A Book About Writers That Even Civilians Can Enjoy

Ben Lerner's 10:04 is about a writer writing about being a writer writing. So what makes it so good?

Ben Lerner (Credit: Matt Lerner)

The narrator of Ben Lerner’s latest novel, 10:04, is not given a name, but I never thought of him as anything other than “Ben.” He is a writer who has published a successful debut novel (Leaving the Atocha Station, perhaps?) and is working on his much anticipated followup. During this process, he publishes a short story in The New Yorker, based on real events with a few changed names, which is eerily similar (read: word for word identical) to the story the real Ben Lerner published in The New Yorker two years ago.

I saw parallels to the fictionalized versions of Chris Kraus and Sheila Heti created in their respective novels, I Love Dick and How Should a Person Be?. When I saw that the New York Times review had made those same comparisons, I felt, at first, a kind of smug self-satisfaction, as if I’d given the answer my lit teacher was looking for, followed by sheepishness. My principle literary references are go-to names for certain people in certain circles, which makes me feel like I’m caught up in some kind of circle jerk. But I really did like I Love Dick and How Should a Person Be?, and I do like 10:04, because “Chris,” “Sheila,” and “Ben” are compelling characters, and because once you strip away the formal tricks, you find ideas worth exploring.

Lerner is a writer writing about writing, his writing, the process of writing, and being a writer. The parts of the book in which he is neither writing nor thinking about writing serve to illustrate some larger point that will eventually make its way into his writing. He is a good writer, but the reason 10:04 has been receiving so much buzz, from both mainstream publications and niche literary sites, is because the critics themselves are writers, and Lerner’s book is a book for writers.

To call someone a “writer’s writer” sounds obnoxious, as in, “This book isn’t for civilian eyes. You have to be one of us to get it.” I know a better word for people who think this way: assholes.You don’t have to be a writer to understand or enjoy Lerner’s book, the way you don’t have to be a comedian to appreciate Seinfeld and the variations of nothingness that each episode is based on. Lerner does what so many writers strive for, what Heti and Kraus also managed with their books: turn the mundanity of everyday living into something interesting and meaningful, while showing their work. Yes, the novel is indulgent, but in a way that is profound and worthy of attention.

When NYRB rereleased Renata Adler’s Speedboat—her 1976 debut novel about journalist Jen Fain—last year, it was passed around, quoted and Tumbl’d by my peers, who regarded it as a collection of truthbombs. “That ‘writers write’ is meant to be self-evident,” went one particularly popular passage. “People like to say it. I find it is hardly ever true. Writers drink. Writers rant. Writers phone. Writers sleep. I have met very few writers who write at all.” (“She forgot to add, ‘Writers Snapchat,’” said my friend Haley, one of the most prolific and talented writers I know who can rant, phone, and drink with the best of them.) Adler’s style is much sharper than Lerner’s—every point she lands feels like a punchline, whereas Lerner, for all his cleverness, likes to linger—but like him, she writes about the process of writing, in both micro and macrocosm.

Books about writers, as with art about artists, are always lingering at the edge of insufferable. The ones who keep on the right side do so by looking beyond themselves—by making outsiders give a shit. 10:04 is about a man trying to create something, contemplating fatherhood in a way similar to the way he contemplates his career, wanting to put something into the world that he can stand behind. “Ben’s” tangents speak to an anxiety that goes beyond book advances and arguments with editors, having more to do with taking ownership of something tangible in a world where so much is fleeting. I liked it as a writer, but loved it as a reader.

10:04 is not a book for everyone, because such a book doesn’t exist. It is, however, a book for more than just a select few literary Brooklyn dwellers with Strand tote bags and an encyclopedic knowledge of experimental small press publications (not that I don’t know those people, love those people, am those people). Writers like to write about themselves, and they like to read about themselves, the same way everyone likes to talk and hear about themselves. They just get more opportunities to do so.