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Gabriel Brownstein

Gabriel Brownstein is the author of a book of stories, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt 3W (which won the PEN / Hemingway Award in 2002), and a novel, The Man from Beyond. He teaches at St. John's University in Queens, New York.

Blurbs

“[M]ysterious, resonant, haunting; their echoes will stay with you long after you've finished his lovely, lovely book.”

– Dale Peck, author of Now It's Time to Say Goodbye

“[A] master storyteller...There is no doubt, this collection introduces a great talent.”

– Martha McPhee, author of Bright Angel Time

“[A] wonderfully unsettling, feverish collection of short stories—funny and haunting and unlike anything else out there.”

– Dan Chaon, author of Among the Missing

“Uncanny, funny as hell, inventive on every page, Gabriel Brownstein displays sheer literary imagination and writes with impressive vividness.”

– Howard Norman, author of The Haunting of L.

“Brownstein's is a fresh and jaunty voice, with a jazz snap all his own.”

– Tama Janowitz

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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W

An Interview with Gabriel Brownstein

12/12/11

Gabriel Brownstein and I conducted this interview by e-mail, using the addresses provided us by St. John’s University, where he is a professor and I was once a student. During my years as an English major and a grad student, I took a handful of fiction writing workshops with Professor Brownstein. His classes were immensely popular — four or five of my peers and I comprised a cohort who registered for any class with Professor Brownstein’s name attached to it. During workshop, we’d write down the names of authors and books he gushed about; we’d jot down writing adage after writing adage, some of them his own (“What happens next in your story? The worst thing possible.”), some of them borrowed from others (Flannery O’Connor: “Dramatize, don’t report.”).

But class was not enough for me. I would visit his office hours regularly. We talked about my work, we talked about what we were reading, the steam from his Lipton tea drifting between us. And I would leave his office trying to decide which I would do first when I got home: read or write.

After conducting this interview with Gabe — which felt a lot like a written version of the sort of conversation we used to have in his office — it was easy to see what I’ve always found so inspiring about him, which is that while he is professorial in his depth and breadth of knowledge, he is also amateurish in his giddy enthusiasm. When he talks about anything literary, the subtext is always: I just love this stuff, don’t you?

* * *

STEVE WILLIAMS: Maybe you could start by talking a little bit about the new book.

GABRIEL BROWNSTEIN: There’s not really a new book. There are new stories, and they’re coming out here and there in quarterlies. I’m not sure where they’re going, collectively, but they’re going somewhere. I think.

SW: Your first novel, The Man from Beyond, tells the story of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini’s Spiritualism debate from the perspective of reporter Molly Goodman. In one of your more recent stories, “Occupations, Settlements, Territories” — which was published in the Spring 2010 issue of the Harvard Review — the young, male narrator works at a socialist Zionist summer camp and converses with the spirit of his father. What about the subject matter of spirits interests you?

GB: I once read an interview with Robert Stone, where the interviewer asked why his characters drank so much and did so many drugs and he said something like, “I don’t know, but they keep doing it.”

I think that everything I’ve published has something to do with ghosts, something to do with haunting. And I like books with ghosts in them. I think ghosts work in stories when they make the ineffable into something dramatic and ironic and maybe even comical. But there’s a limit to this: as soon as you make the ineffable a ghost it becomes, in terms of the story, pretty effable. So it’s a ham-handed move in a way. But it’s my move.

SW: What, for you, are the differences between novel writing and story writing? What different challenges and pleasures does each form offer, and is it always a conscious decision to write one and not the other?

GB: I’m finding that right now stories suit me temperamentally, and I’m not sure why. I feel a little looser in the short form, a little more at ease. I don’t think I can imagine myself ever going 500 pages for a novel, I’m not that kind of guy. At the same time, there’s pressure in story writing — stories demand a kind of perfection. As they say, a novel with a flaw can be a great novel, but a flawed short story is a dud.

SW: It seems fair to say, though, that our literary culture favors and even has more respect for the novel form. Just to give one example of this, a quick Google search reveals that since 2000, only two story collections have won the Pulitzer, and none have won the National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award. Which brings us back to the old question: is the short story dying?

GB: My favorite book of 2010, the one where I discovered a writer who blew me away, was Memory Wall, by Anthony Doerr, a knock-out of a short story collection. There were two collections this year by favorite writers of short stories, Jim Shepard and Steven Millhauser, plus the National Book Award-nominated collected stories of Edith Pearlman, a short story writer who, I’m embarrassed to say, I had never heard of until this year. None of these books, I believe, were listed in the NY Times Best Books of the year.

So is the story dying? No. Is it undervalued? Oh, yeah.

It’s tough to argue that contemporary novelists are more serious artists than story writers, or more successful artistically. What is true is that the markets for short stories are vanishing, fast. The Atlantic has (I think) moved its story publishing on-line. Even the Paris Review has, over the last decade, geared itself a little more towards non-fiction. It’s just about impossible for a writer to get a collection of stories published by a mainstream press, without promising said press a novel. There are lots of good new story quarterlies, but these don’t get much attention.

Funny thing: The last three stories I published, all in very high class quarterlies, did not have on-line presence (the magazines did, but not the stories), which means in certain ways that for most readers the stories did not exist. I have a feeling e-reading may change the relationship of short stories and readers. A short story seems a very natural thing, to me, to download on an e-reader. More so than a big fat novel. But maybe I’m dreaming.

SW: I’d like to open up my last question about the state of the story to the state of American fiction in general. Alexander Nazaryan recently wrote a piece for Salon in which he suggested that the reason an American hasn’t won the Nobel Prize since Morrison in 1993 is that America’s great writers exist in “self-enforced isolation” from the rest of the world — their work is too insular.

The writers many Americans see as deserving of the nod — Roth, Oates, DeLillo, McCarthy — are all, according to Nazaryan, what David Foster Wallace once called Great Male Narcissists (even Oates). And things are not getting better: many of the great writers of this generation, he says — naming Franzen, Foer, Tan, and Lahiri — are guilty of the same insularity.

In what direction do you see American fiction going, and is this a direction you’re pleased with?

GB: I haven’t read the article, so I can’t respond to its particulars. But there are real problems with translations coming into America. Go into any good bookstore and ask for new books of European stories in translation — books from anywhere but the US — and outside of the classics, you’ll be lucky to get three. It’s true that other nations read American books, and US readers don’t read much in translation. It isn’t a good thing.

I have a hard time, though, with the suggestion that American writers are more insular than they were sixty or seventy years ago. It seems just basically true that more US writers come from more places and backgrounds than they used to. You mention Lahiri and Morrison, I’d add Junot Diaz, Edward P. Jones, and without even going further note that these are all writers with huge historical and political concerns. And the force of multiculturalism has been a good thing for writers who are as you say, Great Male Narcissists.

Operation Shylock, my favorite book by my favorite living writer, is supersonically engaged with the issues of Zionism, history, identity, imperialism, racism, antisemitism, and (yes) narcissism. I mean, it’s not like men’s tennis: American writers are not getting beaten by European writers.

The Nobel is a lousy measure. If the Swedes had gotten to vote on the number one player of my youth, they would have always picked Borg over McEnroe. On the other hand, when you get to the most celebrated youngish novelists right now, there is this strange phenomenon of the massive novel about a few friends from college — Freedom, The Emperor’s Children, The Marriage Plot — and without dissing any of those writers or books — I am a big, big Jeffrey Eugenides fan — it’s just notable that the characters are quite likely to have gone to the same kinds of schools as the reviewers and editors and publicists hyping the books.

I’m not saying there’s no insularity going on in the world of US marketing and publishing. But the Nobel — or any prize — seems a lousy way to gauge the work of writers. I’d give the same answer about US novelists as I did a while back about US story writers. Every year, there are more good writers writing more good books than I can find time to read.

SW: That leads nicely into my next question, which is about an article you wrote for The Millions called “The Big Show: Franzen, Goodman, and the Great American Novel.” In the article, you explore why Franzen’s Freedom gets dubbed The Great American Novel and Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector does not. You examine — among other things — how this difference in reception is related to the formal differences between these works, and one of the comments you make about Freedom is that it “sometimes feels like a guy at a dinner party who’s talking very, very loudly.”

How and to what extent does a novel “talking very, very loudly” relate to that novel being narcissistic and/or insular? Because in your answer to the last question, you sort of set up a dichotomy: writers with political and historical ambitions, and writers who write about old friends from school. I’m not saying these are rigid or mutually exclusive categories, but I am wondering to what extent you think Freedom being insular (although it does have political ambitions) relates to it being so loud.

GB: Look, Franzen is a great writer. Freedom is (to my mind) his second best book so far. But it’s really, really good. And sweeping, and large. And though sometimes his sympathies can seem pinched, in the end he reveals himself as a big-hearted writer. Reading it side by side with The Cookbook Collector — another really good book that is really similar in form and theme — I began to wonder, why all the attention for one book and not the other?

The disparity seemed extreme given the quality of the books. So I stumbled to my answer to that question as best I could. One thing I noticed is that Goodman is, as she said in a response to my article on the excellently named website Bookslut, interested in invisibilty. (I’m not quoting her exactly.) Franzen, to put it mildly, does not seem so interested in invisibility. He’s interested in showing off — not a bad thing in a novelist. (It’s a thing you could say too about James Joyce. Big show off.)

I don’t think Franzen is at all an insular novelist. People love to take swipes at “American fiction” and usually when they do they take a swipe at Jonathan Franzen — I saw a panel where a British novelist of Pakistani extraction kept talking about the failure of the American 9/11 novel—she had written a 9/11 novel too. And privately, I thought: really? You’re going to say that all the writers in the US are all writing badly about 9/11 and that poor writing is because they’re American?

There’s such a diversity of writers in this country, such a diversity of outlooks among them. I think writers do what they can. And I think sometimes writers who seem “insular” are, on close inspection, working at very intricate complicated powerful stuff. It’s an easy way to dismiss writers, and it’s a charge that gets leveled mostly at domestic, female novelists. Who’s more insular than Jane Austen? Who’s a better novelist?

I do not think that the Big Subject results in a Good Novel, and a lot of my favorite readings can seem small and domestic at first blush. What I was saying about the bunch-of-friends-from-school novel wasn’t intended as a dig at the novelists — I think theirs is a real way of describing current middle class existence in this country. The insularity might be more in the marketing and the publishing world.

But I’ll make a stab at a big idea here: writers are insular. They sit at the island of their desks, alone. Many of my favorite books are about that kind of insularity. Borges? Bernhard? Are they “insular”?  They write a lot about being stuck in their own heads.

SW: You teach in a department that features M.A. and D.A. degree programs, but no M.F.A. program. Yet your fiction writing courses are consistently filled with students used to writing critically who are eager to try their hand at — for lack of a better term — creative writing. What’s your understanding of the relationship between creative writing and literary criticism? Does the study of one enhance the study of the other?

GB: I like to quote the poet William Matthews, “Poetry is not criticism backwards.” But literary criticism and creative writing classes intersect around an easy point, which is reading. I think in both kinds of classes, if they’re taught well at the undergraduate level, the teacher’s not trying to turn to room into a bunch of critics or a bunch of poets — but getting people to put their attention on language, and on literary language.

I do wonder, at the doctoral level, what a student gets out of my class — I can’t imagine that writing a short story in any way helps them pragmatically with their dissertations or their contemplations of Derrida. But maybe it allows them in the face of literature to be completely amateurish, which, if you ask me, is the best way to approach a good book, out of love and not professionalism.

In that way, I particularly like my students. I like that it’s not my job, as it would be in an MFA program, to kind of move them toward getting an agent, toward thinking about publication. I don’t have to pretend that my class is much more than an intellectual play pen.

SW: Could you talk a little bit about your process and your habits as a writer?

GB: Two or three good hours every day without interruption is the idea in weeks when I have lots of time. When I don’t have time, I try to fill all the time I can get. Which can mean a six hour writing day and then a half-hour writing day. I write the same thing over and over and over again for a really long time. I go back and forth from draft to draft between computer and long hand. I usually have more than one project cooking at once. I wish all the time that I were better.

SW: You mention that you write longhand. What about writing longhand appeals to you?

GB: It’s just my habit, I guess. I mean, I can give justifications: mostly that I go more slowly writing than I do typing, and so my brain is always a little ahead of my hand when I write long-hand, and so the length of my attention is stretched a bit.

Also, I don’t have the distractions of the computer when I write in a notebook — I don’t go back and polish my sentences as I write them. But I think what helps me most is going back and forth from the notebook to computer to the printed page, to the notebook, and so on. I see the work a little bit differently each time.

I used to suggest that students write longhand, but my guess is that it’s very foreign to lots of people these days. I do find, for me at least, that writing only at the computer tends to make me focus on tiny perfectionist details of words and sentences in a way that’s not always good.

SW: What have you been reading lately? Are there certain works or authors that you find yourself rereading, works you return to for some type of guidance in your own writing?

GB: My reading of fiction the last few months has been all over the place. The stand-out recent literary work has got to have been Denis Johnson’s novella, Train Dreams, just a beautiful book by one of the great living US writers. I reviewed it, which gave me the opportunity to reread a lot of Johnson. Fiskadoro and Jesus’ Son are both astounding works.

I also recently read the Fire and Ice books, George R.R. Martin, which I just could not stop reading. I went through all five books in a row. And — since I can — I’ll just put in my two cents about those: Everyone is comparing him to Tolkein, but I think the more appropriate, immediate influences on him are probably Roger Zelazny and Michael Moorcock — favorite writers of my teen years.

Who do I go back to most often? I’m a big re-reader. Over the summer, I reread a lot of stuff from my childhood — Salinger and Le Guin and Hammett. And, yes, I recently reread Anna Karenina, but every writer says that, right?

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8 Comments

  1. Alex M. Pruteanu said on 12/12/11 at 8:31 am Reply

    I disagree with Brownstein and wholeheartedly align myself with the “insularity” of American authors. I think Americans are lagging behind the world in literature. Nobel or no Nobel…although Toni Morrison’s was well deserved. As a Romanian/American writer who has lived most of his life in the States, I find American novelists have not much to say that is outside their borders here in this country. Examining the American family like Wonderboy Franzen has, is mostly boring, as the American family itself is a mostly dull unit to examine. How much can one go on about infidelity, over medication, decline/collapse…how interesting is that in international terms? Updike, by the way, has had that subject penned and taken care of, in my opinion. Personally, I’m moving on and away from American writers, as I’m finding not much fresh or dynamic in their writing, for my taste. I was excited when Palahniuk came on the scene 10 years ago, but he’s become a one trick pony, and his newer work has deteriorated badly.

    Reply

  2. Tony Abbott said on 12/12/11 at 2:34 pm Reply

    It’s very good to hear teaching writers talk about both teaching and writing. As an MFA teacher, I was particularly struck by this statement:

    “In that way, I particularly like my students. I like that it’s not my job, as it would be in an MFA program, to kind of move them toward getting an agent, toward thinking about publication. I don’t have to pretend that my class is much more than an intellectual play pen.”

    Now, there certainly may be a strong expectation on the part of MFA Creative Writing students for that move to agents, publication, and so forth, but among the teachers at my program and, I imagine, at many others, there is a fairly strict conviction that the program be focused on learning to write well and on teaching. There is always a student push, certainly in programs like the one at Lesley University which include writing for young people as a track, to want to move the discussion into the marketplace. But it’s discouraged or set aside during workshops, seminars, lectures, readings, and in most of the extra-curricular talk between faculty and students because it should have no bearing on the task of one’s learning to write more effectively and learn to read (as Dr. Brownstein says) in an intelligent way.

    Reply

    Gabe Brownstein said on 12/12/11 at 6:25 pm

    You’re right–I’m obviously speaking from ignorance about the vast majority of MFA programs and faculty, and I certainly don’t want to slight anyone else’s teaching. I’m really talking about my own memories of being a grad student in a program where a lot of people were looking to advance professionally. We all wanted the faculty to introduce us to their agents.

    (Also, I’m not a doctor. But I don’t mind being called one)

    Tony Abbott said on 12/13/11 at 9:41 am

    Thanks, Gabe (if I may). It’s certainly a challenge to sever the marketplace from discussion. I’m aware of how my own classroom methods combine what works editorially as well as, say, literarily, hoping that they end up in the same place, though they may not. And the question gets louder all the time: Why not teach me to sell my book? Surely worth a discussion. Thanks for a smart interview.

  3. Jordan Blum said on 12/12/11 at 2:35 pm Reply

    I like the comment about Robert Stone and why his characters keep doing what they do; it’s another example of how the author divorces him/herself from the characters and may not take responsibility for their actions. In other words, authors may not like their own creations as people. Also, his comment “As they say, a novel with a flaw can be a great novel, but a flawed short story is a dud” is something I’ve heard a lot of writers say while I was getting my MFA. Every word of a flash piece matters, whereas a novel can have a few bad lines.

    Reply

    Steve Williams said on 12/12/11 at 2:54 pm

    I’ve heard Junot Diaz say something similar, something like, “A riff can ruin a short story.” I’ve also heard someone say–wish I could remember who–that writing a novel is like building a ship and writing a story is like building a ship in a bottle, the idea being that one’s daunting in how massive a project it is, the other in the delicacy it requires.

  4. Bill said on 12/13/11 at 10:26 am Reply

    Love Gabe’s phrase, “intellectual playpen.”

    Thanks for the conversation, fellas. Enjoyed looking it over. Just finished up O’Neill’s Netherland. You all read that one?

    Reply

    Steve Williams said on 12/13/11 at 1:13 pm

    I love that phrase as well! And it’s really the perfect way to describe his classes.

    I haven’t read Netherland. Recommended?

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