Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo is the latest release from award-winning novelist and Princeton professor, Boris Fishman. In advance of his presentation at Oxford Exchange on Sunday, October 2, Boris sat down with us to talk about authenticity; advertising; social media; and the long, hard search to find oneself in an age of distraction.
Oxford Exchange: At their core, your novels are about struggling to belong and the search for our true, authentic selves. How do you define authenticity, and what makes it so difficult to live an ‘authentic’ life in today’s world?
Boris Fishman: The rub here is in the fact that everyone identifies authenticity differently, and one of America's glories is that we are generally free to identify it however we wish. Personally, I think of authenticity as finding the comfort and confidence to be who we really are, even if it’s not very impressive (but we like it). Of course, if it’s “true” to who we are, but we don’t like it, I’m all for self-reform.
One of the frustrating things about American culture is that from self-help books to advertising—“Buy this shampoo and the real you will emerge!”—there’s this false peddling of self-discovery as something achievable simply and quickly. It is not achievable simply or quickly. And the more instantaneously gratifiable our lives become, the more unnatural it seems to spend months, let alone years, on a project of genuine, deep self-examination and reform. I've gotten wherever I've gotten on my personal search for self through 15 years of therapy; the attendance of a university that made me think about ideas and ideals; 20 years of book-reading; and all the grappling with oneself this all necessarily entails.
OE: You’ve said before that, deep down, we already know what the answers are. We know what’s good for us, we know what things foster growth and self-discovery.
BF: I just spent three months out west—Montana, Idaho, Washington State—with no urban time other than a few days in Seattle. When I returned to New York, I belatedly realized that I’d spent three months without being bombarded by advertising. And it dawned on me what an oppression, for three months, I’d been living without. It isn't that there's no advertising in rural Montana—it’s that it's dwarfed by nature, and that feels like the healthy proportion. I said once to a young person who’d chosen to move there: “Don’t you miss a certain sense of…intellectual vibrancy?” And he said: “In New York, you’re assaulted endlessly by suggestions of whom you should be.” He pointed to the emptiness around us. “There’s none of that here. You look in the mirror and you see yourself. You have no choice but to try and figure out who you are.”
OE: You say that and, to me, it sounds so intuitive. We’re all trying to be ourselves, so why aren’t we all sprinting to our own versions of rural Montana?
BF: For one, the older you get the harder it becomes to alter things. (Ever read “Revolutionary Road”?) So hard, in fact, that when someone manages to, it’s such a grandiose achievement they make movies about it. Also, today you’ll find a million enticing reasons and outlets to distract yourself from doing the difficult, challenging thing. That’s why social media has become the wildfire that it is. It takes courage to face and deal with who you really are, what’s really going on in your life. So what a glorious distraction—a solution to loneliness and boredom both. Oh, how it makes the empty, lonely time fly. Even if a good long session of it can deplete your soul, bleary your eyes, and leave you feeling a little like it’s 4 AM and you’ve just eaten a ton of junk food.
OE: It’s tough and unpopular to take a critical stance against social networks without seeming grumpy and rigid because they were all seemingly designed with these positive things in mind—connection, sharing, self-expression. But they’re also extremely addictive and habit-forming because they scratch this really central—sort of existential—itch. But scratching isn’t necessarily curative. And once you start, you can’t stop. It can become mindless. That’s an issue for me.
BF: The other point is that scratching is superficial. When Mark Zuckerberg starts talking about Facebook as a way to connect and make the world more transparent, my skin starts to crawl. It’s just a plain lie, or at least only a part of the story. That kind of “connection” is also a corporation preying on your loneliness, and offering up an extremely shallow form of connectivity, so it can make money—this kind hypocrisy makes me insane because it does not respect my intelligence. And the only reason it’s free is so that they can collect info on what products to pitch you. (A good rule of thumb in technology: If it's free, it's because they get lots of data about you in return.) Also, the depressing norms of social media—the humblebrags, the false self-advertising, and then most evilly, the catastrophic “freedom” it offers to be vitriolic who would not dare to be to your face. Please understand I don’t speak from some holier-than-thou perspective—it takes tremendous discipline to keep my electronic use under control, something at which I fail for long stretches all the time. But it's very ironic to me that we live a society that celebrates individualism and following only your own rules so emphatically, but also a society that's not very sophisticated about understanding what it means to be yourself, a society that legitimizes some very shallow answers to that question.
OE: You mentioned book-reading. Technology has made entertainment so accessible and easy to consume. But reading is different. It’s kind of the last “hard” form of entertainment. It’s solitary and personal and internal. People aren’t live-tweeting books. They aren’t experiencing their first kiss in the back-row of a dimly lit poetry reading. Why do we turn to literature, how does it help us find what’s real?
BF: Personally, I read books because it's where I find people being more honest about life, and themselves, than in any other context. And to me, that kind of vulnerability and self-revelation is the most important prerequisite to a close relationship, whether between people or a reader and a book. Now, I don't mean the cheap revelation of a tell-all—I mean commentary on the human condition. It won't surprise you that I revere authors like J. M. Coetzee, William Styron, Graham Greene—people who dig into the heart of the matter, to borrow from Greene. People so seized by some notion that they'll spend a novel earnestly wrestling with it in the guise of another character and his or her predicaments.
As a writer, the primary distinction of my experience has to do with something other than authenticity. Rather, with a kind of ecstasy that descends when you are working well, when the characters are believable, when their predicaments are coming out truthfully and meaningfully, when the sentences are singing. In the end, actually, this is about authenticity, too -- the authenticity of what you're describing. If you have done a faithful, honest job of rendering life as it really, really is (and that's doable via science fiction as much as pure realism)—that’s when the ecstasy descends. I think this is why we sometimes hear of creativity referred to as a kind of Godfulness. You do feel that kind of elevation (not arrogance; elevation). The elevation of creating/rendering something true where there was, before, nothing.
OE: Creating something true is one thing, having that thing being understood as it was intended can be another issue. Your work has rightfully and meritoriously transcended being put in any one box, but do you ever still feel that distinction between being called a great writer and a great emigre or Jewish writer? Of course both are true. Does one or the other ever feel like an asterisk, that detracts from what you set out to do?
BF: It’s an evergreen frustration. Bernard Malamud said it, and I'm paraphrasing: "I'm a writer, not a 'Jewish writer.' It's just I happen to write about Jews, because they're the people I know." And his works bear it out, because even if his premises are—sometimes—specifically Jewish, the quandaries they open out to are deep and universal. That was my goal with “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo”—to get away from recognizably Jewish elements, to remove all that so people would have to look past it at the deeper questions involved.
And it's a challenge—because, yes, modern marketing seeks classification. And because the Internet makes it easier than ever for like-minded people to gather into siloed groups designed to address that and only that interest: World War II military history; Australian flora and fauna; Jewish stuff. It’s become harder than ever to break through by writing literary fiction concerned with nothing more specific than what it means to be alive. And my second novel's publicity has suffered from this by comparison with the first's. And what can I say, it's a shame—I have to work twice as hard to get this book into people's hands.
OE: In that case, let’s do some publicity for it then here before we finish. I’ll ask a question about the epigraph in order to avoid any spoilers. You invoke James Baldwin as he makes a distinction between the physical world and the world of ‘himself’. In so many ways, that’s what we’ve been talking about here. How does ‘Rodeo’ explore this idea?
BF: In brief, Maya Shulman begins the novel as an independent spirit—by which all I mean is that she follows her own call. But her marriage to Alex, which she didn't quite realize would also mean to his family, gradually takes her away from herself and toward the culturally expected roles of a woman in a family that’s shaped by the Soviet experience. Her son's malady forces her to finally be honest about this with herself, and to ask herself the very scary question of who she is, was supposed to be, apart from all that. Of course, by now, there is no more "apart from all that." Her last 20 years are as much a part of her as the first 20. But she tries anyway. And she bumbles terribly—she makes mistakes, she acts irresponsibly, she uses her son’s predicaments to avoid admitting to herself that she's dealing with her own, not to mention the moral transgression that occurs late in the book—but she remains a heroic character to me, because at least she tries to find out. This search is something Alex has no interest in.
Boris Fishman will be at Oxford Exchange on Sunday, October 2 at 2:30 PM. He will be giving a presentation on Identity, Immigration, and Attention in the Digital Age, as well as discussing and signing his new novel, Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo.