Paperback Writer


Quote Unquote

Happy fiftieth birthday, Jonathan Lethem!


Photo: Fred Benenson


You don’t seem to have bothered to rebel against your parents’ milieu—their bohemianism, their leftism.


I tried. It’s very hard to rebel against parents whose lives are so full and creative and brilliant—the option is my generation’s joke: the rebel stockbroker. That wasn’t for me. I wanted what my parents had, but I needed to rebel by picking a déclassé art career. My father came from the great modernist tradition, and so I found a way, briefly, to disappoint him, to dodge his sense of esteem. Very briefly. He caught on soon enough that what I was doing was still an art practice more or less in his vein.

I felt I ought to thrive on my fate as an outsider. Being a paperback writer was meant to be part of that. I really, genuinely wanted to be published in shabby pocket-sized editions and be neglected—and then discovered and vindicated when I was fifty. To honor, by doing so, Charles Willeford and Philip K. Dick and Patricia Highsmith and Thomas Disch, these exiles within their own culture. I felt that was the only honorable path.

—Jonathan Lethem, the Art of Fiction No. 177