Keith Gessen on All The Sad Young Literary Men
Keith Gessen is editor-in-chief of n+1, a twice-yearly magazine of literature, politics, and culture based in New York City.
Gessen graduated from Harvard College and earned his MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University in 2004. Gessen, who was born in Russia, has written about Russia for The Atlantic and the New York Review of Books. Gessen has also written about books for magazines including Dissent, Slate, and New York, where he was the regular book critic.
His first novel, All the Sad Young Literary Men, was published in April 2008.
Question: Why is the book split between three men?
Keith Gessen: Certainly one of the flaws in the book that’s been pointed out, and I think it’s absolutely true, is that the guys are very much alike. They’re kind of versions of the same guy, and that’s true. However, the guys have different interests. They have- they do different things. They think about different things, and they end up in different places because of it. So, you know, part of the, you know, this- one of the drawbacks of the book is that it’s very much the same guy. One of the justifications for that is that it shows you, well, what if you make different intellectual choices? So, one of the guys, all he thinks about is the Russian Revolution. And he goes to graduate school and graduate school is this part of American life that is not often enough, in my opinion, taken seriously, but you know, if you end up going to graduate school, you’ll find yourself in a college town, which is a particular sort of thing in America. And Syracuse is a particular sort of thing where I went to graduate school for two years and my character, Mark, goes there for six years. You know, and Syracuse is this post-industrial wreck with a college in one part of town and a highway, you know, running right down the middle of town bisecting it, and on the other side of the highway is the bad part of town. And so if you live in Syracuse, you have, you know- you get the police report every Monday, via e-mail, and you know, these students get drunk and then they get robbed, and you know, this is- a lot of America is like this. Anyway, so Mark’s intellectual odyssey- partly, it takes him to Syracuse. You know, he has to confront what it’s like out there, you know, and then he spends a lot of time trying to- you know, Mark’s problem is a problem of action. He is writing about the Mensheviks, and the Mensheviks were the group of Socialist Revolutionaries who lost out to the Bolsheviks in 1917. And one of the reasons they did this is that they wanted to keep their hands clean. They had what Lenin called social democratic scruples, with great contempt, he called this. And so on the decisive night, October 25th, when the Bolsheviks were basically taking over Petersburg, they had sent out their armed gangs to take over some crucial military points, and also the post office. The Mensheviks heard that this was happening and they walked out of the Soviet- and Trotsky at that point called out after them, “Go! You are finished- go with you to the dustbin of history.” And famously- so, Mark wants to- and yet he knows that the Bolsheviks are bad guys, and so for Mark, it’s this problem- and, you know- this then translates into his romantic difficulties. He knows that he wants to be a good guy, and he knows that the Mensheviks are better people than the Bolsheviks- they’re more intelligent, they’re better read, and morally, they’re better. And yet the Bolsheviks win, every time. You know, no matter how many times you kind of game the Russian Revolution, or wherever it repeats itself, it’s gonna be the Bolsheviks who come out on top- the more radical faction always wins. And this, incidentally, is- has a kind of echo in the book with another one of the characters who’s very involved with the 2000 Election, where, once again, the more radical group, the Republicans, defeated the rather indecisive Gore group. And so for Mark, you know- so Mark is trying to find a way to live in the world where he’s not a bad guy, and yet he wins. And you know, and the way this plays out in his actual life is with women. And he ends up- things don’t actually end up working out for Mark. He ends up sitting in a bus station in Syracuse, not knowing which way he’s going to go. And so it’s the same, you know, the same sort of thing plays out in the lives of the other characters. Some of them do a little bit better- Sam is a character who is very interested in Israel, because everybody else is interested in Israel and he also wants to kind of- and he feels like he can make a breakthrough in this problem. He’s going to write a Zionist epic, and then that doesn’t work out and he becomes obsessed with his Google count, which is shrinking, and he does a terrible thing because of that, because he’s so vain, and so exclusively interested in his Google count, but then finally, he actually goes to Israel and sees what the Israelis are doing in the West Bank, and goes through a sort of complicated process of wondering who he should have solidarity with. And, ultimately, he makes a decision with that. And the Keith character also finally makes a kind of political- he’s very depressed for many years about the loss in 2000, but he, too, finally comes around to a kind of decision to keep going and keep fighting for a Democratic White House.
Question: Why do the female characters seem un-understandable?
Keith Gessen: Do I find women un-understandable? Well, they’re certainly other people, you know, in a way, other people are always going to be somewhat mysterious. To these guys, I don’t actually think that’s true. You know, women don’t always- these women have a kind of independent existence of these guys, which is confusing when they want them to just kind of play along with their schemes. The guys live very much in their own heads, and so sometimes they have to emerge from inside their heads, and they’re confronted by these women who either want something from them, or don’t want to have nothing to do with them- and this is confusing to the guys. You know, in a way, the- you know, the women represent the reality principle in the novel. They are the- they’re actually living in the world, where these guys sometimes are not so much living in the world. The book- that said, the book is about the guys. It’s not about- it’s not all the Sad Young Literary Women- and I think that book ought to be written- but I didn’t write it.
Gessen discusses the triptych structure of the book, and addresses some criticisms.
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