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Author Alexander Chee on publishing a first novel and writing as activism

photo of Daub and Chee in front of crowd
Nov 19 2019

Alexander Chee, author of the 2018 essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, admits he “never wanted to lift the curtain” and learn about the life of a writer. “I never wanted to know,” he says. “I was always content to only have the book.”

However, he found interviewers asking if his first novel, Edinburgh, is autobiographical. “The first time someone asked me the question, for my first novel, I asked, ‘Would it matter? Would you believe it more if I told you it had actually happened?’”

Chee, an English and creative writing professor at Dartmouth College,  appeared Oct. 28 at Stanford in conversation with Clayman Institute Director Adrian Daub, a professor of comparative literature and German studies. Chee talked about the challenges of publication, how to arrange a collection of essays, and what literary forms are suited to what purposes.  

Regarding the title of his essay collection, Chee says, “It was a joke on the question that is so often asked in interviews, which sort of always fills me with a kind of helpless rage. … I feel like ultimately it’s a way of talking about the novel without talking about the novel. That it turns all of it into an exercise of ‘catch the writer,’ instead of talking about what the writer wanted to talk about.”

“It’s always important to remember that literature is a record of what they allow you to publish, and not what they allow you to write.”

After publishing Edinburghin 2001, his second novel, The Queen of the Night, appeared in 2016. “So, for example, it was exasperating to finish 15 years of work on a historical novel about courtesans in the second empire, and have people say, ‘So how autobiographical is this?’” Of a novel as compared with an autobiography: “You’re doing something so much bigger than the self.”

Having published a number of essays during this period, Chee began discussing with his agent the idea of a collection. She advised him to finish his novel first. When he did, work began on selecting from his 70 published essays and determining how to order them. It turns out the collection is mostly chronological, an “accidental result” of trying to avoid repeating parts of his story over time. 

Daub says, “One of the many things I admire about these essays is precisely that they manage to talk around things as well as they can get straight to the heart of some of these questions, and the title question ends up being the biggest talk-around of all.” He points out that the essays were the “shadow of another form: the memoir.” Chee confirms they are a “shadow creature” that grew as his novel developed. 

Daub asked about the essays “1989,” “After Peter,” and “Girl” (selected for Best American Essays 2016), which deal with Chee’s AIDS activist past in San Francisco and “the question of preservation." 

“What I was trying to do in these essays was offer a map of a kind that never seemed to exist back then,” Chee says. “The Castro was not on street maps at the time. So people were always calling the [bookstore where he worked] for directions: ‘How do I get to the Castro? How do I get to the Castro?’ And I wanted to also talk about some of the layers in the city at the time that I found that I thought were interesting.”

photo of Chee speaking

Chee has talked of an earlier novel manuscript about those years in San Francisco, and Daub asks, “Is it the same impulse made essay here?”

“I went back to some of that manuscript and have been working on it again, actually,” Chee says. “I think it ultimately will be a very different book from what I first imagined. This is not at all the same impulse.”

Going back to the publication of his first novel, Edinburgh, Chee recalls difficulties. With sexual abuse and suicide among its subjects, the novel was rejected as “too much,” too heavy, though “my work wasn’t any more risk-taking than people who were being published regularly.” He says, “It’s always important to remember that literature is a record of what they allow you to publish, and not what they allow you to write.”

Noting that more than 80 percent of the publishing world is white – though black women and black lesbians in particular are the biggest readers (“they should be running the publishing companies, I think”) – he says finding his place as a gay, Korean American author was a significant challenge. He recalls conversations at that time about his place within literature as “shockingly primitive.” 

“I resented the idea that they were asking me an either/or question” by trying to categorize the novel as gay, Asian American, immigrant, etc. After two failed experiences with literary agents, “I’m very lucky in that I had one of the first Korean American agents.” 

Twenty-four publishers rejected the novel in two years before it was acquired. The following year’s auction of paperback rights attracted 17 bidders, 11 of whom had rejected it in hardcover. In fact, the winning publisher (with a different editor) initially had rejected the book. “That was certainly an education in learning how not to adjust myself or the book too much in relationship to anticipation of what they would want.”

In response to an audience question about how literary forms match with different purposes such as activism, Chee says: “Something I’m really interested in right now is speculative fiction, and the way speculative fiction can get closer to naming the real taboos of a culture through these invented worlds.” He notes that while society agrees on certain taboos, others are “so frightening we cannot give them a name. I think what speculative fiction does best is that it gives that unnameable thing a world. It’s more visible there, which allows it to be more visible here.” 

“Is that activism? Maybe.”

Chee describes “really disturbing” earlier attempts within literary criticism “to make American literary realism the American literary mode, the chief one. So often in a writing class you are kind of unconsciously indoctrinated into writing realist fiction as a way to show that you’re serious.” 

The result? “There’s a way in which American realism, the way it has been performed, at least commercially, functions as a kind of PR for the status quo more than it does giving you any of the news of the world in the way that literature can do.” This impacts the use of literary minimalism, because dominant paradigms control what does and doesn’t need to be described. “There are ways in which you can hack minimalism by adopting a completely different underlying dominant paradigm.” 

“Is that activism? Maybe. It’s definitely art.”

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