I wanted to be a witty, clever writer of giant books: Andrew Sean Greer
- Pulitzer Prize winner entertained audiences with light banter on stage, interspersed with deep insights into his craft at JLF
- Tragedy is universal for LGBTQ+ people around the world, as are death and suffering, said Greer
If you have a certain vision of a “big writer" being grave and distant, Andrew Sean Greer is likely to disappoint you. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2018 for Less, Greer exudes charm and friendliness. At the Zee Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) 2019, he entertained audiences with light banter on stage, interspersed with deep insights into his craft. He shook a (mean) leg at one of the parties, signed dozens of copies, posed for photographs uncomplainingly. And, in the middle of it, he still found time to sit down with Lounge for a chat about the making of his funny, sad, witty, and heart-warming novel.
For those who haven’t read Less: Arthur Less, the hero, is a writer on the verge of turning 50, single (in fact, cruelly jilted by a much younger love interest), not successful in any conventional sense, who has resolved to drown his sorrows by going to literary festivals all over the world (including India—one in Kerala, to be specific, the only state Greer had visited until this trip). So meeting his creator at JLF was, among other things, all kinds of meta. Edited excerpts from an interview:
Let’s begin with the trope of the lit fest. How do you feel about these events?
To be honest, I haven’t been to many, though I did help organize one in Florence. At their worst, lit fests can seem like exclusive clubs of networking that set up hierarchies of writers. At their best, they can make writers feel celebrated and understood, and readers feel like they are seeing real people.
I’m delighted ‘Less’ won a big prize, in spite of being a comic novel and, further, a comic novel about a gay man, who is usually depicted as a tragic figure in literary fiction.
Tragedy is universal for LGBTQ+ people around the world, as are death and suffering. But I feel the community has had, for a long time, a tactic of being defiantly funny, of having the humour about being treated badly, and using it to try beat it. That humour is also part of being gay. I never liked it when people thought of gay men as being “light" because we are, of course, also thinking about a lot of deep emotions. We have sometimes decided not to show these. These emotions are on tap for me but I’m not giving them to you all the time.
Or you would show those emotions in a comic mode, probably.
Yes. My goal before I knew I had a gay protagonist was to write a book where there was a feeling of joy near the end. It seems such a saccharine thing to want. But I had written five other books that are honest and sad and real. And I thought, okay I know how to do that, but I don’t know how to write joy.
We desperately need joyful literary fiction.
That’s nice to hear. I’ve so many young people come up to me—not just gay people—who are very touched by the idea of a gay love story that does not end in suffering.
And yet it’s not cheesy at all…
I hope so! It was a tough call for me but I tried to humiliate Less enough so that it won’t seem like a romantic comedy at every level. Because I don’t think it is one, though I’m happy for people to enjoy it on those terms.
Was your publisher resistant to the happy ending?
My editor wanted to keep the happy ending but she wanted to remove the narrator as she thought that would be too tricky and I might lose the reader. So I had to work really hard to change the rest of the book so that it fit the ending because the ending was really important to me. My publisher has been great because I told them that I wrote the book following the sense of what I enjoyed writing. I didn’t think anyone would read this book so I did it for my own pleasure.
Were you surprised by the readers’ response?
Yeah. Because it had two waves. One, when Less came out in the US, no one bought the foreign rights. It was out for nine months, not the finalist for any prizes, but I was happy with the response. And then I won the Pulitzer and suddenly it was sold round the world. It makes me feel really vulnerable because so many more people are reading it now than I expected. It is going to get into the hands of people who are not going to like it.
Who are these people?
I don’t know! Maybe people who are having a bad day. I’m starting to get some mean comments, directly written to me on social media, but not very many.
One of Less’ own books doesn’t fly because it is about the sorrows of a white American man—which doesn’t sell. Why do you think your novel about the same subject worked?
From the time I started writing Less, I was already uncomfortable. I had written one book about a white American man set in the 19th century, but I felt the culture has changed so much. I don’t want to read a book by guys like that—especially straight white men, who have dominated the English language as the “great writers" of important books. I thought, of course, I want to write an important book but I don’t want to be that guy. So what do I do? My way through was to make Less gay—there’s not so many of those in the canon—and then to ridicule him, humiliate him, but also to give dignity to his character, I hope.
You made Less the “bad gay" writer uninterested in identity politics.
Most gay men I talk to admit that they think they are bad gay too.
Did you expect criticism?
I thought there would be some but I’m not aware of it. I try not to look at discussions about me online. But I do get the impression that there is a group of gay men that was amazed to see their life written down. And not just men around 50, but those turning 30 or 40 too. They got a sense of how they are supposed to get old, when you’re alone, unloved, looking worse every day, your career isn’t where it’s supposed to be, your girlfriends are married. None of it is adding up, so what are you supposed to do? I didn’t mean to address these questions necessarily, but it was nice to hear that I had.
Let’s talk about mediocrity, especially Less’ struggles, knowing that he isn’t meant to be a great writer.
I was coming to terms with mediocrity and then I won the Pulitzer Prize, so I don’t know what to say about that exactly! My parents were in the sciences and I watched them and their friends go from graduate school into careers. Some of them were stopped for all kinds of reasons, gender mostly, but some because they were not geniuses. They were really good but they weren’t geniuses, so they had to have different careers. You can become an embittered academic and stop other people or a supporter of geniuses, but you have to go on somehow.
Does comedy have a place in the publishing industry’s perception of what a “great novel" should be?
We sometimes forget that even great novelists—Cervantes, Voltaire, Laurence Sterne—wrote comedy. Also, this may sound cheesy, my advice to my students was one that I took to heart with this book: The thing that people tell you is bad in your writing, the bit that you should cut out, is probably the best part of it, and you should commit completely to it, if you can, and persist. I wanted to be a witty, clever writer of giant books and I guess I could have been one. But, at a certain point, I realized I’m sentimental and self-deprecating and rather than have one of those big, confident novels, I did something quite the opposite. When my friends read Less, they cringe not so much because the character is like me, but because the whole book is like me.