On “Meting Out Intimacy:” A Conversation with Lucas Mann

Interview conducted by: Ruby Al-Qasem

In Lucas Mann’s newest book, Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV (2018), he writes, “Lately I can’t stand a narrator who isn’t confessing to something. I think that if it doesn’t feel, even just for a moment, like a secret joy or burden to unload, then why say it?” I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Mann to discuss Captive Audience, the convergence (or contradiction) of vulnerability and artistry in the creative nonfiction genre, and what it means to be a writer and teacher in a time when performance and reality can sometimes seem indistinct.

As any reader of Mann’s books would expect, he’s thoughtful, whip-smart, open, and empathetic. We chatted for about half an hour, and although this interview has been edited for clarity and length, I’ve tried to honor his voice, and the intimacy he offered me.

Ruby Al-Qasem: I was reading your Chicago Review of Books interview with Pierce Smith, and you mentioned an “economy of authenticity.” In Captive Audience, you’re extending the conversation from reality TV, social media, and those kinds of performance to the attempts at authenticity and the necessary gaps in authenticity when we’re in a room with another person, even when it’s our spouse. What do you think is the effect that the reality TV phenomenon has had on creative nonfiction writing as a genre?

Lucas Mann: I do think that the book is trying to engage with parallels in conversations about memoir or creative nonfiction in general, and conversations about reality TV. But…one thing I think is really interesting is that it’s easy to malign the genres and therefore malign the practitioners of the genres, when often I think what is actually happening is the expectation that an audience is being led to have of the form or wants to have out of the form.

I feel like so many of what I have read and loved that are called “memoirs” succeed, for me, almost for the opposite reasons that they are billed to mean something to people. And so it almost feels like there are totally contradictory conversations being had between writers and readers, or writers and then publishers, being sold to the readers. And that’s really, really strange.

I think that there is such anxiety about creative nonfiction writing, and what it’s supposed to do, and how you should feel about doing it, and how you should feel about consuming it, that seems to be entirely taken from and informed by a larger cultural conversation about, you know, torture porn and grief porn and authenticity versus arts, and, “God, people nowadays just show you everything, and that’s supposed to be enough.” So it seems like it’s so hard to have a conversation about the genre or work in the genre without absorbing these anxieties and shames that seem to be coming from the larger context that the genre has been put into, or is working alongside of, so it’s really hard for me to separate those things. And I think that that kind of does a disservice to the genre. I think it’s very weird.

I’ve written three books that have to varying degrees been called memoirs, and it has been a conversation every time about whether or not I should want to saddle it with that [label], or I’ve had people say, like, not that it’s bad word, right? Not that it’s bad! A