Catching Up with Lev Grossman: T.S. Eliot, Explaining Ulysses to Kids, and Plot Perverts
A lot has happened to Lev Grossman since his interview for Omnivoracious in July. His fantasy novel The Magicians has been published to a great deal of praise--including a positive if condescending review in the NYTBR--made bestseller lists, and generated some controversy courtesy of a short essay Grossman wrote for the Wall Street Journal entitled “Good Novels Don’t Have to Be Hard Work.”. In the essay, Grossman discussed the Modernists in the context of contemporary popular fiction, writing in part, “There was a time when difficult literature was exciting. T.S. Eliot once famously read to a whole football stadium full of fans. And it's still exciting--when Eliot does it. But in contemporary writers it has just become a drag. Which is probably why millions of adults are cheating on the literary novel with the young-adult novel, where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed, even encouraged.” These kinds of statements on Grossman’s part generated some blowback from various sources (including, indirectly, some weirdo named Evil Monkey), followed by Grossman addressing the points raised by his critics over at Publishers Weekly’s Genreville.
Case closed, right? Not for us here at Omnivoracious--we thought the whole sequence of events was entirely too serious and needed a more entertaining postscript. Thus, we tracked down Grossman via email and asked him the following questions...
Amazon.com: How would you explain James Joyce's Ulysses to a 12-year-old child? Is there a children's book or YA equivalent you could reference?
Lev Grossman: I guess you could get away with saying that it's a story about an Irish teenager without a real father, who meets a lonely man who's always wanted a son, and they get to be friends. They're kind of like Harry Potter and Sirius Black. Wow, that sounded like the worst after-school special ever.
Amazon.com: What book commonly seen as "difficult" would you recommend to readers as not actually difficult at all?
Grossman: Maybe Kafka's The Metamorphosis. There's no mystery. It's just a story about a guy who turns into a bug. Like Beckett said: no symbols where none intended.
Amazon.com: If restricted to just the books on your Wall Street Journal list--The Golden Compass, Fingersmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, and Zeitoun--which would be the most use to you if lost in the wilderness? Why?
Grossman: I can't actually take any credit/blame for that list. It was written by the crack team of sidebar-writers at the Wall Street Journal. But I think I'd go with Fingersmith. I've never read it, but it would probably burn longest.
Amazon.com: Human civilization falls and you have the opportunity to put one novel into a canister shot into space in the off-chance that aliens will find it and learn something fundamental about us. This one novel must carry the full weight of human experience as a result. Which novel do you choose?
Grossman: I wouldn't choose a novel at all. If I were Chief Canister Technician on this assignment, I would discreetly dump whatever novel they were sticking in there--it'd probably be Of Mice and Men or something else earnest like that--and substitute Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia."
Amazon.com: Okay, culture wars speed round. Ready? T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound?
Grossman: Oh come on. Eliot. Gimme a hard one.
Amazon.com: Eliot or Eudora Welty?
Grossman: Eliot FTW! Because I'm a bad person.
Amazon.com: Eliot or C.S. Lewis?
Grossman: Eliot. Great, I just killed Aslan.
Amazon.com: Eliot or Susanna Clarke?
Amazon.com: Eliot or J.R.R. Tolkien?
Grossman: Eliot. Stop! This isn't even fun anymore.
Amazon.com: Eliot or Cormac McCarthy or Jane Austen?
Grossman: I met McCarthy once, and he wasn't very friendly to me. So he's out. I like Jane Austen for this round. Between her and Eliot, I think they're of comparable importance to the evolution of their respective traditions. But I like novels better.
Amazon.com: Finally, you mention that plot makes perverts of us all in your Wall Street Journal piece. Is there any way to enjoy plot without becoming a pervert?
Grossman: Well, it's a sentence I wrote so I could knock it down. It's not actually plot that makes us perverts, it's our literary culture, which makes us feel ashamed of what we enjoy. So I guess the way to enjoy plot without becoming a pervert is just to enjoy it. Period. And not feel ashamed. Unless you enjoy feeling ashamed. In which case you really are a pervert.