This Week in Fiction: Andrew Sean Greer on the Alluring Tyranny of Awards

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Yet… But he also thinks he can’t possibly be any good as a writer, when—as I hope comes across—he’s in fact pretty talented. As is the rest. It’s like “Young Frankenstein”: “No matter what you hear in there, no matter how cruelly I beg you, no matter how terribly I may scream, do not open this door!” Of course, a moment later he begs, “Open this door!” You gotta feel for Teri Garr. How important is that opening journey—and the sense of dislocation—to the story? Not that it makes you seem ridiculous but that it reveals how ridiculous you   really   are. And was ignored? His short-listed book was largely ignored in America, but in Italy it’s been fêted. I wrote bits and pieces and couldn’t seem to figure out what was wrong. I always had Arthur Less, but the novel was different—it was a wistful, quiet, poignant book about a man walking around San Francisco. They have nothing to do with actual writing, as Robert Brownburn says, near the end of my excerpt. I’ve never put writers in a novel before; I think I always believed that it was not allowed, or certainly only allowed as the last gasp of a novelist. You want to write something you’re proud of. (“It turns out I’ve been pronouncing it wrong all these years,” Robert says. But it’s like wanting a wedding—that’s not something to want. How important do you think they are to the literary ecosystem? He wants it badly. Then I sat down and wrote this episode. It’s Pull-it-sir.”) Do you think most writers have a dream of receiving that call, however deeply the desire may be buried in the recesses of the mind? I know that seems odd, but there it is. Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. In the novel, as in the story, Arthur Less has decided to take any literary invitation sent his way, because he wants to be out of the country when Freddy, his former flame, marries. You want a   good relationship. He can’t be a victim of a terrible world—he has to take the pill himself. A wedding? I mean, that’s what humiliation really is, right? He is almost fifty and he has no armor against the world, and I think this was part of his charm, for me, in writing him. There’s a great book by James English, “The Economy of Prestige,” in which he examines literary prizes and what they are about. There is a whole section on Doubt. The novelist Andrew Sean Greer talks about his short story “It’s a Summer Day,” which appears in this week’s magazine.CreditPHOTOGRAPH BY RINO BIANCHI / WRITER PICTURES VIA AP

This week’s story, “It’s a Summer Day,” follows an American novelist, Arthur Less, as he travels to Italy to attend a prize ceremony, for which he is one of the finalists. But he can’t help himself; he simply cannot be as cynical as Robert. When did you first start thinking about this scenario as the basis for a novel? What I didn’t want to write about was a poor-me story—I’m far too old to get away with that. It’s certainly better than anything I’ve ever written. In the story, Less recalls the day that Robert answered the phone and discovered that he had won a Pulitzer. A prize? Did you always have Arthur Less in mind as the character who would try to escape his life in this way? When I started this, I wanted to write something that was full of joy. “It’s not Pew-lit-sir. What’s more challenging to write about, human love and desire, or the life of a solitary novelist? So I figured, the only way to do that was to Job-ify him—take everything away and give it back better. Roth hit upon Zuckerman early on as a way to tell his stories, and even after Zuckerman stopped being a main character he proved to be an excellent narrator. “It’s a Summer Day” is taken from your forthcoming novel, “Less,” which will be published in July. I threw it all out, waited about a month. Human love and desire is my bag. How much did Robert’s fame affect Less’s sense of himself as a writer, and how significant was that age difference in forming the man we see in these pages? And he’s almost fifty! He thinks that he’s a boy! Like, today, on the page. Does Less welcome the attention, or fear the possibility that such attention might bring with it humiliation (at one stage, for example, the prom scene from “Carrie” runs through his mind)? There’s always a trick, and it’s usually one that he’s played, unwittingly, on himself. And yet all the writers I know   seethe   when they aren’t acknowledged. you know… Travel is hard, and it’s mostly not your fault. As a writer, do you think much about prizes? Basically: an exchange of prestige for either money or another kind of prestige. The pain of creation, as witnessed by a younger Less, who wants to relieve the pain but realizes it is a necessary part of Robert’s work. I’ve never been in a relationship like that, so of course it interested me—the rewards of being with someone so much older and wiser and, of course, flawed, and the price both people pay. The story takes its title from a line in a Frank O’Hara poem: “It’s a summer day, and I want to be wanted more than anything else in the world.” Robert has told Less, “Prizes aren’t love,” but in some ways the story proves that they can be. It’s the third chapter in the book, but it’s where I found what I really wanted to do with my character. But I thought, Wouldn’t it be funny if it was   totally his fault? And reward him. Let me now mention “The Children’s Hospital,” by Chris Adrian, a masterpiece of 2006, which, as far I know, didn’t win a damn thing in a year I probably did. He’s absurd! For Less, everything holds the possibility of humiliation; everything is booby-trapped by his own reckless optimism. And it has to be his own fault. Then I realized: Who could feel sad about this guy? In the story, Less is one of five international novelists vying for a prize. So the sympathy in the novel goes to Robert, the greater writer. He loves it, but he feels that there is a trick. Prizes evolve to serve themselves. I think that must be painful for the partners of artists. It’s easy to forget that’s the only real pleasure that writers have. So that rule’s no good. But what if you knew a masterpiece had been written that year? I do recognize, in myself, my memories of always being introduced as the “young man.” And I now live in a world where my friends are in their eighties and nineties—I am still the “young man.” It’s disconcerting, and yet a familiar role to play. Then what? They don’t know what’s going on in that room, and they don’t dare ask; they don’t know how to help. I’m such a sap, but I think not to at least call attention to that greater book would be utter vanity and a cardinal sin. Torture him, I guess? Less spent much of his twenties and thirties in a relationship with an older man, Robert Brownburn, a distinguished poet. But Robert also says that he wants it. It is MUCH harder to write about the life of a solitary novelist. Then what?