Interviewed by John Haggerty

Read Lee Upton’s fiction piece, Dossier, Regurgitation, Acid, Columbia


John: I’m always pleased to see poets writing prose, because they bring such verve to their sentences. There are exceptions, of course, but I feel as if we have fewer and fewer really great prose stylists these days. Is that your feeling as well? Who are some writers that you think are still writing with some flair?

Lee: Thanks for asking this question—which gives me an opportunity to mention some writers who are creating prose that’s startling and beautiful. Here are some writers (not in any particular order) who are writing, often, in more than one genre and with a heightened attention to what sentences can do: Roxane Gay, Rachel Cusk, Sofia Samatar, Idra Novey, Olivia Clare, Carl Phillips, Brock Clarke, Mary Karr, Melissa Broder, Maggie Nelson, Jenny Zhang, Lydia Millet, Lauren Groff, David Lehman, Tracy K. Smith, Margot Livesey, Porochista Khakpour. I think we’re living in an extraordinary time as readers and as writers.

One of the sharp ironies of this story is that, though there is always someone listening, there is nothing useful left to say. Hannah Arendt said that power and truth, by their very natures, will always be in conflict. Is this why the authorities in your story have worked so hard to control language itself?

Yes, absolutely. The authorities in my story control even the most seemingly superficial elements of language—and, as such, severely shrink the range of thought. Their restrictions on language are especially inhibiting precisely because those restrictions are arbitrary. The illogicality of their demands adds to the nightmarish quality of the lived reality for characters. Everyone in the story who isn’t a parish officer must be continually disoriented and suppressed. No one who isn’t a parish officer is able to predict the next restriction on language or to imagine a logical reason for why certain words are suddenly forbidden. Language is impoverished and, as a consequence, all means of resistance are diminished.

A wise man once told me that attention is very close to love. Clearly, though, one does not want to experience the loving attentions of the Prime Parishioner or the parish officers. When do normally positive qualities like attention and listening become malevolent? 

A benevolent act of attention would involve listening to create understanding. In my story listening amounts to surveillance as a means to dominate and terrorize. I agree with your formulation: “What gains our attention takes our attention.” By colonizing attention and by inducing panic, suppressing even the most innocent acts, the authorities maintain absolute control.

I love the way you’ve updated this fable, that the emperor is actually wearing clothes when everyone else is not. It seems particularly compelling today, when our politicians ape honesty and transparency in the service of lies. This reversal seems reflective of the new modes of propaganda. The suppression of speech, it would seem, is no longer necessary if you can lie constantly, and at great volume. We can have the First Amendment and destroy it, too. Do we need new methods of truth-telling to match the new modes of indoctrination?

I’m gratified that you like the story. I agree that we do need new methods of truth-telling—methods which amount to expanding possibilities for the imagination and for storytelling. We can also experiment with older methods of getting at the truth that have been helpful to people before us. Myths and fairy tales may be inexhaustible sources and could still shake us out of any stupor.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which my story draws from, is especially fitting to consider at this historical moment because it implicates us all, not just the emperor, and serves as a resonant warning. The emperor is a foolish man, easily tricked because of his outrageous vanity. In order to appear smart, worldly, and competent, both the emperor and his subjects pretend that he’s not naked but wearing a magnificent robe. The original story works like a mirror exposing the temptations of vanity, as well as the presumptions of the powerful. The story points to the human tendency to deny even our most basic perceptions—to be agreeable at all costs, to avoid transgressing the settled norms of one’s social group, especially in the face of power. In the original story the fear of looking stupid blinds not only the emperor but the entire kingdom—except for the boy who tells the truth that the emperor is naked, the truth that everyone else is afraid of admitting.

For people of good will, the sort of lying we’re exposed to by politicians is obscene. In my story characters are steeped in lies and must give up not only their clothing but their right to use words of their choice. Characters are made to relinquish what is precious, as if they’ll then be freed from terrorism, including state terrorism. They submit out of fear and out of hope for continuity, a false impression of equality between the powerful and the powerless, and a similarly false promise of safety, security, and even efficiency. The authorities present surveillance as if it’s for the benefit of those who are being watched. I suppose that’s always been the message.

We’ve never been entirely without the menace of surveillance. Neighbors may have always spied on neighbors. But the technological means for surveillance and the multiple shaming cultures of media forums are expanding threats. We may have to fumble our way forward, being willing to look stupid, so that we can work toward new imaginings and a more expansive language, toward having the courage to see—and admit—what’s in front of our eyes.