Keith Gessen on Celebrity Month
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: What is the role of celebrity in New York literary life?
Keith Gessen: I think, you know, writers are not- we’re just not set up- we’re just not made for this thing. We don’t- we’re just not attractive enough. We don’t lead the sort of lives that are conducive to celebrity. I mean, it’s just a- I think it’s a charade. I don’t think you can really have a literary celebrity. It’s a joke. It’s an oxymoron. So, you know, but I think it’s a problem because, ultimately, because books are hard to read. You know, books- even my book- which is really easy to read- you still have to sit down for a few hours and kind of read it. You know, maybe five hours, right? I mean, really, it’s a short book. Whereas, you know, these other, you know, if you’re- if there’s some sort of movie star who’s getting criticized a lot, it’s so easy to watch a movie, even if you’re tired of Tom Cruise, or whatever, who’s by the way, a very good actor. You know, Mission Impossible- it just doesn’t take that much time and effort. So, it’s- I think it creates a real- anything that stands between the text and the reader is problematic. So, you know, I don’t know what can be- I mean, you know, ideally, probably, writers would just refuse to appear ever, you know, like right now, I would not be appearing. At the same time, you know, you have this- well, at the same time, one has the idea that there are now these kind of direct accesses to readers. Or you can speak to them without the filter of, for example, even a Q&A interviewer who’s going to edit your stuff. So, yes, celebrity- I don’t think it’s good for writing.
Question: Can a young writer mature in this environment?
Keith Gessen: I think so. I think- I mean, I think, first of all, we have a- we in New York have a very exaggerated notion of something like, Gawker. Right? I mean, I don’t think- there’s just not that many people outside of New York reading this stuff. I think there’s people outside New York reading the New York Times, but not Gawker, so you know, the number of people who’ve seen some of the stuff you’re referring to is actually not very large. And also, they just- you know, after a while, they leave you alone, you know, after a while, it goes away. So your book comes out. They come after you for a while, and then they go away. But also, you know, this is just- writers have always gotten reviews, you know, and often really nasty reviews. And Philip Roth- I feel like this has fed the flame of his writing talent for decades- anger at reviewers. You know, he once wrote The Anatomy Lesson, which is a whole- you know, it’s a whole novella, in which he takes revenge on his reviewers, including Irving Howe and Norman Podhoretz- very funny, very funny book. So, you know, writers have always had to deal with writing these things that they felt very strongly about, where they put their heart out on a platter, and people spit on it, you know? And- some people- and others didn’t- and that’s just- that’s always been the case and I think now it’s a bit more the case. I don’t think it’s a real problem in terms of writers surviving this.
Writers, Gessen says, are just not cut out for it.