“There are thresholds or shelves where we go from having incremental change to systemic moments of transformation.”
In the ’90s, Sven Birkerts cautioned us about the impact of technology on reading with The Gutenberg Elegies. In 2017, we mute our iPhones to talk about his new book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf Press). We dive into the impact of digital technology on perception and identity, but also get into the way life becomes a thematic puzzle in middle age, why he stepped down from his role directing the low-residency MFA program at Bennington, the joy of bringing his favorite writers in as instructors (and the ones he regrets not getting), the challenge of interviewing fiction writers, his big literary 0-fer and what I’m missing about Virginia Woolf, how he’s adapting to a year-long sabbatical and how he understands his writing life, what he’s learned editing the literary magazine AGNI, and why the prerequisite for anything he’s reading is that it has to be more interesting to him than whatever it is he’s vaguely brooding about. Give it a listen! And go buy his new essay collection, Changing the Subject!
“When I was your age, I discovered the doubling over of one’s own experience. . . . Themes, recurrences and motifs in my life began to manifest. Then as if on command, the whole sunken continent of memory began to detach from the sea-floor.”
About our Guest
Sven Birkerts is the author of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age and nine previous books, including The Other Walk: Essays, The Gutenberg Elegies, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, and My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time. He recently stepped down as director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and he also edits the journal AGNI based at Boston University. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, and he’s on Twitter as svenbirkerts and Instagram as cyberbirk.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Birkerts’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Birkerts by me. It’s on my instagram.
“It’s an existential question, not a historical one: what kinds of places make you feel at home? Some people feel at home nowhere, and some feel at home everywhere. I’m myself, wherever I am.”
Willard Spiegelman returns to the show to talk about his wonderful new essay collection, Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead (FSG). We get into the process of deaccessioning, Mark Strand’s advice on paring down to 100 books, Willard’s take on 45 years living in Dallas (and what he’ll miss about it now that he’s retired), the joy of getting lost in Italy, the best way to pick someone up in NYC, the contrast of his 50th high school and college reunions, and more. Give it a listen! And go buy Senior Moments!
“I’m enthusiastically looking forward to getting rid of everything.”
We also mix it up over the aesthetic sunk cost fallacy, ponder being alone in the middle of a crowd, compare Japan and Hungary relative to being linguistically uprooted (I argue that Hungary is tougher, because it looks like you should be able to piece together the language), examine the pharaonic idea of hoarding, and listen to time’s winged chariot hurrying near. Now go listen to the show!
“I’m much too old to write a memoir. That’s the province of 25-year-olds.”
- Willard Spiegelman (2013)
- Jonathan Galassi
- Burton Pike
- Rachel Hadas (2016)
- Ann Patty
- Langdon Hammer
- JD McClatchy
About our Guest
Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. From 1984 util 2016, he was also the editor in chief of Southwest Review. He had written many books and essays about English and American poetry. For more than a quarter century, he has been a regular contributor to the Leisure and Arts pages of The Wall Street Journal. In 2005, Willard won the PEN/Nora Magid award for literary editing. In addition to Senior Moments, he’s also written or edited Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness, How Poets See the World: The Art of Description in Contemporary Poetry, Wordsworth’s Heroes, Imaginative Transcripts: Selected Literary Essays, Majestic Indolence: English Romantic Poetry and the Work of Art, The Didactic Muse: Scenes of Instruction in Contemporary American Poetry, and Love, Amy: The Selected Letters of Amy Clampitt. Oh, and he’s quite dapper.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission of the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Spiegelman’s home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. Photo of Mr. Spiegelman by me.
Library of America was having a 20% off sale a few weeks ago. Also, they discount the books on their site AND they’re a non-profit doing the Lord’s work, so I kinda splurged.
If necessary, I can explain myself:
- Thoreau – Walden – I never read it, and there’s a seminar on it this May at St. John’s College.
- Dos Passos – USA trilogy – I never read it and who knows?
- Saul Bellow – They were selling all 4 collections of Saul Bellow’s novels as a group for $115 (before the 20% discount), and I figured I need to add more heft to my 20th century Jewish writers shelf, alongside Philip Roth, Bruce Jay Friedman, Bernard Malamud, Joseph Heller and James Salter (nee Horowitz).
- Susan Sontag – Essays of the 1960s & 70s – I never read her, and really have to correct that.
- Philip Roth – Nemeses (novels 2006-2010) – I own these books separately, but I have the rest of the Roth L.O.A. collections, and I’m a completist.
- Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology – it was only $9.95, and I’m now interested in LA after a my trips there this year.
Why don’t you come by and check out the library sometime? And go buy some books from the Library of America!
In the new issue of GQ (April 2013), there’s a feature called The New Canon: The 21 Books from the 21st Century Every Man Should Read. It’s not something that I take too seriously, since this is the same magazine that decided last year to promote bucket hats as a spring/summer accessory. Still, I’m compulsive about literary lists, especially when they provide the opportunity for me to see how far I’ve journeyed off the contemporary literature track.
The list, as the introduction puts it, is “numbered but not ranked,” which is to say that it provides no guidance at all, except perhaps how to fit these entries in for space. It’s also exclusively fiction, which is fine, since I don’t read poetry and that issue already has a column on “this season’s best memoirs,” a genre that really could take a break.
So here’s the numbered but not ranked list:
- The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen
- The Human Stain – Philip Roth
- The Road – Cormac McCarthy
- White Teeth – Zadie Smith
- True History of the Kelly Gang – Peter Carey
- 2666 – Robert Bolano
- Tree of Smoke – Denis Johnson
- Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned – Wells Tower
- The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
- Pastoralia – George Saunders
- Runaway – Alice Munro
- Austerlitz – W.G. Sebald
- Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
- Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
- The Art of Fielding – Chad Harbach
- Netherland – Joseph O’Neill
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
- The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst
- Saturday – Ian McEwan
- The Yellow Birds – Kevin Powers
- The Namesake – Jhumpa Lahiri
Not bad! I was expecting more knuckle-headed bro-prose, a fiction equivalent of Tucker Max or Timothy Ferriss out there. Lucky for me, I’m so outside the loop on contemporary writers that I don’t even know who would qualify for that category.
So how do I measure up to GQ‘s literary bar? I’m amazed to see that I’ve read eight of the 21 books on their list. I thought I was far more esoteric than that:
The Corrections • Back when it came out, before I worked out my belief that life is too short for shitty novels. I read it in the month after 9/11, so I wasn’t thinking straight. Cut me some goddamned slack, alright?
The Human Stain • Maybe my least favorite of Roth’s American Pastoral books. The GQ writeup cites it as “the best book on sex, scandal . . . and political correctness in the Lewinsky Moment.” It’s also about a black guy passing for white, but that’s part of what makes it my least favorite of those books, and probably why GQ doesn’t include that in the “best” part. Also, they write, “Roth coined the famous phrase ‘ecstasy of sanctimony’,” which I swear to God I have never heard/read until this weekend.
Austerlitz • Hands-down best book on this list. You need to read all of Sebald’s books. I was going to write “novels” there, but Sebald’s writing defies the fiction/non-fiction categories in a much more interesting way than the spate of writers who spice up their memoirs by creating utterly false events. Stop wasting your time reading silly blogs and go read Sebald!
Cloud Atlas • I’m a fan of Mitchell’s work and loved the Pynchon/Calvino meta-structuring, where the novel is built like a series of nested narratives in a symbolic logic sequence (not, as GQ writes, “six rollicking story lines connecting disparate-seeming characters through reincarnation”). It jumps genres and offers plenty of thrills, along with profound thoughts on various modes of art. Give it a read.
Gilead • I’m hoping to get Marilynne Robinson on my podcast someday, once I’ve read some of her essays. She’s able to write about quietness, earnest faith and day-to-day life much better than her contemporaries. I want to reread this one before I start on her followup to it, Home.
Netherland • One of the first novels I read on a Kindle, so I’m thinking maybe I need to cut it some slack, because I wasn’t used to the reading experience and not knowing how far along I was in a book. I enjoyed the first chapter, but felt it dragged on pretty interminably after that. Enough people I respect dig it enough that I think I need to give it a reread.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao • I’ve gone on record saying that it’s a good novel that feels like a prose-adaptation of the Hernandez Brothers’ Love & Rockets comics, with the Dominican Republic standing in for the Palomar parts. I mean that pretty much as a good thing, but I also mean, “Those characters feel like they were lifted from Beto and Jaime’s strips in ways that feel really obvious to me but might not occur to critics and readers who aren’t familiar with the source matter.” That said, I consider my recommendation to be far better than GQ‘s: “Because we’ve heard heard a book talk like this one: ‘Dude, you don’t want to be dead. Take it from me. No-pussy is bad. But dead is like no-pussy times ten.'” Seriously: that’s the entirety of their recommendation. Nothing about the history of the Dominican Republic, nothing about nerd culture, nothing about the female punker characters.
Saturday • I was on a bit of a McEwan kick a few years ago, but wound up feeling like he was a writer who was working almost completely to match E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. This one, about a London surgeon whose life gets uprooted when he’s stuck in traffic because of an anti-war (Iraq) march, didn’t feel as formulaic as Amsterdam, but still felt somehow . . . modeled. It gets points for having a House-like medical diagnosis play a major role in the plot.
That wasn’t so bad. The only one I regret spending time on was Franzen.
What about the ones I haven’t read? I’ve got that Cormac McCarthy book on my Kindle, but never started it. Never saw the movie, either.
I feel like I would’ve been compelled to read Zadie Smith if she’d been around when I was a student at Hampshire, and that notion has totally repulsed me from even giving her a shot. Which is to say, I’m quite cognizant of my irrational biases. I try to overcome them, but there are only so many hours in a day. I went to a college that had no course requirements but did have a “third-world expectation”.
I was intrigued by the PR for 2666, but I lay down and it passed.
I thought about reading Tree of Smoke several times over the years and even considered buying it this morning when I saw it on bookcloseouts.com, but I opted to buy some John Hodgman books and the Complete Poems of Philip Larkin instead.
I’ll likely get around to that George Saunders collection; I really dug CivilWarLand in Bad Decline when I read it (c. 1996), but I haven’t been much of a short-story guy in recent decades. Now that he’s in vogue again, I’ll put off reading him for a while.
I know I really need to get to Alice Munro, and will.
I think I have a copy of that Lethem novel in my library, but I may have traded it in when I went through The Mid-Life Culling.
I heard that The Art of Fielding is utterly mediocre. That’s another one that got a huge PR push from literary venues, and apparently left some readers feeling like they’d been swindled. B.R. Myers tore up the publicity machine behind it, which was fun.
I don’t know anything about the other ones. Let me know if you think I’m missing anything there.
What would I have swapped onto that list? I don’t have a ton of post-2000 novels on under my belt, but I’d make a place for Gould’s Book of Fish by Ricahrd Flanagan. I’d also replace The Human Stain with Everyman, Roth’s book about an old Jew who dies. Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil is more compulsively entertaining than any book on the list. I’d put Max Brooks’ World War Z on, as well as Richard Price’s Lush Life and Elliot Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity. Maybe Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists is better than one of the books I didn’t read. I bet it is. Walter Kirn’s Up in the Air? Probably that, too. Which kinda makes the point that there’s no way to establish a “canon” nowadays, especially not an instant one like this. I still wonder what books from, say, 1980 onwards will be read in 25 years, but that’s the sorta thing that occupies my otherwise idle cycles.
I have to give the GQ editors some credit, even if some of their actual recommendations/precis were laughably bad. Unless these selections were just bought by publishers’ PR departments, they seem to have some interest in relatively intelligent contemporary fiction. Their recommendations certainly weren’t as horrific as I feared it’d be.
Still, doesn’t mean I’m going to buy a bucket hat any time soon. Nor these.
[More literary ramblings await at my podcast, The Virtual Memories Show.]
If a man cannot forget, he will never amount to much.
Ever wonder where all those Unrequired Reading links come from? I use NetNewsWire for my RSS reader. It helps me keep track of 150+ RSS feeds, and has its own browser for feeds that I want to click through. The problem is, I have a tendency to save tabs “for later”, and there are presently more than 60 browser windows open in the program.
I save some pages for my own edification, not necessarily for posting. Still, I have a feeling all these tabs are starting to impair my computer’s ability to keep me happy, so I’ve decided to thin out the ranks today. After all, there are also more than 800 unread items in the feed. That’s about two days’ accumulation of feeds. I’ll zap through some of them en masse, but read some of the others pretty intently.
So let’s go through a whole ton of links that I meant to write about, but never got around to and likely never will! I’ll even share the “just for me” links, goofy as they are! (I thought about writing this as 88 Lines about 44 Links, but didn’t think I’d be able to make it all rhyme; sorry.)
I meant to write a whole lot about George Orwell, and that’s why the following links have been sitting in my tabs for so darned long.
The Masterpiece That Killed George Orwell – Orwell’s last days on Jura, writing 1984. (5/10/09)
Oxford Literary Festival: George Orwell’s son speaks for the first time about his father – Richard Blair was only 6 when his adoptive dad died, but he liked life on Jura. (3/15/09)
TS Eliotâ€™s snort of rejection for Animal Farm – Ha-ha! You were wrong, Tough Shit! (3/29/09)
A Fine Rage – James Wood on Orwell. I haven’t read this yet; the link is only for an abstract, and I’m not a New Yorker subscriber, so I gotta hit the library sometime and find the original. Sure sounds interesting, and it’s got a great Ralph Steadman illo of Orwell. (4/13/09)
Bumming Smokes in Paris and London: George Orwellâ€™s Obsession with Tobacco – I once argued that the real horror of 1984 isn’t the rats in a cage or the police busting down the door, but rather the dull razor blades and the cigarettes that fall apart. This PopMatters article may cover that, but it’s SEVEN PAGES LONG and the single-page version is poorly formatted and won’t resize in my browser. So I’ll never know. (6/19/09)
Curse Ye, Orwell! – I hadn’t gotten around to reading this Popmatters article about the limitations of Orwell’s Why I Write essay till now, but it strikes me that the author takes Orwell’s writing as far too canonical and literal. Pfeh. (1/22/10)
I wanted to write about the thinning out of my library. I had some thoughts about the process of admitting that there are books you will never get around to reading, a theme I hit on before, and how my tastes and interests have changed.
Shelf Life – William H. Gass on his library. (12/07)
Longing for Great Lost Works – Stephen Marche on the (maybe) wonderful books, plays and poems that were lost. Sorta like all the blog-posts I abandoned, right? (4/18/09)
Books do furnish a life – Roger Ebert on the books that mount up in his office library. (10/5/09)
Antilibraries – Jason Kottke on Nassim Nicholas Taleb on Umberto Eco on how the books we haven’t read menace us. (6/1/09)
2009 Commencement Address by Daniel Mendelsohn – Beautiful story about why we read the classics, which would’ve helped (in part) with my justification for tossing many contemporary/ephemeral books from my library. (5/15/09)
Middlebrow Messiahs – A review of a book about the history of the Great Books as a commercial concept. The book is uncharitable toward St. John’s College, where I went to grad school, but the reviewer takes the writer to task for that. (1/16/09)
Confessions of a Middlebrow Professor – Here’s another essay inspired by that book and the idea of middlebrow culture striving for intellectual achievement. Obviously, I was going to write some sort of essay about my time at St. John’s around this. (10/5/09)
The Arcadia Fire
Speaking of the classics, destroying libraries, and the conversation with the past, I really wanted to write about Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. I may still. Here are the first few paragraphs of an abortive attempt:
I’ve written before about my evolving relationship with works of art (mainly books, movies and music) and their touchstone-y nature in my life. I think my best take on it was my year-end post in 2008 — I’ve written plenty on works that meant a lot to me once upon a time, but make me cringe now, as well as works that have grown in my estimation over the years.
Sometimes I think I’ve neglected to tell you about the works that have retained their importance to me all these years. Partly it’s because of how familiar I am with them, how much they’ve come to inform who I am and how I understand things. Partly it’s because I’m afraid that I’ll fail to do them justice, that I’ll come up short in my descriptions of them and their importance.
I could give you a list of books that have stuck with me all this time, beginning with Orwell’s essays and Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, and it’d be a nice counterweight to my 0-fer series, where I celebrate all the lacunae in my reading universe.
Which brings me to Arcadia.
Eh. Here are some of the links that would’ve woven into the piece.
Et In Arcadia – Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variaion kicked things off for me by noting two revivals of Arcadia in D.C. and London. (5/15/09)
Warmly, an ‘Arcadia’ That’s Most Calculating – Peter Marks at The Washington Post reviews the D.C. revival. I imagine that the editor who wrote that headline must be very difficult to understand in conversation. (5/15/09)
Dinner with the FT: Sir Tom Stoppard – Illuminating conversation covering the London revival of Arcadia and Stoppard’s adaptation of Chekhov. Plus you get to find out what they spent on the meal.(5/15/09)
Interview: Katherine Dunn – I could’ve sworn I posted this AV Club interview with Katherine “Geek Love” Dunn before, but I’m not finding any link for it on the site. Oops. (5/21/09)
Outsmarted – Another big John Lanchester review/essay in The New Yorker about finance. I’m undecided about reading his new book on the subject, I.O.U.: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. (6/1/09)
50 Must-Read Novels from the 20th Century – Do you miss that Literary 0-fers series I used to post, about authors and series I’ve never read a word of? I was going to use this list for that. Since it has White Noise on the list and describes it as “beautifully postmodern,” you don’t really have to subject yourself to this one.
When Lit Blew Into Bits – This was going to be near the center for my Books of the Decade post, which got derailed when a pal of mine died unexpectedly. It’s got some neat arguments, even if it neglects to mention that Oscar Wao is a prose hybrid-rewrite of the Hernandez Bros.’ Love & Rockets comics. (12/6/09)
Rilke the clay pot – I wish I had the stamina to make it through this review of a new translation of Rilke’s poems, a new bio and a collection his correspondence with Lou Andreas-SalomÃ©. Alas, I’m going to delete it after six months. (9/16/09)
The Hack – How did Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ time as a journalist affect his prose? Sadly, I don’t care enough to finish the article. (Jan/Feb 2010)
Hollywood’s Favorite Cowboy – A rare interview with Cormac McCarthy. I don’t dig his work very much, but it’s a fascinating conversation. (11/20/09)
Court of Opinion – A New York Magazine book club-style discussion of Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball. I quit reading that book after discovering that the Robert Horry writeup consisted of a 3-page reprint of one of Simmons’ columns. Still, it was fun to get other people’s perspectives. (12/8/09)
Vulcan: The Soul of Spock – A video essay from Matt Zoller Seitz on Spock-As-Othello. (5/6/09)
Zen Pulp: The World of Michael Mann, Pt. 1: Vice Precedent – Zoller Seitz also did a series of video essays on Michael Mann’s movies, partly focusing on the idea that Mann is obsessed with work, albeit not in the way that Charlie Kaufman’s scripts all seem to be about work and how it defines us. (7/1/09)
The Ubiquitous Anderson – A video essay about the pernicious influence of Wes Anderson, from the prism of Rian Johnson’s movie The Brothers Bloom. I haven’t watched this yet and, since I didn’t like The Brothers Bloom very much, probably won’t. (5/21/09)
Quentin Tarantino lists his top films of 2009 – Star Trek was #1, so whatever.(12/14/09)
A pal of mine from St. John’s has been blogging under that handle for a while. I’ve reposted him from time to time.
Music Post – I haven’t clicked through all the links to the music and videos. Glad we share an affinity for the Pet Shop Boys. (Gayyyy. . . .) (10/5/09)
Yeats: “Sailing to Byzantium” – B.S. is a good reader (and re-reader) of books, plays and poetry, so I’ve saved some of the ones for pieces that I’ve yet to read.
Shelley: “Ode to the West Wind” – I wish I read more poetry. (11/4/09)
People Must Love a Good Blog Post – He covers a couple of subjects, but focuses on Hollywood of the 1970’s, considered via Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, (or How the Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll Generation Saved Hollywood).
Books in a Digital Age – I’m afraid this long Sven Birkerts’ essay will boil down to “books good, internet bad,” but I haven’t read it yet. Given the nature of this post of mine, he’s probably right. (Spring 2010)
Preface to Mid-Life Creative Imperatives, Part 1 of 3 – Springboarding off Jeet Heer’s post about what great cartoonists did in their middle-age, Gary Groth recently wrote an epic take on the subject. I think. Approaching 40, I was interested in the topic, but feared I wouldn’t finish reading it before turning 50. (2/24/10)
CR Holiday Interviews #9 (Jeet Heer) and #11 (Timothy Hodler) – Tom Spurgeon at Comics Reporter published a great series of interviews around the holidays. I pulled a couple of them and keep meaning to go back and read the whole shebang, but I was most interested in checking out these guys, who are both good comics critics. (12/29/09 and 12/31/09)
The Architect of 9/11 – I haven’t gotten around to reading these posts about Mohamed Atta, and how his architecture background may have influenced his radicalism and his role in 9/11. (9/8/09)
The Chess Master and the Computer – I was gonna tie this Garry Kasparov review into a conversation I had c.1994 about how the changeover to CD and digital recording may have subtly affected the way music was played and recorded. Nowadays, some artists are recording in ways that play to the narrower range of MP3 compression and/or ringtone speakers, and I’m glad to be vindicated in that. Playing chess against computers changes the way we learn and play chess. (2/11/10)
Ennui Becomes Us – A National Interest article about how the world’s going to hell or something, as per the second law of thermodynamics. No, seriously: information entropy is behind everything. It’s like Thomas Pynchon c. 1965. (12/16/09)
Seizing the Opportunity to Destroy Western Civilization – Speaking of which, World War I was a black swan. (3/4/10)
Edge People – The latest installment in Tony Judt’s memoirs, post-ALS. (2/23/10)
The agony of a body artist – I’m not sure what I was going to do with this Roger Ebert blog post about performance artist Chris Burden. (10/14/09)
Andy Warhol’s TV – I still wanna write about Plimpton and Warhol and celebrity in New York. I’ll probably get some good material out of watching these Warhol TV shows from the ’80’s.(7/1/09)
I love Paul Sahner’s daily photo-essays of New York, one block at a time on NYC Grid. But I fell behind last month, and have a couple of them tabbed (as well as a bunch as unread news items).
- Riverside Dr Between 79th St and 81st St (2/15/10)
- Central Park West Between 81st St and 77th St (2/16/10)
- 75th St Between Columbus Ave and Amsterdam Ave (2/17/10)
- 29th St Between 7th Ave and 8th Ave (3/5/10)
Just For Me
The Essential Home Bar – I care about my gin. (2/18/10)
This year, I started to care about how I dress, so I have some men’s fashion sites in my RSS.
Feature: Footwear With Jesse Thorn of PutThisOn.com – I need some variety in my shoes, okay? (3/9/10)
The Pants After Jeans – It’s difficult for me to find a pair of pants that fit well (not too tight in the crotchal region, not too balloony for the rest of the leg). (2/28/10)
I still want to get back to fiction writing someday. So:
Ten rules for writing fiction – A bunch of writers offer up their antidote to Elmore Leonard’s weird 10 rules. It took me a while to start it, because I’m that good at procrastinating when it comes to my own writing. (2/20/10)
How to Write a Great Novel: Junot Diaz, Anne Rice, Margaret Atwood and Other Authors Tell – Sort of a shorthand version of those Paris Review Writers At Work interviews. (11/13/09)
Overcoming Creative Block – Strategies visual artists use to get out of a rut. There’s some good stuff in here. I’m sure one technique is to quit reading so many RSS feeds. (2/10/10)
When I was a pretentious young man (I’m older now; but that doesn’t mean I’m less pretentious), the Paris Review Writers at Work anthologies were my Bible. (Or at least my Apocrypha. My Bible was a mash-up of Tropic of Cancer and Inside the Whale.)
I’d seek out the collections at used bookstores. The first volume I picked up, the 5th Series, contained interviews with William Gass (whom I was just then struggling to read), Jerzy Kosinski, Gore Vidal, P.G. Wodehouse, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and more. The interviews were a joy to this self-important, deluded Future Great American Writer, deftly exploring the writers’ histories, influences and literary opinions, while also revealing some of the practical aspects of their writing habits. Each interview was prefaced with a facsimile of a page of the writer’s manuscript or typescript. This was a wonderful touch, a peek into the writer’s editorial process.
(Well, except for the Henry Miller interview, which had a bizarre diagram with the caption, “Manuscript plan of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn, ’embracing planetary conjunction; topographical map of region and monuments and streets and cemeteries; fatal, or otherwise, influence of fields â€” according to type; Major Events; Dominant Idea; Psychological Pattern.” This may be why I never finished Tropic of Capricorn.)
If I found WaW volumes in a library, I’d photocopy the interviews with my favorites. I still have a folder somewhere with Philip Roth, Harold Bloom, Milan Kundera (I said I was pretentious back then) and others. I began looking up past issues of the Paris Review to find other interviews that had yet to be anthologized.
One of my great triumphs came when I was in Bethesda, MD in 1998 for the Small Press Expo (SPX), an indie-comics event. In a used bookstore near the expo hotel, I found issue #105 with the famed (and uncollected) William Gaddis interview!
At SPX, I met Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth. I’d been writing mean-spirited reviews for his magazine, The Comics Journal, for a few months at that time. He thanked me for those, joking that it was good to have someone else writing mean-spiritedly in the magazine, because it freed up his time. Then he noticed the Paris Review back issue in my hand and said, “I see you found the one with the William Gaddis interview!”
I felt like I was in good company.
The WaW anthology series, published by Viking / Penguin, ended after the 9th volume in 1992, near as I can tell from abebooks.com. A decade or so later, Modern Library began publishing Women Writers at Work, Beat Writers at Work, Playwrights at Work and, um, Latin American Writers at Work (?), but I never picked those up. (I did grab The Writer’s Chapbook, which excerpted quotes from the interviews around particular themes, such as the audience, character, potboilers, peers, etc. It was a nice volume, but not as satisfying as having the complete interviews.)
In 2006, St. Martin’s Picador imprint began a new series called The Paris Review Interviews (I, II, and III). They’re the same format as the old WaW collections, right down to the facsimile manuscript page. And they collected the Gaddis interview! I still find the interviews pretty delightful, even though I’m no longer harboring dreams of being a Great American Writer. (I 0-fer-ized two of them here and here.)
George, Being George has a lot of good material about the history of the interviews, including the giddy elation some writers experienced when they were asked by George Plimpton to sit down for a Writers at Work session. Rather than excerpt any of those, I instead offer up a passage about the business of publishing the books:
MONA SIMPSON: [George] was very unhappy at one point with the amount of money that the Review had been paid for the various anthologies of interviews. Viking was paying us very little, and they were delaying publications. So Jay and I volunteered to go to this guy we knew at Simon and Schuster to see about moving our books there, and George was all for it. After an extended series of meetings, we got an offer for twenty-five thousand dollars â€” the current publisher was offering, I think three thousand â€” and they were really going to push it and promote it. So we come to George saying, “Okay, let’s sign on the dotted line, it’s going to be great.”
Then, at the last minute, George calls our editor at the other house â€” basically an old friend of George’s whom he’d been working with for years, who occasionally sent him tickets to a ball game. The editor sends George some tickets to the ball game and the whole deal is off. We realized at that point that we couldn’t just go out in the world and do that sort of thing anymore, not even with his permission, because we found that we basically didn’t have power to go against his personal loyalties. It was very embarrassing, because Simon and Schuster was outraged that we were staying with an offer that was about twelve percent of theirs.
I’ve taken several clients to basketball and baseball games, as well as fancy dinners. I like to believe that our magazine offers great value to our advertisers and that the fun times are sorta ancillary, but I’m sure that “relationship-building” activities like this muddle even the most otherwise clear business decisions.
As I said, George, Being George is a pretty entertaining book. Why, it’s right here at the end of my Plimpton/Review shelf!
Oh, and the fourth volume of the new series â€” sorry, the IVth one â€” is coming out next week, so you should get on that.