Why Jonathan Lethem Likes YouTube
Jonathan Lethem is a novelist and essayist known for his genre-bending work that draws on science fiction and detective fiction. He was born in 1964 to an artist father and an activist mother, who moved their family into Brooklyn before it was fashionable. His mother, Judith Lethem, died of cancer when he was 13, an experience which Letham says has haunted him and his writing ever since. In high school, Jonathan followed in his father's footsteps, attending the alternative High School of Music & Art in New York. He matriculated at Bennington College in Vermont before dropping out in his sophomore year to move to California and pursue writing.
Lethem's first novel "Gun, With Occasional Music," a sci-fi/hard-boiled detective hybrid met with enthusiastic reviews and was a finalist for the 1994 Nebula Award. His fifth novel, "Motherless Brooklyn," won a National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction in 1999, and 2003's "The Fortress of Solitude" was listed as one of The New York Times's editor's choice books from that year. His most recent novel is "Chronic City," which is set in a surreal version of Manhattan's Upper East Side.
In 2010, Lethem was hired as the Roy Edward Disney '51 Chair of Creative Writing at Pomona College, a position formerly held by the late novelist David Foster Wallace.
Question: Do you see yourself as a champion of pop culture?
Jonathan Letham: People often ask me to kind of weigh in on pop culture or they sort of throw me questions that dare me to defend a love of pop culture and I realized... I stopped wanting to because the premises of the question contain so much self-loathing. It was generally being asked by people who loved a lot of those things that they thought fit under the container of that name, fit inside the container of that name, but didn’t feel good about loving those things. So they were sort of simultaneously hoping I would make them feel better about what they liked and daring me to make an ass of myself defending things that at some other level of their being they thought were indefensible. You know, bad, ephemeral, crappy commercial culture and I started to say I don’t want to defend pop culture. I don’t even want to talk about thing according to that... the implications of that term, the assumptions that nest in that taken-for-granted term. I’m not sure I know what it is or that I like it. What I am responsive to are two different things that nest inside there that don’t bring with them so many automatic associations.
I’m really, really interested in what I would call vernacular culture. And this covers things like the hip-hop culture that I documented in part in "Fortress of Solitude." The indigenous, essentially indigenous urban scrawlings on the wall and chanting rhymes over records in schoolyards that became—once they became commodifiable and self-conscious art forms—became whatever you know. Well both Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jay-Z and everything in between.
But the actual vernacular moment when things are not even bothering to think of themselves as art forms. They’re just expressivity, but not expressivity in some pure raw you know Thoreau-at-Walden sense of like pre-cultural, you know. They’re deep within culture. They’re responsive to culture. They acknowledge urban life, contemporary life, the consumer culture and they just make something of it. And of course you see a lot of what I would now call vernacular culture on the Internet; people sort of slamming together something in a weird way on YouTube. You know, it’s... sure there are people who are calculating about it already and trying to create either a reputation or a career for themselves in some way. But there are a lot of people just sort of making stuff because it’s like a way to almost just blurt something back at this world that’s so loud and full of stuff; noise, art and commercials and junk and argument and they’re sort of like making some argument back, here is something. I like that.
That’s vernacular culture to me. I’ll talk about that. I’ll defend that and on the other hand I also will discuss and describe and defend some parts of what I would call commercial culture, things that arise and are made, the first and founding impulse behind their making is to have something that will like blow up and fill a theater or hit the pop charts. That’s anything constructed sort of by committee or where you sort of have to wonder who is the auteur here, why is it good, like The Monkees or a lot of Hollywood film, a lot of what we new revere as film noir was made by people who were not thinking about art principally or sometimes at all, right. That is commercial culture and I do think greatness and extraordinary expressivity kind of rise there too.
Recorded on September 25, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
In the tradition of Jay-Z and Jean-Michel Basquiat, YouTube users create brilliant "vernacular moments"—moments filled with pure expressivity that don't bother to think of themselves as art.
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