Andrew Sean Greer’s Pulitzer Prize-Winning Comedy Broke the Rules—He’s At it Again

From a New York Times story by Alexandra Alter headlined “His Prize-Winning Comedy Broke the Rules. He’s at It Again.”:

In the spring of 2018, the novelist Andrew Sean Greer was working as the director of a writers residency in Tuscany, where his unofficial duties included cleaning up after an incontinent pug. The pug belonged to his boss, a baronessa, and Greer felt the frequent messes had gotten out of hand.

“I decided we can’t have this happening at the dinner table,” Greer recounted recently at a coffee shop in the West Village. “Margaret Atwood is coming, and I was like, we can’t.”

Greer began dressing the dog in diapers, held in place with snazzy rainbow and rhinestone suspenders. One evening, after he had finished swaddling the pug, he got a barrage of congratulatory text messages, with emojis of fireworks and dancing ladies. Puzzled, Greer called a friend, the novelist Michael Chabon, who confirmed the news: Greer’s novel “Less” had won the Pulitzer Prize. “He was like, am I the person who’s telling you?” Greer recalled. (He was.)

The fact that Greer had just wrangled a pug into diapers made the life-altering news seem all the more surreal.

“Less” — a rollicking romantic comedy about a heartbroken novelist who goes on a journey around the world to avoid his ex-boyfriend’s wedding — was not a typical choice for the prize committee, which tends to favor dense novels with lofty themes. It’s a gay love story with a happy ending. It’s a book about a writer who struggles with his craft. It satirizes the literary world’s obsession with status, and even pokes fun at the sanctimony surrounding the Pulitzer. (In one scene, a renowned poet wins the award, then observes cynically that it’s not a real measure of talent: “The slots for winners are already set … They know the kind of poet who’s going to win.”)

Greer was, naturally, elated by the news, but also confounded: He never expected “Less” to reach a wide audience, because his previous five books hadn’t.

“I thought no one was going to read it, which was very liberating,” Greer said. “I put things in I thought no one would ever read, and it’s a little shocking now.”

Greer’s decades of relative obscurity are over. “Less” went on to sell more than a million copies, and Greer, 51, has written a hotly anticipated sequel, titled “Less is Lost,” which Little, Brown will release on Sept. 20. The sequel follows his hapless hero and alter-ego, the struggling novelist Arthur Less, as he takes a cross-country tour of the American South in a camper van with a pug named Dolly.

Calamity and hilarity ensue. He gets expelled from a commune after accidentally taking hallucinogens and flooding the place. He tries to blend in with the locals in alligator infested RV campsites and Southern dive bars by wearing a ball cap and sunglasses (the ruse fails; people assume he is from the Netherlands, i.e. gay). He is mistaken for another novelist named Arthur Less, who is Black, resulting in some exceedingly awkward mix-ups. In one of endless small humiliations, he grows a mustache, and no one notices.

Greer, who splits his time between San Francisco and Milan, had already started the sequel when “Less” won the Pulitzer. To research it, he rented an R.V. and drove across the South, with stops in Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia. Many of the scenes in the novel closely map Greer’s own misadventures. “I really did go to Walmart and buy wraparound glasses and a baseball cap, and everyone knew I was gay,” he said.

Readers who longed for more of Less will likely be satisfied by “Less is Lost.” The novel has been praised by writers including Marlon James, Katie Kitamura and David Sedaris, who called it “wildly, painfully, funny.” Publishers Weekly predicted that “fans will eat this up.”

Still, Greer is aware that some in the literary world might view his decision to write a sequel as uninspired — or worse, a crass money grab.

“My agent was like, You can’t write a sequel to a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, that’s just not seemly,” he said.

“Well, it isn’t!” Greer continued. “It’s weird. It was a one-off. It ends. I certainly didn’t think there was more to do. But I really wanted to write about America, and it was a really good way to do it.”

His agent, Lynn Nesbit, doesn’t recall expressing skepticism about the sequel, but said the conversation sounded plausible. “I can imagine myself doing it, because sequels are tricky, but ultimately I trust Andy,” she said. “He’s pretty serious about being funny.”

As it turns out, Greer is part of a small cohort of Pulitzer-winning writers who have recently written sequels and spinoffs of their award-winning novels, among them Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jennifer Egan and Elizabeth Strout. Besides, Greer argues, there are plenty of revered authors who wrote continuations of beloved works: “Updike and Roth and Richard Ford. Doris Lessing. Cervantes did it. Isn’t it OK?”

Greer’s literary success arrived suddenly, but hardly overnight. Growing up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where his parents worked as chemists, Greer started writing stories when he was 10. At 16, he wrote a novel, a Gothic ghost story, which he tried and failed to publish. When he was a creative writing major at Brown University, he came out as gay to his family. The revelation came as a surprise to no one — his parents had assumed he was gay since he was 4 — but his announcement did cause a stir, since it prompted his mother, Sandra, to come out as a lesbian.

After college, he moved to New York, where he lived in a fifth floor walk-up in the West Village and struggled to make money from writing, scraping by with gigs as a chauffeur, a restaurant receptionist and a television extra on Saturday Night Live. New York became financially untenable, so he moved to Missoula, Mont., where he got his M.F.A., then to Seattle, where he worked for Nintendo, which paid him to play video games and write columns for their magazine. In 1998, he moved to San Francisco, and found work as a paralegal and at a toy company, where he was tasked with naming new gadgets.

In his spare time, he wrote fiction. After years of rejections, he finally sold a story collection, then in 2001 published his debut novel, “The Path of Minor Planets,” which centers on a group of astronomers who meet every six years to observe a comet. When he released his second novel, “The Confessions of Max Tivoli,” a fantasy about a man who is born old and ages backward, in 2004, Greer seemed to be on the cusp of literary stardom. John Updike compared it to Proust and Nabokov; the Today Show picked it for their book club. But the spotlight was fleeting, and his next two novels sold modestly. He failed to earn advances back; foreign publishers dropped him.

Greer tried to reinvent himself with each book, experimenting with magical realism and fantasy. It was creatively fulfilling, he said, but perhaps not great for his brand.

“It was foolish in retrospect, because if people like your current book, they won’t like the next one,” he said. “I don’t think that worked so great. And then I wrote a comic novel, which I don’t think anybody wanted me to do.”

When Greer started writing “Less” in 2014, it began as a somber literary novel about a gay writer who is on the cusp of 50, walking aimlessly around San Francisco and reflecting on aging, mortality and his fear of irrelevance. But even Greer could scarcely bring himself to care about Less. “We were already in a phase where a middle-aged white gay man was clearly a person of privilege,” he said, “and he owns property in San Francisco.”

One morning, he was swimming in the bay with his friend Daniel Handler, the author of the Lemony Snicket books, when he hit on the solution: “I thought, what if I make fun of him instead?”

He reworked the novel into a comedy, piling major and minor indignities onto Less. Many of those moments were drawn loosely from Greer’s life, including the time a fellow writer accused him of being “a bad gay,” because his novels were insufficiently gay. In a metafictional twist, he made fun of his struggles with the novel. In one scene, Less is crushed when he describes the plot of his new book — “about a middle-aged gay man walking around San Francisco” contemplating “his sorrows”— to an acquaintance, who tells him it’s hard to care about a guy like that. “Even gay?” Less asks in desperation. “Even gay,” the woman replies.

Friends who have known Greer for decades felt it was only a matter of time before his sly, self-deprecating sense of humor wound up in his work.

“He’s so funny in person, I knew it was bound to end up on the page,” Handler said in an email.

Chabon, another close friend, was thrilled to see Greer celebrated for a novel that reflects his dry wit.

“I knew he could write in different registers and different modes, but we’d never seen him do that before,” he said. Chabon said he also was delighted that Greer had bypassed the unwritten rule that comic novels don’t get taken seriously.

In transforming the plot from a minor tragedy into a comedy, Greer found himself writing a joyful, exuberant story — a tone he’d never tried before, and one that’s rare in literary fiction, particularly in stories about gay people, he said.

“There’s a lot of sad books about being queer,” he said. “I thought I would really like one on my shelf that has some sense of joy in it.”

Success hasn’t made writing any easier. Greer is uncomfortably aware that a lot of people will likely read his new novel, and that many will compare it to its prizewinning predecessor. “It’s harder to follow that instinct of, ‘Who cares, no one will look at this, I can put in something dirty, or a secret,’” he said.

Greer harbored his own doubts about the sequel, which is a standard stage of his painful, messy creative process. When asked how he overcame those hurdles, he resorted again to self-effacement.

“The usual way,” he said cheerfully. “Nervous breakdowns and moments of grandiosity, alternating.”

Alexandra Alter writes about publishing and the literary world. Before joining The Times in 2014, she covered books and culture for The Wall Street Journal. Prior to that, she reported on religion, and the occasional hurricane, for The Miami Herald.

Speak Your Mind