Novelist and critic Lynne Tillman’s character Madame Realism first appeared in the pages of Art in America in the mid-’80s, reporting on a Renoir symposium. This month, Semiotext(e) brings together all of her misadventures in the volume The Complete Madame Realism and Other Stories. We met to talk about the intricacies of fiction in life, art, and criticism.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): How was Madame Realism born? From what I understand, Craig Owens brought Madame Realism into art criticism in Art in America while he was an editor there, but she existed before that?
Lynne Tillman: There was the first “Madame Realism.” I think it was 1983, someone phoned me—so many phone calls, so little time—and asked if I wanted to contribute to a magazine on Surrealism. I said no, but I began to think about Méret Oppenheim, who was the first person I ever interviewed and a female Surrealist. After college I was living in Europe; she was in Paris, and I went to meet her. I began to think about the position of women in Surrealism, which was not great. Then I thought, “Sir-Realism,” and that’s how Madame-Realism happened, as a joke. I wrote the eponymous story just to write it; then I showed it to Kiki Smith, with whom I’d been friends since 1978. She was drawing severed hands and limbs then—and I thought, that will work. She read my story very closely and responded to the text. She drew sperm, for the first time. In 1984, that story with Kiki’s drawings became a self-published chapbook.
I had met Craig Owens in 1981 through Barbara Kruger. When he was a senior editor at Art in America in 1986, Craig called and said, We’re doing a symposium on Renoir for an exhibition in Boston and we’d like you to contribute. I immediately thought I would bring Madame Realism back. I’m not crazy about Renoir, but it was a very popular show, so I decided to deal with it on those terms. I recorded people’s responses as they stood in front of various Renoir paintings and then incorporated them into my essay or story.
Rail: Fashioning the “I” within critical writing is something that rarely gets talked about, which is one reason your invention of Madame Realism is so great—she gets you off the hook for the things she thinks; she’s roving around recording what she hears people saying during the exhibition. When you write about art as yourself, for catalogues, it is often fiction that parallels the art. How did you first start developing that as a way of writing, in relation to art?
Tillman: It doesn’t entirely get me off the hook, because people think Madame Realism is my alter ego or some such. She’s not. Writing that way came out of necessity, out of my own ignorance—though I actually studied studio painting and had taken an art history course. Even if one doubts authority, I knew I didn’t have that kind of information, I didn’t have the sort of discipline an art historian has. If there is a version of political correctness that I understood in the ’80s, it was a way of thinking about how to write “others” or “to others.” Thinking about it, rather than simple, thoughtless replication. That is what I try to teach to students: You are creating a character. Who is that character? That is so important. I was thinking about how I could write sensitively about art and realized there is a way to use fiction for that—to think about why certain forms come about as they do. Or, why somebody would want to be making this. Or just to describe what it looks like. And not to be afraid to use metaphors sometimes. After [Susan] Sontag’s Against Interpretation there was a real fear of interpreting. But in writing a story you can have a character who is responding to something, and the character’s identity is revealed through how he or she experiences the object. Identity’s fluidity is partly in how we respond to things as they happen. People talk about not having a fixed identity—that doesn’t mean you’re protean and you’re going to shape-shift, but it does mean that you’re going to respond to different objects and different people differently. You don’t have the same conversation with everybody. Hopefully.
Rail: I find your writing to be very psychological, but not emotional. It does seem like a hallmark post-modernism to evade emotion or deny sentiment, because it’s “manipulative.”
Tillman: I don’t mind some good old-fashioned manipulation, if it’s in the service of keeping my interest. It was a very dirty word in the ’70s and ’80s, a part of the anti-narrative campaign I never was part of, because I like narrative, and using it is complex. I was writing narratives in the aftermath of structuralist film, which I had been involved with in Europe, where I had watched film grain for hours and hours, and one day I thought, What am I doing? Yeah, film is light, film is material, and there is the grain of the celluloid—Okay. What now? Obviously I have feelings, and my characters do too, but the fear of sentimentality has always held my hand. I want the reader to experience emotions as much through what a character doesn’t do or say as through what they do. Maybe more. If the character usually delineates her or his emotional states, where does the emotion of the reader lie? Further, what is meant by identification with a character? Wholesale or partial or what? What about dis-identification?
Rail: When I’ve spoken to your former students they say that, more than anything, they learned a precise and rigorous attitude toward writing as a craft. How did you begin thinking about language like that?
Tillman: There were a lot of words in my family, not necessarily good ones, and they had material effects—material in the sense of emotional, psychological, and dramatic. Words were important and words could hurt you. I wanted to be a writer from the age of eight; maybe it was a question of having my own time and space to talk, and to be in control of what got said. I remember loving writing, sitting down, being alone, and I felt I was good at it; actually I felt I knew it, and it was what I wanted to do. But as for teaching it as a craft, questions around word choice and syntax—if you are writing and not focusing on these, you are not dealing with your medium. It has its demands. Many people can tell a good story, few can write one.
Rail: You’ve created a unique position as a fiction writer in the art world. When you went to Hunter College you took painting classes with Ron Gorchov and Doug Ohlson, was that the beginning of your involvement with visual art?
Tillman: My father was a textile designer, so there was always an interest in color, design, material, texture. He had his own business with his brother, and they made their own fabrics, innovating threads. When I went to his office, I loved looking at the bolts of fabric, all different colors and patterns. At Hunter I was an English major and American history minor, and an acquaintance in my sociology class saw how miserable I was and suggested I take electives in studio art. Somehow, as weirdly out of place as I was, I thrived in that atmosphere. I was wacky, in my own way, and Gorchov and Ohlson both liked me. But, I could never finish a drawing. I remember once we went to Central Park and we were supposed to draw something from life. I started drawing a building and only got half of it on a large sheet of drawing paper. Ohlson was so disgusted with me. One day in class he took my pencil away and gave me a stick and some ink, and I made a drawing. When he came back to me, he said, What am I going to do with you? You don’t finish a single thing all year and now you make the best drawing in class! I said, You’ll give me an A? It was interesting being freed from the pencil. I could also never get an entire figure on the page in life drawing class. I had no sense of proportion. I couldn’t get the whole body on. The head would be gone. It was hilarious, psychologically.
Rail: I don’t know if you’d agree with this, but when I was reading your fiction I felt that it was so grounded in language, in words, that there was almost no visual description.
Tillman: I don’t often describe things, yet many readers feel my writing’s visual. They see mental pictures [Laughter.] I think it’s because I allow so much space for projection. I remember an art critic telling me what she thought Madame Realism looked like. There had been one instance, in the second story, where I wrote “she rests her hand on her broad hip.” I was writing about the Renoir exhibition, and thought it was funny to have a broad-hipped woman looking at his abundant nudes. I never did that again, because I really didn’t want to make a specific picture out of her.
Rail: In some of your early essays you refer to Bakhtin and heteroglossia; I noticed the frequency with which the interview or dialogue form comes up in your writing. One of the reasons I’m interested in interviews is because I can be totally surprised by what someone else will say, so that I couldn’t make it up.
Tillman: I write what I’d like people to say. I remember a friend saying to me, Your dialogue is so strange, have you ever heard anyone talk that way? I said, No, but I’d like to hear them talk that way. It’s an influence from Jane Bowles, whose dialogue is unique in literature.
Rail: How have you engaged with the problems of identity in your fiction?
Tillman: I wrote Cast in Doubt as a riposte to identity politics. I’d finished Motion Sickness by the end of 1989, it came out in 1991, and I went right into writing Cast in Doubt. I wanted to question the idea of who can write what in terms of sexual orientation or gender. Many lesbians, at the time, loved it, as did some gay men, but some of the men I knew had problems with it. I was writing the voice of a gay man, writing in the first person, and one man said to me But that is not you, that is not how you talk. I said, This is a character, Horace, and he has a very definite way of thinking. He’s not me. Oddly though, it is sort of like Madame Bovary—Horace, c’est moi. I felt closer to Horace than to any other character I had written before him. In part, maybe you can put more emotion into something that is so very not you, than something closer to you.
I wrote Horace as a unique individual, which is what I hope to do with all my characters. Craig Owens had AIDS; he died in 1990—this was before protease inhibitors—and I thought, How can you think about this population having a future? I realized the only way to do that was to go back to the past, so I set it in the ’70s. I decided Horace would become very curious about a young woman named Helen. If he were heterosexual, the reader would keep thinking that he wanted to have sex with her. I think Horace does get kind of interested in Helen sexually, but the reader is not thinking, When is this going to happen? So his being a gay man suited a lot of narrative purposes. My other idea was that they would embody the differences between modern and the postmodern. Horace is my modernist, and Helen is my “born into postmodernism postmodernist.” Weirdly, it had more plot than any of the other novels I’d written until then, because when she disappears, he goes mad not knowing why. This gave him a reason to try to find her. Plot is so ridiculous—that happens, X causes Y. The thing that is most interesting to me about life is that you really don’t know why things happen, why you do things, and you can’t know what will be consequential. But in a plot, the reader is supposed to know why something is happening or to know that something will happen, so as to keep reading, stay engaged.
Rail: Is Horace the only male protagonist of your novels?
Tillman: Yes, of the novels so far. My new novel Men and Apparitions has a male protagonist, and I’ve written quite a number of stories with male protagonists.
Rail: Although he is a character, I noticed he also resembles certain aspects of your life. It made me curious to hear more about how identification works for you.
Tillman: That is a tough question, because it doesn’t work in a simple way. It wasn’t so much that I was making Horace like me, it was more that I became interested in creating a character like Horace who shared some of my interests. When the book was done, and I was writing the last chapter, Horace’s letter to the reader, I was weeping. It had to do with looking back and having regrets and thinking I’m going to change this now. There are things in my life like that. I stopped taking piano lessons from my wonderful piano teacher during my freshman year in high school. It doesn’t occur to you then, when you’re very young, that you’ll never see this person again. Actually she was a lesbian, and I knew she was a lesbian when I started lessons with her, at the age of eight, but my parents didn’t.
Rail: How did you know?
Tillman: For one thing, her partner was a woman who wore gray “mannish” suits and had short gray hair, while my teacher, Miss Matesky, wore flowery blouses and full skirts, and I put it together—I don’t know how I knew the word “lesbian” at the time. My parents were naïve about many things. I put that loss, losing her, into my first novel, Haunted Houses. Miss Matesky was also a Republican and that was really upsetting to me, not her sexuality. Anyway, you don’t realize when you’re a kid that you’re going to have regrets, because there is no reality to the past yet. I’m sure she’s dead by now, but I have tried to find her. So, Horace has his regrets.
Rail: Your collection of essays, What Would Lynne Tillman Do? has an interesting title because it acknowledges “Lynne Tillman” as a character. How did you think about that in putting that book together, or about doing something as “Lynne Tillman?”
Tillman: I know what you’re asking. Because the Lynne Tillman who writes is not the Lynne Tillman who is sitting here now. Lynne Tillman the writer has a series of questions she’s asking herself, and approaches, and is focused on writing—and writing is just not the same thing as living. You’re living, or you’re alive for your writing, but you know, I’m not going to put in all the slop involved in my little life. I filter a lot. When I’m writing, the idea is the writing, and it is not about me. I’m not engaging in old fights. When I write, I am not depressed. I can’t write then. We can be better or worse than our characters.
Rail: The way you describe the relationship between living and writing has been on my mind all summer because I was planning on driving around having adventures and writing, but I’m finding it impossible to do that at the same time. But the dream is to push them together. So I’ve been thinking about the endless displacement of writing, wondering if it must essentially be set aside—alone in a room after the fact.
Tillman: You transform experience into words on the page. It’s different from the experience. I could use the word “mediation” but it doesn’t have the charge that it should. You don’t put your life on the page, you put a reaction, a deciphering—when writing you are conscious of using words, and you are conscious of the need to make them “good.” When you’re having a great experience, you’re not thinking about that. There are people who write their experiences in a way that is closer to them so you can feel their presence in the writing, but that’s just not something I am interested in—certainly not in my fiction. If anything, I am interested in moving as far away from myself as possible when I use my own experience. That is your material—it’s a writer’s material, even if you write the opposite of it. Horace, for instance, thinks the opposite of many things I think, but I have a lot of compassion for him.
Rail: How about writing about art: How do you approach apprehending works of art as experiences through words?
Tillman: It is the only way one can talk about them, so you’re trying to find the right words. Now I’m writing an essay on Carroll Dunham’s paintings and doing very close readings, looking at every element, every detail in them.
Rail: What are the elements you’re looking at?
Tillman: Shapes. Figures. Where and how things are placed. Colors. How my eyes respond. Corners. Lines. I’m just looking at the whole, trying to separate interpretation from description, though description itself is biased because you are using these words, not others. You’re always making choices, it’s impossible not to, so how do you make choices that seem accurate to the art? Or apposite to it, which is what I try to do in writing fiction.
Words make images, but they are also not pictures like a photograph. They have their own limits. There is a way in which you can look at something, say, a photograph, and try to translate it—which is why I began writing a character called the Translation Artist, though he’s very hard to write. Going along with the idea that everything is translation: I once had a dream before the first reading I ever gave—I was in terror. In the dream, I get to the podium, which was similar to where Freud would have delivered a lecture in a medical college, and I take out my pages but instead of words on them there are objects, tiny little objects about as big as your teeth, and each one is different. I have to translate those into words, instantly. So there you are. How do you do that? That’s writing.
Rail: I’ve been fantasizing about pure description, which would still end up being an interpretation, although probably a very good one.
Tillman: That is sort of exactly how I start an essay, imaging how to write it. There’s no way around it. And what’s wrong with that?
Rail: I guess it depends on how you feel about aspects of experience that cannot enter into language, or if you believe those exist.
Tillman: Well, incomplete comprehensibility or excess might indeed be part of what makes an artwork, which is really what I’m getting at in this essay, because Carroll Dunham has made paintings of the Big Bang—how does anyone comprehend the Big Bang?
Rail: That is true abstraction: Imagine the moment before the Big Bang, where all matter was infinitely compressed into a single point—contemplating that is really abstract, not what gets called “abstraction” in painting, which is usually just literal colors and shapes.
Tillman: Are we the same person? Separated by years? Language has connotations, denotations, associations—but to go back to the question: What is wrong with that? An artwork is, yes, different from the words that might describe it and exceeds or is less than those words. People can get very bombastic about art too. I’m not an art historian—
Rail: Neither is Madame Realism, right?
Tillman: I don’t think she is, but lord knows what she’s been doing.
What would you like to be writing about art?
Rail: I’d like to write about a character driving around the South, reading Simone Weil and Nathalie Sarraute, and going to rural gay bars to describe the lighting. That character is just me. But I don’t want to write a “memoir.”
Tillman: Well, it can’t be you, because you’re not something on a page. And you are not lighting in a rural gay bar.
Rail: How do you distinguish between fiction and nonfiction?
Tillman: I don’t, not as writing.
Rail: So you’ve doubled down on saying that everything you write is fiction?
Tillman: Basically. Because fiction is about making up something. Nonfiction is also making up something. How to tell it, in what order. Those are aesthetic decisions, narrative decisions.
Rail: Taking this conversation as an example—I think it is intellectually dishonest to maintain that a direct transcription of an interview more honestly represents our conversation than a highly edited text would do. There is so much weird communication that happens in person that isn’t caught by the recorded words. What I mean to say is that we have to edit this to sound more natural as written language than a straight transcript ever will.
Tillman: Have you read Andy Warhol’s a: A novel?
Tillman: Realism—whatever that is—Warhol tried to come as close to it, reality, as possible.
Rail: And it reads very differently than reality in literature. Flaubert’s A Simple Heart feels more real to me than Ondine’s transcribed life in a: A Novel.
Tillman: I have to say, not to me. Because Realism is a genre. What we consider to be reality, or how we imitate reality, follows an established form. Writers and filmmakers, playwrights, use the genre to establish what an audience believes or has been used to seeing as “real life.” Of course it is not; it’s a representation only. Warhol wanted to get at that specific issue in a way that very few artists ever have. Mostly, people are not interested in challenging that. It’s not right or wrong to be uninterested, it just shows the extent to which we get at “reality” through unquestioned codes.
Rail: It’s heavily filtered, and it’s a lot of work to try and get to a sense of reality of a painting, or a person.
Tillman: You know what Walter Benjamin says: In order to love somebody you have to love without hope. That is without expectations.
Rail: What do you mean?
Tillman: For instance, if you want a person to fulfill some fantasy you have of a lover, you will see that for as long as you can, until the reality of who he is comes through, and then you’ll say, oh, he’s not the guy I thought. That is a very hard moment, and in fact you don’t get to that point, even with a friend, for a very long time.
Rail: You’ve been with your partner for a very long time?
Rail: How do you think having that long-term intimate relationship has affected your writing, or your understanding of yourself?
Tillman: I think that writers want a certain calm, so they can write. Having a solid relationship at home has made it easier to do what I do. He’s a musician, he wants to go to his gigs and rehearsals; he wants to practice. If we created a lot of drama for each other, like the drama I had before I was with him, we wouldn’t get any work done. Most people have dinners together most nights, say. Often they have children, something that neither of us ever wanted. Some of my friends have never met David. I’m not hiding him. He’s terrific. But we don’t operate as a couple. It’s a social convention I wish were less common. In the beginning of Cast in Doubt, there is a quote I’ve lived with and think is incredibly important: It’s not what someone gives you, it’s what they don’t take away. If you’re in a relationship in which you are troubled all the time, then it’s debilitating. I don’t recommend it.
Rail: Are there any artists that you were really down on when you first saw their work but you’ve changed your mind?
Tillman: At a certain moment, and not really down on him, but very dubious: Jeff Koons. He’s a complicated figure, but now I don’t doubt his need to do what he does. Oh, I remember thinking I’d never look at another figurative painting again. That no one would ever paint one again.
Rail: When was that?
Tillman: College, mid-to-late-’60s. I thought figurative art was over. But I realized by the mid-’80s that the ideas you impose on art, some idea of what you think should be there, is not smart or meaningful. Maybe it assures one of one’s own identity or sets up limits, makes life and looking easier, or gives one a sense of knowingness. Now my taste is catholic. I like different kinds of art, and writing also. I’m frankly interested in thinking, in seeing that in writing. I’m drawn to non-complacency or anti-complacency in style and subject, and don’t want to hear and read the same kinds of ideas over and over, written in the same ways. Mostly people want stability in their lives, but never doubt the structures that support it. I’m disturbed by, maybe in a bit of a war with, many social, cultural, and aesthetic conventions, and I think a lot of my work as an essayist and as a fiction writer is about questioning systems and beliefs.
Rail: What is that mysterious thing that makes some people, like you, doubt authority, even as a child, when other people didn’t or don’t?
Tillman: In me, probably from a deep insecurity. I don’t really trust that I know, or what I know, how I know it. And don’t trust that what I know or think is true is true. When I had just turned six, and was starting first grade, the night before I asked my father, “How do you know I can learn?” Then I doubted what I was learning, I really disliked the rote-ness of memorizing, after fourth grade. I had doubts. I’m interested in what is at stake in believing as one does and interested in what I don’t know and why I don’t know it. How do we forget something or not think about it? Your absences and mistakes are more interesting than what you remember and tell yourself about yourself and your achievements, and more important.
Rail: Thinking about your first novel Haunted Houses, did you associate that insecurity with a gendered position?
Tillman: I did. I do. Writing Haunted Houses, I was thinking that girls’ lives are very harsh, that becoming a girl is just so harsh, and that harshness wasn’t represented in what I had read. Not that it isn’t in Jane Austen, but in a different way and of a different time, with different exigencies. Being a girl, for instance, you’re meant to feel that you should not assert yourself, not be too aggressive, be seen more than heard. How do you make use of that education?
Rail: How has that changed over your life as a writer?
Tillman: On certain days the more I write the more I know I can do this. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I feel much less doubt. I keep questioning what I do, the way I do it, and why. If I had to generalize about male writers—always tricky—I’d say that many don’t doubt themselves enough. Everyone had a mother, and they are very easy to blame. Mothering is such a hard gig. Women identify more, in some ways, with their mothers, but men can dis-identify. If more male writers stopped to consider, maybe the way I think needs work, we’d have much better writing from them. I think younger male writers, overall, are less hindered by the sexual prejudices of their predecessors, gay and straight.
Rail: What is your sense of the purpose of criticism, for what you have written or what you like to read?
Tillman: Sometimes writers can find words for moments and experiences that people who are not writers, who do other things, can’t. Writers do that, often formatively, for writers-to-be, and may be why people become writers. A thoughtful writer can sometimes be helpful in that way. That is one way of thinking about it—that a writer devotes herself to articulating states of existence. Also, I think that responding to the world, being in relation to aspects of living, finding forms and modes in writing to present emotions and ideas, is being in a specific relationship to life. You’re thinking about it for the page. You write because you are ardent about an idea, a character, an injustice, a story, a symptom, and your passion could be important to another person. It’s always surprising to me, Jarrett, when a person tells me that he or she feels something from my writing. Or, what it does for them. I can’t experience that at all.
Rail: Does it make you uncomfortable?
Tillman: I find it hard, actually impossible, to experience it in any way at all. I can hear it but I can’t take it in. I’m the person who wrote these things, and the writing is different from the person. I think many writers and artists who are not total narcissists feel that way. There’s all this romanticism about Baudelaire, Rimbaud, et al.—in certain moments of their lives they wrote with great passion and clarity and made some wonderful poetry. Much of their lives was hell.
Rail: Trying to understand that relationship between the artist and the artwork is one of the central mysteries of art for me. Very different, but essentially linked.
Tillman: This returns, in a sense, to identity politics, where the person and the thing are taken to be the same. That a person can or should only write about what she was born into or has experienced. It’s not that way. Not to me. There’s imagination, the unconscious, there are wishes, people are amazingly weird in how variously they see their lives. And there’s empathy. It is hard to understand how someone who is a monster can make something beautiful—how does that happen? We want to make it coherent, make it agree, and turn people and life into something manageable. But we can’t.
“Close Encounters” is a monthly series of intimate conversations between Jarrett Earnest and leading writers and critics.