By Jeffrey Burnop


The Montréal Review, January 2024



Jeffrey Burnop: I want to start by asking you about the relation between academic and creative writing. You are a scholar and a novelist, a critic and a poet -- and also, if I'm not mistaken, a lyricist and musician. And while it was once common for writers to cross and blend genres, it's rare today, especially in the academy, to find authors willing to attempt so many different modes of artistic expression. Why do you think so few contemporary writers strive for the kind of versatility once celebrated among the great authors of the past? 

Lee Oser: The answer is specialization. Promising students learn to specialize on social media by the age of six. It's how they learn to see themselves and their world. All these Tik-Tok accounts, Facebook accounts, Twitter accounts: they are digital dossiers and forms of accreditation. That's why there are suddenly so many sexual identities: specialization. By the same token, to write a novel or a poem nowadays you need a degree to insure your brand. My senior thesis advisor at Reed College was a guy named Thomas Gilchrist whose terminal degree was a Master's from Duke. A very learned man. That kind of thing is over. Colleges need a lot of PhDs on their faculty: it shows how professional they are, in essence, how properly corporate. All the "grievance studies" people--that class of arrivistes who wouldn't know Herman Melville from Alfred E. Neuman, who flail at math, and who would dismantle 2,500 years of philosophy with the magical word racist--adore the trappings of professionalization and specialization. They revel in that sandbox. Why? Because it degrades real accomplishment and levels the playing field. Of course, that’s not enough to satisfy them. They want to control the playing field.

Jeffrey Burnop: On a related note, your latest novel, Old Enemies, is a biting satire of life in the contemporary academy. What do you think makes the modern university ripe for satire?

Lee Oser: In intellectual terms, because the humanities lack fundamental seriousness and high accomplishment. In political terms, because  independent voices are rare. In terms of social responsibility--which is the opposite of "social justice"--because the higher ed monopoly has bilked its students and betrayed its humanistic mission to teach young people to think. I mean, that was its job, its raison d’être. They sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.

Jeffrey Burnop: What role does satire play in reproofing and redressing the excesses of a given culture?

Lee Oser: A good chunk of Old Enemies takes place on the campus of a defunct "Catholic college." St. Malachy College, I called it. There's a pun there on "malaka," which is Greek for "choking the chicken." St. Malachy College used the Church for purposes of advertising. It's a prophetic little tale, in the comic spirit of the Apocalypse.  

Jeffrey Burnop: In addition to being a satirist, you are a Catholic novelist in the tradition of Chesterton and Waugh. Do you understand your work in explicitly religious terms? What does it mean to write a Catholic novel in the 21st century? Who are the influences you find yourself returning to and what do you hope your work will accomplish for the next generation of writers?

Lee Oser: There's a question nowadays among readers and writers of satire: does satire require, however implicitly, to reference a moral standard? For me as a satirist, that's what Catholicism does: it supplies an oasis of meaning in a wilderness of advertising. Yes of course it is a spiritual standard too, one I try to subscribe to. At the end of the day, the Church, failure that it is and we are, offers human beings what they really need. There is no competition. Seriously. The mainstream media functions as a drug to get the childless through their lives. The writers I go back to? The truth is I am reluctant to name anybody. Every narcissistic freak in creation loves to wax lyrical about their “influences.” But since you are kind enough to ask, the writers I go back to are Waugh, Beckett, Cervantes, Nathanael West, John Kennedy Toole, Raymond Chandler, Muriel Spark, C. S. Lewis (a true satirist), Chesterton, Apuleius, Petronius, Juvenal, Walker Percy, Voltaire, Vonnegut, Flannery O'Connor, Alexander Pope, T. S. Eliot, Tennyson, Marlowe, and Wordsworth. I don’t read much de Sade but I do on occasion glance at Pauline Réage. I couldn't avoid Chaucer and Shakespeare if I wanted to. I'm an academic, you know.  

Jeffrey Burnop: Offer some positives and negatives about the so-called Catholic literary revival. 

Lee Oser: Positives: Glenn Arbery and Trevor Merrill have written worthwhile novels—no small accomplishment. Sally Thomas is a fine poet, and I hear that her first novel, Tender Mercies, is good. Keep your eye on a younger writer named Ryan Wilson. Negatives? Some of these young Catholics are awfully puritanical. I don’t know who was giving Trevor Merrill advice, but his Minor Indignities, fine as it is, would have benefitted from more frankness about the insane sex scene at Yale College in the 90s. Such writing should be robust and comical, like J.F. Powers in Wheat That Springeth Green. That kind of note has vanished from the lyres of the young and serious.   

Jeffrey Burnop: What magazines do you subscribe to? Name them in order of preference, beginning with your favorite.

Lee Oser: 1. Prufrock 2. National Review 3. The Times Literary Supplement. 4. First Things. 5. Commonweal 6. Claremont Review of Books. 7. Dappled Things. Comments: Micah Mattix’s e-newsletter Prufrock is invaluable. National Review’s literary coverage has declined but Rich Lowry is a national treasure. I also like Charlie Cooke and Michael Dougherty. The TLS has courage and good sense, but there is a conspicuous lack of great writing and their coverage of American politics is entirely leftist, obsessive and weird. Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, is highly intelligent but vain and humorless. Commonweal is a good magazine, especially for the arts, but the sectarian politics feels lopsided. Claremont Review ran a thoughtful essay recently on Four Quartets by a guy named Algis Valiunas. Dappled Things fills an important niche as a Catholic magazine that is both artsy and traditional. I also read Law & Liberty online on a regular basis. I’m a huge Rachel Lu fan.

Jeffrey Burnop: Do you watch sports?

Lee Oser: In small doses.

Jeffrey Burnop: What is your leading political idea?

Lee Oser: Protect children and care for them. Make porn illegal for minors. Prostitutes should not get to solicit twelve-year-olds. The pimps should go to jail.


Lee Oser teaches at Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. His books include novels and scholarly monographs. Along with literary projects and teaching, he is currently in pre-production with Marvin Etzioni (formerly of Lone Justice) for an album of original songs to be recorded in LA this coming summer.

Jeffrey Burnop, ABD is an editor, scholar, and adjunct instructor specializing in Neo-Kantian ethics (with particular focus on the Marburg School). His dissertation on the esoteric writings of the Swedish polymath Emanuel Swedenborg is scheduled to be defended this spring.



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