Tag Archives: Edward P. Jones

Me and George. Talking.

5 Nov

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…

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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

Fakes edited by David Shields and Matthew Volmer

Fakes edited by David Shields and Matthew Volmer

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.

For the Republic by George Scialabba

For the Republic by George
Scialabba

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.

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


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.

What Are Intellectuals Good For? by  George Sciallabba

What Are Intellectuals Good For? by George Sciallabba

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?

GS: (chuckles)

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.

GS: Exactly.

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.”

RB: Meaning?

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.

The Baffler Issue #26 Cover art- Ruth Marten

The Baffler Issue #26
Cover art- Ruth Marten

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.

GS: (laughs)

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?

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Scialabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


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.

RB: Why?

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.”

RB: (laughs)

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?

The Modern Predicament by George Scialabba

The Modern Predicament by George Scialabba

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.

RB: (laughs)

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.

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

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?

GS: Yes.

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.

RB: Exactly.

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.

Footnotes

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
9. Raritan
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)

12 Postscript

Talking with William Giraldi 2.0

30 Sep

The last time (September 2011) I interviewed novelist, literary critic, Agni editor, Boston University mentor ,father of two boys, Billy Giraldi at the Keltic Krust ,was the first time we met. Three years later, Giraldi has published his second novel, Hold The Dark (WW Norton/Liveright) and written innumerable literary critiques for The Daily Beast, Oxford American, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review and the New York Times and most recently a review of James Franco’s latest directorial effort,Child of God>And my favorite local coffee shoppe, The Keltic Krust, has closed.

Giraldi and I have become friends such that the occasionally glib gabfest that follows might give the impression that he is not a serious literatus. He is. Below he and I address a number of artistic and existential issues as well as his second novel,set in a remote Alaskan lanscape, characters  transversing a fierce and foreboding terrain. People die. Wolves howl. So read on, dear reader, read on:

RB: Let’s do a little play acting, a little role playing. We’re at a party— play along. Hi, what do you do?

WG: I chase after my kids in Cambridge and try to make sure they aren’t maimed on the way to becoming upstanding citizens.

RB: I mean what do you do for work?

WG: That is work, Red [‘Red’ being my nom de guerre].

RB: What do you do for money?

WG: Boston University pays me to entertain their many colorful customers.

William Giraldi [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

William Giraldi [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

RB: Can you just tell me what you do?

WG: I teach them essay writing and the proper ways of reading.

RB: That’s how you would answer? That’s your first answer? You would not say,” I am a writer?”

WG: You asked what I do for money, Red. Samuel Johnson’s infamous quip notwithstanding, who writes for money?

RB: Okay, let’s go real here, enough role playing. You do several kinds of writing—novels, essays, literary criticism. Is there one that gives you more pleasure than the others?

WG: Yes, the criticism.

RB: Then why bother with the fiction?

WG: Because no one wants to pay me for criticism.

RB: So you do write for money!

WG: We’re talking pittances here. No publisher wants essays, but magazines need them, and I can use the pittance to help feed the ravenous little monsters who live in my house. You wouldn’t believe how they eat.

RB: What does the New Republic pay you? They do pay you?

WG: All the venues I write for pay me, yes, but I mean my editor at Norton isn’t interested in a book of criticism because he wouldn’t be able to sell it.

RB: Are you a regular contributor now at the New Republic?

WG: I’ve done a bunch of pieces for them, on Orwell, on Kafka, on Primo Levi. I’m not sure how regular that is.

RB: Primo Levi. You’re not qualified, are you? You’re not Jewish.

WG: I’m even less qualified to do Orwell and Kafka, but one fakes it as well as one can.

RB: So why do you gravitate to literary criticism as opposed to other forms?

WG: It allows me to engage in what most compels me—

RB: And impress people with your vocabulary.

WG: Let’s not underestimate that, okay. But it allows me to use what I know, and let’s me comprehend authors and books in a way that I couldn’t without writing about them. I understand Kafka better after writing about him. That’s my only mission.

RB: So you want to work out your own understanding of literature. But you must begin with a certain understanding, so you refine that understanding—is that what’s going on?

WG: That has to happen, yes, and certainly with someone such as Kafka. Everyone begins with certain popular conceptions of Kafka. People know the basics—about The Metamorphoses, some of the stories such as “In the Penal Colony”—but the trick is to transcend those popular conceptions and arrive at a more complex or nuanced place. Reading all of Kafka, delving into his body of work—which is what I do every time I write about an important author—you come away with a view very different from general conceptions.

RB: Do you know Jay Cantor’s book of stories about Kafka [Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka]? He objects to the overuse of the word “Kafkaesque.”

Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor

Forgiving the Angel by Jay Cantor

WG: I say the same in my piece. Not only do I object to it, but I’m certain that it’s a meaningless term. Kafka won’t be reduced to an adjective.

RB: People are using words they don’t have an understanding of and referring to a writer whom they probably haven’t read.

WG: Shocking, I know. In my piece, I speak about the occasion when I knew we’d entered the point of no return with the word “Kafkaesque.” It was in a movie theater, looking at an abomination called Congo, adapted from an equal abomination vomited by Michael Crichton. Don’t ask why I went to see this: I was young and I believe a beautiful girl was involved. But one character uses the word “Kafkaesque” so egregiously and erroneously—referring to a murderous band of apes, I believe—that I knew the word would never recover any meaning. Harold Bloom prefers “Kafkan.” That’s an improvement, though perhaps the difference between nothing and nothing much.

RB: How about “Kafkoid”? I mean, language is a living thing. How about the now great overuse of the word “epic”? You have to hang around with some teenagers, because “epic” is a big word now. It’s like saying “awesome.” This is what I’m hearing.

WG: Language is a living thing only in the hands of potent writers. But, you know, about “epic,” that’s not good, Red, because—

RB: Will you stop looking at your own book . . .

WG: Well, I’m just looking at what Dennis Lehane said about Hold the Dark: “A taut, muscular, and often unforgettable journey into the heart of darkness. Epic, relentless, and beautifully realized.”

RB: And Kafkaesque. You wanna read all the blurbs now?

WG: I’ve got to say, Red, that use of “epic” sounds not bad there, referring to my little tale.

RB: Well, I guess we might as well talk about your book.

Hold the Dark by WIlliam Giraldi

Hold the Dark by William Giraldi

WG: Can I jar a memory in you? When we first met, when Busy Monsters came out, you told me you didn’t really like the novel but it still made you want to talk to me. Now, now let’s hear what the guy has to say about Hold the Dark.

Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

RB: I’ll always want to talk to you because you use the word “raven” as a verb. But they’re very different books, and frankly, I never thought of you as the writer of Busy Monsters, and it wasn’t the kind of novel I’d usually read. I don’t know why I read it, but I did, and I wasn’t even paid to do it. But Hold the Dark is the kind of novel I’d read, and not just because of the other novelists some reviewers are referencing. Actually, I can think of some women writers who come close to Hold the Dark: Bonnie Jo Campbell is great, and the Australian Courtney Collins. They set their stories in remote regions where nature intrudes upon the narrative, where people are outsiders. I think of them as anti New York novels, surroundings you aren’t familiar with, no brand names, no career strivings and divorces. Hard to be original with shit like that.

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

Once Upon A River by Bonnie Jo Campbell

WG: A bored writer of letters-to-the-editor wrote in to the New York Times to complain about the favorable review of Hold the Dark. This was some unstrung fella in the wilds of Colorado, and his complaint was that I was an “urban elite” who had no business writing about the wilderness.

RB: Right. What do you know about Alaska?

WG: Anyone who’s lived through a New England winter knows enough about snow and ice to imagine what kind of cold breathes in other corners of America. But that was sweet of this person who never learned to read fiction, to call me an “urban elite”—the first word is technically accurate and the second word is always a compliment to my ears. What’s the opposite of elite?

RB: Right, and he was really recognizing the novelist’s chore, wasn’t he. You’re only allowed to write about traffic patterns in Cambridge and picking up your kids from school. That’s what you should be limited to. I guess I have to ask you: did you write the book you set out to write? Or did it change as you went along?

WG: It is, yes. To the degree that any novelist understands what lies beneath, I wrote the book I had envisioned.

RB: What drove it? Character, setting, plot?

WG: No, language. It’s always language—language as it relates to character. This is the difference between commercial fiction and fiction that aims for something more: the former is a mere public service message and the latter is an investigation into the durability and limits of language. Hold the Dark has been characterized as a literary thriller, and someone called it “action literature,” which defies meaning, I think. I’m not sure where they’re coming from because the novel is very much about the enigma of evil and the majesty of nature; it’s about a spiritual crisis that morphs into a spiritual quest. I’ve been lucky in my reviewers because almost all of them have spoken to the pitch of the language, to the tenor of the prose—without some cognizance of that, the novel loses its significance.

RB: It is sort of surprising to take a very raw landscape and terrain, with very nonurban or unsophisticated people, and apply a sophisticated, descriptive, specific language to them. You’re intricate in your descriptions of everything that takes place in this story.

WG: The landscape dictates its own language. Every novel demands its own style. As for the intricate descriptions, my editor pushed me in that direction—

RB: Robert Weil?

WG: The great Robert Weil. He pushed me to bring to life the village of Keelut in a more detailed way. I had the wilderness down, but he wanted that village to pop, and he was right, as usual.

RB: Hey, you live in Cambridge!

WG: Read enough Jack London and all of sudden you live on the edge of the Yukon.

RB: He didn’t have to deal with climate change.

WG: What a coincidence. We aren’t really dealing with it either.

RB: But you’ve never been to Alaska. So few people have.

WG: So it then becomes a question of audacity. Goethe says this, that a writer must have “a touch of audacity” if he wishes to make a work of art. In my wishes for this novel, I needed much more than a touch—I needed a kick of audacity to imagine that terrain, a terrain I deliberately did not visit for fear of turning this novel into loyal reportage, another fact-filled dispatch. For the longest time, the novel had no specific setting at all. Remoteness, ice and snow—that was it. The story could have been taking place on the moon, for all anybody could have known.

RB: Where would the wolves have come from?

WG: Imaginative literature doesn’t or shouldn’t care about those questions. I was fine with the namelessness of the locale, but my publisher wouldn’t have been. The Alaskan wild is an inherently mysterious place—a domain that keeps its secrets well and has a complete separation from the normal rules of existence. Behavior is different there, an outlaw spirit that pervades that territory. If somebody would say that I’m taking a rather big risk in writing about a place only from imagination—

RB: Who would say that?

WG: Somebody with a conviction against the freedom of imagination. A philistine, in other words.

RB: When you critique a book, do you talk about an author risking something?

WG: I have, yes. No risks, no rewards—isn’t that the cliché? But one’s heroes give one the bravery to take big risks in fiction. Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage without ever having taken part in the Civil War—he was born six years after the end of the war. Saul Bellow wrote Henderson the Rain King before he had ever step foot in Africa. Kurt Vonnegut obviously never rocketed to Mars or a moon of Saturn. I won’t adhere to that fallow idea that says fiction should be reportage. I could have spent a year in Alaska and turned this novel into a demographical study, a meteorological report, but that wouldn’t have satisfied the demands of literature. Novels are a product of the imagination or else they are gussied-up newspaper articles, another useless simulacrum of reality.

RB: Right, that’s the key task. You just reminded me of Edward P. Jones’s second novel, The Known World, the one that took him a long time to write. Sections of the book have amazing verisimilitude to various legal functions and court transactions, taking place around the time of the Civil War, and he simply made it all up. I had a history professor write me once to say that she was offended that a novelist was having his way with history, and I told her, It says on the book “novel.” Why do people have these expectation of fiction? And they’re not half as critical of nonfiction.

WG: I’d guess they suffer from a bankruptcy of imagination.

RB: How about poor education? Poor training?

WG: I’ve met entire gangs of über educated people with PhDs in English who were the most imaginatively deprived souls in a hundred-mile radius, the sort who would read a novel and report that it didn’t “feel” real to them, as if their feelings have anything at all to do with the novel.

RB: Isn’t the key internal coherence, that a book is obliged only to be sensible within its own setting?

WG: Within its own architecture, yes. The bolts and the beams of the narrative need to fit only within the novel’s own structure and shouldn’t be worried about corresponding to any outside formula of comprehension. Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and countless others would be inconceivable any other way.

RB: Is your main character in Hold the Dark evil? Is Vernon Slone evil?

WG: That depends on the guidelines by which you’re judging him. By the standards of civilization, he can be called evil, yes, though let me say that he would have hurt no one if only he could have been left alone, left to his own course. By the standards of the wilderness, which are the only standards that hold sway in this story, he is not evil, no. That’s one of the chief conflicts of Hold the Dark: the agon between the rules of the wild and the proprieties of society. By Slone’s DNA, by the precepts of his own land, he behaves precisely as he needs to behave in order to achieve his ends. Slone and Cheeon both—Cheeon, his best friend in the novel—both are sociopathic and would never last a day in Boston, true, but they abide by an ancient code of devotion, a code of blood and bond and myth and bone. They are loyal to one another and that’s dignity of a kind. We’ve forgotten about the bonds of blood, the fidelity of tribe. Their devotion is wordless. Remember, they don’t speak one word to each other throughout the entire novel.

RB: Are we to understand what the moral firmament is in the wilderness? For instance, what justifies those first two murders?

WG: The protection of kin. The punishment of outsiders for meddling with a people and place better left alone. Those two detectives are killed because they are close to finding Medora Slone and Vernon Slone won’t allow that. Medora is Vernon’s to find. Those murders results from an intrusion into territory, which is exactly what I expect would happen if you barged into a bear’s den. This Alaskan territory is a bear’s den—Vernon Slone and Cheeon are the bears.

RB: I wondered about the path that Cheeon took because I think implicit in it is his belief that Slone is going to get caught.

WG: Why do you say that?

RB: Because if he doesn’t believe that Slone is going to get caught, is he aiding Slone’s getaway in mowing down ten or twelve men? And not only doing that, but essentially doing suicide by police.

WG: What’s in Cheeon’s mind during that rampage? Perhaps that the more of these cops he can kill, the fewer will be around to capture Slone. But also, and this is important: they came knocking. They came to him. There wouldn’t have been a rampage if he had been left alone, and that was what I really liked about John Wilwol’s review in the New York Times. He understood that. Don’t come knocking where you don’t belong because you’ll find something fatal. The cops from town and the Feds from the city, they come to this remote place and they attempt to assert their business where it doesn’t fit. Cheeon’s rampage is a retribution and a warning: stay where you belong or there will be these cataclysmic consequences.

RB: À la Ruby Ridge.

WG: I can see the connection. Cheeon’s massacre is a message in extremis. The suicide by cop is really the only outcome for him. His little girl is dead, taken by a wolf; his wife has fled never to return; he knows he’ll never be able to see Slone again. After what’s happened, Slone will be on the run always. Cheeon says to Donald Marium, the detective, he says: The wolf has come for you and me today. The raven follows the wolf, he says, and he points up into a tree and there’s the raven, death’s omen, peering down at them. Remember, he booby-traps his cabin: he’s been waiting for this. From the beginning he’s known they would come for him.

RB: Minor thing, but both Slone and Cheeon, when they’re talking to others, they use the word “guy” where most men who use the word “man” or “dude.” Is that an Alaskanism?

WG: I’m not sure. I’ve heard some Canadians use “guy” in place of “man” or “dude.” It sounds slightly wrong to our ear, and I like that about it, that quality of otherness.

RB: Another illegitimate step in your fabrication. I was thinking, today I harkened back to your controversial review in the New York Times two years ago, that negative review you seemed to draw so much fire for. One particular piece was on the website HTML Giant, in which the writer actually thought to instruct you on what a review should be and how you had failed miserably, and I thought, God, on the face of it, how fucking pretentious to think that he could instruct you. Because one of the things he said is that you have to deal with a book on its own terms, but don’t you also have to deal with a review on its own terms? Was that kerfuffle ever resolved intelligently?

WG: Are internetting nobodies capable of intelligence or resolution? No, the fracas you speak of happened among those internetting nobodies, the synthetically social on social media, so I wasn’t party to it. I don’t partake of social media and I’m not on the internet that much. I’ve never heard of that web site you mentioned but it sounds to me like a haven for the mentally miniscule. I wrote a piece called “Letter to a Young Critic,” my ars poetica, because my editor at the Daily Beast asked for it, but other than that, and receiving a thousand emails of support, I didn’t experience the fracas as others did. My son Aiden was a few months old at the time and nothing focuses the mind like diapers and a screaming newborn.

RB: Do you care? Once having established what you were confident was a well presented argument, did you want to hear counter arguments?

WG: A prepared critic knows there are no counter arguments.

RB: Do you care about being nice as a critic?

WG: Naughty or nice is irrelevant. The question doesn’t exist. The critic’s only concern is right or wrong, true or false. The emphasis on delivery is a dodge, a way of not dealing with the argument. Unpopular causes often rely on the aesthetics of delivery because their foes wear the face of gruesome banality. Let me point out also, for the record, that of the scores and scores of books I’ve written about, only two reviews have been negative, and one was mixed.

RB: All of the top venues you write for, not just the New Republic but the Oxford American and VQR and numerous others, is a recognition of your legitimacy as a critic—you’re guilty by association with some good minds. You must write 5000 words a week for these various magazines. Don’t you set aside other things to do that?

WG: I do, and I need to stop, or this next book will never get done.

RB: Another novel? You have a contract?

WG: The contract I have is for a memoir, believe it or not, and I’m very conflicted about this, Red.

RB: Make it all up.

WG: I’m very conflicted. Speaking of the Oxford American, I just filed a piece about this, about autobiography, as it pertains to the Southern documentary filmmaker Ross McElwee, the great director who did Sherman’s March.

RB: I used to live near McElwee. Do you like Errol Morris’s films?

WG: I’m not a big film guy. I became interested in McElwee because his nephew is a pal of mine. But I’m spottily educated on film.

RB: I don’t want to bring up that you just reviewed the film Child of God at the New Republic.

WG: That was a rather rare exception; I know that novel like a prayer.

RB: You didn’t mention The Counselor in that piece. Do you know that movie?

WG: No. It’s not based on one of the novels. Did you like it?

RB: Sucked, but had some great parts. Cameron Diaz masturbating on the windshield of a car.

WG: That’s so sweet of her.

RB: She might have been the most interesting character in the film.

WG: When you look like Cameron Diaz that’s not hard. Someone once tried to talk to me about the movie There’s Something About Mary—remember that one?—and I asked this person if he ever considered that the something in question about Mary was that she looked just like Cameron Diaz.

RB: Something else I’ve been thinking about lately, because I’ve been trying to reconcile a view I have of serious versus genre literature. When I was a kid it wasn’t like you either did sports or you read, either one or the other. You just read, it was like breathing. Now there’s this whole genre in which people write about reading. I don’t know why they do that. Like that book you reviewed recently in the New York Times, by Wendy Lesser.

WG: Lesser’s book in particular is a deft analysis of certain works of literature and how they function, how they cast their spell. It’s criticism, in other words, not a memoir about reading, which, you’re right, strikes me as a rather yawnful undertaking. The answer to the question why do you read is actually pretty straightforward: I read for pleasure and for intimations of wisdom. Dryden says this, right, that poesy instructs as it delights, but not one without the other.

RB: I.B. Singer said the same thing.

WG: The notion predates both Singer and Dryden. Horace called it dulce et utile: sweet and useful.

RB: Oh boy, I knew you would do this, get all classical on me. Didn’t Horace play for the Pirates, Horace Wagner?

WG: Focus, Red, stay with me. The Horatian prescription of dulce et utile was codified throughout the Renaissance and endured mostly in tact until the contagion of French theory, sneezed by Derrida and de Man, infected American academics in the middle of the last century. But maybe that’s too highfalutin an answer to your Pittsburgh Pirates question.

RB: No shit, Sherlock.

WG: Can we use profanity in this conversation?

RB: Oh yeah, and especially because you need to be more of a hard guy, given Hold the Dark and your author photo, wearing that hat.

WG: I don’t use profanity because—

RB: You’re Catholic.

WG: I was gonna say sophisticated, but you’re right. Lapsed Catholic, actually, but it amounts to the same thing.

RB: Well, your vocabulary far outstrips mine, but remember I grew up in Chicago.

WG: I grew up in New Jersey, Red. That state ain’t exactly a bastion of intellectualism.

RB: But it was the suburbs. But here’s the thing—

WG: I suppose. It was really just a tiny greaser town full of Polish car mechanics and Italian carpenters. Here’s the thing what?

RB: Right, here’s the thing: in my reading, I certainly don’t adhere to any literary theory, have never even read half of the people you mention, whatever their names are. Today, I value John le Carré as much as Robert Stone—

WG: Didn’t you and I have a fight about le Carré, over his stance relating to Rushdie in the 80s?

RB: I think if you go back and read his stance it wasn’t as obnoxious as it might have seemed at the time. Let’s say he fucked up, everybody fucks up, but the thing of it is, I don’t have a benchmark I check off and say, Oh yeah, this is a great book and this is a terrible book. It’s all flying by the seat. And less and less do I remember content. I was talking to David Mitchell* last week. I remember loving Cloud Atlas and I can’t tell you a thing about it.

WG: Then what in God’s name did you love in it?

RB: At the time I read it, I found it to be entertaining and instructive. Like in his new book: he’s a reminder that what’s in front of you isn’t necessarily all that’s going on. He writes stuff, fantasy elements, that I don’t think I’d ever read by somebody else. He does it very deftly. You haven’t managed to read him?

WG: I’ve managed not to read lots of writers.

RB: That’s understandable. I’ve never read Updike and I didn’t read Roth until recently.

WG: Have you still never read Updike?

RB: Never.

WG: I should leave now.

RB: Oh, that’s the way it’s gonna be, huh. We’re gonna judge each other.

WG: Critics judge, that’s there job. It’s extraordinary that you’ve never read Updike.

RB: Listen, when I was in Chicago, I associated Updike with pipe-smoking, tweedy types.

WG: That’s a very wrong association.

RB: Remember, I come from the town of Nelson Algren.

WG: Oh, tough guy, Algren. You remember Hemingway’s blurb about Algren? He said Algren was the second best writer in America.

RB: That’s right, I do know that.

WG: So, yes, we can judge one another by the books we read, and I don’t necessarily mean in that Leavisite manner of turning literature into an ethical audit by which we assert our puritanical values—all you had to do was tell F. R. Leavis what books you read and then he told you your moral coordinates.

RB: We certainly judge people by their friends and the teams they root for. Modern commerce and the Internet does the same thing: give me fifteen metrics and I’ll tell you all these things about you. Amazon does that: buy a book and they’ll tell you what other books you like. Frequently there’s commonality there. When bookstores hand-sell stuff they do the same thing. Music, the same thing. Speaking of which, you never review music, do you?

WG: I just did a piece on Jack White for the Oxford American. But mostly I’m not qualified to review music. The Jack White piece is more about artistic obsession. After the White Stripes it was difficult for me to listen to other music, just as Bellow’s Augie March ruined other books for me for several years.

RB: What would qualify you to write about music?

WG: Some knowledge of musicality, of music history, of melody and tone, a wider range of listening than I have. This applies to literary criticism, as well. Some seem to think that if they can read and are able to have an emotion and an opinion that they are qualified for literary comment. That’s not correct at all. One’s feelings do not translate into criticism. Edmund Wilson said this in the 40s, that our culture of literary comment was puerile and overcome by critics who mistake their emotions for analysis. One’s feelings matter not at all where criticism is concerned.

RB: Really?

WG: Really. One sees this all the time. This book feels contrived to me. This plot feels unfinished. This character doesn’t feel likable. It’s nonsense. Demonstrate what you think and how you think it and you’ll be on to something.

William  Giraldi [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

William Giraldi [photo: Robert Birnbaum]


RB: I really have to strenuously object to that. An emotional response is what you want from art.

WG: Not only that, and not primarily that.

RB: The failure of such a review would be saying that’s the irreducible statement you’re making, about feelings. Whereas the obligation is, for a critic, if you feel something, you have to unpack and explicate what that’s about.

WG: We partly agree.

RB: I think I can write about music, that I’m qualified, in that I have a wide swath of familiarity with lots of music. So even though I don’t know music theory I think by association and by a sense of definition I can talk skillfully about music.

WG: And how it’s arranged and composed. I thought I could do the same, on a minimal level, with Jack White, and get away with it: the way Jack plays guitar, the difference between his playing style and that of others. I agree that art needs to aim for the chest but if it’s not also aiming for the head then the artist has done only half his task. Otherwise criticism becomes only a matter of opinion informed by emotion, and not knowledge or insight earned through expertise. Some opinions are more valid than others, are they not?

RB: I think yes, I would agree with that. But the thing about art is the high ratio of subjectivity that permissible. I don’t think there are theories and generalities that cover the arts.

WG: But one can prove how one book is better than another.

RB: Prove it to me. Prove to me that As I Lay Dying is a better book than Catch-22.

WG: Two masterpieces, equal in what they do, although they do it in different ways. The distinction I mean is the one that must be made between the first-rate and the second-rate. Look at the pitch, the modulations, the reach of the prose. Word by word, sentence by sentence, the superior book proves itself.

RB: The Times review of Hold the Dark repeated that idea of yours, or quoted you, saying that somewhere. And now? Any obsessions?

WG: And now I have no obsessions, which is as it should be for a man about to be clobbered by middle age.

RB: Have you done any readings in Boston, from the Hold the Dark?

WG: No.

RB: No one will have you?

WG: I’m tired. I don’t want to perform. It doesn’t sell books anyway. It’s just a lot of pressure on the writer and pressure on the bookstore, too.

RB: So what’s the next thing?

WG: That memoir I was telling you about, God help me.

RB: Which you’ve started, or not?

WG: Yes. God, I don’t want to think about it.

RB: Am I gonna have to go through the next two or three years listening to you piss and moan about this every time we get together? Why don’t you just give up these book-length projects and stick to essays?

WG: You know what I’d like to give up?

RB: What?

WG: Writing.

RB: And become a bounty hunter?

WG: Farmer maybe. I don’t know anything about it, but I like the way it looks.

RB: Why do you want to give up writing?

WG: Because it’s work and it’s hard and I don’t like work and especially not hard work.

RB: Oh stop about how tough it is. You wanna go pick strawberries in the fields?

WG: That sounds lovely. Walter Benjamin said that a writer must proceed as a man digging a ditch. Ever dig a ditch?

RB: How many fucking ditches have you dug?

WG: My fair share. Need I remind you I come from a working-class family of builders? I’ve dug many a ditch. My point is: writing is difficult and if it’s not difficult then you’re not doing it right.

RB: Okay so you’re a novelist, a critic, an essayist, a teacher, an editor. Anything we’re not knowing about you? You have aspirations?

WG: Wilde said ambition is the last refuge of the failure, so my aspirations are skimpy. I want to raise my boys with as little psychic trauma as possible.

RB: Good luck with that, as they say.

WG: It’s my goal.

RB: And you’re going to do that because you’re a picture of mental health? Why are you qualified to do that?

WG: One must try, Red.

RB: I know. Everybody wants to be a better parent than their parents.

WG: And so we’ve come full circle. This little chat of ours began with my kids and now ends with my kids.

RB: Commendable, I know, but bullshit, too, because if you were at a party holding a glass of wine you wouldn’t answer that question by saying you’re a father.

WG: Well, that’s easy, Red, because I’d never be at that party.

* David Mitchell Conversation 2005