Ben Lerner’s Literary Charge

This week we have an Open Source literary treat. It’s our producer Adam Colman in conversation with Ben Lerner, the MacArthur Genius who speaks as a poet, theorist, and storyteller in everything he writes. Ben Lerner’s latest novel, The Topeka School, has been leading lots of 2019 book-of-the-year-lists. It’s the third in a trilogy that includes Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. Our man Adam Colman is also the author of New Uses for Failure, the only book about Ben Lerner’s fiction not written by Ben Lerner himself. The two of them sat down in Brooklyn to talk about the emotional charge of literature, about auto-fiction (which is not about cars) and about the power of language most particularly in the scenes with of high school debate in The Topeka School, where success goes to the contestants who deploy what’s called “the spread,” a kind of weaponized rapid fire of information.

Adam and Ben.

A note from Adam: At the end of 2019, we’re looking back on a decade of disasters, but over the course of that same decade, Ben Lerner sensed glimmers of a better world. It’s this imaginative attention to our actual world that made me want to write a book about his fiction, which focuses on those glimmers of possibility found through language, through art. As he says in this conversation, he took to writing novels because they “seemed like a place where I could think through the question of the value of a lot of the arts I was engaged in, like poetry or visual art or whatever. And I’d like to dramatize . . . my anxiety about the value of artwork, but also my insistence on the value of artwork. And they could do it in a charged and funny and felt and hopefully entertaining way.” In this conversation, you’ll hear a case for why literary imagination matters—emotionally, politically, intellectually, and immediately.

(Banner photo credit: Catherine Barnett.)

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Ben Lerner
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Ben Lerner

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