André Aciman and the Writer’s Craft
In writer André Aciman’s most recent book, Harvard Square, his third novel, which follows the memoir Out of Egypt and two collections of essays, False Papers and Alibis, the nameless narrator tells us “that no human being is one thing and one thing only, that each one of us has as many facets as there are people we know.” The sentiment is preceded by the soft declaration, “very few would understand.” These two strands, the one exploring the multitudes within one self—externalized and internalized—the other expressing the struggle with comprehension, a struggle to both be (one self) and be in the world, speak to the push-and-pull between art and commerce; and between the specificity of experience and character that makes each of us unique, in opposition with a need for assimilation -- the need, and result, sometimes desirable, yet also problematic. Harvard Square explores this need, to assimilate, and the, at times uncomfortable, desire of the exile or immigrant to fit in -- acknowledging the counter-desire for one’s individuated history and experience, cultural, personal—memory and the past—tugging at the threads of the present.
These same themes run through the role and identity of writers, as a profession and as individuals—whether student, practitioner, novice, paid professional, or some combination. The genesis and philosophy of The Writers’ Institute, at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY), which was initiated by Aciman, opening in 2007 for nonfiction writers and expanding to fiction in 2010, offers interesting parallels to Harvard Square. As readers, and writers, we turn to literature to help us understand the world—to help give it sense—and to make sense of ourselves. Literature can also serve as a tool for understanding others, in the writer’s hands and the reader’s. The tool may become something different than its intentions -- the way a memory of something is different than the original thing or event.
Aciman is a masterful explorer of questions of memory, exile, assimilation, and ambition. These themes run through the beautifully written, and brilliantly rendered, novel Harvard Square, recounting one summer, and a portion of the year following, in the life of a nameless immigrant graduate student of Comparative Literature at Harvard. The story is told through the prism of hindsight, and steeped in the abundance of experiences that have been so fully lived and felt that they are at once gone and done, and yet remain utterly palpable in a present moment, as the narrator decades later tours the Harvard campus with his soon-to-be-collegiate son.
Our narrator, a Jew from Alexandria, Egypt, like the author, remains deeply affected, within memory, though arguably not in his daily living, by an intense and dissonant friendship that year, 1977, with a fast-talking Arab taxi driver called Kalaj, short for Kalashnikov (the significance therein fit for a whole separate interrogation). Kalaj brings our narrator more intently into his own still-forming self, takes him into his memory of who he is and has been (a French Jew from Egypt), and throws him into some turmoil—who does he wish to become?
One of the essential questions of the book, as expressed near its conclusion, is “Who was I? How many masks could I be wearing at the same time? Who was I when I wasn’t looking?” These self-queries are soon followed by the pronouncement, “estrangement was carved into me with acid and barbed wire.”
Now, let us remember, this is a character, a novel—a world unto itself, which yet offers clues to our world.
André Aciman, the person—perhaps the writer, perhaps not, for as Aciman points out in conversation at a small patisserie on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he is different when alone in front of his screen, than as coffee companion or as professor and entrepreneur—is director of the intriguing and culturally significant Writers’ Institute. Within Harvard Square, Aciman assembles complex ideas, multitudes—of an individual, of a group of individuals, of communities, of nations and cultures—and its author is doing something similar as an entrepreneur, a word he uses with refreshing and interesting intent.
In founding The Writers’ Institute more than six years ago, Aciman established working editors from heralded publications and publishing houses (The New Yorker, The New York Times, Norton, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and Granta now among them) as instructors. These professional editors serve as edifiers and mentors, instead of those typically teaching within the MFA model: writers.
The Institute, a one-year certificate program, gives 15 fiction and 15 nonfiction writers instruction with up to six editors through the course of four workshops over two terms, each meeting for two hours on a weekday evening. While the program is finite, lasting two semesters, the model has proved successful enough, not just in nurturing careers—through subsequent success of the talented and fortunate in its ranks—but in nurturing engagement with craft, such that some alumni of the program have even elected to return. Scholarships are available to a handful of students each year; and writers arrive from a range of backgrounds and experiences, each of them having accrued some life experience following undergraduate work. Tuition sits at $13,500, considerably less than many MFAs, though the program is also less immersive, allowing for participants to maintain day jobs.
Students are not buying time to write; they are acquiring access, and exposure, to the expertise of those guarding the gates of publication. In many respects, this harkens back to an older model of publishing where editor-author relationships were heralded as essential, intense, even symbiotic. Think Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish; Maxwell Perkins, who worked with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald; Gary Fisketjon, who took on Raymond Carver after Lish, and last year appeared with contemporary author Alix Ohlin, as part of The Center for Fiction’s series of Author & Editor events, an informative and engaging dialogue.
In the past 15 to 20 years, many an editor employed by a publisher has departed, some voluntarily, some as a direct result of downsizing, moving on to the role of agent, or agent-editor. Agents have come to take on heavy editing prior to submission, let alone sale, in some cases virtually replacing the role of the subsequent editor, in others augmenting.
In more recent years, this same trend has continued—from editor to agent and on to a growing industry of freelance editors for hire, often from that same pool of editors that once worked for a publisher. Note the trend, and then note who, increasingly, bears the financial burden of editorial work: the writer. Once, this was the primary role within a publishing house. Now, editors are given a wider array of tasks in-house; acquisitions occur more often by group consensus, with extensive approval from authority required within the company; and financial constraints have tightened, as publishing has become less attached to the model of a family business and more corporatized.
As cultural trend, this puts The Writers’ Institute squarely in a crossroads. On the one hand, the institute is resurrecting the pivotal role of the editor, not merely as gatekeeper, but as esteemed guide to a written work, and paying the editors generously for their time and expertise. Aciman has made a point of developing a business model in which tuition is used to acquire top instructors: top editors. And let’s remember that one does not go into publishing for the salary; and so to reward an editor appropriately, even generously, for his or her time, is quite different from the rewards regularly bestowed on high performers in buildings just blocks away or further downtown, near Wall Street’s bronze bull.
Aciman points out that a working editor sees thousands of pieces in a year and is skilled at bringing “you back to your voice,” even protecting “your voice from yourself.” Personal relationships develop, and by year’s end, “You know people in the business, and they know you.” Recent examples of success stories include Judy Chicurel, who took a workshop with Granta’s John Freeman, at The Writers’ Institute, subsequently placing a piece in the literary journal, which led to a two-book contract with Penguin. Another alumnus, Nathan Thrall, with a recent piece in The New York Review of Books, has written for Foreign Affairs and The New York Times, among other publications.
Aciman is clearly pleased for the Institute’s students -- similarly pleased to be able to offer a course on book reviewing, including a visit from a guest editor, in CUNY’s Comparative Literature Program at The Graduate Center, of which he is the chair. He does not perceive a conflict between commerce and art, though he acknowledges that he reads most widely outside of contemporary authors, and that more experimental writing, when taken to high levels, would not fare well in a system with commercial interests. He speaks of not letting his own taste dictate the program’s participants, while still being able to “tell by the first sentence whether this person” is a writer. “When you admit people into a program, you want to have diversity of opinion and style.” Not for the sake of diversity, he notes, but because “you want to know that the person to your left and to your right is deserving of your time—and respect.”
Of his own writing, Aciman says, “I write very privately.” But he does speak of defining experiences in his own life, “Yes, I have been a refugee. I know how difficult it is to find a job…to find a particular degree of respectability, to ask for a job…” in the process illuminating a portion of personal experience inflecting his understanding of what might most benefit a burgeoning writer, in terms of craft certainly, but also pragmatically.
“I couldn’t even afford a typewriter. I was always on the fringe of things,” he says. And now, Aciman appears pleased to define himself, in part, as “a bit of an entrepreneur on the side.” Adding, “I think all writers are.” This is an interesting perspective. For if we think of the entrepreneurial instinct as related to creativity, this union, which is not always readily perceivable, comes into sharper focus.
Aciman plans another certificate program at CUNY pairing students from the arts with business training. Graduate students, whether with Ph.D. completed or coursework finished but dissertation left unwritten, will be eligible for a program designed “to convert their skills and to convert their personalities for the business world,” leading to jobs or careers in Accounting, Finance, Marketing, Statistics, in this case training not with editors but business leaders. Should it come as a surprise that Aciman worked as a stockbroker for three years in the middle of his own doctoral candidacy? This, and work in advertising management, taught him pragmatics applicable to the publishing world, guiding decisions in “how to call a publisher, when, what time of day, what to say.”
The CUNY system has proved responsive to Aciman’s distinct combination of ingenuity, respect for writing and literature, comprehension of real-world demands, and their merits. “There are institutions that welcome innovation,” Aciman says of CUNY. After which, he mentions the ongoing distinction more elite institutions make between the publishing of criticism, a loftier endeavor in some eyes, and writers of novels and literary nonfiction, a value hierarchy CUNY pays less heed to.
“CUNY hired me on the strength of my abilities as a writer.” The implication being that here writing is a valued skill and talent, not the lesser cousin of critical thinking; and the analysis of a novel is not a higher expertise than the writing of one. And yet it is true that Aciman does not want to teach creative writing. “I want to teach literature,” he says, and one feels the heat of the sentiment, and his passion for his Comparative Literature students at the CUNY Graduate Center. “They are fantastic,” he says.
“I love being chair of my department. I can choose students. I can help students.”
And if any of this seems contradictory, well perhaps that is the point—or, the point is the ways in which these contradictions are beside the point. One can be passionate about interlocking, yet distinct realities. An editor can help shape and hone a writer’s voice, possibly better than a fellow writer; a writer may analyze and illuminate literature with greater agility than a critic; and your most adept entrepreneur and innovator, perhaps he is a writer. Creativity, not confined to the page or to the endeavors of the individual, can enrich—and a writer supported by multitudes has more opportunity to flourish.
Aciman’s narrator in Harvard Square informs of the novel’s anti-hero, the beloved and yet unfit and too closely mirroring Kalaj, that he was “more alone than I was: he didn’t have the illusion of an institution behind him.”
Aciman perceives with clarity, but also heart, the value of the institution, be it the institution of publishing, with its editors as not so much gatekeepers but sources of wisdom, which is to say support, and the academy, not as ivory tower, but as tower of knowledge, gateway to success or stability. And mightn’t they—commerce and intellect—be less opposed than the writer’s lot anecdotally or historically suggests? (It is worth noting that some students at The Writers’ Institute previously attained MFAs.) In many respects, Aciman’s approach flies in the face of the MFA industrial complex: in one swoop, the writer eludes the MFA track, and its result: a position back in the academy, instructing the next crop of writers.
There is a fascinating and appealing purity here. Though in final reality, little effectively changes: the writer must work, the writer must write. Only a select few will break through, to be published in The New Yorker or contracted with Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Harvard Square takes up a version of a complex theme, that of difference, perceived and real, on a pendulum swing. “Or was I already, had always been like him, but in so different a guise that it was just as easy to think us poles apart? The Arab and the Jew…. And yet, we came from the same mold, choked in the same way, and in the same way, lashed back, then ran away.” The novel here references difference between Arab and Jew, yet it simultaneously engages the differences we perceive between Christian and Arab (and Christian and Jew), the differences that exist between any of us, each of us with as many differences as similarities in a multitude of circumstances.
In person, Aciman resists the attempt to apply language of the novel, Harvard Square, to discussion of his own actions in the world, specifically in respect to The Writers’ Institute—a reasonable boundary. As he points out, he is a different person alone with words at his computer than as director, chair, or entrepreneur.
But as a reader, and as a reader-writer, it is sometimes difficult to resist the desire for deeper understanding, applying a character’s words to an author’s actions, all the while remaining conscious of—and cognizant of—the deep difference between the words an author writes in representing someone else (a fictional character) and the person who is the author. Here we are again with this concept of multitudes. In practical terms, it is worth remembering the multi-valiant: writer-author-entrepreneur. And yet we might ask: Do the intentions of a program, such as The Writers’ Institute, and the personalities behind it, matter? Well, yes. These affect implementation, and, therefore, efficacy and effect.
With evident pleasure, Aciman speaks of Deborah Treisman, esteemed fiction editor at The New Yorker holding class in that venerable publication’s conference room—and think of the long list of august writers and editors who have walked those halls. (Lillian Ross, William Shawn, E.B. White, John Cheever, Alice Munro, J.D. Salinger, Vladimir Nabokov, Ann Beattie, one could go on.) “And I’m glad I was the agent of making that possible,” Aciman says of his new students’ access.
“When you get to know people, you like them,” Aciman remarks. He is speaking of the sentiment that he develops for his students; but one thinks also of the bonds that have opportunity to grow between editor and writer—and what this too means for director of the program, and of relationships and fates. “There’s not a single one of my students, by the end, that I don’t love.”
If we need an expert editor, to keep a voice in key, to train that voice to sing—for itself, and at its best—then should we look to the past, to the mythic editors of old; and should we look forward, pen in hand, paper held out for editors right here, right now. Must we reconcile the sticky relationship between art and commerce, and might we make something of it our own, striving to bridge differences without, and within. For isn’t that—to explain and explore, to uphold uniqueness, and to fit in, to sew together what begins as fragments, and make something whole—isn’t that, why we write?
Kara Krauze is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.
Photos: David Shankbone (Flickr); Drew Coffman (Flickr); Wikipedia Commons.