Tag Archives: Charles Baxter

Thomas Mallon: Watergate, the Novel

12 Jan

 

 

 

 

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Given the deplorable state of historical literacy in the greatest country in the world, I have long held that if I were allowed to teach history there are a number of novels I would include in my lesson plans—in addition to the eye-opening, ground-breaking People’s History by Howard Zinn. Thomas Mallon has written a number of those novels—Henry and Clara, Two Moons, Dewey Defeats Truman, Bandbox, Fellow Travelers, and now Watergate.

This is the fifth or sixth conversation I have had with Mallon since the mid-’90s. Needless to say, he is a delightful and erudite conversationalist. Watergate, the historical event, which we both remember vividly, occupies much of what follows, including postmortems on Nixon, Kissinger, the Mitchells, John and Martha, and some others. Additionally, Mallon dedicated Watergate (the novel) to his good friend, the late Christopher Hitchens,[1] which, of course, sparks an enlightening tangent on Hitch.

By the way, it should be useful to keep in mind that what follows is a chat about both a nexus of historical events and a novel of the same name.

######

Robert Birnbaum: I keep reading that it’s the 40th anniversary of Watergate. So what? Why should anyone care?

 

 

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Watergate by Thomas Mallon

Thomas Mallon: The [book’s] publication was not timed for the anniversary. In fact the book was ready to come out in the fall. I would have been happier if it had—it would have been an easier semester for me, traveling around. And I don’t think Watergate anniversaries have been big, generally. The problem is there is no one thing to peg the anniversary to. You could do an anniversary for when Nixon resigned, the anniversary of the break-in—so I think it’s just a journalistic convenience to mention it.

RB: Did I miss John Dean’s review of your book?

TM: Just this morning I saw—I was sent something.

RB: He mentioned the book in the context of a review of Max Holland’s book about Mark Felt [Deep Throat].

TM: That’s right.

RB: Dean suggested he wasn’t going to read your novel.

TM: He said his friends were reading it. They were asking him, “Did Mrs. Nixon really have an affair?” And he said, “No, not to my knowledge.” And he didn’t think she could have had an affair in the way she does in the book. That I didn’t quite understand. The affair she has in the book predates her husband’s presidency. It’s an affair she has in New York in the ’60s.

RB: Doesn’t she meet her lover in South America?

TM: In Brazil. He does meet her there, but while she’s First Lady they have only two fleeting and chaste encounters in the context of big public events. So I wasn’t quite sure what he [Dean] meant by that.

RB: This is historical fiction, which readers ought to be reminded of. But why create a love affair for the character, Pat Nixon?

TM: I think in some ways it’s the emotional heart of the book—Mrs. Nixon and this affair. Frank Gannon [in the Wall Street Journal] was quite nice to the book but he did not like that.

RB: Many reviewers have lauded the book.

TM: People have been very kind—I’ve been delighted. But he was left queasy by the affair. He said, “Imagine the Nixon daughters reading this.”

RB: He quoted you saying you can’t libel the dead.

TM: It’s very interesting what he tried to do. But finally, I had to disagree with him. I had once written in an essay that there are things you shouldn’t do to the dead even though they are dead and can’t be litigious. This was in reference to a movie that had been made implying that Thomas E. Dewey, who was once a character in one of my books [Dewey Defeats Truman], had actually been corrupt. To me, to say that Mrs. Nixon might have had this tender, brief affair is not an iniquitous thing. I fictionalized her life more than some of the others, but in a way this falsity or invention somehow allowed me to get inside her head in a way I don’t think I could have otherwise. In a peculiar way, I got to some aspects of the truth about her via invention.

RB: Again, the critical chorus was adulatory. One critic called the Watergate episode “vaudevillian.”

TM: It may be my own fault because I wrote the flap copy myself.

 

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

RB: That’s one part of the book I didn’t read.

TM: And I did write in the flap copy (picks up book), “It conveys the comedy and the high drama of the Nixon presidency.” And there definitely are comic moments in it. But I have been somewhat surprised by the reviews that have emphasized the comedic aspects of the book. More than I expected; more than I thought they existed.

RB: There are a lot of characters, but Fred LaRue becomes central to the story. He has this personal tragedy and an odd relationship. Why focus on LaRue?

TM: He appealed to me for a couple of reasons. I remember seeing a documentary that was made about 20 years ago and featured him. His soft-spokenness, his shyness, the fact that he choked up at one point. He just began to intrigue me. There are about three invented characters in the book. The tip-off in the dramatis personae is the three names in quotation marks. The woman he is involved with, Clarine Lander, is also a fiction. But the great calamity of his life, prior to Watergate, involved him killing his father in a hunting accident in Canada and inheriting a lot of money. Naturally, a certain amount of suspicion or whatever you want to call it is going to cling to a person in those circumstances. That intrigued me. He is very shadowy.I am not very good with villains generally. I think the closest I come to villainy in my books is the shadowy presence of John Wilkes Booth.

RB: Did he never find out if it was an accident?

TM: In my story he never really knows. And that gets all wrapped up with what happened in Watergate years later. He’s very shadowy. He had no title, no salary. He did a lot of things for John Mitchell, whom he really loved. And he lived in the Watergate.  There was one newspaper profile of him in September of ’72, prior to Watergate really exploding. It suggested something like, “He seems to be out of one of [Faulkner’s] Snopes novels.” And that appealed to me. I had a list at the beginning—I still have it in my files somewhere—with dozens and dozens of names that were potential point-of-view characters. And it finally came down to seven. There’s a huge cast, but only seven—

RB: And you cast Alice Longworth prominently. I lived through Watergate I don’t remember her presence. Was she interviewed a lot?

TM: A little bit. She turned 90 at the time. Nixon went to her birthday party at her house in Dupont Circle. She wrote somewhere, when time was running out for him, “Oh I think the clock is dick, dick, dicking.” She had known him from the time he had come to town in the ’40s. She had marked him as a comer. She was very fond of him and Pat, and at least one of the daughters. She said to an interviewer, one time, “Tricia:  what’s wrong with her?” She was in the Nixon White House more than I thought when I began looking at the schedules. So I made her into my one-woman witches’ chorus. People have wondered why I didn’t use Martha Mitchell, who was so flamboyant—

RB: She was a drunk.

TM: (laughs) That’s the problem. She was really too far gone for most of Watergate. And she is really absent from the scene—the Mitchells decamped for New York pretty early on. She just wouldn’t have worked.

RB: From the outside, John Mitchell struck me as a gruff and unattractive person. He does come off as a more sympathetic character in your narrative—as do most of the people.

 

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

Henry and Clara by Thomas Mallon

TM: I am not very good with villains generally. I think the closest I come to villainy in my books is the shadowy presence of John Wilkes Booth [in Henry and Clara] (laughs).

RB: Haldeman? You seemed to get Nixon dead on—a misanthrope in a flesh presser’s profession.

TM: Yeah. There are people who claim that he actually liked politics and liked campaigning. I find that kind of hard to believe. But where Nixon is concerned:  what would be the point of writing a novel about someone who’s just a mustache-twirling villain? I just wanted to see all this with a certain intimacy. You are right; Haldemnn seems sort of nasty in the book, though you tend to see him through Rose Mary Woods—he’s the man who displaced her in a way.  It’s generally that old Graham Greene term—the human factor—that interests me.

RB: George Will’s review

TM: It was actually his syndicated column.

RB: I thought he got it exactly right—that you learn so much from novels by Gore Vidal, Max Byrd, and Robert Penn Warren [“bring… men alive in ways that only a literary imagination can”]. Here’s the thing, it seems that no one knew who ordered the break-in, but what does beg for emphasis is that the real crime was the cover-up. That’s what brought Nixon down. One wonders what might have happened if he had cut his losses? Was he incapable of admitting he was wrong or mistaken?

TM: A lot of it involves Mitchell. It’s true that nobody knows for sure, to this day, who told them to go into the Democratic National Committee at that point. There is a whole kind of grassy-knoll theory of Watergate that posits something very different, which I don’t buy into.

RB: What, Castro funding the Democrats?

TM: Yeah, and then there is the whole theory that John Dean was the evil mastermind. But it’s fairly easily established that Gordon Liddy presented this plan for massive surveillance and—this crazy—you know, the Gemstone plan—in John Mitchell’s office in the Justice Department early in 1972. If only Nixon had said at the beginning, “all those people are now fired from the committee” and gotten Mitchell to take the fall!  Whether Mitchell signed off on it or not, this was not a meeting that should have ever taken place in the offices of the Justice department.  If Nixon had sacrificed Mitchell—To me the real Rosetta Stone of Watergate is the spring of 1970. It’s when Nixon goes into Cambodia and Kent State follows. There were massive demonstrations in Washington and a ring of buses around the White House. He makes that crazy middle-of-the-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial. The super-charged atmosphere of that—I remember this as a very young man. It was so intense.

RB: Which he had to do anyway.

TM: Eventually. If he had done it at the beginning, he might have survived. But he didn’t want to do it. Mitchell had had so much to do with making him president.

RB: How was it that CREEP was being run out of a government office?

TM: They knew Mitchell was going to run the campaign but he was still attorney general. There is a very large sympathetic biography of Mitchell called The Strong Man by James Rosen, which is very interesting. It won’t convince everybody, but it’s a full-bodied picture of Mitchell. Nixon ultimately blamed Martha Mitchell [for his downfall]. One of the things that was clear to me—the Mitchells were a love match. It was a second marriage for both of them. And Mitchell, I think, really loved Martha. But Martha was tremendously out of control.

RB: Was she always a drunk?

TM: I think so, but her problems at that point were really severe. She really needed to be in a sanitarium. Nixon used to say that it was because of Martha—John’s preoccupation with her troubles —that [Mitchell] wasn’t minding the store. That’s as far as he would go in blaming him. But he was not going to cut him loose in ’72.

RB: They ultimately divorced, right?

TM: Yes, and she ultimately became quite ill and died in ’76.

RB: The break-in wasn’t the only illegality in that nexus of events—the plumbers and the burglarizing of [Daniel]Ellsberg’s shrink’s office, Donald Segretti’s dirty tricks—

TM: He was pretty low-rent. But even Mitchell referred to the “White House horrors”—they knew they had these secrets that were really—

RB: And lots of undocumented cash.

TM: Right. Well, as he famously says to Dean on that tape, “We could get a million dollars. It’d be wrong but we could do it.” People often date the point at which Nixon goes off the deep end to Ellsberg’s publication of The Pentagon Papers. [2]So Nixon, like many presidents, became obsessed with leaks. And he forms this squad, “the plumbers,” to deal with them. And to some extent, yes, that is the crucial turning point:  thats what brings Howard Hunt into the White House. But to me the real Rosetta Stone of Watergate can be found a year before that—to me it’s the spring of 1970. It’s when Nixon goes into Cambodia and Kent State follows. There were massive demonstrations in Washington and a ring of buses around the White House. He makes that crazy middle-of-the-night visit to the Lincoln Memorial. The super-charged atmosphere of that—I remember this as a very young man, it was so intense—that was what gave Nixon a Manichean view of the world, this us-against-them view. In some ways, that set in motion everything that followed.

RB: There’s not a lot of Kissinger’s presence, but [the book] does say a lot about him (laughs).

TM: Well. It’s all there on the tape.  I refer to something like “guttural rumbling gravitas.”  I wish I could quote myself better. Any time these tapes are released, anyone who has the slightest regard for Richard Nixon has to crawl into a hole for days. You hear these awful things, these slurs and all his prejudices. Many of which to Nixon were a species of tough-guy locker room talk—he worshipped toughness. This last batch, oh my god. Kissinger comes off worse than Nixon. They are talking about the plight of Soviet Jewry. And Kissinger says something like, “If a million Jews were to perish, it is not a national security issue. It is perhaps a human tragedy.” My friend Hitchens said, when those were released, “You’ve got to love that ‘perhaps.’”

RB: You dedicated this book to Christopher Hitchens.

 

Christopher Hitchens circa 2001[photo Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Christopher Hitchens circa 2001[photo Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

TM: Yes, I loved him to pieces. And admired him.

RB: I think many people did, even through the twists and turns of his politics. He was brilliant.

TM: Yes, very brave. Lived between two fires.

RB: What other journalist had himself water-boarded to ascertain whether it was torture?

 

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

Fellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

 

TM: He was a very gentle person too. The tributes to him have been enormous and well deserved but that was the one side that they didn’t quite catch. In my novel Fellow Travelers there is a left-wing journalist for The Nation called Kenneth Woodford who is very kind to the hapless little gay guy, the protagonist Laughlin. And that was Hitchens, and he never recognized himself in it. I know he read the book—we talked about it. He even wrote something about it.

RB: Is there anyone that is like him?

TM: No, there is nobody. I remember he was debating a rabbi when the atheism book came out. And the rabbi said, “Now, Mr. Hitchens, I didn’t interrupt you.” And Hitchens said very softly, “You’re not quick enough.” (both laugh) I don’t think there was anybody who was as fast on his feet—he could debate anyone. And he was a literary man as well as a political man. I just think he was—I mean the grace with which he handled the last 18 months!  He put up a brutal fight against cancer. The pieces he wrote for Vanity Fair about that received a lot of well-deserved acclaim—a lot of people who read those pieces, what they didn’t realize was that all the time he was writing them he was still writing his pieces for Slate about Gadhafi, the election, and whatever was going on. Still doing his real work.  That was really quite heroic.

They are reissuing three of his books in the next couple of months—the book about the Clintons, Kissinger, and the book about Mother Teresa. They have new introductions; I did one for Mother Teresa. Which means another few years in Purgatory, I’m sure. He had this very eclectic mix of people around him because he was on so many political sides. You could go to dinner there and Grover Norquist would be across the table, [Salman] Rushdie would be next to you. And he had a lot of younger conservative journalists around during the Iraq War—also political operatives, people in the administration—they were thrilled to have this blue-chip intellectual backing Bush’s Iraq position, and I always used to sit there waiting for what I called “the Mother Teresa moment.”  I would think, just wait, the conversation is going to take another turn. They are going to have to deal with the fact that Hitchens is an unreconstructed socialist—he called himself a socialist until the day he died. And they were going to have to realize that he was all of a piece.I don’t intend to go on forever. People do. But not everyone has these bursts like [Philip] Roth in their 70s.

RB: So, did you have fun writing Watergate?

TM: I did. Much more than many other books (chuckles). One of the things I was amazed at was, once I really dug into it, it came back to me so quickly. Details, quotes, minor players.

RB: Meaning you didn’t have to do much research?

TM: I did, but it was all sort of there. Like dragging a file out from some drawer. It stuck with me because A) it was so vivid and B) I was so young—you absorb and retain at that age. The amount of stuff available—[the players in the Watergate drama] almost all wrote memoirs, if only to pay their legal bills. There are all the committee transcripts; there are the tapes. It’s that rare subject where I wished there was less.

RB: E.L. Doctorow says he does as little research as he can get away with.

TM: I do think that anybody writing this kind of fiction has to start writing before he completes his research–or else he falls into dissertation syndrome—“I can’t start writing until I have read everything.” And that’s a prescription for never starting.

RB: You had an opportunity to lionize Senator Sam Ervin but you ended up giving attention to Mississippi Senator  James Eastland.

TM: Well, Ervin is so familiar. Eastland was crucial to developing [Fred] LaRue.  LaRue was the one who would bring to Eastland, who was head of the Judiciary Committee, Nixon’s conservative judicial nominations.  And he was another Mississippian. So I had a few Jubilation T Cornpone scenes.

RB: In writing a book like this is there a beginning and an end? What’s next?

TM: I’m going to write about Reagan next.

RB: What happened to the murder book?

TM: It’s been bumped again. If I ever do that one, it would be my tenth novel and that might be it. I don’t intend to go on forever. People do. But not everyone has these bursts like [Phillip] Roth in their 70s. I am going to try to write about Reagan’s Washington, set around the time of the Reykjavik summit, which was a thrilling, bizarre episode. I still write a lot of nonfiction and I am kind of grateful—I’m now 60, which is pretty young—

RB: It’s the new 40.

TM: It’s still young in absolute terms, but I can see reaching a point—I hope I am a few books away from it—when it comes time to bring the plane in for a gentle landing. I still love writing essays and reviews and all the rest. Maybe I can content myself with that?

RB: Well, the conventional wisdom for maintaining mental acuity is “Use it or lose it.”

TM: I do think the real challenge in writing novels and particularly a book like this is organization and structure. There is this massive amount of material to corral into some sort of discernible shape.

RB: So many choices.

TM: That’s the thing. I had lists of dozens of characters—do I go with that person or that person? Eventually you have to make a decision and narrow it down and eliminate people.    You have that nice little magazine up here called Ploughshares, and they are doing an essay issue that’s being edited by my friend Patricia Hampl, a wonderful memoirist. So she’s been putting the touch on all of her writer pals for essays. And I’m doing a little nonfiction thing about Nixon, trying to figure out my preoccupation with him.

RB: Perhaps the greatest indictment of Nixon was in Charles Baxter’s essay “Burning Down the House,” where he faults Nixon for introducing the dysfunctional narrative by employing “mistakes were made…”

TM: The irony is we will never have a president who is more real to us than Nixon–for all his unreality.  You have some tapes that Kennedy made, Johnson made, whatever. But to have all those tapes—Nixon unbound, sometimes unglued—to be able to hold those against all of his recorded public utterances:  that’s an extraordinary thing.

RB: He taped everything.

TM: But he didn’t do it for the first two years. He got rid of Johnson’s taping system at the beginning. And then they decided that the quality of memoranda they were getting from the people who were supposed to record meetings (the low man on the totem pole would be the note taker) was just too low.  Haldeman, in his efficient way, so disliked the quality of what they were getting that he said, “Let’s just tape everything. These things aren’t worth a damn when you try to refer to them.” Once he did it, he went into it in such an enormous way. There must be at least one tape of Nixon listening to the tapes too.

RB: (laughs)

TM: Before the tapes were made public, and the system was then instantly dismantled, in the Spring of ’73, Nixon wants to listen to a tape of that March 21 meeting with John Dean (“we could get a million dollars”). He has one of his aides rig up the tapes so he can listen in hi Executive Office Building hideaway—that had a taping system, too. So there has to be a tape of Nixon listening to himself.  The tapes do put you there in a way that they will never put you in there again.

RB: Do Americans want their president to be human, to be real? Mitt Romney is ridiculed for trying to be a man of the people

TM: Yeah, well, this crew that’s out there now—what he [Nixon] would make of them!  The idea that an election would be hinging on these “social” issues would just bore him. He even said to Mitchell at one point—supposedly said,  just when the presidency was beginning—“You be President, and I’ll be Secretary of State.” To him it was essentially the office from which the foreign affairs of the country were conducted. One of the reasons his domestic programs by and large were so liberal—guaranteed national income, health care, big funding for the arts, all the rest—I don’t think all that engaged him very much. He wanted to be free of that.  Ehrlichman, who was in charge of domestic affairs, felt they didn’t get enough of Nixon’s attention. Nixon said at one point—and I have him speak this line to Rose Mary Woods—“The country can basically run itself domestically.” A sort of Coolidge notion,  in a way. Even though he went in for lots of government intervention and programs.

RB: Later there were efforts to rehabilitate him based on his foreign policy expertise.

TM: He wrote serious books and he never took a fee for a speech.

RB: Was he broke when he resigned?

TM: Yes. He needed to write his memoirs to make money. But they lived modestly at the end. He still did a lot of foreign travel and he gave his advice freely to every American president that followed him. Nixon’s epilogue scene here is his last trip to Russia, just before he dies. And he reports on that to Clinton. And Clinton even says to his advisors, “Why don’t I get memos this good from my ambassadors and staff?” He was a much better ex-president than president.

RB: Clinton was particularly laudatory when Nixon died.

TM: He said something like, “The time has long passed when we should judge Richard Nixon on anything but the totality of his life.” In other words there was more to him than Watergate. I used to wonder how Robert Caro, year after year, book after book, stuck with Johnson (laughs). I still wonder—

RB: Malone wrote six volumes on Jefferson.

TM: —but I could sort of see it after just a couple of years with Nixon.  I didn’t feel as if I’d exhausted anything.

RB: I don’t know who wants to read those door- stop biographies. I like the 200-page biographical essays by someone who is simpatico—Larry McMurtry on Crazy Horse, or Cabrera Infante on José Martí. But I see that  biographers like Caro are good about clarifying the social/historical milieu surrounding their subjects.

TM: Yes, yes. His books are these big history paintings, these murals. But biography—I’m not tempted. It’s too onerous, too difficult.  It’s one thing to go from fiction to criticism, reviewing. But to go from fiction to narrative non-fiction… I’ve been amused by this John D’Agata book, The Lifespan of a Fact. Not my idea of nonfiction. I worked on that little book of mine, Mrs. Paine’s Garage, after a real spate of fiction—Dewey Defeats Truman, Two Moons, and I found it so difficult not to be able to fall back on saying, “Well, it’s a novel,  I can change this.” It had to go through the strainer of the New Yorker fact-checking department. And I just can’t imagine that burden in writing biography, let alone the burden of assembling all the material. I just can’t see it.Aside all the campaigning he did for people, [Nixon] was preparing himself for the presidency. [Palin] couldn’t care less. With her it’s become president or get a better deal with a reality TV show.

RB: Have you seen Game Change?[3]

TM: No.

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

Thomas Mallon [photo: Robert Birnbaum copyright 2016]

RB: Do you read those kinds of books? Read that book?

TM: Not many. I read him, John Heilemann—I read him in New York magazine and I hope I will see the movie with Julianne Moore.

RB: She’s incredibly convincing as Palin. But everybody involved as a player claims it’s fiction. The end the movie has McCain telling Palin she is now a kingmaker in the Republican Party. Is she a leader of the GOP?

TM: No, no. No. No. Look, I argued in 2008 with my friends that nobody who was in the United States Senate for three years was ready to be president.  So nobody who was the Governor of Alaska for two years is ready to be president.

RB: John McCain was prepared to be president?

TM: Well, all those years in Congress.

RB: George Bush was ready to be president?

TM: Six years as governor of Texas—that’s a weak office. Probably not, ideally.  But I think Palin had been to Mexico:  that was her international travel. She may have stopped in Germany on her way to make a lightning visit to Iraq. She had never seen any of the countries we’re allied with. That strikes me as incredible.

RB: But that’s what politics has degenerated to since Nixon—commercials and advertising. Eagles and flags and all the rest of the beer commercial imagery.

TM: Look at those years Nixon was out of office.  He was an enormous foreign traveler. He would meet with whoever was in power and with the leader of the opposition too. As a former vice-president—anybody was going to see him.  Aside from all the campaigning he did for people, he was preparing himself for the presidency. [Palin] couldn’t care less. With her it’s become president or get a better deal with a reality TV show.

RB: Quitting the governorship was a telling move.

TM: Also, how hard could it have been (laughs)?

RB: Who do you think could be president? Who could do the job?

TM: Umm. Well, uh, I was alone in my peer group who thought McCain could.

RB: Not based on his values but because he knows how things work?

TM: His experience, yeah.   Even though he has been wrong on just about everything through the years, in terms of experience, Biden would be creditable. John Kerry was a creditable candidate. There are other reasons why I might not want them, but I do think people should know something. One result of 2008, and it’s a combination of Obama and Palin—in most respects there is no comparison (intelligence, curiosity, etc.)—but having both of them on the ticket, it has definitely driven down the expectation of experience. People with such thin resumes running for the top offices.

RB: That strikes me as basis for Biden’s place on the ticket.

TM: Oh sure. Once McCain put Palin on the ticket he lost the opportunity to say to Obama, “You’re not prepared to be president. You need more seasoning in the Senate.” Their obvious rebuttal would be the choice he made to be a heartbeat away. His campaign threw away a pretty compelling argument. I think a lot of people would have looked at Obama and said—here’s a very bright guy, come back in four years.

RB: Well, come back in four years with your Ronald Reagan book. Thanks again.

TM: I will. [And he did] see here

########

1. Identitytheory —(my first)conversation with Christopher Hitchens

2. The Pentagon Papers

3. HBO’s Game Change 

Advertisements

Never Complain and Never Explain

12 Aug

Recently, the School Superintendent of Newton MA, where I reside and my son attends high school, was found to have plagiarized portions of his recent commencement speeches. For this, as you will; lapse in judgment or devious wrongdoing, he was fined $5000 and in short order issued a public apology. The jury is out about the appropriateness of his chastisement with a number of parties unsatisfied including the Newton Teacher’s Association who wrote:

In your statement, you characterize what happened as a “mistake, And even though you say what you “should” have done, you use indirect language . . . You never call what you did plagiarism, and you don’t apologize. The facts tell a different story,…You lifted not only words and phrases from Deval Patrick’s speech, but also its main idea, and you express both the words and the idea as if they were your own. There simply is no question about it: that is plagiarism

Sorry About That by Edward Battistella

Sorry About That by Edward Battistella

This little local tempest is probably played out manifold times with some episodes rising to the status of major news cycle scandal and all the tawdriness that accompanies such. In recent yearsMartha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey, Jane Fonda, Bill Clinton, Mel Gibson, Sen. Bob Packwood, Mark Sandford, Joe Biden (Biden might require a pamphlet to document his various apologies) and numerous corporations have found it in their interests to make mia culpas. In my view it is possible to view the public apology as a new literary genre. Linguist Edwin L. Battistella’s Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology(Oxford University Press) is certainly an engaging survey of noteworthy recent expressions of guilty sorrow (justifications) mentioning fifty standouts . Additionally, Battistella attends to discerning the language of sincere apologies (need it be pointed out that not all apologies are heart felt?)

Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter

Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter

This exegesis of the notion of public apology puts me in mind of Charles Baxter‘s incisive essay Dysfunctional Narrative: or “Mistakes Were Made” from his non-pareil essay collection Burning Down the House (Graywolf). Baxter draws a straight line from Richard Nixon’s diction to what he characterizes as ‘dysfunctional narrative’ stemming from faux apologies taking the form of “Mistakes were made…”

Charles Baxter [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Charles Baxter [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

Lately, I have been possessed of a singularly unhappy idea: The greatest influence on American fiction in the last twenty years may have been the author of RN (Richard Nixon), not in the writing but in the public character.He is the inventor, for our purposes and for our time,of the concept of deniability.Deniability is an almost complete disavowal of intention in relation to bad consequences. A made up word, it reeks of the land filled landscape of lawyers and litigation and high school [What an image! RB}.Following Richard Nixon in influence on recent fiction would be two runners up, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. Their administrations managed to achieve considerable notoriety for self righteousness, public befuddlement about facts, forgetfulness under oath and constant disavowals of political error and criminality culminating in the quasiconfessional passive-voice-mode sentence, “Mistakes were made.”

Of course, there is a countervailing opinion to the old saw that confession is good for the soul. Researcher Tyler G. Okimoto claims,

When you refuse to apologize, it actually makes you feel more empowered,” he said. “That power and control seems to translate into greater feelings of self-worth. Ironically,people who refused to apologize ended up with boosted feelings of integrity.

Currently reading The Next Life Will be Kinder by Howard Norman(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Small Balls

19 Mar


It used to be that baseball-as-sport—except for Caribbean Basin ball players— was a seasonal affair that shut down after the World Series and was renascent with the Floridian and Arizonian preludes known as Spring-Training. No more. Now there is very little time out. Especially as fans have been bamboozled into caring about the business side of the sport (” Was Albert Pujols worth a quarter of a billion dollars?”)— in large part to a silly recreation known as fantasy baseball.

As the father of an aspiring young baseball catcher(Cuba”Pudge” Birnbaum) I also know the full time nature of baseball to be a modern reality. The competition with professional and collegiate football for the dubious slogan “America’s Game”, also, no doubt has the baseball money grubbers clawing for market share and branding opportunities —of which the troika that heads the Red Sox corporation take a back seat to no short-fingered vulgarians (This year being the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, zombified Red Sox Nation has the opportunity to buy a brick of Fenway which stays at the park and entitles you to a replica brick, I can’t tell you the price as the thought of money passing hands for this kind of memorabilia renders me dumbfounded Rest assured its an absurd figure.)

Anyway.Spring time normally sees the publication of a cluster of baseball-related books. This is one area that will not see baseball’s domination diminished. For a myriad of reasons (George Plimpton offered “the smaller-the-ball” theory), writers favor writing about baseball— no hockey, lacrosse, bowling or curling stories. In keeping with the underlying ethos of sports, which lionizes winners, baseball tracts follow familiar arcs. Warren Wilson graduate Joseph Schuster offers a different track in his debut novel,The Might Have Been (Ballantine Books).

Career minor league player Edward Everett Yates has a brief instant in the big show, cut off by a devastating injury. He ends up as a career minor league manager devoting 30 years to a game whose hold on him he can barely articulate. In many ways, Yates can be counted as a loser—until he encounters two players who teach him something about his fate and the choices he has made. Charles Baxter intones,”

“Far from being just about baseball, The Might Have Been is about the persistence of ambition and dreams in both sports and civilian life. This is a very telling novel about American pastimes and American identities…”

Currently reading Gods Without Men Hari Kunzru(Knopf)

Come Fly With Me

4 Feb

As an expatriated Chicagoan stuck on the East Coast, I find the designation/rubric “flyover zone” just plain stupid, though I am happy to report that the University of Nebraska Press with great good cheer has turned that snarky east coastism on its head with a wonderful fiction series entitled Flyover Fiction edited by the inestimable Ron Carlson.

Now come two items or using the regnant journalistic device , annotated lists purporting, to give the Midwest, the heart and soul of American Civilzation, its due in the airy evanescent reality of literary journalism

John Warner and Andrew Womack, both colleagues at the Morning News, have a book notice site, The Staff Recommends which has a recent item, Readings From Flyover Country listing nine books purporting to represent the Heartland. Setting aside the wearisome issue of the value of lists, this one has the merits of including Nelson Algren and Charles Baxter —that’s all it takes to shut me up.

Ann Clark offers that the newly opened Kurt Vonnegut Library in Indianapolis moved her to think about books from the Midwest, “that mythic region”. Thus we are presented with a list of 13 essential novels— whatever that means(though Vonnegut is not on it). It’s a good list— meaning the books included are really good books.There is Stuart Dybek. There is Marylynne Robinson. But—no Algren, no Baxter, no Jim Harrison ,no Hemingway.

No way.

Just Talking: David Shields and I

28 Dec

Reality Hunger by David Shields

Reality Hunger by David Shields


Writer and University of Washington mentor David Shields and I began conversingsometime in the mid Nineties and that dialogue has been renewed a number of times since, most recently this past spring as Shields criss-crossed the country touting his new book Reality Hunger (Random House) Some of the conversation that follows relates to that tome which claims to be a manifesto. Shields has written in” Long Live the Anti-Novel, Built from Scraps”:

… when I began, I was just trying to follow the Kafka dictum, “A book should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us.

You should be forewarned that David and I open with a brief discussion of the Seattle Mariners prospects(Shields has written excellently on the non-pareil Ichiro and also the NBA) and segue into chewing over East coast cultural mythology and then, well, read on.

Robert Birnbaum: How are the Mariners going to do this year?

David Shields: Well, I’m a little bit worried about Cliff Lee but they look like they’ve got it together.

RB: He’s got a hip injury?

DS: Abdomen issues and something else. They’re going to put him on a platelets diet, or something. How do you say it?

RB: Platelets?

DS: Platelets. Whatever, some kind of special diet. Anyway, he’s supposed to be back by mid-April and I mean, who knows how…I like the fact they’re spending money. I like Jack Zduriencik, the GM, and I like the manager. Don Wakamatsu. And they have some good ballplayers. You know, all I’m asking for is a competitive season.

RB: Who’s playing third base?

DS: Third? Let’s see, they moved Beltre, of course, but the Red Sox will find out that he’s nothing.

RB: No, I don’t believe it.

DS: You’ll see. He had a good season with the Dodgers that one year—it was clearly steroids. There’s a pretense that it wasn’t, but it was steroids. He’s a good-field-no-hit kind of guy.

RB: He’s the only Nicaraguan left in baseball, you know.

DS: Is he really? I forget who the Mariners’ third base move is. It’s a good question. We could have the whole interview pimping on that if you like. But I don’t actually know off the top of my head.

RB: So you think that Mariners are competitive? Are they competitive?

DS: Well, I mean they’re at…maybe if they win 90 games. If they could win 90 games…

RB: They’ve got two really good pitchers. If Lee—

DS: If he comes around, he should be fine. There’s 50 games right there. And then you need another 40 from the rest of the staff. I don’t know. We’ll see. We’ll see. I mean there’s a different gold standard. You know, with the Red Sox, say, you’d almost want to be in the World Series or whatever. But for the Mariners, I don’t know. There was that thing in the paper today that the Yankees pay their players better than any team in all of professional sports. You know, I despise baseball with all my heart and soul. It’s not a sport, it’s a bank, as we always say. It’s not a sport. It’s just a banking system. And so, given that, the Mariners do relatively well. You could just say, “Why don’t they spend more money? The owner of the Mariners is the owner of Nintendo so he could spend all the money he wants.”

RB: Yeah. But it is a small market.

DS: Relatively. Kind of a medium sized to small.

RB: How are the fans? Are they relaxed fans or are they crazy fans?

DS: You see, I really resist that. This whole notion, which is a total myth, that somehow East Coast fans are somehow intense and educated and West Coast fans are somehow laid-back and uninformed.

RB: Who said that?

DS: It’s a very commonly held myth. But yet, you go to, say, a Yankees game or a Knicks game, and just like fans anywhere, they walk out of the game when…you know, this idea that only Angels fans leave in the seventh inning with the team down six to two. But it happens at Yankees games, it happens at Knicks games, it happens at Jets games. I’m very interested in these mythologies of geography, whereby there’s a tiny, tiny element of truth to it, and then it gets blown up and then endless reiterations get found of it. And then the contrary—there’s this idea that Madison Square Garden is the Mecca of basketball. The Mecca of basketball? It’s more like the Hades of basketball.

RB: You have to create an alternative media center.

DS: Well, I think it’s called the Web

RB: Yeah, but then, New York-based people will still dominate.

DS: Oh, God, not the Web.

RB: You don’t think so?

DS: I don’t think so.

RB: OK.

DS: Well, it depends which sites you look at. But they’re not the sites I look at, that’s for sure.

RB: OK, that’s a digression. I agree with you. But I still think there’s a ghost of a power structure there and it’s geographical, despite the fact that the Internet is not geographical.

DS: Well, it goes back a little but I remember being mad at this question you asked Charlie Baxter once. I forget if you were asking Charlie Baxter or if you saying to someone about Charlie Baxter, actually, you said, “If Charlie Baxter lived on the East Coast, he’d be a much more admired writer.”

RB: Yeah, I said that.

DS: That is the wrong question. That is the wrong question. I mean, Charlie Baxter is wrapped into the Midwest. That’s like saying if Proust had only lived in London, that he’d have written Bleak House. Proust did live in London, he wrote something else.

RB: Well, it’s a confusing question, but here’s the thing: Jim Harrison spent time in New York City, it didn’t change his writing. All I’m saying is, locationally, in the book industry, you get more attention when you go to the parties.

DS: It’s a dead model.

RB: New York-based writers do not have more attention on them?

DS: It’s a dead model for me. I mean part of it is that I’m somewhat defensive on the issue because I’ve spent sort of a quarter of my time on the East Coast and three-quarters of my life on the West Coast, in my 53-year-old life. I mean, just think, it’s just not true anymore. There’s a paragraph in my book, in Reality Hunger, about that.

RB: Is that why you mention that Seattleites have a different kind of ambition?

DS: Yeah. But also I talk about certain kinds of writers on the West Coast—Eggers, Wallace, Bernard Cooper, Douglas Copeland.

RB: Eggers is from Middle West.

DS: Think he’s been living in San Francisco for the last 15 years. There’s no writer who’s gotten more attention in the last ten years than Eggers, and Michael Chabon is in there. There’s just too many exceptions. Of course there’s a handful of writers who live in Brooklyn, but I just feel like it’s a self-perpetuating myth that really has very little basis in reality.

RB: Ok, there are three. On the East Coast there I think there are 3 clumps of writers, three huge clumpings of writers: Vermont, Brooklyn, and North Carolina. Who gets the most attention out of those clumpings? Do you disagree that that’s the way?

DS: Well, for me, I don’t even care about those writers. For instance, it’s sort of like, Oh gee, what did Jonathan Franzen say? I couldn’t care less. The work I’m interested in—and part of Reality Hunger is—I’m trying to find a whole different tradition, a whole different lineage. They’re not working a tradition out of which I’m interested. So I don’t even care. I’m interested in ancient tradition, a lineage going back to St. Augustine then coming up all the way through Kundera. I’m trying to argue for a very different tradition. And those writers have lived everywhere, and nowhere, and they’ve lived all over the world. I don’t really care if in the book industry if you’ve sold 20,000 copies of your novel because you live in New York as opposed to 12,000 because you live in Minneapolis. It’s a completely meaningless distinction. I mean, it’s such a dead zone. It’s the tallest building in Kansas City.

RB: OK. So, are you the only person who says about themselves that they write “autobiographical nonfiction”?

DS: No, plenty of people do.

RB: But do they say they do that—actually make that claim?

DS: It’s something I noticed early on in my writing life, that—my first three books were works of fiction—an interviewer would ask, Tell me how autobiographical the work is? And the answer is always, Oh no, it’s not autobiographical at all. I was just staring in my study and an image came to me of a bird hopping down the highway and I followed that bird to a work of fiction that’s a complete masterpiece. I mean, that’s the answer you’re supposed to give. I saw out of the corner of my eye an image of a car going down U.S. 80 and I had to figure out what that image represented. I mean, every writer, every novelist always says that. And I would always say, Yeah, of course Dead Languages comes from my life.

RB: Does anyone argue that the underpinning of all writing is autobiographical?

DS: People will argue, of course, the emotions come from my life, but the whole thing is completely invented. In one of the passages I like in Reality Hunger, I talk about that Lorrie Moore story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” Which is obviously the best thing she’s ever written. You know, she—I know her slightly and I don’t want to quarrel with her greatly—but it’s very important to her and to sort of like-minded fiction writers, to really create this frame around their fiction, in which they say it is a work of fiction. Whereas, I’m just saying I’m working out of a different aesthetic. It’s so much more interesting to say, No, it comes from my life. Of course it does. It’s so much more nervous-making and discomfiting. It’s more psychically interesting. The temperature in the room goes up. To me, I’m terribly interested in trying to reduce as much as possible the mediation between writer and reader. I’m very aware of the fact that we are existentially alone on the planet. I can’t know what you’re thinking and feeling and you can’t know what I’m thinking and feeling. And writing at its very best is a bridge constructed across that abyss of human loneliness. And so I like work in which the writer is trying to show how he solved being alive. Nothing more, nothing less. And part of that attempt is to try to reduce that mediation as much as possible between writer and reader, and to try to make as thin a membrane as possible, always acknowledging it’s going to be a composition and, in a way, a work of fiction. So, for me, I’m terribly interested in the kind of existentially exciting gesture of a writer trying to get to absolute bone. That interests me greatly. I realize it’s a somewhat doomed project. But I’m really bored by fiction writers always having this escape hatch with which to say, Oh, by the way, I’m Harry Houdini, I can escape from the fiction. There’s nothing truly at risk in the work. Whereas the works I really love the most—Amy Fusselman’s The Pharmacist’s Mate, Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Simon Gray’s The Smoking Diaries, Spalding Gray’s Morning, Noon, and Night, Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere—I could list book after book after book. There’s a nakedness—an actual risk-taking adventure—that I find thrilling. Part of the book is arguing against the conventional novel. There are novels I really love, like I love J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Barry Hannah’s Boomerang, and I love David Markson’s work, which he calls novels. But in general, the novelistic apparatus, I find—hoo, boy—takes you so far from anything interesting.

RB: Name some books. I have to say, can I say that I really admire and like Robert Stone. So tell me some novels and writers whom you cannot stand. Some specific books.

DS: Stone. Stone I really do not admire.

RB: Books. Name some books. None of his work?

DS: I don’t admire Robert Stone’s work at all. I don’t admire Franzen’s The Corrections. I don’t admire Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Book after book that you probably admire is going to be a book that I’m not going to admire. I mean, it’s not necessarily like, Oh, gee, I found Franzen’s book bad. It seems to me that like part of the argument of my book is that writers—

RB: —I don’t think it’s an argument.

DS: But I mean it’s not like I’m really invested in saying Franzen is good and Ford is bad. I want to say something like, that writers have got to obliterate distinctions between fiction and nonfiction—

RB: Why?

DS: Well, wait, let me finish. That they have to overturn the laws regarding appropriations and create new forms for a new century. The novel for me—the conventional novel, the memoir—seems to be describing a reality pre-21st Century. Franzen’s novel, say, Robert Stone’s fiction, Ian McEwan. They’re essentially, to me, 19th Century Victorian novelists who dress up their material. They dismiss the same way for me. Their material is contemporary, but the form in which they pour it—

RB: You mean the nouns, the descriptions that surround—

DS: I was looking at a book, for some reason, I was looking at Sabbath’s Theater last night. Roth’s novel. Friends of mine just love that book. So I said, Okay, I’ll try it. And, man. I like some Roth, I’m reading Operation Shylock, and I like it a lot. But that book is so wedded to formulaic, novelistic moves that I can’t get to the actual material.

RB: You don’t like it because it’s predictable to you? Because you know what’s going to happen?

DS: Well, not necessarily because it’s predictable, but just that so many of the moves are just cast in concrete. We introduce characters and we create scenes and we have dialogues and we have a back-story and we have flashbacks. We have these climaxes and these cathexes, and it just seems what happens in novel after novel after novel. Franzen to me is a good example, I seem to use him as a bete noir everywhere I go because in The Corrections he started out with a great idea, to me. Namely that, as psychological beings, as global society, and as economic engines, we tend to overcorrect. That’s a real insight, I think it’s a great idea. But what happens in that book is he gives only the thinnest lip service to that idea and instead creates, to me, a very conventional, virtually 19th Century family album, family reunion thing, and he doesn’t really explore the ideas it wants to explore. There’s a patina of intellectual and emotional investigation, and really it’s just a big old baggy family novel.

RB: So what’s a story to you? What do you think is a story?

DS: I want story wedded to a matrix of ideas. Like I love Eduardo Galeano’s Book of Embraces.

RB: What about his prior books? Because the prior books were in the same mode.

DS: Galeano’s?

RB: Yeah.

DS: Those were way too polemical to me and way too preachy. I love stories, I just don’t love story. A wonderful line of Robbe-Grillet’s, who says that story has lost its innocence, is that we can no longer tell stories the way that we once did. Post-Freud, post-Heisenberg, post-Sasseur, post-Wittgenstein. I mean, to me, the perceiver by his very presence alters what’s perceived.

RB: That’s Heisenberg? Or Schrodinger? What’s the Schrodinger’s Paradox?

DS: Schrodinger’s Cat is this amazing parable where you put a cat in a box and you can only figure out if the cat is dead if you open the box.

RB: Why is that not the same sort of statement? You change the experiment or you change something by observing it?

DS: They’re related. I’m not enough of a physicist or a philosopher to be able to distinguish. They’re clearly related, Schrodinger’s Paradox and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. But to get back to your essential question, for me, I do go back to this idea that we’re alone on the planet. I want to know what it’s like inside your brain, I want to know what it’s really like to think and feel inside of you. I take writing unbelievably seriously. I think that writing really, really, really, really matters. And the writing I love the most, the writing I try to embody, the writing I teach, the writing I read…it puts as its absolute center the writer struggling to figure out something about existence, whether it’s Proust, whether it’s Moby Dick, whether it’s Tristam Shandy, whether is Coetzee, whether it’s David Markson or it’s Ann Carson, some of Amy Hempl. So much fiction for me, and certainly a huge amount of memoir, is so wedded to a kind of commercial mood in which the writer essentially wants the reader to turn pages. To me it’s a decision between two kinds of boring. There’s good boring and bad boring. The bad boring for me is a writer cranking through the pages trying to make sure that the reader keeps turning pages. It seems to me fundamentally a waste of time. It’s there as entertainment. Whereas there’s a good kind of boring, which for me is the writer’s actually “boring” in. He’s actually investigating it. And you can feel it on the page.

RB: What diminishes the notion that the writer wants the reader to turn the pages? That’s simply the writer wanting to be read.

DS: Sure.

RB: What’s so illegitimate about that?

DS: Cynthia Ozick says, “I don’t find entertainment entertaining.” I find utterly entertaining the books I’ve mentioned. To me they’re not esoteric, or they’re not homework, or hard—they’re thrilling. Because they put at their absolute center the writer and reader’s existential investigation. And I’m trying to say this is incredible, exciting work that I want to make incredible claims for. It goes back centuries. Part of it is I’m trying to rescue nonfiction as art. I’m trying to rescue, from the clutches of journalism, the clutches of scholarship, nonfiction. We always conduct these trials by Google of nonfiction, whereby every work of nonfiction gets vetted as if it’s an article in The New York Times. But there’s a tradition going back millennia in which the writer uses a nonfiction frame to foreground contemplation and uses it to explore something essential, existentially thrilling about existence. For me, a huge number of novels and memoirs are way too wedded to a commercial or capitalist gesture of page-turning entertainment. I’m just saying. I realize it’s a minority opinion, but I want to rescue my fellow travelers and say, “Hey, don’t apologize for this stuff. This is the most exciting thing on the planet. Let’s keep writing and reading this and back-forming a tradition out of it. And it’s the coolest thing around.”

RB: Okay. You like Proust. I like Garcia-Marquez. What is the difference between you and I? Am I a lazy reader?

DS: Hardly.

RB: Or brainwashed by commercial capitalists?

DS: I don’t know if you chose those on purpose because I talk about it in the book, but it’s a good example. Obviously Garcia-Marquez is a wonderful writer and I do love Autumn of the Patriarch a lot. That’s a beautiful book, it’s my favorite book of his, actually. But what is it about them? Obviously, in a way, I’m just saying, Hey, here’s a very subjective take on my part. I realize they’re both wonderful writers, and why do we have to choose? I guess, for me, what it is about Garcia-Marquez is…there was a real moment in my writing and reading life—I was traveling, on the proverbial post-undergraduate backpacking trip through Europe—and I had Proust and Garcia-Marquez with me. All I can say, for me, and I just have to trust my own nerve-endings as a writer, and I’m reading them both in translation, so it’s a bit unfair, but in the case of Garcia-Marquez, the essential motor of the thing is carnival barking to me, to be honest. This thing happened and then that thing happened, and isn’t this amazing? And then this thing flew through the air and this turned into snow.

RB: But in the stories, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, I don’t think he has people saying, This is amazing. I think the interesting thing about it is this stuff is all matter-of-fact. This is the way these people live and perceive. I think if there’s carnival barking or cheer-leading, it’s coming from somewhere else.

DS: The most interesting thing about the book is the way Garcia-Marquez talks about it. He basically just wanted to render the very literal tone that I think his aunt or grandma told stories in. That they would tell the most amazing things—that a rooster flew across the courtyard or whatever—but they would say it in the most natural way, and Garcia-Marquez talks beautifully about that. He talks beautifully as well about the process by which he came to write the book, you know, false start after false start. He was a relatively middling journalist in Mexico City and he found this way into the book and it’s really amazing. But all I can say is that about a hundred or two hundred pages into the book I realized I wasn’t really learning anything. I am really wedded to wisdom, I’m really a wisdom junkie. I really want knowledge, I want someone to understand what we’re doing on the planet. I want someone to overtly and discursively talk about existence. And then I’d read Proust, and he’s actively trying to figure something out. He’s actually wrestling with existence. Whereas the Garcia-Marquez, you could argue, is wrestling with existence by implication. And all I can say is I prefer this other tradition.

RB: Because it’s more aggressive for you, and more immediate for you.

DS: It wrestles with existence more overtly.

RB: Have you read things, have you experienced things, whose impact somehow had a resonant aftertaste that you didn’t get as you were experiencing it? Did you ever hear a piece of music that haunted you a month later? That didn’t happen with Garcia-Marquez, but who’s to say that the things you read don’t accumulate and recombine in some other ways, internally?

DS: I think that’s a fair thing. Sort of different strokes for different folks, and if you’re against abortions don’t have one. If you don’t agree with me, don’t get on my bus, that’s fine. I’m just saying, here’s this tradition I find exciting. I gave a talk about the book at a writer’s conference—I’ve actually given a lot of talks about it, because I’ve been publishing excerpts from the book for years and galleys have been circulating for months, so I’ve been talking about the book for years—

RB: Well, you’ve been talking about these ideas, I think, going back to the nineties?

DS: Yeah, going back to Remote. So I’m obviously interested in these issues. Part of it is I’m baffled by, or fascinated by, the novel form. I’m a bit of a spurned lover who’s sending poison pen letters to my ex-lover. I’m fully aware of that and I cop to that, totally. Both my parents were journalists, I became a fiction writer, I wrote three novels, I was trying to write my fourth book as a novel. The novel form collapsed on me and I took this fascinating, to me, left turn into nonfiction. I’m both baffled by and excited by that move. In a way I’ve spent the last ten or fifteen years trying to explain it to myself, or figure it out.

RB: Why call this a manifesto?

David Shields photograph by Robert Birnbaum

David Shields photograph by Robert Birnbaum


DS: I think it’s an anti-manifesto manifesto. What’s it a manifesto for? I guess it’s a manifesto for a few things. It’s a manifesto for so many different things I don’t know where to start. For me, at the most basic level, it’s a manifesto for the excitement of a certain kind of nonfiction that defines nonfiction “upward” in this precise way. A huge amount of the discussion of nonfiction defines it downward, as I said earlier, sort of vetting it as if it’s an article in the Times, basically conducting this “trial by Google.” In a way it’s sort of interesting to me, because I was teaching—I teach at the University of Washington—and this book began as a course packet. I was hired as a fiction writer, and after awhile I stopped writing fiction. I felt like on some level I wanted to justify to myself, my colleagues, and my students why I was no longer a fiction writer. So I collected thousands of quotations from different people, everyone from Thucydides to Wayne Koestenbaum, talking about why an existentially minded nonfiction is so interesting. I collected these quotes over years and years, and the course pack started to assume a kind of shape. I pushed the quotations into chapters and rubrics and categories, I started to reorganize the passages by myself and by other people. Year by year, it started to assume more and more shape. The essential thing, if it is a manifesto, it’s essentially an argument for the excitement of nonfiction, for me, that defines nonfiction upward. To me, ordinary nonfiction—your basic journalism or scholarship—really takes quite seriously ideas of verifiability, truth, facts, and reality. Whereas if you define nonfiction upward, you use the very parameters and premises of nonfiction as a trampoline of which to bounce into really the most exciting questions. What’s true? What’s knowledge? What’s memory? What’s self? What’s an other? What can we know? To me that’s really the essential thing I’m trying to do. I’m trying to rescue nonfiction as this thrillingly, epistemologically rich art form that goes back milennia. And that excites me a lot.

RB: I think that probably there is a diminution or a degradation of fiction writing. The British call novel writing or fiction writing the “senior service,” or something like that, giving it higher status. I don’t know where that comes from, but I liked Cynthia Ozick’s quote about the essay. The dichotomy should be essay/fiction. That’s it. Everything that’s not fiction is essay.

DS: As opposed to “nonfiction”? I agree with you. There’s a wonderful line in my book by somebody, I can’t remember who, which says, “Calling something ‘nonfiction’ is like having a dresser labeled ‘nonsocks.’” I love that one. It’s sort of like, what does that term mean? It’s such a meaningless term. I guess what I want to do is put a huge amount of pressure on the word “non” and say, Yes, exactly, what does that mean to say that it’s “non” fiction? It’s literally true. Really? What’s truth? You’re a journalist or a scholar so you have unique access to truth? I guess what’s so interesting to me, when a work gets framed as nonfiction, is that all these “truth” claims are real. You’re actually making all these claims for truth. For example, I’m loving Operation Shylock, but I’m getting to the end of the book—it’s basically about this guy who’s impersonating Philip Roth in Israel, and it’s a hilarious and wonderful book—but I really hate the last line of the whole book. The very last line of the book is a note to the reader from Roth in which he says, “This book is a work of fiction.” Because the book is subtitled, “A Confession.” And it’s so exciting you can’t tell if it’s true or not true, there’s a huge amount of references to Philip Roth and Claire Bloom and Roth’s brother, Sandy. It hovers so excitingly between fiction and nonfiction. It’s a bit complicated at the end because at the end Roth says this confession is false. It’s not clear if he’s saying this last paragraph is false, and so therefore it is in fact a work of nonfiction.

RB: Who are some of your “fellow travelers”?

DS: Well, John D’Agata, Philip Lopate, Vivian Gornick…

RB: Essayists?

DS: Yeah. Maggie Nelson, Sarah Manguso, Bernard Cooper, Sally Tisdale, Wayne Koestenbaum, J.M. Coetzee in his essayistic mode, David Markson, whose books are published as novels.

RB: Has he published anything recently?

DS: Markson? Well, he’s written these four books that I just love. One is called This is Not a Novel, then there’s a book called Reader’s Block, one called Vanishing Point.

RB: What about Wittgenstein’s Mistress?

DS: That one I’m not a fan of, believe it or not, because it has this whole corny plot with it. I guess I’m just missing the plot gene, the plot DNA. I’ve said to people, like you, bring the arguments to prove me wrong. And people bring excellent arguments, and it’s true, for them.

RB: Well, I don’t think it’s an argument. Why is it, for instance, I can read your work, and—other than some minor ideological irritants—I can enjoy and be stimulated by it, but also read all the stuff you seem not to like?

DS: I know what you mean, people say that. I guess for me, I’m not very catholic. I remember having an interesting debate with David Gates, the novelist and critic, and I was saying, “David, I don’t see how you can like Beckett as much as you do.” He loves Beckett, but then he also loves Franzen. I don’t get it, because to me, you have to choose. He wrote this positive review of Franzen’s The Corrections, and I was like, really? I don’t have anything against Jonathan Franzen. He seems like a nice guy and he’s a serious writer, the novel’s okay. But, to me, I didn’t get how you could love Beckett as much as Gates does and then praise Franzen. I have sort of my guys and my girls, and I love them to death, and I try to carve out this aesthetic. Part of it is that the tradition in which I work is somewhat under poeticized in the sense that fiction has a poetics. All these people have been talking about what fiction is going back to Aristotle. Poets have a poetics going all the way back to the beginning of time. Nonfiction doesn’t really have that poetics in which we can talk about it in really exalted terms.

RB: What does John D’Agata do in the front of his two anthologies? Does he not have introductions that glorify the essay? Not to mention that every year when The Best American Essays gets published the guest editor has some commentary about the form?

DS: Sure. John is a big influence on me, and I love John’s work. All I’m saying is we need a book-length appreciation of it. I don’t know what to say other than that John is a part of it. But then the damndest things happen. John published his wonderful book called About a Mountain. And then in The New York Times Book Review a novelist named Charles Bock, who wrote the novel about Las Vegas—

RB: Beautiful Children, I think.

DS: Right. He basically liked John’s book a lot, but then at the end, the last third of the review is him criticizing John for having an afterword at the end of the book in which John says, “Oh, by the way, I compressed a few events in the book, I compressed the timeline for narrative clarity.” So Charles Bock spends a third of the review, three or four hundred words, talking about what a terrible sort of failure this is. So, if you do change things and don’t say anything, someone will point it out to you.

RB: Do you actually take seriously the kinds of reviews that take place in newspapers?

DS: I take them seriously as symptoms of anthropology.

RB: Like commercial, capitalistic degradation.

DS: Yeah. It’s a symptom of the way nonfiction is discussed. Of just how unbelievably, to use your word, degraded the discussion is. I’m not saying that I’m first or last or best, I’m just saying the more that D’Agata and Lopate and Gornick and I and everyone else can talk about it, the more that we can raise nonfiction to the level of artistic excitement. And nonfiction writers can stop being judged as journalists or liars or memoirists or scholars, and they can be understood as artists of the absolute first rank. There’s no book I’ve loved more of late than Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. It’s a 120-page book, a brief meditation on the color blue that morphs into this incredible book that becomes a cri de coeur about her inability to get over a love affair that she can’t get over, and then talks a lot about her friend who has become paralyzed by a car accident. The book keeps on getting larger and larger and larger through a series of about 600 very short paragraphs. It’s short, pointillistic paragraphs, like mine, and the book ends up becoming about sort of like the melancholy of the human animal. How do we live with loss, how do we deal with ultimate loss. It’s an extraordinary book and it’s deeply, deeply serious. A deeply adult book in a way that I find very few novels are. Maggie Nelson’s investment in that book is to wrestle at the most serious level with existence. I love Nietzsche, I love Rousseau, I love Pascal. That’s my tradition and I want to make sure everyone knows about it.

RB: What strikes me about the way you talk about the things that you like to read is you feel like—and you can correct me—you feel like you’ve gotten to the person. You feel like you know as much as one can know another person. You feel like that person has exposed themselves to you.

DS: Exactly. I think that’s a very good articulation of it. As you were talking I sort of knew you were going to say that, I could hear that. It’s this amazing intimacy, I feel it in the best work. To me, it feels as good or better than sex, the kind of intimacy you get between a writer and reader. When a writer is being really, really serious, you are assuaging that human loneliness to an extraordinary degree. The writers I love, they foreground that to the nth degree. And I feel like those are the works I want to go to the mat for. And some of those happen to be novels. Or at least have been published as novels. Markson, Proust, some Kundera.

RB: It’s funny because I was thinking about Reality Hunger, and I don’t know what I would think about this book if I didn’t know you. Certainly I know many of the premises and where you’re going with it, and I’m certainly sympathetic with it. Although part of me wants to say, “What’s the big deal?” I think this is kind of obvious. It’s almost like you’re making an apology for something because you feel its due by commercial establishments.

DS: All your points are interesting. What’s the big deal? I mean, there are people who’ve read it and said, “This is the most radical thing I’ve ever read,” but there are also other people who’ve said, “Yawn, this all so obvious. “So, I don’t know what to say about that other than the fact that some people still need persuading. Some people are terribly upset about the book. If you find the argument rather comfortable, if you’re like, okay, this is interesting, but why does David need to go off on such a tear about it? Then maybe you’re already pretty hip to the argument.

RB: The book is still interesting because of the snippets you’ve brought in there. Did the legal department really force you to notate?

DS: You know, I argue in the book that all great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one. To me, the best works create in the reader a sense of vertiginous existential doubt. And I wanted to mirror that exactly, emblematize it, and vivify it by having the reader not be sure if this Sonny Rollins or Schopenhauer or Shields or Robert Birnbaum. Or is it some weird mix of all those, or none of us. How much have I remixed? Who’s the speaker? What’s invented?

RB: But then after some notes you say, I can’t actually remember. So what’s the good of the notes if it doesn’t give you any legal addendum?

DS: Sure it does. Basically, those notes are genuine. I tried as hard as I could to find every citation I could, and in a few cases I simply ran up against the brick wall of human knowledge. I couldn’t get to everything. One of the big arguments of the book is the imperfection of human knowledge, the incompleteness of it, and the way the best works of nonfiction explore and embody that. And so, of course, I wanted to embody that in my book itself. On the one hand, I do take care of my legal requirements, there are citations, albeit in very small type, some of them are incomplete, and I preface it with a disclaimer in which I say, “Please, for the love of God, don’t read these citations”. Anyway, I had a months-long debate with the publisher in which I said I thought it would be much more exciting to have no citations and have the reader and have the reader slowly realize how much of this is quoted, and then sort of do a lot of research by Google. But I’ve come to live with the citations—I think they’re an interesting part of the book. I’m fine with them.

RB: How was this book edited?

DS: By the editor? She barely touched it. It wasn’t edited. Why do you ask?

RB: I’m just trying to understand how it was put together.

DS: Well, I’ve already started to edit it. I would hesitate to show you my copy of the book, which is edited, and that will be the paperback edition where I’ve already changed the order of the epigraph and I’m moving stuff around, slightly. But to me the order is very carefully wrought. You know, there have been a lot of reviews of the book and some of them interest me more than others. But the ones that are most disappointing are the ones that say it’s just a random collection of 618 paragraphs. It’s like, please. They’ve been very carefully ordered to make a very specific argument in both each chapter and in the book as a whole.

RB: Why didn’t you use pictures?

David Shields Photograph by Robert Birnbaum

David Shields Photograph by Robert Birnbaum


DS: Why didn’t I use pictures? Well, I didn’t want it to become a gimmick. I used pictures in Remote, and that book is obsessed with images, celebrities, beauty, the difference between reality and mediation, whereas this book is very much about text. People ask me why I didn’t use pictures in Black Planet, because obviously images of black men’s bodies are crucial to the way the NBA gets marketed. But I didn’t want to become “the picture man.” Like, [WG]Sebald does his books using pictures, or most books have pictures. To me, it was very much a solution to one book, the pictures in Remote. And, I don’t know if you’re kidding, but I thought of pictures in Black Planet but certainly not in this book. I mean, what are we going to do, have pictures of Wittgenstein at table in Vienna or something?

RB: Well, actually, I was really thinking more of sort of a web annex that included musical and maybe video clippings. Because you talk about Sonny Rollins, you quote Bob Dylan, there are some rappers that you quote. Which reminds me—there’s one writer that I’m astonished that you never mentioned, I think he has some parallels with you in the way he does his work. Lawrence Weschler.

DS: I really like Lawrence Weschler. Do I never quote him? I like his work and have been influenced by it, especially his book about the museum of Jurassic technology. Also, I love his book on Robert Irwin. Do you know that book?

RB: Yeah.

DS: It’s a wonderful book. To me, there’s no pretense of being complete. I’m not like, Oh, gee, I better get Weschler. He’s awfully good, I agree. He’s totally relevant to my project and I asked my publisher to mail him a copy of the book because I hope he would find it of interest. He’s barking up so many similar trees as I am, absolutely.

RB: I thought his book Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences was pretty interesting, too. It’s a most explicit statement about the way he sees the world.

DS: Tell me about Convergences. I’ve heard of that but I haven’t read it.

RB: It’s this book in which he shows a picture of one painting, some Dutch master painting, that later is reflected in the execution of Che Guevara, a picture of Che when he’s, you know—

DS: Wow, sounds amazing.

RB: Yeah.

DS: And is each chapter an analysis of one such convergence?

RB: No, it’s not that organized. That would be very linear.

DS: That sounds very interesting, I should read it.

RB: Actually, to him I owe my discovery of Eduardo Galeano. But you should look at his books, his books are on all different subjects.

DS: I mean, I’m familiar with Weschler, and I like the ones I’ve read. I just haven’t read all of them.

RB: He wrote an immense book on the amnesties in Brazil and Argentina after the military regimes were gotten rid of it’s called A Miracle, a Universe. He sliced a bit of it out for The New Yorker, in which he went to Uruguay and met Galeano, who had come back from Spain. I always loved that he quoted Galeano, he said, Why do you live in Argentina? You’re both Argentinian and… Galeano said if I lived in Argentina and got killed, people wouldn’t know if it was a friend or an enemy. In Uruguay, it would clearly be an enemy. It’s a wonderful statement on the duplicity of Argentinians.

DS: Why would it be an enemy?

RB: Well, because he’s a leftist and Argentina is not necessarily hospitable to leftists.

DS: Why would it not be clear in—

RB: —in Argentina?

DS: Yeah.

RB: Because people are duplicitous in Argentina whereas in Uruguay they’re not duplicitous. They wouldn’t pretend to be your friend.

DS: I’m sure there’s duplicity in all countries, but maybe not the degree to which it’s a shadowland. He comes through in The Book of Embraces. I think it’s a great book.

RB: So, anyway, now you’re forward to the paperback, which will be re-jiggered.

DS: Very small, I’ll be making some very tiny changes, tiny edits, small citations I got ever so slightly wrong. But no, I’m going to be flipping everything around. Real small changes.

RB: So, how much past a particular project do you look? Are you intensely focused on the thing that you have in front of you, or do you sort of work up something and then sit somewhere and think, oh, maybe after this I’ll do that?

DS: Well, first of all, I’m talking about Reality Hunger, and I’m also editing a Norton anthology on mortality where twenty contemporary writers confront death. I’m co-editing that with Brad Morrow, he and I have done the introduction and we’re editing the twenty essays.

RB: Are you still editing Conjunctions, or involved with it?

DS: I’m a senior editor there, yeah. So, I feel like I’m marshaling these three books toward print.

RB: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that’s a trend that has seemed to have ramped up a little bit—the idea of a writer finding a subject that they’re interested in—death, marriage, their first sex, their favorite book and rounding up a group of writers to expound on it.

DS: To worry that, yeah. To me, if a magazine has a theme issue, I’ll definitely read it. But if the magazine just has a bunch of things, I’m not as drawn to it. I think perhaps it’s influenced by This American Life. At its best—which it isn’t always, of course—that show will take a theme and they’ll run variations on that theme. And at its worst, it’s simply, okay, here’s a bunch of things about money. But at its best, each segment sort of hands the baton to each new segment, and the result is you get a really powerful meditation on that subject. By minute 60, you’re in a deeper place than you were on minute two. I think it’s perhaps the influence of both the Harper’s reading section from the early nineties, when it was really great, and This American Life. Also just the web-based, digital nature of contemporary culture. You can pull this stuff together pretty quickly, you know. We begin to see so much of our function is to edit. I forget if I say it in the book or not, but I think of myself less as a writer and more of a film editor. My art, if there is any art to my art, is something like being able to juxtapose in an interesting way all kinds of stuff.

RB: I think of myself as a curator.

DS: In what sense, exactly?

RB: In the sense that when I’m thinking of putting something under one umbrella, one color, it’s because I’m not interested in writing a biography of something. But I am interested in having people talk about a subject when I don’t know what they’re going to say.

DS: Well, that’s very close to my aesthetic. I’m terribly interested in gathering the threads in a really, I hope, rich way. I’m not hugely interested in spelling it all out. So what is it in us, Robert, that’s drawn toward that presentation function? What is that aesthetic, do you think?

RB: For me, I just think that lots of people are much more articulate at talking about things, describing things, and formulating things than I am. I do think I have a slight talent in sensing those things and observing those things, and I have a decent memory so I can remember how some of them can be connected. But I don’t think I’m terribly creative in that way. Otherwise, I’d be writing fiction.

DS: Well, I don’t know if I’ll accept that! There’s that wonderful line of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s where he says it is as difficult to appropriate the thoughts of others as it is to invent. Genius borrows nobly. There is no pure originality. I really agree with that.

RB: I sort of like to think that my conversations with people are as interesting as the standard magazine Q & A’s.

DS: Far more so. I often have fun reading your pieces. At their best, they’re sort of these insane jazz riffs that create a kind of marvelous momentum. And at their worst they’re a trainwreck, you know.

RB: [Laughs] That’s me. Okay, so I think we’ve done good.

DS: No Ichiro? No Milch?

RB: I was going to ask you about Milch. I wanted to ask you about what he did with Deadwood.

DS: What? Is it no good? I’ve never watched it.

RB: It was great, but he claims he never read Pete Dexter’s book, Deadwood.

DS: Is it pretty much the same material? Why didn’t they just option it? That’s bizarre.

RB: It’s the same sensibility, for sure. Do you know Pete Dexter? He lives in your area. He’s really a wonderful guy.

DS: I like his work. That collection of newspaper columns I loved. I was actually on a national panel for nonfiction and I argued for that book to be a finalist.

RB: I think you would like his new book, Spooner.

DS: Is Spooner a memoir, kind of?

RB: It seems to be based on his life.

DS: Is it a novel? I thought it was presented as memoir.

RB: He called it a novel, yeah.

DS: I see.

RB: It’s just one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, and not in a silly way.

DS: It takes place outside of Philly?

RB: No, it’s set all over his life.

RB: Okay, one more question about Ichiro. Is it the case that last year he perked up because Junior came to the team?

DS: That’s the myth, and who knows how true it is. There’s something a little corny about it that I somewhat distrust. There’s a certain element of truth to it in that Junior could do stuff like—and I’m calling him Junior as if I know—but Ichiro hates to be touched, and Griffey would come and tickle him in the stomach for five minutes. You know, Ichiro truly does admire and love Griffey. There’s something a little bit recusant about Ichiro. He’s sort of Bartleby-like. You know, he’d prefer not to. There is something that is selfish about Ichiro.

RB: Isn’t he the best player in baseball?

DS: Well, now we’re back to east and west again, you know. He’s an amazing baseball player. I’m sure you know my Ichiro book[Baseball Is Just Baseball : The Understated Ichiro] and I did a Times magazine profile on him. The most fascinating thing ever said to me about him was something Mike Cameron said. He said the second baseman would be standing six feet from second base, and in order to bird-dog back the runner on second base, the second baseman would take one step closer to second base, so now he’s five feet from second base. Ichiro would hit the ball exactly where the guy had just vacated. And he would say, how do you do that off of a 95-mile-an-hour fastball? That’s just uncanny. It’s one of my favorite passages in Reality Hunger, I have an Ichiro passage, and Ichiro is really, really, really there, he’s present. Like that amazing thing that Ichiro did when he caught a ball to win the 114th game in 2001. The sportswriter said, “How did you know you would catch it?” and he said, “I knew it when I caught it.” He’s so great at that. He is Reality Hunger in a lot of ways. What do I know, but friends of mine who are sportswriters in Seattle told me that it really did happen that Griffey just demanded that Ichiro be a silly part of the team. That he did not allow him to be so serious. And that’s a gift, a great gift. Griffey’s amazing that way.

RB: Yeah.

DS: Well, thanks Robert, it’s always great fun to talk to you.

RB: Yes, sir.