Bash Compactor: Nothing But a Number

Written by Matt Harvey on . Posted in Bash Compactor, Posts.

Monday night, on the second floor of the powerHouse Arena, Jonathan Lethem was spinning records for the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35,” a showcase of young novelists.

away from the DJ console freshly-shaven and wearing a sweater vest and
T-shirt combo and glasses, Lethem was a shoe-in for the king of all
rock nerds.

He pointed down at a scruffy and rumpled figure in the over-capacity crowd and said, “Richard Hell is
here. So I just played ‘Love Comes in Spurts.’” Hell, the seminal punk
rocker who’s now almost exclusively a writer, was the events emcee—a
perfect foil for this MFA-choked crowd. Before introducing the night’s
honorees, Hell cracked, “This is the closest I’ve ever come to a
literary award.”

Lethem, on the other hand, has closets in
Boerum Hill filled with statuettes. What’s the difference between rock
’n’ roll, where 35 is retirement age, and literature when you’re still
a bright young thing?

He explained: “You have to get up every
morning and pile up words.” Sounding a bit like a career counselor,
Lethem added, “Better to be a poet or a rock star, if you want to burn
the candle at both ends. As a novelist, you need to be tortoise, not
the hare.”

And why do some writers succeed young, while
others take a while? Lethem said that in his case he didn’t have that
much to say and he “needed to read 500 books.” So 30 isn’t that young
after all?

“I felt like an old man by then! I had written my first novel at 18.”