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Jonathan Lethem

Novelist Jonathan Lethem tackles both sides of the debate on the generative function of art, calling out writers in particular.

 On this episode of The Archive Project, Jonathan Lethem examines the generative function of art. He discusses how modern media culture distracts us from addressing important problems in our world, and he makes the claim that artists, particularly writers, perpetuate this distraction by manipulating facts and ideas for dramatic effect. However, Lethem also suggests that this manipulation might prove useful in our attempts to solve these world problems, so we must assess the value of this manipulation on a case-by-case basis.

Should we resent the distraction or be relieved? We live, I think, in a world of punch lines taken seriously. To watch television is to be immersed in practically nothing else.”

“Who are these people? Who invited them to the convention, let alone gave them the floor? Are they starting the important conversation, the one we so desperately need to hear, or are they ending it—dissolving it in schemes and nonsense?”

“Ruined things, after all, can be transformed. Shattered things can reconstitute and be repurposed. Artists do this all the time. And loss itself can be repurposed, which is exactly what I did. I’ve made my career, in a sense, on that black hole of loss, that missing mom. My argument with her departure, with the unreplying ghost she left behind, became my whole enterprise of selfhood.”

Jonathan Lethem is an American novelist, essayist, and short story writer. The Paris Review has noted Lethem as “the only inner-city kid in the generation of novelists with whom he is usually associated,” including Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Michael Chabon. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Lethem’s work is deeply influenced by his home borough. Lethem’s early works are marked by a merging of science fiction and crime fiction, and his debut novel, Gun, with Occasional Music, was a finalist for the 1994 Nebula Award. Lethem’s pull toward the detective theme is also present in Motherless Brooklyn, which won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and The Macallan Gold Dagger for crime fiction, an unusual combination of awards in the literary world. In addition to these titles, Lethem’s nine novels include the best selling The Fortress of Solitude. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Rolling Stone, Esquire, and The New York Times, and he is a 2005 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. Lethem’s latest collection, Lucky Alan And Other Stories, was published in February 2015.

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