Although Deborah Eisenberg is probably best known for her five collections of short fiction—which have earned her six O. Henry Awards, a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and a MacArthur Fellowship, among many other plaudits—she is also a perceptive critic and a frequent contributor to The New York Review. In our August 19 issue, she writes about Afterparties, the debut short story collection by twenty-eight-year-old Anthony Veasna So, a Californian just beginning his own promising writing career before his untimely death last December.
In her review, Eisenberg homes in on the humor, ambivalence, and sensitivity of So’s stories, qualities that have also distinguished her writing since Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986), her first collection. She brings a keen understanding of the life of a writer to Afterparties, noting that while “youth isn’t generally an advantage for fiction writers…people who can write accomplished and interesting fiction at twenty-five are likely to have something to offer at that point in their lives that might not be available to them at fifty, no matter how greatly and in what ways time may amplify their powers.”
We asked Eisenberg over e-mail this week about her life as a writer, the obligations of fiction, and her time working as an assistant for Robert Silvers at The New York Review. Our exchange has been lightly edited for clarity and style.
How did you get your start as a writer? Did you always gravitate toward short stories, or what inspired your interest in that form?
The truth is, I started writing because I stopped smoking and I had to do something. By which I mean that I had to find some serviceable, day-to-day way to make some sense of the big swamp that sloshes around in my head—the swamp that sloshes around in each head from birth. I suppose you could say that’s the basic task of being alive—mapping the stuff inside your head, which itself I suppose is a constantly changing representation of you plus the whole rest of the world, and of how those things fit together.
Everybody’s remaking that map all the time—some people like to do it by conversing, some by going to school, some by constructing digital avatars, some by painting, some by making music, and so on, but smoking is an excellent method. In order to ascertain your spatial relationship to your environment, for example, all you have to do is exhale. In every way, smoking is a demonstration of what everyone now seems to call “agency”—you can choose to light up many, many times over the course of a day, and I did—but you have all those highly addictive narcotics to regulate your behavior and your temperament for you.
I just loved to smoke, and the difficulty of stopping was overwhelming. And by that point—I was thirty—I was also exhausted by years of strenuously refusing to try to write. By then, I had nothing to lose by learning for once and for all that I simply wasn’t going to write well enough. So, you know, I gave up and began to try.
Why short stories? I really don’t know. Maybe it’s at least partly because I’m very slow—I’m a shockingly slow reader, I write extremely slowly, I walk slowly, I think slowly. Much of my reading when I was young was short fiction, because it takes me about as long to read a story as it takes most people to read a novel, and I suppose I developed a taste for the sort of mystery to which concision is especially conducive, and for the athleticism that lacunae ask of the reader.
But I’ve always loved reading novels, too, including some great big, long ones. I don’t really subscribe to the idea of “form” or “genre” in fiction. Some things are long, some things are short. The notion that significant differences in aesthetic objectives or formal properties inhere in different lengths seems to me mainly an academic conceit and convenience. The question of what those differences might be can be fun to consider, but, in my opinion, answers to it aren’t very meaningful. In my opinion, there’s only one mind or another at work in a piece of fiction, and it’s the mind, not the length, that most accounts for the piece’s properties.
As a short story writer yourself, do you find it particularly exciting or challenging to write about other stories?
If you mean, is it particularly exciting or challenging to write about other stories rather than to write about novels: no. It’s exciting and challenging (though exhausting and frustrating) to try to write about any exciting and challenging piece of fiction. I’ve been fortunate to be able to write about fiction that I like, at the very least a lot, and even about fiction that I find electrifying. I’ve never thought of anything I write about a piece of fiction as a review, exactly, and I certainly don’t consider it my mandate to evaluate what I’m writing about. I simply try to think about what the thing is, what it does. That is, I don’t try to assess a piece of fiction according to an external set of criteria—I try to abide by the criteria that the thing sets up within itself.
You refer in your review to the “public and scholarly discourse” that seems to inform Anthony Veasna So’s work. Your work also explores American life and politics; I wonder how you’ve felt that aspect of your writing has changed, or if it has changed, over time, especially these last few years. Has it become more or less challenging, or do you find yourself thinking about and integrating politics into your work differently from how you used to? Or, to put it another way, how ought public and scholarly discourses inform or interact with creative writing?
I have never thought about integrating politics into my writing. I’ve never thought about integrating anything into my writing. Whatever it is that’s in my head during the time I’m writing is what winds up on the paper. There was a time, some decades ago, when I became inescapably aware that my power as a tax-paying and voting US citizen was horrifyingly disproportionate, and that I was the happy beneficiary of a system that, in exchange for its blessings, required of me not much more than ignorance—that I was complicit (to use a deservedly fashionable word) in committing atrocities I knew nothing about against people I knew nothing about. That is, it was hardly news, obviously, but I became familiar with the mechanics. I didn’t think, Oh, that’s something I want to write about. In fact, I didn’t want to write about it. But apparently shame and horror were clogging the exits. So that resulted in my book, Under the 82nd Airborne. Someone once observed that writing is the way I go about thinking, and I believe that’s accurate.
Inevitably, as one gets older and sees more and learns more, the world beyond oneself occupies a greater proportion of one’s mental space, and now I’ve shrunk to a speck in my own mind and the world is an immensity, but I cannot understand a thing about it—not one thing!
You raise the question of responsibility, and one thing I feel very certain about is that writers are under no obligation of any sort in their writing. Writers aren’t obliged to be compassionate or insightful or intelligent or decent human beings in their writing in any way; writers are perfectly free, in their writing, to be scum. That’s one of the great powers of the medium—its unfettered latitude, its unruliness. A piece of fiction can do anything a particular writer wants and can get it to do. Of course, most fiction is inevitably trivial, banal, worthless, boring, or idiotic, and some is evil. But none of it’s going to be much good if all of it has to be worthwhile.
You note, in the beginning of your review, So’s youth at the time of his writing, and that a twenty-five-year-old has something to offer that that same person might not have at fifty. You’ve written several collections over the past few decades: Have you seen your writing change, or noticed that what you have to offer has changed as you’ve gotten older?
When I’ve finished writing something, I seem to have dispatched whatever the stimulus was, and I’ve forgotten it utterly—it’s no longer available to me and it’s no longer of interest to me. So I suppose my writing has changed, but I’m just not in a position to see how it has changed. And as to what I have to offer—I’ve got enough to worry about without worrying about that!
Our readers might not know that you worked here at the Review. Are there things you learned or remember from your time here that you’ve carried with you? Any particular memories you’d like to share?
Mostly, I remember being confused, and also completely miserable. I was one of Bob Silvers’s assistants—the worst, I’m sure, who ever worked for him. There were several of us at any given time. He was horrible to work for, absolutely terrifying. I remember that once Hannah Arendt called and I was so excited I went running through the office corridors shouting, “Hannah Arendt’s on the phone, Hannah Arendt’s on the phone!” And Barbara Epstein said irritably, “Yes, I know. I can hear Bob yelling at her.” I really had no idea how an issue was put together until a number of years later when I filled in for Shelley Wanger for a couple of days. She was one of Bob’s truly excellent assistants [Wanger is now a senior editor at Pantheon and Knopf], and she explained, First, there’s the manuscript; then, the galleys.
I’ve never understood why Bob didn’t fire me—why he didn’t fire me on my first day, when I displayed the full range of my incompetence. The big surprise came many years later—he asked me to write something for the Review. I was shocked! I couldn’t believe it! I couldn’t believe he knew my name! He surely had not when I worked for him. But maybe he didn’t realize I was the same person.
The biggest surprise of all was that he was an angel to write for, truly perfection—so insightful, so appreciative, so entirely engaged. I’m not saying that what I wrote for him was any good, but it was better than the best I could do. That was the effect he had as an editor.