LEE SIEGEL IS a widely respected, award-winning literary and cultural critic, who is also, in some circles, a bit notorious. Famous for, among other things, a sock-puppet incident a decade ago and writing about the way he walked away from his student loans, the Montclair, New Jersey–based Siegel has taken the blows and kept writing, often on a wide array of topics, including the internet and Groucho Marx.
His new book, The Draw: A Memoir, tells the story of youthful struggles with money, which the writer inherited from his parents and grandparents, and Siegel’s fight to become a writer and independent thinker. While much of the book is built of memorable portraits of people he’s known — his grandparents, his parents, his high school friends and college girlfriends — The Draw is also a kind of latter-day Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but with a Mailer-esque pugnacity in place of a Joycean lyricism.
This conversation took place over email.
SCOTT TIMBERG: Wallace Stevens wrote that “money is a kind of poetry.” And yet there is not, it seems to me, that much American literature, especially these days, that looks explicitly at money and social class. Does it seem this way to you, and why might that be?
LEE SIEGEL: Money is the last taboo in contemporary writing — there is no Fifty Shades of Green. I have a simple, crude, and self-serving idea of why that is the case: the people in our world, from book editors to magazine and newspaper editors to writers, usually hail from pretty pampered backgrounds and live pretty pampered lives. Often they’re downright rich. It’s an article of faith among these liberal elites, if you will pardon the loaded term, that they got to where they are all by themselves, and that the meritocracy works — all government has to do is level the playing field. So they talk a lot about identity, which is an easy addition to their moral equity and requires no change to their lives. They can go right on lobbying to get into the Century Club, a bastion of the class of white bankers and white corporate lawyers who are making sure the status quo will never change. And they talk a lot about leveling the playing field for the black poor. But they know, deep down, that they will never have to rub shoulders with the black poor. And they know that their children will never have to compete with them for places at elite schools and at elite jobs.
The economic struggles of the white suburban lower-middle class and middle class, on the other hand, make them uncomfortable. It reminds them of their inherited advantages. If the subject is the economic struggle of a white person in their world, then they feel even more uncomfortable. Here is a person who did it all by himself or herself, and is competing in their own world to boot. When I published an op-ed in The New York Times about how I walked away from crushing student loans that I couldn’t pay, the most virulent commentary on my piece came from the most privileged liberals — one of them, from a super-wealthy New Orleans family, even suggested that my mistake was to want to go to Columbia rather than accepting my class and attending a trade school. He went to Harvard. The more genuine the portrait of economic struggle in their own precincts, the more inauthentic it makes our liberal friends feel, and the sterner their moral judgment. (I myself, politically, am somewhat to the left of Eugene Debs.)
So, in short, our crowd is not interested in books about money and social class unless they’re written by someone who inhabits an alien universe that they can dip into from a safe distance.
Music — especially jazz piano, and later classical — has a constant presence around the edges of the book, as an inspiration for pleasure, contemplation, and human connection. How do you see music’s role in your life?
I love music, and always have, but music plays such a central role in the book because my father started out as a jazz pianist. The book is about finding a way in life to fulfill your destiny in your work, rather than having to make money on the one hand, and trying to preserve your humanity on the other. It’s about finding work that allows your humanity to thrive inside it. For my father that was the dream of music as a profession, which he gave up — with disastrous consequences — for real estate, in order to support his family.
I inherited my father’s love for music, as well as his search, which he aborted, for work as a way to live, and living as a way of working. That is one deep theme in the book. The book is about this search for fulfilling your destiny in your work. I achieve it in the end by writing a memoir. That is to say, by doing that, I am making my life my work, and my work my life. A short-lived and not-very-consequential victory, but a victory nevertheless.
Your father comes across in the book as very sweet, poignant, and often outmatched by life. Sometimes it seems like his good nature gets in his way. It’s hard not to wonder what his life would have been like in other centuries or in other economic systems. Most of human history and prehistory, after all, took place before capitalism and before the use of currency (shells, silver coins, whatever) for exchange. Might he have fared better in another time?
My poor, gentle, clueless father would have been ground up at any time. Life does not reward you for being kind and passive, any more than it rewards you these days for clawing your way up without a smile and the appearance of caring, consideration, and virtue. The question I pose in the memoir, with its depiction of my father’s economic destruction, is: Would my father’s infirm will and lack of confidence have had a different outcome if money had not been the means by which they produced their effect? In other words, if it had not been economics that brought him down, he would have suffered, but he would have suffered, I think, in a less material way.
What memoirs did you use as a model for this one or, in a broader sense, admire and hope yours could end up on the shelf with?
No memoirs at all, actually. My inspiration was the coming-of-age picaresque novels that I read as a boy, books that told stories about people and about the societies they live in: Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Augie March, Invisible Man. If someone in some library or bookstore somewhere ever left my book on the same shelf — by accident, needless to say — as those, then I will have fulfilled a childhood dream.
Your sense of family dynamics is very perceptive and often very painful. I wonder if your ability to understand how family works came from being a father yourself. Did that provide any wisdom or a clarifying frame for your own childhood?
On the contrary. In my life now, I use my memory of the past as an example of exactly what not to do as a father. If anything, my experiences as a father and a husband have helped illuminate just how dysfunctional so much of my childhood and youth were.
Throughout the book there are several black characters, of varying degrees of centrality. The issue of cultural appropriation has become controversial lately, especially after a recent painting of Emmett Till by a white artist at the Whitney Biennial. Do you see both sides of the argument, or do you come down hard on it?
I try to see all sides of every argument. I think that in this case the proof is in the work in question. Is a white writer — to stick with my own medium — in trying to inhabit the mind of a black character, creating or distorting truth? Is this white writer truly apprehending something about being black in America or not? To what extent is a white novelist or memoirist surrendering herself or himself to the reality, existential and historical, of the black person or character she or he is trying to represent? I have learned a lot more about white people from Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and John Edgar Wideman than I have from most white novelists. Why should that dynamic not work both ways?
I recently asked a black woman who had written a memoir what she thought of white people writing about black people. She said, “It’s fine, so long as you don’t try to get inside our heads.” I respect her sentiment, but I don’t agree with it. Should I not try to get inside the heads of the black people I meet in my everyday life? Should I not try to understand them as African Americans, and also as individuals, period? If the answer is yes, then as a writer how much more necessary it is for me to do that. I think that when a white man explodes in America, it is his response to setback or disappointment. I think that when a black man explodes in America, it is his response to years or decades of being black in America. Am I not allowed to say that? We have an obligation to understand each other, an obligation that becomes all the more pressing the more different from us the people whom we encounter are.
I grew up with black people, worked alongside them, became friends with them, fell in love with them. On some level, having struggled with money and social class all my life, I feel closer to black people than to white people. When I was younger and a white landlord was suing me for eviction in housing court in Brooklyn — he had abruptly raised the rent to an impossible level — a black male judge bit the head off the two-bit white lawyer representing my landlord, and I stayed in the apartment. I think that if I ever continued my memoir, I’d want to get inside that judge’s head.
The Draw is reasonably short, and feels very distilled; there are very few wasted words, and a great deal suggested by a simple line or phrase. Is this part of your approach to prose in general, and do you work hard to make sure your writing feels boiled down and fully finished?
I love “reasonably” short. As if anything more or less would defy what is rational and acceptable — which is often the case. Well, I hate literary writing. Just despise it. Hate the elegant variation and any kind of prose that draws attention to itself. I believe that words should be apt, not beautiful — that they should be transparent, so that the reader looks right through them to what they are referring to. I think of Hemingway’s dictum: “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” But I was also having some fun with the language in this book. One of the books I loved as a boy and keep referring to in the memoir is, in fact, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I am also the “son” trying to rise through my circumstances in this book, and I play with that pun throughout the memoir, and also with the fact that this book about money starts with the moon and ends with the sun — the book, like a coin, has two very different sides, as does my life. So I consciously imitate Hemingway’s laconic style to some extent. But writing sheared of all literariness and prettiness is my ideal kind of writing.
Between the lines of the book is a sense of a young man who’s inspired by aesthetic things and depressed, frustrated, or bored by money, business, and the marketplace. Do you suspect this value system is typical for youthful artists and writers throughout time? Or is this point of view rare, or historically specific?
Defiance of materialism and the conventional pursuit of money and social status used to be a writer’s, and a young person’s, mother’s milk. In modern times, anyway. Now the future is so precarious for many young people that they often don’t have the luxury — or the ordeal — of that type of dissent. Even artists have to be as carefully careerist as lawyers or bankers. Fame used to be the goal. Now it’s wealth and social standing. Fewer and fewer people are sensitive, or sympathetic, to the consequences of this sea-change. My memoir is meant to be the antithesis of all that. It has its own definition of success, which is to write a book that is a complete, self-contained universe true only to itself. Its themes — mercy over justice, the sad depletion that ensues after fulfilling a fantasy of physical gratification, the peril of grabbing pleasure and postponing the consequences — are indicated in barely perceptible references to works and writers that exemplify those themes: the New Testament, Brecht, Shakespeare, Dante, and so forth. I tried to write the kind of book that I could have used as a boy to protect myself from all the forces that stood in the way of my becoming the man who could write this book.
You’ve written about visual art and television, Groucho Marx and the internet, and now your own youthful relationship with money and class. What’s next for the writer Lee Siegel?
I have two book proposals I’m working on — one for a little book about a certain intellectual style, and the other for a bigger book about politics. We’ll see what happens.