Lethem is interested in the politics of enthusiasm—why the roots of our likes are so deeply buried, sometimes, that even we can’t unearth them; why we so often feel the need to apologize for the obscure objects of our affections or to defend them to the death or to do both in the same breath. He’s curious, too, about how affinities become obsessions. And, geeky autodidact that he is—did I mention that Lethem is both a college drop-out and a recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award?—he’s a staunch believer in individual canons over official notions of Great Books, in the crap artist hip-deep in the culture around him over the lone genius cloistered in his garret.
“People…throw me questions that dare me to defend a love of pop culture, and I realized I stopped wanting to because the premise of the question contained so much self-loathing,” he told an interviewer for the website Big Think. “It was generally being asked by people who loved a lot of those things that they thought fit inside the container of that name but didn’t feel good about loving those things so they were simultaneously hoping I would make them feel better about what they liked and daring me to make an ass of myself defending things that at some other level of their being they thought were indefensible—bad, ephemeral, crappy commercial culture. And I started to say I don’t want to defend pop culture; I don’t even want to talk about things according to the assumptions that nest in that taken-for-granted term. What I’m responsive to…is vernacular culture.”
By “vernacular culture,” Lethem means “things like the hip-hop culture that I documented in part in Fortress of Solitude, the indigenous urban scrawlings on the wall and chanting rhymes over records in schoolyards”—forms of popular expression that don’t even bother to think of themselves as art, most of the time, but are nonetheless “a way to blurt something back at this world that’s so loud and full of stuff, noise, art, and commercials, and junk and argument. They’re sort of like making some argument back: ‘Here’s something!’ I like that. That’s vernacular culture, to me.”