Authors draw parallels between fiction and journalism

Authors Jonathan Lethem and John Jeremiah Sullivan read from their latest books Monday evening at the Alley Theatre as part of the 2013 Inprint reading series.

Sullivan, a writer and essayist for publications such as The Paris Review, Harper’s Magazine and GQ, read a passage from his 2011 collection of nonfiction essays titled “Pulphead.”

The essays in “Pulphead” have a strong base in human emotion and delve into the mechanics of pop culture and the vulnerability of the figures within it.

Sullivan writes about attending a Christian rock festival and his experience with those attending, The Real World and the aged rock singer Axl Rose.

In the passage Sullivan chose to read to the audience at the Alley Theatre, he muses about the life and music of Michael Jackson, reflecting on the changes in the artist’s career from being a child star to becoming an outsider.

In an interview after his reading, Sullivan noted his disregard for the distinction between high and low culture in his writing, noting that taking a stance with regard to one culture being above another undermines people and whatever kind of culture they are a part of.

“I think it’s kind of a crypto-Philistine position, and a big part of my journey as a writer has been trying to extricate myself from that,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan delivers essays on life experiences as well, such as when he worked at 20 years old in a cabin as a caretaker for Andrew Lytle, a member of the Southern Agrarian literary movement. Sullivan found a comparison between journalism and fiction.

Facts, Sullivan finds, usually lend enough leeway to compose scenes that resemble qualities of fiction.

“I never remember feeling as a writer like there was really the possibility of a distinction between something that was non-imaginative and imaginative when it came to nonfiction,” Sullivan said.

“You have this body of things that are true — that you can verify — and you get to have as much fun with them as you can,” he said.

Following Sullivan, Jonathan Lethem read from his latest career-spanning collection of memoirs, essays, fiction and criticism, “The Ecstasy of Influence.”

Reading a passage about his boyhood experience with sexual fantasy, Lethem wooed the crowd with humor by wittily calling to mind his crude fascination with which he as a child peeked into his father’s studio while a model posed nude.

In an interview following the reading, Lethem explicated the flexibility of narrative in writing nonfiction.

“What you’re applying to it is a language — not just the language of individual sentences, but the language of narrative, which itself has another form of figuration in it,” he said.

Like Sullivan, when writing nonfiction, Lethem takes advantage of raw facts and uses narrative to build interest in content.

“You’re living in a goldmine,” Lethem said. “To reach for the fool’s gold by faking it is crazy.”

The next Inprint reading event will be May 6 at The Menil Collection featuring author James Salter.

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