I’ve long admired Lynne Tillman’s criticism. Her writing is founded on curiosity and deep feeling. It’s precise and imaginative, devoid of jargon or cliché. It’s the opposite of what I dislike in criticism, and I know I’m not alone in my appreciation of what she does. “What she does” is hard to pinpoint, though, and the title of her new collection is a good-natured fake-out for all of us who might look to her as a model for how to live—or just how to write.
What Would Lynne Tillman Do? includes essays (and interviews) on a wide range of topics, ordered like an alphabet book, A to Z. The table of contents playfully points to the author’s versatility and prolific output—really, isn’t the question what wouldn’t Lynne Tillman do? She’s a novelist and short-story writer as well as a cultural critic whose fascinations seem encyclopedic in range. Here, in pieces written over the past twenty years or so, she reflects on subjects like Andy Warhol, Edith Wharton, Nan Goldin, Futurism, and the Rolling Stones (these essays originally appeared in publications such as Frieze, Bomb, Artforum, and the New York Times Book Review, as well as in these pages).
Tillman doesn’t shy away from the first person; her engaging, erudite “I” appears in most pieces. Usually, she uses personal experience as a frame or an entry point, but sometimes she embeds cultural criticism in memoir. For example, in her book’s second section, “B Is for the Bowleses,” Tillman emerges as an intrepid protagonist and an enthusiastic scholar of Paul and Jane Bowles’s work. She recounts how, in the early ’70s, as a young writer in Amsterdam, she established a correspondence—and a timid friendship—with Paul. Their letter writing concerned, at first, his inclusion in an anthology of American writers abroad she was editing. As its publication was delayed, for years, she worked up the nerve to ask him for a piece of writing by his recently deceased wife. The stakes are higher when Tillman writes about Jane: “I loved and respected Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky,” she explains. “But Jane Bowles’s novel shifted the ground for me—she made the world of writing move. Move over and sigh.”
The cult favorite Two Serious Ladies, Jane Bowles’s only novel, is an influence, maybe an obsession, for Tillman. It surfaces as a reference point for greatness and originality in a number of this collection’s pieces. In an interview with author Harry Mathews, she compares his novel Cigarettes to it; in an essay about filmmaker John Waters, she notes that he loves it, too (the mark of a discerning bookworm). When she explains her long-standing reverence for Jane’s brilliant book, we see Tillman’s singular ability to merge effusive praise with sharp observation. “Jane Bowles ignored the worn lines between conscious and unconscious life,” Tillman writes. “She beggared the realist novel with writing indifferent to prosaic notions of reality. Her dialogue is the most particular and idiosyncratic in American literature, as peculiar and condensed as speech in jokes and dreams.”
In fact, Tillman hoped to make a film of the novel. She wrote a screenplay and brought it to Paul in Tangier. Though he approved of it, she was unable to secure the rights. The disappointment was crushing, and contagious, since the unmade movie sounds perfect. “Its bizarre scenes happily” would’ve been “haunted by the ghost of director Preston Sturges, its eccentric dialogue delivered by actors like Lily Tomlin,” she imagines. This is partly what sets Tillman apart as a cultural critic: She has an artist’s investment in art, a novelist’s hope that Two Serious Ladies won’t be forgotten. “Great literature disappears all the time,” she notes with regard to the disappearance, then resurgence in the mid-’90s, of novelist Paula Fox. “Writers sometimes make it their job to unearth other writers. It’s not just altruism.” Altruistic writing sounds impossible, or uninteresting, anyway. The struggle against the obliteration of one’s heroes may be fueled by self-interest, but we’re lucky that tribute and a fan’s dedication have a place in Tillman’s oeuvre. Her essays on the Bowleses and Fox, and her moving study of Edith Wharton, are among her best.
There’s no formula to this collection’s pieces. Some are written as lists, like “Definitions,” a group of invented words (including the needed terms “catful” and “multitidian”). Others make an argument, and unfold seamlessly. A few are very brief, like the crystalline “At the Microphone,” in which she recounts how John Cage, standing before a restless crowd at the 1975 “Schizo-Culture” conference at Columbia University, refused to speak into the mic. The avant-garde composer told the attendees they could hear him without amplification if they listened. So they did. This freestanding anecdote fills a single page and reads like a parable. Though most of Tillman’s pieces are more sustained, none are overexplained. She is willing to be abrupt in order to let ideas and images resonate without interference.
She exploits jump cuts and associative structures, too. “There Not There” begins with a discussion of Michael Almereyda’s 2005 documentary about photographer William Eggleston, but quickly shrugs off the film-review form and becomes a meditation on received ideas and aesthetic judgment. In Eggleston’s saturated depictions of the American commonplace, Tillman observes, “ugliness is no sin, beauty no virtue.” She then touches on Warhol, Kafka, and the closing of an infamous Tijuana jail before the final paragraph—is it a conclusion, or a coda?—about artist Mike Kelley. Writing soon after his untimely death in 2012, Tillman calls his work “poignant, psychologically raw, stunning.” It “did damage to what’s ‘obvious’ and in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ taste,” she marvels.
To use one of her favorite terms of approval, Tillman’s engagement with her subject matter is “generative.” Her writing feels free. Unruly, personal, and provocative, it’s also freeing. “I’m for generative types of contemporary writing, not proscriptions about writing,” she proclaims in “Doing Laps Without a Pool,” the closest she comes to a manifesto. “Writing is like life, there are many ways of doing it, survival depends on flexibility,” she continues. And, letting us in on the puzzle that inspires her own inquisitive, varied practice, she concludes, “Anything can be on the page. What isn’t there now?”
Johanna Fateman is a musician and writer, and the owner of Seagull Salon in New York City. She is currently at work on a book about Andrea Dworkin.