Jonathan Lethem isn't just your everyday award-winning novelist. Yes, Motherless Brooklyn, his homage to the classic detective novel, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. And yes, actor Ed Norton is in the process of turning it into a movie. And yes, The New York Times has dubbed him a "hipster celebrity." But Lethem, who originally studied painting, has hardly rested on his laurels since Brooklyn's publication in 1999.
Since that time, he's edited a volume of the annual Da Capo Best Music Writing series, interviewed the mercurial Bob Dylan for Rolling Stone and published The Disappointment Artist, his first collection of non-fiction essays. He's actually become a renowned essayist, recently penning a New York Times op-ed piece about how The Dark Knight ultimately has a conservative agenda.
"I spend the lion's share of my time writing novels," Lethem says via cell phone from the NYU campus, where he's teaching a graduate writing workshop for the semester. "That's really my calling."
Lethem, who published his first book in 1994, originally stuck to fiction. When he finally segued into non-fiction, he took a similar approach. "I didn't come to writing fiction the way some people do from having been a journalist or having written a memoir," he says, referring to his background as a visual artist. "The non-fiction voice was at first not interesting to me, and then I started reading Vivian Gornick and David Shields and others like that and thought, 'There's something here I might be able to do.' It was a very tentative gesture for me. I was grounded in fiction making. In many ways, I approach essays or opportunities to review things as a story maker. Inventing the voice is the first thing I have to do. I start by creating a character called Jonathan Lethem who's going to tell you something. I have to operate that way because I don't know any other way at it."
One of the topics that's fascinated him lately is plagiarism. While he doesn't see his own work as pure imitation, he does see it as the byproduct of absorbing so much material that was itself referential.
"The preeminent American artists when I was going to museums and galleries were Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rauschenberg," he says. "Then it was Peter Saul and all sorts of people who were grabbing onto stuff. It was second nature. I thought this is what engaging with culture consists of. I credit a lot of it to Warner Bros. cartoons and watching Daffy Duck do Edward G. Robinson before I even knew who Edward G. Robinson was. I had this voice in my head and was always encountering culture backwards, meeting half-digested chunks of interesting material inside of other artwork. That seemed exuberant to me."
Bomb magazine editor Betsy Sussler will moderate Lethem's talk at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he appears as part of its ongoing 2008 Kacalieff Lecture Series dubbed "Tomorrrow, Tomorrow, Tomorrow." Lethem says he plans to do some lecturing, but he's also interested in hearing what other people are thinking about.
"What I imagine I'll do will be a little bit of reading and extemporaneous talk and then open things up to people's questions," he says. "What I'm often most interested in myself is a responsive dialogue. In a context like the visit to Cleveland, people may be thinking of matters that are going to be interesting to me. My own writing has touched so many spaces at different times, I don't want to presume I'm the only interesting subject matter."
Hmmm. That doesn't sound much like the guy who's been dubbed a "hipster celebrity."
"I guess that means someone's kid likes me," Lethem says of the appellation. "It's probably someone's kid that the parents thought didn't like books. That's fine. You just want people to come to the work somehow, and that's not too off-putting. The duties of a hipster celebrity are fortunately not too onerous. I get to make the work, and other people get to call me names."