Critically acclaimed novelist Jonathan Lethem visited Pomona College on Feb. 4-5. Lethem is the first of three candidates for the Roy E. Disney Professorship in Creative Writing.
During his visit, Lethem led a sample workshop with students and faculty where student work was discussed. Later that day, he gave a public reading of selections from his 2009 novel Chronic City, which was named by The New York Times as one of the 10 best books of the year.
Lethem speculated that he may have first learned about Pomona and the Disney position because of David Foster Wallace. “Dave Wallace’s career here was something that drew attention for fiction writers,” said Lethem. “His unique degree of commitment here was something you heard about, and you couldn’t keep from being interested in. So I knew about [the position] first that way.”
He also previously knew English Department Head Kevin Dettmar. “I got to know Kevin through a couple of interesting incidental encounters and our shared interests.” One of Lethem’s essays appears in The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, which was edited by Dettmar.
Unlike the other two candidates for the Disney position, Lethem does not hold an MFA. He dropped out of Bennington College in Vermont during his sophomore year to pursue his writing. Though he has never held a permanent position at a university, he has taught extensively in visiting positions and summer programs.
Lethem cited a variety of reasons for seeking the permanent teaching position. “As I watched myself teaching more and more often…I began to envy some of the people who had that security and health insurance and sense of community and the sense of being situated,” he said. “Those are not small things for a writer to think about, because it’s a very exciting, but a very unsteady career….You do sometimes pine for a little more of a sense of continuity and placement.”
He also cited the personal and professional enrichment that comes from working with students. “I already take surprising amounts of nourishment from my interactions with students,” he said.
“It…gets into my work in surprising ways, to have encounters in the classroom.”
“The thing that’s new about this is I’ve never considered being hired somewhere….I’ve also never been in a job interview situation.”
Lethem has published eight novels, including 1999’s Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the New York Times best-selling The Fortress of Solitude in 2003. In addition to his novels, Lethem has published a plethora of non-fiction and short fiction works.