The Miniaturists, a book by the scholar, novelist, and multimedia artist Barbara Browning, orbits tiny things and the people who study or make them — from the forensic dollhouses of Frances Glessner Lee to the termite studies of William Morton Wheeler to the miniature literary creations of Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll. About the size of a hand-sewn face mask, the book marries academic rigor and a highly individuated sense of playful intelligence. Even though The Miniaturists is not a “fictocritical” novel — a term for works that smudge the boundaries between fiction, critical theory, and autobiography — or a transdisciplinary project on the scale of her earlier novels, such as I’m Trying to Reach You or The Gift, it is continuous with those works in its exploration of queerness and interpersonal intimacies.
In The Gift, Browning’s breakout, semi-autobiographical novel, the narrator speculates that queer writing is less about mapping “non-normative sex acts or the people who engage in them” than it is about “assum[ing] that you don’t know what it means to be, say, a woman or a man.” Her novels are quickened by this sense of indeterminacy, or, as described by the queer performance theorist José Esteban Muñoz, disidentification — the sense that “queerness is not yet here.”
Yet to read Browning, who has twice received the Lambda Literary Award (for The Gift and The Correspondence Artist) and who teaches in the Department of Performance Studies at NYU, is to be infused with a sense of optimism: about the reparative power of a gesture or dance, about ways to be an artist in “everyday life.” In a tribute to her friend Muñoz, Browning once wrote that his work allowed one to imagine “a place and time … fuller, vaster, more sensual, and brighter.” The same could be said of her own work, which re-hues and enlarges one’s sense of the world.
Browning and I exchanged a series of emails, and her responses, which typically arrived within hours of my messages to her, were unfailingly generous and luminous. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
RHODA FENG: You created a song — I’m not sure what the correct preposition is here — for? about? William Morton Wheeler, an American entomologist who figures in The Miniaturists. Can you talk about the process of composing that piece of music? Did you create it after you finished the chapter? Do you often write music while working on books?
BARBARA BROWNING: That’s funny, I think the song began being about him and ended up being for him. It begins in the third person (“Once a man admired the sphex, her stalwart sex, her … lance”), but the refrain seems to address him directly (“William Morton Wheeler, William Morton Wheeler, William … ”). The truth is that I began researching this now fairly obscure, unfashionable, blowhard entomologist and increasingly felt, well, protective of him — particularly when I learned he’d been hospitalized after, as he put it, a “slight mental breakdown.” I wrote the song as a sort of lullaby, as if to tell him that despite his flaws, I still felt for him. There are a few other figures in the book to whom he bears a resemblance, among them (to cut to the Freudian chase) my father. But your question was about process, and it’s true that I often work between media. When I’m writing a book, I’m often simultaneously making songs, or dances, or crafted objects. Taking a break from the page helps me come back to it with new ideas, or maybe new feelings about what I’m writing. I wrote that song while revising the chapter, and I think it helped me to resolve some of my feelings about what I’d written.
One of the pleasures of reading your books is in the sense of following a mind as it roams. There’s a certain musical quality to your sentences and their rolling cadences, and the book itself might be compared to a kind of lieder cycle. What is your relationship to the essay as a form?
Thank you. The truth is that when I first started writing The Miniaturists, I thought I was writing short stories, but short stories based on almost comically exaggerated research projects. Many of the figures I address in the book are “bookworms” — including Wheeler. I empathize with bookworms because I am one. But it’s also true that I’m an academic, and I’m “supposed” to be writing essays, not stories. At a certain point, writing this book, I decided to make peace with the fact that I enjoy research. That’s why I approached a university press with the manuscript, but a press with an open mind about what constitutes academic writing. When my editor, Ken Wissoker, sent me a contract, it had something in it about an index, footnotes, works cited … I’d written it without any of that, and when I asked Ken about it, he said that he’d sent me a boiler-plate contract, and we could take those things out if I liked, but reading the standard academic contract had sort of put a bee in my bonnet.
I began to wonder what would happen if I actually treated it as an academic piece of writing. We ended up settling on a sort of compromise — no index, and minimally intrusive page references, with a list at the end of “Works Cited or Obliquely Referenced.” I liked putting that together, because it’s such a wackadoodle collection of things, from a Webtoons blog on “transcribbling” to Alexander Pope’s “Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot.” Also, adding the citations meant I had to retrace my steps. I hadn’t been keeping note of the page numbers from the texts I was citing. It felt sort of like doing penance, to go back and find all the passages I’d cited. And there were a lot, some from rare books I’d taken out on interlibrary loan. Did I mention that I was a bookworm?
But to answer your question more directly: as a writer, my first identification was as a poet. I thought I had no gift for narrative. Then I came to the essay. My first two books were published with academic presses. But people kept pointing out that they were interwoven with personal narrative. And then I realized that there were stories I wanted to tell, and once I started, I couldn’t stop.
In your book The Gift (Or, Techniques of the Body), the narrator notes early on, “I myself am an extremely moderate person […] sometimes I am excessive, though I try to express my excess in ways that are easy to ignore.” Your new book is tessellated with tales of tininess. How did the book take shape? As you wrote each essay, were you envisioning them as part of a larger project?
Another thing I say in The Gift is that I have a terrible memory — which is true! It’s hard for me to reconstruct the conception of The Miniaturists, but the first two chapters had a common origin — my response to a book by Julietta Singh, which referred to “vaginal libraries,” and also included a few striking crime scenes. That phrase, “vaginal libraries,” made me want to call her work “gynarchivism,” and when I looked that up, it took me down a strange path toward entomology — and William Morton Wheeler. The crime scenes made me think of Frances Glessner Lee, the putative “mother of forensic science.” Both of those people were trying to understand life by thinking about tiny things — insects and doll houses. Then I started to think about other people who do that. One thing led to another. I wouldn’t call them “nagging questions” so much as charming little things I’d trip over in my research.
“When email came along in my fairly early adulthood, I became like a Victorian lady — a dedicated epistolarian. My fiction pilfers a lot from my files of sent emails.”
Another interesting thing that the narrator of The Gift says is that an upshot of having a bad memory is that it “opened up some space on my hard drive for imagining things.” It’s a great visual metaphor, yet it’s also strange to encounter that statement because the predominant feeling I get from reading your writing is that you’re someone who forgets almost nothing and brings their whole self into their writing. (In The Gift, for example, you seem to draw on just about everything that’s available to you, from participating in conferences at UChicago to attending dance performances to writing about Pussy Riot for The Nation). The notion of writing as both cure and poison — the latter because it hardens language and weakens memory — is obviously not new; it’s been with us since at least Plato’s Phaedrus.
But I’m interested to know if writing things down makes it easier for you to clear up your hard drive? Or could you say something about the tension — if it is a tension — between forgetting and producing works of the imagination?
If I don’t write things down — experiences, books I’ve read, films I’ve seen — I often forget them. Fortunately (for me), I write compulsively — mostly correspondence. When email came along in my fairly early adulthood, I became like a Victorian lady — a dedicated epistolarian. My fiction pilfers a lot from my files of sent emails. I also record things in my novels. But one of the tricky things about fictionalizing your life is that you (or at least I) sometimes get confused, retrospectively, about what parts were made up. But I suspect that’s true of everybody’s memory.
The Gift is, among other things, a chronicle of a correspondence that Barbara Andersen carries on with a reclusive musician living in Germany who goes by the name of Sami. Barbara and Sami carry on a virtual correspondence, exchanging videos, sound recordings, and emails, but on two different occasions, she makes physical gifts for him — they’re of tiny things, including thigh cozies, a plastic deer, an origami frog, little vials of perfume, pomegranate seeds, and “tiny pieces of edible gold leaf.” For an assortment of reasons, though, Barbara is never able to physically hand him these gifts. In a way, the whole novel is an exercise in getting the reader to feel without being touched.
More recently, you’ve written another book that is the product of a collaboration. In August, you published The Terrarium: Correspondence & Essays, with Sébastien Régnier. Can you talk about the process of working on that book with him?
During the pandemic — in the part that came after what’s narrated in The Miniaturists — I ended up losing my apartment in New York City (I’m now living upstate with Sébastien). When I left the city, I threw out a lot of things, including those objects you listed (yes, I really knit two thigh cozies!). Throwing them out was also sort of like clearing space, but more in my heart than in my brain. I like your reading of the approach to the reader. I think that’s right.
For the last eight years, Sébastien has been my partner in many projects, domestic and artistic. We collaborate musically (“William Morton Wheeler” appears on an album we recorded — all the other songs were composed by him, including one about May Wood Simons, a 19th-century socialist feminist from Wisconsin who translated naturalist texts). We’ve written two books together, the first recounting the unlikely way we met, among other things.
Last semester I was teaching a class I’ve taught before called “The Performance of Everyday Life.” This year, I found myself often talking about domestic partnership as a collaborative art project. I think the pandemic really reinforced that for me, but it was also an element of the years I spent parenting my son, who figures significantly in The Miniaturists. The book is dedicated to him. Regarding S, I feel very lucky to have a willing collaborator in experimental domesticity, as well as art. All collaborations have their challenging moments, but ours is mostly extremely pleasurable. We wrote The Terrarium quite a while ago — before the pandemic, which contributed to the delay in publication. It was composed in Sébastien’s little house in Normandy, during my sabbatical.
I want to pick up on a phrase that comes from The Gift: in the novel, a student of Lauren Berlant’s writes that she’s “interested in digitally mediated intimacies, especially as they slide between the virtual and the physical (or completely disrupt these boundaries as we think of them).” Yet the narrator, Barbara Andersen, also seizes upon a second meaning of the word “digital” — “using the fingers”— which points to her creation of hand dances as well as her interest in knitting. At one point, she says, “I always feel like if they’re wearing the thing I knit for them, somehow it’s kind of a way of having physical contact with them, even if we’re far apart.”
In The Miniaturists, you also write about knitting, in the context of creating pussy hats and other items. Can you say more about this activity and how it functions as an “extension of your body”?
It’s very funny you should ask that, as I’m currently in the process of preparing to teach a course on craft. And it’s related to my answer to your last question. And I was just listening to a lecture by Richard Sennett which begins by saying that digital culture shouldn’t be thought of in opposition to craftsmanship, and goes on to compare careful coding, and careful making, to musicianship — in fact specifically to techniques acquired by a child learning to play the cello. I also played the cello as a child — that’s me on the cello in “William Morton Wheeler”! — and it’s true that for me, careful making (of music, of a sock, of a story) is always related to performance, to what we call the time-based arts, and an important component of the process often has to do with using one’s hands — or, as Sennett would have it, “what the hand knows.”
In The Gift, that’s also linked to another kind of careful making: making love with one’s hands. There are various configurations of that in the book, including masturbation, lesbian sex, a hand job, and a heartening story of a quadriplegic man who learns to achieve orgasm when a lover sucks his thumb. That last story is related to an observation by the narrator: “My body is an extension of my body.” That is, sure, a cello bow is a prosthetic extension of the body, as is a dildo, or a knitting needle, and what spools out from those things — music, pleasure, a sock — is a product of the body. But where do our “extremities” begin and end? The Miniaturists also makes mention of two famous miniaturist painters who had no hands at all — Matthias Buchinger and Sarah Biffen, who were both born with phocomelia. He wielded a brush with the callouses on his abbreviated limb. She used her mouth.
What is your writing schedule like these days? Do you still work from an outline?
This academic year has been particularly busy for me, which is frustrating. I began a series of short stories last summer, but it’s been mostly on hold since the fall. I work best when I can focus my attention on a project — during the summer, or when I’m on sabbatical. I can put in a good four hours a day of writing, but I tend to assign myself a certain number of pages per day, rather than hours, depending on the project. I wrote eight pages a day when I was working on The Correspondence Artist, which was a sort of cathartic process, but more typically it’s four pages a day. And yes, I usually form a notion of the structure early on — the only thing I leave wide open is the ending, because I hope to surprise myself.
In an article on “The Performative Novel,” you wrote that “you’ve been able to maintain a policy of requesting blurbs only from people who actually appear as characters in my books.” Is that a policy you have for all your books or only your novels? Jonathan Lethem contributed a wonderful blurb to The Miniaturists, and I wonder if we’re meant to detect his presence in the book….
Ah yes, I wrote about that policy elsewhere … The process of procuring blurbs is different with an academic press — Duke proposed Jonathan, who’s a friend. I didn’t want to burden him, but then he told me that he’d been one of the anonymous readers who had evaluated the manuscript for the press, and they just asked his permission to quote from his reader’s report. Then I felt more guilty about having unknowingly burdened him with a whole damn report! I even considered asking the press if I could revise the manuscript at the last minute to include him as a character, which would have worked, because in fact he’s written about micropsia and macropsia in Fortress of Solitude … But I think it was too far into the publication process to retrofit the book. Jonathan is very generous. Of course, to call a writer that you cite a “character” in your book is perhaps a stretch, but I seem to do that with some regularity …
“What I find interesting is less the question of first-person narration (is my narrator me?), but rather the question of address — who is the writer talking to?”
That Publisher’s Weekly piece about book blurbs is great, but it’s also funny to see that “Barbara Andersen” is misspelled in one of the teaser sentences. It’s obviously a typo, but given the novel’s concern with surrogacy and proliferating identities, it generates unexpected resonances. What you say in that piece about making “explicit the economies” in which novels are produced brings to mind how Tye, in the novel, begins one performance by kind of annotating his budget for the audience. He lists the cost of procuring materials, renting a U-Haul, enlisting the services of a friend, etc. It’s kind of like beginning a book with the acknowledgments section. I’m also always bemused when I see novels with blurbs by bold-faced names, only to see them mentioned again in a coda or acknowledgments section.
I gave my narrator a Scandinavian looking name because my maternal grandmother was Swedish, but some reviewers failed to notice the e. In that novel, the narrator receives a number of emails intended for somebody with a very similar name and email address. That happens a lot to me — maybe it happens to everybody, but to me it seems to happen with unusual frequency. Anyway, yes, I’m always interested in the slippage of identity. And also the weird and often disturbing economies of publishing and the art world.
Some critics, in describing your work, have compared you to writers of autofiction. Yet the term you’ve come up with to describe the genre-straddling type of writing you do is “fictocriticism,” a mode that “merge[s] storytelling, theory, and cultural analysis.” It makes me think of the final line of Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West”: “Ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.” Both autofiction and fictocriticism seem invested in complicating or thickening the matrices of facticity and fiction. Do you see your fictocriticism as an extension of your work as an academic?
I teach a course sometimes called “Performative Writing” in which I feel I have to address all those relative neologisms — autofiction, fictocriticism (I didn’t coin the term!), autotheory — only to argue that they describe approaches to writing that have been around for a very long time. Never mind André Breton’s Nadja — think Montaigne! But I love that you threw Stevens in there, because lyricism is part of the mix — Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility” — and ostensibly in solitude. What I find interesting is less the question of first-person narration (is my narrator me?), but rather the question of address — who is the writer talking to? Academics tend to assuage themselves by imagining they’re addressing specialists (other entomologists, forensic scientists, performance theorists …). Writers of fiction, or parafiction (to use another probably not-so-useful neologism) are in murkier water. For me, the question of facticity is something of a red herring. All fiction draws from reality. I’m more compelled by thinking about the you that I’m writing to. Maybe you know these beautiful lines from Ashbery: “Why do I tell you these things? You are not even here.”
I loved listening to your audio novel, Who Is Mr. Waxman? The audio form seems to be exquisitely calibrated to creating intimacies; occasionally, I’d be startled into thinking you were narrating parts of my own life … and not only because I’d hear a dull click in the background and think that the sound was coming from one of my neighbors instead of the MP3 file. What was the technical process of creating Mr. Waxman — did you write it out by hand/type it first and then record?
I posted the webpage for Waxman without setting up a way to track who visits it, so it always surprises me when somebody says they listened to it! It was the first novel I wrote, and I tried to publish it as a regular book. A couple of agents were very gung-ho, but when they couldn’t sell it, I got the idea to make it a sound file. It was partly about an experimental sound artist, so I roped him into helping me. We incorporated domestic sounds. I have one friend who says that’s still her favorite novel of mine, which makes me happy. There’s a lot of knitting in that book, too! The narrator’s “feminist craft collective” was a fictionalized version of the editorial collective of the journal Women & Performance which met every month in my living room for many years. I thought that since it was an audio book, maybe feminist crafters would be interested, because they could listen to it but have their hands free to knit or crochet. I sent it to a few feminist craft bloggers, but the only ones who expressed any interest were the gay male knitters (that was back in the day when we used reductive terminology like that). So, when some editor asked me afterwards who my “audience” was, I had an answer: GMKs. 🙂
Did narrating Mr. Waxman influence your approach to writing your later novels?
I don’t think so. I recorded an audio version of The Gift as well. I do enjoy reading aloud, particularly into a sensitive microphone, but that’s probably just a specific form of narcissism (what we mean when we say somebody likes the sound of her own voice — but literally).
Are there any plans to convert Who Is Mr. Waxman? into a print format?
I’d love to if any press ever expressed interest. I still like that book. But I’d have to take a deep dive through my old files to find the manuscript. My literal hard drive (as per your question above) is more chaotic than my brain.
You’ve disseminated a number of dance videos pegged to your novels on YouTube and Vimeo, and I’m wondering if you’d care to share your thoughts on TikTok. Of course, a lot of the news around TikTok lately has been around security concerns, namely the fact that ByteDance, which owns TikTok, planned to track the location of some American citizens. But I’m curious if you have more general thoughts about TikTok as a platform and if you’ve experimented with posting videos on it or would ever consider doing so? I have a similar question about Twitter, which I think you don’t use that much. Is there a reason why you’re not very active on the platform?
Another class I used to teach was “Performance on the Internet.” I always had mixed feelings about the possibilities of social media. It’s true that I was an early adopter and theorist of all that. I was writing about gender fluidity in Neal Stephenson’s notion of the “metaverse” in the early ’90s! But over time, the dystopian aspects of virtual spaces began to overwhelm my utopian hopes, and I started to distance myself. I used to be very active on Soundcloud, and my Twitter account began as a place where I thought I’d just “tweet” — literally! I mean, I used it to post links to my sentimental ukulele covers (I often whistled on those), which were often sort of coded indications of things I was thinking about. But I had some disconcerting experiences on all those platforms. I had a Facebook account for a while but deleted that for perhaps obvious reasons. It’s just laziness that I didn’t delete Twitter — and the vague thought that maybe I’ve exaggerated the negative aspects of all social media. TikTok, from the get-go, didn’t appeal to me because it’s so fast! It makes me dizzy and a little nauseous. It all still makes me melancholy, because I haven’t totally given up on the utopian possibilities, in theory — of unexpected intimacies, of self-composition and experimentation. But I also love wool, and paper, and the cello, and fingers … ❖
Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer based in New York whose work has appeared in 4Columns, The Baffler, BOMB, the White Review, Bookforum, Public Books, and The New Republic, among other publications.
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