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The Future of American Fiction: An Interview with Adam Levin

If you haven’t noticed, we spend a lot of time thinking about literature here in the Flavorpill offices, digging through its past, weighing its current state, and imagining its future. Take a look at our bookshelves and you’ll find us reading everything from Nobel Prize winners to age-old classics to paperbacks printed at the bookstore down the street. Call it Chick-Lit, Hysterical Realism, Ethnic-Lit, or Translit — if it’s good fiction, we’ll be talking about it. So this summer, we’re launching The Future of American Fiction: an interview series expanding on that endless conversation about books we love, and yes, the direction of American fiction, from the people who’d know. Every Tuesday from now through August, we’ll bring you a short interview with one of the writers we think is instrumental in defining that direction.

This week, we spoke with Adam Levin, whose two most recent books — 2010’s wonderful behemoth The Instructions and this year’s charming short story collection Hot Pink — have quickly turned him into one of our all-time favorite authors. Quirky but not precious, deeply felt but not sentimental, and often balanced on the sharp edge of practical surreality, his work has garnered him comparisons to David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, and Philip Roth — but we think he’s a literary force all his own. He also has quite a few reading recommendations for you.

How would you characterize the state of American fiction today? What do you love and/or hate about it?

I think American fiction is alive and well. I read new stuff all the time. Much of the best work being published isn’t as widely read as it should be, but I think that’s always been the case. I don’t know that I love or hate anything about American fiction that I don’t love or hate about the fiction of any other nation. Generally, I’m not too crazy for fiction that isn’t funny, nor fiction that subtly (or not so subtly) praises its readers for their accidentally having been born into prosperity or political advantage. I can’t stand fiction made of dull sentences. I dislike characters who are “driven” by “unconscious motivations.” I like events and ill-advised premises.

Your two books are an enormous tome and a collection of shorts – does writing short fiction feel different to you than writing The Instructions did? Do you like one better than the other?

I don’t like one better than the other. The big difference between writing The Instructions and writing the short stories in Hot Pink was that I felt free, even sometimes obligated, when writing the stories — which I worked on and off at since about 1999 or 2000 — to put them down for long periods of time in order to come back to them with clearer eyes or deeper fascination, and in the meantime work on other stories, or The Instructions, whereas, when writing The Instructions, any time I put it down for more than half a day, I felt like I was fucking up.

In Hot Pink, six of the ten stories revolve around children – is there something about the childish world or worldview that particularly appeals to or inspires you?

I wish I had something fancy and true to say about this, but I don’t. Here, though, are some answers that I came up with which might have some truth to them, and which, if they don’t, hopefully make up for their truthlessness with fanciness: children often talk weird; I read JD Salinger an awful lot when I was younger; children tend toward monomania, have the capacity to be overwhelmed by joy without simultaneously fretting the end of that joy, and can be extremely emotional, all of which makes motivating them believably a relatively easy task; time moves slow for them; they like to believe in stuff; they can put all their strength into punching you, and it still won’t hurt much.

Where do you see American fiction going — or, perhaps where do you hope and/or dread it will go?

I don’t really believe in any kind of uniform or united American fiction, so I’m not sure how to approach this question. People are going to keep writing books and the vast majority of those books are going to be less than good, and a relative few will be beautiful and permanent, and that’s how it’s always been, at least as far as I can tell. I hope Philip Roth will publish more fiction soon. I hope Salinger’s vaults were as filled with unpublished novels and stories as they were rumored to be, and that those works are as great as I imagine, and that they’ll be published. I dread the thought of neither of those things happening. Salvador Plascencia’s next book — I can’t wait to read it. Same with George Saunders’, Adam Novy’s, Christian TeBordo’s, Rebecca Curtis’, Jeff Parker’s, John Brandon’s, Bill Cotter’s, Sara Levine’s, Ben Lerner’s, Katherine Dunn’s, Stuart Dybek’s, Rachel B. Glaser’s, Daniel Torday’s, Nicholson Baker’s, Mary Gaitskill’s, Steven Millhauser’s, the electronic book by Kevin Moffet and Eli Horowitz and Matthew Derby, Ken Kalfus’ next one, Lydia Davis’, Padgett Powell’s, Sam Lipsyte’s, and at least ten others I’m forgetting. Probably twenty. Possibly thirty. I almost forgot to mention Don DeLillo’s and Cormac McCarthy’s next books, so that doesn’t say a lot for my ability to answer this question this morning, if I’m even answering this question this morning, which is actually the afternoon. I’m hung over.

The fun question: what’s the last good book you read?

I loved Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, but in the course of reading it, I went back to a couple passages in Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine, and a few stories in The Awful Possibilities by Christian TeBordo, so I’m not sure which book should count as having been the last good one I read.

Illustration by Geoff Mak.

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