Binnie Kirshenbaum Discusses The Scenic Routes of Storytelling

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In State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America , the entry for New York is in the form of a short play by Jonathan Franzen. A few weeks back, at the PEN Cabaret, we saw a reading of this play in which the Empire State was portrayed by the magnificent Patricia Clarkson. If ever a play is written in which New York City requires personification, we nominate Binnie Kirshenbaum for the role. She may not be an actress, but she is Manhattan: wry without being jaded, warm without being fuzzy; possessing a personal style that is all her own and yet appropriate for every occasion.

Kirshenbaum is the chair of the Writing Division at Columbia University and the author of two short story collections and six novels. Her latest, The Scenic Route , is at once a lovers’ travelogue of Europe, a family history, and an apology to the protagonist’s best friend. Here, she chats with Flavorpill about the new book, teaching, infidelity, and chick lit.

Flavorpill: The Scenic Route has a layered structure: the narrator Sylvia is telling stories to her lover Henry as they drive around Europe, while at the same time she imagines telling the story of the lover and the trip to her friend Ruby. Where did this structure come from? What was the germ of this idea?

Binnie Kirshenbaum: The germ of it all was the idea of storytelling and how we tell stories — how one story leads to another story leads to another. I was thinking about this idea that our lives are nothing but this series of stories that interconnect and overlap. Without stories, we actually don’t exist. It’s what our memories are, both our own and others’ memories of us after we’re dead. It’s all in story form. But they’re not neat in that way they might be in a story collection. When we’re talking, telling them, I realized we go back and fill in a piece here or we give some back story or we go off on tangents.

In The Catcher in the Rye, there’s the little moment when Holden is talking about somebody reading an essay in school and the teacher’s yelling, “Digression! Digression!” And I always thought, well, the digressions really are the interesting parts. The tangents that the stories take; the different routes of how we get from the beginning to the end. That was kind of the thing I was really getting at with this book. This examination of storytelling: why we tell them, how we tell them, and where stories go and what they add up to in the very end.

FP: Based on this and some of your other books, it seems like infidelity is a topic that interests you as a writer. Why?

BK: I’m not really sure. Certainly relationships and how people relate to each other interests me. Betrayal interests me a lot as an idea — that we try to be good people and we love people and yet we still somehow often betray them in different ways. I write about men and women a lot, and about that particular betrayal. In this case, it is Henry who is the adulterer. But with my other books, when women commit adultery, it’s treated in a different way by society. It’s condemned in a whole other way. I mean it’s condemned regardless, but it’s particularly harsh for women. I think about books like Madame Bovary or something, and they have to die because they have transgressed in this particular way. But the men don’t have to die when they do it [in fiction]. I suppose I’ve wanted to turn the tables on that in the past.

There’s also that whole other idea that’s always interested me, which is the concept of marriage as it was first conceived, as a business arrangement or a political arrangement, and not a love arrangement. The idea that people get married because they love each other is only 200 years old, and so love was always outside of marriage. That was an important idea; that you couldn’t be in love in a marriage. And I think that idea I always found very intriguing, because good marriages really are partnerships, whereas tempestuous love affairs do not survive marriage, and marriage couldn’t survive tempestuousness. So it’s like, to write about passion, it has to be outside of marriage.

FP: How do you feel about being a teaching writer? Can it be taught?

BK: There’s that little part in The Scenic Route where Sylvia talks about playing the piano and having no gift for it. When I was a child I tried five or six different instruments over the course of four or five years, and I had no feel for any of it. I could learn the notes and I could learn how to play a song, I just could never do it well. I think it’s similar with writing. We can get some one to get their hands around the basics of it, but we can’t teach somebody to be great. We can pull the talent out. We can push and prod and ask questions and show things. I think writing teachers do what great editors can do. They can take what’s there, and they can really make something happen with it. So I think in that way, it can be taught in the same way any other art can be taught.

I think the reason people used to say writing can’t be taught is that everyone comes to writing being literate. But they don’t come to other art forms knowing necessarily anything about them. So when you study music, and you sit down and you’ve never played the piano before and you’ve got a piano teacher, you realize you’re learning these basics and you can see that. When you come to writing, well, you know how to write. What you don’t know how to do necessarily is write a good story… With any art form, you can’t teach genius. I can teach some one to polish craft and to perfect it and to dig around and find what’s really there.

I think a lot of students come in and they want to do something that isn’t natural to them, or they want to write something that is in their hearts or in their minds. They’ve got a great story there and they haven’t figured out what it is yet or how to approach it. I think writing teachers can pull them out and make them better. Young writers always got together and read their work and discussed it and criticized it. The difference now is that instead of doing it in salons or bars, we do it in the classroom. That idea, the workshop idea, is as old as the hills. Now it’s more formal in the university setting. I don’t see how anybody can write without response along the way.

FP: Can you talk a little bit about “gendered” fiction, how people receive books by women differently than men?

BK: It drives me nuts. I think women writers have a much tougher time being taken seriously. It has to do with the market. Women read more; they buy more books. So it makes sense from a marketing standpoint that you want to pitch the women. However, in doing this, it’s my belief that the pitch is always to the lowest common denominator. The idea is to get the book out there to as many people as possible, as many women as possible. The bigger the group, the lower the bar.

The sort of generic, what-goes-around-the-book-club sort of reader, they are looking for a kind of book that is inspirational, where the characters are likable, where they can identify with the characters. “Oh, I really identified with this book. Aren’t I great? I’m so cute.” Which is where the world of chick lit comes from. There’s that tendency to grab onto any book by a woman and push it in that direction, even if it doesn’t belong there — that kind of feel-good literature, or chick lit literature where you read it and it’s a happy experience and there’s no examination of anything ugly about the human condition. Whereas with men there’s this whole different kind of audience… Men who read fiction are usually very serious, smart readers, and women who buy and read books by men are very serious, smart readers. And so they don’t make [books by] men go there.