Andrew Sean Greer was in Italy, where he was working as the director of a writer’s residency at the time, when he heard that he had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He had to fly straight to the ceremony in New York and while puzzling over what to wear, was convinced by a friend to buy a rather unconventional outfit for a serious literary prize – a secondhand bright red suit.
Greer called his suit an “expression of joy”, a descriptor easily extended to the novel that won him the Pulitzer. Less, the American author’s fifth novel, follows a writer on a literary tour around the world. Arthur Less is about to turn fifty and has just had his heart broken by a lover. To avoid attending the wedding of his ex boyfriend, he accepts every invitation he has gotten to a literary event, no matter how small or obscure.
Unlike Greer, Arthur has a uniform for these events – a blue suit, “medium but vivid, moderately lustrous, definitely bold”, without which he doesn’t feel like himself. Suit in tow, he ends up at a literary symposium in Mexico City, unexpectedly wins an award in Italy (chosen by 12 high school students) and injures himself at a writers’ residency in India.
Sharp and vivid, Less satirises the literary circuit, gently deflates the entitlement of the white American male and offers an achingly reflective account of ageing as a gay man, blanketed with Greer’s warm humour. On a visit to the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, the author spoke to Scroll.in about his writing and award-winning novel. Excerpts from the interview:
It’s impossible to begin without asking about the Pulitzer. Has your relationship to writing changed at all since the prize?
I won the Pulitzer when I was just beginning a new book. It takes me so long to start a new book that it did catch me by surprise and stop me from writing. But I was working a time-consuming job that I was able to quit, which is now giving me more freedom to write. Maybe there’s pressure on me to write something good but my internal pressure is always going to be much more than anything I perceive from the outside.
How does it feel to have one out of your many novels be elevated above the rest? Is it weird that a favourite has been chosen?
That out of all my books, it was my gay comedy? I could not be happier!
Alan Hollinghurst recently said that “the gay novel is dead”, causing a bit of a controversy...
Oh! What did he mean by that?
He clarified that he meant the ghettoised gay literature of a certain time. Does the “gay novel” mean anything to you right now? How does something like Armistead Maupin’s Tales of The City resonate with you today?
I think Tales of The City holds up. A lot of the older novels don’t. They’re so sombre, urban, white and male. There are no women. They’re so claustrophobic. Even at the time I couldn’t identify with them. My experience of being gay wasn’t of cloistered dark rooms and bars, none of that felt right to me. Tales of the City, which was already an old book when I read it, felt right. And I think it still does. I reread them all recently.
But I do think it will seem very old-fashioned very soon to have this divide where everyone has to be gay or straight. That there’s a gay world or a straight world. Our lives will already be intermingled with other people who are facing other issues, are not one particular gender. I think new novels need to address that, and also a queerness that is very open to not asking who someone is sleeping with or what gender they associate but their feeling of being a sexual outsider in any way, a gender outsider. That literature is what I think we’re all looking forward to.
One of the characters tells Arthur Less at a dinner party in Paris that there’s a reason he doesn’t get reviewed by the gay press or isn’t a part of gay canon. It’s because he’s a “bad gay” and he has to “do better for all of us”. Do you feel that pressure to represent a certain group?
Yes. It’s tough because I’m a very left-wing, politically active person and I marched on the streets in my youth and then I found when I put it into fiction it came across as propaganda. I’m a very bad arguer politically. I’m not very persuasive and get caught up and angry, and on the page, I found I just wasn’t good at it. So instead I thought I’m going to write gay characters that feel like real people.
They’re in all my books but haven’t been the protagonists. I tried but it felt flat, for whatever reason. I think the pressure to represent comes from inside of me, knowing what I feel and seeing the pain and suffering in the world, that I should be doing something, not just making a pretty book. Up until now, I couldn’t pull it off. So I’m, very happy to have finally done it!
Arthur is a very interesting character. He’s not exactly a loser but has elements of it sometimes. You’ve also sneakily added traits like him being a good kisser but not necessarily very good in bed. Do you think it is these flaws in him, trying to take charge of something while being buffeted by forces beyond this control, that makes so many readers identify with him? What makes him so appealing?
I think it’s his imperturbable innocence in the face of all kinds of humiliation. He keeps going to the next event thinking it’s going to turn out great, over and over again. Even I, who really wanted to harm my character, found myself very attached to a fictional person. I wanted to keep his innocence intact. I didn’t want to do something terrible that would spoil him. It’s not that he shakes it off when people say something awful to him. He suffers for it. But then he still thinks the next interaction is going to go better.
Did you reward him for this eternal optimism at the end of the book? Or was his happiness at the end something you already had in mind when you began?
I already had it in mind and in fact, I thought the only way I can write a book that ends with some kind of happiness or joy is if I take everything away from him before. Otherwise it’s happy all the time and there’s no structure to the novel. As it is, his life is pretty good, honestly. He doesn’t need a lot of rewarding.
In the Morocco section of the book, one of the characters says the same thing to Arthur – when he tells her the premise of the book he is writing is a white middle-aged man walking about San Francisco thinking about his life. Do you feel this? Grappling with these questions of representation and visibility and privilege while also trying to not be appropriative.
I thought about it all the time. Constantly, for months, with this book. If I am treating the other characters as human beings or if I am putting in stereotypes or clichés. It’s something that any serious author should have always been thinking about. It’s always been ugly and I’m glad we’re talking about it now.
But I was certainly aware that I was a white middle-aged man writing about a white middle-aged character going around the world...with not too many other white people in the book, if you pay attention. I wondered whether I could do that, what that meant and how that would make the reader feel. I can be persuasive as a writer but I don’t want to do that for something bad. That fills me with an anxiety all the time. Even with my new book, as it should. But white writers have been taught to spend so much time on description and metaphor and I think it’s appropriate that we should be spending time on people and our responsibilities.
I’ve won the Pulitzer prize and there’s now a lot of light being shone on me, another middle-aged white man in America and it’s my responsibility to point to other writers that people want to read...women especially, for me. Because most of the writers I like are women, as people and also the books I read. It would be awful if I became arrogant, as I was probably trained to believe. I am very aware of that.
Who are some of these writers that you wish people were reading?
Recently, I read RO Kwon’s book that has taken America by storm. I loved it – The Incendiaries – it’s wonderful and she’s pretty wonderful too.
Throughout your book, there’s a sense of you poking fun at Arthur’s Americanism. Was that an active purpose?
It was definitely conscious. Maybe it’s living abroad that’s made me realise, when I get home, how parochial we are. We only think about America and only certain populations of America. We don’t learn foreign languages, we expect everyone else to learn “our language” when we go abroad. We’re bossy and entitled and make fun of how other people’s bus passes work as if ours make any more sense! I watch that happen even within my friends and myself. I wish more Americans would travel with more humility or just travel. We have to realise that our empire is over and we have to step down. And thank god, because it was nasty and it’s going to have death throes that are going to cause a lot of pain.
What do you think those death throes will look like?
It all depends how long our president lasts and how much damage he can do. But we’ll continue to do damage with military presence around the world. Right now, no one can tell what side we are on. So I hope we’ll be more ignored in some way because we’re trashing the place.
There’s a moment in the book where you write about Arthur Less feeling like he is “the first homosexual to ever grow old”, particularly because of the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Do you feel you’ve lacked the presence of older gay men and writers to follow in the footsteps of?
I was old enough in the 80s, I was in college, to watch so many men die. Most in my generation made it but the men just older than us were wiped out. That was a devastating thing to live through. I thought I had lived through it and it was over but I realised in middle age that there was a whole generation that never got role models. And there was no one before that, everyone was in the closet. I can watch straight men and how they get old but I don’t know if I’m supposed to do the same thing, I don’t know.
I have to say I have had wonderful older gay male writers, Edmund White and Michael Cunningham, who have been kind and helpful. But there’s a whole generation of artists, not just gay, around the world, who we lost to AIDS and we’ll never know what they would have made. It’s an empty hole in the arts and one of the saddest things I can think of.
This concept of growing old and ageing – Arthur, of course, struggles with it. It’s also an important part of one of your earlier novels The Confessions of Max Tivoli. I suppose Arthur is close to you in age but not to much with that novel...
Well, I was turning 30! That’s sort of a milestone. It looks easy now looking back but it’s not! It’s the hardest one, I think.
I know it’s too simple that I wrote a book about a man turning 50 because I’m turning 50 but I did start it when I was 45 so it didn’t feel close at all. It was watching all my friends turn 50 one after the other and what a trial that was for people, gay and straight, who never had children and so didn’t enter into an “adult” role, going from somewhat young to old, without a transition of being a parent. There’s a free fall feeling, I think.
A lack of conventional anchors?
We do it to ourselves because we’re leading these bohemian lives and not following a pattern. There’s no safety net and that’s what we’ve asked for. If you lead an unconventional life, you get unconventional problems.
We have to address the fact that we’re talking about Less at a literature festival. You poke fun at the entire literary ecosystem in the book. Especially after the Pulitzer, I imagine you’re doing more events, more talks, more festivals. Does it all feel even more surreal?
Yes! Because before I wrote the book, I hadn’t really been to international literary festivals. I made a lot of things up. Less doesn’t go to a real festival, because I had never been to one. But this all feels very strange.
I’m not having Less’s experience at all. But as writers we’re mostly so insecure and we’re attuned to hierarchies that we don’t know about until we arrive somewhere and someone has a better hotel than somebody else and we realise we’re not as important as they are. That can be dispiriting. Or a party you didn’t hear about that everyone is going to. It all feels very high school and human beings go back to that. Even with writers, there’s the popular kids and the goth kids. Thankfully, I was taught by older writers, friends, to treat other writers with decency. I really don’t like writer hierarchies.
Less has been routinely described as comic novel. But it’s also very sad in parts. How have you found that response? It’s often billed as the comic satire that won the Pulitzer...
To me, it’s a book about the saddest things I can think of and the most difficult things in my life. But the comic novels that I like, are clearly born from sadness. So was this. I was in a really hard place when I wrote it. And I think of it as sad. I don’t mind when people say it’s a comic novel because I worked really hard to make it...readable, I guess. So when people say “It was so funny, I enjoyed it”, in a way I feel like they’ve swallowed a pill. And it may work on them. They may not have realised what they were reading because they thought it was such fun.
Yet, it does end on this happy note, contrary to the tradition of the prize-winning grand novel. Do you think people gravitated to that in these awful times?
It’s hard for me to know. I wrote it before Trump was in power...well Modi was in power here...but the world was still shit. That may be why people have latched on to it and maybe why they picked it. I’ll never know.
There are many funny escapist novels and books. The ones that are the most gratifying are the ones that seem to be talking about something honest and true but still give you some release. It’s like having a friend who’s great fun but also has real feelings. I personally hope it’s among those books.