If you’ve walked around lower Manhattan or northern Brooklyn in the last year or so, there’s a good chance you noticed a number of light blue, wheat-pasted posters that read WHAT WOULD LYNNE TILLMAN DO? This, it turns out, is not some guerilla marketing strategy for the forthcoming essay collection of the same name by the writer, who is a columnist for Frieze magazine and the author of a number of novels that are greatly admired by Ms. Tillman’s better known contemporaries, including Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem and Fran Lebowitz, all of whom blurbed her new book. The posters are an ad campaign for Dear Dave, a tri-annual photo magazine edited by Stephen Frailey, the head of the photography department at the School of Visual Arts. Since 2009, Dear Dave has been running the question on the posters as a full-page ad in each issue. (The answer is: “Subscribe to Dear Dave,” a phrase that’s printed almost unnoticeably in the corner of each poster.)
“All of a sudden out of the blue in the East Village and Soho and parts of Brooklyn, this poster starts going up,” Richard Nash, the publisher of the small press Red Lemonade, for which Ms. Tillman is currently the sole author, told me last week at a pre-publication party for the book. “And people start Instagramming it and Tweeting it. And I’m thinking, ‘This is fantastic!’ It’s a narrow tiny bit of zeitgeist that we’re somehow acting as both the surfboard and the wave.”
The party was held at the home of Jeannette Watson Sanger, an author and former owner of the dearly departed Books & Co. booksellers on Madison Avenue. The apartment was a throwback to an old school drawing room, an aesthetic that was only intensified by the book shelf devoted entirely to Proust, which contained a to-scale diorama of that author’s bedroom, acting as a book end between various translations of In Search of Lost Time. Given the question posed by Ms. Tillman’s book’s title, it seemed appropriate to ask Mr. Nash what is the best bit of advice she’s ever given him.
“Ever given me?” Mr. Nash, who speaks in an Irish brogue softened by years of living in Brooklyn, said. “Oh, fuck. I can’t remember an individual bit of advice. But I do remember vividly emotional states, and vibes. It’s more like what Lynne Tillman does to me—it’s not quite being blissed out, but there is a way in which I get this experience of, ‘it’s all going to be OK.’ There’s something about Lynne that’s not…wimpy. She’s got a kind of toughness, or an edge, that when she says something reassuring, you just know she’s not blowing smoke up your ass.”
“Don’t expect to be happy all the time,” Ms. Tillman told me when asked I asked her what was the best advice she could give. “It’s important to know that things that you do won’t necessarily have immediate results.”
It’s a kind of mission statement on Ms. Tillman’s career. That poster campaign was the most blatant public gesture to date that Ms. Tillman is one of the literary world’s best-kept secrets, her books critically praised, but far from bestsellers. Few writers are as capable of making existential horror so amusing, and making comedy come across as so eerily significant. Naturally, she didn’t know that people were being confronted with Tillman-as-deity on the streets of New York until a friend called her and told her.
“That was a good kind of surprise,” she said. “Most surprises are horrible. People call them shocks. A horrible surprise is a shock. There really aren’t a lot of good surprises. It is so amusing, in a way. I of course don’t identify with that Lynne Tillman.”
Colm Tóibín writes in the introduction of What Would Lynne Tillman Do? about going on a book tour of the U.K. with Ms. Tillman in 1990, how he would annoy her with his singing of Joni Mitchell in the car. She would continue moaning even after he finished, “in case it might start again.”
“She was the coolest person I ever met,” Mr. Tóibín told me after half-singing a few bars of “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” (It wasn’t without charm, though one could understand Ms. Tillman’s dread.) “So I wanted to undermine her.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Tillman was chatting on a couch with Fran Lebowitz, a kindred spirit in crankiness. (A sample line from What Would Lynne Tillman Do? from a piece on Andy Warhol: “Do we have a natural state? To say there isn’t one doesn’t quell anxiety, and ‘just act natural’ and ‘be yourself’ remain resilient punch lines to the shaggy dog story called existence.”) Ms. Lebowitz, who had lit a cigarette in the apartment, to the slight horror of its owner (“When Fran says she wants to smoke, you say yes,” Ms. Sanger sighed), was discussing the virtues of people in their twenties in comparison to her least favorite generation—people in their forties.
“People in their forties are the worst,” Ms. Lebowitz said, exhaling. “I prefer people in their twenties. They smoke, they don’t wear shorts.” A slim list, but at least it offered a glimmer of hope.
As for Mr. Nash, he e-mailed the next day to say he remembered the best advice Lynne Tillman ever gave him: “Make sure your daughter does sports. Totally practical. But also full of other admonitions when I think about it.”