“Why in God’s name would I be on Facebook?”—Jonathan Lethem & David Gates on writing right now

For our new issue about writing as a form of correspondence, we asked several writers to exchange emails about being a writer at the present moment, about the public and the private aspects of the writing life, and, well, whatever else interested them.

Some of the correspondents—Claire Messud and Mohammed Naseehu Ali, for example—had never met, while others had known each other for years. In this latter category are Jonathan Lethem and David Gates, whose long friendship led to a frank and funny exchange that includes the line above. After Lethem asked Gates why he wasn’t on Facebook, Gates replied thusly, then quoted, with tongue no doubt in cheek, a famous exchange attributed to two earlier American writers:
“Henry, what are you doing in there?”
“Waldo, what are you doing out there?”
(This is supposedly what Ralph Waldo Emerson said to Thoreau during the latter’s prison stay chronicled in “On Civil Disobedience,” followed by Thoreau’s reported reply.)

The whole exchange between Lethem and Gates is a smart, searching, and witty back-and-forth about their experiences as writers, teachers—and readers. In Gates’s first email (just posted at PEN.org; more of the emails will appear throughout the week), he brings up David Shields’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, excerpted in PEN America 11: Make Believe and much discussed (you can even watch Shields talk about the book with Stephen Colbert):
It’s helped clarify for me why I can read so little fiction these days, and why I can’t stand most of what I’m now writing myself. It doesn’t, however, explain to me why fiction works for me when it works for me—not that this is an explanation I need.
Stay tuned for Lethem’s reply—or get the whole exchange now by ordering the issue.


Anonymous said...


Leslie Shimotakahara said...

I'm a bit of a luddite when it comes to social networking, but my agent was insistent that I set up a blog while working on my memoir, "The Reading List: Ruminations of a Recovering Academic." Now I'm really enjoying writing both! http://shimosreadinglist.blogspot.com/