Geoff Dyer Reads Zona with Ben Lerner and Lorin Stein

By on Wednesday, November 27th, 2013 at 1:19 am

Lorin Stein moderates a discussion between Ben Lerner and Geoff Dyer at McNally Jackson Books

The experience of art became the focus of the evening when Geoff Dyer and Ben Lerner came together for a reading and conversation moderated by Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review at McNally Jackson Books. Dyer read from his book, Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (November 2013), that looks at the personal experience of viewing Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. Ben Lerner read from his novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011).

Lorin Stein suggested Dyer read first. Zona is at much art criticism as narrative experience, and its in this way that Dyer introduces the connection between his writing and Lerner’s saying that he has an affinity for the way Lerner writes. Lerner then reads the opening pages of Atocha Station before Stein begins moderating a conversation between them.

Stein explains that he planned on attending the event as a guest before he had been asked to moderate, and his interest in both authors is evident. The Paris Review is also printing an excerpt from Lerner’s next novel. Stein has read a draft of the new manuscript. He begins by asking how they perceive the relationship of reader to narrator.

Both books confront issues of art experienced by the narrator. Dyer has read a portion of the novel involving consumption of cocaine while staring at art, while Lerner’s narrator obsessively stares at a canvas.

Dyer says that he feels locked into the narrator’s world, the experience, especially in Lerner’s novel.

Lerner elaborates saying that its more the narrator’s imagined performance that the reader is locked into. Its this experience that distinguishes a novel from art criticism, he explains, and the strength of the novel as a critical form. A novelist can take into account the events of the day, the various components leading up to experiencing the work of art. Art criticism rarely achieves this kind of experiential narrative. Instead, art is often considered in a vacuum disregarding the outside influences.

Art has two kinds of narratives, Dyer explains. Either criticism is about releasing the story contained within in the image–a traditional kind of approach–or, alternatively, telling the story of how a person comes to the art. The moment worth worrying about is the intersection of the person’s story and the work of art in isolation.

“Writers tend to be more comfortable…evoking the ugly feelings,” Lerner says. The experience Lerner most cares about is that first encounter with a piece of art. He believes there is no way of replicating that first impression.

Countering Lerner, Dyer suggests that there are some things–music mainly–that a first impression is less relevant. Not everything is revealed in that first experience and sometimes repeated exposure generates a new understanding of the art. Music for Dyer seems to hold this ability to grow in meaning partly because he says he less understanding of how music is made. Visual art or writing are things he feels he easily comprehends.

Lorin Stein moves the discussion back towards visual arts asking about the differences, as critics and writers, that Lerner and Dyer assess photographs over other mediums.

“I don’t have an eye for the brushstrokes,” Dyer says. For him, photographs are about the content whether or not its a first print or not. The details of composition are less important.

Stein asks if they prefer a certain media type for criticism.

There was a period in time when critics wanted to remove the narrative from art, Lerner explains. Artists abstracting the subject seemed to validate this desire. But the audience still experiences the interaction of the subject and the object, Lerner says. Its not that there is no subject or no narrative, but that its obscured.

Art is integral to the creation of Lerner’s characters. “A character can emerge about an imaginary encounter with art work,” he says. He has better understood both the character and the piece of art by inventing the experience.

“I always use photographs in my prose,” Lerner adds. Prose should be able to capture all the information in a photograph. It is the oblique relationship between image and words that interests him.

Dyer offers an alternative saying, “you can’t fake the great aesthetic experience.” He feels he can’t write persuasively about a painting he hasn’t seen. Or one he doesn’t quite understand. He also finds that when a work of art doesn’t move him, he believes the failure is in the work rather than in himself.

“One of my failures as a novelist is that my characters are a cipher for myself,” Dyer says. Still, when viewing a great work, if the greatness isn’t immediately evident, the magic is in the moment of understanding that comes later. He says your faith in the canon is then restored.

Lerner offers that when it comes to the art canon, “the bad form is being awed by money.”

Stein states that novels address the issue absent in a lot of art–the experience of it. He cites Hawthorne as an example, and then looks to Lerner.

Novels can dramatize art that doesn’t yet exist, Lerner says. “It can be a laboratory to test the response.” He mentions invented art or science fiction universes.

The evening has been about distinguishing the ordinary experience from the “hair raising” experience, and naturally a member of the audience wants to know what it is for each of the panel that achieves that kind of moment.

Lerner says for him, that hair raising moment is reading John Ashbery, and much of his novel is about that experience.

Stein explains the feeling he gets in more general terms. There isn’t a single work that expressly captures the moment, but type of response to works. With both Dyer’s and Lerner’s books, when he first read them, it was that the works became the most important thing. It was more important to read the books than taking lunch or working.

Dyer, who at first shrugs off the question, follows up by saying music is more likely to elicit an emotional reaction. He feels music is most likely to overwhelm him.

Repetition often dulls the response. But, Stein says, “it is surprising that there are certain passages..that can continue to make you cry.”

“I’ve never cried from a work of literature,” Lerner says, adding, “I cry fairly easily.” He means specifically, he has never had tears while reading to himself. “Literature lets me cry later. Its never looking at the page.”

For Lerner, he sees tears as an artificial response. He cites far right conservatives taking morally horrific actions and then shedding a tear, as if crying represents genuine emotion rather than taking responsibility for their position.

Dyer compares his own crying to a geiger counter: If a tear appears, we’re in the vicinity” of emotionally power.

“One can have really powerful experiences that don’t result in tears,” Lerner says, “tears are the last moment of an aesthetic description.”

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