“All Fiction Is Intellectually Autobiographical”: A Conversation with Jared Marcel Pollen

IN VENUS&DOCUMENTJared Marcel Pollen’s first novel and second book of fiction following the story collection The Unified Field of Loneliness (2019), a New York-based writer, Paul Kenning, attempts to sum up the mood of his times through the decaying medium of print journalism. Paul’s editor, Bill Morning, is dying — a neat parallel made explicit when Bill reveals his diagnosis to Paul in a basement full of disused printing presses. As one of his last acts, he assigns Paul to write about an unsettling political development: encampments of begun ambiguous provenance have to appear in Central Park and are spreading rhizomatically around the world. No manifesto or statement of purpose units these groups, and Paul is convinced he can provide a voice for the burgeoning movement.

Pollen wrote the novel while earning an MFA in Writing in New York and significantly revised it after moving to Prague. If not for the pandemic, Venus&Document would likely have come out sometime in 2021, but in retrospect Pollen is relieved to have had the extra time to take one more pass at the manuscript. I was especially interested to hear about how he managed the shifting political resonances of the novel as the world around it changed.

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SETH KATZ: How many times did you revise the novel between the first draft in 2015 and the book’s publication in 2022?

JARED MARCEL POLLEN: It’s a little hard to remember how many revisions took place. They were numerous, and sometimes incremental. After the first draft, I took a break from the manuscript for a while. Then, when I went back and read it, I realized that it wasn’t in fact the book I’d wanted to write. So, I decided to write the whole thing again from page one. That draft then went through many phase transitions over the course of four or five years. It went in and out of the drawer. Those revisions often coincided with my attempts to sell the book — when an agent first recommended I revise it, when I got feedback from editors, and so forth. Then, once Crowsnest bought the book, I did a final revision, which saw the manuscript change radically. In some ways it’s the same book I wrote six or seven years ago, and in another way, it’s an entirely different book. It became like a ship of Theseus. Every plank was changed over time.

The encampments in the novel seem modeled after the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was at its height when you were first writing. Venus&Document Takes place at an unspecified time, but it contains oblique references to political developments from the past few years. At what point did you decide the novel needed to be updated?

The nice thing about the novel was that I’d created a structure and a discursive style that allowed for a lot of freedom, so it was easy to revise and “update” certain aspects of the narrative. When I first started writing the novel, in the summer of 2014, Occupy Wall Street and Hurricane Sandy still loomed rather large in the cultural rear-view mirror. Those events served, very loosely, as the inspiration for the events of the novel. As time went on, however, and those stories started to recede in the collective memory, they seemed less relevant. But sure enough, last fall, we saw another superstorm hit New York City (producing the same kinds of scenes we saw with Sandy), and a few months later, a round of demonstrations (the so-called “freedom convoy”) that spread virally around the globe, eventually becoming a kind of release valve for people’s grievances with the pandemic. These types of news stories always come around again. The challenge in writing a book about “current events,” so to speak, is that it will inevitably date itself. The goal was to write about things that felt contemporary while also keeping them vague and fictional enough to be relevant in any time.

Because of the extensive revisions, does the novel feel like it’s among your freshest work, or do you still consider it juvenilia because it was initially completed seven years ago?

Had the novel been published three or four years ago, I would have considered it juvenilia. Now, I don’t think so. I suppose it’s both. When I look at the novel now, I see it as a reflection of my maturation as a writer. There were lots of growing pains in composing it, as all authors know from their first novels. But these things are visible only to me, of course.

This is your second book of fiction, but anyone who follows your writing is probably more familiar with the essays and criticism you publish online (and occasionally in print). It is also now clear that you had been working out a lot of the ideas in this novel through those shorter pieces. (At one point in Venusone of your characters even utters the phrase Blessed are the sense-makers,” which you’d used for the title of one of your essays.) Do you see your nonfiction as secondary to fiction, or is it all part of the same overall project?

I think when I first started writing the novel, I had ambitions that were probably more aligned with philosophy or criticism. I wanted to explore certain philosophical ideas in a discursive way, and early drafts of the manuscript didn’t really resemble a novel at all. They were more reminiscent of Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse or Camus’s Notebooks — which really influenced me at the time. Of course, that’s probably hard to imagine now for anyone who reads the book, but that’s how it began.

And no, I don’t see my nonfiction as secondary to my fiction. For me, they’re equals. But it’s about priorities. Whatever I’m working on at the moment is always primus inter pares.

Did you have any internal resistance, or unproductive self-consciousness, while writing a novel about a writer? Does Venus&Document fall somewhere on the autofiction spectrum?

There is a tendency now to read everything as autofiction. Especially in light of our present emphasis on identity. If a protagonist shares even a few superficially naturally resemblances with the author, people will assume that the story is biographical, and moreover, that the narrator must be a kind of mouthpiece for the author’s ideas. But this novel by no means falls within the spectrum of autofiction, and the protagonist is certainly not a narrative avatar that stands in for me. In general, I prefer to write outside of my own experience. Very little of my work comes out of my own life. That said, I think almost all fiction is intellectually autobiographical, insofar as it comes out of ideas that you find yourself inordinately preoccupied with, and that is certainly the case with this novel.

I should also say that I don’t particularly like novels about writers, or novels that take place inside the halls of graduate writing programs, or the academy. I very much wanted to avoid that association. So yes, there was some self-consciousness involved. At the same time, Paul — the protagonist of Venus&Document — had to be an intellectual of some kind, as he has certain narrative responsibilities: mainly to process events in a discursive manner. So, it made sense to make him a writer. But I thought it would be more appropriate to make him a journalist, as it is more remote from my own experience, and as a journalist, he is far closer to being an “everyman” than a poet or a PhD. Part of the comedy of the novel, however, is that the protagonist is very high-minded and actually quite remote at times from the world he lives in. He has trouble maintaining sensitive relationships with those around him, especially the women in his life, partly because he’s so relentlessly preoccupied with certain ideas. It is very often the female characters who attempt to bring him back down to earth.

There is a sense of futility right from the beginning of the novel. We don’t get to read any of Paul’s actual writings, but we still don’t have much faith in him to live up to his assignment.

I like stories that are about people trying to do things. Tristram Shandy, for example, is about a man trying to tell the story of his life, which he only gets around to rather late in the narrative, and when he finally does, he gets distracted and wanders off. Fellini’s — which is the same sort of narrative — was a big inspiration for me when writing this novel. Again, it’s about a filmmaker trying to make a film and ultimately not succeeding, mostly because he’s unable to sort through the intellectual clutter of his life and the failed romances of his past. The film ends with a kind of celebration of this failure, as the characters dance around the empty set of the film that will never be made — the project that will never be realized. It’s all about gearing up to do something, and I think this novel is very much like that.

The novel, like your essays, is dense with allusions to poetry, philosophy, and literature. Do you collect quotations and references that speak to your themes in advance, or do they tend to come to you while you’re writing?

The novel is quite short, and I wanted it to be erudite and dense and encyclopedic, and all that — but, as the novel is in many ways about the mental anguish of the information age, I didn’t want any of the references or allusions to feel as if they had been looked up. There’s a certain smartness that exists these days — a kind of portable intelligence that you carry around in your pocket. You can look anything up now. Which means that much of our knowledge is not earned but acquired. The novel is trying to capture that, but at the same time, I didn’t want to succumb to it myself. So, I wanted all of the references to philosophy and literature to feel organic and natural to the narrator’s way of thinking. As a result, I made a point not to look too much stuff up when writing the novel and tried to make use of my own mental library.

The choice to set the novel in New York seems directly tied to the feeling of overload that you’re talking about. There isn’t much of the romance of old New York here — the descriptions make me hear Koyaanisqatsi rather than Gershwin. You were in New York when you started writing, but you relocated to Europe for most of the revision period (like Henry James in the 1880s). How did your relationship to New York change as a result?

It’s funny you say that. I think the novel’s portrait of life in New York is very romantic, and I think it in many ways reflects the way I felt when I first started writing the novel. I was living in the city at the time, and I was overwhelmed by the so-muchness of it. You’re right that there’s a constant sensory input, and that’s exactly how I felt. Other than maybe resisting the urge to name-drop places, I think my view of New York became more sober once there was some distance between me and the city. And I think that’s true of most writing. You need to close the door on the society that you’re writing about. I think it was Kipling who said, “What do they know of England, who only England know?” New York City is like a little world in itself, and if you never leave it, it kind of distorts your vision of reality. There is life elsewhere. I’m glad at least that I got to write a New York novel. I may never do that again.

Do you have any desire, like Paul, to make a single grand statement as a writer, to sum up the culture in some all-encompassing way? Venus&Document It seems to regard that as a fool’s errand, but that pursuit has inspired the creation of many great novels, whether they live up to it or not.

I think all writers desire that, to some extent. I think I certainly did when I began writing the novel. There’s a certain arrogance and brashness you need if you’re going to undertake writing a novel in the first place. Part of the discovery that took place while composing the story was precisely the recognition that it is in some ways a fool’s errand, as you say. In that sense, my struggle to write something that would contain the culture in full — a great, all-encompassing narrative — mirrored the effort of the narrator to do the same. Over time, this became part of the comedy of the novel. In the end, it reflects my own disenchantment with the idea that novels could ever hope to do such a thing. At most, I think they can only attempt to rule over the little space they carve out for themselves.

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Seth Katz is a freelance critic who has written book reviews for Slant Magazine and interviewed writers for The Millions.

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