Acclaimed writer returns to campus for reading

As part of a larger series on “Sensuous Thinking and the Artistic Process,” fiction author and Swarthmore alumnus Adam Haslett ’92 treated a small audience to a reading of two of his short works. The event opened with a short introduction by Haslett’s former professor and friend, Richard Eldridge. Eldridge opened with a recollection of what he called “public information” ― information about Haslett’s work and its many critical accolades. He transitioned quickly into his own thoughts on his former student’s fiction, prefaced by a warning that his insight had yet been unapproved by the author, and that he “might be completely wrong” in his interpretation.

Eldridge entered a complicated and thought-provoking explanation of the philosophy of literature applied to Haslett’s work, talking about how the characters in his fiction have “not quite developed.” Then he ceded the stage to Haslett, who thanked him and began his the reading.

“I’m going to sit down,” he began, “so that I can focus more on the fiction and less on standing still.”

In his opening statement, Haslett’s speech was both polished and casual. He told an evocative story about his time being back on campus, about his challenges connecting the “felt place” of his present experience to the rose-tinted glasses of selective memory and how he strives to represent this divide in his fiction. A central idea of his speech and, in a sense, his fiction, was the related notion of “attending the experience,” something that he said was necessary to sharing and really “having” the experience. He moved forward to talk more specifically about his fiction, explaining the importance of the sound of language and the rhythm in prose. Mastering these things is, according to Haslett, both a common difficulty and crucial boundary to overcome for writers.

Then finally, after two explanations of his work and an acclimation of both audience and storyteller to the weird layout of the Scheuer room (someone forgot to move the chairs, as pictured), Haslett began to read his fiction.

He started with a story titled “Siebert,” chronicling a brief date and sexual encounter between a man ― named Siebert, of course ― and the story’s female protagonist. That’s a little reductive, though, and of course there’s more to the very moving and delicately written and rightfully praised (by real reviewers at real publications) story than just that. But it’s more interesting, in a piece like this, to consider Haslett as he read and the added significance of his reading out loud.

People would react to some lines with laughter or unvoiced shock, and sometimes he would make commentary; on his own voice, on his own complexion as he describes his character’s paleness. During his second story, “The Act,” he even stopped himself halfway, realizing he had made a mistake.

“That should have been Cleveland, at the beginning,” he said, “not Cincinatti.”

“The Act” was markedly different from and just as beautiful as “Siebert,” featuring tighter prose and further removal from romance.

The sharp contrast between the pieces that he read was clarified during the brief Q and A session following the reading. While he acknowledges “The Act” as different from the rest of his work ― the piece, which deals with the deaths of two fathers, was written in what Haslett called “a moment of political despair” ― it deals with the same theme of “vulnerability.” He quoted James Baldwin referring to the artistic imperative to “vomit up” the anguish within the writer through the work. All of his characters are vulnerable by necessity as much as all people are vulnerable by necessity, whether it be through sex or familial relation or connection to their cell phones. It’s a sense of vulnerability that came across as he read, “focused on the fiction” in a way that made it seem like he was constantly being caught unaware by new discoveries in his own words.

After the reading and the questions, Haslett relinquished control of the audience back to Eldridge, who thanked everyone for coming and offered refreshments.

“There are cookies in the back,” he said to conclude, in a tone suggesting that the cookies were news to him, too.

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