Tillman, Lynne

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Tillman, Lynne


Born in New York, NY. Education: Hunter College, B.A.


Office—Department of English, University at Albany, State University of New York, Humanities 333, 1400 Washington Ave., Albany, NY 12222-0001.


Writer, filmmaker, and art critic. Associate professor of English and writer-in-residence, University at Albany, State University of New York.


National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, 1998, for No Lease on Life.



Haunted Houses, Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1987, High Risk Books (New York, NY), 1995.

Absence Makes the Heart, Serpent's Tail (London, England), 1990.

Motion Sickness, Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1991.

Cast in Doubt, Poseidon Press (New York, NY), 1992.

No Lease on Life, Harcourt Brace, (New York, NY), 1997.

American Genius: A Comedy, Soft Skull Press (Brooklyn, NY), 2006.


This Is Not It: Stories, Distributed Art Publishers (New York, NY), 2002.


The Madame Realism Complex, Semiotexte (New York, NY), 1992.

Living with Contradictions, drawings by Jane Dickson, Hallwalls (Buffalo, NY), 1993.

(With Barry Schwabsky and Lynne Cooke) Jessica Stockholder, Phaidon (London, England), 1995.

The Velvet Years: Warhol's Factory 1965-1967, Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1995.

The Broad Picture: Essays, 1987-1996, Serpent's Tail (New York, NY), 1997.

Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books and Co., Harcourt Brace (New York, NY), 1999.

Contributor to Stephen Shore: Uncommon Places; The Complete Works, Aperture (New York, NY), 2004, and Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, Institute of Contemporary Art/ Boston (Boston, MA), 2007. Stories and essays published in periodicals, including Literary Review and Bookforum, and anthologies, including This Is Not Chick Lit and Shoot the Family.


Lynne Tillman has published novels, short stories, essays, and other nonfiction work dealing with art, artists, and art criticism. Much of her writing features a strong interior voice, and the visual style of her work shows the influence of her background in film and her study of painting. "Tillman's work is … distinctive for taking unpredictable cues from contemporary visual art," noted Jessica Winter in Slate. While Tillman's fiction is experimental and could be termed postmodern, it is accessible, Winter added, explaining: "Tillman illuminates her ostensibly cerebral attitude toward storytelling and its devices with the light of experience." Tillman's is a "pensive, self-interrogating fiction," Winter observed, adding that the author has produced "an underappreciated body of work."

Tillman's debut novel, Haunted Houses, is a series of vignettes that trace the lives of three middle-class American girls as they reach maturity in the 1950s and 1960s. Some critics found the novel unusual, to say the least. According to a Publishers Weekly reviewer, Tillman's characters are "drifting through lives that seem to lack the illusions most people struggle to maintain." The novel, commented Lucy Atkins in the Times Literary Supplement, "has a strangely contemporary feel, which suspends time and history." Atkins felt that the characters' lack of interaction "leaves the novel with a disjointed and momentary quality through which it exploits psychoanalytical concerns to the full." Atkins criticized the "dislocated structure and intermittent shifts of subject" as "distancing." A more positive evaluation came from Lois Gordon, who in the New York Times Book Review called Tillman's style "spare and compelling."

Motion Sickness is narrated by a young American woman touring Europe. In the course of her travels, she picks up postcards on which she records the events of her life. Reviewers remarked on its focus on the character's interior life and sense of being adrift. According to a Publishers Weekly critic, the narrator inhabits "a world of very little structure, which is successfully … reflected in [the] writing." The critic faulted the novel for "lack[ing] a focus" but also called it "lyrical and … poetic." Booklist reviewer Mary Banas described the young woman as "a self in flux … numb with emotional stasis," and concluded that Motion Sickness is "[a] darkly introspective novel."

Tillman's novel Cast in Doubt is a thriller set on the Greek island of Crete in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is, according to Donna Seaman in Booklist, a "wholly unexpected novel." The plot concerns Harold, a gay detective novelist who, in his sixties, becomes obsessed with a sensually appealing twenty-year-old woman, Helen. She has been hired to teach him English, but she suddenly disappears, and he does his best to find her. Some observers found much to admire in this story. In relating the detective novelist's unsuccessful quest, Tillman has "produced a handful of sharply drawn secondary characters and a very interior narrative voice that teasingly commands," stated a critic for Kirkus Reviews. Booklist reviewer Seaman wrote that Tillman's novel has "great wit, sensitivity, wiliness, and integrity" and is "delightfully clever and probing."

No Lease on Life is a bleak yet energetic and sometimes humorous novel that chronicles a day in the life of Elizabeth Hall, who works as a proofreader at a prestigious magazine during the day, then returns to her apartment on the city's seamy Lower East Side. Hall's day gets a bad start at five in the morning, as she hears windshields breaking and trash cans being overturned in the street below. As she gazes out her window, she imagines getting rid of the junkies who are making the racket. In fact, Elizabeth spends considerable time fantasizing about ridding her neighborhood of the people who annoy her. During the day, she copes with the landlord's attempt to increase the rent and chats with a prostitute and a homeless woman. The next night, she becomes more aggressive, pelting the neighborhood vandals with eggs. In the end, her life is shown to be one "in which heroic action achieves the same result as treading water," commented a writer for Kirkus Reviews. Booklist reviewer Janet St. John called the novel "an urban vignette of meditation on the realness and the ridiculousness of daily living," and a Publishers Weekly critic noted that No Lease on Life is "graced by flashes of bilious wit, a series of funny, inconsequential jokes and an appealingly loopy milieu."

American Genius: A Comedy was Tillman's first novel in nearly a decade. It focuses almost exclusively on the thoughts of a middle-aged woman named Helen, a onetime U.S. historian who lives in New England in what appears to be an artists' colony but, according to some reviewers, could be a mental hospital. The other residents appear to be people worth knowing, involved in such diverse projects as playwriting, magic, and ornithology, but Helen interacts little with them, instead occupying herself with musings on language, textiles, skin, Calvinism, famous murderers, American history, and numerous other topics.

Several critics saw much of interest in Tillman's tale, whether they were puzzled or fascinated by it. "The plot is almost amateurish, and the book overlong," remarked Lucy Ellmann in the New York Times Book Review. "The pleasure of it is in the way it's written." In Slate, Winter said the novel "doesn't produce a stream of consciousness so much as a whirlpool, like much of Tillman's fiction." She continued: "To unravel the mordant skeins and associative daisy chains of American Genius is, quite often, to feel oneself gently possessed by the mind and memories of another."

Jena Salon, writing in Literary Review, dubbed American Genius "arresting" and innovative, saying: "Tillman pushes beyond the works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, so that the sentences portray not only the narrator's thoughts, but mimic the frenetic pace of her mind." Salon also saw in it a metaphor for contemporary life. It "is a remarkable novel about distance," she wrote, explaining that with her distance from other people, Helen "shows us how Americans' focus on themselves and the minute details instead of the larger ones force distance between family members, racial and religious groups, and create a separation between Americans, recent immigrants, and foreigners in general."

Some other reviewers, whether or not they found this meaning in the story, characterized it as praiseworthy, in any case. A Publishers Weekly contributor described the book as "often dazzling, totally disorienting," but concluded that "this loopy trip through a meandering, fretful mind proves worthwhile." A Kirkus Reviews critic, meanwhile, termed the story "a circuitous, riveting journey" and its author "as piquant and provocative as ever." In Entertainment Weekly, John Freeman reported that he was frustrated at first by the lack of a conventional plot, but then found that "Tillman's prose builds to poetic brilliance." Ellmann summed the book up by saying: "What emerges here is a bold showcase of a novel, a cabinet of curiosity, a proposal for what fiction could be."

This Is Not It: Stories is a collection of Tillman's short stories, featuring "a cast of artists and grunts from a vanishing New York City bohemia," remarked a Publishers Weekly reviewer. The various styles used by the author are innovative and unusual, often featuring double entendres and other forms of wordplay. While "some readers may not have the patience for her experimental story structures, others will enjoy her nuanced interior monologues," predicted the Publishers Weekly writer. Frequently, the characters in these stories do not connect, or when they do, they find little of meaning in their relations with other. At such times, Tillman's clever use of words "allows an eerie humor to break into the overwhelming loss and fear permeating the text, to offer slippage only in the possibility of lies and stories," mused Joanna Howard in Review of Contemporary Fiction. "This Is Not It offers a fresh exploration of the expectations and effects of art and imagination."

Tillman's ventures outside fiction include an unusual book that memorialized one of New York City's most unusual bookshops, called Books and Co. For some twenty years, this store on Madison Avenue was a favorite of intellectual and arty types, including Woody Allen, Susan Sontag, Jackie Kennedy, Isabel Allende, Fran Lebowitz, and Diana Trilling. It was closed after a rent dispute with its landlord, the Whitney Museum. Tillman's Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books and Co. serves as something of a eulogy for the beloved store, as well as a portrait of Watson, who so loved the store that she kept it going with infusions of her own cash during its last years. In addition, the book illuminates the forces that are making it increasingly difficult for any independent bookstore to remain solvent. Watson's own narrative of the event, along with comments from some of the shop's famous patrons, are interwoven with Tillman's text. This technique "is at once the book's strength and its greatest weakness," commented Paul A. D'Alessandro in Library Journal. Grace Fill, a writer for Booklist, found Tillman's book to be "a rich tapestry comprising many viewpoints," and a "fitting tribute" to Watson herself and independent bookstores everywhere.



Afterimage, January, 1985, review of Living with Contradictions, p. 14.

American Book Review, March 1, 2007, "The Theatre of Skin," p. 22.

Artforum International, November 1995, David Carrier, review of Jessica Stockholder, p. 22.

Art History, September 1996, Brendan Prendeville, review of Jessica Stockholder, p. 454.

Art in America, January, 1996, Ken Johnson, review of Jessica Stockholder, pp. 33-34.

Booklist, February 15, 1987, review of Haunted Houses, pp. 875-876; March 15, 1991, review of Motion Sickness, p. 1455; August, 1992, review of Cast in Doubt, p. 1996; August, 1997, Janet St. John, review of The Broad Picture: Essays, 1987-1996, pp. 1870-1872; October 1, 1997, review of No Lease on Life, p. 308; August, 1999, Grace Fill, review of Bookstore: The Life and Times of Jeannette Watson and Books and Co., p. 2002.

Buffalo News, January 11, 1998, Neil Schmitz, review of No Lease on Life, p. F6; October 3, 1999, Charity Vogel, review of Bookstore, p. F6.

Entertainment Weekly, January 23, 1998, Vanessa V. Friedman, review of No Lease on Life, p. 58; October 13, 2006, John Freeman, review of American Genius: A Comedy, p. 137.

Independent (London, England), April 30, 1998, Guy Mannes-Abbott, review of No Lease on Life, p. 2.

Independent Sunday (London, England), June 20, 1999, Lilian Pizzichini, review of No Lease on Life, p. 11.

Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 1992, review of Cast in Doubt, p. 880; June 15, 1997, review of The Broad Picture, pp. 939-940; October 1, 1997, review of No Lease on Life, p. 1481; July 15, 2006, review of American Genius, p. 698.

Library Journal, February 15, 1991, review of Motion Sickness, p. 223; March 1, 1996, Eric Bryant, review of Jessica Stockholder, pp. 77-78; July, 1997, Carol McAllister, review of The Broad Picture, pp. 83-85; August, 1998, Dan Bogey, review of No Lease on Life, p. 164; October 1, 1999, Paul A. D'Alessandro, review of Bookstore, p. 94; February 1, 2003, Jim Dwyer, review of This Is Not It: Stories, p. 120.

Literary Review, January 1, 2007, Jena Salon, review of American Genius, p. 192.

Los Angeles Times, January 4, 1998, Richard Eder, review of No Lease on Life, p. 5.

New Statesman, December 2, 1994, Harriett Gilbert, review of Cast in Doubt, p. 37.

New York Times, November 24, 2002, M.G. Lord, review of This Is Not It, p. 38.

New York Times Book Review, April 21, 1996, Carol Peace Robins, "The Velvet Years: Warhol's Factory 1965-67," p. 27; June 7, 1998, David Gates, review of No Lease on Life, p. 20; October 10, 1999, Diane Cole, review of Bookstore, p. 22; November 24, 2002, M.G. Lord, review of This Is Not It, p. 38; October 8, 2006, Lucy Ellmann, "Woman Worrier," p. 35.

Publishers Weekly, January 9, 1987, review of Haunted Houses, p. 78; February 15, 1991, review of Motion Sickness, p. 75; April 12, 1991, review of Absence Makes the Heart, p. 53; July 20, 1992, review of Cast in Doubt, p. 224; October 6, 1997, review of No Lease on Life, p. 72; February 1, 1999, p. 22; August 9, 1999, review of Bookstore, p. 221; October 28, 2002, review of This Is Not It, p. 48; August 7, 2006, review of American Genius, p. 28.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, summer, 1998, Elisabeth Sheffield, review of No Lease on Life, p. 230; summer, 2003, Joanna Howard, review of This Is Not It, p. 124.

San Francisco Chronicle, April 5, 1998, Audrey Ferber, review of No Lease on Life, p. 8.

Times Literary Supplement, April 19, 1996, Lucy Atkins, review of Haunted Houses, p. 24.

Village Voice Literary Supplement, May, 1993, review of The Madame Realism Complex, p. 27.


Brooklyn Rail,http://brooklynrail.org/ (December, 2006), Lynn Crawford, interview with Lynne Tillman.

Slate,http://www.slate.com/ (October 12, 2006), Jessica Winter, "American Ingenious."

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