WHAT WOULD Lynne Tillman do? Last year, this question was mysteriously wheat-pasted on posters all over Lower Manhattan, giving a visual aid to many an art student's obsession with author Lynne Tillman. Tillman flies under the radar. Her first book, Weird Fucks, can be found almost nowhere (Amazon has one copy; it retails for $200), odds are Oprah will never invite her to join her book club, and Tillman's fiction will probably never see a fancy, major-studio film treatment. And yet, the trajectory of American literature would almost certainly be a whole lot more boring without her.
In the same way that abstract art throws out figuration, Tillman's writing isn't plot-driven; it's most alive in the minds of her characters and her precise, sharp-edged prose. Take the first sentence of "The Substitute," from her fiction collection Someday This Will Be Funny: "She watched his heart have a small fit under his black T-shirt." Every word in that sentence feels weighted and tangible, and conveys information about the story's characters—nothing is superfluous. Every sentence in "The Substitute" is like this. If you've ever felt like an author was dragging you along against your will as you plodded through a 200-page novel, Tillman is the writer for you. It never feels like she's wasting your time. This is an effect that takes painstaking effort to achieve, and it's all too rare in contemporary fiction.
Like many writers whose work isn't easily categorized, Tillman's also a champion of independent literature. She's had books snatched up by major mainstream publishers like Simon and Schuster, but she consistently works with smaller literary ventures; her current publisher, Red Lemonade, is only a household name if your household is full of MFA students. And that's another way Tillman's influence has crept into literature: She's a teacher whose books are hoarded by emerging writers, her name whispered with the same reverence as stars of nontraditional writing like Maggie Nelson and Eileen Myles. To this cult of young writers, many of them women (and, okay, I know some of them), Tillman is a minor deity.
And the reach of her influence can be felt in Portland, too: New Herring Press is reissuing Weird Fucks, with a release party and reading slated for this Saturday, February 21, in collaboration with Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA). But this might not have come to be had Tillman herself not urged New Herring co-founders Sara Jaffe and Jess Arndt to cope with their frustrations with publishing by starting their own press. In a signature move for a writer whose career has been marked by collaboration, Tillman won't be reading solo, but with a lineup of artists and writers—including Pure Surface/Poor Claudia's Stacey Tran and the Pacific Northwest College of Art's Kristin Bradshaw—"who are engaged in weird fuckery of some kind," per PICA's website. It's not often that an arts organization proudly announces its support of weird fuckers, but it's what Lynne Tillman would do.