Interview with Corey Sobel

Editor-in-Chief Ryan Daar sat down with Corey Sobel, author of “Style” from The Columbia Review’s Spring 2021 issue. Corey’s debut novel, The Redshirt, was a finalist for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, winner of the Independent Publisher Gold Medal for LGBT+ Fiction, and one of NPR’s Favorite Books of 2020. Learn more about the novel and order it here. Corey is at work on his forthcoming novel, which centers on how a racial slur travels through a family.

RD: Thanks so much for sitting down with me, Corey. Congratulations on having your story “Style” published in The Columbia Review, and for winning the Spring 2021 Prose Prize awarded by Kate Zambreno.

CS: I’m honored.

RD: I want to talk to you about “Style,” but I’ll start by saying how much I liked The Redshirt. The story and the novel share a big question about representation, which, especially with Carl Nassib having just come out as the first openly gay active NFL player (apropos of a main plot point in The Redshirt), seems like a good place to start. Were questions of what it means to represent and to be represented part of your thinking when you were writing “Style”? The idea that you can be a stereotype and also work against stereotypes, that you can be compared to other writers while also representing yourself?

CS: “Representation” is obviously a flexible, many-tentacled idea. In the book, the concept relates to how much your public face represents whatever’s inside you; The Redshirt’s primary drama comes from how the main characters’ public representations are distortions, if not outright inversions, of their inner selves. With “Style,” it’s more a question of how one’s writing—and the recognition of one’s writing—corresponds to the author. In the story, a primary source of tension and ambiguity is that those things don’t—can never—comfortably align.

There’s a curious extra-textual layer to “Style,” which is that I started writing it when I was living in the literary wilderness, so to speak. No published fiction to my name—no guide, no map to show me the way out of that place. The story came from a bafflement about who I was as a writer, what it meant to be a writer. By the time I was finishing the story, I hadn’t necessarily landed on a solution to those quandaries, but I had gotten enough approval professionally to have a useful distance from that young-writer distress—to see how the story at heart is sort of a satire of our need to have a self (in the literary world, in the world at large) and how outer recognition does nothing to settle the core angst we’re all trudging through.

RD: I love that there is that obvious satire of having the main character dubbed “the failed short story writer,” but there’s also something deeply serious about it.

CS: Any satire worth its salt is very serious. Look at someone like Jonathan Swift: you will not find a more sincerely outraged person in the history of literature, and his sincerity drove him to depict this fatally disfigured world with accordingly deranged stories that are often laugh-out-loud hilarious. I don’t think I’m a particularly funny writer. If you were to have talked to me ten years ago, I would have said, “To be a satirist, you have to be funny.” But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned how satire can be used as a tool by the congenitally unfunny among us, as well. 

RD: In your defense, though, there’s something very funny about the form of the thing, with each snippet’s heading decreasing by number and having a sort of life’s countdown looming over this character. What other devices would you say give something lighthearted to this otherwise tragic figure?

CS: There was a lot of comedy to be mined from the basics of the literary world, whether it’s the failed short story writer’s titles—I had fun with the names of the collections—or the inherent ludicrousness of trying to rank literature. To put objective markers on what is supposed to be the most sacredly subjective form of expression we have is fundamentally funny, tragic, ridiculous. 

RD: One part I like especially is that his big breakthrough is getting published in Harper’s, another literary magazine. The story’s greatest irony is, in a way, that we’ve published it.

CS: If we want to get extra numinous, the number of sections corresponds precisely to the age I was when I finished the story… Less psychotically, the Review was a really nice fit, and for Kate to be the judge—there’s a weird kismet about that. This story, as well as my new book, both come from my increasing fascination with using fragments as a means to work away from linear narration. She’s been exploring that vein for a long time. With Drifts, fragments are the primary, brilliant organizing principle. 

RD: And it seems like you’re interested in a wide range of authors in general, which fits the idea of having a fragmented time structure. You seem to draw from a fragmented set of influences, almost. Who are some of your recent influences in the short-story genre?

CS: I do have a fragmented set of influences! I’m obsessed with James Kelman right now, who has a book called Greyhound for Breakfast that I think is one of the great story collections. Joy Williams is a hero of mine: I’m obsessed with Ninety-Nine Stories of God—and The Visiting Privilege is just a totem. Machado de Assis, Alan Sillitoe, Borges, Cather, Melville, Lucia Berlin. I really like James Alan McPherson, whose story collection Hue and Cry is extraordinary. Contemporary people: Rion Amilcar Scott writes really cool stuff, as do Deni Ellis Béchard, Helen DeWitt, Ha Jin, Jess Row… I can obviously go on and on, but I’ll just add that Peter Orner is an apotheosis, in terms of how every story of his cuts against your expectations of how short fiction works and what a story contains and what a story can lead the reader to experience. 

On this note, another thing I’ll say about writing “Style” is that the names of the great writers he gets compared to by the narrator changed over time. In the beginning, there were a lot of female writers and writers of color—a much wider range of comp authors. And as the story matured, I realized that it was in one sense about a very specific, very male, probably overwhelmingly white malady in the literary world. It was definitely weird to see all the stuff about Philip Roth’s biographer, Blake Bailey, develop just as this story was being accepted.

RD: Speaking of ironically hypermasculine writerly stereotypes: I never read reviews until I finish a book, but it was striking after I finished your novel to see front and center on the reviews something like “even David Foster Wallace would look down with approval.” It’s of course the name not to be named when you’re writing a book about sports—and not even an appropriate one for a book that explicitly sets out to challenge the toxicity of male athleticism. 

CS: Well, while I’ve never been entirely convinced by Wallace’s writing about the athletic life (like the tennis academy sections of Infinite Jest, and especially the football sections, which are close to dreadful), I don’t think there are many people who’ve written better about the act of watching sports. I think it’s fair to say he helped to change how sports are written from the fan’s perspective. Anyway, he’s probably less relevant to my book than he is to my story—and his relevance to my story is chiefly biographical, in that the vicissitudes of his literary reputation embody things I was trying to examine in “Style.” In some ways, the arc of his professional reputation is the photo negative of the failed short story writer’s. Wallace was this hot-shit young writer when he started out, had the Infinite Jest explosion, wrote increasingly difficult (and terrific) short fiction that got a lot less love, then he died in desolation. People canonized him, and you had this St. Dave reputation develop for a few years until folks learned his unsavory biographical details. Now, for some people he’s Public Enemy #1 as this kind of male chauvinist intellectual literary type.

Wallace’s professional trajectory—anybody’s artistic life, really—always provokes me into thinking about personality, and what we mean by that. I’m reading about John Cassavetes right now, and his whole project was to show that personality is not inherently stable, and that social mores condition our personalities into masks or postures that allow us to communicate with other people, to find a slot in society. And that if you were to strip away those buffers,  you would loose this intensely dynamic, volatile, unpredictable energy. With The Redshirt, I think I was really interested in how football in particular has a very limited personality or set of personalities you’re allowed to assume—that are approved of by the football community and its wider apparatus. “Choice” is a fraught word, but if you in any way choose to buck against those prescribed forms, football culture will reign you in, one way or another, and almost certainly at great cost to yourself. So the main driver of the book’s two primary characters is essentially the wages of bucking against what is expected of them—as far as behavior, desires, intellect. 

RD: And what’s defining them is so niche. It’s not like you’re writing a 19th-century youth-faces-the-world story. You have one character who’s dying to get into this tiny academic circle surrounding the archive of an enslaved Civil War–era poet (whom you modeled after George Moses Horton), and another who’s trying to make it into the college-football scene. And you know firsthand how insular the college-football community is! How has that shaped what you’ve described as a kind of personality mold?

CS: I grew up in a Midwestern family that valued football higher than anything else—and we were intensely Catholic, so that’s to say football was religion. It certainly was for me as a kid. As my faith started to waver in Catholicism, my faith in football only intensified. I moved around a lot growing up, and there was a decent amount of financial uncertainty for my family, so football was a baseline. Football was a world that promised, Here is a self that you can literally put on. Here is an extra 20 pounds of self that you can wear that’s so resilient you can run into other people with it. Whereas if you’re unpadded, you don’t have the same ability to collide with the world, so to speak. It was armor, and it was an easy and intuitive way for me to establish myself in whatever new town we moved to. I didn’t have to declaim an epic poem I’d written and hope that someone gave a shit; I didn’t have to be handsome or have a beautiful singing voice; I could be a football player and would have a built-in community wherever we ended up. That was vitally important for me for the first 16 years of my life and gave me purchasing power with my family, the towns we moved to. It also established my sense as a young man in this country. I felt like there was a place where I was visible, I counted, could be seen as worthwhile.

Then, as I turned 16, the bottom fell out for me with football—really, really suddenly. I found that that self was fitting more and more poorly. I started looking for the new thing that could give me meaning, and that turned out to be literature. I used the antipathy between the literary life and the football life as a way of understanding myself, who I was becoming, what I wanted and didn’t. It was shitty timing, because this was right when I was getting scholarship offers to play football in college. So, just when I was aching to leave football behind, I needed it more than ever. I had to stay in that world and play a game I was becoming viciously disillusioned by. That led to all manner of unhappiness by the time I arrived at Duke.

Another thing that matches the story with the novel is trying to examine this persistent need for ranking, for finding these external means to validate who we are or who we’re trying to be. That’s something that I as a person am saddled by, and it definitely drives my fiction.

RD: And how to escape that system of ranking altogether.

CS: And why we want to escape systems, especially when the systems are rewarding us. I’m really obsessed by people who are good at what they do and are miserable for being good at it.

RD: The grass always looks greener from the other side holds in The Redshirt, with these two characters seeing each other from opposite sides of the field. There’s a line at the end that’s something like, “I have what you want and you have what I want.” It’s not that they want to be more or less ranked, it’s that they want to be ranked on different schemes entirely.

CS: Yes. But they still want to be ranked. And that’s the disease I was infected with from an early age, that a lot of Americans are afflicted by. No matter how much work I’ve done to get away from toxic worlds, that desire to literally be counted remains an integral part of me, how I see the world, how I want to be celebrated. I’m constantly trying to find a way to free myself from that urge, and forever failing.