“How can you write a book if you have no idea what you’re doing?” Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, was addressing a large audience at the Rothermere American Institute last week. This was Egan’s first visit to Oxford – part of a two-day programme entitled “Experimental Fiction: Confessions of a Reluctant Practitioner.” “My answer is: I can only write a book if I have that little of an idea about what I’m doing … What I’m trying to achieve here is a kind of blindness.”
It is a rare thing to encounter forthright confessions of this genre in a setting so far removed from the pub. Refreshingly candid, Egan focused her talk, and the discussion following, on the practice, process, and anxieties surrounding experimental fiction. The discussions were wide-ranging, touching on global politics, technological developments and their implications for fiction, credit card fraud (“I have been robbed so many times and so many ways in my life that I must be clearly identifiable as an absolute sucker”), and what constitutes a believable storyline (“one sign that a character is going to be problematic is that I don’t know what to name them”).
As a lifelong autodidact, Egan’s personal trajectory was nontraditional. “The way in which I feel most American is in my concern for self-reinvention,” she said, “I’m not really interested in fulfilling expectations.” At a young age, she was drawn to anatomy and medicine – “ghoulish to the point of wanting to dig up dead bodies in the cemetery.” She then moved on to study archeology, but the research was “too hot,” and she wasn’t allowed to dig as often and as deeply as she had initially wanted. Today, Egan still finds inspiration for her stories in unlikely places – from observing the obsessions of her children (Dungeons and Dragons, sports statistics), to emergent forms of media (Twitter, Powerpoint). Had she considered using periscope – taking one story, for instance, and projecting it into a completely different locale? She hadn’t, but she liked the idea.
Conceived in an “absolute mess,” Egan’s work responds to her own intuitive metric system. “The best stuff I can come up with is the stuff I could not have thought of consciously,” she admitted. She looks for indirect storytelling that is “interior and strange.” How does she gauge success? Freshness. What does she think is the virtue of fiction? Pleasure. Though her depiction of methodological approaches sounded somewhat helter-skelter, her writing also undergoes a painstaking, “almost endless” period of revision. After indulging the shadowy underworld of her mind, she creates outlines of up to eighty pages (single spaced, ten point font) to “make sense” of the unconscious fluctuations. Her novel Look at Me underwent as many as seventy drafts. She writes by hand. “I’m open to every possible way of telling a story, and I’m not worried about fitting into a category,” Egan explained. “The novel is … an elastic form. Its mandate is to tell stories in a way that they haven’t been told.”
As with her writing process, so too with her reading process – Egan described the reading which informs her own work as varied and open to caprice (“I read for fun … I once read Proust in a book group, if you can imagine. It took us six years, and we had five children between us … I was also watching The Sopranos at the time, and these two influences worked together … I liked the idea of the concept album. Eminem’s concept album was good”). She spoke of contemporary heroes: Don DeLillo, Rick Moody, Lydia Davis, but here too she related how “appetite leads the way with my reading.”
Though a significant portion of her talk, and the ensuing conversations, focused on Egan’s particular writing methods, she also addressed broader concerns facing American literature. Why did serialization die in fiction when it is alive and well in the realm of television? This remained an open question. Is her work symbolic of a new post-ironic moment in American writing? “I do love irony, but not as a resting point. What’s leading, in irony, is primarily critical, not human.” Addressing the “fear of the future of the novel” which is worrying literary circles in the United States, Egan argued “I believe that whether or not people continue to read novels is up to us, the novelists. As a middle-aged crank I am definitely threatened by [new media] … But as a writer, I feel very differently.”
Read more about Jennifer Egan here .
Read more about the Rothermere American Institute here .
April Elisabeth Pierce  is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St. Anne’s College.