The Big Idea: John Freeman

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I’m afraid to fly. Correction: I’m afraid to take off. Those seconds when the plane speeds down the runway and impossibly, unreasonably levitates into thin air terrify me. After that, I’m okay (okay, not okay—less terrified). I’ve tried all sorts of mental tricks to overcome my fear. I’ve thought about Hillary Clinton, the Boston Red Sox, and my brother, an international businessman (they all fly a lot, unharmed). I’ve counted backwards from twenty because my niece once told me she heard that the first twenty seconds of the flight are the most dangerous. I’ve remembered something a patient of mine, a retired commercial pilot asked me, after explaining laminar flow and the Bernoulli principle: you never see a bird fall out of the sky, do you? Nothing works, except drugs. After years of trying to think myself out of my phobia, I’ve concluded that, for me, flying is a procedure, like a dental extraction or a colonoscopy, for which I need to be sedated.

John Freeman, Executive Editor at Lit Hub, former Editor-in-Chief of Granta, and past president of the National Book Critics Circle, has also known fear of flying. In his introduction to the first issue of Freeman’s, the biannual literary magazine he founded recently, he describes a harrowing flight he took out of Philadelphia with his mother when he was a teenager. The small turboprop roiled through a violent storm for many terrible minutes, finally touching down in Syracuse. Freeman recalls the feeling of landing safely and—unexpectedly—likens it to the experience of reading:

I will never forget how exhilarating it was to be welcomed back into gravity’s gentler embrace. Standing on the slick, corrugated metal gangway. The air creamy and ionized. The familiar mulchy scents of upstate New York. A huge smile of relief on my mother’s face when her feet touched the tarmac. I had never seen her frightened.

Every time I read I look to re-create the feeling of arriving that day. Very little that is interesting happens without risk, movement, and wonder. Yet to live constantly in this state—or even for the duration of a flight—is untenable. We need habits for comfort, and safety for sanity. For the lucky among us, though, who can make this choice rather than have it made for us, a departing flight to the edges perpetually sits on the tarmac, propellers turning, luggage loaded. It lives in the pages of books.

The theme of the inaugural issue of Freeman’s is arrival. Its contributors include Louise Erdrich, Colum McCann, Aleksandr Hemon, Honor Moore, Etgar Keret, Helen Simpson, Lydia Davis, Anne Carson, Haruki Murakami, and Dave Eggers. There are some short pieces and poems, but Freeman’s features mostly long essays and stories. The journal is available in print and e-reader only.

I spoke with Freeman recently from his apartment in New York (he also lives part time in London) about why he started this new journal and about the difference between criticism and editing. But first, I asked—one aerophobe to another—about the intriguing analogy he makes between reading and flying.

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The Rumpus: How do you re-create the feeling of having arrived safely by reading?

John Freeman: When we read fiction we’re often reading more dramatic lives than the ones we’re living, if we’re lucky. Hopefully we don’t all have the extramarital excitements of Richard Ford or John Updike, or the mornings after of Raymond Carver. But they remind us of our limits and our edges and the larger dramas in which we have found ourselves before or which we fear.

We live in constant proximity to lower-case “f” fear. It drives and agitates us: fear of failure, fear of being disliked, fear of disillusionment. The larger “F” fears are the ones we have to see at angles to live with constantly: Fear of being alone, which will happen, even if we’re happily, happily married; fear of dying—there’s no one who escapes that. That’s why I think a plane flight is so symbolically frightening: because it seems like something that shouldn’t actually happen. It feels like a metaphoric reprieve from mortality. If you can do that, shouldn’t you also be able to never die?

We learn to live with these large fears not by denaturing them but by touching them through prosthetics, learning what it is that we’re frightened of and learning not to be okay with it but learning how to acknowledge it, what those fears stand for. And we can’t do that fully without a refracting device. It’s possible that for some people it’s running ultramarathons or doing extreme forms of physical exertion. In my life, and I think in the lives of many people reading this interview, that vicarious experience is most directly and constantly felt through reading. And the nice thing about reading is you don’t have to train thirty hours a week in order to get right up and close to your Capital-F fears, to the things that drive your life whether you like it or not.

I’m looking at a shelf right now and I can pick off four or five books that—

Rumpus: Which ones?

Freeman: Well, right now I’m on the E shelf, so—

Rumpus: You alphabetize?

Freeman: Yes, my girlfriend’s a former bookseller and she won the battle of how to organize our books.

Rumpus: So what’s on the E shelf?

Freeman: Love Medicine, The Beet Queen. A whole stack of Louise Erdrich books. For me they’re about love and family and the fact that love doesn’t protect you from people. That’s the underlying story of a lot of her books.

Rumpus: You mentioned in another interview that the news now suffers from a “catastrophic lack of context,” and that you hoped Freeman’s could help restore context. What did you mean by that?

Freeman: There is a constant battle to restore context within American culture, largely because the forces that have the most power in the culture are trying to demolish context and create a context which is useful to those forces. For political reasons, it’s helpful to live in an ahistorical context, because we can constantly be at war. We don’t have to confront the many lessons that we’ve learned over time, in Iraq and in Vietnam, for example. It’s a profitable, nationalistically reaffirming enterprise. There’s something very demoralizing about that because what the powers that be have discovered is that we can have all these public debates and they won’t matter, especially if they happen in print or on NPR or in certain liberal organs. We might need those for our self definition, but as an exercise of change they’re largely ineffectual.

And one of the things that gets lost in these periods of debate which we seem to be in constantly, whether it’s the banking crisis or Black Lives Matter or Occupy Wall Street, is that the power of narrative is sidelined. I was less interested in starting another print or online organ which would masticate public events in an attempt to put in its own sense of context. I thought, why not have the context emerge through narrative?

Rumpus: So it wasn’t your goal to be an Irving Howe, to carry on the leftist literary tradition of the fifties and sixties?

Freeman: They were political warriors and that seat is already taken. And even if it weren’t I don’t think I’d want to sit in it because I don’t believe anymore in the power of reason to move debate in this country. We’ve watched it fail in Iraq, we’ve watched it fail during the banking crisis, we’ve watched it fail in front of our eyes when someone unarmed was shot, murdered by a police officer who got off scot-free, and have had that explained to us as justice. I feel like one of the things that sensitizes us to other people’s lives and other people’s points of view is narrative. Not as it’s primary function, but it’s a contraindication, empathy is to storytelling, an extremely useful one.

Rumpus: You’re preaching to the choir there. I’m one of many trying to restore narrative to medicine at a time when it’s being eroded, when the electronic medical record is effacing the story, when the “population” matters more than the individual.

Freeman: We live in such a contradictory time. The things we see on the Internet and so many things that are sold to us are presented as if they catered to our individuality when, in fact, our individuality is increasingly becoming a series of data points. Especially that’s true with medicine. And yet whenever you or I or anyone else has to argue with our physician or, more likely, our insurance company, we start to tell our story and it’s like we speak a different language to the corporation which provides the healthcare. They don’t speak the language of narrative. They speak the language of data.

Rumpus: Still, your journal is by no means removed from the world. Women are more strongly represented in Freeman’s than in many literary journals. That implies a certain world view. Did you think about redressing sexism as you put the journal together?

Freeman: I wanted it to have gender parity, simply because I believe women are as intelligent and important as men. So that was something I strived for. But I think it’s hard growing up in the time and the place that I did not to have to externalize that effort, to outsmart one’s shortcomings that are inherited, programmed, and, if you’re a man, have to be deprogrammed to some degree.

I’ve thought a lot about this because I’ve been on prize juries with the Book Critics Circle and on the Granta Best of Young British Novelists jury, and in almost every case the jury has been if not fifty-fifty men and women, more women then men. And yet we sometimes end up with more men than women considered prize-worthy. Our notions of what is good literature is often gendered. It’s something I think about as I go through the commissioning and editing and publishing this journal. The world that it’s published in is obviously hugely unequal, still. One of the startling things I’ve discovered recently is that every generation has to rediscover the central notions and ideas of feminism as if it was being launched for the first time. I’ve witnessed this in my students, who can talk about Roxane Gay but who have no idea who Susan B. Anthony was, or Harriet Tubman.

Rumpus: I recently met some women in their twenties who had never heard of Gloria Steinem.

Freeman: And she has a new book out!

Rumpus: You not only have gender parity but pieces from all over the world and translated from multiple languages. Did you start out with the theme or with the authors?

Freeman: I started with the authors. I approached Grove, they accepted the idea of making this journal, and then I had carte blanche to go out and find submissions. I wanted the first issue to really reflect where I was calling from as an editor. We’re often undersold, at least in this country, on our curiosity. Our news is presented almost exclusively nationally; our books are presented to us as if we don’t care about the rest of the world, and so little is translated. I thought, why not assume that everyone is very curious? That’s the way I’ve begun to read, simply because it’s more interesting if you’re reading books from outside the United States as well as inside. It makes the books coming from within the United States even more interesting. And you can see their contours better if you’re reading books from Indonesia and Japan and China and the Middle East at the same time, because you see more clearly the narratives that are unspoken within the larger dramas of the characters.

So I just asked the writers who I most loved to be in the first issue. The range and how I approached them was pretty organic. Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite writers and I’d interviewed him before and I’d heard from his editor at the New Yorker that they had turned down a story, so I approached his agent and his editor at Knopf and begged them for this story and for some reason they said yes. I was simultaneously approaching Barry Lopez, who is also one of my favorite writers, and he actually had shown me the essay that’s in the journal earlier, because he had been talking to me about the work of the photographer Ben Huff. And when the journal came about I thought: Why don’t I just publish that essay? I write for a paper in Norway, Morgenbladet, and my editor there has interviewed Lydia Davis and she told me the story that Davis told her which is that every time Davis is translated into a new language she translates something from that language back into English as a kind of thank you. So Ane, my editor, told me that Lydia had not just done that with Norwegian, that she was beginning to learn Norwegian entirely by reading Dag Skolstad’s Telemark novel, which is this long, very difficult thirteen or fourteen generation novel.

Rumpus: Other decisions you made in producing the journal include featuring mostly long stories and essays, and not publishing Freeman’s online. Can you say a little about those choices?

Freeman: People are tired of being connected to machines all the time. We spend more time in this country with our computers than we do with our spouses. I think now there’s something of an occasion when a book or magazine is published in print that you can’t duplicate any other way. It’s a commitment and a sense of celebration that I feel like every book and journal should inherently have. It’s too easy to publish now. We wind up with scads and scads of articles and opinions and essays and stories. The Internet is not curated. It’s curated by ourselves. I think we’re entering into a time where we’re hungry for objects and the mystery that they hold, the beauty that an object can have, and the curatorial input that we all too easily shrugged off as undemocratic or elitist. In fact, the curatorial thrust of democratic institutions like the newspaper and the news in general have protected us in the past. Now that those things are receding we’re beginning to see what happens when we don’t have those forces in place. I’m not saying that Freeman’s has all by itself plugged the gap, but I feel that in a small way, as a celebration of narrative and storytelling, it can do a bit of that.

Rumpus: Did you get any pushback from any of the writers about not publishing their work online?

Freeman: Not at all. Quite the opposite. Most authors now who are being published online—almost all of us—have all had the experience of being flamed in the comments section. And all of us are hungry for print, that sense not of permanence but of the attempt at permanence that print suggests, the durability it suggests. I think that’s how all writers write: They try to be eternal, they try to be durable and when something’s published in print, it’s a way of honoring that attempt.

Rumpus: And the decision to include mostly longer work?

Freeman: There are some forms of thinking that require time and length. Lydia Davis’s piece, for example, becomes a joke and a gimmick—hey, I learned Norwegian by reading a book without knowing Norwegian while I did it! So much of what’s special about that piece is the small scale detail of watching her mind scrabble over the unfamiliar terrain of the language and piecing it together and making the rules for herself.

Rumpus: How about the name of the journal? If you had been “John Schwartz” or “John Maldonado” would it have been “Schwartz’s” or “Maldonado’s”?

Freeman: Why not? But “Freeman’s” does have a special connotation, in that, hopefully, we’re all free men and free women in this world and I think that’s what reading celebrates and writing celebrates; the ability not just to express oneself but to have the liberty and freedom to do it in the way you want. As readers in this country we’re extremely blessed with what we can read and what we can give back and forth to one another. Yeah, “Schwartz’s” would have a slightly different meaning but I like for people picking the journal up to know where it’s coming from. We’re all so sold to and pitched to and appealed to by large corporations that I think sometimes it’s okay to say: You know what? This is where it’s coming from.

Rumpus: You’ve spent much of your career as a critic. How does the literary intent of reviewing books compare with that of editing a literary journal?

Freeman: Creating a journal like this is an attempt to make a creative space available to writers in which to do what they do. As a critic they’ve already made that space for themselves and you’re simply describing as best you can your experience traveling through it. So the loyalties are much different. As a critic your primary loyalty is to your reader, to be as faithful to your own experience of a book as possible so that they know by trusting your voice whether they might enjoy it. As an editor, your greatest loyalty is to the writer, to create the most felicitous space possible for them to work in, the one with the best acoustics; to choose the best bandmates for them to collaborate in that space because with a journal it does depend on proximate sound; who is next to whom and what order they come in. I know people read a journal out of order. but it still makes a difference who else is there. So if I took someone in who didn’t match with Aleksandr Hemon or Garnette Cadogan or Lydia Davis or Louise Erdrich I think it would have thrown off the sound of the whole space.

Rumpus: Are you still reviewing?

Freeman: Yeah, I have a review due this week.

Rumpus: What will the theme of the next edition of Freeman’s be?

Freeman: It’s almost done. Family.

Rumpus: You’ve been flying a lot for the launch of Freeman’s. Does flying get easier for you, the more you do it?

Freeman: Yes. At some point, a couple of years ago, I read a book called Ask the Pilot, which is a series of short pieces by an actual commercial airline pilot. He’s very funny and hugely informative. That, combined with a small anecdote in Julian Barnes’s Nothing to Be Frightened Of, which is his book about death, in which he admits that he, too, was afraid of flying and describes missing a flight and being at an airport for five or six hours just watching planes take off over and over again and how that cured him of his own fear. Those two things plus sheer repetition has made it almost, not a non-event, but I just get on the plane and accept that this is my fate, whatever happens.

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“The Big Idea” features interviews with writers, artists, scientists, activists, and others who take a long and broad view of an issue, problem, or concept, and pursue it over many years. Visit the archives here.

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Author photo © Deborah Treisman.


Suzanne Koven is a primary care physician and writer in residence in the division of general internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Her essays and reviews have appeared in the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Email her at inpracticemd@gmail.com and visit her website at suzannekoven.com. More from this author →