Dear Keith

Anonymous's picture

My first question: On the show you said "most of the stuff in the book never happened, although most of the people in the book exist. So, it's fictional things that happen to non-fictional people."And, somewhat dramatically, you told us that one of the women who recognized herself while reading draft of the book told you "this book will ruin your life." Now that the book has been out for almost one month, can you say whether or not she was right? Has the book ruined your life?


Second questionYou identify yourself with a character in the book who is a socialist.  To the extent that you would identify yourself as such in life, what is it like to be a socialist, and an intellectual, living in New York in what the New York Times – has christened “The New Gilded Age?” 

KeithGessen's picture

1. No, not really. But it is

1. No, not really. But it is dislocating. You do a lot of stuff to try to get the book out to as big an audience as could conceivably appreciate it--in a way that's an obligation, to do that, I think, especially with a book like this. You want to get the book out of New York. But the cost of that is pretty high, or it can be. I was in the Times' Sunday Styles section, for example--which was great, in a way, because it turns out a lot more people read Sunday Styles than read the Book Review. At the same time this is really no place for a writer to be, and immediately I think it's assumed that you're an asshole. Which is generally true: a lot of the people we get fed by the culture industry are in fact assholes. It's just harder when you're the asshole. Or I am, rather.

But: The book's in libraries. And it's an honest book, or as honest a book as I could write at that time. So it's got that going for it.

KeithGessen's picture

2.  Well it's over now.

2.  Well it's over now. What's the age after the Gilded Age? The Progressive Age, I guess. Let's hope that's where we're heading.But if you mean what was it like before subprime took the wind out of the sail of some of these folks? I think the book does an ok job of describing what this has been like over the past decade--the worry over money is a constant kind of background drumbeat for all these guys. There's a line in Orwell's novel about a young writer, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, where he begins composing a poem in his head and then stops to count the change in his pocket and thinks something like, "It was impossible to be a writer with threepence in your pocket. How could you concentrate?" Or something to that effect--I'm not sure how much threepence is. The point being that when you're worried about money it's hard to think about other things. Although in my own case I had to stop doing all my freelance work and actually run out of money in order to force myself to finish this book---so money pressure can also be a good thing in the very short term. In the long term it's terrible; it grinds you down.

In terms of one's relation to society at large, moneyed New York in particular: Well, one of the things about New York is that there's always a fairly large group of people on its peripheries who don't have money and who don't disapprove of the things you have to do when you don't have money, like have roommates, for example, and throw parties in apartments instead of, say, hotel bars. There's been some guff recently about "Brooklyn writers," as if people purposefully moved out to Brooklyn like it was Brook Farm. No writer I know *wants* to live in Brooklyn or Queens. We all *want* to live in Manhattan. But we got pushed out.

And, to return sort of to your question, do we want the system propping up Manhattan real estate prices and energy consumption and everything else to collapse, so we can move back in? Well, the truth is, as my one of my n+1 co-editors Chad Harbach is always reminding me, it will anyway. The fact that the water keeps coming out of the faucets is a miracle, and not one that's going to last much longer when we run out of oil and the Chinese pull the plug on the dollar. And the further truth is that we, who are living on the peripheries of this system, on fairly thin margins, are also at the mercy of this system. We depend on it for temp work, restaurant work, freelance work, and ultimately publishing contracts. It would be dishonest to pretend otherwise; if the system collapses and the bankers and lawyers all have to leave Manhattan, it's not like we're going to be the ones who get to move in. Now Lenin would say, The worse, the better--that is, the worse it gets for capitalism, the more likely it'll be that we'll have a socialist revolution. And in a way that's true even in America. But there's also a kind of sneaky orthodox Marxist argument that says you really need to have full-fledged burgeoning total capitalism before you can really think about seizing the means of production, which means that you're supposed to root for capitalism until the very last moment. This is a simplification. I guess what I'm saying is, Yes I think the system needs to collapse, and it may actually be doing that right now, but I'm not going to rub my hands in socialist glee over it or anything.

Paul's picture

Thanks for this extended

Thanks for this extended comment. I am always surprised that, when one reads the media, one would think that the ideas of fundamental and critical positions are passe. Thoughts that come from the Marxist traditions, though clearly shared beyond those political circles, are avoided, mocked or labeled 'radical' (naturally, in a dismissive way). Your book and your comment clearly position you in the strong and surviving tradition of left intellectuals who see culture and political economy as mutually clarifying terms, rather than terms to be employed different days of the week (the former perhaps at the Hamptons on the weekend, the latter on Wall Street)!

So, are there specific aspects of the left literary tradition that you have found particularly useful? How do you see your work in relation to these authors?


Daniel Menaker's picture

Keith--It was a pleasure

Keith--It was a pleasure having you on the program. Thanks for agreeing to appear. One question I didn't get to ask you: The title of your book, ALL THE SAD YOUNG LITERARY MEN, is clearly "after" Fitzgerald's ALL THE SAD YOUNG MEN. Is his work a great influence on yours, and if there was a competitive American literary "ladder," as for sports like tennis and squash, at what level would you place this writer?
Also, isn't the point of your book that the atavistic recalcitrance of individual human emotion--in the novel's case, love and romance--will inevitably defeat the general political and economic progress you discuss in answer to one of Gregory Knapp's questions?

GK's picture

G.K. Kalyanaram Hello Keith

G.K. Kalyanaram

Hello Keith --

I am following Greg, and placing two different questions.

(1) Why did you need "real" people for "non-real" events? You could have as well imagined/invented/dreamed the people as easily as the events themselves. How did real people help you in developing the fictional narrative?

(2) Why do you think that Pushkin has not achieved the kind of recognition that Tolstoy has achieved? Is it because readers (as a generalization) love fiction/non-fiction (prose) more than poetry? Would you agree that reaching an audience through prose is more successful than through poetry?

Thanks and greetings.


JMW's picture

Keith, Given your interest


Given your interest in political life and your nonfiction work outside the novel -- for n+1, The New Yorker, and others -- I'm curious about how much time you see yourself devoting to fiction in the future. To put it another way, do you find it more satisfying to explore the real-life issues that interest you through fiction, or do you expect to write more nonfiction books as time goes on?

Kevin Longrie's picture

I believe it was Marianne

I believe it was Marianne Moore that said 'Whatever it is, let it be without affectation." With this in mind, do you think there is a disconnect for any of the characters in your novel between what they are and what they're trying to be? In what way are they the new "New York Intellectuals" and in what way are they trying to be? In your prologue, somewhat similarly, you write:

"What if it was happening, in New York, not a few blocks from them, what if they knew someone to whom it was happening, or who was making it happen--what if they were blind to it? What if it wasn't them?"

Do you feel it is them, or just that they want it to be?

Kevin Longrie

P.S. How difficult would you say it is for an English/French double major graduating in two years to get an internship at n+1?

Kevin Longrie's picture

Follow-up Question: Edward

Follow-up Question: Edward Hirsch spoke, in the fourth episode of Titlepage, about the neccecity of a poet to read other poetry. Was there anything you pulled off the shelves and reread when beginning or working through this book that you found particularly useful? I suppose another way of asking this question is does this book, do you, have a literary muse?

Jon Tabor's picture

Keith: I read the article


I read the article about you in the Times Sunday Styles section. I know it’s a great opportunity for you to reach a larger audience, but it does seem rather strange that you, and other serious writers -- Samantha Power is an example -- have recently been profiled in the Sunday Style Section.

In Power’s case, she has won a Pulitzer, was an important advisor to Obama, and the Times talked mostly about her new boyfriend.

Any thoughts why the Times is covering serious writers like yourself and Power in the Styles section? Might the gossipy orientation of this section potentially distract (or even deflate) the genuinely inquisitive reader from the substance of a serious writer’s work?

Thanks so much for your participation in this forum, by the way. Such a generous and excellent opportunity you have provided your readers!


KeithGessen's picture

Hello everybody. Thank you

Hello everybody. Thank you for these questions.

Paul: That's a tough question for me. The leftist tradition in the novel is mostly a tradition of social realism---Zola, Gorky, Dreiser, and then novelists who have meant more to me than that, like Victor Serge, whose early work is more recognizably modernist but whose later novels, like The Case of Comrade Tuleyev, about the purges, is much more traditional in presentation. But the truth is I'm not working in that tradition at all. Bellow is much more of an influence--his characters mostly test their big ideas about the world on their personal relations, and this is what my guys do in this book. Michel Houellebecq--another writer from the right-wing camp--was instumental in convincing me that, well, the problem of contemporary urban dating was, like it or not, a world-historical problem. There's a kind of genuine warmth and humanism that you find in a Serge or Silone that is lacking in the right-wing tradition, but a crankiness that I really admire in the right-wing tradition that is lacking in Serge. Some crankiness, in other words, and some of the social observation that is native to that crankiness--would be a worthwhile addition to the consciously leftist tradition in fiction. I've tried to do some of that here.

Dan--thank you for having me. I rate Fitzgerald very very highly. I think of how Hemingway thought Fitzgerald was silly--but from where we sit, it's Hemingway who looks silly, not Fitzgerald. I think of the opening of ATSYLM as at least an echo of him---no one wrote as well about New York, about being young and hopeful in New York. "There was first the ferry boat moving softly from the Jersey shore at dawn--the moment crystalized into my first symbol of New York. ... [it] had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world."

Do I think human emotion--that cumbersome atavism--will break down all ideologies in the end? I found The Crack-Up but now I can't find The Dying Animal--in reference to emotions, Roth says something like: "That need. That insufferable human need." You know, we disagreed about this on the show, too. I'm not at all sure that's the point of the book---at one point Sam has a tender moment with Katie R but then his obsession with his Google gets the better of him. Some people *aren't good enough people* (yet) to let their emotions defeat their ideologies. And one of the things that's happened historically, I think, is that family life, emotional life, has been opened up to history, to the market, to society, in a way that it wasn't earlier--so the pressures from those places are impossible to ignore. And, I don't know---I guess we can forgive the people we love anything. But we can't forgive them for not loving us. And isn't one form of failing to love someone that you refuse to see things their way? That's not necessarily the case---I mean, when someone disagrees with you---but it could be, I think.

GKG: 1. The real question is not why I needed real people, but why I needed non-real events. I wanted to write a book that was plausible, that actually did descriptive work in the world---that described a particular part of a particular social class, satirically but plausibly. One of the things I'd felt literature had done was lie to me about where I would end up in life---it lied to me in a thousand ways. I wanted to lie less, at least within the bounds of fiction. So using real people---it really has the advantage of being true to life, which in a way is very valuable to me. I want someone who's just getting out of college to be able to read this book and learn about some of the things that might happen, if he or she isn't careful.

Unfortunately, real life itself is just too borin (or, alternately, too dramatic, to the point where no one would ever believe it). So I had my guys do things that I was too polite or too cowardly or too smart to do. In truth it's possible that even my invented events are too boring, not dramatic enough.

2. Pushkin vs. Tolstoy. In Russia Pushkin is more important to people--they know his poems by heart, they refer to his social observations. Pushkin nashe vsyo, as they say---Pushkin is our everything. But it doesn't translate---and really we don't *need* their Pushkin here. We have Byron, and later on we have Fitzgerald, as per above. But we do need Tolstoy and Dostoevsky---there simply aren't any English-language equivalents.

JMW--That's a hard question. Writing fiction is just plain harder than non-fiction, at least for me. And whereas it's always pretty clear what makes for a good nonfiction story, and you can find out for sure by asking an editor at a magazine if they'd be willing to run it, you never know that about fiction you're working on. In terms of criticism, though, I really do hope to stop writing that. I've pretty much had my say about most of the contemporary authors who meant a lot to me---Roth, Bellow, Serge, Amis, Hitchens, Sorokin, Franzen, Houellebecq, even Delillo---I don't have that much more to say. At the same time... at the same time... I feel like n+1 still has a lot of work to do. I think we've been saying things---about a number of things but about the literary culture in particular, since that's the only place we're really going to have an impact--that, well, I feel like we need to keep saying.

OK. Thank you for those. Over and out!

KeithGessen's picture

Oops, I see while I was

Oops, I see while I was responding other questions came in.

So then!

Kevin: We are always taking interns, esp. college interns, esp. during the summer. See the web page for the latest. The "news" section.

To answer: One of the things you find out, or I've found out, or think I have, is that that time you spend wondering if you're the new New York intellectuals is time that you never get back. But that wondering--if you can use it productively, if you can use it to try to become that thing you want to become--can become the thing itself. Put another way: You're not likely to become a writer if you don't worry a lot of the time that you're not any sort of writer and don't use that anxiety to become better, to work harder. n+1 published a little pamphlet a while ago called "What We Should Have Known" where we gathered a group of contributors together to talk about the books they'd read too late or too soon---and a lot of the conversation described the worry we all had that we were behind, or falling behind, or missing something---and it was incredible to see hear these people (or, really, it mostly came through after, when I was working through the transcripts) who I think of as extremely well-read and thoughtful, talking about how worried they used to be that they weren't well-read enough. And what happened was that they used that worry to keep themselves reading and working, and read themselves out of it. They're not worried about it anymore. At a certain point it's a worry that falls away. I'm always slightly puzzled when people call n+1 pretentious--to me it seems pretentious to pretend *not* to be educated, to pretend like you don't know all the things you know and all your education is only good for becoming a commentator on the latest season of The HIlls. Not that The Hills shouldn't be commented on--in fact, I have many comments I'd like to make on it myself--but this increasingly seems to be the highest aspiration of a portion of our intellectual class.

As for the guys in the book---for the most part they're a warning. They're what happens when you *fail* to use that anxiety, and that energy, toward something productive. But then two of them work themselves out of it, not by abandoning their ideas but actually by following through on them in different ways; and another--Mark--does not. Not to give away the ending. But things end badly for Mark.

As for a literary muse--to be honest, when I was doing most of the writing, I tended to avoid my real literary influences (Bellow, e.g.) like the plague. Adam Ulam's great and very funny history of the Russian Revolution, The Bolsheviks, which I can't recommend enough---that's something I went to over and over again. Also Victor Serge's memoirs. And Tom Segev on Israel. So: Nonfiction stuff, it turns out.

Jon: Well, right. In a way we'd all be much better off not participating, not being photographed--Pynchon was right about all that. At the same time---my second grade English teacher wrote me after the Styles piece. She said, It was so nice to hear about you after all these years. And I thought: But my book was reviewed in the Book Review two weeks ago! It was reviewed in the New York Review of Books! Didn't you see me **on the second episode of**, I thought.

I guess not, being the answer.

So, you know, I really want my second grade English teacher to read the book. Or maybe not, because of all the internet porn. But other English teachers. At the same time I think you're right: it's distracting to readers. I mean, reading is hard, and if there's a reason not to read something--like for example the author said something stupid to a newspaper, or looked kind of smug in his author photo--then that's one less thing you have to read. I think there's an idea afoot that *any* publicity is good publicity---we've all heard that---but I think this is particularly untrue in the realm of books, where at some point you really need to be alone with the book and let it speak to you in its way, if it can. So, yes, it's a problem, and no, I don't have a solution for it.

I'd also add, parenthetically, that the line in the Styles article about the book being a "dark joke" on my literary career----that's a good line, that's very perceptive. It's in fact a lot more perceptive than many of the reviews. So.

Jon Tabor's picture

Thanks for your thoughtful

Thanks for your thoughtful response and honesty!

tizaine's picture

Keith, Following your

Following your argument that one should be proud of one's knowledge, I was wondering if you had any theory on why the intellectual community is so much less visible in the mass media in the US than it is in say, France.

KeithGessen's picture

Jon--Sure thing. Thank you

Jon--Sure thing. Thank you for the question.

Tizaine--Well, we're mostly a country run by experts, except for those charismatic people whom we allow to run everything even though they know nothing. We do have so-called public intellectuals, who water down their important academic work to try to bring it to a mass audience (in some cases, like Paul Krugman, this is great). But in terms of writers rather than economists or even linguists---do we really want to hear what Don DeLillo has to say about the mortgage crisis? Actually, now that I put it that way, the answer is of course! But who will pay for the airtime? Wait, I have an answer for that too: We'll put him on

Part of if is that we've never really had a tradition of intellectual engagement with power. I just now suggested to my co-editor Marco Roth, who's sitting next to me, that Emerson would be someone we'd put on tv even now, but he pointed out that Emerson was really more of a preacher than an intellectual: "He'd be somewhere between Pat Robertson and Reverend Wright."

There's a scene in, I think, Armies of the Night, where Mailer recalls his one conversation with Jacqueline Kennedy, with her impressing him by saying that she'd enjoyed Deer Park. Mailer was surprised by this because though he suspected she hadn't read it, most people who hadn't read a Mailer book usually told him they'd enjoyed The Naked and the Dead. Although Mailer was occasionally put on tv, as we know, in order to punch Gore Vidal.

I'll say this for writers of fiction: You can't take a novel, dumb it down, and turn it into an op-ed piece for the New York Times. You just can't. Whereas you can do that with all but the very best and most nuanced nonfiction book. And so maybe it's actually a hopeful sign that you don't see more of David Foster Wallace on the evening news. There's something indivisible, or even indigestible, about books of fiction---something that can't be processed very easily by the system of instant information and immediate analysis. That speaks too to the problem we discussed above of properly presenting writers to the public. But it's a good thing ultimately that that problem exists. It means novels will have to continue existing, too, since there's nothing like them.

tizaine's picture

Keith, Thank you for this

Thank you for this wonderful response.
Contrary to you, I'd love to hear more about "ideas" in general in the mass media. Not because I care to hear DeLillo commenting about the mortgage crisis, but because, as a writer he has thought long and deep about the world in which he lives.
Sad, for example, that we never see/hear Chomsky, on anything but alternative channels.
The absence of intellectual debate leads to all kind of failures.
But reading you here today, I am a little bit more hopeful now, than I was this morning, about what the future may hold.

Kevin Longrie's picture

Keith, I don't know if

I don't know if you're still reading these, as it's half past midnight on your coast, but I just wanted to thank you for responding so thoughfully and completely to my questions. Esp the part about reactions to the word pretentious. I often find myself being put in a position, one of a demanded apology for a book I'm reading or a recommendation I turn down---as if I'm supposed to be sorry for having a pretention to quality? I find that the more literature, poetry, film, or any medium of art you consume the more discernable your taste becomes. I don't think it's a bad thing either.

I agree with you that it would be pretentious to appear less knowledgable than you are, to display a watered-down version of yourself to appease.

KeithGessen's picture

Tizaine and Kevin and

Tizaine and Kevin and all---Thank you. This was a real pleasure--really. See you around. -Keith