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Dignity Through Narrative


“Think about the last time you read a novel in which someone went to cash a benefit check or paid for food in food stamps.”

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Last September, I found myself in a packed auditorium at The New School in New York for the launch of Freeman’s, a biannual literary journal conceived by the editor, writer, and critic John Freeman. On the cover of this issue, the names of Anne Carson, Lydia Davis, and Haruki Murakami appeared between newer authors such as Ishion Hutchinson and Laura van den Berg; at the event, Hutchinson’s unassumingly elegant recital of Windfall and van den Berg’s uncontrollably funny reading of The Dog made their places clear among confirmed champions. The launch was spirited, informed, and generous in a uniquely Freeman way. He speaks—often at length—in the enthused yet not overbearing manner of a city organizer or a weekend volunteer encouraging you to vote. It’s no surprise that Freeman has spent most of his career organizing and advocating for some of the most vital literary voices of the last two decades.

“Very little in the world that is interesting happens without risk, movement, and wonder,” Freeman writes in his first letter to the reader. This notion is at once his prevailing professional ideology and personal mantra. Freeman grew up in the Midwest, Long Island, Pennsylvania, and then, California. He has worked at a bank, an advertising agency, as an editor of children’s books, and as president of the National Book Critics Circle. This might account for some of his interest in finding and addressing others of the same pension—those who float on the margins—and his preoccupation with the complexities and contradictions of the social world, specifically in America.

Freeman’s own writing roves over a number of topics in an effort to contextualize the way we live, and live with one another. He has published three books: The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox, How to Read a Novelist, and Tales of Two Cities: The Best and Worst of Times in Today’s New York. The latter, an anthology published in 2014, examines the wealth gap in New York and its effects on everyday people in a remarkably earnest way. Perhaps Freeman’s greatest strength—or at least something he takes great pleasure in—is bringing together an international array of writers to create lasting narratives about human resilience and dignity, whatever the odds.

In 2008, Freeman landed at the literary magazine Granta and stayed as editor—first in New York, then in London—for five years. This is where the idea for Freeman’s originated: “It occurred to me about halfway through my time at Granta that at some point I would like to do something on my own,” he says in our interview. In founding Freeman’s, he made good on his desire to seek out those whose voices have oft been ignored in the publishing world and give them both a sounding board and a blank canvas. The result is a distinctly twenty-first century narrative able to stretch beyond the literary sphere, and the US, reaching the many who are unsatisfied with the inequalities in everyday life and the seeming lack of positive, progressive leadership around the world.

“There’s something exciting about watching a good writer, who lives publicly, thinks publicly, makes a breakthrough publicly, and rises to the occasion of a serious challenge,” Freeman told me when we sat down to talk late last year. As it turns out, the same can be said for a good editor.

Elizabeth Karp-Evans for Guernica

Guernica: The first issue of your new journal, Freeman’s, is themed around arrivals. If this latest project could be said to represent an arrival for you professionally, where did you begin?

John Freeman: As soon as I started studying, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in a very declarative quest. My dad’s thing was to try to get us to think about what we would do with the rest of our lives from about age ten onward. I thought about becoming a consultant. I thought about becoming a health policy advocate. I wanted to become a museum administrator for a while. I think Swarthmore produces quite a few doctors and lawyers, as well as social activists, think-tank policy wonks, academics. I knew I didn’t want to be any of those things. By the time I was a senior in college, I’d slowly come around to the fact that the thing I liked most and enjoyed most was reading. I didn’t realize there’s a whole career for people like us.

I was a bit panicked [when I graduated college] to be honest, because I had no usable skills. My two cross-country roommates were moving [to New York]; I had never even considered moving there. I had talked to an alum, a guy who used to edit the fiction section at the New Yorker, about publishing and it sounded really interesting. I thought, “I guess I should try to get a job here. Scott and Ben are doing it.” Isn’t it funny, in retrospect, how accidental many of your most important life decisions prove to be?

Guernica: Or how much of what we perceive as our own agency is actually based on our relationships with other people.

John Freeman: When I first moved I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to stay. It takes a while to find your people. It took me a long time to make really lasting, deep friendships—it wasn’t until I started to work freelance entirely—the type where you can’t explain why you’re friends, but you know that you’re loyal, and you have all kinds of things that you share in common. Then, beyond that, there’s something like love. It took me into my late twenties to start meeting people like that. Part of the problem was, I wasn’t hanging out with writers. I was hanging out with mostly editorial assistants. It took a while for me to start writing, and once I started writing, I’d meet other writers.

Guernica: It’s interesting that freelancing enabled you to have more of a social life, a public life. Community is vital to personal narrative and storytelling, but I think most people would say freelancing is an isolating job.

John Freeman: I’m teaching a class on freelance at The New School, and we just read Willie Morris’s New York Days. It’s an autobiography, not a memoir, and so it’s a lot about public people. We talked about how it seems like social gatherings are really important to people in publishing, and I think some of it’s because we’re in a small industry. We’re in a small subset of the American population, doing something that the rest of the population has pretty much declared irrelevant, so you have to reinforce those values, but some of it is because significant portions of our community of writers spend all their time alone. By the end of the day, unless they really are misanthropes, or anti-social people, writers need to see people.

Guernica: Was the impetus for Freeman’s an effort to bring together and solidify the community of writers you work with?

John Freeman: It occurred to me about halfway through my time at Granta that at some point I would like to do something on my own, but I just didn’t know what it was. For a while I’d been thinking about opening a bookstore, and growing a journal out of the bookstore. It would not be something you could do casually. The bookstores I admire, like City Lights, were started in a different time. I thought about a bookstore. I thought about a bar that was connected to a bookstore. Ultimately, when I moved back to New York two things happened: I was just so shocked to be living in one place full-time and I experienced the gaps between rich and poor much more intensely. My brother was homeless at the time. Those two things came together and I put together Tales of Two Cities. While I was doing that I thought, I really like doing this: having a thought, realizing other people have it, and then making something, which feels like it has power to connect, change, or at least move people that I don’t know.

Both of my parents were social workers and had worked in some capacity with clients who were homeless or very poor. We spent some Christmases driving to public housing projects to give out presents. I don’t remember feeling good about it—partly because whenever there were kids my age they ran from the door and I knew that reaction was from shame. Both of my brothers have been homeless at one time or other. When my younger brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, I became much more attuned to homelessness in cities because so many of the people who are on the streets suffer from a mental illness—by the time he became homeless in 2012 or 2013, I had worried about this happening for some time. And then it did and it was even worse than I’d feared. I’m so glad, and so impressed, by how he got his life back on track.

Guernica: Was publishing Tales of Two Cities and Freeman’s a mechanism for exploring and offering ways forward on deeply complex social issues, like homelessness, race, and mental illness?

John Freeman: I think writing in general can help us deal with anything we fear, anything which troubles us, anything that makes us angry or moves us. In fact, in most cases, writing has to engage with these feelings—the lack of engagement you find in parts of American writing is a form of imperialism turned inward. We don’t see the poor, the abject, the destitute in fiction and literature nearly as much as we should.

Publishing has no onus to be representative, but a fourth of America lives in conditions close to or below the poverty line. Think about the last time you read a novel in which someone went to cash a benefit check or paid for food in food stamps, or got off a double-shift at a retail store and were having their home or car repossessed. These are the conditions in which much of this country lives and it is a dereliction of capability (not duty) to ignore it in literature.

Guernica: You’re currently working on the second issue of Freeman’s. What will it be themed around?

John Freeman: Family. I was going to make the second theme humor and was going around talking to all the funny writers [but] no one who’s funny wants to hear, “You’re funny, do it again.” I should have just asked funny writers to write and then lumped them under humor, which I still might do. The only pieces that came in that round of work were about family.

Guernica: Do you find yourself asking writers to address contemporary issues when you call for submissions or is a sociopolitical aspect secondary to the narrative each writer wants to tell?

John Freeman: I find that commissioning around current events is very risky, especially if you want a literary piece. The best thing to do is to find someone that’s already there, already doing something. Otherwise you’re being airdropped. Magazines are very good at airdropping people in, who explain the situation and create a kind of overall arch for the story, then find a person who’s been there and follow that person through the bulk of the story. That person humanizes the dimension of the story. I think it’s much more interesting to try to let things happen organically, at least as a literary journal rather than a news magazine.

I don’t envy news magazine editors or weekly magazine editors, like the New Yorker, their task. They really have to get the news. As a literary journal, I don’t have to do that. Our news cycle is so unforgiving—and assumes exhaustion because it beats things to death with a stupid stick—that perpetual concerns don’t last. You could have this refugee crisis in Europe for the next ten years but it won’t be in the news in the same way because the news is going to look for some other target. The kinds of pieces that you can write longform often benefit from a bit of reflection, and that’s not such a bad thing.

I do believe in narrative as a way of restoring dignity of people in the world.

Guernica: How do you balance selecting writing that is reflective, but perhaps outside popular cultural narratives, and writing that might have a more immediate resonance?

John Freeman: I want to reach the largest amount of people, but I start with making the piece the best it can be—I find out what it wants and needs to be and then make that. Once it’s in that form, then I worry about getting it out to the world. A journal is a sort of high-class mentoring device. It will reach a group of readers that are largely already onboard with many things, but it will reach some unexpected people too, and it will hopefully enable those writers who have written those pieces to write other pieces. The “already onboard people” can still be very influential markets, because they’re readers, and publishers, and writers, but it might be that tipping point between them changing the way they are in the world. I know I’ll never compete with Major Lazer. I was running the other day, and I realized that the song I was listening to had been downloaded 900 million times—definitely fewer than that number of people have listened to Gandhi. Major Lazer is more effective at reaching people than Gandhi. If I could make a song out of whatever I’m trying to do, I would be doing it, but this is what I know how to do.

I do believe in narrative as a way of understanding the world, a way of dealing with the world, a way of restoring the dignity of people in the world. I firmly believe in that. I know that at some point, if I can work with the best writers possible on themes that matter, maybe it won’t be today or this year or next year, but far down the line it will have some kind of unintended consequential effect. It’s my only form of faith.

Guernica: Do you think it’s possible today to produce a collective, relatable narrative for the people in the US solely through the work of writers who are published in this country?

John Freeman: Narratives are individual; after that they become myths because you need to abstract a narrative to make it apply to many at once. Literature is of course subjective and universal when it’s great, but that’s something different than making a narrative people can relate to. There are ways of looking at the world that are just simply different based on who you are, because you are around different sights and smells and reference points and metaphors. It’s very hard to duplicate the way that texturizes the writing.

Since the US is made by, composed of, and descended of immigrants, its language is far more porous than most cultures, and that helps our writing. Its narrative has to be made up of many narratives. You can’t tell it in one story; it has to be polyphonic. And that includes the tales of people from outside the country. Imperially, the footprint of the US falls so heavily around the world it’d only be fair to rope writers outside the US into our narrative, too. There is so much done in the name of American values and needs with military or economic violence—much we don’t feel at the heart of the empire. Imagine if someone else were sending remote control missiles into Montana on a weekly basis… from Belgium. Or forcing people in Montana to grow only rubber trees in order to get a crucial loan to make the state’s economy float. People in Montana would want a say in Belgium’s narrative too.

Guernica: Your tenure at Granta, which began in 2008 and lasted until 2013, seemed to be very much about, to use your phrase, “seeing people”—exposing the way that writers write who aren’t in the public eye, who haven’t been widely published. How did you come to that approach?

John Freeman: I worked first as the American editor for a year. Then for a little over four years I was editor of Granta [in London]. I felt like the magazine hadn’t adjusted to the realities of the world that it had, frankly, eulogized. They had chronicled, I think, in some ways, the unbuilding of the colonial empires, and the aftermath of that, but they hadn’t picked up from that moment. There was an interregnum between say, the pieces Rushdie was writing in the ’80s and what is happening now.

We’ve shifted back to an image-based culture, an oral culture, but we have a written culture at the same time.

Guernica: The Observer has described Granta as “determined to witness the world.” Does this type of pioneering aesthetic seem less important now that more people have greater access to the Internet, and eyewitness accounts?

John Freeman: We’ve shifted back to an image-based culture, an oral culture, but we have a written culture at the same time; we’re texting and talking with each other a lot through words, but we’re also using Instagram and Facebook, and heavily mediated visual forms of getting information.

I have some students who are in their early 20s, and the largest commonality that I’ve noticed in them is the influence of Instagram. It’s the ability for everyone to set-direct their lives. It becomes a weird prerogative for experience and value; if your value’s only valuable to you, then it doesn’t have any value. I feel like one of the clearest markers of an obsession with the self, or some kind of snag on the self, is when you look at someone’s Instagram or Facebook and it’s just got tons of pictures of themselves. They can’t process experience without the image of their face in the picture. It’s also led so much to a misinterpretation of writers, like Joan Didion. She used to sell [the self] as an optic, and then in her bad pieces, became self-obsessed. She’s become a mascot for self-obsessed people. I miss the Didion of Political Fictions. That book is really smart, it smokes. It’s such a great demolisher of political narratives.

Longform journalism of the type Granta produces is slightly anachronistic, even if it still has value. The question is how to articulate that value, and that was something that I certainly struggled with. My mode of doing that was to try to expand the pools of writing that Granta was pulling from, because from my other observations, strictly on writing, it was largely English and white. They had to find the new Márquez, the new Doris Lessing. But you can’t do that on your own if you don’t speak six languages, or ten.

Guernica: Is the readership different in England for that reason? The amalgamation of languages and cultures that have existed side by side for hundreds of years in western Europe must produce an attention to place, to where the story is coming from and who is telling it.

John Freeman: Perhaps western Europe is more skeptical of nationalism, for all kinds of obvious reasons. I think there are national tropes and narratives in a lot of American writing, even if it’s writing against those things—writers writing against them produces some of the best work. Every novel that you see engaging with the American Dream, which is a very high-school theme even though it’s real, is often trying to tell you that it’s clearly just a dream—that, actually, what living in this country is like is difficult for all sorts of reasons. The readership in Europe, I think, is a little impatient with anything that takes for granted the value of national identity. The idealized themes in literature in the US are very reflective of culture. In many ways, we are absorbing it in the films we watch, the advertisements and newspapers, the general uplift of news that’s sold here. Watch the BBC and watch our news and it’s a completely different genre.

Guernica: I think there’s a surprising amount of apathy from those of us watching towards what are certainly middle-class problems being depicted onscreen en masse on a daily basis. Why is that?

John Freeman: I think there’s a collective insanity that’s produced through the media, through the culture that we’ve grown up in, that leads people to vote against their interests. Democracy depends on educated citizens, and two of the main prongs or pillars of that—free, informed, and rigorous press, and education that’s open and free to everyone—have been chipped away at very assiduously by the market, by all kinds of forces. It’s largely forces that want to transfer wealth from the state back into the hands of the people, specifically into the hands of the very, very rich.

Guernica: Consumption is so different than it once was. You can have what appears to be a lot in terms of consumer goods in this country and not have very much money.

John Freeman: Ursula Le Guin pointed that out when I interviewed her. She said, I was alive in the ’20s and people would come to our doorstep, and they’d look poor. They had different clothes. They looked starving. And now, someone can be quite poor, and you won’t know necessarily just by looking at them. Consumption cycles have changed too. We can now buy clothes, and goods, and services that are extremely cheap, because of the way that capital markets have opened up cheap labor in other parts of the world, in developing economies and democracies. As a result, I think that the American empire and American impoverishment are deeply connected. Making that argument is virtually impossible on the national stage, because it seems like you’re arguing against cheap stuff and the American Dream.

Guernica: On the topic of the American Dream, you said you didn’t know quite what you wanted to do when you were in school. Now that you’ve worked in the literary community and published significantly, when you look at the time in between, does it make you think that perhaps people achieve things later in life than in previous generations?

John Freeman: I’m astonished when I look at the lives of writers or editors from the 1940s, ’50s or ’60s, how much they did before the age of forty. Philip Roth won the National Book Award for his first book. By the time he was forty he’d published seven books. This is absurd. John Updike published four or five books and had four kids by the time he was twenty-nine. Flannery O’Connor did all her work before she was thirty-nine! Now if you write a novel before you’re thirty you’re a phenomenon. I knew by the time I was twenty-one years old that I wanted to write and work in books somehow, so I wasn’t necessarily late to this work, I just took a while to develop, especially as a writer—I had a lot to learn and still do. I ended up doing this in public as a book reviewer.

Some people just came out fully formed, the true outliers. Very few people I know who debuted in their twenties are still around, though. That didn’t stop me from feeling a certain pressure at the time. I can remember being around twenty-seven and wondering if I’d ever write a book. It was a stupid feeling to some degree; I didn’t have an idea or story that possessed me. Looking back, it was a good thing: being in the dark for a while forced me to develop a way of seeing the world—in language—that was my own. I think facility can be your enemy when you’re young to some degree. There are just so many other people writing and publishing now, so many people doing everything. It’s a nice thing. I think this notion that there’s going to be a sort of dominant group of writers that you will have had to read, even that you can have that conversation, is largely over.

I was trying to write about the fact that the driving metaphors of our lives are not human-scale metaphors.

Guernica: In your first book, The Tyranny of E-mail, one of the main points that I think you’re trying to make is that we’re not naturally equipped to deal with the abundance of information in our lives today, the unrelenting communication that’s present.

John Freeman: I was trying to write about the fact that the driving metaphors of our lives are not human-scale metaphors. Technology has infiltrated language in the way that we talk about doing daily tasks; we use computer-like metaphors to describe ourselves. Jaron Lanier said it better than I did: you’re not a gadget. He can show that by using computers not just as metaphors but also as actual prosthetic devices, we’re losing at each step of the way. For example, the way that music is coded is based on a keyboard and a keyboard is not a piano, therefore your sound is already diminished before it even gets to you. That’s what I was trying to write about. It feels like people are aware now that they have to modulate themselves, because it’s unrelenting. It’s a product cycle.

Guernica: Do you ever think about the longevity of your online footprint and where your writing will be in twenty years, fifty years?

John Freeman: No, I don’t actually. The thing I think about is whether I’m doing the right thing writing what I’m writing. I’ve become so politically exercised in the last two years, for various reasons, that I wonder, is being involved in the literary culture enough? Should I be out writing the next Let Us Now Praise Famous Men? At some point, I yearn for that moment where I can find a way around books, or through books, into what feels like the real world. Yet, books to me are the real world.

I’m editing for people that are seeking a deeper engagement than can be had by the way that they read, and what they read online, at least for Freeman’s. I think literary readers are still hungry for the deeper emotions so I try not to think about what it’s competing with or against. You can get Freeman’s on Kindle, and other platforms, but it’s never going to be online, on screen, except for maybe one small part. Basically, you’re going to have to read it, as a physical thing. As a journalist or cultural writer, I don’t think that I’ve ever seen someone reading something I wrote in print, but I know it’s out there. The Internet, to me, seems like an example of a really well-stocked library.

Guernica: What are you reading right now?

John Freeman: I’m writing a piece for the BBC radio about a group of books by black writers: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Terrance Hayes, Margo Jefferson, and Tracy K. Smith. It’s about the differences between what they’re doing and what their antecedents are doing. I’m reading this book [Race: An Anthology in the First Person] that was produced in the mid ’90s and all the writers in it—Audre Lorde, John Edgar Wideman, Gerald Early, Bart Schneider (who edited the book)—none of them have been part of this conversation that’s been happening. For me, the biggest and most lasting memory of this year, as a reader, has been the moment in which books by black writers about black lives, or black bodies and the threat that they live under in public space, caught up to news events. They were moving apace with each other. It seemed this year there was no gap between literary culture and what you were following in the news, and that is almost impossible.

What is truly terrifying is the realization that these books have been coming for a long time, because the things we are witnessing have been happening for a long time. How many different ways can you say, “I am a person and I matter. Here’s my culture and here’s where I’m from”? I feel like there’s a very insidious form of disempowerment from that position, which is to say, you’re writing about smaller topics because you’re writing about identity. You’re writing about marginalized topics, because you’re writing from a marginal point of view. What is great about this moment is realizing that the larger topic here is not race, though that’s part of it; it’s about dignity. I feel like that was appreciated, and that almost never happens. It happened across all genres.

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