Author Lauren Groff on Being Endorsed by Obama and the Dearth of Literary Sex Scenes

Photo: Courtesy of Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff had just come off a one-week internet hiatus Wednesday when a stranger tweeted her a reference to a People magazine article about the Obamas’ favorite cultural products of the year. Barack’s single book pick was Groff’s third novel, Fates and Furies. “I just died, came back to life, read again, died again,” Groff tweeted in response. Her self-consciously epic account of a complicated marriage, told in his 'n' hers halves that spawn shocking revelations, had already been nominated for a National Book Award, sold 150,000 copies, and become one of the year’s most-talked-about (and most polarizing) novels. Groff spoke to us yesterday about her latest critical endorsement.

How did you get the news?
I was trying to write but instead I was procrastinating on Twitter. Someone tweeted it at me and I didn’t believe them, so I went and I looked up the People website. I truly think I blacked out for about five minutes. It was incredible. I tried to call my husband, but he was in a meeting. Then I got a call from Jynne [Martin, a Riverhead publicist], and she was basically screaming for a good ten minutes, and that took up a lot of time. My husband brought home the Champagne, and it was just a nice night.

Have you been discussing ways to promote the endorsement?
Jynne is trying to figure out a way to do it. Like, is there a sticker? Obama instead of Oprah? But I don’t know if there’s anything more you can do except just be incredibly happy.

Do you know how he found out about the book in the first place?
No idea. I also don’t know how he has time to read a 350-page book with all he’s doing. I mean, it’s fiction, it’s a novel. But he’s entitled to vacation, I guess.

Have you ever gotten a random endorsement like that?
This was the first time I had famous people being Instagrammed with a book — Sarah Jessica Parker was, and Carrie Brownstein and Miranda July. It’s so bizarre, but then again, we all live in the United States, and it’s a celebrity culture, and that’s what we value. It’s almost like blending up spinach and putting it in the brownies in order to get your kids to eat spinach. Mine eat spinach like you wouldn’t believe, but that’s what some people do. If it gets books into people’s hands, I’m all for it.

Obama in particular has done a lot of that. I mean, he interviewed Marilynne Robison.
I would say he’s probably the most literary president we’ve ever had.

Are you a big supporter?
I stumped for him both times. I walked around canvassing, and that’s really big for me because I’m a huge introvert.

And you live in Florida.
If I lived in New York I might not have done it, but it felt very necessary here.

I’m sure you saw that Claudia Rankine’s Citizen took off after someone held it up to the camera at a Trump rally. Maybe you’d have preferred the extra exposure of that?
That makes me so happy for her, but absolutely not! The mere idea that the president of the United States even read my book is astonishing. My first reaction was hysterical laughter just because this is so unlikely and almost unbelievable.

Your book is partly about the role luck and privilege play in artistic success. Did this feel like a lucky break?
Luck plays a huge role in everybody’s life. And privilege is one of those things that I wanted to write a book about — how we don’t always pay attention to the way privilege comes to light. Barack Obama was not raised being privileged in the particular way that [the husband] Lotto was. And the part about Mathilde [the wife] is very deeply feminist, and I would say he’s probably very feminist as well as a president.

A couple of pieces have come out lately about how polarizing the year’s literary sensations have been, and yours is very high on that list. Have you read any of those?
I haven’t read any of the criticism. I only read the front cover of the New York Times Book Review, just because my husband cried and he said, “You have to read it.” But I have no idea what the critics are saying, and I probably won’t for a few years.

Generally, though, would you rather divide critics and spark conversations, or be universally liked and uncontroversial?
When you put a book out into the world, you know that it’s not gonna be universally beloved, and so you try to write for the people who will get what you’re doing, and then maybe the next book they’ll like. You want to promote discussion and have a lot of differing opinions about your work. But polarizing implies that people are either unambiguously on one side or the other, and I don’t think that most people’s responses to books are polarized. There’s always gray in them. I’m against the idea of polarization in general — it’s one of those things that I was addressing in the book. I like the idea of a lack of purity in one’s impressions.

Your latest prize nomination was for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award. How did that one feel?
I try not to think about it. Is that something that adults who have had sexual encounters actually care very much about? I wish that there were so many sex scenes in so many books that they would be overrun with material. There aren’t that many sex scenes in literary books.

I think people might be afraid to write them.
And that’s ridiculous, right? It’s like sex-shaming.

* This story originally contained an incorrect reference to Obama's favorite song of the year. We have deleted that exchange and regret the error.