Ghost in the Machine

Ryan Sheldon ’13: This respondent requested to remain anonymous—I’ll simply say that he’s a prolific Wesleying veteran, the recipient of an Olin Fellowship, and a longtime music writer for Popmatters.

Philip Roth, circa 1968 (© Bob Peterson/Time Life Pictures, sourced from The Guardian)

Class year: 2013

Major: English and American Studies

Favorite book: Portnoy’s Complaint

How do you identify as a writer? Do you think of yourself as particular kind of writer, and does that identification extend beyond your conception of yourself as a student?

Broadly, I’m most comfortable and experienced writing nonfiction prose in a variety of genres and forms. More specifically: music and arts criticism; satire (maybe not nonfiction?); memoir and profile pieces; journalism; blogging, in various venues; historical writing; analytical (scholarly) writing. Obviously, content and tone varies depending on the venue (say, Wesleying versus history class), but I like to think I’m fairly versatile. I’d love to become more comfortable writing fiction (in a genre beyond satire), and I wish I had realized that earlier in my college career.

I’m not sure if that identification extends beyond my conception of myself as a student, or maybe I don’t understand that part of the question.

What, if anything, has influenced the way you’ve learned to write? What if anything, has influenced the way you like to write?

Cliched answer, but being a voracious reader as a kid influenced the way I learned to write. I think reading constantly is the only way to develop a confident prose style. Mostly, I would try to imitate whatever I was reading at the time (usually, but not always, limited to prose).

Reading contemporary/modernist fiction has influenced the way I like to write, because long, flowery sentences—filled with em dashes, semicolons, all varieties of gratuitous punctuation—are always fun. Also, blogging. Writing for the internet is often a different genre of writing entirely, and it’s fun.

What is your preferred medium of literary expression (analytical writing, fiction, verse, creative nonfiction, blogging, tweeting, some admixture thereof…)? How would you describe your writing style?

Creative nonfiction (purposefully a hugely inclusive category) and blogging. In terms of blogging, my writing style is often snarky/referential/tongue-in-cheek. My analytical writing is often dense (but hopefully not at cost of clarity), occasional longwinded, well edited. I dunno. I think I’m also extremely interested in the role of place in writing and thinking generally (see: my summer project) and histories (personal histories, national histories) and the way they intertwine. (Again: see my summer project)

What is your background in reading? What sort of books do you read on a regular basis? Can you identify one or two books that loom large in the history of your personal development as a reader and/or a writer?

I read constantly as a kid, everything from Harry Potter and Roald Dahl to (eventually) Vonnegut and Jonathan Safran Foer and lots and lots of music criticism (and eventually started writing it myself for PopMatters). In terms of music criticism, I read Mark Prindle’s music reviews religiously for years, and honestly still do. My writing is never funny or irreverent in the way that Mark’s is, but there was a period when I tried to make it so.

Eventually I became very interested in twentieth-century American fiction and I took AP English Lit in high school with a fantastic English teacher, which probably had a large effect on my reading/writing. (That class was the first time I read Heart of Darkness and James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and Faulker and various other things.)

I don’t know how to answer “What sort of books do you read on a regular basis,” since it depends pretty much entirely on what classes I’m taking. So, presently, the answer would be a lot of scholarly books about twentieth-century American political history and conservative critiques and colonial history and American studies books and literary theory. I always read novels during breaks (especially when I haven’t been reading fiction in my classes). I also read a ton of internet writing (usually about music or film), but that’s the next question.

Books that loom large in my personal development as a reader and/or writer: in high school: Catcher in the Rye (lol), Giovanni’s Room, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Human Stain, Portnoy’s Complaint, Our Band Could Be Your Life

In college: The Conscience of a Conservative, The Brothers Karamazov, Lolita, White Noise, various existential texts (Sartre/Camus), various nonfiction pieces I read in Cliff Chase’s workshop.

How much time do you spend reading on the Internet? Can you see web based literary formats replacing physical texts altogether? What are the advantages to blogging and Internet writing?

A lot of time. Eventually, but not as soon as people might think. The main advantage to blogging and internet writing is that, in many cases, there’s no editor and there’s no middle man. Writers (and people/students/bloggers/anyone) have never been so empowered and have never had such easy access to the publishing sphere without going through the traditional venues. I think this has brought about an entirely new tone of writing in blogging, which manages to straddle the line between painfully irreverent and often profound. (See: Wesleying)

Has any particular kind of literature had a profound effect on the way you interpret the world? Have your academic interests or goals changed at all during the course of your undergraduate education as a result of something you’ve read (or written)?

Existential literature influenced the way I interpret the world in fairly notable ways. Most notably, Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism and Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. Certain political texts (Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative) have influenced the way I interpret contemporary politics. Some of the books we read in Susanne Fusso’s [19th-century Russian Novel] class blew my mind, but I’m not sure if they had a profound effect on how I interpret the world. Heavily satirical fiction (Waugh’s The Loved One, Amis’s Lucky Jim, anything by Vonnegut) influenced my writing a lot and turned me on to the possibilities of satire in literature.

Yes, my academic interests and goals have changed as a result of reading and writing about American history. I’ve become far more intrigued by the idea of graduate school/Ph.d programs/original historical research.

What, if anything, do you hope to do with writing in the future?

Either be an arts journalist/critic of some sort or a historian/professor. Maybe some combination of both. Making a living from writing is probably enough of a goal in and of itself.

What’s on your pleasure reading list semester? Are you looking forward to any book releases? If you feel the inclination, recommend a title that you’ve found particularly enjoyable or meaningful—what do you think we should be reading today?

I have copies of Another Country (Baldwin) and Underworld (DeLillo) that I’ve been meaning to read forever. Hopefully I’ll find time over winter break.

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