J. A. Bernstein’s forthcoming novel, Rachel’s Tomb (New Issues 2019), won the AWP Award Series, Hackney, and Knut House Prizes, and his forthcoming story collection, Stick-Light (Eyewear 2019), was a finalist for the Robert C. Jones and Beverly Prizes. His work has appeared in Shenandoah, Boston Review, Kenyon Review Online, Tampa Review, Tin House (web), Chicago Quarterly Review, and other journals, and won Crab Orchard Review’s John Gunyon Prize in Nonfiction. A Chicago-native, he is the fiction editor of Tikkun and, starting this August, an assistant professor in the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi.
Q: You told me that, “like a lot of writers,” you’d prefer not to discuss your own writing. Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?
My sense is that a piece of creative writing should be able to stand on its own. That doesn’t mean context or intention are unimportant, or that criticism shouldn’t exist (well, it depends on who’s writing it). I’m also not averse to discussing craft. But my instinct is that if an author needs to start explaining her work, or clarifying it for readers, then the work itself probably needs revisiting.
Q: What happens when somebody “doesn’t get” something you’ve written?
In an ideal world, I’d have them shipped to Siberia.
Q: What do you see as the relationship between literature and advocacy?
This is a great question—and please excuse my pert response to the last one. This is also a question that I’m sure I, and virtually any writer who’s alive today, ponder continually. Let me simply say this: when I was in graduate school, I remember a literature professor I admired, Terrence Whalen, telling a group of students that Melville’s politics were inscrutable. “Let that be a lesson to all you creative writers,” he joked. And I think there was truth in that. The best works of art, regardless of their commitment, seem to evade scrutiny or any quick encapsulation.