The author is a fascinating figure. Master of words, spinster of storytelling: the author incites our deepest curiousity into their world whether they welcome it or not.
Despite the common tendency for writers to want to separate creator from creation, readers have always wanted to inscribe meaning from an author’s life into their reading of a text. Whether it be a human impulse for context, or an impatient desire to get to the ‘core’ of a book’s message, the author is more often than not a deeply interesting subject of readership.
Roland Barthes declared ‘The Death of the Author’ in 1967; a call to stop using aspects of an author’s identity as means to interpret their work. In some cases, this principle has remained to this day. International superstar Elena Ferrante famously conceals her identity – a grand token of artistic integrity given the innumerable opportunities for surveillance in the twenty-first century.
However, consumerism has advanced rapidly since Barthes’ time of writing. Nowadays, the internet can provide an immediate conclusion to any inkling of curiousity a user might have. Such consumers are now habituated to instant information and a constant revelation of the self from private interiority to public performance.
Readers will now rarely ponder over Barthes’ prescribed deliberation over the text as distinct from the author, but rather much more likely demand an accessible, even invasive insight into the master behind the masterpiece.
In catering to this exact tendency, Brad Listi’s popular podcast OTHERPPL brings American literature to the forefront of contemporary culture. Using a colloquial tone and an unusual aversion to editing, Listi’s podcast provides an unfiltered insight into the making of top contemporary writing. Guests include George Saunders, Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Bret Easton Ellis, Viet Than Nguyen and Ottessa Moshfegh.
Listi has no agenda in the episodes, nor a desire to go deep enough into ideological debate about his given writer’s work to alienate any listeners. Rather, listening to OTHERPPL is like eavesdropping on a conversation in a bar between Listi and his guest writer. This hypothetical situation is surely one in which every one of Listi’s writerly listeners would dream of (who doesn’t want to meet an amazing writer?), so the podcast appeals to his audience’s desire to know the author as intimately as possible.
Take a recent episode in 2020 with Leigh Stein as an example. (With a weekly output for almost a decade, Listi boasts a vast collection of 670 episodes – and counting – to choose from).
Stein had previously appeared on the OTHERPPL podcast twice before: first in 2012, and again in 2016. During these earlier years, she was the executive director of a feminist literary non-profit named Out of the Binder. The organisation is dedicated to advancing the careers of female-identifying writers, teaching them tools for empowerment and ways to navigate opportunities for work. Yet, by the time it was her third appearance on the OTHERPPL podcast, Stein had left the organisation, left the private Facebook community of 40,000 writers she had moderated, and quit Facebook altogether. She had also recently written a satirical novel, SELF CARE, which is very heavily based on her own experiences with Out of the Binder (as Stein herself explains). SELF CARE is about how a female-driven wellness start-up crumbles under the narcissism of the social media era; an exposé into the “world behind the filter”.
This particular example perfectly illustrates OTHERPPL's success. Not only can we as listeners hear an extended explanation to the meaning behind Stein’s new novel, but we can also listen to her back in 2012 and 2016 as she enacts the very subject of her satire. We do not even need to strain our minds to imagine the person Stein might have been, the person she is parodying in SELF CARE, because the material is already readily available, entirely unrestricted in access.
Stein’s inspiration, autobiographical origins and social and cultural context is laid bare for the reader to absorb, no longer a mysterious enigma to decode through an attentive reading of the book. By producing a huge volume of content over the last ten years – even interviewing the same writer three times – Brad Listi has created the perfect conditions for the twenty-first century reader: our insatiable in appetite for the authorial ‘self’.
A traditional perspective might see the accompaniment of literature with hours of unfiltered content about the writer as cheapening the reading experience. Roland Barthes would surely be rolling in his grave knowing that such a thing is possible, let alone popular.
Yet, given that readers are also consumers of other more instantaneous medium such as social media and television, and that the boundaries between our consumption of books and other entertainment forms are disintegrating, OTHERPPL works at a piercingly current level in the literary marketplace. Not only are Brad Listi’s guests given exposure to his large and loyal writerly audience, but the podcast at large points towards a direction in which the literary industry is likely to follow. Content is king, yes, but it must be endless, exposing, and always, always available.