In a Google Doc, novelist Sarah Gerard and poet Ben Fama meet to discuss influence, the vanished boundary between online and offline, and the balance of candor and artificiality in their first books and public personae. Gerard’s Binary Star (Two Dollar Radio), and Fama’s Fantasy (Ugly Duckling Presse), were both published earlier this year.
Ben Fama: Binary Star has gotten a lot of great media attention. How closely are you following reviews and what is your relationship to being a public figure who is having criticism written about your book?
Sarah Gerard: The first thing I’ll say is that I don’t read Goodreads reviews. I haven’t since the beginning because I could tell from the start that they were too subjective to be helpful to me. I’m also skeptical of anyone who takes their own Goodreads reviewing too seriously. I was sitting next to a man on the Q train the other day who started a conversation with me after seeing what book I was reading. He called himself a critic and when I asked him who he reviewed for, he said he only posted reviews on Amazon and Goodreads—to me, this does not constitute criticism. He then went on to say that he was proud of two of his recent reviews, both of debut novels written by women. He had reviewed them both harshly and even went so far as to attend one of the novelists’ events at Housing Works Bookstore, just to hate on her, apparently. I didn’t tell him I was a first-time novelist, myself, but I did try to explain to him how difficult it is to write a book at all, let alone a first book. It didn’t seem to matter to him.
My relationship to being a public figure is dubious. I don’t think of myself that way, but I have noticed that I have less time to myself. The more I talk about Binary Star, the less I feel like it’s mine. It’s its own monster now, with a life that often doesn’t involve me, and which I’m having to keep up with. It’s very easy for a person in this situation to feel spread thin. People notice you when they have never looked at you twice before. I feel a bit uncomfortable with this because it’s unclear whether they’re noticing me for the first time or changing their minds about me; did they think I was someone else before, someone not worth talking to? In which case, are they now deciding I’ve earned their attention?
I say this with some trepidation because people don’t like to hear other people complain about success. Certainly, this is a result that I sought, perhaps without knowing fully what I was seeking—not that I would have done anything differently. This is not to say that I’m not grateful for the attention; much of it has been positive, and for that, I can only say thank you to those generous reviewers. I only mean to say, maybe, that I need a nap, and some privacy. And maybe a genuine hug.
With the release of Fantasy, a collection that deals directly with the creation and fetishization of image, and themes of exposure, how are you anticipating having to parse out your personal and public lives? Was writing the book a way of thinking through some of what may be in store for you? Did you feel both anticipation, or excitement, and apprehension?
BF: Writing is immaterial, it only becomes codified through technology—the book. It is hard to know what you are doing when writing, and putting it together after the fact is equally puzzling, I think. Parsing is the critic’s job, but Amazon and Goodreads are basically consumer review sites where customers exchange advice about investing money in experiences.
Fantasy contains a lot of collaborated and appropriated identities that seem more complicated than merely assumed personae. It is out of my control if a reader wants to elide a detail from the book with my personal life. That would be a mistake but of course it is sure to happen, and I’ve known that all along and played on that theme I suppose.
That story about the “critic” on the Q train is exemplary of that type of misogyny that I see all the time in the lit and art world, and I’m sure you’ve experienced it directly. This type of person who assumes that because the author is female they are not intelligent or need to be further educated. I see my partner, Monica McClure, go through this all the time. I’m sure you have some stories?
SG: I admit, I’m afraid to answer this question honestly because there are potential consequences. But, here goes: Recently, the reviews editor for a well-known online journal asked if he could interview me. We agreed to do the interview over email, and that he would send one question at a time, but he sent me five to begin with (he added that I would notice he was “hardly laconic in his questions”). One of his questions concerned my influences—something that comes up in almost every interview. But instead of asking me who or what they were, he set about naming a series of influences he thought he was smart to identify, and basically asked me to confirm he was correct, which he wasn’t. Not only am I not particularly influenced by any of those writers, but also, the question had been phrased in such a way that left little room for my response, short of saying, “No, I’m not really influenced by them.”
I spent some time feeling embarrassed before realizing the problem wasn’t me; that the question had very little to do with me, and was actually designed to make the interviewer feel satisfied with himself. So, I answered it honestly. I talked about how, historically, the question of influence has been used as a method of erasure, particularly the erasure of women from history. I said, in so many kind words, that my influences were far more widespread than he’d supposed. I was clear, but very nice. I was careful not to condemn him. But of course, he didn’t like my answer. At first, he admitted that the question was about influence and then he tried to say that he didn’t mean to ask me about my influences at all—he meant to ask a different question. He wanted to cut part of my answer—I again felt erased, and said I didn’t want to do that.
Finally, I consented to rewrite part of my answer so it wasn’t so embarrassing for him. He didn’t like my rewrite, either, and shut the whole interview down—another way of silencing me. Then, he took to Twitter and tweeted some nasty things about me without using my name. Later that week, he tweeted something about how “so many debut novelists are getting undeserved praise” or something. Obviously, he was still licking his wounds.
I later learned this person very harshly reviewed (for the site he edits) a book by a friend of mine, a vocal feminist, and has been posting it at the top of the book’s Goodreads feed every couple of months for the last three years. In so many words, he calls her stupid and mentally ill. This same person bills himself as an advocate for women writers, which is especially unsettling.
Fantasy isn’t your first or even your fourth book. Historically, what has been your relationship to criticism as opposed to praise? Has feedback about your work affected your public persona (if you admit to having one) or your writing? How do you recover from negative responses to your work?
BF: Before we get into my sordid publishing history I want to go back to your story and say that sounds like misogynistic cyber-bullying by the boy’s club. I’m really sorry that happened to you. Please, if you want to tell me your influences you can!
But Fantasy is actually my first full-length book to circulate in the trade with any sort of distribution. Mall Witch was only 26 pages, a limited printing of 200 (though it was a self-published artist’s book, so the criteria shifts slightly). The stakes seem higher when you have a small, volunteer team working on behalf of the press who publishes your book, and there is also a significant money investment that is only recouped by the press if your book sells well. Sadly, in the small press world a book of poetry circulates in pretty small numbers, even if it does well.
As far as negative reviews, yeah I’ve gotten some, of course. Just look at this. I haven’t googled myself or anything since Fantasy came out, and I don’t follow analytics on book sales. I’m sure I will in time, but for now it is enough immaterial digital labor to maintain all of the various social media accounts that are required to maintain presence.
SG: Given that social media itself requires a special kind of literacy, and that there is such a subset of critical writing happening on social media—I’m thinking of the continued conversation on conceptual poetry and the use of Facebook and Twitter to build political zeitgeist—do you consider the work you do on social media an extension of your work as a writer? I also wonder (because we’re supposed to be here talking about overexposure), if you think that, in a sense, an image becomes more opaque with exposure, and whether you’ve seen examples of this happening on social media, with the public images intermixing there, like it does with celebrity—something you’ve explored quite a lot in your work.
Lastly: yeah, the guy was totally part of the boy’s club, and for the record, my influences are all over the place, and I am decidedly not arrogant about them. Right now, I’m reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, and it’s giving me lots of ideas for my next novel. So, let’s call Dawkins an influence. The last book I read before this was yours, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Inevitably, your book will also be an influence for me, because it has shown me how to think in new ways. Congrats, Ben!
BF: Thanks! I think identity on the Internet can be a playground, and when people talk about the world they no longer need to qualify it by saying what happens on or offline because that boundary hardly exists. I do spend a lot of time in my work thinking about subjectivity and time and how types of presences are conscripted by our interactions with technologies. If you are already a public person, let’s say you have published a book and people want to engage with you online, there is definitely a literacy or “savvy” needed in order not to be embarrassing or trying. I’m not sure if people still talk about having personal brands (seems so 2011 or something) but it is cute to be able to put up the screens of online identity to obfuscate the more abject truths of the self. I love the allure of that opacity. Also, social media has made becoming invisible almost a matter of having an online life or not.
I want to go back to the idea of oversharing. You wrote an article in The New York Times that made me feel like I got to know you. If I said I felt like I knew you after reading your book, would you think there was validity to that? I don’t want to steer your answer, but I asked this same question to Wayne Koestenbaum and Maggie Nelson about their books during the conversation, and they seemed to say, well no, not really, which surprised me.
SG: It’s an interesting question because there isn’t really a satisfactory answer. In a sense, that’s a goal of every piece of writing, I think, or at least every piece of my own writing—and I should specify that I’m talking here about literary nonfiction. I want to inspire a feeling of candidness, intimacy. The voice I’m writing in is my own. In another sense, by the time a personal essay reaches its audience, it no longer accurately represents who I am currently—I’ve advanced beyond that emotional place, and that psychological arrangement, as a result of writing about it, because another goal of writing a personal essay is to reach a new understanding about a situation. Ideally, the reader no longer knows herself in the same way, either, by the time she finishes reading it. But maybe it can be said that she understands a little better my style of thinking.
There’s another aspect of this question to consider, which is that the piece you read was published in The New York Times, so was shaped by the editorial insight of at least one other person, and at least three other people before it even reached that New York Times editor. In its original form, the first draft phase, it was twice as long and included a second storyline. I removed that second storyline before sending it to the New York Times editor, who then slashed half paragraphs here and there, and rewrote whole sentences. It doesn’t really sound like me anymore, though ostensibly it is my story.
But Binary Star is a novel, so the answer is different. Certain aspects of it are autobiographical, as every fiction writer uses up the self in her writing, but I was drawing from a period of my life that exists in the distant past (this can be said of that New York Times essay, too), which I’ve worked really hard for many years to put behind me, so there’s a lot of dissonance between my personality and the protagonist’s. Not only that, but I also placed her in extreme situations in order to incite specific reactions from her, so her behavior, too, is completely fabricated.
How is the extent of your self-representation different in your work as a poet, given that poetry depends so much on detail? For instance, Fantasy plays with this line between intimacy and image-making; at times I feel very close to you, even though you may only be making some offhand comment about brand preference. I get the sense that you think small details like that can tell you a lot about a person. So, after reading Fantasy, how well do I know you?
BF: I think you are right about the intimacy and image-making. Fantasy takes on the artificial and glossy, detached, maybe even nihilistic tone of commerce and advertising. The tone of the company who wants to be your friend. This is only one aspect of Fantasy and doesn’t account for sites in the book that detail lust and panic and anxiety and debt and troubled futurity. I wanted to outline types of personalities and affects when I chose my particulars. Moet instead of Veuve, Rodarte instead of Jil Sanders. It’s Evelyn Waugh in its caricaturization, but it is also real. It’s not me though.