An Interview with Nonfiction Professor Leslie Jamison

December 11, 2015

Leslie Jamison joined the Writing Program’s Nonfiction faculty as an assistant professor this fall. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling essay collection The Empathy Exams (Graywolf) and the novel The Gin Closet(Free Press), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Award. Jamison’s essays and criticism have appeared inHarper'sOxford AmericanA Public SpaceBoston ReviewVirginia Quarterly ReviewThe Believer and The New York Times, where she is a regular columnist for the Sunday Book Review.

The day before Thanksgiving, Jamison joined News Fellow Michael Juliani in a Gmail Chat, responding to questions about her impressions of the Writing Program and her decade-long focus on sentimentality in literature.

Leslie Jamison: I am texting you from my perch above the ugliest block of 14th street!
Michael Juliani: I'm in my room, which needs new light bulbs.
In any case ... I know that you've attended other distinguished writing programs, and so you must be attuned to idiosyncrasies in writing programs. I'm wondering what you find unique to your experience at Columbia so far.
LJ: This is such a supremely psychically attuned question. I have been thinking a lot over the course of the past few months about the difference between my own days at Iowa and the experience here at Columbia.
Granted, of course, that everyone at each place also has a singular and special experience of that place.
The community at Columbia is larger and deeply alive—not just because it's in the middle of New York, but because it's got so many different kinds of voices, so many different kinds of writers moving through—among students, among faculty.
In nonfiction, I think there's something pretty amazing about the range of people who teach here—nonfiction means about ten thousand different things: personal essays, hybrid essays, biography, criticism, formally experimental criticism, reportage, lyric reportage, lyric formally experimental biographical reportage … (that last one might have been a joke, but you get the point). There are so many ways to approach the project of transcribing WHAT IS, and the folks here are pursuing so many different ones. You don’t feel like everyone came from the same master class, as it were. I'd say that range feels singular.
Also, full disclosure/disclaimer/confession: I was in a fiction MFA. So I'm kind of a genre vagabond to boot.
MJ: You've already answered my next question—specifics about the nonfiction department.
LJ: There's so much I love about Iowa, and so much I love about here. So I also want to be on the record loving both! I'm MFA-polyamorous. (& I'm not the only one, obviously).
MJ: I know you're going to be teaching a seminar on sentimentality/overt literary expressions of emotion in the spring, and that you taught a similar master class last year. Do you see seminar discussion as a way to explore these concepts in a way that's similar to writing essays in the sense of "attempting" or meditating?
LJ: Absolutely. I teach classes on questions that are still live wires for me. Which is either frustrating for students or exciting. Hopefully the latter. But the idea of "attempt"—especially when it comes to questions that are too vast and complicated for solving—feels right to me.
Often my teaching and my critical writing are in direct conversation. As I was crafting my master class on confession and shame, I was also writing a piece for The Atlantic on confessional writing (specifically new books by David Shields/Caleb Powell and Sarah Manguso) and the taboo around "confessional"—the shameful glow of the term itself.
This class on sentimentality and emotion is basically all I've thinking about for the past decade, but most recently it came up for me in a Bookforum piece on Mary Gaitskill's new novel, where I was thinking about the word "unsentimental" and why people are obsessed by it, what kind of virtue it has come to stand for.
MJ: It's interesting because we have had a couple of poetry seminars (one taught by Alan Gilbert, the other byDorothea Lasky) that focused on "the confessional" or "post-confessionalism" in poetry. It seems to be an issue that's veined across all genres now.
LJ: I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for those! I used to share an office with Alan at Wesleyan years ago—our own confessional booth—but we've never gotten into it, on that.
And yes, absolutely, I love that the seminars here are cross-genre in material and enrollment. I have poets and fiction writers in my current seminar on documentary practice, and god bless them for being there.

Have you taken a lot of seminars "out of genre” (that sounds like a cool form of "off roading")?
MJ: I've taken a nonfiction seminar (with Wayne Koestenbaum) and a lecture with Richard Locke. I almost applied as a prospective nonfiction student—I work in multiple genres and in hybrid forms.
I want to be sure to ask you, before I take too much of your time, what you would say to a prospective MFA student who is considering Columbia.
LJ: Oh! I would have so much to say. But here’s a start: It's a truly incredible group of people here, but I knew that before I came. What I've really been struck by—what I wasn't necessarily expecting—is a stronger feeling of community than I'd anticipated. The classroom conversations I've had here have been the most rigorous, electric and engaging of my career. So there's that, too. And it's wonderful.
MJ: Awesome.
LJ: Your own path sounds intriguing. Maybe I will see you in a seminar someday.
Thank you—have a good holiday!
MJ: You too! Thank you very much.