This past Wednesday, Feb. 1, New York Times bestselling author Ben Lerner gave a reading of his works to the campus community in the Sanders Classroom Spitzer Auditorium. Audience members drew long, anticipatory breaths as the MacArthur genius interwove his musings on the writing process and politics with passages from his 2014 roman-à-clef “10:04” from behind a weathered podium.
Lerner’s passionate delivery was well-received. In an email, English major and aspiring writer Noah Goldberg ’17 wrote, “His prose is lissome and flexible, radiant and understated. His ability to blur modes of writing with his poetic prose is reminiscent of his desire to fog the line of fiction and autobiography, and it lulls the reader in a curious limbo state, washed over by the writing. Fascinating!”
Lerner is Vassar College’s latest writer-in-residence, a role previously occupied by such esteemed literary luminaries as Teju Cole, Lydia Davis, Colson Whitehead, Francine Prose and Jhumpa Lahiri (Vassar Info, “Writer-in-Residence Ben Lerner to read from recent works, February 1, 2017,” 1.20.2017). Like his predecessors, he has enjoyed both critical and commercial success for his numerous publications.
His 2006 poetry collection “Angle of Yaw” was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Northern California Book Award; his 2004 sonnet sequence, “The Lichtenberg Figures,” won the Hayden Carruth Award, Lannan Literary Selection and was chosen by Library Journal as one of the year’s 12 best poetry books. His body of work has also appeared in the Best American Poetry anthology collection, the 2008 edition of New Voices, and University of Iowa’s 2009 12×12: Conversations in Poetry and Poetics. For his academic pursuits, the rising author won the Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships in 2013 and 2015, respectively (Poetry Foundation, “Ben Lerner biography”).
Lerner’s second novel, “10:04,” tells the story of a man who, like himself, is a Brooklyn-based writer who often gets entangled in his own thoughts. It received glowing reviews, winning The Paris Review’s 2012 Terry Southern Prize before making the shortlists of both the 2014 Folio Prize and the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award.
Among the praisers was Hari Kunzru of the New York Times Book Review, who concluded his reflection on Lerner’s work by proclaiming, “Formally 10:04 belongs to an emerging genre, the novel after Sebald, its 19th-century furniture of plot and character dissolved into a series of passages, held together by occasional photographs and a subjectivity that hovers close to (but is never quite identical with) the subjectivity of the writer” (The New York Times, “Impossible Mirrors: ‘10:04’ by Ben Lerner,” 9.5.2014).
While many find his work engaging, Learner has also faced his fair share of criticisms, often accusing him of pretension and purple prose. Writing for Spectrum Culture, fellow creative Erica Peplin spoke negatively of his sprawling style. Criticizing the word choice of “10:04” that many had lauded, she stated, “When Lerner replaces ‘octopus’ with ‘cephalopod’ and ‘quinoa’ with ‘Andean chenopod,’ it disrupts the flow of the text and comes off as pretentious” (Spectrum Culture, “10:04 by Ben Lerner,” 10.25.2015).
Within the notoriously hermetic realm of literary fiction writers, critics and publishers, it is hard not to notice that Lerner is like many popular figures: white and esoteric. In an interview with Salon, author Bernice McFadden attributed racism in the publishing world to the high number of white writers who receive writing accolades and generous marketing from overwhelmingly white institutions. “The racism is often quite blatant,” she said. “What will it take for people of color to get in and stay in, is like asking what will it take for cops to cease from stopping and frisking black men just because they’re black men? I don’t know the answer to either question” (Salon, “Bernice McFadden: Racism in publishing ‘is often quite blatant,’” 7.1.2014). Her observation comes at a time where, in Publishers Weekly 2015 annual salary survey, 89 percent of respondents within the publishing industry identify as white (Publisher’s Weekly, “Why Publishing Is So White,” 3.11.2016). Such a trend proves devastating when placed in the context of a literary community that still upholds such views as those propagated by Jonathan Franzen’s “Why Bother?,” a 1996 Harper’s essay that abhors the idea of English majors who don’t study Shakespeare while partially attributing the use of identity politics in literature classes to the proliferation of fleeting, superfluous forms of entertainment.
“I think a lot of the time [“10:04”] is talked about, like, ‘Oh here’s another Brooklyn novel by a guy with glasses,’” Lerner said in an interview with the Guardian. Both he and his interviewer later go on to acknowledge the commonness of contemporary fiction centered around members of the American middle-class and their “first world problems” (The Guardian, “Ben Lerner: ‘People say, “Oh, here’s another Brooklyn novel by a guy with glasses,”’” 1.3.2015).
“While my main critique of Lerner’s writing is that it can sometimes feel a bit pretentious, in person I didn’t get this impression at all,” said Phoebe Shalloway ’17 in an emailed statement, having read 10:04 for a composition class. “I was impressed by his obvious intelligence and critical view of the world.”
Shalloway found Lerner’s commentary on the stylistically traitorous nature of Trump’s political rhetoric the most memorable, recalling how he’d highlighted Trump’s abandonment of traditional, Whitman-inspired speeches in favor of more inflammatory discourse. “It was interesting to hear a poet’s opinion on language in the political landscape and I always appreciate when events address the frightening time we’re living in right now, since to not do so leaves an elephant in the room.”