Aiming for the Unmediated Response: A Conversation with Brandon Taylor

September 10, 2021   •   By Sean Hooks

BRANDON TAYLOR’S NEW BOOK — his first short story collection, Filthy Animals, published in June by Riverhead Books — serves as a follow-up to his acclaimed debut novel, Real Life (2020). A writer, editor, and essayist, Taylor was born in Alabama and studied chemistry at Auburn and then biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he was on his way to a doctorate before shifting to pursue an MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. His work has appeared in such venues as Guernica, American Short Fiction, Gulf Coast, Kink: Stories, O: The Oprah Magazine, Gay Mag, The Literary Review, LitHub, The Millions, Electric Literature, Necessary Fiction, and The New Yorker online. Plaudits include a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection and shortlists for the Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award.


In his early 30s, Taylor has achieved a rapid ascent in literary circles. In addition to his two published books, his work is also featured on his Substack platform, called “sweater weather: essays about literature, culture, and so many feelings.” An active participant in social media who is unafraid to wade into discomfiting topics and express complex, multidimensional points of view, this exciting young author has quickly progressed from fellowships with the Lambda Literary Foundation, Kimbilio Fiction, and the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop to a position as an acknowledged, prominent, and much-cited creative force in the contemporary literary scene. He is a prolific producer of content: Real Life is currently in development for production, with Kid Cudi attached as the lead, and a second novel, tentatively titled Group Show, is slated for release soon.


We corresponded in June 2021.


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SEAN HOOKS: Several of the stories in Filthy Animals seem to resist generic drama and contrived climax. Yet they refuse to be merely gnomic and vague, or to avoid plot resolution. You’ve written that you’re “interested in the banality of daily life” and have praised the “matter-of-factness” and “open, clear ambiguity” of writers like Alice Munro. Your novel Real Life and your lit-crit essay “that carver boy be spitting” exhibit an admiration of this modality as well. What drew you to this mode of writing?


BRANDON TAYLOR: When I first started writing, I loved the bombast of writers like Saul Bellow, John Updike, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, and Pat Conroy. But I think that sort of bombast, especially in male writers, is really just a defense mechanism, or a sneaky way of being sentimental without getting called a sissy. And I think that, in the hands of black writers, it’s also a way of being sentimental, but people are too afraid of being called racist to call it sentimentality.


But anyway, I moved away from that as I got older and started reading writers of a cooler temperament, let’s say. Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, Raymond Carver (though there is a seething rage in Carver and a tendency toward a different kind of sentimentality). Writers whose stories were driven by subterranean human drama.


I feel that, in a way, anyone can write a story that is impressive because of its pyrotechnics. But it feels harder to power a story with the banal commonness of everyday life. I try to drive my stories with real things and real feelings and the aftermath of feelings. I try to let the stories shift as life does, in these pale shades of difference, so that the meaning emerges not from things blowing up but from the subtle change that resolves everything suddenly into undeniable focus.


It’s not better than short story as spectacle. It’s not better than more language-driven stuff. But it is closer to my idea of moral fiction, which comes from D. H. Lawrence, fiction that preserves the true relation between things. I don’t like things to be too loud or too fussy. Maybe that’s just all my Protestant severity on display.


You’ve written that your experience at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop “was overwhelmingly one of hostile negativity,” yet also that Iowa City “has always been a really wonderful place to be a writer.” Do you think you just had a rough go of it at Iowa? Or do you find the MFA world’s approach oppressive or flawed?


Iowa City is a great place to be a writer. I stand by that. It’s a small town in the American Midwest, and yet there are literally plaques in the sidewalk honoring poets like Rita Dove and Jorie Graham. There are statues with quotes from Yiyun Li and Raymond Carver. It’s a city that loves its writers. It’s also cheap, and it has a great independent bookstore in Prairie Lights, so it truly is a place where writers can discover the subjects that most interest them.


The workshop is a different animal. It’s a world within a world, a context within a context. I personally had a shit time as a student. My classmates were all incredibly talented and brilliant, and my instructors were brilliant writers. But for whatever reason, I didn’t feel empowered as a writer there, or as a person. It just felt like I was getting my teeth kicked in every four weeks when I was up for workshop. And, you know, that’s life. I don’t think that my experience is generalizable into some statement about the worth or value of an MFA program writ large.


But I do think that the time when it was acceptable to have a student sit in silence while people take apart their work is over. I think that’s dead as a thing. It simply is not productive. And I think it’s coming time for writing programs to think very deeply about what pedagogical value they have. It’s not for me to say, but as a student, I did feel that, pedagogically, what was on offer felt very thin and very, at times, hostile.


I think we’re at a crossroads for the MFA program as a structure, and it’s well past time for it to be reconsidered. It’s just too paternalistic and too woo-woo. Or, well. I won’t say that’s true for all programs or for all people in all programs, but it certainly felt a bit woo-woo for me.


One of the things I like best about your rhetoric is its abiding deftness. It isn’t sloganeering, self-congratulatory, or purity driven. You like what you like, you acknowledge that some things are better than other things, yet you value breadth. You’re a man of layered and capacious tastes, with uninhibited and fiercely unapologetic opinions. Would it be fair to say that you aim to be inclusive yet rigorous when you analyze the arts?


That’s big, if true! The core of my approach to art is simply to avoid received notions as much as I possibly can. I just try to do what I was trained to do in my biochem doctoral program, which is to approach ideas and concepts and research and data with severe doubt and scrutiny. To take things and examine them as closely as possible. I think we live in a moment of high rhetoric and the pre-fab quote. The Lorem Ipsum of the marketing machine. That is not a judgment, it’s just a statement of fact.


Books get published and public opinion has been so pre-seeded by deft marketing and publicity that you almost don’t even have to read the reviews to know what they will say. There is something so pre-destined about the whole thing. There’s so little room left for real, genuine encounters with art. So, I just try to shut all of that out and to be receptive to things. I try not to let other people tell me what to do. It’s an increasingly rare thing these days, the unmediated response, and I try to present that to people as best I can.


So, yeah, I try to be rigorous. I try to be coherent. I try to respond to things in an honest way and hope that people can see my respect for artists and their art always.


Your “sweater weather” pieces on the Substack platform are delightful in their embrace of a sort of irascible whimsy (or whimsical irascibility), your refusal to be exhausted (or exploited) by clichés, and your scrupulous aversion to a lack of self-awareness. You spoke in a 2020 interview with PEN America about how “[n]onfiction is harder for me. I find it the total opposite of fiction. I don’t enjoy it! […] There’s so much more thinking in nonfiction, so much more confrontation with myself and my own ideas that it’s just super tedious, and I feel stupid the whole time.” Has it grown less hard and tedious, or does it just seem that way because of the vibrant prose and moxie in these essays?


I do find it less exhausting these days. Part of that has to do with the fact that I simply know more than I knew even a year ago. I’ve given myself this self-directed assignment to read as much criticism and theory regarding the American literary tradition as I possibly can. And so, I’m not having to build the machine from scratch every time I set out to write an essay. I don’t have to work quite as hard to build out the foundation of my ideas because I already have a solid foundation. I know things now. And I feel less pressure to try to be like someone else.


On Substack, I’m not trying to pin my interests into a news peg or into pop culture in a way I find tedious. I can write about things in ways that I find interesting, and I can play around. I don’t have to put on a voice or affect gravitas. So, yeah, I’ve found some freedom in the newsletter that I don’t think I felt before. But still, it’s not my natural mode. I’m much more at home in fiction. Though fiction has been more elusive for me these days.


Here’s one to tee off on should you be so inclined. The designations printed on the covers of books sometimes claim them as works of Queer Studies or Gay Fiction or the LGBT Novel. Are these dated terms, in your view, or useful categories? Are they potentially problematic but largely inoffensive labels, or do they stake out actual genres?


I think that those labels can be useful for certain kinds of readers. As a way of knowing what’s inside, a kind of shorthand. I don’t personally feel too charged about it all. I think I’m a generation removed from that. Although I do remember when it changed, sometime post-Obama. Before that, it used to be bad to label yourself as a gay writer or a black writer or a queer writer. It was limiting. And you were supposed to want to be “universal.” But within the last 12 or so years, that conversation has changed, and people find a lot of power in that identification. But I think, for writers of my generation, people who came up on Tumblr and Yahoo! Chatrooms, we have access to an ambivalence that I think even one generation earlier probably finds a little harder to claim for themselves.


And of course, one generation after me I think it’s kind of looping back around to the empowerment movements that first gave us those labels. It’s been an interesting shift in the culture in just my lifetime. But personally, I don’t care too much. I find it helpful when it’s helpful and tedious when it’s tedious.


In a world where so much discourse (especially online) leans into the vituperative and lacks empathy, how do you manage in both your fiction and nonfiction to recommit to the tasks of specificity and individuation?


I used to be an internet loudmouth who would drag people, to use the idiom, for what felt like lapses in morality and judgment. But then, I don’t know, I grew up. I think in art and in life, what it comes down to is remembering that people are people. They aren’t extensions of ideologies, and they aren’t symbolic projections. Whenever I get mad at someone for doing something “problematic,” I ask myself if I’m getting mad at the person or what I’m letting the person represent. When you decouple people from the network of societal wrongs that they come to stand for, then, at least in my case, I find it much too pathetic to tear a person to shreds.


In the case of art, I think that, when you dwell in the human specificity of a character’s life, the material of their days, their family, their friends, their thoughts about how things should be, then it’s almost impossible to go too wrong. Because then you aren’t too worried about matters of representation. You’re concerned with the individual human life you’re trying to portray. And it’s okay if people are a little uncomfortable with what you write, or with what you say. So long as you feel that you’ve done your job and you’ve been ethical and moral in your approach, then everything else is just, you know, the world.


And certainly, people will say and project, and maybe you didn’t do a great job, then that’s just data for next time. One of my teachers, Charlie D’Ambrosio, used to say something like, “You people are so smart. You write so smart. Everything is so deep. What you guys need is surface. I wish I could make you less smart so you would attend to the simple things.” And I tend to agree when it comes to the whole political thing re: representation and discourse. We get so caught up in systemic stuff that we forget that our job is pretty basic — writing characters. Specific, individual characters. And everything else comes after.


Allow me to close with a trifold of quickie questions. First, what’s your favorite narrative artwork about dance?


It’s maybe not my favorite favorite in terms of, like, artistic quality. But, man, Center Stage is just such good comfort food.


What’s a biochemical precept you find literary?


Allostery, because it perfectly describes what all the weird, flashy short story writers are always trying to do.


Finally, since your life path is associated with Alabama, Wisconsin, and Iowa, which state has the best diners and why? 


Wisconsin, hands down. They just know what they’re doing. Maybe it’s because there are so many truckers who transit through Wisconsin because of its proximity to Lake Michigan or whatever, but Wisconsin has the perfect mix of kitsch and German/Polish fried food that just hits home.


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Sean Hooks resides in Dallas and his website is www.seanhooks.com.