1 V. S. Naipaul has declared there are not any important writers anymore, Philip Roth has predicted the novel will become a cult activity, Peter Stothard has asked if fiction writing simply used to be better, Cullen Murphy, David Shields, Lee Seigel, and Geoff Dyer have all stated that non-fiction is superior to fiction. The list of people of letters who apparently have lost faith in literary fiction goes on an on; it is clear that an elementary questioning of the novel is not a passing cultural phase. What is your opinion? Does the novel have a future? If so, what kind? And will e-technology alter the very form of the novel? If so, how?
I am reading a novel now, started a couple of days ago. And I do feel like I’m in a cult, so Roth may be right on about that. It’s called spaceboythenovel, and it’s by this retired St. John’s professor I keep bumping into all around town. I’ve seen him at a lecture on Hegel at his former college, a showing of Orpheus at the newly revived Jean Cocteau Theater, and most recently at The Santa Fe Hotel where, improbably, he was serving as the auctioneer (in full patter) of one item that didn’t sell at any price, an incredibly awkward little auction held before a talk Henry Wright gave on his archeological digs in Madagascar last summer—mice bones and rice seeds and cane-decorated pottery shards recovered from the depths of Time.
Afterward, the novelist opened his briefcase and laid the sole copy he had in there on me, and without even reading it I felt a little Nabokovian tingle travel up my spine. Excitement and delight in the gift we give each other when we live inside our creativity and share the fruits of that aliveness with others. So, yeah, it’s a cult. But it’s a damn fine cult!
I imagine novels will be most prized in the post-peak oil future coming soon to a planet near you, Finn, especially big fat ones with lots of pages. People will need them for fuel, to reinforce the soles of their boots, and to stuff in the linings of their coats. E-books won’t help much in this regard; pixels will be a memory, like old Tzarist rubles. Of course that future is already here for many people. I visited a friend in Las Vegas, New Mexico the other day, and he told me that for warmth his neighbors burn garbage, burn tires. He knows, because he’s smelled it—the refuse, the rubber. I expect those conditions obtain in parts of South Korea, as well.
2 Are the very significant structural changes taking place in the publishing industry having an effect on novel writing? If so, how?
I don’t reckon it’s much fun to be toiling in the publishing industry at present. And misery does love company. To the extent I come in contact with them I find novels from corporate publishing to be often toxic, oftener dreary, lifeless, one way or another suspect and unreadable—no rhythm, no challenge, no wit. But of course I’m very selective, that’s why I’m here.
3 Is the cutting back of mid-lists and a general cautiousness about taking risks on new or relatively unknown writers affecting the caliber of writing that does manage to get into print?
The effects of people losing their livelihoods, their dreams, or both, can be traumatizing. From my encounters with NYC publishing professionals, and please remember I lived in Manhattan for twenty-seven years, most of them are on medication for depression and anxiety, or both.
I did a reading at The Sunday Salon reading series with Tony D’Souza—my first book, his second. He confided in me, sweetly, that he’d just learned he was going to be a father. Congratulations, I’m so happy for you, I said to him. I’ve been criticized for being effusive, but in this case it was warranted. We were both smiling, standing close; it was so bitter cold that night, everyone was huddling–joyful. Tony told me that I was the first person in his NYC lit acquaintance to have been glad for him. And worse, agent and publisher types had told him that maybe it wasn’t such a good career move to have the baby now, maybe he should wait until after the next book, those sorts of things.
Well, like I say, I had lived there a long time, so my ears didn’t fall off at the telling. But, Finn, they don’t even understand how crass they’ve become.
I can still hear the hurt in the voice of a novelist whose publisher told her that any future works would have to be published under a nom de plume, her own name no longer held cachet; they respected her talent but not her saleability.
Or the shock of betrayal of another writer whose agent had fixed the auction of her book to her detriment, simply ignoring the higher bids. Fortunately she was tipped off and able to undo the damage, damage to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
Or another who was already mentally spending the six-figure advance under discussion at Knopf—enough back and forth had gone down to induce a certain amount of justifiable fantasizing—only to have the whole thing nullified by Sonny Mehta. She spent the better part of a year in bed watching Law and Order re-runs, popping Paxil.
4 Do you have an author’s website? Does it help you sell books?
I don’t, but I blog and I suppose I should mention somewhere on the blog that my book is still in print. And of course it’s featured on www.carolmrp.net, but that’s not been substantially updated since publication in 2007, which I kind of love—website as snapshot of a moment in time.
5 In your heart of hearts, how do you feel about running an author’s website? Do you feel its a labour of love – or an annoying imposition? Or something else altogether?
For my next book, I’ll probably do something on Facebook if I’m still enjoying my Facebook as much as I am now.
6 You once commented at Dan Green’s site that the the idea that literary fiction “is a meritocracy is risible”. Is the selection system for novel and short story manuscripts fair? Should it be made blind?
I probably wanted to use the word risible in a sentence. I don’t think I ever had occasion to before, and it’s such an authoritative word. Not everything I wrote there made total sense (though that I think was a cogent remark). My nascent blog commentary, I regard it now as almost a kind of asemic writing that got me from point x to point y in my intellectual growth. And everyone was very kind to me, I think, because they could see me working so hard to grow. I had written this fabulous, bold and fiercely comedic feminist novel in almost total ignorance of the great post-Modernists and meta-fictionists, and to properly join the conversation about literature going forward I had to remediate that lack.
That site had me running weekly, sometimes daily, to the Rose Reading Room in the New York Public Library to read the one copy of Sukenick’s 98.6 or Federman’s Double or Nothing or Kathy Acker or Percival Everett or Robert Coover or Donald Barthelme or James Purdy or David Markson or William Gaddis or Stanley Elkin or Gilbert Sorrentino, authors not very well-known except to seekers.
Those blistering sometimes quasi-ecstatic reading experiences opened worlds, reorienting me toward the expanded possibilities of literature that had been hidden from me. I understand that the harsh critique some of us make of corporate publishing can sound like sour grapes from outsiders barred by the professional gatekeepers who know best, until you read those other far more fascinating underground works. Then it’s hard not to keep quiet.
It was a special time in the litblogosphere, and not just for me.
7 Are factors such as racism, sexism, ageism, classism and/or looksism factors prejudicing the choices agents and publishers make? If so, can these be ranked in terms of perniciousness? Or is all of this irrelevant insofar as selection systems are either always fair enough or always unfair enough that one should — as a conscript of letters — soldier on?
Perhaps so, judging from the results. Racism is the worst because it’s so totally unjustifiable and it has caused so much grotesque suffering. No, I don’t think it is irrelevant, Finn. I think the current system should be plowed under. We can do so much better by writers and readers alike, and have such better books to enjoy reading. In my view we don’t have a publishing industry problem or a book selection problem, it’s far more serious and fundamental. You could say we have a democracyism problem and a capitalism problem—too little of the first, far too much of the latter.
8 There is something of a European — particularly French — feel to some of your work, with its free associations and (for want of a better phrase) psychoanalytically-informed recklessness of style. At the same time, some of your work is quintessentially American. Does this jibe with your own thinking about your work? Who are your influences?
This question really excites me, Finn. Because when I first saw it I was listening to a lot of Mahler, so when I read “psychoanalytically-informed recklessness of style” I was, like, fuck yeah! Yes, as a teenager some of the first literary works I reached for were works by Colette, Nin and De Beauvoir (her Blood of Others is still on my shelf). I read the men too—Gide, Camus and Sartre—but thrilled to the women, primarily because of their explorations and openness around female sexuality. I could probably draw a straight line between DeBeauvoir’s themes of personal political responsibility and my novel Cooperative Village. Zora Neale Hurston was/is a huge influence because of her earthy exuberance and anthropological sensibility—an exquisite kind of listening. There’s a certain relentlessness in works like Knut Hamsun’s Hunger that I’ve integrated, as well. I can’t help thinking the many—too many— holocaust narratives I’ve grappled with—Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life, for example—both informed me early on about well, you know, “humanity,” and helped me personally to go for broke as a writer. Ambition for something way beyond personal gain.
Caryl Churchill’s unapologetic intellect and engagement with big themes in a carnivalesque style were a revelation to me after the domestic melodramas of Lillian Hellman and Wendy Wasserstein’s neurotic shtick. Living in Manhattan I saw productions of Top Girls, Fen, Cloud Nine, and Mad Forest, and not just once. I studied playwriting with Tina Howe in the period Pride’s Crossing was opening at Lincoln Center—the play, about swimming the English channel, ended with a muscular headlong leaping dive into the unknown but wet future, not unlike the protagonist in Cooperative Village. The Diaries of Judith Malina—1947-1957 are a record of the great risks she took in life and art and serve as an artifactual bridge between daring theatre-making, living and belle-lettres. She signed a copy for me at the Gotham Book Mart back in the day: “To Frances, In the hope that this glimpse of the past gives you a little moment of shared experiences with me—to bring us closer. Love, Judith”
9 According to media reports, e-book sales now represent a significant percentage of overall sales. But small bookstores see them as more a threat to their survival than anything else, and a lot of book people remain print people. Are you enthusiastic about e-books? Do they hold the potential for a renaissance in literary publishing? Or are they over-rated and too susceptible to piracy?
It’s not piracy I worry about so much as potential future tampering with the text. After the outrageous and cowardly erasure of the word nigger from Twain’s classic Huck Finn, I started to fear for the future integrity of my own work, which also has an artful use of that scapegoated word. Could it be sanitized too? Steven Augustine (of Berlin), one of the foremost contemporary fiction writers using the black American experience as his ostensible subject, compared my writing in that passage to (something like) “drops of mercury dancing on a sizzling skillet.” I really wouldn’t want to lose the text’s ability to create that effect.
10 What do you think of literary prizes? As Jason Cowley has commented, they reduce our culture’s ability to think in a critically complex fashion? Do they suggest, “this book is worth reading and all these others aren’t?”
In Farmington, Missouri, where I recently lived for two years, four months, and twenty-four days (but who’s counting?), I’d go into my insurance agent’s office, and he’d have prizes all over the walls and shelves—best agent, community service awards, sports trophies, etc. The shining brass placques were mounted alongside the antlers and stuffed heads of the creatures he’d hunted. These were there to inspire confidence, not only in him personally as he relieved his clients of hefty payments for auto, life and real property insurances, but also confidence in the legitimacy of the industry as a whole, to psychologically mitigate the pain of the rip-off.
Same dealio with lit prizes.
11 What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
I’m excited to be blogging again, my powers seem to be increasing in that regard. Reviving the blog was a result of being in South Korea and wanting to honor my experiences there by sharing what I found valuable. And Finn, having been in your part of the world I feel I can feel your work a little better. That I have a fuller sense of the atmospherics, the street life you depict in your own fictions.
I’m in docent training at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, so I’m intensively immersed in learning how to read her visionary works more completely, the better to help others have a richer experience encountering the art she brought forward. It’s expanding my perceptual powers, and you know that’s going to translate into some powerful writing—descriptively and compositionally. That’s the hope, anyway.
Plus, the activism we’re doing here throughout New Mexico with community rights ordinances (the CELDF model) is revolutionary. So, I’m living that dream too.
Lastly, I’m working on myself—mind, body and spirit. Particularly on acceptance and enjoying life more and more and more and more, even as it slips away.
bio.Bio: If I were one to rest on my laurels, I guess it’d be these:
I’m the author of the novel Cooperative Village and have adapted and performed the work in a one-woman show of the same name. I blog at Written Word, Spoken Word where I sometimes publish my own short fictions. I published a free alternative community newspaper in the Missouri Bible Belt for a brief but charged while. I’m proud of the plays I’ve written and performed in. I’ve led social justice campaigns; I hope to do more of that. I’m pretty good at it—helping people, myself included, find their courage and stick to it. I live in an adobe casita in a high desert of savage beauty. Oftentimes, in the dead of night, I hear foxes tearing their prey from limb to limb. It’s wild here. I’m changing.