Extra, extra! Sufjan disses Pynchon!
Wed Dec 19 2007
Southpaw is the hippest music venue in Park Slope, but if you went there on Monday 17 expecting a raucous rock show, you were in for a buzzkill: three sober guys in folding chairs, discussing fiction.
PEN, the event’s sponsor, is an international association of writers that protects free speech. Its U.S. branch, while still advocating for civil liberties (boo, Patriot Act!), is mostly concerned with making literature seem cool. Hence the Brooklyn series exploring the intersection between literature and the arts—in this case, between literature and music.
Rick Moody, the event’s moderator, is a well-known novelist who plays music. The panelists, Sufjan Stevens and Wesley Stace (nom de stage: John Wesley Harding), are well-known musicians who write fiction (or, in Stevens's case, used to).
After the jump: Stevens's scandalous literary opinions.
Sufjan Stevens, it may surprise you to learn, moved to New York to be a writer, earning his M.F.A. from the New School in 2000. His thesis stories were about two rival towns in northern Michigan. But somehow he ended up a musician instead of a writer—he seemed as surprised as anyone—and most of those stories turned into songs on his 2003 album, Greetings from Michigan. He doesn't write much anymore.
Wesley Stace also fell into a music career more or less by accident, and, perhaps consequently, doesn’t take music all that seriously. To him, while novel-writing is intense, lofty work, “you don’t have to do much to keep up a music career.” Stace initially used a stage name (borrowed from a Bob Dylan album) so that his fellow literature students at Cambridge would not know he was running with the wrong crowd. He says he always knew he wanted to write novels, but that “if someone offers you a record deal and a chance to tour, I think any sane person would take it.” Knowing what little I do about the competitive music industry, I was a bit skeptical about all this talk of tripping over record deals. But that’s a discussion for another time.
At one point in the panel, Stace sang the praises of American pomo stalwarts Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo—hardly a controversial opinion, one would think, at a hipster literary convention in the US of A. But Stevens would not join in the Pynchophilia. “[Reading Pynchon] is too much for me,” he said. “It’s like taking drugs.” (Most of my Pynchon-obsessed friends, by the way, would approve of the simile.) Rick Moody, clearly surprised, asked Stevens which American writers he did like. “I like Sherwood Anderson. Joe Christmas is one of my favorite characters.… I like the quieter writers.” To anyone who has heard Stevens’s gossamer tenor, this cannot come as a surprise.
Apparently, Pynchon is not the only thing that is too much for Sufjan Stevens. He seemed overwhelmed by many of the questions, sometimes to the point of giving vague or evasive answers. To one audience question during the Q&A, Stevens responded, after a long pause, “Maybe you and I can talk about that later, in private.” When it came time to play a few songs, his performance was timid at best.
Luckily for the health of the panel, while Stevens demurred, Stace bubbled over with dry British wit. When one audience asked him to elaborate on a point he’d made earlier, Stace replied, “Will I elaborate? The answer to that is yes. Always yes.”