Have you ever felt completely underwhelmed while looking at a painting you know you're supposed to like? Or, moments after reading a famous novel, have you ever closed the book and announced to no one in particular: "Literature is a scam."
If so, then you've got a friend in award-winning author Ben Lerner! That's the kind of stuff he and Seattle fiction writer Jessica Mooney will discuss during the Q&A following his lecture on "the novel as a curatorial form" at the Frye Art Museum tonight at 7:00 p.m.
Taking full advantage of the venue and of Lerner's arts writing career—and also referencing the central preoccupation of Lerner's protagonist in Leaving Atocha Station—Mooney says she'll ask the author a few questions related to "the failure to have a 'profound experience of art.'"
She also plans to ask about the role of "imposters and frauds, and whether he thinks knock-offs and fakes are legitimate forms of art."
Never heard of Lerner? Let me help you catch up real quick.
Lerner started off his literary career writing nerdy books of poetry that were so good you could feel you brain and heart growing as your read them. (See for reference: The Lichtenberg Figures and Angle of Yaw, both from Copper Canyon Press.)
Then he turned his attention to reinventing the American novel. Both Leaving Atocha Station and 10:04 were phenomenal. In those books, Lerner fuses fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to explore contemporary politics, art, the lives of artists, and the shallows and depths of love. His sentences abound with intelligence and humor, and you can expect as much during tonight's lecture at the Frye.
Before he won a Guggenheim and a MacArthur "Genius" grant for his literary work, he was a master debater from Topeka, Kansas. In my favorite essay of his, "Contest of Words," Lerner highlights the sheer physicality and even the spirituality of high school debate, an activity that allowed him more deeply to understand and access the power of language. I want to quote at length here just so you get a sense of Lerner's command of the sentence, his humor, and the tension he creates by using tweedy vocab to discuss the spiritual elements of language—it's like a scientist trying to explain love to another scientist:
If you could walk the halls like an anthropologist or a ghost and peer into the rooms mid-round, competitive interscholastic debate would appear to you not as an academic subject but as a full-bodied glossolalic ritual in which participants teeter on the edge of syncope, reducing what is nominally an exchange of ideas to an athletic display of unreason. Whatever its value to the initiated, whatever its jargon and rules, from the outside debate must appear more cultic ecstasy than 'public speaking.'
And yet what I most want to describe is how in those weird rooms I experienced occasional accesses of power. I might be in Olathe on a December afternoon enumerating in accelerating succession the various ways implementation of my opponent’s health-care plan would lead to holocaust when I would pass a mysterious threshold. I would begin to feel less like I was delivering a speech and more that a speech was delivering me, that the rhythm and intonation of my presentation were beginning to dictate its content, that I no longer had to organize my arguments so much as let them flow through me.
In another essay that's worth your time, Lerner makes a strong argument for why we all hate poetry. My former poetry teacher Mark Halliday offers a strong rebuttal. I'm with Halliday on this one, but I don't like thinking about it and I wish mom and dad had never fought at all.
In any event, no matter how many awards he gets for his nonpoetryfiction, Lerner will always be a poet to me. Here's a stanza from "Didactic Elegy," which was published a while ago by Typo magazine. In the poem, Lerner reckons with the difference between 9/11 as an event and 9/11 as an image and idea used to initiate war.
It is difficult to differentiate between the collapse of the towers
and the image of the towers collapsing.
The influence of images is often stronger than the influence of events,
as the film of Pollock painting is more influential than Pollock’s paintings.
See you at the Frye!