I first got word of Rebekah Frumkin a few years back, when I came across three of her humor pieces on McSweeney’s, including Socrates and Glaucon on the Home Shopping Network (the most brilliant, laser-like piece of McSweeney’s humor I’ve ever seen) and Ulysses Sells Out. After reading all her pieces, I tore off my glasses to make a cinematic pronouncement: “By God, she is The One: the creator of the greatest 3 consecutive short humor pieces of all time.” I decided I had to find out who this brilliantly funny Rebekah Frumkin was. I hit Google with gumshoe determination. But I couldn’t find anything on her outside of those three pieces (along with another funny piece for The Rumpus).
Fast forward to August of 2014: While re-reading her Socrates and Glaucon piece, I searched for her name on Twitter, and there she was. I tweeted at her. It felt like I was shouting at a unicorn— surely, she would not even turn her head toward my tweets, let alone grant me an interview. But then she did grant me an interview, because she’s actually really cool. We talked about things. It turns out she’s accomplished a lot since writing those three pieces for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, including admission to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, a piece in GRANTA, and a fellowship to birth her baby: her first novel.
Jason Harrington: So, your Socrates and Glaucon piece: as you know, I admire that as humor perfection. As you were writing that, did you realize, “Gee, I sure am writing one of the funnier short pieces the world will ever see right now”? If you look at the bottom of that article you’ll see it’s been shared over 3,000 times on Facebook. And it was posted before McSweeney’s was even promoting much on Facebook.
Rebekah Frumkin: It’s been shared 3,000 times?! Wow. I didn’t know that. I know it was included in the Best of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency anthology. I had to write a bio for that, which ended up being factually inaccurate.
JH: Factually inaccurate? How so?
RF: Well, the bio wasn’t factually inaccurate at the time. It said I was living with my boyfriend, “a ginger geologist whose ambivalence about being featured in this bio Rebekah Frumkin has ignored.” And it was true that he was a ginger and that I was living with him, and it was at least semi-true that he was a geologist. Maybe truest of all is the fact that I shouldn’t have ignored his ambivalence. Featuring someone in a bio like that is a little hubristic since bios are supposed to contain facts about you, and the ever-presence of this dude was a fiction I mistook for a fact. Just because someone else’s over-mortgaged PS4 is in your apartment, doesn’t make that person a healthy candidate to build a life with. (I’m aware of the dangling participle there and I’m ignoring it.)
Author bios are frustrating because they’re a necessary annoyance. You have to dedicate ink to them even though nobody reads them. That’s not true, actually– other authors read them. And then they do a Keeping Up with the Joneses-type of thing: who’s published more than me, how much younger than me are the other contributors, and so on. And there’s no way to opt out. Like even if someone looks like they’re opting out (viz. “Tim is a writer living in Ohio”) they’re still opting in. Here are the three types of author bios and their consequences:
- The Whimsy Bio
Joann was birthed by a shark and she never quite got over it. Now she’s her own kind of remora at Maple Leaf Press, where she’s the head honcho and literary taskmaster. Her work has appeared in PANK three times. She lives with her dog and two husbands in Brooklyn.
This bio is so goddamn irritating for obvious reasons. We get it — you’re a writer, you make connections other people don’t, you think in metaphor, you were a loner in high school, etc. We’re writers, too. None of us chose to be this way.
- The Minimalist Bio
Tim is a writer living in Ohio.
Yeah OK, Tim. You’re a writer living in Ohio and your short story was just picked by Alice Munro to be in the Best American Short Stories. We know you’re more than a writer living in Ohio– we know at the very least that you’re a successful writer living in Ohio. But to what extent are you successful? Better Google you and find out…you Guggenheim Fellow, you.
- The Dry Brag Bio (aka The Average Bio)
Noyces’s work has appeared in Tin House, OneStory, and PANK. She edits For Your Health magazine and lives with her partner and two parakeets in Ann Arbor, where she is a member of the English faculty at the University of Michigan.
Typical bio here: this is the one place where it’s socially acceptable to list your accomplishments without having to self-deprecate in order to pad others’ egos. The downside is that this is the one place where it’s socially acceptable for other people to list their accomplishments without self-deprecating in order to pad your ego.
My McSweeney’s bio was a combination of the Whimsy and the Dry Brag, which is probably why it was so horrible. I thought I had things together for the first time in my adult life and for some reason wanted that to be reflected in an author bio. Good thing no one reads those things.
JH: Speaking of McSweeney’s and your hilariousness: How did you come up with the piece that inspired me to hunt you down, “Socrates and Glaucon on the Home Shopping Network”?
RF: It was my junior year of college and my friend Andreas and I had a radio show called Damn Good Coffee (after Agent Cooper’s assessment of the fare at the Double R Diner in “Twin Peaks”). We took our work as talking heads very seriously: we had a prime time slot and we thought we knew everything about movies (actually Andreas really does know everything about movies), and we’d usually have stuff scheduled to talk about — viz. tonight is Showgirls night, or tomorrow is Tarkovsky night. The usual liberal arts fare. And then one night we didn’t have anything planned at all — it was probably around finals time — so we just went on and played infomercials for an hour and talked about them.
JH: None of my humor pieces have anything this interesting behind them. I hate my life.
RF: I wouldn’t call it interesting. I’d called it being stoned and doing college radio. I was a philosophy major and we were reading the Socratic dialogues and it occurred to me that the call and response faux “dialogue” in an infomercial resembles a Socratic dialogue, like you’re being prodded into knowledge of a thing Socrates already knows. I mean, does Socrates actually teach Meno’s slave anything?
JH: It’s the perfect premise.
RF: He’s just like: hey, you little tool! Understand geometry! Repeat after me! And the whole point of daytime TV advertising is that you’re an idiot about something incredibly basic, and you need your hand held, and once you’ve had your hand held you’re prepared to make the purchase you’ve been destined to make all along.
JH: “How do I remove my frying pan from the stove without being burned?”
RF: Exactly! “Given what you already know, wouldn’t this product be an easier and much more efficient solution to the problem than just doing it on your own?”
JH: So you sat down and made Socrates a mop salesman.
RF: I did. I wrote it up really quickly and gave it to Andreas to read.
JH: I assume Andreas thought it was fucking hilarious.
RF: Yes. I hadn’t had anything in McSweeney’s for a long time. Like I’d been getting rejected from them for about a year. I was submitting kind of sporadically and was just in a bit of a rut so I figured I’d lay low for a while. But when I wrote “Socrates and Glaucon” I sent it off with the confidence of a straight white male novelist. I was very Updikean about it. Like: “I know this shit is good. Just lemme know when you’ll publish it.”
JH: You didn’t really write that, did you?
RF: No of course not.
JH: I’m very gullible.
RF: That’s cool.
JH: Did the editor say “This is brilliant” when he read “Socrates and Glaucon”?
RF: Yeah, I did get a very sweet email back from him, very excited to publish it. I remember he really wanted me to add the SprayOnHair thing at the end.
JH: SprayOnHair was a good editorial suggestion there, I have to say.
RF: It was. And I wasn’t about to be a purist about the piece’s content, insisting that the delicate comic balance would be ruined by the addition of another joke or something absurd like that. What a weird fight that would’ve been to pick. I was just like, what the hell, seems funny enough, let’s do it. That ease of collaboration either makes me lazy or a born TV writer or both. I’m glad it ended up in there.
JH: How many times were you rejected by McSweeney’s? Their rejection rate really is daunting. No matter how experienced or published you may be, you’re going to get rejected when you step to McSweeney’s, for the most part.
RF: It feels like I’ve been rejected at least six times, if not more. I’ve only had three pieces on there and didn’t try much after the third, so the rejection-to-acceptance ratio is probably sitting at a cool 3:1.
JH: That’s an extraordinary ratio. Usually it’s more like 15:1. So how did the submission process go for “Monster,” the story you had in Best American Nonrequired Reading?
RF: “Monster” I had published in Post Road first. I did the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio when I was sixteen and saw that they had copies of Post Road. The covers were glossy, so I figured that was a fancy magazine. A while later I wrote a story, “Monster,” about a young boy who is terrorized by an imaginary panther. I published that story in Post Road. And sometime in 2008 I came across the blog that 826 Valencia runs, where they post what they’re reading for the next BANR — like the teenaged editorial staff posts stuff — and my story was listed there, so it was sheer luck that that happened. I guess someone got their hands on that particular issue of Post Road and the luck just snowballed from there.
JH: You had to have been through the roof when you got word you were going to be in Best American Nonrequired Reading.
RF: I screamed, yeah. I was in my parents’ house. My dad almost keeled over from fear.
These are diagrams of ancient Roman aqueducts. I always wanted to put a photo in this interview, something real classy-like, yet fitting. This is the best I could do. Please don’t tell Rebekah about this; I have a feeling she would disapprove of this as a sort of “Whimsy Caption,” similar to the Whimsy Bio mentioned above. I personally think this provides a nice intermission. Rebekah, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.
JH: So what path did your academic career take? You were a philosophy major in undergrad, right?
RF: I went to Carleton College, which was a way of rebelling against my dad, who wanted me to go to Princeton. I thought I was being so subversive but I was really just going from a well known and older country club to a less well known midwestern country club. Which isn’t to say Carleton isn’t wonderful— I had a great time there. It was a nice starter experience in terms of life experiences. I majored in philosophy because I found English boring—I still do. In undergrad I did a bunch of mathematical logic and philosophy of language. Then I took a class on Hannah Arendt my junior year and that sort of fixed my perspective in many of the ways it needed fixing. I switched to Continental philosophy after that and began to invest more time in the Greeks as well. Still a largely Western focus, which was a shame.
JH: After that you went on to an MFA in creative writing?
RF: Straight out of undergrad, which was a dumb idea — too soon. Take a gap year, kids! Figure yourself out before committing to grad school. But yes, I did fiction writing at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop.
JH: What was Iowa like?
RF: The Workshop treated me very well. I found friends and found readers in my workshops, which was nice. It’s not a factory, not an assembly line. The rumors that we all write the same aren’t true.
JH: I kind of figured the old rumors about writing the same were false, Raymond Carver or whatever.
RF: Yeah Raymond Carver isn’t even Raymond Carver without Gordon Lish, and Lish didn’t go to the Workshop.
JH: So, was two years enough for the MFA program?
RF: Yeah, it definitely was for me. I wanted to keep on teaching but they found me more deserving of this fellowship. That sounds like I’m complaining, and I’m not — I’m just a terminal extrovert and will struggle to accomplish anything if I’m not constantly interacting with people. I’ll have to set up a lemonade stand or something. I’ll need to get the zoning permit for that first.
One of the very helpful things the MFA taught me is that taking a zero sum game approach to your career can be damaging. I saw some people get really bent out of shape from doing that. I think we all know better than to do it, but we all end up doing it to some degree. It’s the Whimsy Bio vs. the Dry Bio vs. the Minimalist Bio all over again: who’s younger/more successful/more talented/better funded? And once that person is identified, their existence somehow precludes your own success. That’s absurd on so many levels. It distracts from the writing, of course, but it also presumes that the literary community’s potential for pettiness is something the average human doesn’t need a microscope to see. Because when you think about it— like when you take an aerial view — nobody really cares about what we’re doing. Nobody knows what an MFA program is, let alone what kind of funding packages we got. If I asked my uncle what a Teaching Writing Fellowship is or what it means to have Andrew Wiley as your agent, he’d stare at me blankly. My uncle would find this insider info about as boring as the book written to gain insider acclaim.
The way I see it, writers should strive to make themselves relevant to my uncle, all laurels be damned. I care that people who live in Milwaukee or Fresno who don’t follow the Times Book Review are interested in something I wrote. Which is actually why I’m so attracted to TV as a medium. Have you read Super Sad True Love Story?
JH: Years ago I did. I remember the protagonist cooks squash for his girlfriend.
RF: Yep. That book is for me the (super sexist, super racist) exemplar of this really contemptuous attitude many novelists seem to have towards their (would-be) readers. Like “Oh boohoo everyone uses mobile devices and watches reality TV and nobody cares about books. I have such contempt for these plebes, and I wish they would take interest in my desperate plot to seduce this Asian teenager.” I really don’t understand why writers feel it necessary to demonize technology — it’s here to stay. Get used to it.
JH: What’s your novel about? Let’s get into awesome things.
RF: Well OK. The novel is basically about an inter-generational war among a father and two sons. The father is a megalomaniac Baby Boomer who loves coke and hates his older son, who in turn hates the younger son. There’s a fight for the father’s inheritance that lasts the duration of the book. It could even be described as the novel’s framing device.
JH: I would read it already.
RF: And everyone associated with the two sons gets sucked into the battle. I had a piece in GRANTA called “The Glitch,” which is about the younger son’s best friend realizing that he (the best friend) is gay.
JH: What’s your writing process like?
RF: My writing process involves a lot of inertia and self-loathing.
JH: Writing is fucking painful as hell, often. Decision making, especially.
RF: Well and especially when you’re in some sterile environment where everyone’s writing. Like when you’re in a “community of writers.” That was my biggest problem with writing in Iowa. Like if I were a plumber I don’t think I’d want to be in a community of plumbers. I don’t think I’d want to listen to other plumbers saying things like, “This is how I regrout tile…your way seems a little unorthodox, and I’m not convinced you can pull it off.” And then I have to go home and try to regrout my tile, unsure of my own regrouting methods because now I’m overthinking them. And even after I’m done regrouting I’m haunted by thoughts of “Oh no…did I regrout that right? What will the other plumbers say?” That’d be a drag. Who wants to be thinking about plumbing all the time? I’d want a life outside my plumbing.
JH: Who are your biggest influences? Biggest influences on the novel you’re writing right now?
RF: My biggest influences in order of importance are: 1) Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim of Tim and Eric: Awesome Show, Great Job! And now I’m going to do individual works: 2) Hannah Arendt’s “Isak Dinesen” from Men in Dark Times. 3) Moby Dick. 4) The Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon.
JH: That’s awesome that you have a TV show up top like that.
RF: It used to be The Simpsons, but my comedic sensibilities have shifted. Certain Simpsons episodes still rank: “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk,” (that should actually be “Burns verkauft das Kraftwerk” — I’m shocked all those former Harvard Lampoon dudes didn’t care about correct German), “Deep Space Homer,” “Marge on the Lam.” I really like Thelma and Louise, by the way, speaking of “Marge on the Lam.”
Anyway, TV’s a valid medium. I proclaim it. I’m so tired of the lowbrow/middlebrow/highbrow distinction. Good god. Parks and Rec has gotten me through some difficult times. I made my students watch Twin Peaks, Freaks and Geeks, and My So Called Life. Watch hours of TV — you’ll learn something. People who still use phrases like “boob tube” need to get over themselves. And realize that they sound like Norman Mailer.
JH: So I read a piece by Cynthia Ozick the other day that I really loved, “A Drugstore in Winter.” This is a segue, I promise. Ozick was one of David Foster Wallace’s influences. What’s your relationship with DFW?
JH: You and DFW were both philosophy majors, of course, and your piece in Best American Nonrequired Reading was right next to Franzen’s eulogy for DFW. I would imagine you’ve thought about DFW to some degree, here and there.
RF: Definitely. My relationship with DFW is like…OK, I got really into him, I published an essay on him that got circulated a little, I read nearly all of his stuff and could quote him from memory, etc. To this day I maintain that he was a brilliant writer and a man in an unholy amount of psychic pain, and that his death was a tragedy. I actually corresponded with Franzen about him. Like I got the BANR editor for the 2009 edition to courier a letter to Franzen, who actually emailed me back. (I tell this story a lot, so sorry to everyone who’s hearing this for the umpteenth time.) I mean I can only assume it was Franzen who emailed me back — maybe it was his publicist. In the email he was like, “Hey nice panther story. You have x, y, z in common with Dave,” (I’d told him about how I liked DFW because of his philosophy background, etc.) “but your writing doesn’t have his boy-effulgence, and presumably you’re not as mentally unwell.” Which was such a blow to my fragile young ego. I’ve spent the years since trying my hardest to be more boy-effulgent and mentally unwell. But there’s a glass ceiling there that I just can’t seem to break through.
But in all seriousness, I grew out of the DFW thing. I still feel a little bonded in having done the same kind of philosophy as him – philosophy of language and math stuff. Wittgenstein, Kripke, Frege, Gödel. If you read the Broom of the System, much of the novel toys with individual perceptions of the external world’s (non)existence. Characters want to be reassured that there’s no private language, which is something Wittgenstein’s already proven.
JH: Never read Broom of the System. I’m slowly reading Pale King right now, because I want to see how Wallace dealt with the IRS.
RF: I think he took a lot of classes on tax code to write that.
JH: What the fuck exactly is boy-effulgence? I mean I know what the words mean separately, but…
RF: I don’t know. I think it means…well okay I do know. It’s very “Look at me! I’m a boy genius and I have amazing ideas and so much potential and I flinch at even the smallest hint of constructive criticism!” The fact of the matter is that if you’re a straight white cisgender dude, you receive on average more green lights than most other people. You get away with more, you get double the accolades for half the work, etc. And but so Wallace’s writing is at its best quite effulgent: it’s brilliantly free-associative, breathtakingly accurate, humorously hyperbolic, and very inviting. But absent is an element of self-interpretive restraint that might characterize the writing of someone who’s been pigeonholed by their non-dominant gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. So Wallace gets to be however he wants to be because his way of being is our culture’s default way of being. You turn the spigot and he’s ON, no filter.
Anyone can be effulgent, but only boys like Wallace really get to be effulgent. It’s the same thing with Joyce, and I’ve spent many years of my life studying him. It’s a kind of hypermasculine literary entitlement that, once you recognize it, you start seeing everywhere.
I’m going to make girl-effulgence a thing. You hear me, Franzen?
JH: Every now and then I’ll see someone online railing against some myth that “women aren’t funny,” which I’ve never understood, because (maybe by coincidence) most of the funniest people I’ve known throughout my life have been females. And as you know, I feel that you’re one of the funniest writers out there. Have you ever come across the “Women aren’t funny” myth, and do you have any thoughts on that?
RF: Ah, the funny women thing. That mostly comes from this: In 2007 Christopher Hitchens, who was a steaming pile of socially conservative punditry and sometimes-Marxist, wrote this article, which kindly explained to those curious why women aren’t funny, why we can never be funny. The article — which I really don’t care to read again — did that whole super sexist mansplaining thing.
JH: Shit, that’s right, now I remember. That Hitchens article really did kick off that whole “debate”/controversy thing.
RF: Yep! And so you know the old misogynistic trick that’s like “men rule the world, but women REALLY rule the world, because they’re the ones who can seduce men with their sexy little bodies”?
RF: Like, “You as the woman have ultimate power in your home, because you’re the one who LETS the man have the power”?
JH: I do. I feel like you’re Socrates right now
RF: Ha. Well that’s more or less what that article is. You’ve learned well, Glaucon. You already know these things.
Rebekah Frumkin is a writer living in the Midwest. This is a Minimalist Bio.