Books in Conversation / Sarah Wasserman and Dan Sinykin

Dan Sinykin and Sarah Wasserman

On Thursday, November 19, 2020, Dan Sinykin and Sarah Wasserman met on Zoom to discuss their new monographs before a virtual audience as part of ASAP’s Books in Conversation series. Kinohi Nishikawa introduced the two and moderated the event. At the end of a long, challenging semester but the beginning of a dark, difficult winter, to gather as colleagues and friends and be together in intellectual community was a rare balm.

Dan’s American Literature and the Long Downturn (Oxford University Press 2020) argues that to find the meaning of our apocalyptic times we need to look at the economics of the last five decades. Find Sarah’s remarks on Dan’s book here.

Sarah’s The Death of Things: Ephemera and the American Novel (University of Minnesota Press, 2020) examines literary representations of disappearing objects in American culture from the beginning of the twentieth century until today. Find Dan’s remarks on Sarah’s book here.

Dan and Sarah began with prepared remarks on each other’s book, which was followed by a Q & A moderated by Kinohi. This conversation is reproduced here.

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Kinohi Nishikawa (KN): I’d like to begin by observing a telling coincidence in both of your books—thankfully one that neither of you commented on just now. Both of you are critics of post45 and contemporary fiction and most of the works you study were published from the 1960s on. Yet in order to clear conceptual space for your books’ interventions, I couldn’t help but note the afterimages of modernism in your theoretical apparatus. Dan, your book ends with a Benjaminian reading of Ben Lerner that is punctuated by you quoting from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939.” His quotation ends the book proper. Sarah, your book begins with a nod to the elegiac qualities of Freud’s little-known essay “On Transience” and with a bravura comparison of two books set during the 1939 New York World’s Far. Can both of you comment on how the pre-1945 moment in theory affords you a way of negotiating the blind spots of the criticism of the past fifty years? It strikes me that modernist thought returns in your books as a corrective to academicized theory, whether of the literary economic studies or the object-oriented ontology models. This doesn’t need to be a strong claim but it struck me that at key points in the way you frame your projects, modernist theory really offers a check to the academicization of the theoretical models you are both in conversation with but seeking to do something different from.

Dan Sinykin (DS): This gives me an occasion to confess what feels a little bit like a dirty secret, which is my subterranean formation in Ludwig Wittgenstein. Modernism enters my thought through his work, especially his later work, The Philosophical Investigations, which allows me some space from what we’ve immediately inherited in terms of theory and criticism of recent decades. My deep Wittgensteinian reading practices ask me to step back and think about the meta-context in which different discourses happen and to try to obtain clarity about when I want to use one critical practice or another, while at the same time putting to the front of my mind the importance of clarity in writing. I say that as someone who is a huge fan of Toni Morrison’s and Thomas Pynchon’s and Jacques Derrida’s long, complex sentences as a reader. But as a writer, I can’t do that well, so having Wittgenstein inside of me pushes me toward the clarity Sarah mentioned.

Sarah Wasserman (SW): I love this idea of afterimages of modernism. One thing that happened is that my first year on the job market—far too early—I kept hearing the comment: “but the modernists did it better. Good for you that you’re going to write about fragmentation and transience in post 45 literature, but let’s talk about all the people that did it just as well if not better before that.” And modernism was usually the locus of those claims. So while the first chapter of the book is about the 1939 World’s Fair and thus wonderfully paired with Dan’s conclusion, it’s also true that I write about The Great Gatsby and Sister Carrie in the Introduction because I realized that if I’m going to make a claim about ephemerality in post45 American literature, I better understand why and how it’s different than what came before it. It became clear to me that I couldn’t talk about the texts that interested in me from the later period without figuring out how they were citational or even iterative of these earlier ur-texts in American fiction and how they were different. In the book there are some specific material culture claims and historical claims about the types of consumer practices and disposability as well as the long arc toward digitality that shape post45 literature. The other thing I’ll say about theory is something Dan brought up in his remarks, which is that it feels rather passé to have a book that relies so heavily on Freud and Benjamin. It’s part of my training, but I think that feeling of something being obsolete, even theoretically, was generative of the same kinds of questions I was asking of the literature. And there was something in what we might call modernist theory that seems right to me: they got the questions of grief and lingering with loss right. They asked those questions that I think the novels I look at are answering in a different moment and cultural context.

KN: What you’ve limned there for me is how the untimeliness of some of your theoretical coordinates allows you to advance new readings, not just of individual texts and authors, but of entire periods. Sarah, in your case the Freud connection and in Dan’s book, there’s a section in the introduction that offers a capsule history of apocalypticism, which culminates in Benjamin’s messianism. But it begins in biblical times. So when Dan says “neoliberal apocalypse,” it rests on a theoretical lattice that is informed by the bible, by the millenarian movements, and comes to rest with Benjamin’s messianism. Both of you have embraced untimeliness as thinkers and critics and it affords us new ways of thinking about post45 literature. You don’t just draw on the latest fads but really give us tools renewed for our moment to think about our present.

For books very much about the imminent death or destruction of things, I’m struck by how much you are both committed to author-oriented analysis. Your methods to conduct such analysis rhyme with each other, and this is what makes the ASAP/J event special. For Dan, your remarkable attention to the ephemera that authors like Cormac McCarthy and Leslie Marmon Silko collected and studied in order to write their novels clearly speaks to Sarah’s project. Sarah, your point that literary representations of ephemera accrete scarcity value precisely in their transience, following Freud, acknowledges the future as a source of anxiety in a way that is perfectly resonant with Dan’s book. Can I ask both of you what it is about deep study of authors and authorship—not subjecting a text to theoretical narratives we already know and want to tell—but being surprised by what we find in authors we think we already know? Dan, for instance, going to the archive and taking time to recompose what The Almanac of the Dead came out of—and actually taking care to acknowledge Silko not as someone who produced a text not for our critical enjoyment but who produced a text with an intention of commenting on her social and economic realities. What is it about the deep study of authors and authorship that informs your research and that you see in the others’ work?

DS: This is where for me my most immediate inheritance of one of the most dominant current theoretical figures, Fredric Jameson, comes through. Sarah and I both wrestle with how to write about post45 fiction in the wake of Jameson. There are things that we both agree with and take from him and things we both disagree with and think he gets wrong. One thing I think he gets right is mediation as a critical practice. What I understand him to be asking us to do when we practice mediation is to explicate literary works in the context of a struggle, a struggle that is sometimes opaque to the authors themselves, but that they are nevertheless engaging in it. So part of what I was doing when I went to the archive was trying to understand truly, as deeply, and with as much texture as possible what exactly are the struggles these authors believed they were engaging in. It’s easy enough to think about the struggles that we imagine they don’t know they’re engaging in, but it’s also quite important and instructional to learn what they themselves thought they were engaging in. It was deeply informative for Silko. I found in her archives in the Beinecke incredible, endless documentation of the neoliberalization of Mexico in the 1980s.

She’s deeply engaged in questions of human capital and the policy decisions that are changing the Americas. At the same time she’s profoundly engaged in the history of Mayan writing and the Mayan codices. She wants to write a political and prophetic text that draws on the codices but at the same time she knows she’s writing a neoliberal commodity object. That became the key to me to see how her own text escaped her control. She wanted her text to be both of these things and by wanting to write a prophetic, political text and a mass-market commodity object, she introduced a contradiction that has formal implications for the text. That allowed me to do a Jamesonian reading of her while actually being far more concerned with the specificity of an author’s intentions than a Jamesonian reading might sometimes be.

I’d like to add something about archives and ephemera in relation to Sarah’s book. One of the motifs that runs through Sarah’s book is the motif of stamps. She finds that stamps are important to Philip Roth and Thomas Pynchon and she spends a lot of time writing about their incredible attention to the particularity of stamps. So a few years ago, I was writing about Alison Lurie, a wonderful post-war writer who seldom gets discussed but was huge in her time. I had the chance to sit down at Cornell and talk with her and learned she was a very close friend of Philip Roth’s. And Roth had just died and she had just been at his funeral. So she had some fascinating things to say about that but I also looked at her archive and found this incredible exchange between her and Roth in the 60s. And it hinges on a stamp. So this is the stamp.

This is the picture of a letter Philip Roth sent to Alison Lurie. The stamp that Lurie had used was a homemaker’s stamp and Roth took the stamp off the letter and sent it back to her and he said, “I think it is too fucking feminine of you to stamp your letters with such a stamp as this and herewith I am returning the same.” And he put in a Shakespeare stamp and he said, “As far as you are concerned, the only five-cent stamp for you is scotch-taped herewith.” This is in my next book, The Conglomerate Era, but I wanted to share this with you because it’s delightful to me that there’s this overlap of stamps.

SW: That is amazing! I had a moment of horror when I was working on the book and I had to really get into stamps. That just isn’t my thing. I felt I had become the most boring person in the world by prattling on about stamps so I’m very glad you had a way to make stamps so interesting.

I think on the question of authors I’m going to be very brief because I think Dan’s work is so top-notch on this. When I read Dan’s book, I’m really struck by the way he does economic analysis and author studies and publication history but it never feels like solely one of those things. When you said, Kinohi, that doing author studies this way might be passé, I never feel when I’m reading Dan’s work that he’s really in that vein. I think that’s a testament to his ability at recombination—at making things speak to one another and only including them if they do. It’s something very striking about Dan’s methodology, about how you find the balance among these different channels. As for me, because I’m not someone who tends to work in this mode, I suppose I come at it from a slightly different angle. I’m very interested in the attachments we as readers have to versions of canonical authors. When I read Min Song’s work or Amy Elias’s, who are both here today, one thing that’s always exciting to me is that there’s an author you think you know and then you read their criticism and say, “oh, I had it wrong.” That might not be because there’s extensive work on an author’s archive but it’s the power of their readings. Of course everyone’s reading of a particular book or corpus can give us a different version of an author, but in dealing with an author like Pynchon, I’m very aware of the current version of Pynchon that we share. That might be a really different one that we had in the 1970s or 80s. And that’s where for me the author-oriented analysis happens: in trying to figure out why a consensus has formed around a particular author when that consensus might feel really wrong to me. That’s always a generative space for me to inhabit.

DS: I think that comes so clearly through in your book, Sarah. It came most forcefully through to me in the chapters on Pynchon, Robinson and DeLillo. It seemed to me like you were thinking about channeling those authors as being communicative actors who had something they humanly wanted to say in a way that made me feel like you got them right. As if now, this is right, this is the reading that I’ve wanted, especially of Pynchon and Robinson. It’s not the Pynchon as postmodern networked figure, it’s the Pynchon who’s striving for human connection and ephemeral utopias. And for Robinson, it’s not necessarily about feminist female spaces but she wants to think with us about cultivating transience.

SW: I think it’s really important to say—and I feel that this is true of your work too, Dan—that in trying to say “here’s the Robinson I can articulate now,” it’s not to say that the ones that came before were wrong. It’s that we exist in a different literary historical and material culture environment and so we can read those works in that frame and we get a different version of that human author behind the text. I think it’s important in keeping with the “let’s not throw out old theoretical frames because they are old” point to note that I’m really trying to generate for me what feels like the “right” reading but it’s at the “right moment” and not undo what’s come before.

DS: And I think that’s the Benjaminian training in you, the dialectical image. The work that’s been done between you and the text has actually cleared some space for the original text to shine forth and connect with you now. I think that’s an undergirding logic throughout the book.

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Read more:

Find Dan Sinykin’s remarks on Sarah Wasserman’s book The Death of Things: Ephemera and the American Novel (University of Minnesota Press, 2020) here.

Find Sarah Wasserman’s remarks on Dan Sinykin’s American Literature and the Long Downturn (Oxford University Press 2020) here.