“The convergent death of culture”: An Interview with Brandon Taylor / George Kowalik

Real Life (2020) and Filthy Animals (2021) were both published in the UK by Daunt Books.

Contemporary fiction has been circling the debate about what comes after postmodernism since (and arguably before) the turn of the twenty-first century. The only certainty around the designation ‘post-postmodernism’ is uncertainty: a split priority of both relying on postmodern experimental aesthetics and wanting to move beyond them, an interest in both irony and sincerity, compliance with scholarly periodisation while simultaneously undermining it by opening the door to infinite additions of the prefix “post.”

As a term, post-postmodernism has appeal but also problems, particularly surrounding the treatment of racial minority and the pervasive whiteness of canonicity. Ultimately, despite a renewal of affect and sincerity, writing after postmodernism further problematises race. Other terms have subsequently emerged alongside post-postmodernism, including the ‘New Sincerity’ (coined by Adam Kelly) and the ‘Affective Turn’ (which Rachel Greenwald Smith helped to first popularize in literary studies).

This conversation with the novelist Brandon Taylor begun with the prompt of post-postmodernism. We spoke about the connection between writing after postmodernism and academia in his work: the novel Real Life (2020) and short story collection Filthy Animals(2021), which both draw on Brandon’s experiences as a graduate student in Biochemistry before his writing career. Brandon and I also discussed how his interests in affect and institutions are carried into his forthcoming second novel, The Late Americans. We also talked about a writer that can be usefully positioned at the centre of discussions around post-postmodernism: Percival Everett, who Brandon recently wrote the introduction for the 20th anniversary edition of Erasure(2001) for, and who he interviewed for Gagosian Quarterly.

We had to compete with the technological obstacles so many of us are used to by now: webcam picture and sound quality, the interruptions of city traffic and sirens, and the strict time limit of the Zoom basic package. We circumvented the last of these by spreading the conversation over more than one video call.

—George Kowalik

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George Kowalik (GK): In the context of literary aesthetics and style, does the term post-postmodernism have any kind of use, interest, meaning, or value to you? Or is it as ridiculous as it sounds?

Brandon Taylor (BT): I haven’t heard that phrase in so long. I remember being an undergrad, when I was studying Chemistry but all my friends were lit majors. They started using the phrases ‘post-postmodernism’ and ‘New Sincerity’. I wanted to be cool and be like, yeah, I’m a post-postmodernist, even though I had no idea what modernism or postmodernism were. So, I’ve lived with it in the background for many years.

This move away from irony and from using technique as an evasive manoeuvre to get around sentiment and feeling, this direct confrontation with the matter at hand… as a mode, it perhaps is the most dominant mode right now. After the demise of historical realism, everybody pivoted to this mode, but they didn’t use it to trouble notions of historicity, but to just talk about being sad in their major global centres. There’s a sort of unnamed force behind the thrones in contemporary fiction, so to speak.

GK: I’m taking up the quite reductive position of entertaining the possibilities of this term while talking about how futile it is to try and name this moment after postmodernism. This 21st century wave of fiction that, like you say, turns towards sincerity and feeling but (and Everett’s a great example of this) still has a lot of fun with the high style and experimental acrobatics of postmodernism. There is a tricky relationship between writers of your generation, the generation just before, and the critic. There’s an impulse to tack individual writers today onto this wave or term or definition of a broader moment in fiction. But it’s not just one thing, there’s not just one example of it, not just one way to be post-postmodern or write after postmodernism, as it were.

BT: I also think that perhaps what has changed most is a dissolution of some centralised authoritative body that can name moments. I do feel that the way modernism and even postmodernism got their names was from authoritative figures in both academia and literary criticism. They had the authority to name things and we were all just vibing with it. But with the death of so-called monoculture and it not being as alive or active, we’re all doing weird, strange variations on so called post-postmodernism. But maybe nobody really has the authority to name anything anymore and we’re all just drifting in the stream.

GK: I think this reductive impulse can be framed by a broader cultural crisis of definition and labeling—of pointing at something and needing to understand it, rather than just letting it be. We seem to be hindered by the fact that the very nature of defining social categories and types of identity and ways of being is in crisis mode. These things are essential but are becoming increasingly institutional rather than individual.  Real Life but also ‘Potluck’, ‘Proctoring’, and some of the other stories in Filthy Animals seem to take an interest in an institutionalised mode of classification. A need to define, specifically staged in the university, which birthed these terms in the first place—postmodernism, but also going back further.

So often in Real Life, the protagonist Wallace is trying to break out of these restrictions posed by the academic environment, these reductions of living to data storage, to a box-ticking depository of qualifications, publications, but also experiences and relationships. The novel seems to show where institutionalised classification becomes a problem, and where that problem bleeds into real life, real relationships and people, and in Wallace’s case real trauma. What were your motivations behind setting Real Life in an academic institution?

BT: The most obvious and least interesting answer to that question is that I picked academia because I really love reading about academia. I was in academia myself at the time of writing; I was studying biochemistry and it was the world that I knew the most about. So, when I set out to write that novel, I asked myself what do I know enough about to fill several hundred pages that I wouldn’t find too difficult to invent? It was academia; it was being a graduate student. I was trying to dramatise what happens when, as you know, we confront this academic world of categories that you try to fit yourself into. If you can’t, you just keep sawing away at parts of yourself until you do fit into them. And that is such a strange way to live one’s life—these increasingly shrinking categories of ever-increasing specificity in which one has to funnel one’s entire sense of self-worth and self-actualisation and self-conception.

I also noticed that you try to fit yourself into a mold of a “scholar” or “academic.” But then I started noticing how it was bleeding into people’s lives, so if you behaved in a way that was not consistent with their existing rubric for how a person should behave, the academic environment had no understanding of how to deal with it, you know? During my Biochemistry degree, my tutors were like, what do you mean you read novels? There’s this idea that scientists behave in certain ways and that it isn’t just a job you do, but it’s something you live and take home. It became very monastic, in a way. So, I was trying to dramatise how sometimes there’s the comedy of facing up to a human situation and feeling unable to deal with it because it doesn’t fit your scientific rubric. A lot of the drama of Real Life comes from people realising the tension between the way that academia trains you to behave and the fact that you have to exist as a human in the world.

GK: Some of the characters around Wallace seem to be less aware that they’re restricted to that mechanical way of being, that malfunctioning. Wallace at least seems to be trying to combat it, trying to break out of those restrictions, those rhythms. There is a similar anti-affective threat within the humanities, I think. If not data collection, there continues to be an insistence on evidence. You can’t just say something without acknowledging who else has said variations of what you are saying. This second-guessing of a position within the field, carving out an intervention…

BT: Oh, yes. We were all about “the field.” “Previous studies” was another great phrase. “As previous studies have shown…” It felt like a very nineties idea of what the future would be: everyone is a robot or an automaton in a factory. It felt antihuman sometimes, and I found it really challenging but also funny, because I felt like I could see the scripts running all the time. Sometimes when you’re talking to another person in academia, you can anticipate what they’re going to say, because that’s what you say in a situation like this, because we all have these scripts. It can be exhausting. And also funny in a David Lynch sort of way. But also really troubling when you realise that it’s not just how people are in academia. It’s rippling out into the world. Ever increasingly we live in these predetermined roots. It’s all kind of harrowing, I think.

GK: Like you say, there is a perceived wider cultural problem of not living sincerely. In academia, there is an externally imposed expectation to mold intellectual enthusiasm to a marketable, career-ready kind of thing… where stock phrases, buzz words, as you say (and as I think Real Life so successfully captures), leads to these rhythms and ways of being that are consciously put on, are performative, aren’t genuine or unique.

I wonder what you make of the publishing industry’s position alongside academia. Mark McGurl’s “Program Era”, about the influx and escalation of creative writing programmes in America but also globally, established the relationship between the two over a decade ago. There was a boom of creative writing programmes particularly as the nineties moved into the noughties and today they’re everywhere. So many writers have connections to an institution, have connections to a teaching programme. You have experience of the Iowa Writer’s workshop, of course, so what kind of relationship does the creative writing programme have to your work?

BT: I’m aware of the Program Era discourse. How could one not be—literary Twitter is always fighting about the MFA being a psyop by the CIA. I would have a writing life without institutions, but don’t know that I would have a writing career without institutions. I was always a writer, even when I was studying science. Even when I was a little kid, I was writing for myself, and that was sufficient to my writerly ambitions. But as I got older and acquired grand ambitions, it became clear to me that I couldn’t really make a go of it without institutional support. I’m from a working-class background. I grew up poor on a farm in Alabama. It was always really clear to me that my path out of poverty was going to be through institutions and through higher education.

The whole reason I was able to write books—and the way I wrote Real Life and Filthy Animals while I was getting my biochem PhD—was because that programme gave me a stipend. It gave me a place to live. It gave me a job and gave me health insurance. I was able to use those resources to do the scientific work that I had been brought there to do, but also to carve out a little space for myself creatively.

When I got to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop… you know, a lot of people think that you get there and you get an agent and you get a book deal, because that’s where everyone goes. I went there but I already had a book. Well, I already had two books, and I had an agent and we were going to sell those books regardless of whether I stayed in science or went to Iowa. But going to Iowa did give me time and space to write morebooks and to figure out who I was as a writer. That discovery was not necessarily in the classroom. In a strange twist of fate, in some ways the closest I ever came to quitting writing was at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, because people were so hostile to what it was that I was doing. But the material reality of it was having a stipend. I had no teaching obligations for two years, so I was able to dedicate myself fully to writing.

I think that for a lot of people, whether it’s a teaching job or whether it’s getting an MFA or whether it’s something else, having the resources to be able to dedicate time, space, energy to your craft is invaluable. I think that, for me and for several of my writer friends who also did the MFA route, it wasn’t even about this romantic idea of doing an MFA programme and finding a teacher who changes your life and shapes your writing. Increasingly, the people who are going into these programmes already know how to write, and a lot of them are already quite professionalised. What they’re going to an MFA for is not necessarily to be shaped by teachers, but to just have health insurance while they write a book. I don’t think it’s always been that way, but it certainly feels that that is the way it is now. And it is getting more that way as we go on.

In the Program Era, and on creative writing programmes across the world, we’re seeing writers who have been squeezed out of the capitalist economy go into the academy, not necessarily to get an institution’s imprimatur on their career, but literally just to be able to feed themselves and to be able to work on a book. How do you write a book in a late capitalist ecosystem, if you have to work five jobs? With the contraction of venues where one can pursue a full-time writing career and get paid for it… it’s just impossible. So what do writers do? They do what they’ve done since the very beginning, which is to turn to a patron or a sponsor, and in this case it’s MFA programmes.

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GK: I’d love to talk about Percival Everett. As you know, I recently wrote a journal article on academia and affect in Real Life and Everett’s Telephone. I read your Gagosian Quarterly Review interview together recently and it was great to hear you two nerding out about science but also talking about things like writing craft and the myth of the American West. You had this great line about fiction “getting its arms around the times” while speaking about the role of history in literary narrative. What is it that attracts you to Everett’s work?

BT: For a long time, I knew Everett as a writer my white-friends-who-get-advanced-degrees-and-do-Faulkner-seminars really liked. I was like, well, that sounds too POMO for me. A book within a book? No way. Not for me. I’m a very austere realist over here. And then I read Erasure and I thought: oh, so all the stuff that I’ve been trying to do and trying to articulate and trying to wrap my head around, he’s already done. He has already written this fiery, incredibly sophisticated. funny novel about the particular strangeness of trying to be a black writer. He taps into the way that you’re just trying to mind your own business and write a novel and this world keeps reaching in and calling you black and reminding you that you’re black in ways that are less interesting than your lived experience.

Reading Erasure was kind of mind-blowing, because before that I had been so polite in my writing. I had been so afraid and so tenuous with trying to approach the subject of race because I didn’t know how to approach it in fiction without boring myself, without writing the kind of novel that I would make fun of. I love that Erasure is both very interested in race and not at all interested in race and that it captures a black subjectivity in motion. I have no idea how he did it; it’s a magic trick of a novel. His other work, as well… he’s just a master of so many subjects and forms and he feels like a real virtuoso. He can change his voice to inhabit so many different registers and then can weave them together. You have these books that should not work, but do, because of the singular strangeness of his mind and the confidence of his writing. Unlike a lot of experimental novels, his are first and foremost about people, right? They always come back to these really earthy human concerns and the experimentation doesn’t feel beside the point. It doesn’t feel too form-forward. It just feels like a natural extension of the story he’s trying to tell about the strangeness of living in the world as he’s trying to capture it. I love his work.

GK: Everett has such good examples in his oeuvre where he nails the balance between the experimental and the raw, the honest, the affecting. He’s also got examples where he pushes the experimentalism way further—something like that wacky epistolary book A History of the African-American People (Proposed) By Strom Thurmond, As Told to Percival Everett & James Kincaid (A Novel). It’s all a series of exchanges between Everett and Kincaid (his real-life academic colleague) playing fictionalised versions of themselves, as well as letters with Thurmond’s representative, Thurmond himself, potential publishers, more. It’s so much fun. Then Everett’s got completely stripped back, barebones, realist novels, perhaps more in line with what you’ve published so far. They’re more accessible than his more pyrotechnic, high-style works.

I think for all Erasure’s aesthetic experimentation and the complicity of Monk Ellison (its writer/professor protagonist) in living the kind of self-deprecating, ironic life that necessitates the novel being written like that… like you, I was just blindsided by how moving it is, how fundamentally important and urgent the idea at the heart of it is: this reckoning with the label of “black writer.” Just reading over my list of questions with all kinds of notes coming off them, with notes coming off them, it almost looks like the typography of an Everett novel…

BT: I love that.

GK: It seems to me that the characters of Real Life and so many of Everett’s characters (but also the characters in your collection Filthy Animals) are confronting a universal, fundamental obstacle preventing them from living sincerely. The idea of trying to move past the ironic life in rhetoric and aspiring for truth. A challenge to some kind of anti-affective force, tied not just to the university but the institution with a capital “I.” To me, your novel and stories centralise this struggle. Would that be an accurate reading, particularly of Real Life?

BT: I think so, even if I don’t know that I would’ve articulated it to myself as such while I was working on it. But yes, now you say it, I think that what that book is interested in—and I think this is also true of Erasureand Everett’s work—is that there is the level at which we live on the surface, where we’re all just acting out the scripts that have been handed down to us. Then there’s what happens when you realise that you’re all play acting and you try to get at what is underneath all of that—the real, human, warm side to life—and what happens when you disrupt the script.

I’ve always felt that I don’t know how people do and say things in social settings. It’s as if I was raised by wolves. So, going into polite society, I’ve always been struck by the fact that people just know how to do patter. They just know how to banter and chat and they know which fork to use. They know that you don’t clap at the end of the piece of music, you wait for the next piece to begin. They know all of these things, and I was always struck by that. I was like, how do they know what to do?

When I was in graduate school, it occurred to me that they know what to do because that is how class works. That’s how society replicates its hierarchies. There are some people who have access to this knowledge and there are some people who do not. And this mode of living that I was being thrust into by virtue of upward mobility was not a life that I had been prepared for, because all the mores I had absorbed growing up on a farm in Alabama were totally useless in a middle-class bourgeois existence. So, when I write, I’m trying to capture some of the strangeness of a person being within an institution but not by right of birth or heritage. They’ve got to figure out the rules of the game that everybody else seems to know. They’ve got to carve out their own subjective route through that institution and past the barriers that are raised to prevent the ability to do so.

Another question or set of concerns that has been animating my work recently is the threat posed to individual subjectivity within a cultural moment governed by algorithmic refinement. To me, these questions are all the same. There is the way that your milieu or institution refines itself by forcing everyone to behave in these concerted, organised ways. Then there’s the individual subjective experience, which I think is a threat to the institution. It’s no different from messianic narratives, no different to everything from Star Wars to The Lord of the Rings. All of these stories are about preserving individual subjective experience against the totalitarian regime of algorithmic refinement. My project has in some ways become clearer to me and more simple: I’m trying to figure out how a person preserves their own wonky route through the universe when that universe is marching towards not necessarily homogenisation, but convergence in a cultural sense… the cultural death of convergence, or the convergent death of culture, you could say.

GK: There’s the tagline of your next novel.

BT: I mean, it is kind of true. My next novel is sort of about that, I guess.

GK: The Late Americans?

BT: That’s right.

GK: I’d love to talk about that in a moment. But first: the metaphor of theatricality, of life-as-theater, the script that particularly those of us within some kind of institution are made to play to… that’s a good way of putting it. Real Life also nails a sense of interiority. As novels are so invitingly able to do, it offers a portal into Wallace’s head. But you position that consciousness within a story space of science labs, or (elsewhere in the novel) public spaces. As a phrase and refrain within the book, “real life” seems to be a useful indicator of the precarious relationship between self and environment—between Wallace’s interiority and the world he’s pushed into and expected to function and operate within. In terms of the balance of lots of dialogue with internal monologue, what were you going for stylistically with Real Life?

BT: That’s a good question. It’s interesting that you say that I use a lot of dialogue, which wasn’t my intention writing it. At Iowa, people kept making fun of my dialogue and saying that it was not very good. I used to write these really Saul Bellow, hyper-lexic sentences that were bombastic and loud. For a long time, I worshipped Updike and Bellow and these writers of almost baroque sentences. But then I started to move away from that and towards writing in a plain spoken, direct way. I’ve been on this course from my mid-twenties to now of moving towards more spare, restricted sentences. I’ve had these two phases in my writing life: the Bellovian and now I’m deep in Knausgaard land, where’s there barely a polysyllabic word to be found. In terms of style, I think that’s where I am.

I’m trying to inhabit this space between the everyday idiom, where I think you can access beauty through language by trying to portray things like the feeling you get when you walk outside and it’s a perfect day. What does that feel like? I’m trying to recreate it for the reader, a sensation of aesthetic lift, in a way. As for the balance between the interior and the exterior, one thing that I’m always so afraid of is that I’m going to write a story or novel which is just in a character’s head. There are people who can do that, like Thomas Bernhard or Garth Greenwell or Bryan Washington. But that’s not really where my strength is as a writer; my strength is in dramatic enactment. It’s in the scene work, it’s in using the body to orient the reader and tell a story through living space. But it’s challenging because a novel does need interiority. That’s why it’s a novel—otherwise it would be a movie or a stage play.

I’m always trying to marry those two things: foregrounding in the body and the physicality of narrative, and the sense that what makes a novel work is access to the interior. I’m always trying to wed the two and find places where they can be joined in interesting ways. Dialogue is one of those ways. Dialogue is a rare thing in narrative where a character is externalising the internal, right? They are literally exteriorising their thoughts. Dialogues between characters are often some of the most important moments in a story, because characters can actually speak to each other and engage directly. It tells the reader a lot about who they are, if they’re direct or if they’re evasive and lie, deceive, or cheat their way through conversation. As a writer, I try to be somewhere between Ibsen and Chekhov when it comes to dramatic enactment and finding ways for the interior to work itself to the surface while paying very close attention to the feelings and impulses and physicality of my characters. That deeply matters to me.

GK: An Ibsen-Chekhov middle ground sounds pretty perfect, right? That’s exactly where you’d want to be.

BT: When in doubt, I turn to Ibsen and Chekhov. They have very seldom led me astray.

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GK: On that note, I have to ask about the upcoming film adaptation of Real Life for which you’ve written the screenplay. I love your “sweater weather” newsletters too—as I’ve told you before—where you talk a lot about drama, particularly cinema. You wrote something recently on The Nest. You also talked about Bergman Island, a film which I really enjoyed. Your answers to my questions about Real Life the novel seem to imply as much, but is there a theatrical interest to your writing? Could you see yourself writing a play one day? And how’s the screenplay going?

BT: That’s funny. My friend Jeremy, who is a brilliant playwright, turned to me at dinner two weeks ago and said, are you writing a play? I feel like you’re writing a play. Are you writing a play? And I was like: no, Jeremy, I am not writing a play. But he said, you’re writing a play. You better not be writing a play.

It’s also funny because I am going back to working on the revision of the screenplay for Real Life after this Zoom call. I wrote the first draft of it last fall, and it was quite a strange undertaking because screenplays are so different from novels. And I had never written one before, so I had to teach myself the form, which I did by reading Chekhov and Ibsen after I went out and bought collected works of their plays. I sat down and went through my favourites line by line and tried to figure out how drama is put together. I have studied their plays before to figure out how to write a novel, so it only felt appropriate that I would also do it to figure out how to write a screenplay.

The screenplay process was really difficult at first. Then it became a lot of fun. Like most things, once you figure out the format it’s just playing around with dialogue, which is one of my favorite things to write. It’s about getting characters into a room and letting them chatter. At the start of the year, I got notes back on the script and the producers were just wonderful. They’re really excited about the draft and their notes were really pushing me to exteriorise certain parts of the story. Some of the leaps I was making in that draft were because I had not thought about a reader or viewer coming to the story fresh, who didn’t have the benefit of the novel in their head. It’s been a process of fully grounding the version of the story that is the screenplay in its visual medium, and letting the visual medium do the thinking.

The story has changed quite a lot. Real Life as a novel and Real Life as a movie are quite different. One of the main differences is that Wallace can be sad and recessive in the novel, and that may make a good novel, but it does not make a good movie. And so there are all these ways where I’m making Wallace come forward and be the centre of the film differently to his centrality in the novel, where I had the convenience of letting him narrate everything. When he’s looking at other people it’s still embedded in his consciousness—but in a movie, when the camera’s looking at another character, they’re the centre of that scene. It’s about finding ways to make both him and other characters active participants without betraying the sensibility of the story. So that’s where I am right now: I’m trying to figure out how to strike that balance, by writing in more scenes to build the storyworld and stuff like that.

GK: A reason for me to not keep you too long then. I’m also excited for the forthcoming novel we touched on. What can you tell me about The Late Americans?

BT: The Late Americans will at first glance bear some resemblance to Filthy Animals and Real Life. It’s about a group of youngish people in Iowa City and it opens with a poet at a poetry seminar that is part of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The poet is causing a lot of trouble in class.

From there, it becomes this relay as the narrative is handed off to a chorus of characters. There are people who work in meat packing plants, there are people who work in hospice kitchens, there are people who are dancers, there are people who are sculptors. It is a novel very much about the wages of trying to live a creative life and a life of self-expression in a late capitalist hellscape. But it’s also about my usual subjects: how is it possible to know another person? How is it possible to love and be loved? How is it possible to survive the unruly urgencies of life in a way that leaves you available to the possibility of intimacy and care? It’s an ensemble novel set in the Midwest, and I feel like it’s a nice middle ground between my first two books. I’m taking on quite a range of characters and unlike Real Life it spans longer than a weekend. Unlike Filthy Animals, all the stories are connected pieces. It’s really a novel about a year in Iowa City and what that can be like for different people in a social hierarchy.

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George Kowalik
George is a PhD candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant at King’s College London, working on contemporary fiction and the distinction between 'postmodernism' and 'post-postmodernism' in the work of Percival Everett, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace. His research has appeared or is forthcoming in Alluvium, Humanities, Moveable Type, and USSO. He is also a graduate of the University of Reading, Assistant Editor at Coastal Shelf, and a short fiction and culture writer.