Talking to Leslie Jamison

Leslie Jamison is the author of the New York Times–bestselling essay collection The Empathy Exams. She’s also a novelist (The Gin Closet), a Ph.D. candidate in American literature at Yale, and a writing teacher at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. Writer and BinderCon Director of Outreach Alison B. Hart caught up with her at City Bakery to talk to her about empathy, self-doubt, gender skews, and why she’s excited to open BinderCon with her keynote address on Saturday at 10 a.m. in Cooper Union’s Great Hall.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and a bit for clarity.

Out of the Binders: Can I ask you a little bit about the National Book Award? The nonfiction long-list came out yesterday and I think a lot of people felt strongly that you should be on it. But even more than that, some people were upset there was only one woman on the list. How did you react to the under-representation of women on that particular list?

Leslie Jamison: Yeah, it is troubling to me to see a list generated in a year where there were so many incredible books of nonfiction written by women. This year I felt particularly aware of that because I was in the world of publication and getting sent a lot of books—a lot of books were crossing my path that were really interesting—but I’m sure it’s been true in any other year.

I know the work of judging is hard, and I know that there are a million variables that go into how these things happen, but it just seems impossible for me to believe that any collective understanding of the ten best works of nonfiction written for this year would be nine of them written by men. It feels wrong to me. And I would also say, there were two other skews that were as troubling to me as the gender skew, and one was a more longstanding kind of genre issue around what the National Book Awards think of as serious nonfiction, which really does privilege history, certain kinds of archivally-based cultural studies. I’m not looking at the list so I don’t want to speak too definitively, but it’s been my impression that there’s not as much memoir or essays.

For that reason it was really exciting that—and Alexander Chee wrote a great piece about this, too—but it was exciting to me that Roz Chast was on there, not just so it wouldn’t be 100% men, but also so we would see some sort of formal experimentation on there. When I think of works by women that I would have loved to see on that list, like Jen Percy’s book or Eula’s new book, part of why I find them exciting is because they are doing a lot more with form and genre, I think, than the books that are on that list. And then the other thing is just the skew toward big presses. One of the things that’s been exciting about a lot of awards in recent years: they really are understanding the value of what small presses are bringing to literary culture. Especially with nonfiction, I think small presses serve a really important role.

This kind of self-perpetuating mythology around what people want to read really streamlines what big presses want to publish. I feel 100% sure that The Empathy Exams never would have sold to a big press, and it’s obviously not because it couldn’t sell well, because it did. So there’s this sense [among big presses] of, “Well we know what the market likes,” which in turn dictates what the market is allowed to like.

You know, you’ve got that line in The Empathy Exams: “You court a certain disdain by choosing to write about hurting women.” Do you think that’s relevant at all?

You know, I really … I couldn’t speak to that. But one thing that I can say is it’s been really interesting to me to see just the range of critical responses to the book and how I feel that many reviews of the book were really participating in a conversation, wittingly or unwittingly, with that last essay [in The Empathy Exams, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain”]. I think a lot of people when they respond to the book critically, I can sort of sense in their reviews this real level of irritation with the person they have imagined me to be, which I think is inevitable—and I get that and don’t take it that personally—but there was one review that said, like, “I’ll read what she writes next, but I would never want to go out into dinner with her.” Stuff like that that feels like it’s about this sense of being a whiny woman and that you were just relentlessly going on about your damage. And whatever nerve ending gets touched, for either men or women, it was kind of an embodiment or a manifestation of what I was trying to put my finger on in that last essay.

I like the way you crowd-sourced different women’s opinions of female pain in that essay too. I felt like I could have been a friend you had crowd sourced, too.

The whole experiencing of crowd-sourcing was really interesting. It did set in motion a lot of dialogues with friends—even women that I knew very well—where we were talking very specifically about stuff in a way that we hadn’t before. It made me feel like I could think about writing in a different way, too, that every essay would set up its own set of challenges and questions and I could go about responding to those challenges and questions any way that I wanted.

One of the things that I like about the tradition of academic writing—it can get tedious when you’re reading a piece of academic writing when it’s, like, touching base with everybody who’s ever had a thought about prayer shawls in Chaucer or whatever—but I do think there’s a real spirit there of collective knowledge and a sense of generating a piece of knowledge that is part of a web of other pieces of knowledge. And for me it pushes back against an impulse to understand myself as sort of a lone gorilla who’s tackling huge questions for the first and only time. Never the case.

How early in the process of writing the book did you know that empathy was going to be the thread?

I’d probably written about half the essays that showed up in the book before I wrote the title essay. In the process of then clarifying empathy as a conceptual keyword or center, it was liberating to see that what I had thought of as very separate fascinations that I was following—things like why people would subject themselves to the physical extremities of ultrarunning; or what might be redeemable, if there was anything redeemable, in a tour of silver mines; things that were very far apart on the map—did have these common questions about how do we try to make meaning out of pain or understand other people’s pain.

How did that change the last half of the work?

In some ways it gave me impetus to move forward on projects that I had just conceptualized or thought it would be amazing to write about. Like that piece on Morgellons disease [“Devil’s Bait”] had been an idea and a hope that I’d had, but once I had this sense of what the book would be, and also once Graywolf had purchased the book (because almost everything I wrote, I wrote on spec), it helped me to go out on a limb financially and trust-wise. It helped to go out on a limb for certain pieces to know that they would have a home in a book no matter what. But the downside was, when I wrote the first draft of the Morgellons piece, the word empathy showed up 45 times or something like that. So there was this way that once I had it in mind for a guiding concept, it was always, like, knocking at the door. It was almost kind of oppressive in terms of how its footprint was all over the book, so I had to exercise restraint in trying to just let it be this force moving underneath the pieces, not completely dominating them.

You still write so well and beautifully about empathy. I saw it coming up in the “52 Blue” essay [published by The Atavist in August 2014]. Do you feel like empathy will still be your beat for a while?

Yeah, I have joked with various people in my life, about the next book just being More Empathy Exams. Empathy is a pretty wide-ranging concept insofar as it’s so much more about how we encounter other lives. I think it will keep coming up for me, I’m sure. But I am interested in following other kinds of questions and other kinds of paths and just thinking even about different ways that a collection could be structured. Like the [next] collection that I am working on, I’m thinking much more about the relationship between private experience and more public acts of writing and thinking in particular about the way that private emotional experience inflects the process of doing journalism, how every journalistic piece also has this shadow story, whatever the radically subjective experience that act of journalism was.

In the Slate review of the book, I thought Mark O’Connell said something really interesting. He was saying how thrilling it is “to encounter a writer who so elegantly incorporates her own writerly anxieties into her work, who is so composed and confident about the value of her own self-doubt.” He’s getting at something that is about why everybody is so taken with the book, so it’s obviously working. But I wonder if there’s a flip side for you. Does it feel penalizing in any way that you’ve come out with the anxieties and the self-doubt?

I do think that owning certain kinds of fear and vulnerability, for me at least, does mainly dissolve its power. Owning what my perspective is and the ways in which that perspective is contoured by certain sorts of fear and anxiety and uncertainty, that almost feels like a position of strength to me. Because what makes me feel weak is a feeling of fraudulence or trying to be something for somebody else that I’m not, and that’s what makes me feel kind of scared and frantic inside. When I’m just representing where I feel certain, where I feel uncertain, where I feel called to emotional dimensions of my gaze, it feels like I’m not trying to be anything for anyone and that’s why that’s like a strength. It’s less that I feel absolutely certain of the value of my own self-doubt, and more that there is no other position that I feel comfortable occupying.

I read The Paris Review interview and it was interesting when you were talking about when you were feeling gender start to play a role in these conversations, and that you didn’t notice it until Yale and in the world of academia. I’m curious, why there?

Part of it might have to do with the fact that academia privileges a kind of discourse that makes me feel uncomfortable, or can privilege a kind of discourse that makes me feel uncomfortable, which is to say very oppositionally driven. If somebody offers a point, somebody else challenges that point. And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s a way of speaking that tends to make me feel insecure, I think because I am very quick to doubt myself in certain ways, and so I respond much better to people who, sort of, not like knee-jerk affirm everything I say but …

Entertain a line of thought….

Yeah. And then I can build it and explore it and sink down into it. So it could be that academia brought up some of my own insecurities and then I became hyper-sensitized to dynamics that I had blithely skated through before. But also it was a place where I started to look at these things—and I don’t like being reductive about eliding the difference between correlation and causation and stuff like that—but I would just look at rooms and it seemed like most of the people who are speaking in this room are men. And I don’t know if there’s a coherent reason for that, or what play of kind of conscious and subconscious variables are in common to that, but I’m noticing that that was happening. And it was the first place where I’ve really been struck by that.

It makes sense to me that more men are reading your work now than were before, just because women read all the novels and now you’ve got this New York Times bestseller nonfiction book. Do you think about it? Or are you able to just shut your mind out to those types of issues?

It’s funny. Anecdotally, one thing that I always like about the fact that I’ve written the piece about the Barkley, the ultramarathon [ “The Immortal Horizon”], it did mean that that piece got very circulated in quite a small niche community, which was the ultrarunning digital community, which is, like, all men. A lot of them read the novel because they got really interested in, “Oh, who is this person who wrote about Barkley?” I kind of love the idea of these super-athletic, highly driven, highly trained men almost unawares stumbling into this deeply emo, feelings-driven novel about two women. I felt like I’d almost Trojan-horsed them into reading this other kind of work.

With certain pieces I think I subconsciously am probably imagining a gender for my audience. I do think I wrote “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” more for women than for men. That’s sort of the way I needed to write that essay, and I think the crowdsourcing was part of it, that I felt like I was almost just in conversation with the women who had become a part of the conversation with me. But I certainly love the idea of men reading that essay. Certainly some of the most interesting responses I’ve gotten to it have been from men, and I’m always interested in engaging with those responses. It’s very important to me to think about essays as not an autonomous event, but the seed or a kernel inside of a larger series of conversations around it, so I’m interested in how that piece got received by a variety of gender viewpoints.

You were an early supporter of Bindercon. It was great that you lent your name to the Kickstarter effort and you agreed to speak. Why was it important for you to support BinderCon, and what does it mean to you?

I feel like … questions of gender and how gender inflects the publishing industry … there still are gendered issues that we need to face, and those sorts of forces are operating in really complicated ways. And for me, that means that I’m still working through what I think and feel about how I want publishing to evolve and how I want some of the ratios that feel really troubling—or the VIDA count numbers that feel troubling—like, what I think should happen to make those better. The fact that it’s a live issue is part of why I feel really excited about the idea of a bunch of women coming together to talk about it. I think the fact that I have spent more time on the literary circuit in the recent past than I was before has made me aware of the ways in which, especially being a young woman, I do think you get treated differently in all sorts of ways that sometimes are explicit enough that you feel like “Oh, well, that’s now self evident and tangible and palpable in the room” and sometimes are much more subterranean. And for that reason I love having a space where this whole range of female voices are being given platform and an environment in which to be taken seriously.