Face to Face with SAM LIPSYTE
Highlights from Issue 29: The Photography Issue
SAM LIPSYTE / Photograph Courtesy of Picador
Thursday, February 01, 2007
By Alex Abramovich
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Sam Lipsyte is one of my favorite writers, and a friend. We met almost a decade ago, when he was working on his first collection of stories and editing FEED. Since then, he has published Venus Drive (Open City) and the novels The Subject Steve (Broadway) and Home Land (Picador). It’s a gift, watching a writer you like so much work, at close quarters, and in lieu of a proper (and properly biased) introduction, I’ll mention that Lipsyte might just be the funniest writer you’ll run across this year. “A wicked sod,” according to one of the British lad mags. “Serious as a death mask,” according to another. He’s also a deeply American writer, and it’s good to see more Americans take notice of him.
Alex Abramovich: Let’s talk about Martin Amis. The Moronic Inferno and Money seem like Amis’ first and last words on America. Is Amis being unfair to America? Is America unfair to us?
Sam Lipsyte: I can’t say I’ve really thought about your question before. I don’t really experience the majority of my days as a negotiation between these two entities: Amis and America. I love Money, though. The book, I mean. The currency is good, too. As to the second part of your question, America is unfair to most people in the world, including most Americans. It’s also an extreme time to judge. We happen to have a crazy and criminal government in place. I don’t think America has to be what it is right now. But it will be some version of unfair as long as its power is rooted in corporations. There’s no way around that.
AA: George Saunders seems to specialize in skewering a certain style of corporate communication — a style that seems to limit the ways in which we think about and feel the world. Do you feel like you’re up against something similar?
SL: I guess the problem is insincere speech. Life-crushing speech. At least from the language end. I’ve always liked writers who have an ear for all of the subtleties, the particulars of the given cant, the officialese, the business-casual lingo, the business intimate, the intimate casual, all the modes of modern (and unmodern) utterance. I love to read writers who can bend these particulars, spit them back, or knead the feeling back into them. That’s the response, from the perspective of fiction writing. What else? Corporations are part of our current predicament, but every age has a predicament. I’m sorry, I’m not feeling properly apocalyptic today. It’s all going to work out. McJihad is around the corner.
AA: When you’ve received negative reviews, they’ve included lines like, “Lipsyte is the funniest writer out there. He writes the best sentences you’ll ever read. The chapters aren’t bad, either. But, in the end, the story amounts to ech.” If I was one of those critics, how would you answer me?
SL: I don’t know what to say about the critics. Often they are just fellow writers taking a shot at you. I remember Dale Peck wrote that reading my last book made him want to join Al-Qaeda. I thought it was a lovely thing to say. But now it turns out he is an utter coward, because as far as I can tell, he hasn’t. Although how can we know? I haven’t seen his name around lately. He might be running some literary seminars for new inductees. It’s tricky. I have a hard time with critics who have rules about what a novel is and isn’t, what it’s allowed to do and not do. Some of our best critics are also really crabby, narrow-minded, sentimental buffoons.
AA: Like Gary Lutz, George Saunders, Barry Hannah and not a few others, you learned a lot from Gordon Lish. Lish isn’t teaching anymore, I take it, so I don’t think you’d be taking money out of his pocket by telling us about any important things you learned from him.
SL: Lish taught us not to use the words restaurant and splay. That’s about all I’m going to give you for free. He was a great teacher and a major force in my life.
AA: You teach writing at Columbia. Is there anything specific you try to get your students to read?
SL: I tend to like a lot of different writers, from Thomas Bernhard and E.M. Cioran to Christine Schutt and Don DeLillo to Charles Portis and Leonard Michaels. Those names just occur to me because I saw the spines of their books from where I’m sitting and I think they represent a kind of range. What they all share is a certain sentential intensity, maybe, and humor and intelligence.
AA: What can be taught? What can’t?
SL: I’m not certain about any of this anymore. I think maybe you can’t teach touch. You can help people improve their sensitivity to language, but at a certain point it’s about the ear they’ve always had, even if they’ve never really let it do its work before. And you can’t teach people to be fearless (and sometimes shameless), though you can exhort them to be so. Most everything else, it seems to me, benefits from some sort of mentorship or collaborative effort. I do subscribe to the idea that you get what you need much faster with other people around. You’ll reach the same place by yourself, but it will take a lot longer.
AA: I feel the same way about acid trips. Your mother was a novelist and your father’s a sportswriter who also writes fiction. Would you have been a different writer if you hadn’t grown up in a two-writer household?
SL: I wouldn’t have been suckered into the idiotic idea that there was a future to fiction.