of the majority of the world, and that kind of belief might be why the lower classes are regarded as if they are not human. A disgusting reality.

The ending for my narrator in AGAC is neither good nor bad, it's indecisive. Her fortunes are uncertain, and she's left in medias res. Unsettled. I do think she is funny, or more that the novel's funny. I laughed a lot while writing it. Being serious can be very funny. Actually, it can be hilarious.

Rail: It seems your idea about the composition (the novel itself) is funny, but the narrator creating the content or the explanation is not funny. These two tensions often make for the best dark comedy. It also relates back to Gertrude Stein's essay "Composition as Explanation," which is a motif for you in terms of a discussion of time. With your discussion of Andy Warhol, you really probe this idea of time (a recurring theme which explodes your idea of narrative in general). You certainly upend the notion of avant-garde being a construct, perhaps even a fraud, if I may be extreme. Does this at all tie into how the re-issue of American Genius, A Comedy may be interpreted at this moment in history?

Tillman: Warhol and Stein both said they weren't ahead of their time. That's been important to me, to see myself as part of my time, of it. And I am. But Stein also says, some people won't be interested in what you do. What writers do, artists… So, we all may live at the same time but have different interests. I like that. The high-mindedness of the avant-garde, of some avant-garde-ists, has always bothered me. I don't like dismissiveness on either side of the so-called high/low divide. And I'm guilty of it, I can't stand fantasy romance novels. I do dismiss them from my life. So, I am really interested in how time affects art, writing, its reception. People read, think, see, and react differently at different times. Writers, artists, fame comes and goes. Environments change, for one thing. What creates "new thinking" is complex. Time will have happened I hope with and to AGAC. I'm very curious, in fact, how it will be read now. What it might mean to people, if it means. Oddly, it's getting more attention that it did when first published.

Rail: A thoughtful and non-pretentious response to the romance of "avant-garde." It's so refreshing to hear a writer associated with the avant-garde not needing to cling to it or colonize it in order to gain attention. This is not uncommon you would be getting more attention now. You also have a larger than life career these many years later. What is it that draws you to more "realistic" American photography, that seems to mirror more realistic representation (Stephen Shore and Justine Kurland).

Tillman: Tough question. Maybe I am drawn more, or more quickly, let's say that. Because I also love abstract work, like Liz Deschenes's, Anne Collier's, Marco Breuer's, to mention a few I've written stories for. The stories reflect that abstraction in their ways. Let me try to analyze it: I project into any artwork I view, thoughts, fantasies, etc., that's one thing. Representational work, so-called objective work, at first presents objects that I can more easily discern. But then a curious thing happens, and maybe it's not, I see it formally. I see its composition, colors, shapes, just as I would with a more abstract work. I always arrive at the point where I believe all art is abstract, abstracted from life, the world. So, the way I view both genres merges. I don't write "formal" criticism: I don't concentrate only on formal elements, I usually interpret what I'm seeing, not to explain it but to relate to it. I probably feel more comfortable responding to discernible objects first, because they suggest narratives easily. But, say, Stephen Shore's work is also abstract, even if, say, it "shows" chairs. I wrote about his photograph of blue chairs on a green lawn. Objective and yet entirely formal and abstract. So, in the end, any reading I do has to do with my limits.

Rail: Shore is also a pioneer of color photography as art. Is that perhaps what draws you on the abstract level?

Tillman: That's so interesting. I do love b/w, too. My father was a textile designer. I was aware early, I think, of color, the effects of color. He would talk about it sometimes. Or I'd see samples of his fabrics in their different hues. The way Shore uses color startles me. His deliberateness. I think he composes with color. He pictures in color. I just saw Laurie Simmons' survey at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Simmons is, among other things, an amazing colorist. I've always loved her work, its wit, sadness, social commentaries, and, seeing a survey of it, I could recognize how color makes her pictures, too. She also works in black and white, but recent work explodes with color. Beautiful.

Rail: Is there a work of art (in any genre or a scientific or environmentally relevant idea) right now that you either love or hate or that makes you think or is compelling in some way, that you want to address or engage?

Tillman: Great question, thanks. Epigenetics fascinates me. Again, no expert here, but it's showing how, though you are born with DNA that protects you against cancer, say, that protection can be turned off by behavior and/or environment. There have been studies with identical twins, genetic codes identical, one smokes the other doesn't. One gets cancer, the other doesn't. Nature and nurture, both matter. For too long, people have focused on binaries, not only in this, rather than in the interplay of many elements.

What worries me a lot? The confusion about Truth, with a capital "T" and what can be "true." When some writers themselves talk about having written a true story, I feel despair. What makes something true is not that it's based on an actual event. That's a fact, say. But it's how it is written that makes it "true." Which means to me, relevant, meaningful, useful, curious to a reader. The questions that arise about fiction, and it's not being "true," show such confusion and dare I say ignorance… I fulminate. The focus on memoirs, since the 1980s, as compared with novels or short stories. Why? I have ideas. But where is the importance of the human imagination?

This also leads me to the increasingly limited ways of thinking about identity. Identity is fluid, one's identity should not be fixed from birth, it is one part of identity. People are capable of many forms of identifying. Gender fluidity is one kind of fluidity. I have many concerns, many anxieties. Also about language usage: the work "fuck" is overused. Fucking this and fucking that… give me a break, I say to my undergrads. It's all I hear in the halls. Yes, fuck is contextual in meaning, every word is, but come on… The large and the small… which is how AGAC works, it travels from smaller concerns to bigger ones. And I don't like this "major/minor" business. Who really knows?


Elizabeth Block

Elizabeth Block is currently writing a feature screenplay and a book. She is making a film under fiscal sponsorship of Film Independent. She recently received grants from Artist Relief and Poets & Writers. Find her on Substack at THICK DESCRIPTION.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2019

All Issues