2018 was Sally Rooney’s year. Normal People, the Irish novelist’s second book, came out—a TV show was also announced—and it seemed like everyone was reading the Dublin-set campus novel, which deals with the complexities of class and the way it shapes relationships. At its peak, it seemed impossible to go a day without seeing someone holding the book on the subway or in a cafe. Similarly, 2019 has been a banner year for Ben Lerner. The Guggenheim and MacArthur recipient, who hails from the deep Midwest, has just published his anticipated third novel, The Topeka School. Set in Kansas in the late ’90s, the book follows Adam Gordon—arguably a stand-in for a young Lerner—in his last year of high school. It’s his first in five years—so new that it was just a day old when the two writers took the stage at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn for the sold-out event, The Topeka School: Ben Lerner and Sally Rooney in Conversation.
Both former debate champs—The Topeka School’s Adam is one too—Rooney and Lerner were well suited to an hour of conversation. It was also apparent that they each approach the duty of writing fiction with the same care and concern. There is nothing apolitical or apathetic about what they do as public intellectuals and novelists; hearing the two delve into their art was to feel dazzled by a novel’s ability to be a site of political discourse.
With a fellow writer’s close attention, Rooney remarked that The Topeka School felt different from Lerner’s past work, thanks to its mostly third-person voices; Lerner inhabits not just one character but several. Lerner said he had approached writing it in first person but found himself shifting out of that headspace as time went on, and that the change was the cause of a “glitch in the matrix of the voice,” as well as a “dramatizing effect of the voice.”
Rooney then nodded to the setting of the event, discussing The Topeka School’s ideology and how it fits into the heritage of novels written in Brooklyn. Lerner is a Brooklyn writer, after all, and his writing is much-loved, particularly within the local bubble of literary cognoscenti. In terms of popularity, the same can be said for Rooney, who has captivated an audience that includes both cool high-school English teachers and Taylor Swift. So it was an apt pairing to tackle Rooney’s most pointed question of the night: “Are popular novels trapped in a feedback loop of ideology?” Or, in other words, is the writing process for popular fiction somehow shaped by the hive mind of an audience? Do writers like Lerner or Rooney find themselves influenced by the zeitgeist and the people who are drawn to their work? Lerner had an excellent answer, and criticized the notion of “the fewer people who read my work, the more radical I am,” saying that having an audience and being taken seriously isn’t really a bad thing at all.
Other particularly captivating moments involved these writers du jour discussing such artistic topics such as whether accessibility should be a concern when writing fiction. (Lerner’s response? “I don’t value accessibility”) There was also talk of the idea of the Great American Novel, and how that term is often a stand-in for a novel written by a white dude. But most significant was the point when Rooney asked the seemingly simple question of whether it is possible to enjoy a piece of writing simply for its form, and not for its politics. Lerner’s response was blunt: Writing without political subtext, he thinks, isn’t particularly compelling.
The hour passed by in what felt like an instant; one could imagine that the dizzying heights and nimble breadth of the conversation were disorienting even for an eager audience. And perhaps it was; when the event closed, tote-bag wielding attendees quietly shuffled out of the cavernous venue and headed to their bikes, or to the bus. These are two artists with the ability to leave listeners shell-shocked by their intellect—and that might be exactly what happened.
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Originally Appeared on Vogue