The ProsenPeople

Ben Lerner: Working Against the Image of the Conventional Novel

Tuesday, May 14, 2013 | Permalink
We prompted this year's Sami Rohr Prize awardees to write about "how they came to write their book." Over the next several weeks, we'll share their responses. Today, Ben Lerner discusses his novel Leaving the Atocha Station (Coffee House Press). 

A little more than halfway through my novel, the narrator claims: “I will never write a novel.” It’s only one of many lies the radically unreliable Adam Gordon tells, but, like most of his lies, it contains an element of truth, indicating his resistance to many of the more conventional attributes of the genre: a tendency to reduce the irreducible messiness of experience to a neatly symmetrical plot, the way so many protagonists undergo an unambiguous journey of redemption. Adam Gordon—like me—is largely interested in something else: in depicting the arc and feel of (often neurotic) thinking, the texture of time as it passes in both dramatic and non-dramatic experience, and changes in personality that are too subtle or ambiguous to register in novels concerned with grand transformations. I came to write this novel, then, in part by working against an image of the conventional novel—by writing my resistance to the form into the form, narrating the pitfalls of narrative. Adam Gordon is a young poet abroad trying to figure out if he’s worthy of his art, if his art can endure in an age of mass media and spectacle, and so his coming of age as an artist—or, depending on your reading, his failure to come of age—isn’t just something the prose describes: it’s enacted in the writing itself. 

Increasingly I feel that explanations of how a fiction arises are part of the fiction—that writers necessarily tell themselves a story about the origin of a work because it helps the work get written, or helps integrate it into a narrative that lets them move on to the next book. That said, part of why and how this novel originated feels clear to me. I’d just finished my third book of poems and felt like I’d temporarily exhausted my sense of the poetic line, that I wanted a break from the particular maddening challenges and pleasures of that form. Around the same time, I’d finished a long academic essay on the poems of John Ashbery, a poet who figures prominently in my novel (I stole the title, Leaving the Atocha Station, from one of his poems). Many of the concerns that I’d pursued in my poems and essays—how one makes verbal art with a language saturated by commercialism and militarism, the distance between what a poem aspires to do and what it can actually do, how the flow of time can be captured and intensified in a work of literature, etc.—remained my obsessions. I wanted to take these ideas about poetry and the arts and place them in a life, watch them spread out into a character’s experience, track their effects once they were placed in a particular body, mind, and time. One reason I love the novel—when I love it—as a genre is that it’s so absorptive; it can incorporate poems, the language of criticism, historical events, personal drama, etc. I think Leaving the Atocha Station came into being because at that particular juncture the novel allowed me to assimilate all my different languages and concerns into an overarching form. 

Actually, I’m not sure I think that; I believed it when I wrote it, but now (a few days later), I think even that general description exaggerates the amount of conscious control I have over the direction my writing takes. As many writers would probably tell you, the form and content of an artwork largely have to be discovered in the act of composition; otherwise, what’s the point? Maybe I should just say that one day I started writing—I’m not sure why—sentences whose syntax captured the rhythm of this Adam Gordon character’s thinking. Even when I’d tried to write poems, all I could generate were more of Gordon’s sentences. In some ways he’s an exaggeration of my most unfortunate tendencies, and in other ways he’s entirely strange to me. The book that unfolded was as much an effect of his language controlling me as it was of my controlling his language. Tolstoy once told an acquaintance that he was hurrying home to see what Vronsky would do next, indicating, I think, how much a book develops according to concerns outside of authorial control. I suppose the novel itself is as close as I can get to an account of its genesis, describing, as it ultimately does, a young poet’s futile resistance to a novel’s demand to be written.

Ben Lerner is the author of novel Leaving the Atocha Station and three books of poetry. Lerner has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and the recipient of a 2010-2011 Howard Foundation Fellowship. In 2011 he became the first American to win the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie. He teaches in the writing program at Brooklyn College.

2013 Winner of Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature

Tuesday, April 09, 2013 | Permalink

Francesca Segal, author of The Innocents, just won the 2013 $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature! Ben Lerner, author of Leaving the Atocha Station, was awarded the $25,000 Choice Award. Read more here and click on their images below to read about each finalist:

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...Ben Lerner

Thursday, March 28, 2013 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In our last two installments of "Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist...", Stuart Nadler championed the short story and Shani Boianjiu shared her desire to write forever stories. Today we hear from Ben Lerner, author of the lyrical and thought-provoking debut novel Leaving the Atocha Station. With several awards, three collections of poetry, and a novel under his belt, JBC was thrilled to welcome Ben into the Sami Rohr Prize family. Read an interview with him over at The Believer and his short story "The Golden Vanity" in the The New Yorker. Below, find Ben Lerner on writing as time travel and writing that blurs fiction and reality:

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

I find all writing challenging. I sometimes think that a writer is a person who finds working with language more challenging than the average person does—that it’s less that the writer has a way with words than that the words have a way with the writer. One particular challenge that attends writing fiction: how to avoid reducing the messiness of lived experience to a tidy geometrical plot. I’m interested in fiction that acknowledges the irreducible complexity of reality, not fiction that cleans it up.

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I’m particularly interested in writers and books that blur the boundary between fact and fiction in order to dramatize how inseparable they ultimately are in our lived experience. To choose just one recent inspiration: W.G. Sebald.

Who is your intended audience?

I’m really not sure. I certainly write with the writers I love and respect in mind as possible readers. But one of the most exciting things about writing is the possibility your work will find and connect with someone you could never imagine in advance. I also feel like writing is a kind of time travel—I sometimes feel like I’m addressing the dead, or some imagined future reader, or like I’m a medium through which voices from the past might pass. Maybe that sounds a little crazy or grand, but I believe the language speaks through us as much as we speak through it.

Are you working on anything new right now?

I’m working on a new novel and also on a book of poems. And one of the poems seems to be creeping into the novel.

What are you reading now?

At the moment I’m reading two brilliant books of literary criticism: Writing Against Time (Michael Clune) and Our Aesthetic Categories (Sianne Ngai). I’ve also just reread Keith Waldrop’s quiet masterpiece, his memoir, Light While There Is Light.

Top 5 Favorite Books

I have no idea how to choose! And my favorites are always shifting. Here are five books I love off the top of my head in no particular order: 

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I think I was in Topeka, Kansas. But I don’t really remember a particular moment of decision. Language has always been primary in my experience and writing is a way of wrestling with it.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

I think of writing as always involving failure. But I don’t mean that to be as depressing as it sounds—it’s the result of trying to do something impossible with language. So I guess success for me is writing something that manages to gesture beyond itself, to point towards what I can’t say.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

Besides coffee, I have no reliable prop. One of the best and worst things about writing (at least for me) is that I always feel like I’m starting over. Having written a poem or novel doesn’t teach me how to write the next poem or novel. It’s always about what I can discover in the act of composition, so no amount of planning in advance really helps. This is probably one of the reasons so many writers go crazy.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I hope a reader will find that my narrator’s struggle to figure out the possibility of authentic experience in the arts and beyond captures something about our contemporary structures of feeling and thought. And I hope it’s more entertaining than that sounds. But ultimately I hope readers get something out of the book I didn’t know was there. I like to think the reader is an active participant in the construction of what a poem or novel means—not just a recipient of messages the author has consciously placed there.

Ben Lerner is the author of novel Leaving the Atocha Station and three books of poetry. Lerner has been a finalist for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award, a Fulbright Scholar in Spain, and the recipient of a 2010-2011 Howard Foundation Fellowship. In 2011 he became the first American to win the Preis der Stadt Münster für Internationale Poesie. He teaches in the writing program at Brooklyn College.