READ LYNNE TILLMAN. That is all one need say for an introduction to her work. Then read her aloud. I could stop here. I won’t. She has a new collection of essays out called WHAT WOULD LYNNE TILLMAN DO? (The title is taken from an ad campaign for the photography magazine Dear Dave, rather than an act of hubris). A better question, however, is What Can Lynne Tillman Do For You? If you are a reader, it will be to bring you joy, witnessing how she slyly slips around ideas so seamlessly, smartly, humorously, catching you almost off guard. If you are a writer, the answer is change your world. For me she is part of the very reason I write, and an even bigger part of how I came to write about art. And, for the next two Sundays, we at The Weeklings are running essays by her. Because we are dedicated to the essay and she has plumbed the form and pushed its limits (she also writes novels), it only seems apt that given the opportunity to run some of hers, we would jump at the chance.
Now if there is anyone who could be a saint or lodestar or god or the like by which I guide myself, she is it. Just this morning I was rereading her essay for frieze, the British art magazine to which we both contribute, on “Decade-ism,” or the fickleness of the art world’s allegiances – and her own. The essay starts here:
In work and love, people get boxed in, edged out, ruined; others find acceptance, win prizes and are vied for. A few are venerated, even adulated. True meritocracies are rare. Talent aside, whatever it is, human beings, like animals favor their own, cautiously adopting outsiders, especially those who will keep treasure close. A sociologist once told me that the only outcome your college statistically and reliably predicts is your marriage partner.
Yes, boxed in, edged out, ruined. Simply that list makes my heart skid. In the middle of the piece she writes:
I regularly question my preferences. Why I like or dislike writing, a photograph. I don’t trust experience, even if it has shaped me; [how I love her semicolons even] I don’t fervently trust what I think or believe, while I believe it still. A pox on absolutes. I could trace a genealogy of what I think and like, which is, to some extent, what I was exposed to, taught, made conscious of, and decided not to be or accept. Tendrils of difference and objections sprouting rebellions and self-discoveries – I could list them. But I couldn’t create an order for my character, and hold it/me to a neat line.
The essay is a revelation, as it slides around ideas, taking in Duchamp and art fashions, literature and taste with breadth and brevity. It amazes me. I had to write two different essays, the first a long review of a decade-ism type show at The New Museum last year, and the other some 4000 words for The Weeklings trying to get at a similar point.
So, what would Lynne Tillman do, is something I often ponder. She shows the possibilities of the essay form, and I read her sentences aloud to myself trying to understand her ability to compress language for a larger meaning. She puts pressure on words so the result ends up being something greater, something she achieves with amazing economy. In a recent issue of Bomb Sara Jaffe focused on her use of “or” – or of all things, one of the most throwaway words, just two little letters. Jaffe wrote this:
This is not a noncommittal or, a milquetoast or. It’s not indecisive. It’s an or that makes a claim: or as both/and, but more economical. For a long time, I’ve wondered how prose can achieve the simultaneity that music does. Not the complexity of an orchestra, but the dry, skeletal tension of a song by the Minutemen: guitar on top of bass on top of drums…..
Tillman’s or says you can feel this way or that way or the ways in between. Tillman’s or is “deliquescent,” a term that describes a melting process, but also means the manner in which certain trees (oaks) branch or fork off to form new branches with similar dimensions. Nothing in a Tillman sentence melts.
But what would she do? In reading WWLTD, I find her words and advice over the years floating back hauntingly. I first encountered her before I was a writer or even thought I wanted to be a writer. I was an undergraduate at Barnard and had pictured a life before me of academia. I was going to be an art history professor. I was going to wear black. I was going to live downtown. But, I was already bracing against academia and the strictures of traditional art history and the limitations of writing in that world, for that audience. So, for Columbia’s art history grad students league (a group whose proper title has slid from memory), I organized a reading of writers who were inspired by theory but didn’t write theoretically about contemporary culture. The three were Lynne and poets David Trinidad and Eileen Myles. Already that was my model, only I had no idea what they were modeling or teaching me, not really, not yet. Her character Madame Realism, who grew from her writing in Art in America, seemed the way forward. She still does, while Lynne wrote in a way that was suffused with critical thinking but was not academic. Instead it was beautiful. It offered me up an “or,” a new option for looking and living.
Now reading her writing on Paul and Jane Bowles, which is about her debts to them as a writer, I can tell you one of my biggest is to Lynne. Her writing is brave and forthright and shows that criticism need not be literal. Or, rather that in criticism there’s room for artistic license too. None of which manages to say how much I owe her.
Then there are the personal debts, like my name. I married in 1998, and she asked if I was going to take keep my surname. I was undecided, not that I wasn’t a feminist, but my husband’s name “Rainbird” was – is – beautiful. It has a lyricism missing from Kabat, which means “trench coat” in Czech. She declared that wasn’t the issue, the issue was me, my name, my identity and all the work I’d done already. I thought that work insignificant at that point. Still, her insistence stuck with me – also her take on Kennington, the nearly anonymous neighborhood where I’d be living in London. I wish I could quote her now on both these instances, only here I am on page 50 of her collected essays, and she is saying: “Hearing English spoken by Dutch and English people didn’t foster my American writing.”
She is writing about being an expat and needing to return home. She is writing about Jane and Paul Bowles and what she learned from Jane. Here on pages 39-40:
Jane Bowles ignored the worn lines between conscious and unconscious life; she beggared the realist novel with writing indifferent to prosaic notions of reality. Her dialogue is … peculiar and condensed as speech in jokes and dreams…. (She) shifted the ground for me – she made the world of writing move. Move over and sigh.
All of which I’d say about Lynne herself – if only I had the words…. If only I could use an incomplete sentence as well. So, as I read these two essays on the Bowleses, that bit on language and being an expat returns like a phantom. I hear her caution me about losing my American language (something to bear in mind with her short essay “Twee Kamers” which we are running on May 25th with three other of her super-short, paragraph-long essays). And, she was right. I’d forgotten this though until I hit page 50. Indeed, my time in the UK was scarred by living with a foreign version of my own tongue. The two versions of English bore ghostly similarities, but the slips were jarring, and I would walk by Buckingham Palace just to hear American accents, gluey and slangy Californian or flattened down Midwestern vowels. Now I can hear clearly the clarinet quality of her voice on the phone as I’m preparing to leave New York.
She also writes about keeping every letter Paul Bowles sent her, and me, I’ve had a typed manuscript (from a typewriter, from the era of typewriters!) of one of her short stories for decades. I’ve lugged it to a handful of apartments in New York, then San Francisco and back, around more apartments in New York, to London, and finally to where it sits now on my desk in the Catskills. On the first page her signature is concealed by Wite-Out. Why, I wonder. The story starts with a meditation on Ten-Ten Wins, the all-news AM station whose insistent call I was also obsessed with. I kept the station on all the time; the sound of the news repeating over and over like waves in the background of my little railroad apartment on the Lower East Side, where I was trying to be a writer.
Recently both of us were back in London and she was reading for the launch of the issue of the Happy Hypocrite she’d edited. (It’s a smart literary magazine dedicated to art and art writing, published by the very smart Maria Fusco in Glasgow). Called Freedom, the issue addresses the limits of that very concept and includes contributions by Lydia Davis and Thomas Keenan, the literary cum human rights theorist who founded Bard’s program in human rights, as well as New York Review of Books contributor Yasmine El-Rashidi who has written eloquently on Egypt.
That night Lynne talked about writing and freedom about “imagining” and the importance of writing fiction, still, now, today. I feel stupid as I can’t remember her exact words, but they were about a responsibility to the imagination and what it could allow, to envisioning different worlds and realities, and that fiction, writing fiction, is a key way forward to achieving those different worlds. Fiction doesn’t just show the world as we know it, but opens a possibility for ones we don’t know but should. Her comments struck me because I’d been feeling as if fiction were bankrupt, well, for me at least. I was (and am) sick of realism. The novel feels like a stricture rather than an adventure, rule-bound, moving in one direction, too smooth. Now I wish I could recapture what she said here. That I can’t though strikes me as funny. The thing that seemed so important to recall has left a huge hole in my essay, and the thing that drives me nuts about fiction is that there are too few holes. It is way too neat. This somehow seems a Tillman-like moment. Maybe you can imagine her words, and a world where imagining equals freedom.
Instead, I leave you with words I can quote clearly as they are from WWLTD:
Artists are often called to account for their choices and asked to define their positions. Few occupations other than finance, politics and crime entail this reckoning. Writers and artists may ask themselves why they make art or write and many feel the pointlessness of their self chosen jobs, but all rebuttals and answers to their existential questions rest on faith in Art or Literature. Faith itself will be tested.
Indeed as your faith is tested, as mine has been tested over the past couple decades, there is one question: What Would Lynne Tillman Do? She answers this with economy, humor and an axiomatic truth.