The Millions Interview

Joshua Henkin Doesn’t Want You to Make Fiction a Lie: The Millions Interview

By posted at 9:01 am on June 22, 2012 3

covercoverWhen I first read a plot summary of Joshua Henkin’s newest novel, The World Without You, my second thought — after, this sounds like a great story — was: this sounds like women’s fiction! As a woman who writes fiction and bristles against such categories, brandishing the latest VIDA stats to anyone who will listen, I was a bit horrified by my own reaction. If I think like that, how can I expect others not to? I was curious to know what male authors — or one male author, at least — make of such labels. And since I’m lucky enough to know Henkin — an acclaimed short story writer, director of the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College, and author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across The Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book — I decided to ask.

coverAnna Solomon: The catalyst for The World Without You is a public one — journalist Leo Frankel is killed in Iraq — yet the story itself is remarkably private. It takes place in and around the Frankel family’s old summer house, on the one year anniversary of Leo’s death, and for all the outer conflict that drives the plot — Leo’s parents are separating, his three sisters are struggling with their own relationships and marriages, his widow comes bearing her own secret — I think the book’s greatest strength lies in the quiet, patient unspooling of these characters’ inner lives. These categories — public v. private, outer v. inner — how conscious of them were you as you conceived of and wrote this book?

Joshua Henkin: When I write, I’m not conscious of much, as least for the first draft. You need to cede control and see where the book takes you. Flannery O’Connor once said that a fiction writer needs a certain measure of stupidity, and I agree. In terms of public versus private, the characters in The World Without You are deeply engaged with the outside world and with politics, so the public sphere certainly plays a role in the book, but it’s an indirect role, through character, which is how it should be. I’m suspicious of fiction writers who are driven by big ideas. I see it in my graduate students’ stories, and I see it, too, in published work — fiction too obviously driven by grand ideas, where the characters feel like mouthpieces for the writer and the book ends up being a lie. Here, too, I agree with O’Connor, who said that if you want to truck in grand ideas then fiction writing is too humble for you. Go be a sociologist, or a politician, or a rabbi, or a priest. It’s not that there aren’t ideas in good novels, but ideas aren’t principally what a good novel is about. For me, it’s fairly straightforward, though of course very difficult to achieve. I aim to tell a story. I try to plumb the depths of my characters’ inner lives because that’s what good fiction can do in a way that nothing else can. I strive to make characters so real the reader will feel that she knows them as well as or better than she knows the people in her own life. That’s what fiction writing is to me — no more and no less.

AS: I love these Flannery O’Connor quotes. I also experience writing fiction as a very humbling act; it puts what one notices, feels, imagines, above what one knows. So where do you think the “grand idea” impulse comes from? Are the writers you’re talking about truly meant to be sociologists and politicians? Or are they responding to some pressure — an idea they have about what constitutes Literature, or what kind of Literature sells?

JH: I think the issue may be more fundamental than that. A friend of mine wrote her undergraduate psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how kids group objects. The adults group the apple with the banana, whereas the kids group the monkey with the banana. This is another way of saying that children are more natural storytellers than adults are. In fact, I’d go further and say that the process of becoming an adult, of functioning in the adult world, involves having our innate storytelling ability leached out of us. Adults think in terms of category, in terms of concept. In order to buy dessert for my family in the most efficient way possible I need to understand that apples and bananas are generally housed together. But what makes for a good dessert purchaser doesn’t make for a good fiction writer. Adults think in abstractions, and abstractions are the death of a fiction writer. Kids, on the other hand, don’t think in abstractions. Consider a toddler learning to talk. She speaks almost exclusively in concrete nouns and verbs. Although she doesn’t realize it, she’s following Isaac Babel’s dictum to eschew adjectives and adverbs and rely on nouns and verbs. I’m always telling my graduate students to think monkey-banana, not apple-banana — so much so that the last night of class one semester they showed up to workshop wearing t-shirts they had made with a monkey and a banana emblazoned across the front.

Are there people trying to be novelists who are really meant to be sociologists or politicians or theologians? Absolutely. The world is filled with extremely intelligent people who want to be novelists but whose intelligence doesn’t help them in that regard. In fact, it often hurts them. Lionel Trilling, arguably the greatest literary critic of the 20th century, famously wanted to be a novelist, but he just wasn’t good at it. This is not to say that there aren’t good critics who are also good novelists, nor is it to say that critical skills don’t help a writer (I think they’re very important for revision), but the two skill sets are quite different and there are many absolutely brilliant people who wouldn’t begin to know how to write a novel.

I do think we’ve been living in a time when certain kinds of “big-idea” writing are in vogue. When I was starting to write fiction, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, traditional realist fiction reigned. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff — those were the writers who were hugely influential for my graduate school classmates and me. Ten years later the pendulum swung, and now it may be swinging back. That’s just how it is. Fashions come and fashions go, but what doesn’t change is good writing.

I think there’s also something psychologically complicated at work here, which has to do with the anxiety of influence. Someone once said that there are only two kinds of stories, Stranger Comes to Town and Person Goes on a Trip — which is really just one kind of story, since Stranger Comes to Town is simply Person Goes on a Trip from a different point of view. I don’t find this particularly perturbing. Yes, every story has been told, but it’s the way of telling — the how — that makes every writer unique, and if you have a distinct voice, if there’s emotional truth to your characters, if you use language in service of this voice and these characters, then your book will be distinct. I mean, look at the world around us. We don’t say, Why fall in love, why have a job, that’s been done already by billions of people. We don’t not get married just because everyone’s been doing that forever. But I think this feeling that every story has been told does concern a lot of writers, often to their detriment. They’re insufficiently confident that the story they’re telling is worth telling, and so they dress it up with a lot of grandiosity and big ideas; they deck it out in pyrotechnics. You read a lot of novels that smack of, I’m John, hear me roar, I’m Jane, hear me roar. Reading these writers, I find myself thinking, Would you please just chill? There’s an underconfidence at work that comes in the guise of overconfidence. Whatever it is, it does bad things to the fiction — it makes it a lie.

coverOne of the paradoxes is that novels that try to be big often end up being small, whereas novels that, on the surface, seem more curtailed in their ambitions, end up being bigger. Take Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which to my mind is one of the great novels of the last 30 years. Now, you could say that the book is about the Vietnam War, and I suppose on some level it is, but you can be sure that O’Brien didn’t sit down to write a book about the Vietnam War. He sat down to write a book about his characters, and the war filtered in because that’s who his characters are — they’re soldiers, grunts. And because his characters are so real, so complex, so true, because the language, while never showing off, is so lovely, O’Brien touches our souls and we have a much richer and deeper sense of the war than we would if he were making big pronouncements. Good fiction is fundamentally about the particular, not about the general. Put another way, it is through the particular that the novelist gets at the general. In other words, if you do the particular sufficiently well, the book will feel general in the best sense — that is, universal.

AS: Big/small, abstract/concrete, public/private — these terms are often correlated with the masculine/feminine dichotomy, too. I’m curious what role gender played as you wrote The World Without You. Not on a “grand idea” level but in the particular choices you made about character and point-of-view. Of the six main characters in the book (I’m defining “main” as those whose points-of-view you regularly visit) five are female, while only one — the father — is male. Do you remember how you decided on this cast of characters? Were you at all wary, as a male writer, of writing a novel that not only could be described as “domestic,” but that’s dominated by women, too?

JH: I’m afraid this answer may not be very satisfying, but I really don’t think about such things. My characters simply come to me as they are. Their gender, their dispositions, their hair color, their allergies, do they sleep on their backs or their stomachs or their sides — it’s all extremely important, but none of it is a conscious decision. I follow my characters to where they take me. I’m not saying gender isn’t important. I come from a family of three boys, and now I’m a father of two girls, so I think about gender a lot. But it’s not like I sat down to write about a family of women any more than I sat down to write about a family of redheads, which is something else the Frankels are.

covercoverWary? Wary of what? Of being a man writing from a female point of view? Flaubert did it pretty well if you ask me. And women write successfully from a male point of view all the time. If you don’t want to descend into solipsism, you’re always going to write about people different from yourself. Shy people write about gregarious people, young people write about old people. Why should gender be any different? Wary of writing domestic drama? What’s Madame Bovary if not domestic drama? What’s Anna Karenina, ultimately? I’ll probably get some disagreement here, but I think “The Dead” is Joyce’s greatest work. Whether or not it is, it’s important to remember that the same person who wrote Ulysses also wrote Dubliners. Much of the world’s greatest literature (most of it, I would argue) is domestic drama. It makes sense. We are born into families, and the majority of us eventually start families of our own. We live public lives, certainly, but for most of us our private lives are what make us who we are, and it’s the plumbing of these private lives, the exploration of what’s internal, that fiction is uniquely suited to do. It’s what makes it sui generis.

covercoverAS: I ask if you’re wary because I think a lot of women writers today are wary of writing books that can easily be summed up — perhaps dismissed — as domestic drama. If not wary, then aware. Maybe not as they write but certainly as they work toward publication and watch how their book is presented to the world and received. In a recent New York Times essay, Meg Wolitzer asks if Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest, The Marriage Plot, if written by a woman, “would…have been relegated to ‘Women’s Fiction,’ that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?” So maybe I should be asking you this: after all the writing and revising, did you consider how your book might be categorized, packaged, marketed? Did the term “Women’s Fiction” ever cross your mind?

JH: That’s a reasonable question, and in my case it’s not an academic one. My last novel was called Matrimony, and title aside, it had some significant similarities to Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. It’s about a love triangle, much of it takes place on college campuses, and it’s a domestic drama. One key difference was that I was relatively unknown at the time of its publication (I’d published just one novel at the time, 10 years before), so I didn’t have Eugenides’s reputation to protect me. But the book was treated seriously by the literary world. Would that have been the case if I’d been a woman? I hope so, but you never know. Might it have been consigned to “women’s fiction”? I suppose it’s possible. On the other hand, I was published by Pantheon, a very literary house, and that would have given me some protection, just as FSG’s name protects Eugenides.

coverWould The Marriage Plot have been consigned to “women’s fiction” if it had been written by a woman? It depends on the woman. If Lorrie Moore had written it, she would have been taken as seriously as Eugenides is. The same goes for Alice Munro, who writes nothing but domestic fiction and is considered by some of the people I respect most to be the best living writer in English. Look at the titles of Munro’s books. Lives of Girls and WomenThe Progress of LoveThe Love of a Good WomanHateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage This is not exactly Infinite Jest. And if you look at the paperback covers for Munro’s The View from Castle Rock and Runaway, it appears as if they’re being marketed as “women’s fiction” (whatever else, “women’s fiction” sells more than literary fiction), and none of this has hurt Munro in the slightest. On the other hand, she’s Munro, and she’s developed a reputation over many years.

What I’d say is this. There are a number of things that can protect a writer. If you’re already established in the literary world, that helps a lot. If you write short stories, that helps, too, because short stories tend to be the territory of literary fiction. If you teach in or are otherwise associated with a good MFA program, that’s also helpful. And if you have an edgier sensibility (here Lorrie Moore is a good example), that, too, is protective.

Are there female writers of domestic fiction who would never get consigned to the “women’s fiction” shelf? Absolutely. Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer for a book of domestic fiction, as did Jhumpa Lahiri, Carol Shields, Jane Smiley,and Anne Tyler. Julia Glass and Alice McDermott won the National Book Award. And just to be clear, there’s plenty of domestic fiction written by women that just isn’t any good. There are women writing novels that have scant literary merit just as there are men writing novels that have scant literary merit. Neither gender has a monopoly on good or bad writing.

But is the bar set higher for women? I believe it is. In fact, it would be strange if it weren’t.  There are biases, conscious and unconscious, against women doctors, lawyers, scientists, and CEOs; why wouldn’t it also be true for writers? We’ve come a long way since George Eliot had to call herself George Eliot, but you’d have to be blind to think we live in an equal world.

AS: One complaint from women writers (and I’m talking about writers of literary fiction, not schlock) is that while women readers are interested in reading about men’s lives, men aren’t as interested in reading about women’s lives. Do you think men will be as drawn to your book as women are? Should they be? What about for you, as a reader? Do you ever find yourself (consciously or not) choosing which books you want to read based on whether their protagonists are male or female?

JH: Every writer wants as many readers as possible, so of course I hope that men will read my novel as much as women do. But the fact is — and this has nothing to do with my book — women are much bigger readers of literary fiction than men are. Any publisher will tell you that. There’s even a reference to this in The World Without You. David, more of a fiction reader than most men (he recently retired as a high school English teacher), nonetheless is reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and when Noelle comes into the room and catches him he says, self-derisively, “…women read fiction and men read biographies of Civil War heroes.”  As for which books I choose to read, I don’t think I have the tendency you’re referring to, though it’s hard for me, of course, to know what I do subconsciously. But I just looked over the novels and stories I’ve read recently, and I don’t see a bias toward fiction with male protagonists. I’d also say that, as someone who reads 500 MFA applications a year, I find the women are generally better than the men. That’s a huge generalization, of course, and there are certainly exceptions, but when someone on the committee once said said, “Jesus, we’re going to have to institute some affirmative action for these men,” I understood what they were saying.

 AS: You mention covers — let’s talk about covers. It doesn’t take long to see that a lot of fiction by women is adorned with a nameless girl or woman. She’s headless, or we see her from the back, staring off at a house or the ocean or (gasp) the endless prairie. The picture overwhelms the title, certainly the author’s name. You mentioned to me a while back that your publisher tried about 30 covers for The World Without You before settling on the final one — black, with big serif font letters. Can you tell me a bit about some of those other covers, and what factors you think went into picking the final one?

JH: Everyone tells you not to judge a book by its cover, but the fact is the cover is the first thing a potential reader sees, so it’s tremendously important, and now, because books are so often bought online, the cover has to work online too. I can’t say enough good things about the art department at Pantheon. They came up with many, many possibilities, most of which I didn’t even see (my editor only passed on the ones that seemed possible), and although some of them were clearly wrong for the book, they were all incredibly well done and looked very professional. Toward the end of the process we were focused on a very type-driven cover, with both my name and the name of the book in bold. There was a cover whose type both my editor and I loved, and there was something beautiful about the image too — it was a watercolor painting on a matte background, but the image was of a bare tree, which felt too forlorn even for a book about someone who has died, and the book takes place over the summer and the image screamed fall or winter. My agent and I liked the idea of fireworks — both because the book takes place over July 4th and because fireworks evoke, among other things, violence and explosions, which is how Leo was killed. So the artist went back and did a fireworks image with the type that we loved, and while this image, too, was beautiful, it didn’t seem sufficiently clear that it was fireworks. I mean, it could have been fireworks, but it just as easily could have been flowers or a Jack-in-the-box popping out or a really interesting acid trip. So the art department went back and tried to get the artist to make the image be more clearly fireworks, but it didn’t work out in the end, and so they scrapped the oil painting idea and went with a photograph of fireworks against a black background. It took a long time to get there, but it was the right cover for the book — I’m thrilled with it.

AS: The World Without You is your third novel. As you kick off your tour, how are the highs and lows of your previous launches figuring into your approach now? What has all this book-wrangling taught you, or is it like starting from scratch each time?

JH: This is my third tour, and I’m keenly aware that with rare exceptions book tours are a thing of the past, so I’m grateful for the faith my publisher has placed in me. Anyone who thinks that a book tour is the literary equivalent of a rock tour doesn’t have a clue. That’s so 1989, and it wasn’t even true in 1989. It’s never been — and certainly isn’t now — roll out the expense account and invite your friends out for sushi and cocaine. It’s a job and I’m keenly aware of it as one. My goal is to spend my time and my publisher’s money wisely. In most ways it’s gotten harder—there are fewer local media outlets for fiction, less local radio, fewer book review pages.  On the other hand, since Matrimony did pretty well I’m positioned better than I was last time.  But you never know what will happen. You write your book, then you go out into the world and try to help it however you can, and then you go back home and start your next one.

Image Credit: Flickr/Tilemahos Efthimiadis





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3 Responses to “Joshua Henkin Doesn’t Want You to Make Fiction a Lie: The Millions Interview”

  1. Shelley
    at 10:58 am on June 22, 2012

    Fascinating interview.

    I think Dickens writes about grand ideas.

    He just does it well.

  2. BillyBean
    at 9:18 pm on June 22, 2012

    O’Connor wrote about grand ideas. In fact, she was very obviously driven by Catholicism, which is a “grand idea.” Re-read “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” The Misfit—while a self-contained character within the story, and while he certainly “feels” real—is a mouthpiece for nihilism, existentialiasm, and the like. O’Connor was well-read in philosophy.

    Understand what Joshua’s saying, but I think this could be misconstrued (or perhaps construed) as an excuse for mediocrity. “I’m just telling stories. This is how people feeeeel.” In short: who cares?

  3. light night
    at 7:33 pm on December 11, 2012

    […] Joshua Henkin […]

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