In Sydney Pollack’s 1973 film The Way We Were, Barbara Streisand plays Katie Morosky, a left-wing activist, and Robert Redford a privileged would-be novelist named Hubbell Gardiner. In the course of their vexed romance, Katie blurts her ambivalence about Hubbell’s prose style: ‘It is gorgeous. But you stand back […] You see the people, you watch them, from a distance.’ Gorgeous: the opposite of engaged, a flourish of avoidance, aesthetic frill on frantic reality. Or is it? Gorgeous is one of Wayne Koestenbaum’s favoured adjectives; he has written about ‘the gorgeousness of Hart Crane’, the ‘gorgeous sentimentality’ of James Schuyler, the ‘gorgeous, sexually ambiguous’ male idols of early Hollywood. It would be an apt word, too, for Koestenbaum’s own gorged and engorged prose, which is one of the best rejoinders I know to the idea that flamboyant style and a rigorous ethics or politics cannot live on the same page.
What does this style consist of, and why has it mattered so much in the last decade to Koestenbaum’s fellow critics, poets and essayists? His style, I think, is something like a protracted fit of sensibility, a habit of attentiveness and enthusiasm that recalls one of his early intellectual and writerly crushes, Susan Sontag. Koestenbaum once wrote of Sontag that she ‘ate the world’. He shares her ‘cosmophagic’ ambitions as a cultural critic and, like her, he’s mortified by the limitations of that calling, preferring to flirt with as many forms as will have him. Over the past thirty years, he has published 19 books, including poetry, essays, fiction and a kind of criticism that excites and instructs in the first instance by the spectacle of its author being, himself, so obviously thrilled. Koestenbaum performs, just as he has said of the poetry of Frank O’Hara, an ‘excited devotion to the state of excitement’.
Koestenbaum is an exuberant critic, enraptured poet, intoxicated historian. The things this writer pays attention to – or rather, the stuff he will not be embarrassed by. Instances of failed seduction or inappropriate arousal; scenes of physical or metaphysical shame; bouts of abject desire for approval by his heroes, or by us his readers. (A New York Times review of his 2011 book Humiliation referred repeatedly to Koestenbaum’s ‘neediness’: I hope he relished the insult.) His metaphors are often deliciously malapropos and would cause most writers (or their editors) to blush and think better. My 1980s, an essay collection published in 2013, contains startling readings of Crane, O’Hara and Sontag, as well as the dotty, delighting assertion that ‘a John Ashbery poem behaves like a lazy Susan. Spin it and get what condiment you like, without having to say, “pardon my reach”’. In his essays on painting, Koestenbaum is unafraid of sounding overinvested; he is not just hooked on the texture of paint on a canvas by Henri Matisse, but feels sorry for the striations. In an essay on Debbie Harry – they once lived in the same New York apartment building – he pays the most rapt attention to the way she walks along 23rd Street to the grocery store: ‘Each step gestured acceptance to the sidewalk.’ Why pretend, he asks, that such details do not matter?
So many experiments in proving the pleasures of attention. For The Anatomy of Harpo Marx (2012), Koestenbaum sat down to watch every Marx Brothers movie and write about every scene in which Harpo, mute angel and unlikely erotic object, appears. You could object that Koestenbaum over-reads Harpo and cathects, again, too extravagantly – too needily – with his subject. But then he tells us this, which is extremely wise and which, for some time after reading, I kept scribbled on a Post-it note above my own desk: ‘We commit a cruelty against existence if we do not interpret it to death.’ From 2010 to 2015, Koestenbaum wrote a regular column for the arts and culture quarterly Cabinet in which he responded, one at a time, to photographs chosen for him by the magazine. (Full disclosure: I’m an editor at Cabinet, though was not involved in this project.) The series later became a book, Notes on Glaze (2016). Here is Koestenbaum – who had not been told where the image came from or who took it – interpreting to death a Jack Delano photograph of three young women at the Vermont state fair in 1941: ‘We wore fascist charmeuse. We had problems […] We torched charm school. We were the grandmothers of Fran Lebowitz.’
Koestenbaum’s most recent books have been poetry collections – though he is just as happy for them to be considered essays – written under what he calls ‘trance’ conditions (or at least ambitions). It turns out, no real surprise, that his immoderate style usually involves painstaking plans and revisions: he is known to subject his essays to nine drafts, sometimes still involving a typewriter. For The Pink Trance Notebooks (2015) he decided to write impromptu, early in the mornings or in stray moments alone in public, and not even to type the fragments till a year had passed. The result, as also in the follow-up Camp Marmalade (2018), is a version of Koestenbaum’s erudite indulgence that is casual and intimate, but still addicted to the strictures and amnesty of form, not to mention odd metaphors: ‘syntax a baby I know/how to pamper,/syntax a baby/I know how to/miscarry’.
Poetic experiment in the essay form, skewed ekphrasis instead of art criticism, delirious critique in place of cultural history and a confessional approach to theoretical explorations of gender and sexuality – does it sound familiar? It should, because some of the most adventurous writing of the past decade has either shared a great deal with Koestenbaum’s work or been directly influenced by it. In the latter category is Maggie Nelson, whom Koestenbaum taught as a graduate student at the City University of New York, and whose ‘autotheory’, she acknowledges, is partly indebted to the license he gave her. (In Hilton Als’s 2016 New Yorker profile of Nelson, she said: ‘I remember when I first met Wayne he told me, “Don’t get bogged down by the heavyweights.” It sounds so simple, but it was very freeing advice. A sense of permission.’) More broadly, looking at an array of genre-switching writers who have been widely celebrated, especially by the artworld – from Chris Kraus and Lynne Tillman to Anne Boyer, as well as admiring critics like Sarah Nicole Prickett – you would have to say that it has also (but a little secretly) been Wayne Koestenbaum’s decade.
Of course it is one thing, as a writer, to aspire to or even practice impure forms and an ecstatic style – quite another to take seriously the ethical field onto which they open. In the end, for all the wildly admirable qualities of his writing, I think the essential contribution of Koestenbaum’s diverse project is to reassert what Walter Benjamin called ‘the fullness of concentrated positivity’ (a phrase of which Sontag approved) in the face of the fleeting attractions of polemic, dispute and snark. There is assuredly a politics to this, an urge to keep all possibilities in play, and to keep play alive as a possibility, in a time of anxiety and retrenchment. I can hardly think of a writer who is so exacting about his own enthusiasms, so diligent in his pursuit of joy, so principled in the defence of pleasure. Gorgeous, yes, but absolving too.
Main image: Wayne Koestenbaum, 2018. Courtesy: Nightboat Books; photograph: Ebru Yildiz
Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.