Queering the Novel

A conversation between Jordy Rosenberg and Alexander Chee.

Jordy Rosenberg and Alexander Chee.
Jordy Rosenberg and Alexander Chee.
Beowulf Sheehan; M. Sharkey

Jordy Rosenberg: In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, you describe the experience of writing a novel as something akin to living inside a murder mystery:

The novel for which you can be killed is a picture someone is trying to hide of what is inside whoever it is threatening to kill you for writing it. You did not know this was what you were doing, you were only trying to take a picture of the landscape. You thought of yourself as a bystander, you saw something you thought you should try to say this way. In the corner of the photo, something you do not quite recognize, not right away.

So much of this resonated with me. I’ll say that, only after turning in the final draft of my first novel to my editors, did I realize, Oh, this feels like inviting the world to a crime scene. My version is much more clunkily worded than yours and doesn’t get at an aspect you draw out gorgeously, which is the kind of terrifying, noir-ish process of writing itself. I feel there’s such a bizarre, almost hysterical emphasis on happiness and enjoyment and maximizing all the aspects of our lives these days, and so one can sometimes flagellate oneself for not just simply enjoying the writing process. But for God’s sake, isn’t that process much more like a murder mystery than it is like eating a kale salad and feeling virtuous and sated?

Alexander Chee: Yes, I think writing is a lot more like solving a murder than eating a kale salad. There’s something about contemporary creative writing education that can become hygienic or health oriented, and it loses track of or even erases the obsessional.

Rosenberg: I’m fully on board for the obsessional. Related to that, perhaps my usage of “murder mystery” does not quite get at what you’re describing. “Horror movie” is more apt. After all, the way you describe it, writing isn’t really about solving a murder at all. Not for the writer, anyway. The reader is always the detective, right? But the writer—at least as you’ve put it—is both perpetrator and victim. But who is threatening to kill you for writing the novel? Is it—sorry to be too on the nose here, but—yourself?

Chee: I do have a sense of danger in relationship to writing and I don’t know exactly why that is, I just know that it is true. I remember when I finally decided on the plot for my first novel, Edinburgh, I had this feeling, a little like you speak of, that I would be chased through the streets and beaten. It never happened of course, it may even be a fantasy, to imagine what you’re writing would be so dangerous that people would react this way. But the novel is about those fears, taboos that are harder to name than what I think of as the ordinary taboos, and so this feeling is self-destructive, yes, but not in the ordinary way. Instead I think your fears are enacting those punishments for breaking the taboos of the culture before the culture can even send anyone after you. You are your own cop in that instant, and fighting that also. And so you can project your fears outward this way. And if you don’t take responsibility for them you can really do a number on yourself.

Rosenberg: You’re right about my creeping sense of having committed a crime: This worry is clearly (as you so rightly have diagnosed) in fact a self-flattering total fantasy that whatever I’ve written is so simultaneously egregious and important that it constitutes an appalling, spectacular bloodbath. Is this process different for you from writing nonfiction and essays? The reason I ask this is because your essays are also so plotted—so gorgeously arranged, so lush and startling in their detail and all their unfoldings, that I’m wondering where, if anywhere, that difference lies for you.

Chee: I have often felt that writing fiction can feel like something that can get you killed, but writing an essay feels like dying. And I think it is because you are killing off some ideas about yourself, or ideas you’ve mistaken for yourself. And that this can feel like dying, when it is in fact just self-revelation.

What did you think your crime scene was? I think of your novel Confessions of the Fox as breaking with so many of the conventions of the historical fiction genre; I’m curious what you feared or fear.

Rosenberg: I’m afraid that my crime scene is probably pretty common: It’s simply a meta-crime scene in which the crime is having written a novel at all. The fear that what I’d thought (or really felt) was a novel would be exposed as a sham. After I turned it in, I would have this recurring, very cliched image of bloody footprints leading away from a body. I suppose the body was the book. And the bloody footprints were the visible trail I’d left, exposing how I’d done “it”/the crime/the book.

Maybe part of this particular anxiety is to do with what you’re asking about the conventions of historical fiction. Confessions is metafictional, both in its reliance on a footnote structure and also in its being a bit of what the critic Madhu Dubey has called the “anachronistic novel.” Not a historical fiction of total verisimilitude, but rather a fiction in which one temporal moment is touching and reaching for another, temporally removed moment. So I think in a way the dirty secret of the hidden architecture that constitutes the effect of “plot” is this source of intense, libidinal anxiety for me.

In the essay “The Autobiography of My Novel,” you talk about teaching yourself to write plot. But the way you describe this sits kind of sideways to some of the truisms about creating plot, structure, tension, etc., because you draw on myth and opera to do this: “I needed to hack a myth so it could provide some other result. To use the structures of myth to make something that was not a myth, but could be.” As we know, the novel as a genre originally came into being by “hacking” and rearranging the codes that existed, producing what the literary theorist Bakhtin describes as a heteroglossia, or conflict of voices. So something like epic or myth or opera could be folded into the novel, where it exists in a kind of kaleidoscope with other discourses, voices and styles. But you’re describing using a hacked version of myth as the model for a novel more broadly. And this myth-derived plot structure, you say, “becomes a way of facing what I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—remember.”

Chee: Well, with my first novel, I think I knew a little domestic drama written in a realist mode was never going to capture what it felt like. Charles Baxter has written about how melodrama has a unique capacity to describe evil, and I think that I understood this in reaching for it. But also, myths are the source for the rules of the culture: Hacking into a myth is really about hacking into a culture. I had always been fascinated by stories of creatures who could transform into human shapes and back again, and this was how I felt growing up: human, until someone noticed me, and noticed I was not human. The fairy tales where you are “found out,” where the mermaid is discovered to be walking on her fins, or the fox’s shadow appears on the curtain in the candlelight behind the young maiden, these were all my favorites, and described to me what my life was like more than, say, “realism.”

In 2008, I remember when some Asian-American scholars I was with told me I was the first Korean American gay author of fiction, confirming something I’d suspected was true, and I had the feeling of being the first of something. It was a deeply uncanny feeling, full of the silences I could feel, had always felt, around me. I am thinking of this as by now I’ve seen people writing of your novel on Twitter and speaking as if it is the first of something they don’t quite know how to articulate. What sort of silence or silences did you feel yourself addressing as you wrote it? Or did you even think of it that way at all?

Rosenberg: I don’t know if what people are picking up on has to do with the particular content of the novel or the fact that it is a novel. I am extremely moved to hear about instances where readers are feeling kept company with by the novel. I think this is such a common desire of fiction writers. This almost parental desire to keep company with a reader late at night. And this caring impulse also obviously carries a particular libidinal charge. It’s not unlike the way that public discourse became frantic around the advent of the British novel in the early 18th century, right? Just total mayhem and panic about what people were doing by themselves, reading and basically pleasuring themselves through language and fantasy. This conservative panic wasn’t entirely wrong. I do think that every novel was (and is) essentially a pornographic novel in that sense. I just don’t think that’s a problem. It’s a pleasure, and I’m hardly the first person to say this. And if you’ve had that pleasure, it’s hard not to want to give that to other people.

So, yes there is the question of the trans content; the book is pretty dirty and contains explicit but non-spectacularizing material that I do hope might resonate with people in terms of some of the dynamics around queer and trans sex, intimacy, and how all that can get bound and tangled up with other kinds of political projects and impulses. But on a fundamental level I suspect that what people are also responding to is the experience of reading any of this in the form of a novel at all. That is to say: Just the fact that the reader is being kept company with in that particular, libidinal, vaguely taboo, specific way that a novel can do. And that the novel that is doing that with, or to them, is a trans novel.

The cover of Confessions of the Fox.

I know a lot of people will talk about The Queen of the Night as a kind of queering of history and of historical fiction. First of all, do you relate to the verb “to queer” as part of your aesthetic practice? (This is not a rhetorical question.) And does this process look different for you in essay-writing? How does one “queer” an essay?

Chee: Not enough people did talk about that queering with Queen for my taste. With that novel, I knew I couldn’t do a realist historical fiction novel but also that I wasn’t interested in one. I wanted to write an uncanny tall-tale celebrity autobiography from the 19th century, where the author would tell you about the famous people she knew as a way of telling you how powerful she was but then, to take it farther, until it was a picaresque with a woman picaro. (Picara?) Queering is part of my practice, sure, but what I love about the essay, the personal essay, is the intensely plastic nature of it; it queers itself, if you let it, as it is almost always first and foremost an expression of style. It is the underdog of writing programs still, and loathed by many academics as such—an expression of bad taste, like having a coincidence in your novel. Or five coincidences. And bad taste is so often where you have to go to get queer.

Rosenberg: I’m so interested in your description of your writing of Queen as oriented toward a kind of “uncanny” historical fiction, and then your account of essay-writing as an embrace of “style.” In fact we can see these as two poles of traditionally queer aesthetics, right? The late Jose Muñoz described the hauntedness of so much gay male writing that came out the AIDS crisis as the kind of verso side to what is often framed as a specifically gay camp style. Here, haunting and uncanniness represent a kind of “sincerity” that seems to sit in opposition to what is often framed as a specifically gay camp. But Munoz shows that these two seemingly opposed orientations share a “utopian longing.” I think you bring that utopianism out so powerfully in the way that Queen unleashes itself from the strict realism of so much historical fiction, and reaches even further back into a feminine picaresque, reimagined for the present (or the future?). And, of course, Munoz so wonderfully sees camp as a surplus or excess of “ornamentation” that also signals a kind of utopian impulse. This is a really significant departure from the ways in which academics traditionally dismiss style, to go back to your point about the essay-form and its various denunciations.

Chee: What sort of models did you turn to as you wrote your novel? What writers did you read to find your way?

Rosenberg: I turned many times to authors who manage metafictional aspects in ways I admire. I think Sofia Samatar is extraordinary. Sometimes when I despaired I would read little snippets of her work to reassure (or trick) myself that it could be done. Tisa Bryant’s Unexplained Presence was a crucial model for the prismatic work that sentences can do, and for an inimitable architecture of thought in general. And then Tisa pointed me toward Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco, which became an important metafiction to me. Finally, there was a certain orientation I took from something Samuel Delany says in his amazing book on craft, About Writing —that fiction produces, for the reader, a “false memory with the force of history.”

Chee: That quote is perfection.

Rosenberg: I would obsess on this and wonder how on earth to actually do that. And here the difference between academic writing and fiction became really pointed for me. Because with academic writing you’re more or less trying to communicate to a reader a certain argument—you want them to understand and see the argument you have in your own mind, and to agree with it. With fiction, of course, you don’t at all want to let on to the reader what you’re thinking. Rather you’re trying to create that uncanny effect that you describe.

Finally, let me admit the sentimental truth that I think Pat Benatar’s “Shadows of the Night” captures a great deal of how I feel about writing toward an unknown reader. There isn’t much of a difference between Benatar’s “Surrender all your dreams to me tonight” and Roland Barthes’ “I must seek out this reader (must ‘cruise’ him) without knowing where he is.” I demand—beg?—the reader’s surrender, in exchange for which I like to think I am offering the reader pleasure in the form of a new, better dream. But really what I write signifies nothing until the reader imparts their own neuroses—their desires—onto it. Really it is I who am surrendering to the reader’s desire.

Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg. One World.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. Mariner Books.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.