Antonia Lively Breaks the Silence has garnered rave reviews, but author David Samuel Levinson‘s take on MFA programs and literary critics could earn him some backlash.
Zola: Why choose to set the novel in the early 1990s?
David Samuel Levinson: For one thing, I set the novel in the early 1990s because I wanted the characters to be free of the imposition of technology. So much can be verified these days by typing a name, anything, into a search engine, and I wanted the novel to live outside of this. Since the novel is, above all, about where stories come from, I wanted to contain and constrain the provenance of each character’s story. In other words, I didn’t want one character spying on another by tapping his name into Google.
For another, I saw the novel as a paean to a forgotten era, when life was far more simple (seemingly) and publishing was still, in my imagination at least, a gentlemen’s business.
Zola: One of the main characters is a book critic who insists that the author’s own life experiences must never appear in his or her fiction, but most writers are taught, at least initially, to, “Write what you know.” Which philosophy do you ascribe to?
DSL: For many years, I worked as freelance proofreader for a few of the NY publishing houses so on some level I was writing what I knew, which was about the book industry.
That said, I hope not to offend anyone when I add that part of the problem with today’s fiction seems to be that many writers are writing what they know and forgetting that what they don’t know is far more interesting. It’s as if they’ve gone through MFA programs only to come out the other side having no real idea what it means to tell a good story, to write a NOVEL. This saddens me, because it appears that what we have lost is not the ability to tell stories but to tell transcendent, remarkable, amazing, life-changing ones. Now, instead of turning to novels for the answers to life’s bigger mysteries, readers are turning increasingly to memoirs and self-help books.
Zola: You’ve painted writers and critics as quite a petty, vengeful, emotionally squeamish bunch. Have you received any backlash? Do you read your reviews?
DSL: This question made me laugh. It was never my intention to denigrate that rare and often underpaid and underappreciated species of writer known as the book reviewer. I did intend, however, in writing Antonia Lively to show how one man’s pride and pettiness led to another’s ruin. Just as writers and readers have one kind of connection—a connection that draws a reader into the novel or repels him—writers and reviewers have quite another. The problem is, of course, that many will end up misinterpreting the work because they bring their own set of beliefs and experiences to it. They project upon your work what might or might not be there. This isn’t a bad thing; it’s just a little inconvenient, say, when that person happens to be a reviewer and that reviewer misses the point.
As far as backlash goes, I thought I’d receive more of it, but most of the reviews have been incredibly positive. What this entire experience has taught me—getting reviewed, reading some, ignoring others—is just how amazing it is to put a novel out into the world and then have people come to it utterly unbidden.
Zola: Do you have any favorite critics?
DSL: I’m sure I’ll get flak for this but I’ve always been a secret Michiko Kakutani fan. I think some of her book reviews are insanely good, others not so much. Still, the woman reads carefully, and that’s all you can ask for in a reviewer, that she read your work with a gimlet eye. Other contemporary literary critics I admire—James Wood, Walter Kirn, Wyatt Mason, BD Myers, Ruth Franklin, Elif Batuman, Harold Bloom, Edward Said, Susan Sontag, to name but a few. I also love George Orwell and Walter Benjamin and still read them sometimes, just for my own edification.
Zola: Antonia would sacrifice actually living her life to the quest for yet more stories from other people’s lives. Most writers have met creatures like this. Have you? What do you make of them?
DSL: Honestly, I’m not sure I’ve met any writer as ruthless as Antonia Lively. She really is all about the story and the truth behind that story, which of course is yet another layer of irony in the novel. But let’s face it—writers steal. We’re thieves. Sometimes it’s for the good—to expose a horrible secret—but many times, I think, it’s self-serving and cruel. Antonia, however, really believes that she’s doing the right thing, and I believe she is. The trouble is, she’s young, so very young that she ends up rushing in and she gets the story wrong and in getting the story wrong, in wanting it to be the way she imagined it rather than the way it happened, she ruins the one man in the world she shouldn’t—her father.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.