Portrait of the Artist on the Make: A Conversation with Lee Siegel

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SCOTT TIMBERG: Wallace Stevens wrote that “money is a kind of poetry.” And yet there is not, it seems to me, that much American literature, especially these days, that looks explicitly at money and social class. Your sense of family dynamics is very perceptive and often very painful. That is one deep theme in the book. I believe that words should be apt, not beautiful — that they should be transparent, so that the reader looks right through them to what they are referring to. Fame used to be the goal. What memoirs did you use as a model for this one or, in a broader sense, admire and hope yours could end up on the shelf with? LEE SIEGEL: Money is the last taboo in contemporary writing — there is no Fifty Shades of Green. The book is about this search for fulfilling your destiny in your work. In other words, if it had not been economics that brought him down, he would have suffered, but he would have suffered, I think, in a less material way. In my life now, I use my memory of the past as an example of exactly what not to do as a father. Fewer and fewer people are sensitive, or sympathetic, to the consequences of this sea-change. On some level, having struggled with money and social class all my life, I feel closer to black people than to white people. You’ve written about visual art and television, Groucho Marx and the internet, and now your own youthful relationship with money and class. Just despise it. I have a simple, crude, and self-serving idea of why that is the case: the people in our world, from book editors to magazine and newspaper editors to writers, usually hail from pretty pampered backgrounds and live pretty pampered lives. Now it’s wealth and social standing. I try to see all sides of every argument. I think of Hemingway’s dictum: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” But I was also having some fun with the language in this book. A short-lived and not-very-consequential victory, but a victory nevertheless. But writing sheared of all literariness and prettiness is my ideal kind of writing. The economic struggles of the white suburban lower-middle class and middle class, on the other hand, make them uncomfortable. When I published an op-ed in The New York Times about how I walked away from crushing student loans that I couldn’t pay, the most virulent commentary on my piece came from the most privileged liberals — one of them, from a super-wealthy New Orleans family, even suggested that my mistake was to want to go to Columbia rather than accepting my class and attending a trade school. It’s an article of faith among these liberal elites, if you will pardon the loaded term, that they got to where they are all by themselves, and that the meritocracy works — all government has to do is level the playing field. Life does not reward you for being kind and passive, any more than it rewards you these days for clawing your way up without a smile and the appearance of caring, consideration, and virtue. He went to Harvard. Defiance of materialism and the conventional pursuit of money and social status used to be a writer’s, and a young person’s, mother’s milk. I love “reasonably” short. Hate the elegant variation and any kind of prose that draws attention to itself. It’s about finding work that allows your humanity to thrive inside it. The issue of cultural appropriation has become controversial lately, especially after a recent painting of Emmett Till by a white artist at the Whitney Biennial. I think that if I ever continued my memoir, I’d want to get inside that judge’s head. Between the lines of the book is a sense of a young man who’s inspired by aesthetic things and depressed, frustrated, or bored by money, business, and the marketplace. Should I not try to get inside the heads of the black people I meet in my everyday life? I wonder if your ability to understand how family works came from being a father yourself. But they know, deep down, that they will   never have to rub shoulders with the black poor. So I consciously imitate Hemingway’s laconic style to some extent. On the contrary. Did that provide any wisdom or a clarifying frame for your own childhood? I recently asked a black woman who had written a memoir what she thought of white people writing about black people. The more genuine the portrait of economic struggle in their own precincts, the more inauthentic it makes our liberal friends feel, and the sterner their moral judgment. She said, “It’s fine, so long as you don’t try to get inside our heads.” I respect her sentiment, but I don’t agree with it. My poor, gentle, clueless father would have been ground up at any time. Music — especially jazz piano, and later classical — has a constant presence around the edges of the book, as an inspiration for pleasure, contemplation, and human connection. Even artists have to be as carefully careerist as lawyers or bankers. Why should that dynamic not work both ways? I achieve it in the end by writing a memoir. Its themes — mercy over justice, the sad depletion that ensues after fulfilling a fantasy of physical gratification, the peril of grabbing pleasure and postponing the consequences — are indicated in barely perceptible references to works and writers that exemplify those themes: the New Testament, Brecht, Shakespeare, Dante, and so forth. Is a white writer — to stick with my own medium — in trying to inhabit the mind of a black character, creating or distorting truth? Am I not allowed to say that? That is to say, by doing that, I am making my life my work, and my work my life. Now the future is so precarious for many young people that they often don’t have the luxury — or the ordeal — of that type of dissent. When I was younger and a white landlord was suing me for eviction in housing court in Brooklyn — he had abruptly raised the rent to an impossible level — a black male judge bit the head off the two-bit white lawyer representing my landlord, and I stayed in the apartment. Well, I hate literary writing. JULY 7, 2017

LEE SIEGEL IS a widely respected, award-winning literary and cultural critic, who is also, in some circles, a bit notorious. We have an obligation to understand each other, an obligation that becomes all the more pressing the more different from us the people whom we encounter are. I tried to write the kind of book that I could have used as a boy to protect myself from all the forces that stood in the way of my becoming the man who could write this book. I love music, and always have, but music plays such a central role in the book because my father started out as a jazz pianist. Is this part of your approach to prose in general, and do you work hard to make sure your writing feels boiled down and fully finished? What’s next for the writer Lee Siegel? (I myself, politically, am somewhat to the left of Eugene Debs.)
So, in short, our crowd is not interested in books about money and social class unless they’re written by someone who inhabits an alien universe that they can dip into from a safe distance. I have learned a lot more about white people from Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and John Edgar Wideman than I have from most white novelists. My inspiration was the coming-of-age picaresque novels that I read as a boy, books that told stories about people and about the societies they live in: Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Augie March, Invisible Man. If the answer is yes, then as a writer how much more necessary it is for me to do that. I have two book proposals I’m working on — one for a little book about a certain intellectual style, and the other for a bigger book about politics. It has its own definition of success, which is to write a book that is a complete, self-contained universe true only to itself. I am also the “son” trying to rise through my circumstances in this book, and I play with that pun throughout the memoir, and also with the fact that this book about money starts with the moon and ends with the sun — the book, like a coin, has two very different sides, as does my life. Sometimes it seems like his good nature gets in his way. We’ll see what happens. The book is about finding a way in life to fulfill your destiny in your work, rather than having to make money on the one hand, and trying to preserve your humanity on the other. So they talk a lot about identity, which is an easy addition to their moral equity and requires no change to their lives. I think that when a white man explodes in America, it is his response to setback or disappointment. His new book, The Draw: A Memoir, tells the story of youthful struggles with money, which the writer inherited from his ancestors, and Siegel’s fight to become a writer and independent thinker. Famous for a sock-puppet incident a few years ago, and then for writing about the way he walked away from his student loans, the Montclair, New York–based Siegel has taken the blows and kept writing, often on a wide array of topics, including the internet and Groucho Marx. Is this white writer truly apprehending something about being black in America or not? My memoir is meant to be the antithesis of all that. Throughout the book there are several black characters, of varying degrees of centrality. The Draw is reasonably short, and feels very distilled; there are very few wasted words, and a great deal suggested by a simple line or phrase. I grew up with black people, worked alongside them, became friends with them, fell in love with them. If anything, my experiences as a father and a husband have helped illuminate just how dysfunctional so much of my childhood and youth were. Do you suspect this value system is typical for youthful artists and writers throughout time? If someone in some library or bookstore somewhere ever left my book on the same shelf — by accident, needless to say — as those, then I will have fulfilled a childhood dream. The question I pose in the memoir, with its depiction of my father’s economic destruction, is: Would my father’s infirm will and lack of confidence have had a different outcome if money had not been the means by which they produced their effect? This conversation took place over email. I think that when a black man explodes in America, it is his response to years or decades of being black in America. No memoirs at all, actually. I think that in this case the proof is in the work in question. And they know that their children will never have to compete with them for places at elite schools and at elite jobs. Or is this point of view rare, or historically specific? One of the books I loved as a boy and keep referring to in the memoir is, in fact, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. How do you see music’s role in your life? Here is a person who did it all by himself or herself, and is competing in their own world to boot. If the subject is the economic struggle of a white person in their world, then they feel even more uncomfortable. In modern times, anyway. Does it seem this way to you, and why might that be? Might he have fared better in another time? Often they’re downright rich. Should I not try to understand them as African Americans, and also as individuals, period? It’s hard not to wonder what his life would have been like in other centuries or in other economic systems. Do you see both sides of the argument, or do you come down hard on it? Your father comes across in the book as very sweet, poignant, and often outmatched by life. And they talk a lot about leveling the playing field for the black poor. ¤
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. As if anything more or less would defy what is rational and acceptable — which is often the case. I inherited my father’s love for music, as well as his search, which he aborted, for work as a way to live, and living as a way of working. They can go right on lobbying to get into the Century Club, a bastion of the class of white bankers and white corporate lawyers who are making sure the status quo will never change. For my father that was the dream of music as a profession, which he gave up — with disastrous consequences — for real estate, in order to support his family. While much of the book is built of memorable portraits of people he’s known — his grandparents, his parents, his high school friends and college girlfriends — The Draw is also a kind of latter-day Portrait of the Artist   as a Young Man, but with a Mailer-esque pugnacity in place of a Joycean lyricism. To what extent is a white novelist or memoirist surrendering herself or himself to the reality, existential and historical, of the black person or character she or he is trying to represent? Most of human history and prehistory, after all, took place before capitalism and before the use of currency (shells, silver coins, whatever) for exchange. It reminds them of their inherited advantages.