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Ben Lerner as a researching writer, by Yannicke Chupin


Which researching writer is he ?

Ben Lerner (1979-) is an American poet and novelist born in Kansas in 1979. He has published to date three volumes of poetry, an essay on poetry, three novels, and three narratives in collaboration with artists. Poetry, fiction and art are closely interwoven in his all his published works.

The intersections of poetry, art and novel writing
Originating from a writer who is first and foremost a poet and who turns to novel-writing to explore the intersections of art and reality, his novels are sometimes called “poet’s novels.” Both in style and content, they can be seen, as argued by Daniel Katz, as “extensions and prostheses of [the author’s] poetic project”. The three novels also range into the recent renewal of the 1980-1990s type of novel-writing that drew a lot of its material from the author’s life while fictionalizing it therefore blurring the lines between pure novel and essay.

Leaving The Atocha Station, New York : Coffee House Press, 2011.
10:04, New York : Faber & Faber, 2014.
The Topeka School, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2019.
The Hatred of Poetry, London : Fitzcarraldo, 2016.
No Art, Poems, London : Granta Books, 2016.

Analysis of works
The author’s first two novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, are compulsively metafictional and include poems as well as captioned close-ups on paintings or photographs. Dramatizing the life of their writer-narrator in a contemporary post 9/11 context and “post-media art world” (10:04), they explore the possibilities of fiction, literature and art in our contemporary world.
The first novel is narrated by Adam Gordon, a budding American poet on a Fulbright scholarship in Madrid who struggles to write a long research-driven poem on the legacy of the Spanish Civil War, while witnessing the 2004 terrorist bombing attacks in Madrid.
The second novel is told from the perspective of a young novelist about to expand a successful New Yorker-published story of his into his second novel, while New York is under the threat of two serious hurricanes, Irene and Sandy.

Notions under study : Critical distance and mediation
One of the central motif of Ben Lerner’s fiction is his reflection on the difficulty to relate to art in an authentic and unmediated manner. The first novel Leaving the Atocha Station offers many scenes dramatizing the narrator’s impossibility to enter into close and sincere contact with art, with poetry and with language. The resulting sense of social, artistic, cultural inauthenticity experienced by the narrator is coupled with a reflection on the falseness of any verbal communication.

Criticism :
Daniel Katz, “I did not walk here all the way from prose” : Ben Lerner’s virtual poetics”, Textual Practice, vol. 31, n°2, 315-337.
This article argues that Ben Lerner’s reflection of poetry and poetics is the central motif of his first two novels and proposes that his novels should be considered as a serial prosimetrum. It also sheds light on the notion of “virtuality” that is insperable from poetry in the author’s work.

Christian Lorentzen, “Homo Trumpiens : Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School,” Sewanee Review, volume 127, Fall 2019.
This review of Ben Lerner’s latest novel reviews the stakes of the writer’s contribution to the metafiction of the past 30 years.

Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry, New York, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016.
This essay by the author himself echoes and extends some of the concerns voiced by the narrator of Leaving the Atocha Station in a non fiction format. It tackles the failure of poetry to achieve what it is meant to achieve and proposes the idea that the only poetic joy lies in the intuition of its possibilities – or in its potentiality. It also examines poetry’s relation to the social and historical world and its progressive marginalization.

How to read it for creative research ?
The fictional work of Ben Lerner should be studied for the way in which the mechanics of fiction can provide a fertile ferment for a reflection on literary creation. Compared with the metafictional novels of such American writers as John D’Agata (The Lifespan of a Fact, 2021), Teju Cole (Open City, 2011), Sheila Heiti (How Should a Person Be ?, 2014), this corpus invites us to study how the fictional framwork allows for a better involvement of the reader-reasearchers into the stakes of literary creation.

Keywords : poetry and fiction, reflexive fiction, fiction and theorizing, essayistic fiction, self-conscious narrative, poet’s novels, self-awareness, art and reality, art and authenticity, self-criticism

Pour citer cet article :
CHUPIN, Yannicke, "Ben Lerner as a researching writer", fiche "écrivains- chercheurs", episte [en ligne], mis en ligne le 6 février 2020.

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