The Thieves of Manhattan (Spiegel & Grau, July 13), a very funny satire on the publishing industry, is full of such insider references as an atwood (Margaret Atwood's curls), a chabon (Michael Chabon's mane), franzens (Jonathan Franzen's eyeglasses), humbert (a sexual deviant), proust (bed), lish ("to savagely and mercilessly edit"), palahniuk (to vomit), and woolf ("to move as rapidly as the speed of thought"). Langer provides a glossary at the end for the uninitiated--but there are no more uninitiated when it comes to the industry's arcane rituals and colorful personas, are there? Haven't we all become publishers, editors, writers--those of us with a grain of verbal creativity? There is too much writing, and harder than ever to tell the fraud from the real thing. Langer's protagonist Ian Minot, a failed short story writer, is who all of us were in our early thirties (unless we were extremely lucky); Minot has a Romanian girlfriend Anya Petrescu, whose stories about a deprived Bucharest childhood are quickly picked up by superagent Geoff Olden. Minot gets his break when Jed Roth, a disgruntled former editor at once-staid Merrill Books, offers to let Minot rewrite and publish his outlandish novel, about a ring of thieves stealing rare library books, under Minot's own name--as memoir. When Minot is famous, the hoax will be revealed, and both Minot and Roth will have their revenge on the industry. The epistemological issues raised transcend publishing and apply to all creative endeavors. The fast-moving plot gives Langer plenty of opportunity to explore truth versus fiction in prose writing, with stabs at the likes of James Frey in the person of Blade Markham, memoirist of the moment. Langer has previously written Crossing California (2004), The Washington Story (2005), Ellington Boulevard (2008), and My Father's Bonus March (2009); the new book is a sharp departure in style and content.
Shivani: In The Thieves of Manhattan, you're questioning the artificial lines naive readers erect between fiction and memoir, between lies and truth--treating memoir as the literal truth, for instance, and then being disappointed when the "truth" is revealed.
Langer: Sure, but I do think those categories exist for a reason and aren't completely imaginary. Yes, sometimes an invented story can get to truths faster than a story that actually happened. And sometimes, a true-life story can ring absolutely false if it's told the wrong way. But at the same time, writers can take advantage of the fact that the line between memoir and fiction can be so blurry. And I do think there is an unspoken contract that writers, particularly nonfiction writers, make with readers--that, despite our prejudices and our crappy memories and our lack of objectivity, we strive to tell a story that is as true as we know how to make it, and that we don't just spew out a bunch of BS to make ourselves look better or settle old scores or sell more books. When we lie, either in "fiction" or in "memoir," we're violating that contract. Or maybe I'm being too preachy. Either way, I wouldn't diss naive writers too hard; I'm often one myself.
Shivani: Can we say that Thieves presents the idea that fiction in the end is victorious because all prose is predominantly fiction, however it's formally presented? Many of your plot turns seem designed to support this point.
Langer: I don't know if Fiction proves victorious, but Story certainly does. If a story can take a reader on a journey, make the reader believe it to be true, really want it to be true, make the reader feel that he or she has become immersed in the story and in the lives of its characters, then the writer has done his or her job, whether or not the story he or she has told is fiction or nonfiction.
Shivani: Do you have any particularly traumatic experiences with the publishing industry that you'd like to share?
Langer: Oh yes, over the course of my career as journalist and novelist, I've been blown off by E.L. Doctorow, condescended to by Harold Bloom, and been subjected to hissy fits by literary agents who, thankfully, never represented me. Along the way, I've been treated to lousy herring by Gary Shteyngart, regaled with unprintable, really yucky stories by Jonathan Safran Foer, upbraided for a really dumb reason by Jeffrey Eugenides, and had my debut novel rejected as "unsaleable" by an agent about a year after it had already been sold. Which should have made me feel smug, but that still sort of pisses me off.
Shivani: Did you meet with early success, in terms of getting your first novel accepted for publication, or was it a long, hard road for you?
Langer: If I pretended that my first published novel, Crossing California, was actually the first novel I wrote, I'd say that it was easy. I'd say, yup, I finished the book, got an agent, got a contract, and started work on Book #2. But in saying that, I'd be ignoring the fact that my first novel, Making Tracks, a teen detective story written when I was in high school, is still in a drawer. And so is my second novel, It Takes All Kinds, a 300-page long screed about my first week at Vassar. Also, my third novel, A Rogue in the Limelight, a picaresque journey modeled on Huck Finn and The Confederacy of Dunces, never found the right agent, even though some people (well, my mother) have called it my best novel. One of my earliest agents said that my fourth novel, Indie Jones, a slacker comedy set in Chicago's independent film world, would easily find a home at Doubleday, but that didn't happen. And I stopped looking for an agent for my fifth novel, an existential thriller called American Soil, when I realized there was too much personal shit in it and I really didn't want to deal with having it published. But yeah, once I finished Book #6, it was smooth sailing.
Shivani: You've written three pretty straightforward realistic novels, steeped in the specificities of politics and history, as well as a memoir, again rooted in the particularities of history. Thieves is a complete departure. How hard was it to switch gears so radically? Have you written shorter satirical pieces in the same vein?
Langer: I think that's true of my first two novels, Crossing California and The Washington Story. But Ellington Boulevard was much more loopy and fantastical and was told from a variety of perspectives, including those of a dog and a pair of pigeons. You're right, though, in that I haven't really published a novel in the vein of The Thieves of Manhattan, which I viewed as almost more of a rock 'n' roll album than a novel while I was writing it. I wrote it in the first-person, wrote it fast, blasted music when I was doing it, and tried to imagine it as the sort of album a garage band comes up with when it goes into the studio with only one song written and comes out at the end of a weekend with three records' worth of material. I think Thieves has more in common with some plays I was writing back in Chicago in the 1990s, particularly one I wrote called Film Flam about filmmakers and con games. Switching gears for this book wasn't hard at all; in fact, it was totally fun to do. Once I'm done with a draft of my next novel--a more-sustained, character-based, traditionally American novel--I've got an idea for another novel in that garage-rock mold, and I'm totally psyched to get started on it.
Shivani: I'm interested in the presentation of the literary agent as an indispensable cultural phenomenon in Thieves, quite aside from the agent's practical function in the publishing industry. The agent, Geoff Olden, in Thieves, is larger than life in many ways. He's like a charismatic politician speaking from both sides of the mouth. It's impossible not to be in awe of his duplicitous skills, at the same time as we loathe him with all our heart.
Langer: Yep, Geoff is fairly loathsome, but he's also pretty damn smart. His advice is ruthless, crass, unliterary, and amoral, but very little of it is incorrect, and I wouldn't mind having him on my side, even if I'd really hate to actually have lunch with the guy. Wait, I actually have had lunch with that guy, or a guy a lot like him. And yeah, I felt kind of filthy afterwards. I'd dispute the idea that he's larger than life, though; he's actually a very healthy eater and keeps in shape.
Shivani: The very manner in which Ian Minot, the protagonist of Thieves, gets involved in Jed Roth's story about the theft of books from the Blom library, is how fiction should get the ideal reader (and the writer himself) more involved in real life. Yet the story which leads to this escalation of consciousness is utterly false, in fact, unbelievable. Is this not a comment on fiction's power (to make things happen)?
Langer: I guess it is, yeah. That's how I get into a story, though. I approach writing as a reader who wants to know what happens next. If it happens that sometimes, my stories start out at a somewhat leisurely pace but gather momentum as they go, it's because that's how I read. I start by immersing myself in the world, then, if I'm hooked, I start flipping pages faster and faster. Probably someone could tell what point I'm at in the novel I'm writing, by how quickly and loudly I'm typing. You could ask my next-door neighbor, Evaristo.
Shivani: Why is The Tale of Genji so central to the book? Why not, for instance, Don Quixote?
Langer: You'd have to ask my subconscious that question because, in the course of playing with ideas for the novel, I spent a bit of time contemplating what book should be at its center and ultimately chose Genji because it just seemed to work best. I thought about a Shakespeare play for a while, but that idea seemed too hackneyed; I thought of using Beware The Cat, which is often cited as the earliest piece of long-form prose in the English language, but as a reader, I had trouble getting into that book. As for Don Quixote, that could have worked, but I'm glad I didn't use it because it seems too obvious a choice, and the thematic resonances would have been too clear and easy. Besides, one of the most fun parts of writing Thieves and actually of writing anything for me is the process of discovery, and I have so many preconceptions of Quixote--from reading the book in various translations, from seeing the musical, from seeing clips of the unfinished Orson Welles adaptation, from shutting off the John Lithgow version midway through--that it wouldn't have felt fresh to me. And it's a nice added bonus that The Tale of Genji is, in fact, one of the pillars on which the modern novel was built.
Shivani: There is also a clash in the book between the old (mythologized) world of publishing, the fabled notion of Max Perkins as the engaged, humanistic editor--perhaps represented in Thieves by James Merrill, Sr., of Merrill Books--and the new, more cutthroat, corporate, and blockbuster-oriented world of publishing, represented by the callow Rowell Templen.
Langer: Right, but I'd hate to get into a good old days/bad new days dichotomy. A lot of the talk of Merrill vs. Templen is represented through a story told by a con artist and the story plays on a lot of cliches designed to dupe a naive listener. So, even though I think there is some truth to the cliches about how the publishing world has changed, I'm also aware that they are cliches.
Shivani: Please tell us that you've completely figured out how to subdue the Rowell Templens of the world in your own experience with publishing.
Langer: Absolutely. I take real-life characters, switch them around a bit, and drive them nuts trying to figure out whether I've based the characters on them or not. Once they're done reading Thieves and seeing themselves in it, they'll mend their ways.
Shivani: If Jed Roth represents the pole of plot in fiction, then Ian Minot represents the pole of character. To be an effective storyteller (let's stop using the term fiction writer), you need to possess both in equal degree. Do you think literary fiction suffers from too little plot these days, and was that one of the motivations to write Thieves?
Langer: I'd hate to think I was the kind of person who was presumptuous enough to assume that I was going to correct any liabilities in modern literary fiction. I actually rarely read books for plot. In fact, I'm horrible at remembering plots. In fact, I'm horrible at remembering my own plots. In fact, in a lot of the books I love, the plot really sucks when you think about it too long. I really enjoyed the pace of Thieves, constructing the twisting and twisted narrative, but if I wanted to write in order to criticize the way modern literary authors write plots, I'd be criticizing myself too.
Shivani: There is something to be learned from genre fiction in terms of pacing and plot. But isn't it on the whole more worthwhile for literary fiction to stand aside from the techniques of genre fiction, and focus on language as the means of reordering reality?
Langer: Not necessarily. A lot of great literary stylists have been great storytellers too. Tons of writers I love--off the top of my head, these would include Graham Greene, Jose Saramago, G.K. Chesterton, Edna O'Brien, Joseph Conrad, Italo Calvino, and Charles Dickens--have created works that are every bit as suspenseful as those written by authors of supposedly suspenseful genre fiction. Part of the motivation for writing Thieves wasn't that I wanted to make literary fiction more plot-heavy, but that I wanted to make plot-heavy fiction more literary. When I was a kid, I was totally into Stephen King, Robin Cook, Ken Follett, and Michael Crichton. But lately, when I've tried to get into Dan Brown and James Patterson and a whole lot of other popular genre fiction, I've found much of it boring as a motherfucker. If I was looking for a quick, fun, beach read today, I'd choose The Man Who Was Thursday instead--totally literary, but still totally fun.
Shivani: I interpret Faye Curry as representing the "ideal reader." The writer, pursuing his art in solitude, always desires to consummate his haphazard love affair with (his unseen muse) Faye, to literally possess her. Is that a good way to read Faye's character?
Langer: Hmmm, I'm not sure about that. It sounds like a perfectly valid interpretation, but in some way, I think that Faye is almost more of the ideal writer and artist, while Ian, even though he's the one telling the story, is the ideal reader. Then again, even when I write, I feel like I'm reading and writing at the same time, so maybe the separation isn't so clear-cut.
Shivani: Are we beginning to move past the false controversy over James Frey's "memoir," and other such scandals that followed? Or do you think it wasn't a false controversy?
Langer: God, I hope so. I'm not sure if I'd say it was a false controversy, but I'd be hesitant to lump in all the "scandals" with each other because each was and is different, and I think the Frey controversy was one of the least interesting. Clifford Irving pulled a con that was sort of like a great bank heist or a brilliant forgery; JT Leroy/Laura Albert's work was akin to great performance art; Frey's work was more like fudging a resume and hoping you won't get caught. I'm not sure what I'd call Forbidden Love, which was the book "Norma Khouri" wrote, but it made for a documentary that was far more fascinating than I think a James Frey doc would have been. But let's not take away the fact that Frey was and still is a hell of a storyteller. If he wasn't, we wouldn't be discussing him.
Shivani: JT Leroy/Laura Albert, the subject of one such scandal, blurbed your book. My guess is that you are more at peace with the misperceptions of naive readers toward the memoir/fiction false dichotomy than you were before you wrote the book.
Langer: And so did Clifford Irving, by the way. But, let's be fair--Laura wasn't writing a memoir; she wrote fiction and was playing on the obsession that readers and journalists have of wondering whether fiction writers are really writing thinly-veiled autobiography. She's not and never was trying to do the same thing as Frey. As the saying went in Pulp Fiction, it's not in the same league; it's not even the same sport.
Shivani: Do you think realistic fiction is dead? If not, why not? What can it do that popular art can't? In a postmodern society, how can realistic fiction be anything other than a quaint artifact? I'm playing Devil's Advocate.
Langer: I didn't realize that anyone was claiming that realistic fiction was dead; I must have missed that memo. The next novel I'm working on is very "realistic," whatever that might mean, so I'm hoping that's not true.
Shivani: Please tell me that you've read David Shields's Reality Hunger and can't wait to unload what you really think of it.
Langer: Sorry to disappoint. Haven't read it. I generally distrust manifestos and "calls to arms." I watched a few minutes of one of his lectures on YouTube, though. Does that count?
Shivani: I like it that Ian Minot grows as a character, but all the while the reader sees the pure artificiality of him. That's rather a profound achievement in satirical art, as I see it--despite the pace and convolutions of Thieves, despite his outlandish travails, Ian becomes more solid than ever, rather than becoming thinner and thinner and disappearing. I'm not sure how you pulled this off.
Langer: It may be what I was talking about before--that the more involved I get in a story, the more real it becomes to me, and maybe a transference was happening from writer to reader. Or maybe, like Ian, I started out naive but by the end, like him, I learned how to pull a good con. Or maybe both Ian and I knew a lot more than we were letting on at the beginning and were only pretending to be naive. Then again, I'm not Ian...or at least that's the message you get when you rearrange the letters of Ian Minot's name.
Shivani: What are some absolutely fraudulent writers you'd like to banish from the literary world? Define fraudulent however you wish to.
Langer: Hmm. I wish I had more enemies or loathed more people so I could have something funny to say here. Some of them are columnists for the New York Times. Some of them write pseudo-provocative essays for the New York Observer about how fiction is dead or facile takedowns of Harper Lee for this or that literary blog. And a lot of them are asshole he-man guy writers who treat their female characters like shit and get plaudits for accurately representing the depravity of the male psyche. I don't really want to banish anybody, though, particularly since some of the people I'm talking about are already dead, just maybe send them to the penalty box for a short while. I'm not really worried about fraudulence in writers as much as I am about laziness.
Shivani: The business versus writerly sides of a writer's life are never entirely resolved. How have you personally tried to resolve the inherent conflict?
Langer: I'm not sure if they should be resolved really because if a writer wants to be read by more people than himself and his posse of Facebook friends, he needs to be aware of his audience. And isn't that, in a way, being business-minded? As for myself, I always find that when I write what I feel I really need to write, I get into trouble; I always do better when I write what I feel I really need to read.
Shivani: As far as I know, you don't teach writing. Thank you for that. And if you do teach, I take it back.
Langer: You are oh so welcome. I always loved writing, so I never wanted to take a class in it and ruin the magic of it. Fortunately, or unfortunately, universities would rather not hire people to teach subjects they never really studied. If you want to present yourself as a great writing teacher, you have to have the talents of a great professional con artist, and I'm still learning that craft.