In the introduction to his New Yorker fiction podcast reading of Denis Johnson’s “Emergency,” famed “dirty realist” Toby Wolff remarked that the story is one known by “every person who fancies herself literate that I’m acquainted with”. I’d submit that any Wesleyan student who considers hirself literate was surely aware of, if not greatly enthused by, the presence of Pulitzer-winning author Michael Cunningham on campus last week. At a reading in Memorial Chapel last Wednesday, Cunningham rattled off a charmingly hurried analysis of the development of the English novel (one could not help but notice the particular attention to his modernist forebears) and proceeded to preview an excerpt from “Sleepless”, a yet unfinished novel ostensibly centered around the peregrinations of two drug-addled youths and their quest for greater self-location.
Notwithstanding an interruption caused by the absence of a page from his manuscript, Cunningham read splendidly.
The Argus published a wonderful account of Cunningham’s chapel evening, but touched only briefly on his master class talks. I was lucky enough to attend one hosted in the Shapiro Center last Friday morning, and happened to record some of his more flavorful remarks.
I’ve culled a few for y’allz enjoyment:
On coping with technological advancement: “Who wants to be that crabby old fuck who won’t have a cell phone, who won’t have a computer?”
On having new work evaluated for the first time: “I need this to have the sort of realness that’s imparted by another set of eyes.”
On the difficulties inherent to that scrutiny: “Shame is under disgust as something the writer deals with.”
On tenacity: “I was the one who just refused to stop. If you don’t give up, you maximize your chances of finally busting through.”
On publishing (and was there ever a lot to be said about publishing): “Oh, God, it is tough. You are entering the world of publishing at a particularly difficult time. Publishers are more and more wary of publishing something that does not have an obvious commercial appeal.”
Also: “Some of this is a crapshoot. The big houses, for the most part, are factories.”
On his relationship to the reader: “Readers are with me when I write . . . I go for a light and dark, funny and sexy relationship with the reader.”
An analogy for the hypothetical exclusion of the reader from the process: “I’d go home every night and bake an incredibly elaborate cake and eat it by myself . . . sad, really.”
Some obligatory undergrad retrospection: “When I graduated from Stanford, I knew two things: that I wanted to write and I wanted to disappear. By the end of four years, I was so tired of people who wanted to be corporate lawyers and doctors solely for the prestige . . . it was a hotbed of venal ambition. I just wanted to write and vanish.”
Cunningham also relayed an inspiring anecdote about his first publication in The New Yorker, “White Angel”, which was by his account salvaged by then-EIC Robert Gottlieb after being initially dismissed by his predecessor William Shawn (the latter apparently did not care to read stories about children fornicating and drinking in cemeteries…go figure). I managed to locate the story, which is available to digital edition subscribers here. It is marvelous, affecting, and elegiac—quite exemplary of the culturally-located and intricately beautiful prose that has come to define his style.