“The Ecstasy of Influence” collects Jonathan Lethem’s nonfiction, which ruminates on everything from 9/11 and Bob Dylan to sci-fi and comics.
Author of eight novels, including the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning “Motherless Brooklyn,” and his latest, “Chronic City,” Lethem received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2005.
He teaches creative writing at Pomona College, succeeding the late David Foster Wallace.
We spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York.
Lundborg: Do you tell your students that the writer’s life is a good one?
Lethem: The people who caught the disease won’t be dissuaded, as I wouldn’t have been. Others who are just tourists are also enriching themselves.
Lundborg: Calling it a “bubble,” people are questioning the value of a higher education. You dropped out, so what’s your take?
Lethem: I’m like the outdoor cat that saw a little bowl of cream and moved inside.
My perspectives on the academy or the role of a liberal-arts education come from my autodidact’s observations. I’m struck by my students’ intense sincerity about what they’re trying to do.
Lundborg: What have you learned in the classroom?
Lethem: You have to realize that your world is not theirs. I said “Carol Burnett” in class and there was nothing. I realized that’s gone. It’s not as if they haven’t yet discovered her -- they will never know who she is.
Lundborg: You call for: “Literacy in virtual culture, in vernacular and commercial culture, in the culture of music writing and children’s lit., in graffiti and street lore.”
Isn’t that by definition ephemeral and, in fact, passing more and more quickly?
Lethem: Culture is ephemeral.
Lundborg: Some things more than others, surely?
Lethem: We latch on to a few totemic things, and because the entropy of culture is so disturbing, we love to talk about the things that will endure forever.
We’ll keep Shakespeare and Dickens, but at any given time, writers are being discharged from the cultural memory banks at an unbelievably fast rate.
Lundborg: Whose passing do you regret?
Lethem: Marvelous living writers like John Barth and Robert Coover seemed quite unmistakably central to the American literary conversation. They’re still with us and publishing, but you can see the tide taking them away.
I can’t use their names as reference points in conversations with anyone younger than myself. There’s too much culture and it is mostly all going away, to be replaced by other culture.
Lundborg: What’s the point of college courses in, say, hip-hop or TV?
Lethem: The academy is a two-way system. It’s not there only to transmit information, old cultural values, though that’s part of it.
It’s there to pull in what the students already know, what the culture already knows, and relate it to the deep strains of canonical culture.
Who Is Snooki?
Lundborg: In your defense of popular culture, aren’t you pushed to the edge by Snooki of “Jersey Shore” and the Kardashians?
Lethem: It’s not about eradicating value distinctions. In fact, it’s about intensifying value distinctions at the expense of believing that categorical understanding is good enough.
I don’t know who Snooki is because no one whose tastes I care about has ever said, “Actually, you’ve got to check this out.” But I was forced to watch “The Wire” by the hundred people who told me I had to see it.
It’s the power of the response that the art or the culture draws out of you that matters.
Lundborg: You’ve long been an enthusiastic proponent of sci-fi and comics, which seem dominant now. Why has this material moved from geek territory to mainstream?
Lethem: I have no stake in defending lame stuff.
The fact that our culture is in love with the iconography of science fiction and comic books, the superhero, the alien, is in a gross general way a vindication of a form that has been imaginatively vital and kinetic for a very long time.
Lundborg: What are you reading now?
Lethem: I’m rereading a lot for teaching. I read things so devotedly at 16 or 17 that they became part of my DNA, but I knew nothing of the world.
I’ll reread something and think, “What did I even get from this when I was so young?”
But I also want to read something brand new and see what my contemporaries are doing.
Lundborg: You’ve moved to California -- look back on Brooklyn.
Lethem: It’s been made blander, a little more accessible and it’s taken over the world.
For me as a writer, I was reading Henry Miller’s “Black Spring” when I was 15, and thinking of him running around in Williamsburg.
It gave me permission to talk about what I knew, what I felt in my bones about growing up there and being from this very complicated, marvelous place, because other people had laid some tracks for me.
Lundborg: What are your artistic antennae picking up about our time?
Lethem: The central description right now is that we have a post-modern, ironical, jaded culture.
There’s a layer like that, but just beneath it, we live in a deeply reactionary and Victorian time, with unexamined moral assumptions that are very simplistic, antique -- naive, not sophisticated at all.
Beneath all our self-congratulatory tut-tutting about how ironical everything is we fail to notice how often we take the bait of exceedingly lame moral rebuses in our culture, and don’t look too deeply at whom we’re scapegoating or how we’re apportioning moral value.
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(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)