The Real and How to Find It – An Interview with Ken Lum by Rosemary Heather

RH: Why is the Real so popular as a genre, though?

KL: Why is the Real so popular?

RH: In art, on TV, in popular culture…

KL: I have a theory on that. Our culture that has moved towards a fetish of the everyday, a fetish of drawing attention to yourself as an individual. It’s a trend towards an ultra narcissism, and the emphasis on the individual comes at the exclusion of being able to formulate a critique on a societal level, because it’s only about the individual, and that’s a problem.

I highlight the above quote from my 2011 interview with Ken Lum, because it so accurately identifies a contributing factor of the insurgent politics of the West in 2017 (Trump; Brexit). As if to underline this point, Lum’s analysis of the “fetish of the individual” is also the essential argument Adam Curtis makes in Hypernormalization, his 2016 BBC documentary. The interview is now available for purchase as an ebook on Amazon for .99 cents (click on the link below). The publication also includes, To Say or Not to Say, an essay Lum wrote in 2008 that we discuss in the interview. Both interview and essay showcase the incredible trenchancy of Lum’s thought, and his ability to translate his thinking into artworks – as relevant today as ever.

The Lum publication is part of a larger project, which either repackages existing interviews I have done as ebooks, or releases new interviews – by myself and others – all under the imprint, Q&A. A short blog post I wrote about the thinking that informs the Q&A project can be read here: How to Make a Magazine in 2015. Its a statement of purpose that attempts to think through the changed conditions of publishing in the 21st century – ideas I hope to expand on in the coming months.

Rosemary Heather


15 thoughts on “The Real and How to Find It – An Interview with Ken Lum by Rosemary Heather

  1. Now you made me love Ken Lum, and I’ve never seen his work before this.

    Great chat, but what is this nonsense about not reading contemporary fiction, darling? Sounds like the worst kind of conservative cultural nostalgia. I would be rich if I got a loonie every time I hear “Nothing good happened after [insert year]” in opera circles — and visual art circles, for that matter.

    I know the situation is somewhat reverse in North American literary readership markets, where the “No readable work before [insert a recent date]” rules. But there are many living writers in English language giving their damnedest to break the hegemony of a certain kind of middle-class realist fiction consensus in publishing. That their natural allies / potential readers are fleeing the scene and are deciding not to be there for them is disheartening.

    1. Yes you are quite right, DFO. Wrong to make blanket statements. I think “middle-class realist fiction” is what tends to put me off. Obviously. I need to be educated. Names please…who should I read, contemporary fiction-wise??

      1. Lydia Davis. Jeanette Winterson’s 90s stuff. Anything by GW Sebald, who although wrote in German, closely supervised his English translations. (I hear) Kathy Acker (have yet to read her). I hear, Tom McCarthy. Try the Quebeckers Dany Laferriere and Nicole Brossard, who although writing in Quebec French, are North American so let’s count them in. Recently read DF’s I am a Japanese Writer and laughed out loud to his sendup of identiterian writing.

        I love love Jean-Philippe Toussaint (although, yes, alright, he’s French). I love love love Iris Murdoch, whose novels are nourishingly philosophical. Alan Hollinghurst’s latest is his least ‘realist’, but he never really is that much, the fussy stylist that he is. (Line of Beauty is a beauty). Ali Smith is also interesting.

        I think you would like Deborah Isenberg’s stories, although they are ‘realist’ at first sight. This year I also loved Margaret Drabble’s story collection A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman and her oldie (but revolutionarily feminist) Jerusalem the Golden.

        Been reading a lot of plays also lately, and discovered Harold Pinter, to my screaming delight. Now I think he’s absolutely essential for any thinking person.

        Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding is devastating, and an unexpected milestone in queer fiction. (Yes she’s dead, but not too long ago.)

        I have friends who swear by David Foster Wallace. Others love Thomas Pynchon. Zadie Smith isn’t extremely realist in her White Teeth, but in what direction she moved since, I ain’t sure.

        Jennifer Egan’s The Visit from the Goon Squad is waiting to be picked up here near my couch, and I don’t think she’s very realist either. Ah yes: Gary Shteyngart is also your man.

        I expect the whole tradition of African-American women novelists isn’t particularly realist either.

        Emily Schultz’s novel Heaven is Small starts with “Moments after his death, an event he had failed to notice, Gordon Small sought new employment.” And proceeds to use realist tools to non-realist ends.

        Ah right, speaking of which: Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction, and her unclassifiable novels like Surfacing.

        I really should read more, goddamnit.

      2. On the contrary, sounds like you read a lot! I have read some of these authors. But I admit, I am pretty patchy on contemporary fiction. Kathy Acker is practically the only author Ive got up on you. Try Empire of the Senseless – though my recollection is you have to read about 80 pages before it gets good. Thanks for all these recommendations, Lydia. lets have coffee sometime. R

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