Binnie Kirshenbaum has produced a diverse body of fiction over two decades. Difficult to classify, her work seems impatient with convention, eager to get to the point. The premise of her recent novel, The Scenic Route—a recent divorcée exploring Europe with a married millionaire—leads us to expect a romance. Instead, we hear sad, spiraling stories of the narrator’s mentally disturbed friend Ruby, her European refugee aunt Semille, and her aunt Thea, dislocated to the South. Elsewhere, Kirshenbaum has grappled with the distortions in intimacy caused by the forces of history, from History on a Personal Note (1995) to Hester Among the Ruins (2002). In A Disturbance in One Place (1994), Kirshenbaum takes hardened female sexuality to a point past Norman Mailer and Erica Jong, and in An Almost Perfect Moment (2004), kitschy religion contests sexual loneliness in disco era Brooklyn. I interviewed Kirshenbaum by email, discussing The Scenic Route, as well as broader questions of form and genre.
Anis Shivani (Rail): Hester Rosenfeld’s travels with her lover Heinrich Falk across Europe, in Hester Among the Ruins, offer reminders of inescapable history. The veneer of tourist attraction hides a landscape of nationalism, racism, and genocide. In The Scenic Route, Sylvia Landsman and Henry Stafford’s excursions in Europe trigger only personal recollections. Similarly, the overlay of medievalism (snippets from texts, etc.) compels a deterministic view of history in Hester, but your digressions in The Scenic Route allow for more open-ended interpretation.
Binnie Kirshenbaum: Europe engages me as a setting because it is old, because there are layers of stories to the civilizations. It’s the ambiguity to the history, the complexity, that renders it rich. One of the things I tried to do in The Scenic Route was to illustrate the universality of story-telling and I think to do that necessitated an open-ended interpretation of place. I’d probably be less generous in allowing for interpretation of history, but each place has multiple stories.
Rail: There is great continuity between your early stories in History on a Personal Note (particularly the title story) and your most recent work.
Kirshenbaum: Perhaps it’s the idea of interconnectedness of story coming into play in both the collection and the novel. Now that you point it out, I see that in both books, stories seemingly end only to get picked up again. Because stories never really end, do they? We can always wonder, “And then what happened?” By their very nature, stories are on a continuum. Beginning, middle, and end are reflected and refracted in all measures of time and life, perpetually unfolding.
Rail: In A Disturbance in One Place, the married Manhattan woman juggles three lovers at the same time, “the hit man,” “the multimedia artist,” and “the love of my life.” In what ways were you trying—or not trying—to subvert received notions of female sexuality? Hester Rosenfeld and Sylvia Landsman have the confidence of the protagonist of A Disturbance in One Place, but not her brazenness.
Kirshenbaum: Brazenness or bravado? The heroine of A Disturbance in One Place might be closer to the edge; more raw than Hester and Sylvia. That might have something to do with age. Theirs and mine. Time generating, if not wisdom, then a tempered response. I don’t recall consciously setting out to subvert received notions of female sexuality, but certainly I wanted to create a character capable of surprising me. Received notions of any kind are weighted down with restriction, in both life and art. My inclination was always to break free of all restraint or, even better, to find the freedom within the constraint.
Rail: Your books take feminism as a given. Strong-willed women make free choices, and are at the least unapologetic when choices go awry. Could you please trace the movement forward with respect to feminism in your books, toward the holistic picture in The Scenic Route?
Kirshenbaum: Nothing irritates me quite so much as a double standard. I came of age assuming feminism to be a given. Only after years of going about my business as if women had all the same freedoms that men had did I realize how mistaken I was. Sexism is insidious, sneaky. Oh, there are definite no-no’s. Blatant political incorrectnesses that get frowned upon, but plenty of subtle and not so subtle sexism gets a nod and a wink. I see this when I create characters, how gender changes everything. I get my wrists slapped from time to time for writing women characters who are “not nice.” I don’t think men are chastised for creating characters who are difficult people.
Rail: The desire to know too much—extreme self-consciousness—is a defining quality of your most memorable protagonists. It ruins happiness, and yet anything else is illusion. As long as we are being self-conscious, we might as well turn attention from the personal to the historical, viewing ourselves as acted-upon subjects in a historical play too vast for comprehension?
Kirshenbaum: “Acted-upon” denies responsibility, don’t you think? To examine life, whether personal or political, is uncomfortable. Invariably difficult, less pleasant. Oh, to be a happy idiot…. The full three acts of the play might be too vast for comprehension, but certainly we should be able to ponder the telling scenes. We can deconstruct and examine our lives. I suppose the question is why would we? Where does that get us?
Rail: From the starkness of A Disturbance in One Place, we move to a growing sense of Brooklyn in the 1970s in An Almost Perfect Moment, and then the luxuriousness of the last two books. It would seem that you still consider specificity of place an optional means to convey character.
Kirshenbaum: Place is character. My narrator in A Disturbance in One Place knew that without place, without a home, all one can do is free-float. She was seeking solid ground. But place can also be oppressive, inescapable. The Brooklyn of An Almost Perfect Moment was Mother Brooklyn: warm, homey, a close-knit community, but suffocating too.
Rail: An almost unbearable loneliness, of aging and loveless characters, is the other side of Valentine’s saintliness. You contributed a story to the anthology, This is Not Chick Lit. Chick Lit is arguably not Lit in that it presumes formulaic happiness. Your take on the fraught nature of female friendship—such as between Sylvia and Ruby in The Scenic Route—or the mother-daughter relationship—for instance, between Valentine and her mother, in An Almost Perfect Moment—is antagonistic to Chick Lit premises. What does the genre’s popularity tell you about the state of feminism in this country? Or is it more a publishing industry tactic to lower reading standards in the pursuit of profits?
Kirshenbaum: My gripe with Chick Lit isn’t so much the premise of it as it is in the writing itself. After all, we could say that Jane Austen wrote Chick Lit or that Madame Bovary was the Sex in the City of its day. I think the mistake is in the belief that lower reading standards will result in greater profits. People will read up, but rarely down. Dumbing down literature, I believe, will result only in losing readers. Trying to appeal to the widest common denominator possible results really in appealing to no one. Replicating a formula, looking for the next this or that, by its very nature, is going to be bland, boring. What’s wrong with these books is not what they are about, but that they are watered-down versions of what’s already been done well. Publishers need to take risks and they need to trust the reading public. Discerning people, and literary people are discerning, want quality.
Rail: You direct the Creative Writing MFA program at Columbia University. Shifts? Trends? Reflections?
Kirshenbaum: One of the many distinctions of the MFA Program at Columbia is that we have a Director and a Chair. I’m the Chair, which, tongue-in-cheek, I think of as analogous to the Queen and the Prime Minister. Trends in writing are going to be there irrespective of MFA programs, and trends are fine provided that we don’t write to them. That is, styles and modes will come and go, there will be movements and schools of writing just as there are in music, visual art, fashion. It’s how we interpret these trends, what we bring to them, where we take them, how we make them our own, that’s what counts. A good MFA program, in my opinion, should do no more and no less than to encourage excellence. To push the work to new heights and depths. Period. To dismiss any style of writing, whether it’s traditional or experimental, new or old, is narrow-minded, a limitation of experience, which is antithetical to writing and reading. Similarity of product is not the doing of MFA programs. You pointed this out with Chick Lit. Similarity of product is simply a lack of imagination and daring across the board. Teachers should push their students to go where they haven’t gone before. The thing is, where they haven’t gone before is often the place that is familiar. I’ve noticed, for example, that there has been a trend to eschew sentiment in fiction. I would say it’s possible that this avoidance is rooted in the misconception that sentiment is sentimental, lacking intellectual rigor. Dare to be more than merely clever. A living organism—which a story ought to be, alive—requires a heart and a brain.