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2 April 2024

In Conversation with Margo Jefferson

In this wide-ranging and generous interview with Franklin Nelson – originally published in Wasafiri 117: The State of the Industry – Margo Jefferson discusses the critic at work and play. Read and download the interview in full on the Taylor & Francis website or order Wasafiri 117 to read it in print.

Although Margo Jefferson has filed different kinds of copy to editors over the years, the same, ever-relevant questions continue to inform it: what does it mean to inherit, live within, and interact with different cultural and political moments and legacies? How, and what, can art, in its various forms, tell us about ourselves, and the people and structures that surround us? [...] In this interview with Margo Jefferson, who received a Windham–Campbell Prize for Non-fiction in 2022 and serves as a Professor of Writing at Columbia University, she talks about starting out in journalism, different forms of life writing, and her approach to teaching.

Franklin Nelson for Wasafiri: I wanted to begin with a video that I saw the other day on X – the social media platform formerly known as Twitter – of an interview with the American author Ray Bradbury. When asked about writing, he said: ‘Intellect is a great danger to creativity because you begin to rationalise and make reasons up for things instead of staying with your own basic truth: who you are, what you are, and what you want to be’ (np). He added that ‘a writer must never think at the typewriter, they must feel’ (np). In its form and themes, Constructing a Nervous System strikes me as an act both of intellectual endeavour, and of great creativity. How do you see this relationship? Was Bradbury right in claiming that you have to feel, and not think?

Margo Jefferson: I don’t agree with that opposition at all. Now, there are moments in your writing life – and those moments might last for weeks – when intellect is dominating. That’s necessary. Likewise with feeling: what is this stiff, hardened prose that I am working with? What am I missing? Break the self open and see what’s happening. But they are always, in some way, aware of each other. They are always ready, even if they are in discord, to find some form of concord, or useful disparities. No, I don’t agree with Bradbury. Why would I? I’ve been a critic for so much of my life. Being a critic means, more and more – especially now that I do it in more personally coloured books, rather than, say, newspaper or magazine columns – that I’m extremely aware that the authority that criticism has historically had needs to be pushed at; that real assumption, almost like omniscient narration. I’m hardly alone in recognising this, but that is a real push for me: complicating this relationship between thought and feeling, which can also be complicated by states of mind and heart like meditation — not in the Buddhist way, though that would work too. When you are meditating on something, you are both feeling and thinking; a confession can be very naked and intense, but it can come from serious, rigorous, even gruelling thoughts. So, we have to look at these forms in a more complicated way — as readers, not just writers.

In recent years, you have focused on writing books, but you were a journalist and reviewer to begin with.

Yes, and still am! I was a beat journalist. Occasional features, but really, basically reviews, and what came to be called ‘cultural criticism’ — meaning, instead of one particular subject or work of art, a contested theme in American culture. You’d spread out, you’d essay your way into associations and quasi-conclusions.

What did journalism give you? What were its limits and its learnings?

I should be positive and start with the learnings! It taught me basic craft principles: how to approach a subject, research, thinking, meeting deadlines, figuring out how thoughts, ideas, reactions you have that are essential to the assigned piece can fit into a particular space. But also, it’s very tricky: you learn this edgy thing of joining or fitting what is supposed to be your own particular voice, your set of reactions, opinions – which have to have some sense of individuality, or why would people bother to read you – into, and alongside, the general voice of the publication. Every single publication has one. Often, I found that switching from publication to publication was a useful way of keeping some kind of individuality in tune. If you were writing for the old Village Voice, let’s say, or Ms., or Vogue, for that matter, you weren’t going to begin a piece in the same way as at Newsweek or the New York Times. You could play with language and approach very differently. It taught me both of those things, those are experiences. I think the negatives are implied in what I’m saying. You can become a kind of utility player: ‘Okay, here’s what I need to say’; ‘Oh, I need to temper this’; ‘This magazine wants the tone a little tempered’; ‘No, no, they want to begin with a really personal, intimate lede — let me figure that out.’ That becomes a little predictable, a little dreary. The point at which you start recognising that you’re using certain words and phrases over and over and over again — and start panicking if you get assigned something that is very much outside the parameters, in terms of length and depth, that you are used to. There are so many wonderful TV shows now that I hate to use this comparison, but if you think of the old-fashioned sitcoms at their most banal, even if you were enjoying them, you knew in advance, or at that moment, what the actor was going to do – gesturally, tonally – when the line came. That’s what you can become like.

Criticism is often thought of as equivalent to requiring finitude; a single, discrete take; a certain objectivity; conferring importance; and having limits. These are all things you are challenging in Constructing a Nervous System, and in your previous books.

Yes, I considered On Michael Jackson a real transition – transition is kind of a weak word – a real bridge that I needed to cross to move into different kinds of critical questioning and exposure, and self-exposure. The other thing I must say is that I was always aware – I’m thinking of that list – that those givens were always affected by, marked by, the fact that I was doing this as a black woman, as a woman of colour. When I went to Newsweek, they’d never had a person of colour, or a woman, as a critic. At the Times, people had preceded me – everyone thought Anatole Broyard was white, but he wasn’t – but not many. So, I was always aware that those fixtures were not to be taken for granted. Of course, I used them, but I didn’t want to fully inhabit them. I always, in some way, wanted to be in conversation, or in contention, with at least some of them.

Did you have a sense before you began to write Constructing a Nervous System, or during the writing, of where criticism and memoir chafe and meet? Did you work that out as you wrote?

Both. Since I left the Times and started writing, I was interested in how the two relate; it was my post-newspaper, post-media journalist quest. Also, I teach, so that was something I was interested in pursuing pedagogically, if you will, in terms of what I was reading, in terms of what my students were reading and writing, in terms of what other critics were pushing at, and in terms of what other scholars who were dipping into criticism in literary magazines and newspapers were bringing. I thought of these books – certainly Constructing a Nervous System, but Negroland too – as a way to take these questions and interrogations and integrations further, and to see what would happen. I didn’t know immediately what subjects I was going to explore, what experiences I was going to chronicle, but I knew that this book was a way of taking that further. And not quite knowing what would turn out, which is what I wanted.

Photo Credit: Michael Lionstar

Franklin Nelson is a writer and editor at the Financial Times. A graduate of the University of Oxford, his work has been published by the TLS and WritersMosaic in the UK, and by Diário de Notícias and the Jornal de Letras in Portugal, among others.
The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Margo Jefferson previously served as book and arts critic for Newsweek and the New York Times. Her writing has appeared in, among other publications, Vogue, New York Magazine, The Nation, and Guernica.
Spring 2024
Wasafiri 117: The State of the Industry

We start our 40th anniversary year with Wasafiri 117, which has a special focus on ‘The State of the Industry’. Our spring 2024 issue reflects on the contemporary international literary industry through a variety of perspectives, from publishing to academia, via the work of writing, translating, editing, publishing, and teaching.

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