All these many years later he has amassed an inchoate archive of images of famous and unheralded writers, Cuba , Nicaragua, Israel, my dogs Rosie and Beny and a gargantuan trove of stupid Party Pics drawing on Boston’s demimonde replete with poseurs and strivers circa 1983-1998. His favorite best pictures are of Howard Zinn, Joan Didion, Studs Terkel, William Burroughs and Eduardo Galeano
In the new issue of the Baffler (Issue #26)writer,editor, critic George Scialabba’s forty year mental health records are presented in an abridged and annotated form with evocative illustrations by Brad Holland. Scialabba has, over the years ,suffered from severe bouts of depression and has searched for relief from this debilitating ‘disease’. Despite this burden George has published a number of essay collections—The Divided Mind, What are Intellectual Good For?, The Modern Predicament and recently For The Republic and countless articles for a wide swath of smart periodicals.
This conversation took place at Mt Auburn Cemetery on a crisp early September Sunday at the promonotory where the Washington Tower is located and that overlooks Boston looking to the east ( the name of person’s gravesite we settled at escapes me).George and I talked about his reason(s) for allowing the Baffler to publish his records and how they were edited and presented and his battle with depression. We also talked about the health care system, DH Lawrence,19th century Utopians, his religious upbringing, the state of American culture, not reading Tolstoy, some of his favorite recent reads, his ambitions and more…
I spent nine years in an insane asylum and never had a thought of suicide, except that every morning after my conversation with the psychiatrist, I wanted either to hang myself or to cut his throat— Antonin Artaud
RB: Say something (testing sound level).
GS: Four score and seven…
RB: The Baffler [Issue # 26] is publishing an edited version of your medical records of over forty years.
GS: My mental health records. There are no mentions of my toenail fungus.
RB: You have toenail fungus?
GS: I’m afraid so.
RB: What moved you to publish and publicize those records?
GS: Not what, who: the editor-in-chief, John Summers. Two years ago I had an episode of major depression. John and I were very good friends by then, so he offered to help—to come with me to doctors when necessary, shop for me, visit, and so on. At one point he thought it might be useful if we got my medical records. So I requested them—nowadays there is no problem getting them. We both only glanced at them back then and put them aside. Earlier this year he came across them, while he was conceiving the next issue of The Baffler, about health and the medical care system. and thought they might make an interesting document. I was … dubious, but he’s a persuasive guy and a very accomplished editor, so I said go ahead, see what you can turn them into. And he produced an excerpt that reads well and has, I think, a certain dramatic interest. He found some excellent art to illustrate it, and with a bit of commentary by me before and after, it fits into the tapestry of the issue. I don’t make great claims for it. I don’t think he does either. But because it’s the most widespread illness in the world, and there’s a lot of secrecy, of furtiveness, about it, it seemed to us that it might be worthwhile to offer this glimpse from another angle into the culture of health and sickness, which the whole issue is meant to represent
RB: My first reaction to this piece was to recall an anthology entitled Fakes [An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts by David Shields], which collects a variety of texts that turn out to also stand as literary items—written items that have narrative resonance. This iteration of your mental health records seems to suggest a new literary genre.
GS: I’ll have to take your word for it.
RB: How much material did John start with?
GS: About 40,000 words.
RB: That doesn’t seem like a lot for forty years, does it?
GS: There’s some stuff from the byways of my therapeutic history that I didn’t collect. But this is most of it.
RB: Is your mental health history cumulative? Does each provider pass on his or her notes upward?
GS: No, they were in three or four places.
RB: At some point, perhaps in the last ten years, did they become part of one file?
GS: No, I asked each of the three or four places where I had been seen for any length of time for their records. As far as I know, they’re still not gathered in any one place.
RB: I was thinking that since medical records are being digitalized, eventually there should be one file.
GS: There are intake processes where they ask about your medications and hospitalizations.
RB: The patient is assumed to be a reliable narrator?
GS: If they think they’re looking at a potentially critical or terribly complicated case, then they will ask for the previous records. It took me a while to get mine, but the hospitals have courier service back and forth, so it’s faster for them. None of the institutions I did intake interviews with, seemed to want to see my previous records.
RB: There was a set of notes where the practitioner insisted on using the word ‘deny’—“denies suicidal ideation”, “denies whatever”—
GS: More than one.
RB: Is that standard medical jargon? There are verbs other than ‘deny’.
GS: I guess, as with so many other things in medicine, they’re being self-protective. If they had said, “the patient appears free of suicidal intent,” and then the patient committed suicide, they might be called on the carpet.
RB: That puts the onus on the patient and reveals an attitude by the practitioner toward the patient.
GS: That was my first reaction.
RB: You have denied suicidal ideation in each intake interview. In the commonplace book on your website there is a citation from Artaud:
“I spent nine years in an insane asylum and never had a thought of suicide, except that every morning after my conversation with the psychiatrist, I wanted either to hang myself or to cut his throat.”
Is there more history available to you? There are big gaps.
GS: There are gaps—some of the time I was out of therapy. There is one large episode of therapy for which I couldn’t get the therapist to give up her notes.
RB: Her notes of your treatment are available at her discretion?
GS: No, I’m legally entitled to them. But I didn’t want to fight about it.
RB: Were you tempted to annotate these records more extensively?
GS: John has a notion that the longer transcript can be made into a small book, in which case I’d have to do much more work.
RB: I second that idea. Its seems strange to say this – bordering on crass – but you have Brad Holland providing wonderful illustrations …
GS: I wasn’t truly sold on the whole idea until I saw both his illustrations and the other, smaller ones in the margin. Then I knew it had to be.
RB: I’ve read a number of novels lately – Francine Prose, Amy Bloom, Anthony Doerr – where part of the story is told through letters. Prose even uses excerpts from published books to advance the narrative. So writers are using different devices—
GS: I think there’s something new in the degree to which people are incorporating little shots of non-direct narrative. I’m not sure what it means; maybe it’s just …
RB: … the last gasp. I find I like to write notes —to service providers, my doctor, my son’s guidance counselor – and in so doing I attempt to make the epistles somewhat interesting and attractive to read. Possibly many people are also intent on avoiding cliché.
GS: That may be true, but I suspect you’ll agree it isn’t true of psychotherapists. They seem to have the opposite motive —to make the sessions sound less interesting. You don’t really get a sense, I think, of an individual personality, an individual voice, an individual sensibility, on either end. I mean, there are flashes of idiosyncratic perception on the part of therapists. And there are occasions when my own voice comes through. At one point, one of my therapists says, “He’s concerned about the beginnings of gray hair, or forehead receding” and then in parenthesis (He thinks very highly of his hair).” (laughs). And it’s true, I remember I was bragging about it. But touches like that, individuating touches, there are not many of them throughout the whole record— either in what was included or in what wasn’t. And the reason for that, I have discovered since talking to my current therapist about this project, is that there are very rigorous standard procedures for writing case notes.
RB: Does anyone read R. D Laing anymore? Did they ever?
GS: Laing is an object lesson…
RB: I am at a loss here— I think so much of psychotherapy and especially psychopharmacology is voodoo, but I have myself benefited from it. I have had therapists who have been useful in navigating the wild world. But I really don’t quite know what the diagnosis of depression means anymore. I have noted that the WHO claims depression is the world’s most widespread disease, but I wonder if people understand what that means.
GS: I wish I could explain it to you.
RB: I understand your symptoms —there are times when I have no energy or very low energy but it’s not sustained for more than a day or two. And there is no correlation to anything I can observe. I find myself taking great joy in a lot of things and being interested, being semi-productive. I would like to be more productive. But I am also trying figure out what to expect of myself at this point in my life.
GS: Great joy pretty much disqualifies you from a diagnosis of depression.
RB: Exactly. A friend of mine from high school recently visited me and we were chatting and he, seemingly out of nowhere, asked me if we were ever asked whether we were happy when we were kids? It was never an issue.
GS: Yeah, not in my youth, either.
RB: Today, kids are always being asked and are really expected to say. A negative means bring in the psych HAZMAT team. It seems to me to be a phony issue.
GS: Well yeah, the phoniness is the critical part, I guess. Obviously, parents during our youth at least occasionally wondered or worried whether we were happy, and they wanted us to be happy. It just wasn’t thought necessary to be hovering or solicitous. Whereas now it is. Maybe it is for the wrong reasons. Maybe it’s because we have a social work bureaucracy, a medical bureaucracy, which is a level of authority laid over the parents to which the parents are now in a sense accountable. And they tell the parents they ought to regularly diagnose their child’s mental health and ask if they are happy. I am not a parent so I don’t know, but I suspect it has something to do with the general bureaucratization of medicine and family life and intimacy. So yes, it’s good now as it was then to care that your kids are happy, but how you go about manifesting it and seeing to it has changed. D. H. Lawrence, my personal guru, has an essay about child-rearing called “Education of the People”,(1) which would absolutely cause the AMA and the American Psychiatric Association to blow a collective gasket. His three cardinal rules: “1) Leave them [i.e., children] alone. 2) Leave them alone. 3) Leave them alone.”
RB: What was the response when it was published?
GS: It wasn’t published. It was found in his papers.
RB: Has it been published now?
GS: It’s in that two-volume collection, Phoenix.
RB: It’s curious – you admire and are interested in a lot of classical writers, while I rarely read anything written before 1980 and have developed a certain impatience with certain kinds of scholarship, which I respect but can’t get interested in, such as literary theory. I barely know the names of its professors.
GS: Well. I have just a very passing acquaintance with literary theory, and not much interest. It’s a matter of personal history; I guess. I got my moral education from George Eliot, Conrad, Henry James. And to some extent from 17th-century and Romantic poetry.
RB: Not the Enlightenment?
GS: Pre- and post-Enlightenment. (both laugh)
RB: Where is your Catholicism in this? Did that moral education conflict with your Catholicism?
GS: Yes, it did. And Catholicism lost out.
RB: Had you not gone to college, would you have retained your faith?
GS: Well, it’s possible. I once thought I’d go straight into the seminary after grade school. Then I decided to go to a regular high school but to the seminary after that. I think I would have become a very undistinguished, moderately unhappy Catholic priest. Probably a Franciscan.
RB: Franciscans are monks? Do they wear robes?
GS: Not monks, but they do wear brown robes. They take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
RB: In your notes you said you could no longer reconcile taking seriously something that didn’t allow investigation and questioning. High school didn’t move you to curiosity and skepticism but college did?
GS: Well, it was a decent average high-school education. I had a few good teachers —the whole thing managed to avoid killing any interest in literature, history or philosophy, which often happens to less fortunate kinds.
RB: But it must have stimulated you sufficiently to apply to Harvard…
GS: That wasn’t my idea. This was 1964 – the beginning of affirmative action.
RB: You’re an African-American lesbian?
GS: No, but the Ivy League colleges really were, back then, WASP strongholds. In the early ‘60’s, around 1964 in fact, Kingman Brewster and Yale spearheaded affirmative action and Harvard jumped on the bandwagon. The Ivy Schools decided that they ought to open wide their gates.
RB: What deprived and marginalized category did you represent?
GS: It was just that no one from my high school had ever gone to Harvard. It was a working-class Catholic high school. If there was an affirmative action category I fit in, it was probably grease balls—they didn’t have a lot of grease balls.
RB: Oh, wops and greasers. Dagos. I believe my moral education came from Nelson Algren. [Algren’s “three rules of life”: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.”] I do find it hard to believe, though, that you stressed yourself and worried yourself about religious issues. I understand that millions of people do, but it’s so foreign to me.
GS: Well, after I left I wondered too. And I had hoped that therapy would show me what in my psychic constitution and character that having attached myself to religion so fiercely as a boy stood for—what to make of it in terms or my psychic structure. It didn’t. I never did solve that problem in therapy.
RB: How many therapists have you gone to/through over forty years?
GS: Maybe nine or ten.
RB: What was the duration of the longest therapeutic relationship?
GS: Five or six years
RB: Why did it end?
GS: It was a psychoanalyst and insurance doesn’t pay for psychoanalysis, so I couldn’t afford to see her anymore. I would have somehow found the money if it were clearly useful, but I wasn’t sure that it was.
RB: Karl Krause’s quip on psychoanalysis comes to mind [Psychoanalysis is that mental illness for which it regards itself as therapy.] I find dealing with medical institutions and bureaucracies depressing and stressful—it’s like dealing with a foreign country. I wonder if all the effort is worth it. I find the intake process off-putting and insensitive
GS: And this in a context that’s supposed to be about empathy and concern for you. It’s a little bit like the grimace I often can’t suppress when I hear about somebody retiring from the Senate after a long career of “public service.” Well, you know, service my ass! (laughs). He’s leaving to become a lobbyist and cash in. I haven’t read this book by the philosopher Harry Frankfort called Bullshit. But if it’s the book I hope it is, it looks at just this kind of thing: the way you can’t say what you actually think, on pain of being sued or being some kind of social outcast. A therapist has to —there has to be this presumption of medical care but it often feels like medical processing.
RB: Finding a simpatico therapist is like playing roulette. That’s an ingredient that plays in a lot of situations and it’s almost a miracle to come across it. I just watched The Constant Gardener again and was impressed by how the diplomat and his activist wife formed a strong bond. And in the book it is quite vivid—two people talking the same language.
GS: I am going to write myself a reminder to look at that book.
[ Irrelevant exchange about Le Carre & Fatwa]
GS: (is looking for a pen)
RB: I don’t have a pen either—should we be embarrassed —two writers without pens?
RB:I noticed in these therapy notes there are a couple of places where you exclaim, “I am overqualified for this job”—in one place it was in quotation marks, almost as if it was in bold type. Is that something you actually said?
GS: No, it didn’t come across quite like that. I mean I had always assumed I would go to college, go to graduate school, and then teach at a college. Not become a great scholar, but I liked being a student and thought I’d be a good teacher. But instead I had this nervous breakdown in graduate school after leaving Opus Dei. And then what I did was become a cab driver and a welfare department social worker and then a receptionist and building manager. The thought of ever going back to graduate school gave me a swarm of butterflies in my stomach.
RB: Why did you go to New York for graduate school?
GS: Well, I got into Columbia and didn’t get into Harvard.
RB: Did you have any thoughts about how different New York would be from Cambridge? Did being in New York affect you?
GS: It rattled me a bit. I just applied to a few graduate schools and Columbia was the best one I got into.
RB: Did you have friends in New York?
GS: No, but there was an Opus Dei in New York.
RB: Hadn’t you quit Opus Dei?
GS: I had quit the summer before but then for the first month or so [of graduate school] I lived in the residence. It was not only for members—it was a residence for students as well. And thenI moved out. New York’s strangeness and intensity was just a small wrinkle in a very big strange force field that I was entering.
RB: When you wake up every day, what is sense of it—what’s the music playing in the opening scenes? You open your eyes and you sit up and then —what?
GS: Um, from 20 to 45 the first thing most males are conscious of when waking is an erection, usually. When you get to your mid-60’s as I have and you have been taking an SSRI for twenty years or more, you are usually all too conscious of the lack of an erection. (Both chuckle, sheepishly.)
[Brief discussion about full bladders and sleep apnea.]
RB: I have in the past two or three had years a few [minor] medical problems, which just took forever to resolve. Have you experienced the glacial tempo of the medical bureaucracy?
GS: I blame capitalism.
RB: Why is there resistance to universal health care?
GS: Well I have a hobbyhorse theory about it. It’s because there is a generalized and really superstitious distrust of government, earnestly and assiduously and cunningly cultivated by all the people who stand to profit from it. Among others, the insurance industry and the processed food industry. It’s no accident that all those people out there think government can’t do anything good. Remember what one of them said at a political rally, ”Keep your government hands off my Social Security!”
RB: Might it be something more basic that elicits this pretzel logic on all sorts of issues? And there is this real belief that the current right agenda is based on some demonstrable rationale.
GS: I’m from a working-class family, and they really do have these stubborn anti-government attitudes that very few of us enlightened people in the Cambridge-Boston area have.
RB: Reagan Democrats.
RB: Why don’t people just admit they are racist, Judeophobic, homophobic? These seem to be regnant in the USA. We live in a funhouse. I wonder why in a world that seems to have so many problems and crises, there isn’t a greater audience for publications like The Baffler, In These Times, Truthdig, even the New York Review, which can be very insightful. What aren’t people searching for a critique?
GS: That’s the revolutionary question.
RB: Is it Marcuse’s notion that there is a moronizing process?
GS: There’s a lot to that. Life in contemporary capitalist culture is a continuous stream of disconnected stimulants. Distractions.
RB: There is a connection but it’s not apparent to the audience—it’s all about consuming.
GS: It’s not coordinated, but it works together to this one purpose.
RB: We don’t want to say, to make people stupid. Desensitizing them?
GS: Yeah, we must find a good phrase. (Both laugh.) Impoverishing their critical faculties.
RB: Growing up under the old regime of literacy and hard copy [real] books and certain kinds of narrative, you may fall prey to anxieties about new technology. And thus we may be somewhat impaired in assessing new media. Is Facebook snake oil—it seems to work for some people?
GS: Well, I suppose that nothing that either lasts a long time or engages a lot of people—
RB: What’s a long time? What’s the life expectancy of some of this new technology? What is the phrase I noted in The Baffler— “Innovation without progress”?
GS: I was thinking of a line from Durkheim, which explained conservatives to me in a lightening flash when I came across it. “No tradition or institution lasted for hundreds of year can be entirely without merit or substance.”
GS: That the good and the bad are jumbled together. That Facebook, though I think on the whole it is an enormous waste of time and basically an infantilizing influence, nonetheless has its uses and (almost) redeeming features. And the same with television. I don’t read as many books as I used to, and it’s because once when I was badly depressed, my brother gave me a television set—“Maybe this will help take your mind off your troubles.” And it did. But , alas, I couldn’t stop watching it when I got better.
RB: I agree, but then there are shows like The Wire.
GS: TV is such a vast phenomenon that even if a minority of shows are inspired, it’s practically impossible to keep up with them.
RB: As distracting and procrastination-inducing as they are, streaming media (Netflix, Spotify) are amazing things. Access to a very wide [in the case of Spotify almost unlimited] selection of music and film is grand.
GS: There is a well-known media theorist named Clay Shirky, who made a passing remark on his blog to the effect that “nobody I know reads Tolstoy any more. And that makes perfect sense to me: War and Peace is so long and kind of boring.” Shirky’s a decent guy and not himself illiterate, but Jesus, if the young are not reading Tolstoy, then what about 16th- and 17th- century English lyric poetry – the marrow, the distillation, the flower of the language. Do they even know it exists?
RB: We do have these, for lack of a better word, controversies in literature. Ian McEwan recently asserted (2) that most long novels today don’t justify their length. Tim Parks in the New York Review also wrote about reading long works.(3)
GS: There are people like Donna Tartt that the argument probably applies to. I suppose Shirky’s point was: “My God, there’s so much. It’s hard just to keep up with good blogs. Who has time for Tolstoy?” You can spend all your time in front of a screen and increasingly that seems like a sensible thing for people to do. Those of us who grew up with in a hard-copy world can see what’s being lost as well as what’s being gained. But the people who are growing up in the new world can’t see what’s being lost. And so it gives an edge of desperation, an edge of Luddism, to those of us who are trying to keep those treasures from being lost. If the young want to choose not to read Tolstoy and Donne and George Herbert, ok. But they have to at least know what they’re giving up.
RB: It can be an amusing pastime to consider what will be read a hundred years hence. Philip Kerr told me he thought John LeCarre would be the guy. Which at the time surprised me. But I have this theory that there is a fixed finite number of readers in the world—like the ever-present twelve honest men. There will always be 400,000 readers who will be reading 17th-century poetry and the great Russians and the epochal Germans.
RB: So we ought to set aside these declinist and worrisome thoughts about the disappearance of literature, which really is about the disappointment that more people are not making use of the great literary wellspring that is available. There are kids out there reading—they just don’t make much noise.
GS: Maybe that’s true. But there is this dream of a humanist Utopia that the Enlightenment philosophers had—Condorcet, Godwin, later Utopians William Morris and John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold, that the best that has been thought and said could become a common property of humankind. Probably there will always be many millions or billions who find enough beauty in growing a garden or swimming—nonverbal things. And that’s fine. But many, many, more than 400,000 people, many more than the elite of their time in 18th-century France or 19th-century Britain could have kindled to the books we hold dear.
RB: It would seem that lots of people seem to want to remain ignorant of the pressing issues of our time — climate change, the failure of the Western model of development in the so-called Third World. I think back on novels like Nevil Chute’s On the Beach, which portrayed a nuclear apocalypse, and there was a Ban the Bomb movement. If you read LeCarre, you can get a clear idea of the corrupted and degraded state of Western post-industrial nations. I don’t know that utopian ideals have any place in the thinking of people in the short term —the next twenty or thirty years.
GS: We all have a moral imagination.
RB: You think?
GS: Anybody who does have a moral imagination or a political imagination can’t help occasionally finding inspiration in an ideal that he/she hopes can be achieved.
RB: Do you see any examples of that in life today, around the world? Lives and institutions guided by a basic sense of decency and fairness?
GS: No group examples, but individuals. No, no communities.
RB: Whom do you see aspiring to make the world a better place?
GS: Well, there’s probably 400, 000 people. (Both laugh.)
RB: In reading this Baffler article, it is not apparent that you ever give yourself credit for doing good and useful work. Your writing has been recognized by smart people. Didn’t that make you feel better?
GS: Eventually, it did. Saved my life, really. But it took a long while.
GS: (long pause) Because there were lots of people my age doing what I was doing, a lot more successfully than me.
RB: Well, what was your criterion of success?
GS: I suppose quantity and visibility. I would see Sven Birkerts $4) or Paul Berman or Ellen Willis appearing in the New Yorker, the New Republic or the NYRB, or publishing a book, and I hadn’t done any of those things and probably never will.
RB: But you were published—how did that happen?
GS: It started with hearing Noam Chomsky on the radio – I felt the scales fall from my eyes. At the end, the interviewer mentioned that Chomsky had a new book coming out in a few months. I thought, “Wow, this is great. This will make the scales fall from everybody’s eyes.”
GS: So I got the new book when it came out and I waited for the reviews and for American politics and culture to be turned upside down. And nothing happened. It was published by small radical press.
RB: As is his latest opus, by Haymarket Books.
GS: I was incredulous and dismayed. I wrote a 3000-word letter in the form of a review to Elliot Fremont-Smith of the Village Voice and said this is a great book and nobody has said a word about it, and this is what it’s about. How about getting some writer to review it? So he called me back and said he would publish me and I should send something else.
RB: How do you think other writers started out?
GS: I may not have been as hopeless a case as I thought I was, but I really was very isolated.
RB: It does seem to be the case that being a good and original writer is not sufficient to launch a career. It takes luck or a real careerist bent. If you are not going to toot your own horn, then you need an agent, yes?
GS: Yes, but an agent looks for writers who are going to sell books.
RB: Some do.
GS: They have to, that’s how they make a living.
RB: There are some that don’t, people like Rachel Cohen (5) who wrote a wonderful book entitled A Chance Meeting or Edward P. Jones,(6) who spent 12 years writing The Known World are represented by super agent. Or Eduardo Galeano’s (7)agent, who also represented Latino women writers. But who am I to give career advice? What are your ambitions at this point in your life?
GS: (long pause) They mostly involve reading. No, nothing I really feel passionate about. John is trying to interest somebody in a Selected Scialabba book. I’m fairly pessimistic about it.
RB: How far have you gotten into turning the mental health records into a book?
GS: It’s basically John’s project, so I don’t know. I think he has a strong and detailed vision.
RB: So what do you look forward to reading— just more or specific books?
GS: Just big piles of books on the floor that have been accumulating over the last decades. All kind of things—
RB: How does something get drawn out of the piles?
GS: It depends on when the next deadline is.
RB: Deadline for who or what?
GS: I hope to write more for The Baffler.
RB: That’s a three-times-a-year publication.
GS: Well, I’m running out of gas. I like Raritan(8)—I have a good relationship with them. And Commonweal. I also wrote a couple of things for Virginia Quarterly Review
RB: Does reaching out to publications take a large effort for you?
GS: I’m not sure why. I usually have enough on my plate. You were talking before about that little spark of ambition you need. My spark flickers.
RB: Would you like to accomplish more?
GS: I’d like to do less,really.
GS: I wish the world were a much more sensible place
RB: You see your writing as a corrective or an attempt to be…?
GS: Yeah. Yeah. Yes, I don’t make beautiful things with words, at least that’s not my [intention]. I am not a poet or a storyteller. I am kind of a preacher, and I wish there were less to preach about.
RB: You are frequently expressive about the beauty of language and what that may do.
GS: Yeah, but so do James Wood and Sven Birkerts. And I love being instructed by them. But I don’t feel I can instruct other people about language and literature, whereas inequality, American foreign policy—there’s just so much unnecessary suffering in the world.
RB: You wrote about Chomsky thirty years ago and not much has changed about Chomsky and the issues he focuses on. Americans still don’t pay attention to him. Or he is a buzzword for the evil left wing.
GS: He has been very effectively marginalized in America, but internationally it’s a different story.
RB: Name a book or a movie that has given you a charge. Uplifted you.
GS: A novel from last year by Anthony Marra, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. (9)
RB: A wonderful novel, and the title, taken from a Russian medical dictionary as the definition of life, is thought provoking.
GS: Another novel that knocked my socks off was Bob Schacochis’s (10) The Woman Who Lost Her Soul.
RB: Indeed. In the literary beauty contest of the National Book Awards, it lost out to Donna Tartt’s book?
RB: Anything else?
GS: A new book by William Deresiewicz [EXCELLENT SHEEP The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life]. It’s not the best written book but it says all the right things and it’s getting a lot of flak
RB: I read a piece by Stephen Pinker in the New Republic, which wasn’t positive. Why the negative response?
GS: Partly because Deresiewicz is an amateur. He’s a literary critic and not a VSP [Very Serious Person]
RB: Doesn’t he teach?
GS: He taught English at Yale.
RB: Doesn’t that give him some qualification?
GS: Sure. But he’s a radical and doesn’t have social-scientific credentials. And there is something preachy about the book, something amateurish. It’s not a Christopher Jencks or Nicholas Lehmann—not one of these carefully hedged, data-heavy books. It’s somewhat impressionistic and a bit sweeping. That appeals to me, but it annoys people like Pinker and Harry Lewis, a Harvard dean. And Deresiewicz traces higher education’s problems to capitalism, another reason why he’s not taken very seriously.
RB: From what I read, it reminds of a John Summers piece (11) for the Chronicle of Higher Education
GS: It’s in that vein.
RB: It seems there is a shortage of intellectual honesty. There’s too much intellectual hucksterism.
GS: Yes. A subject for another interview.
GS: The other two books I’m excited about are Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I just read for the first time …
RB: Wasn’t that written in the 19th century?
GS: Yes (laughs). And The Return of the Native.
RB: Geez, where do you find these books? (Laughs)
GS: Especially Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
RB: Whatever its literary merit, I suppose it’s a very important book in American history.
GS: I was prepared for a slog. But it’s a really good book. She’s the George Eliot of slavery.
RB: I can’t read those books. I wonder what it says that a reader like me doesn’t read the canon – what it says about their durability? You bemoan the fact that Tolstoy and others are not being read…
GS: Well, I take comfort in the thought of the 400,000.
RB: I see.
GS: A useful remnant.
RB: A useful myth.
GS: Yes, as we enter our Dark Years.
RB: The Dark Years—a good place to end. (Both laugh) Well, George, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you.
1. David Shields- Conversation at Los Angeles Review of Books
2.D H Lawrence citation “The Education of the People” (1919), in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence, pp. 659-661. from George Scialabba’s Commonplace Book
3.Ian McEwan from Guardian article
4.Tim Parks from New York Review of Books blog, “Reading The Struggle”
5. Sven Birkets Conversation at The Morning News
6. Rachel Cohen Conversation at The Morning News
7. Edward P Jones Conversation at Identitytheory
8. Eduardo Galeano Conversation at Identitytheory
10. Anthony Marra Conversation at Our Man in Boston
11.Bob Schaccochis Conversation at The Los Angeles Review of Books
11. John Summers Conversation at Identitytheory
Currently reading Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (Haymarket books)
I am a big fan of writer Pete Dexter, whom I discovered around the time his National Book Award-winning Paris Trout was published. I was pleased to have a conversation with him for his novel Brotherly Love circa 1991.The publication of one of Dexter’s fictions causes me to suspend my required reading to take it up. Happily, Dexter has never disappointed. Here’s one of his droll insights from his 2003 novel Train:
He runs the Cassidy crime family. Little people with enormous heads, every one if them. And they’ve all have been shot in the head, and they never die They believe it’s the luck of the Irish—they walk around thinking they were all born lucky—and it never occurred to any them yet that if they were that fucking lucky, they wouldn’t keep getting shot
The Daily Beast has re-published a 34 year newspaper column A Dog Dies, A Boy Grows up
…reading Dexter’s columns you can see why he’d go on to become one of our great novelists…this story, which originally ran in the [Philadelphia] Daily News on June 2, 1980 appears as it did in the paper. In just under 1,000 words it stands as a stirring example of powerful newspaper writing at its best.”
Pete Dexter’s last novel Spooner which had autobiographical overtones was a wonderful story full of his Talmudic humor.
It take it on board that writing /creating a must read oracular 800 word column year after year is a challenge. Maureen Dowd has been at it for while and while I no longer feel she is a must-read (like her colleague Gail Collins) occasionally I check in with her commentary. Her June 14 exposition opened with:
The circumstances under which Time magazine become irrelevant never occurred to me—until I saw a recent cover for its “100 Most Influential People” issue. Beyonce, the entertainer graces one version.
Novelist Tim Parks offers some cogent rumination in Reading: The Struggle, concluding:
I will go out on a limb with a prediction: the novel of elegant, highly distinct prose, of conceptual delicacy and syntactical complexity, will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out. The larger popular novel, or the novel of extensive narrative architecture, will be ever more laden with repetitive formulas, and coercive, declamatory rhetoric to make it easier and easier, after breaks, to pick up, not a thread, but a sturdy cable. No doubt there will be precious exceptions. Look out for them.
I wonder how many times Dick Cheney has to remind the world he is still a free man before someone gets the idea that he should be tried as a war criminal. Maybe the same brave Spanish magistrate who issued summons to Henry Kissinger and General Augusto Pinochet?
I had the pleasure of chatting with Bob Shaccochis last year on the occasion of his grand novel The Woman who Lost Her Soul where he talked about his rancher neighbors’ antipathy to dogs. The recent reports of a mad dog cop in Baltimore killing a dog reminded me of that chat:
Other than your wife, are there long periods when you don’t speak to anyone?
Yeah and there are two, two and half months when my wife isn’t there. Her professional life is centered around Florida, and she has to be there. But I am not lonely. I do get horny. My dogs are all I need to be happy. Then her, in that order (laughs). It’s the same for her — dogs first, me second. I made some friends downhill from me — people who live in a village that is their ancestral home. They are Spanish. If you say Mexican, it’s like calling them “niggers.” They told me, “We got rid of the Indians and we are not through yet. You are on our land.” They have grazing rights in the forest and sometimes they will yell at me because my dogs upset the cattle, “Control your dog or we’ll kill it.” I said, “If you kill my dog, I am burning down your house and killing everybody in it. And after we burn down your house I’ll get a bulldozer destroying what’s left and then I’ll be salting the fucking earth.”
It turns out that a few months later said neighbor did shot one of Shaccochis’s Irish Setters and he had him charged, tried , convicted and incarcerated for that murder.
And in an incidence of cosmic confluence , I received a novel entitled The Baltimore Atrocities( Coffee House Press) by John Dermot Woods.Here’s what I found on the Web (his own web site seems to be out of action). He declares:
JDW: Like a lot of creators, I make myself reinvent the wheel for each project. It’s partially an attempt to overcome my tics and ingrained narrative habits. Of course, it doesn’t really work. But, if I didn’t try to change my approach completely each time, then I think my work would be exceptionally repetitive. I like control, structure, and dioramas–worlds I can control. This can lead to an over-emphasis on constraint and smallness. I’m not naturally inclined to improvise and let things fly. I have to give myself little challenges to open up my work. (Working with J.A. on No One Told Me was great in this way. He encouraged me to just push forward. I didn’t even pencil out those drawings before I committed ink and paint to paper.)
My problem with political correctness is not the correctness part—its the kind of knee jerk response that dismisses the shadings of meaning and value in the world. Take for instance the rage of all right thinking Americans that the Washington Redskins nomenclature is a slur on the existence of America’s native peoples. And the campaign by assorted parties to shed that rubric has now included the US Patent Office. Personally I think it matters not one bit whether the Washington NFL franchise is called the Redskins, The Kikes, The Darkies or the Gooks. At least billionaire owner Dan Snyder is throwing some money in the pot with the creation of a foundation to benefit native americans. And perhaps all those rallying to this cause would redouble their efforts to raise our benighted Indian peoples from the sorry state that the US government has put them in. Its worth noting that Indian fighter US Army General Sherman observed of the Indian reservations “…are worthless patches of land surrounded by scoundrels.
Coverage of professional sports, especially championship competition produces produces tonnage of verbiage I( one thinks of the Manila [Philippines] Municipal Dump). The recent San Antonio Spurs versus Miami Heat was no exception. I don’t recall one memorable column or thought except this clever observation from the fifth game of the series,
“They[Spurs] turned their defenders from the Miami Heat into well-compensated traffic cones.”
The New York Times chose Micheal Kinsley to review Glen Greenwald’s book about the Edward Snowden affair and NSA/US government spying. Kinsley trashes the book, calls Greenwald is a “self-righteous sourpuss” and validates the government’s right to massive unfettered surveillance of its citizens.
Greenwald and others respond here:
Do I need to continue to participate in the debate over whether many U.S. journalists are pitifully obeisant to the U.S. government? Did they not just resolve that debate for me? What better evidence can that argument find than multiple influential American journalists standing up and cheering while a fellow journalist is given space in The New York Times to argue that those who publish information against the government’s wishes are not only acting immorally but criminally?
Though I am no fan of soccer I did pay attention to the books on the sport. And thus I came across public blowhard Ilan Stavans self serving piece Why Has Literature Ignored Soccer? first he dismisses Eduardo Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow, ”,
“Translated into English last year, it is his usual impressionistic hodgepodge of politics and history, less an insightful investigation that a series of forgettable haikus.”
Then this advertisement for himself
In my estimation, the best, most intelligent—and reliable—observer of the role of soccer in Latin American society is Juan Villoro. He has been in all the most recent World Cups as a TV commentator, including the last one in South Africa in 2010. Villoro and I recently published a book-long dialogue, El ojo en la nuca (2014), which talks, in passing, about his experiences.
Ilan Stavans is a Putz
Currently reading My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard and translated by Don Bartlett(Archipelago Books)
You have probably noticed football aka soccer is much in the news. And will continue to be for the duration of the world wide tournament known as the World Cup. Personally. I don’t know what any true blue, red blooded nortamericano can find attractive about this sport.But that’s me.
On the other hand cultural polymath David Thomson seems to find beauty in the sport. And, one of my best friends, multi visual media artist Steve Fagin,also a lover of baseball, is a soccer zealot. And sage progressive writer and activist Eduardo Galeano has written brilliantly on the sport he so loves in “Soccer in Sun and Shadow” excepts pf whihc ypu may find at Mother Jones and Tom Englehardt’s web magazine TomDispatch.com Galeano explains about writing a book about soccer:
For years I have felt challenged by the memory and reality of soccer, and I have tried to write something worthy of this great pagan mass able to speak such different languages and unleash such universal passion. By writing, I was going to do with my hands what I never could accomplish with my feet: irredeemable klutz, disgrace of the playing fields, I had no choice but to ask of words what the ball I so desired denied me.
From that challenge, and from that need for expiation, this book was born. Homage to soccer, celebration of its lights, denunciation of its shadows. I don’t know if it has turned out the way soccer would have liked, but I know it grew within me and has reached the final page, and now that it is born it is yours. And I feel that irreparable melancholy we all feel after making love and at the end of the match.
Though I know virtually nothing about soccer (something that rarely restrains me from commentary and forming opinions) I note a handful of recent books on soccer that appear to rise above the level of fan’s notes. And my unscientific view is that soccer may challenge George Plimption’s Law of Inverse Proportionality (the smaller the ball the more books that have been written about the sport. Marbles? Billiards?)
In addition to the above mentioned classic by Eduardo Galeano, Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs rates some attention as Buford gives a smart account of the sociopathic underclass that afflicts soccer (at least in England)Here’s some excerpts:
…the day had consisted of such a strange succes- sion of events that, by this point in the evening, it was the most natural thing in the world to be watching a football game surrounded by policemen: there was one on my left, another on my right, two directly behind me, and five in front. It didn’t bother me; it certainly didn’t bother the supporters, who, despite the distractions, were watching the match with complete attentive- ness. And when Manchester United tied, the goal was witnessed, as it unfolded, by everyone there (except me; I was looking over my shoulder for missiles), and jubilation shot through them, their cheers and songs suddenly tinny and small in that great cavity of the Juventus football ground, its sev- enty thousand Italians now comprehensively silent. The United supporters jumped up and down, fell over each other, embraced.
But the euphoria was brief. In the final two minutes Juventus scored again. The exhilaration felt but minutes before by that small band of United supporters was now felt-magnified many times~by the seventy thousand Italian fans who, previously humiliated, directed their powerful glee into our corner. The roar was deafening, invading the senses like a bomb.
And with that explosive roar, the mood changed…
There is a truism bandied about that more people like to read about baseball than watch it. Perhaps that’s true of soccer as well, especially as there are long stretches during matches when men in shorts are running willy nilly around a field.
Here some recent soccer books:
Why Soccer Matters by Pelé with Brian Winter(Celebra)
The Ted Williams of soccer, Edson Arantes do Nascimento aka Pelé, is certainly one to represent the sport—three World Cup championships and the all-time scoring record, with 1,283 goals in his twenty year career.
Futebol Nation:The Story of Brazil through Soccer by David Goldblatt (Nation Books)
The World Cup returns to Brazil for the first time in 60 years and historian Goldblatt( The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer) provides context for that nations singular contribution to the sport now known the world over as O Jogo Bonito—the Beautiful Game.
Fear and Loathing in La Liga: Barcelona, Real Madrid, and the World’s Greatest Sports Rivalry by Sid Lowe (Nation Books)
Yankees vs Red Sox? Lakers vs Celtics? Cubs vs Cardinals? If you think these are the greatest sports rivalries, guess again. Apparently, two Spanish soccer teams fall under that rubric.Spanish soccer expert and historian Lowe covers 100 years of that rivalry and as seems to obtain in most intense competitions, it is never about just the game.
The Country of Football: Soccer and the Making of Modern Brazil by Roger Kittleson ( University of California Press)
Jacues Barzun might have transposed his observation about the United States and baseball—”Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball—to apply to Brazil and soccer. Roger Kittleson details the inextricable link between sport and history in this well researched account. And yet all the sports news about soccer is about the big money money franchises in Britain and Spain. Hmmm.
Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy by Dave Zirin (Haymarket Books)
Dave Zirin (People’s History of Sports in the United States, Welcome to the Terrordome)is an astute and dependable sports observer who can be counted on to provide an incisive critique to the world of sports and the blather and cliche that obscure the financial underpinnings of almost all organized sports. In his new opus, Zirin travels throughout Brazil shedding light on why ordinary Brazilians are holding the country’s biggest protest marches in decades about the proffered benefits of hosting the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics
If you are interested in background on the world of soccer there are a trio of books that should be useful Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics by Jonathan Wilson (Nation Books) ,The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer by David Goldblatt (Riverhead ) and New Republic‘s editor Franklin Foer’s How Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization (Harper Perennial)
Currently reading Euphoria by Lily King (Grove Atlantic
Coincident with the publication of esteemed author/activist Eduardo Galeano’s new tome, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (Nation books), Tom Engelhardt appended an anecdote of his personal connection to Galeano with his broadcast of an excerpt from the new opus:
First, a confession. Whenever I read a new Eduardo Galeano book, I drive my wife crazy. I can’t help myself. I wander out every five minutes, saying, “You’ve got to hear this.” And then I read her some moving, dazzling passage, and disappear, only to reappear five minutes later, saying, “You’ve got to hear this.” The arrival of a new book by one of our great writers is always an event. This is publication day for his latest work, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History. It follows Mirrors, his history of humanity in 366 well-chosen episodes. You might think of his latest volume as a prayer book for our time: a page a day for 365 days focused on what’s most human and beautiful, as well as what’s most grasping and exploitative, on this small, crowded planet of ours. I would be urging all of you to celebrate the event and buy copies under any circumstances. (Confession: once, long ago in another life, I was Galeano’s U.S. editor and when his Memory of Fire trilogy burrowed into our North American landscape and refused to leave, it was among the best moments of my book publishing life.) Today, however, is a double celebration for me, because Galeano, the single most charismatic (and modest) man I’ve ever met, appears at TomDispatch for the first time. I’ve chosen six “days” from his new book, just a taste of the year’s worth of pleasures between its covers. What follows is a little introduction in imitation of his distinctive style. Tom]
My own experience with Eduardo Galeano began when I read about him in a Talk of the Town piece by Lawrence Weschler and later in his book on post dictatorship Argentina and Brazil(A Miracle, a Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers (Pantheon 1990). In a piece in the New Yorker called The Dept of Amplification, Uruguay Weschler recounts Galeano’s gripping personal story: Galeano is of Argentine-Uruguayan heritage and when he was asked why he chose to live in Montevideo, he responded “if I was murdered in Uruguay it would be by an enemy but if I was murdered in Argentina it could be either an enemy or friend.”*
Eduardo and I have chatted a number of times (2 or 3?), the last coming in 2006, when we sat in my Chrysler rag top, parked on North Avenue Beach in Chicago, on a blustery June day with my hound Rosie in the back seat (they both took a liking to each other) That conversation is reproduced here
EG: … Each language contains its own music and therefore when you are translating you are coming from one music and inventing another one. Which music would be the best in order to get these ideas, emotions, feeling, memories, possibly to be shared by other people from other cultures, from other languages. I don’t believe really in God, nowadays.
RB: Did you ever?
EG: In my childhood, yes, I was very Catholic. And in my childhood I was a fervent reader of the Bible, then there were some stories that I didn’t like too much but I didn’t know why. And as time had gone by, years had passed, I am now able now to understand why for instance the Tower of Babel story was a story I didn’t like at all. This God acting like a universal chief of police, punishing and hating and being—how could he find that giving us the diversity of languages was a punishment? The diversity of languages is one of the best treasures of the human condition, of the fact of being human in this earth. Because diverse is the best thing, I mean, the best of the world is the fact that the world contains so many worlds inside. And so many languages. We have different languages because we have different musics and we are walking musics. As we are walking time.
For years I have been buying up remainders of Eduardo’s The Book of Embraces and giving them away.Patrick Madden efuses:
Sandra Cisneros, in her introduction to the 2000 edition of Eduardo Galeano’s Days and Nights of Love and War, writes, “I believe that certain people, events, and books come to you when they must, at their precise moment in history.” For me, The Book of Embraces, in its Spanish version, El libro de los abrazos, arrived as a gift from my Uruguayan brother- and sister-in-law. My wife told me that it was a well known and beloved book by the most famous of contemporary Uruguayan authors. I flipped through its pages and was ecstatic to find pictures and short fragments. I had been experimenting with fragments in my own writing. Even before I read a word of the book, I felt like I had found a soul brother or a mentor
* as a leftist activist and journalist Galaeno was at risk for assassination or disappearance
Currently reading Land of the Living by Austin Ratner (Reagan Arthur)
Robert “Red”Birnbaum has interviewed 1267 writers and creators and read 2648 books. He umpires Little League in his western suburban Boston town. He also spreads joy and glad tidings wherever he goes at an array of journalistic byways—OUR MAN BOSTON, VQR ON LINE, THE DAILY BEAST , THE MILLIONS THe LA REVIEW OF BOOKS and has a treasure trove of his stuff can be found at The Morning News and Identitytheory.com. The books that have influenced him the most are V by Thomas Pynchon, Eduardo Galeano‘s Memories of Fire, The People’s History by Howard Zinn, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Crystal Zevon’s oral biography, I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon. He lives with his black dog Beny.
Of the three people I have admired, perhaps inordinately, as an adult, two are still living— Cynthia Ozick and Eduardo Galeano (Howard Zinn, as you probably know, has passed away). This outsized admiration takes the form of serious devotion to their work and activities.
Uruguayan Galeano has published a panegyric to Montivideo the capital of his native land at the Daily Beast:
Every day I walk the city that walks me.
I walk through her and she walks through me.
At the edge of the river-sea, river as broad as the sea, the clear air clears my mind and my legs stride on while stories walk inside me.
Walking, I write. At a stroll, words seek each other and find each other and weave stories that later on I write by hand on paper. Those pages are never the final ones. I cross out and crumple up, crumple and cross in search of the words that deserve to exist: fleeting words that yearn to outdo silence.
Born on the path of a cannonball, Montevideo is swept by breezes that cleanse the air. Before there was a church or a hospital, this point of rock, earth, and sand had a café. It was called a pulpería, the first house with a wooden door amid the huts of mud and straw. They sold everything there, from a needle and a frying pan to a pack of tobacco, while men sitting on the floor drank wine and told lies.
Practically three centuries later Montevideo is still a city of cafés.
The poem continues here
Devotees of Eduardo Galeano can look forward to the publication of his forthcoming book Children Born of the Days.
Currently reading The Wet Engine by Brian Doyle (Oregon State University Press)
Lawrence Weschler is most certainly not an unheralded writer—at least two of his books are classics(if there is a such a thing) of contemporary non fiction—Vermeer in Bosnia and Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders. He does, however engage readers at remote junctures and out-of-the-way labyrinths, both geographically and epistemologically. His newest tome Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative (Counterpoint)collects twenty three of his narrative gems, all tagged with his signature sense of wonder. Subjects range from efforts of digital animators to create a realistic human face, to profiles of novelist Mark Salzman, film and sound editor Walter Murch, artist Vincent Desiderio and his Weschler’s grandfather, composer Ernest Toch.
One of the pleasures of reading Weschler is a near-guarantee that he will be operating from an oblique perspective, challenging conventional (for lack of a better word) wisdom. For instance, though not focused on matters of governance and politics (more often, he trains his curiosity on arts and artists), Weschler is not blind to or oblivious of the darker quarters of those people and politics. One of my favorite books by him is A Miracle, A Universe (Pantheon) an account of post dictatorship human rights groups efforts in Brazil and Argentina attempting to determine the final disposition of the countless “disappeared” cause by previously genocidal regimes, which introduced me to one of the most decent people on this planet Eduardo Galeano.
Here’s a recent Weschler rumination on political corruption that Tomsdispatch published In its conclusion he explains the US system to Godfrey, a Ugandan cab driver:
…Education, meanwhile, is funded according to narrowly local property taxes — and the rich make sure it stays that way. The result? Their kids get a far better education than those living in poorer neighborhoods. When people try to remedy that injustice through affirmative action programs which at least recognize the unfairness of the competition for access to, for example, university slots, the rich protest and get judges to overturn such programs as racist. They are, however, perfectly happy to take advantage of other programs that assure the acceptance of the children of alumni, no matter their scholarly performance, and no one says boo. It’s all perfectly legal.
And as a rich frosting on this confection, there is this quote from W.E.B. DuBois, “We let men take wealth which is not theirs; if the seizure is ‘legal’ we call it high profits. And the profiteers help decide what is legal.”
Currently reading Stories of Village Life by Amos Oz (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
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?
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.
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—
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: 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.
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?
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?
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…
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
DS: Well, thanks Robert, it’s always great fun to talk to you.
RB: Yes, sir.