SPEAKER 1: This is a production of Cornell University.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Thank you for coming. Everyone knows about my dislike for Ithaca, but I'm very happy to be here today in front of you guys. Of course, tomorrow I'd rather be in Harlem in some jazz club, sitting next to a woman that looks like Tina Turner. But anyway, I am so happy to have John Freeman with me today as well as Ishion.
I first met John around 1999 and I just finished Bodega Dreams. He was an editorial assistant at Hyperion, and the editor was Lee Haber. They didn't take my novel, but I recognized John, and we had a wonderful-- I love John because John is a book person. He is a lover of literature. One of the reasons me and Ishion were so happy that he accepted to come here is because some of our students believe that there's only two ways to love literature. You're either a writer or a scholar, a professor of literature. Or maybe a journalist. John has taken other venues. It's very difficult to pin him down. He's been a critic. He's been an editor. He's been a book reviewer. He's been everything, and he's actually made a pretty nice living and has cut himself a very nice niche in the world of literature as well as in the world of publishing.
And so thank you for coming, John.
JOHN FREEMAN: Thanks for having me.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Right. So now that John is introduced, it's time for the punishment. But I hope you've turned off your cell phones, or at least destroyed them. One or the other. So turn them off.
So Ernesto mentioned that John is an editor. As you know, he recently retired from Granta. And I want to actually begin my first question by asking John if he could talk about-- or do you remember the definitive moment that started your life as an editor?
JOHN FREEMAN: Yeah. It was when they asked me to be an editor. Because until that point, I had not had any editing experience except for editing myself, which is like a close relationship to masturbation but where you never actually ejaculate. And so I never--
ISHION HUTCHINSON: [INAUDIBLE]?
JOHN FREEMAN: Yeah. It was sort of a tantric experience. But in reality, as Ernesto said, I kind of hobgoblined together my life as a book professional. I worked in book publishing. I sort of freelanced for a while. Took a long time to get freelancing because no one, when you're leaving university and you've worked at the school paper, says, please write for me. Basically what they say is, go fuck yourself. I heard that and I thought, well, I actually went to Swarthmore, and they said, where is that? And so basically I had to be relentlessly persistent-- and this is in the days before internet-- and send my reviews out. And after eight years of this, I was writing for 200 newspapers in Australia and Israel and Norway and Argentina, because the only way I could do it to make a living was to be everything, everywhere, all the time, and to write all the time, which was a great experience because it forced me to read books I never would have read and to talk to people I may not have wanted to talk to but found interesting.
And then I wrote about Granta's-- every 10 years, Granta, which, if you don't know about it, is this magazine based in London. It was the student literary magazine of Cambridge University. It started in 1888 or so. It was falling out of print in the 1970s and two American Fulbrights took it and brought it back to life. This is in the great heydays of quarterlies. This is 1979. They took this English literary magazine and decided to make it a quarterly for everybody and give a theme to every issue. And the first theme was new American writing. And the second theme was the death of the English novel. And in England, where they take teasing very nicely, as a sign of affection, they love this. And Granta, over the last 35 years, has probably been one of the best literary magazine in the world.
And every 10 years, they do this Best of Young Novelists series. In 1983, they chose the best British novelists under 40, which included Pat Barker, Kazuo Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain-- this incredible generation of talent. And out of that group came a lot of future Granta contributors, but also a sense that Granta could predict the future. And they can also predict stock markets, which I have used to my evil benefit.
But in real life, they eventually got to doing Americans. And in 1996, the year I was graduating from college, they did a Best Young American list, which chose Jonathan Franzen before The Corrections, and Jeffrey Eugenides before Middlesex, and Edwidge Danticat before lots of books, Lorrie Moore. And to me, that was the guide to future writing. This was how I made the bridge from dead writers I studied in college because I had two to living writers, isn't that a novelty?
And I wrote a story about the 2007 edition of that, the second best young generation-- Best Young American list, which I-- Jonathan Safran Foer and Gary Shteyngart and lots of young writers. And out of that, I met the publishers who hired me.
And so the moment I felt like an editor was the moment that they A, said, will you come do this job? And the second moment was when I found a young writer who no one knew of, who I met at a party but I didn't have a very good impression of her. And then, a month later, I read her piece and found it impressive and kind of amazing. And I told Ishion's class about this, but she was a young Mexican-American whose father had left Mexico because he shot some guys and brought their family to Chicago, where he shot another guy, and had to leave on the run and move back to Mexico. And he was this sort of violent figure in her life. And she was writing a memoir about growing up in the shadow of a very violent man. And she sent me this chapter of the book, which was extraordinary and impressive and beautiful and thoughtful, way beyond what a young writer should be doing. And I had no one to say to me that she was a good writer. There was no book published. There was no one else aside from her teacher. I just had my instinct.
And I decided, in the first issue I edited for Granta, to use her piece as someone to introduce. And Granta's previous introductions include Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, so I was putting my chips on the table. But the moment I chose a piece, that's probably when I really felt like an editor.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Yeah. Due to computer computer error, I wasn't there, right [? in the ?] [? Best Of? ?] But that's OK, John. Don't worry.
JOHN FREEMAN: I wasn't on a jury.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: I wanted to ask you, though. In today's shrinking world of print media-- and even Newsweek now has gone digital-- what would you say to a student that comes to your office and says, I want to get into journalism, or I want to make a living in letters like you have?
JOHN FREEMAN: Good luck.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Good luck.
JOHN FREEMAN: In all seriousness, I think it's a very hard time to be a young writer because of the way that we're selling books now and the way that writers are trafficked has a lot to do with name recognition or the algorithms [? of ?] social media. And if you don't want to spend all your time trying to game Facebook and Google, buying AdWords, and making people notice you on the internet-- which is not necessarily second nature to a writer. To be a writer, you have to spend a lot of time in a room alone with your imagination and weird thoughts and a long time editing that into a sense of coherence. To be the promoter of that-- there are people over time, like Dickens and Allen Ginsberg, who are great self-promoters, but not all writers are great self-promoters. But we live in a world now where that is going to become increasingly important.
On the flip side, because there's this great wide middle that's been sort of driven through publishing, there's also room on the margins because people, I think, get a little tired of what publishing market directs what they think the readers will want. I've sat in editorial meetings and in marketing meetings, and the worst are cover meetings, which, if you want to start trafficking in cliches and the ethnography of what will appeal to people based on where the book is from and who the writer is, that is a fascinating anthropological document.
The best thing to do is to start up your own journal. Start up your own newspaper. The great thing about the web is that they are very little cost. You don't have to buy any paper. Presumably your friends are poor because they've just graduated, too. I've always thought of literary journals and publications as an exercise in community building. You hope, you pray that the people that you publish will have friends and that they will have like-minded opinions about what is good and what is interesting in literature. I mean, this is how The Paris Review developed. This is how Granta developed. This is how all the magazines developed. And I think now more than ever, because the publishing industry is letting us down to some degree, there's room for you to start your own show.
And that's kind of scary because you come from an institution like Cornell, with all these great stone buildings and all this importance, and you go out into the world and you're nothing. People don't even read your resume. And it's scary. It's really frightening. You think, thanks, Mom and Dad, for the $170,000 education investment in me, but now it's kind of worthless in terms of getting the prestigious recognition that you think it might have.
But the best thing to do is to build your own life. And I did it by accident because I failed constantly at various things. I didn't get accepted at The New Yorker when I went to their typing pool. But you've got to think, I didn't go for an editorial assistant job. I went to go be a typist. But they had this like 1954 typewriter with this really steep slope, and they made you retype a page of Naked Lunch, which is like a gesture in craziness. And of course, I failed and I didn't get that job. And I didn't get many of the jobs I wanted in publishing. And so the result was that I had to make my own way because at this point I had to make a living. I had to pay bills and I had to tap dance. The instinct to pay your bills sometimes can be a good thing.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: I think, earlier in class, you spoke about being an autodidact, especially when it comes to your poetry, how you write by reading. But you also once talked about reading as a moral endeavor, and it kind of ties into what you were just saying to an extent. It's something that-- the term I don't completely agree with, as I see it more as an [? immoral ?] activity, kind of going against received notions [? or ?] [? readiness, ?] this open of new ground for a reader. But I am interested in your own reading experience and how that shaped your ambition.
JOHN FREEMAN: Maybe it's better, then, to call it an ethical endeavor. If morals is the received agreement on human behavior and what's right and wrong, ethical is-- can someone in this room just define--
ISHION HUTCHINSON: There are lots of English majors [? in the room. ?]
JOHN FREEMAN: I do believe that putting yourself in the life and mind and experiences of another is a deeply moral act in the sense that you have to take on experiences which are not your own and therefore you understand what it's like to be another. Susan Sontag in On Photography writes about the point at which looking at images numbs us. It becomes something other. And I feel like, where we-- in On Photography, she believed that it was a moral-- not a moral compass, but it was something that could change human behavior. And her later book, [? On ?] [? Photography, ?] she took it back. I think this was after the Balkan War. She said, this doesn't actually change the way people behave. You can show them images of atrocity all day long, but eventually they don't change.
But I think when you can read and unders-- and put yourself in the life of another, it makes it a lot harder to divide the world into nations and other nations, and to people, into brown people and white people, or straight people, gay people, whatever, because that's the way that our life is divided up. And these divisions are played upon by forces that are much bigger than [? those ?] governments, institutions. And literature, if it has any powers is that it reminds us-- and this sounds so cliche, but it reminds us that we're all human, that we're all the same and different. What was your question about being moral?
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Not necessarily being moral, but your answer [INAUDIBLE]. Your reading experience and how it made you into this person you are now, which you've answered to an extent, but as far as career-wise. Here's something else. If I'm right, you grew up around here, right?
JOHN FREEMAN: Yeah. My mother was from Skaneateles and my grandmother lived there when they were growing up and before they moved to Chicago. And my parents lived in Utica, sunny Utica, until about three years ago. Then my dad moved back to Sacramento.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: So in a way, this is kind of a remote area. It's not Chicago or somewhere. It's not cosmopolitan to that extent.
JOHN FREEMAN: Well, I spent most of my time in Sacramento, which, if you want to define anti-cosmopolitanism. It should be in the dictionary as an antonym.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: So was reading a way to escape somewhere?
JOHN FREEMAN: It's a way to escape into something. I think when you're young and reading and the way that books can affect you deeply, I don't think you have quite a sense of how dangerous and profound a vehicle you're dri-- it's like you're driving a 2,000-foot boat with a giant engine because the books that you read-- and change the way you live your life. It can change what you do with your life. And hopefully, over time, that sense remains. I grew up in Sacramento, where we mostly cared about whether the Sacramento Kings won more than 20 games or not, which just tells you exactly how long ago I lived there. And my public high school sucked. I'm sorry. I'm going to use some swear words, but words are words. It's weird that we can see them in a book, but you can't say them because it's not right. And I get the sense that, if I was not careful, I would play in my high school basketball, run track, get an engineering degree at Sac State, and spend the rest of my life occasionally reading a book, seeing movies, have five kids, die of a probably congenital disease. That would be the end of my life. As you can tell, I came from a worst-case-scenario family.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: You made a narrow escape.
JOHN FREEMAN: It's only because of the books I read. It's only because-- otherwise that would have been my life.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: So literature saved your life.
JOHN FREEMAN: Absolutely.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Coming to this book, How to Read a Novelist, which is all these interviews that John has done with all these writers, one that struck me was Paul Theroux. Paul Theroux says-- and I wanted to ask you what was that about-- he says, people don't write about sex anymore. Well, what planet is he in? People don't write about sex? I mean, did you give him a copy of Shades of Grey?
JOHN FREEMAN: No, this-- I should say that this interview was conducted pre- Shades of Grey. And it was when he had written a book about a guy who goes to Ecuador and takes ayahuasca, which is a hallucinogen, which William Burroughs and all these other people took, which, for the purposes of the novel, it induces temporary blindness but total hornality, where all he wants to do is have sex.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: But you're blind.
JOHN FREEMAN: But you're blind.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Sounds like the Greek gods.
JOHN FREEMAN: Yeah. Theroux came from a different era of writing about sex, which is like, you have to be as anatomical and specific as possible, preferably with rolling camera shots. And obviously, sex changes as our behavior changes. I think what he meant, probably, is that the power of sex to shock is not there anymore. And he grew up in an era where you had to buy pornography from illicit storefronts in black bags. And now someone here could be downloading it right now because I'm so boring. And that is a significant change.
And I do find-- when I was at Granta, we made an issue about sex, and it was really hard to fill because writing about sex is often-- it's writing about intimacy, which is difficult as it is. It's hard to storyboard that anyway. And then on top of that, in a world in which we're saturated with pornography, it's hard to write about sex without being realistic because we have all these images in our heads about what sex probably looks like. But novels are not, and fiction is not what life looks like. It's what life feels like. And I think maybe that's what he was also writing about or talking about, when he talked about sex.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: I want to jump quickly to the book as well because I read it in one sitting. It was fascinating. And what I really love is the way in which you manage the tone here, which is often critical but very personal, as well. And I think it's a style that is hard to take do seriously. And I wonder if you could talk a bit about that synthesis. How did you arrive at it? Is it natural? Did it evolve?
JOHN FREEMAN: I should say both of my parents were social workers. An example of one of my high school life dinners was where my mom bought this book called Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. And then we read a chapter every night, and then we discussed it. We had family meetings on Sundays with agendas, which involved things like Tim is stealing my money, Andy doesn't like me. We had a family therapist. And my dad's style for getting information was quite [? counsel-like. ?] He would just bore down on you and ask questions until you gave up the goods. He was not actually a therapist. He became an administrator, of course. My mother was a listener.
And as a result of this, I grew up in an environment in which asking questions and listening to them was important. And I felt, in talking to writers like Nadine Gordimer or Toni Morrison or Salman Rushdie, the last thing that the reader wanted to know about was how I felt as a journalist talking to them. What I wanted to do was to put the reader in the room with them and to set the ball in motion and see what they wanted to talk about once I asked questions to see how they responded. So it's a bit of a false construct because I am there asking the questions, selecting the answers which I found interesting, describing what I describe, but I'm trying to stay as much out of the picture as possible because I think, with a group of writers like the ones I talked to in this book, it would be absurd for me to, I think, push my subjectivity forward.
Which is not to say that new journalism or using the self as a kind of observational wedge into any experience is invalid. For me, it just felt like not the natural thing to do. And because these were all, except for a few of them, appearing in newspapers, I wanted the reader to feel like they were the ones sitting there talking and that's how I wound up with that style.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: I think it reads that way. It reads really good. In your second book-- in your first book, actually. In Shrinking the World, you draw upon research that you did with linguists and philosophers and scientists. You talk about the history of correspondence and what's it doing to us today with email. And it's saying that there's like 3.6 billion users. I was going to ask you. We are very familiar with books that come out every year, the collected letters between, let's say, William Faulkner and his editor, or the collected letters of Jack Kerouac and Joyce Johnson. Are we to expect in the future the collect emails of Don DeLillo and Murakami?
JOHN FREEMAN: What doesn't worry me about that so much as like the collected Facebook posts of Jonathan Lethem.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: That's right. That.
JOHN FREEMAN: Because I'm Facebook friends-- I should've saved this-- but I'm Facebook friends-- and I'm not bragging here; this is just the surreal world I live in-- with Salman Rushdie. And I have the email where it says, Salman Rushdie would like to be your friend. And I thought, this is a really bizarre world. And so I get Facebook post from Salman with pictures and things, and various other writers. Because I was an editor, I'm friends with writers. And it's a very strange thing, this kind of self-exposure which happen-- I mean, I did it this morning. I went for a run. I took a picture of the gorges and I put it on my Facebook page and I was like, Ithaca, woo hoo! And I had 40 people, who I think had connections to Ithaca, commented and liked it. And it's a very strange way of sharing information.
And I think what was great about letters is, because they were written in solitude, and it took time because, even if you were writing on a typewriter, you had to type at a certain speed. You had to go to the post office, mail it, wait for it if someone replies later. There was an implied thoughtfulness to it. And now I feel like, what are we going to have? The collected flame wars of Alain de Botton and other people? I think the speed at which dialogue happens now is ultimately-- there's dialogue and there's dialogue. And what happens on the internet isn't reality. It's like a burlesque show. What happens in the mind, I think, is more important. But eventually, what happens on the internet penetrates and saturates our mind in a way that, I think, is ultimately to the detriment.
Not that I want to kill the internet. I'm not Chuck Palahniuk and want to blow up buildings and start everything over.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: You're not a Luddite?
JOHN FREEMAN: No. I do like my iPhone. I do like using email. I like the fact that Facebook's algorithm is introducing me to people I went to college with again. But I think, ultimately, if we overuse those ways of staying in touch and communicating, we become slightly-- more than slightly-- socially autistic because we're all projecting. We're all forcing our attitude and ideas and likes, and it's like we're all consumers of each other. I like your behavior. No, I don't like it.
Dave Eggers has a really interesting new novel coming out called The Circle, which I just read, which is all about this. But it's also about the way that our sort of culture of striptease, if you could call it that, connects with the culture of surveillance and makes that surveillance a lot easier. Because once you give up all the networked things that we've strapped on for, it's a lot harder to surveil us. As we know, this is actually happening. I'm not paranoid. It's in The New York Times!
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Right. I guess I want to sort briefly go back to editing. There is no-- [? because ?] this book [? is ?] about loving the job so much. What did you hate?
JOHN FREEMAN: What did I hate about the job? I mean, very little, actually. It was a great job. I lived in London. I got to bas-- because Granta is like this velvet hammer. You can break any door open with it pretty much because a lot of people want to be in it. I could ask so many writers, almost anyone except the people who had first-look deals with The New Yorker, which is this deal they sign. They promise everything they write to the New Yorker first and The New Yorker can then turn it down. So I could go to Haruki Murakami and be like, write about hamburger. And if he writes it and then he shows it to The New Yorker and they want it, I don't get it. Let's just say-- I'm really sorry I'm off-color here, but it's like the ultimate editorial cockblocking.
And The New Yorker, because they have this great budget and a million subscribers, can do this. And I ran into this quite often because a lot of the writers that Granta discovered or published early got successful and wanted to be in The New Yorker. And because The New Yorker pays a tiny bit more than us and has this massive circulation-- that is the thing I probably dislike the most was trying to wrestle pieces away from The New Yorker or-- pretty much The New Yorker.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: So it sounds like the Walter White syndrome [? of a ?] sort.
JOHN FREEMAN: Yeah. I did feel like building my own meth empire and funding enough money to be like, I will pay you $6 a word.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: But in a way you sort of did, right?
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Wow.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Because what you-- the you know, how would you assess your time at Granta, what you came and saw and what you know leaving?
JOHN FREEMAN: It's hard-- I don't want to-- it feels strange to say like, I did a great job. But I think what I found was the magazine I started with-- Granta was always kind of transnational. The previous-- there was two very quick editors before me whose failures enabled my own entry into the job. And the only reason why I got the job was I was the next guy in the room. And over time, under Ian Jack, who is Scottish, but, being Scottish, thought a lot about what it meant to be British. The Scots are like the Southerners in America, where they feel like, don't you know we're more American than you? But over time, Granta became more and more British and it, I think, ultimately became narrower. And that was never the remit for Granta. Under its best time, I think Granta was discovering and publishing writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez or the memoirs of Doris Lessing or Coetzee-- lots of writers from around the world. And it didn't look at itself as having to promote British literature.
Because England is a small island, and it has a small island mentality sometimes. When I got there, I felt like the small-island mentality had taken over Granta. And I feel like it was way behind the curve in terms of looking at writers from around the world. And the only way I felt like we could solve that was to expand this very nascent project when I started, which was to have Grantas in other languages. When I started, there was a Granta in Brazil and one in Spain, and they were looked at as poor stepchildren who were allowed to have Granta stickers on their magazines. But the Granta in Spain was publishing Javier Marias and Mario Vargas Llosa and the Brazilian one was doing well. It was [? going ?] really well for Brazil. And so I added 10 more Grantas in the time I was there, in Bulgaria and Japan, China, Israel, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and a bunch of other countries.
And the last issue I worked on officially was the travel issue where writers from those countries were in issue. So we had a piece from the Japanese issue, which allowed us to get Murakami finally again away from The New Yorker, a piece from Miroslav Penkov from Bulgaria, a Chinese writer who was an ex-detective in a provincial area of the country who wrote like a combination of Bolano and Elmore Leonard. He wrote this memoir about the two years he spent visiting dead bodies and trying to find out who killed them. And that, for me, made me happy because I felt like the magazine had this title of Granta, "the magazine of new writing," but to take that seriously I felt like it had to be stereoscopic in its outlook about where good writing was coming from. And with the help of all those foreign editions I think it will be there.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: So you've been a critic. You've been an editor. You've been a reviewer. You've been a journalist. What's next for John Freeman?
JOHN FREEMAN: Well, John Freeman will take the bus from Cornell back to New York tomorrow morning at 5:40. I haven't done--
ISHION HUTCHINSON: John Freeman is being modest because John Freeman is also a poet. And that's something I wanted to ask about, but I cut you off there.
JOHN FREEMAN: No, but before he says this, I want to give you a gift, which is that, if you ever have a boring breakfast date, make a rule that everyone has to speak in the third person because it will completely change. I used to do this when I'd meet my friends in town, and we'd sit there and say, John's going to have to egg white omelette. And Tom would say, John is thinking a little bit too much about what he eats. And John would say, John thinks Tom doesn't come to New York often enough. And it quickly spirals into this weird kind of Sam Sheppard play.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Or a poem. The "give a man a mask and he will tell the truth" idea.
JOHN FREEMAN: Yeah, I agree with that.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: So are you are you working on a collection?
JOHN FREEMAN: Yeah. God, I just thought of a terrible metaphor, but I think yes, I hope so. But you never know with poems because they come out, for me, very infrequently and then by the time they actually are printed, it's almost-- it's not old news, but it feels like this alternate sense of time. And I started writing poems again about five years ago, really embarrassingly, because I had written poems in high school. And I was in college and I didn't get into the poetry workshop in college, which to me definitively said I was a terrible poet. And I stopped sending poems to girls as well, which probably helped me anyway.
And then when I was in my early 30s, I started having coffees with a poet that, actually, one of the other people on the National Book Critics Circle told me about, this guy Lawrence Joseph. And I wish I could do an impression of him here because he's one of the most intense people I've ever met. And it's just a fantastic reader and he's a very, very good point. He wrote a great poem, which you can probably find online, called Sand Nigger. He's Lebanese-American--
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, I read that.
JOHN FREEMAN: --grew up in Detroit. And it's just ferocious. Anyway, he was the person who I feel enormously grateful both for the guy who recommended him to me and then to him because, without that mentorship-- and I didn't even know it was that. I just thought, I'm talking to this guy because he's fantastic and crazy. Eventually, the seriousness of our conversations got to the point where I thought, I should write poems if I'm this serious about talking about them. And I started because, around the same time, there were things in my own life which I didn't know how to deal with except for putting them into some other form. I always think that form-- whatever you write; if it's memoir, fiction, or biography-- is a way to encapsulate things that can't be told straightforwardly or in information.
So I started writing poems, and they were terrible and a few of them were OK. And it's been about five, six years since then. I think I have a manuscript, but I won't know until someone says yes, which probably won't happen for another five years.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: I think it will happen sooner because I'm a big fan of John's poetry. And, in fact, I brought a couple to class today and we had a fascinating talk about one of the poems that really struck home. And it was about addressing John's mom who couldn't speak back because of her illness. It's a very moving poem, and it's tiny and you should look it up. Allowances?
JOHN FREEMAN: Mm.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: In fact, I was going to sort of lean on you to recite it. I know we haven't paid you for that, but--
JOHN FREEMAN: Yeah. Where's my $50? I want my $2.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: But you also interview poets too. I'm wondering if you're working on creating something as lovely as How to Read a--
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: --Novelist.
JOHN FREEMAN: Yeah. Poets, I found, are really hard to talk to. I mean--
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Really?
JOHN FREEMAN: Well, novelists-- the ultimate topic of all poetry is poetry in some ways, even if it's a poem about a dying person. Poetry sets its own rules. And the world outside of poetry, if it breaks into poems itself, it tends to work pretty quickly. If you want any examples of this, just read the 9/11 poems that were commissioned after those terrible attacks.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Because they were commissioned.
JOHN FREEMAN: I know. You can't write poems to commission. Novelists though, because it's a social form and it involves-- the reader of a novel is different from the reader of a poem, I think. And so I have talked to a lot of poets-- John Ashbury, Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney-- and I've thought about making a book called How to Read a Poet, but I still have some gaps in it because I tried to make this book more international because I do believe that it's not only English language writers who have a lock on beauty and importance. And the problem with poets is that not that many of them are translated, and some of the good ones are dead.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Most of.
JOHN FREEMAN: Well, and [? in ?] talking about the ones in translation, we're just getting Zbigniew Herbert's collected long after he's dead. And the same for many other poets. But the next book I'm going to write is a book on American poetry called The Alphabet of American Poetry, and all the essays about American poets. Hopefully I'll finish that next year.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: I think, if Ernesto doesn't have one, I'll ask one final question and then we can invite people to ask questions.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Yeah, sure.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Now you're teaching at Columbia. What are you teaching and is it in creative writing--
JOHN FREEMAN: It's in the school of the arts in the creative writing program. And it's a class on the structure of the novel called "Building Stories." And I'm trying to look at the ways that novels are structured, from all different types-- from Dickens to Chris Ware. I'm trying to look at everything from the serial to modernist writing. I'm just trying to remind the students that you don't all have to write in this quasi-realist, close third person, ironical, contemporary, despecified, AM Homes, Ben Marcus type place. Those people are great at it, but they great at it because they're good at doing something unique. And when I was at Granta, I found I got a lot of submissions that were weirdly devoid of place that act as if Raymond Carver never lived. And I don't believe in a progression of fiction. No, I don't think we've moved from one sort of more perfect method to the next, but I do think that there are a lot of different ways of telling a stories that aren't used anymore. And so suddenly someone like Jonathan Franzen or Eugenides, who are really good modern novelists, re-embrace the 19th century form, and everyone's like, yes! But it's like, have you read George Eliot recently? Jesus Christ. And I just wish more people would look around.
The same thing happens with modernist writing. There was a guy, Salvatore Scibona, who wrote a novel set in Cleveland. Really good novel. And it has these kind of almost stream of consciousness shifts in point of view. Just read To the Lighthouse. I mean, these things are around. They're in the library and they're in your class schedule, but for some reason, people graduate. They sort of move into an internal present tenseness, whereas all methods, I think, apply now. I think that's where we are.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: My last question to you, John-- because I know you love literature. One of the reasons I love talking to you is because you love literature and you're very well-read. But you are also very aware that you have to pay your rent and you have bills to pay. Here is a dilemma. Let's say that you are an editor. You just got promoted as editor. Your job is still on the line. The god of fiction enters your door. One hand, Twilight series. The next hand, the next Fitzgerald. What do you take?
JOHN FREEMAN: Oh, god. I've--
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Fitzgerald's out of print.
JOHN FREEMAN: Definitely the Fitzgerald.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: You would take Fitzgerald? You lose your job, though.
JOHN FREEMAN: I think--
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: [? You're ?] [? going ?] to start selling [? to ?] many, many [? years ?] [? later. ?]
JOHN FREEMAN: I just recently quit my job, [? first ?] [? off, ?] so I may be not the best person to ask.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: That's why I love this guy. See?
JOHN FREEMAN: But I think you are the decisions that you make. You're the choices that you make and the behavior that you have.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Yes.
JOHN FREEMAN: That's the record. We live so much in our heads, but the real record is like, what do you do when you have your life on the line? And I chose writing about books because I like what books had done to me. I like the way that they had taken me somewhere else. And I believe in that. I'm a secular religious person about books.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Yes, [INAUDIBLE].
JOHN FREEMAN: Because I believe they can expand the way that you view the world. And obviously, the Twilight series has made one editor almost tenured. And it's made that writer's agent a house in Antigua. But ultimately, I think, which of the books-- there's art and there's artifact, and you have to choose which one, I think to some degree, that you want to stand behind. And for me, it's always been art. It doesn't necessarily always make you rich, but for me, it gives me a deeper, more complicated sense of pleasure than erotica.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: You should be cloned. OK. So let's take it to the audience. Any questions for John? Yes, Stephanie?
STEPHANIE: [? Hi. ?] How did you fund all those other Grantas [INAUDIBLE]?
JOHN FREEMAN: It was like a franchise. I was just employed by Granta, but the model of that was just like a franchise, where I would basically goes to foreign publishers in other countries where they published a lot of the writers that Granta published and try to explain to them the benefits of having this magazine as part of their list, which they can make, which they could use when they were publishing new writers as a way to debut them. I was surprised, but in Bulgaria, for example, all these journals were-- Bulgaria was one of the pressure valves under the Soviet block there were these journals where you could express yourself freely, but it was mostly opinion. And after the fall of communism, they lost their reason for existence. And so there was no place for Bulgarian writers to publish short stories, really, that people looked to.
And that sounds almost comical. Like, what about young Bulgarian writers? But you could say the same about, what about young Polish poets? The same was true of Norway, where there were literary journals, but none of them published fiction. Sweden, there was like one literary journal. In China, there was one that was a Communist Party journal, of course. And there was another one which had recently been shut down. And there was a new one called Chutzpah!, which went from zero to 35,000 copies in two issues.
And so I made, through Granta, licensing deals, where they would pay a licensing fee to Granta for the right to the name. They would take half of the content from Granta and translate it into Chinese or Japanese or Hebrew or Portuguese or whatever, either paying Granta for the rights to those pieces, or the agents, if the agents controlled the rights. And then they would commission another 50% or 60% in their original language. And so the hope was that it would create a kind of friction between writing from around the world and writing from that language and culture.
And what was great-- at least, that I was happy about-- was by the time I was leaving, the Brazilians were talking to the Swedish, and the Brazilians were talking to the Chinese. Brazilians talk everybody because they're so friendly. And as a result, these writers were getting translated into languages they'd never been translated into. And that has to happen somehow. We were talking at lunch about the different translations of Baudelaire, and how maybe I read Wilbur or whatever. And there were periods where American poets did a lot of translation. The best American poets, not just the poets who had the language skills. And there was this period, I think, between 1950 and that generation that came up in the '20s and '30s, where a lot of them were translators. And fewer and fewer of our contemporaries are translators, and I think we're in a really bad period of translation, especially poetry. And that's a downside. And the only way to counteract that is to be kind of relentless and aggressive. As a result, the Portuguese Granta was a bestseller in Portugal-- in a country in an economic crisis. Wow.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: A journal?
JOHN FREEMAN: Yeah.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: A bestseller? That's [? heavy. ?]
SPEAKER 2: When you were talking about a new almost social autism in heavy communication through social media, Tao Lin's book, Richard Gates came to mind, which is written in g-chat form only. That book is kind of gimmicky, but it's also sort of imposingly lonely and cold. And I wonder, as someone who takes so much from what he reads, you think that's doing to readers and writers? Because he is also being called the new voice of our generation of writing. I guess that's a stupid [? example. ?]
JOHN FREEMAN: No. I've read a few of Tao Lin's books and there are passages of intense boredom, and then there are passages which have that weird sort of spatial emptiness of reality as lives through primarily mediated communication that are just very either accidentally or impressively realistic. And I can't fault him because I think he's just following where he feels the culture is going. It's sort of like blaming Jay McInerney on cocaine use-- cocaine use on him, where I think he had moved to New York at a time when a lot of people in his circles were doing it.
The flip side of that kind of writing and any response to it is like a new earnestness. You know that writing where it's like the writer doesn't trust you to actually feel how intense this experience is and so they go into italics and start telling you how totally awesome California is. I don't even have to name names, but there is a world of that earnestness boring down on you. And that is also, I think, equally valid in what it's trying to do, which is to make you feel and not make you a consumer and make you think and get outside of your computer bubble. But I think, ultimately, the best writing is the ones where it says the most to us about relationships and about, I don't know, I think the decisions in our life that matter. Because even if you're numb, you eventually have to come into some tough decisions or life experiences. And if you can't deal with them, that in and of itself is an intense experience.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: We can take some more. Sally.
SALLY: You had spoken of the difficulty of putting together the Granta's sex issue, so I was wondering what's the best [? sex description ?] you've read and why?
JOHN FREEMAN: Oh, god. That's probably not the best way to begin. That's a good question. There are great ones for different reasons. There are very good ones for different reasons. So there's the scene at the end of On Duty, that Zadie Smith novel, where the couple has spent a lot or part of it apart and are getting back together and they're having-- it's one of the best descriptions I've found of married sex. Which is a different kind of sex than-- we could have a whole separate conversation about that.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: What about this one in Their Eyes Were Watching God? Sex in the hurricane.
JOHN FREEMAN: Sex in the hurricane. That's really good. That's hot.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: There's also one in I think it was Petals of Blood, where the female character's running through the forest and, yeah. It goes on like that until a male character catches up. Sex in the forest.
JOHN FREEMAN: Sex in the forest.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Any more?
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Yeah. Countless.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Might as well.
JOHN FREEMAN: They're not from the obvious people. I find that sometimes-- during the sex issue, we had a few panels. And one of the writers said something very interesting which is he said, with a certain kind of writer, you can often see the moment during the middle of the scene when their brain chemistry changes and they start to write for their own enjoyment and pleasure rather than for the effectiveness of the scene. I do find that sex scenes often feel that way written by male writers over 60.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: You had a question?
SPEAKER 3: Yeah. I was wondering if there are any trends right now in fiction that you really hate.
JOHN FREEMAN: No, because for every trend that you can hate, there's someone who's so great. Like I got a fair amount of very, very short fiction which was in the vein of Lydia Davis. And it made me want to go break Lydia Davis' arm. But Lydia Davis' fiction is so good I think, OK, you can have this one.
I did find that there were a lot of people who, I think, read Tobias Wolff and Raymond Carver, and so we had a special category at Granta. We're like, oh, yeah, it's trailer park goth. We read a surprising number of stories that took place in trailer parks, at the point at which my colleagues would ask me, do all Americans live in trailer parks? And I would says, no, just the writers. I think, to some degree, that was an attempt at intensity and authenticity, like if times are tough, therefore this matters. And we know that it's tough because they live in a trailer park. I don't know. What about you guys?
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: No, I agree with you. I think I asked you about, are writers getting better earlier today. And I think that you can't just measure writers or the books that are coming out right away. It takes time. It takes a good-- [? not even ?] 10, 20 years. I'm talking like 50 years. And the cream does rise to the top most of the time. Not all the time, but most of the time. Lolita, On the Road-- all those books that we read now, they were not bestsellers. Peyton Place actually sold like millions of copies. Who reads Peyton Place today? Very little. And then Kerouac was actually published the same year. So I think the good books rise, but you've got to give it a lot of time. I think good literature is being produced now. We just don't know exactly yet.
Even some of what's called chick lit-- some of that stuff is great. Melissa Bank's Girls' Guide, what's considered chick lit-- I think that's great literature.
JOHN FREEMAN: Yeah, that's good.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: But back then, it was considered chick lit. I don't know if Bridget Jones is going to make it. I don't know. But I think that's bad.
JOHN FREEMAN: Who do you think that we're reading now, that's alive now, will be the surprise Kerouac? Or not Kerouac, but someone who--
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: I don't know if he's here, but I like John Lennon. I think he's very smart. He makes me laugh. And I think no one's reading John. John, it's not you. Not a lot of people are really John. Put it this way. Not a lot of people read John, but hopefully-- and the thing is, he's a machine. He keeps producing. He keeps producing.
And I keep thinking of Richard Russo, which you mentioned earlier. It wasn't until his eighth book, Empire Falls, that he finally got a Pulitzer. I'm hoping the same thing happens to Mr. Lennon. It will be a wonderful thing for it to happen to John. And I'm very happy his parents didn't name him Van Morrison. They named him John Lennon. So this will be great.
JOHN FREEMAN: What do you think about Richard Yates, who was broke broke and out of print?
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Absolutely.
JOHN FREEMAN: And now he's published in like 40 countries. His daughter's making a lot of money. Which is good because--
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: His estate. Yeah.
JOHN FREEMAN: --if you read the biography of him, it's heartbreaking.
ERNESTO QUINONEZ: Yeah. There's a scene where he's drinking-- he was a big alcoholic towards the end. And he was drinking and his dentist told him, you can't drink. Your teeth are gone. You can't drink. And he just couldn't imagine that now he had to go to the bar and take off his teeth so he could drink. Man, that's heavy. Is that my future? OK.
All right. We'll take one last question and I think it's time for din-din.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: I also want to encourage people to go buy the books at [? the end. ?] There's a hand up there.
SPEAKER 4: [INAUDIBLE] how books could change your outlook on your life, and so I was wondering [INAUDIBLE] [? whether ?] books are [INAUDIBLE] figure out what they believe in that they don't [? manage to ?] accomplish?
JOHN FREEMAN: To put it as briefly as possible, I think if you grow up in the United States and you're born American, I think you're raised with a certain belief in that this country is a city on a hill. And in many ways it is. But in many ways the things that we enjoy in this country have been bought by military intervention in many countries around the world-- some of them we forget about. We're constantly finding out that, oh, yes, it's not the best thing to back a dictator in Egypt for 25 years because we created this giant boil. Maybe it's not the best thing to try to have radical capitalists take over Argentina.
And constantly I'm meeting friends from around the world who understand American history and its foreign policy implications better than me because they've lived through what [? it's ?] done to them. And so I don't read to better understand American history, but I do read to understand that over there is not over there anymore. I think it takes a long time to deprogram that instinct, to understand that, if you're in Marrakesh in Morocco, and there are people-- they're just going to their jobs. They're not sitting there thinking about how much they hate Americans or how much they really love Allah. It's just like, life is life wherever it is lived.
And one of the downsides of living here is that the way that we take our media and the [? cunei ?] in our history, which has to do with our foreign policy and what it does on our behalf, means that we often grow up with that view. And I have to admit I did. I remember, during the first intifada, reading the New York Post thinking, why are they blowing up buses in Israel? And that was my first context for the conflict between Israel and Palestine. And I don't think it's something you take sides on, but it is something that I think-- literature restores context to a human level. You don't read to say like, I'm going to correct history by reading Elias Khoury or Ngugi wa Thiong'o. You read them because they restore human context. And they're good storytellers. And I think you can't have one without the other.
You can't just have a project to correct historical record because that is kind of boring. It's like having a court reporter. [? I'm going to ?] correct everything. The best way to do it is by telling stories that are true, which are stories which are lies, which are stories which are true because they are beautiful. That's why I chose the writers in this book, because they were the ones who did that for me.
ISHION HUTCHINSON: Let's give John a big hand.
SPEAKER 1: This has been a production of Cornell University, on the web at cornell.edu.
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John Freeman discussed creative writing and the editing process with Ishion Hutchinson and Ernesto Quiñonez October 2, 2013 as part of the English Department's fall reading series.