Everything is in the poems, but at the risk of sounding like the poor wealthy man’s Allen Ginsberg I will write to you because I just heard that one of my fellow poets thinks that a poem of mine that can’t be got at one reading is because I was confused too. Now, come on. I don’t believe in god, so I don’t have to make elaborately sounded structures. I hate Vachel Lindsay, always have; I don’t even like rhythm, assonance, all that stuff. You just go on your nerve. If someone’s chasing you down the street with a knife you just run, you don’t turn around and shout, "Give it up! I was a track star for Mineola Prep."
That’s for the writing poems part. As for their reception, suppose you’re in love and somebody’s mistreating (mal aimé) you, you don’t say, "Hey, you can’t hurt me this way, I care!" you just let all the different bodies fall where they may, and they always do may after a few months. But that’s not why you fell in love in the first place, just to hang onto life, so you have to take your chances and try to avoid being logical. Pain always produces logic, which is very bad for you.
I’m not saying that I don’t have practically the most lofty ideas of anyone writing today, but what difference does that make? They’re just ideas. The only good thing about it is that when I get lofty enough I’ve stopped thinking and that’s when refreshment arrives.
But how then can you really care if anybody gets it, or gets what it means, or if it improves them. Improves them for what? For death? Why hurry them along? Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not. Forced feeding leads to excessive thinness (effete).
Nobody should experience anything they don’t need to, if they don’t need poetry bully for them. I like the movies too. And after all, only Whitman and Crane and Williams, of the American poets, are better than the movies. As for measure and other technical apparatus, that’s just common sense: if you’re going to buy a pair of pants you want them to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you. There’s nothing metaphysical about it. Unless, of course, you flatter yourself into thinking that what you’re experiencing is "yearning."
Abstraction in poetry, which Allen recently commented on in It Is, is intriguing. I think it appears mostly in the minute particulars where decision is necessary. Abstraction (in poetry, not painting) involves personal removal by the poet. For instance, the decision involved in the choice between "the nostalgia of the infinite" and "the nostalgia for the infinite" defines an attitude towards degree of abstraction. The nostalgia of the infinite representing the greater degree of abstraction, removal, and negative capability (as in Keats and Mallarmé).
Personism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody knows about, interests me a great deal, being so totally opposed to this kind of abstract removal that it is verging on a true abstraction for the first time, really, in the history of poetry. Personism is to Wallace Stevens what la poési pure was to Béranger. Personism has nothing to do with philosophy, it’s all art. It does not have to do with personality or intimacy, far from it! But to give you a vague idea, one of its minimal aspects is to address itself to one person (other than the poet himself), thus evoking overtones of love without destroying love’s life-giving vulgarity, and sustaining the poet’s feelings towards the poem while preventing love from distracting him into feeling about the person. That’s part of Personism. It was founded by me after lunch with LeRoi Jones on August 27, 1959, a day in which I was in love with someone (not Roi, by the way, a blond). I went back to work and wrote a poem for this person. While I was writing it I was realizing that if I wanted to I could use the telephone instead of writing the poem, and so Personism was born. It’s a very exciting movement which will undoubtedly have lots of adherents. It puts the poem squarely between the poet and the person, Lucky Pierre style, and the poem is correspondingly gratified. The poem is at last between two persons instead of two pages. In all modesty, I confess that it may be the death of literature as we know it. While I have certain regrets, I am still glad I got there before Alain Robbe-Grillet did. Poetry being quicker and surer than prose, it is only just that poetry finish literature off. For a time people thought that Artaud was going to accomplish this, but actually, for all their magnificence, his polemical writings are not more outside literature than Bear Mountain is outside New York State. His relation is no more astounding than Dubuffet’s to painting.
What can we expect from Personism? (This is getting good, isn’t it?) Everything, but we won’t get it. It is too new, too vital a movement to promise anything. But it, like Africa, is on the way. The recent propagandists for technique on the one hand, and for content on the other, had better watch out.
Neil Gaiman: Let’s talk about genre. Why does it matter? Your book The Buried Giant – which was published not as a fantasy novel, although it contains an awful lot of elements that would be familiar to readers of fantasy – seemed to stir people up from both sides of the literary divide. The fantasy people, in the shape of Ursula Le Guin (although she later retracted it) said, “This is fantasy, and your refusal to put on the mantle of fantasy is evidence of an author slumming it.” And then Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times reviewed it with utter bafflement. Meanwhile, readers and a lot of reviewers had no trouble figuring out what kind of book it is and enjoyed it hugely.
Kazuo Ishiguro: I felt like I’d stepped into some larger discussion that had been going on for some time. I expected some of my usual readers to say, “What’s this? There are ogres in it . . .” but I didn’t anticipate this bigger debate. Why are people so preoccupied? What is genre in the first place? Who invented it? Why am I perceived to have crossed a kind of boundary?
NG I think if you were a novelist writing in 1920 or 1930, you would simply be perceived as having written another novel. When Dickens published A Christmas Carol nobody went, “Ah, this respectable social novelist has suddenly become a fantasy novelist: look, there are ghosts and magic.”
KI: Is it possible that what we think of as genre boundaries are things that have been invented fairly recently by the publishing industry? I can see there’s a case for saying there are certain patterns, and you can divide up stories according to these patterns, perhaps usefully. But I get worried when readers and writers take these boundaries too seriously, and think that something strange happens when you cross them, and that you should think very carefully before doing so.
NG: I love the idea of genres as places that you don’t necessarily want to go unless you’re a native, because the people there will stare at you askance and say things like, “Head over the wall to Science Fiction, mate, you’ll be happier there . . .”
KI: . . . or, “Come over here if you want but you’re going to have to abide by our rules.”
NG: I think that there’s a huge difference between, for example, a novel with spies in it and a spy novel; or a novel with cowboys in it and a cowboy novel. I have a mad theory that I started evolving when I read a book called Hard Core by Linda Williams, a film professor in California. It was one of the first books analysing hardcore pornography as a film genre.
She said that in order to make sense of it, you need to think of musicals, because the plot in a musical exists to stop all of the songs from happening at once, and to get you from song to song. You need the song where the heroine pines for what she does not have, you need the songs where the whole chorus is doing something rousing and upbeat, and you need the song when the lovers get together and, after all the vicissitudes, triumph.
I thought, “That’s actually a way to view all literary genres,” because there are things that people who like a genre are looking for in their fiction: the things that titillate, the things that satisfy. If it was a cowboy novel, we’d need the fight in the saloon; we’d need the bad guy to come riding into town and the good guy to be waiting for him. A novel that happens to be set in the Old West doesn’t actually need to deliver any of those things – though it would leave readers of genre cowboy fiction feeling peculiarly disappointed, because they have not got the moments of specific satisfaction.
KI: So we have to distinguish between something that’s part of the essence of the genre and things that are merely characteristic of it. Gunfights are characteristic of a western, but may not be essential to making the story arresting.
NG: Yes. One of the things that fascinated me about The Buried Giant is there are several places in it where people fight with sharp blades, and people are killed, and in each case it happens at the speed that it would have happened in real life and ends as abruptly and, often, unsatisfyingly: the character falls to the grass with what looks like a red snake slipping away from him, you suddenly realise, “Oh, this is blood,” and you’re thinking, “This is not how a reader of fantasy expecting a good swordfight would have expected this swordfight to go.”
KI: If I was aware of genre at all during the fight scenes, I was thinking of samurai films and westerns. In samurai movies mortal enemies stare at each other for a long time, then there’s one flash of violence and it’s over.
What do you reckon would have happened if I’d been a writer steeped in fantasy? Would I have had people talking while bashing swords?
NG: You’d definitely have flashing blades. One of the pulp fantasy genres of the Thirties was “Sword and Sorcery”: there’d be mighty feuding warriors with large blades, talking, clashing, grunting . . . you would have got a solid half-page out of it, partly because the writers were paid by the word.
KI: When I first came to Britain at the age of five, one of the things that shocked me about western culture was the fight scenes in things like Zorro. I was already steeped in the samurai tradition – where all their skill and experience comes down to a single moment that separates winner from loser, life from death. The whole samurai tradition is about that: from pulp manga to art movies by Kurosawa. That was part of the magic and tension of a swordfight, as far as I was concerned. Then I saw people like Basil Rathbone as the Sheriff of Nottingham versus Errol Flynn as Robin Hood and they’d be having long, extended conversations while clicking their swords, and the hand that didn’t have the sword in it would be doing this kind of floppy thing in the air, and the idea seemed to be to edge your opponent over a precipice while engaging him in some sort of long, expository conversation about the plot.
NG: What we’re talking about here is jumping from one literary-slash-genre tradition to another.
KI: I’m very fond of westerns, particularly the later westerns. From the Fifties onwards, the gunfights become much more meditative and deliberate. There’s a much bigger silent pause before the people facing each other draw their guns. The idea of the one-on-one showdown – which doesn’t really make much sense when you think about it in terms of practical combat: it’s much better to sneak up behind someone and shoot them in the back – became a genre tradition, that honourable guys, even bad guys, would prefer to face their enemy that way. The Iliad is fascinating on this. Its stand-offs are almost bizarre. There’s supposed to be this huge, wild battle going on on the plains outside Troy, and yet in this mayhem one warrior faces another and they start a conversation: they say, “Oh, and who are you? Tell me about your ancestry.” They swap stories about their grandfather, and one of them will say, “You know, my dad met your dad when he was travelling, and he gave him a very nice goblet.” So a strange bubble develops around the two combatants. And then they fight, or sometimes they discover they rather like each other and decide not to. Things like the final confrontation between Hector and Achilles are definitely on the side of Kurosawa, not Errol Flynn.
But let me come back to the theory about pornography and the musical. So, you liked this idea?
NG: I loved the idea, because it seems to me that subject matter doesn’t determine genre. Genres only start existing when there’s enough of them to form a sort of critical mass in a bookshop, and even that can go away. A bookstore worker in America was telling me that he’d worked in Borders when they decided to get rid of their horror section, because people weren’t coming into it. So his job was to take the novels and decide which ones were going to go and live in Science Fiction and Fantasy and which ones were going to Thrillers.
KI: Does that mean horror has disappeared as a genre?
NG: It definitely faded away as a bookshop category, which then meant that a lot of people who had been making their living as horror writers had to decide what they were, because their sales were diminishing. In fact, a lot of novels that are currently being published as thrillers are books that probably would have been published as horror 20 years ago.
KI: I don’t have a problem with marketing categories, but I don’t think they’re helpful to anybody apart from publishers and bookshops.
NG: What was the reaction to Never Let Me Go? I think at that point the last thing anybody was expecting from you was a science-fiction novel, and that – although it was a novel about people – was quite uncompromisingly a science-fiction novel.
KI: I felt that there wasn’t such an issue about science fiction as there has been this time about fantasy. Sci-fi ideas have been used in all kinds of fiction, and there’s always been this tradition of what you could call Nineteen Eighty-Four science fiction: Orwell, H G Wells and so on.
Even so, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to use the science-fiction dimension for Never Let Me Go ten or 15 years earlier. I actually tried to write that same story twice in the Nineties but I just couldn’t find a way to make it work. And it was only the third time I tried, around 2001, that this idea came to me: if I made them clones, who were being harvested for organ donation, the story would work.
Before that, in a more realist setting, I was really struggling: how can I get young people to go through the experience of old people, how can I contrive this situation? I was coming up with not very good ideas, like they’ve all got a disease, or they came across nuclear materials and so they were doomed to a shorter lifespan.
Some time in the Nineties I felt a change of climate in the mainstream literary world. There was a younger generation of writers emerging who I really respected: David Mitchell was one of them. Or my friend Alex Garland, who’s 15 or 16 years younger than me, who became famous for The Beach – he was showing me the screenplays he was writing, one of which was 28 Days Later, which became the renowned zombie movie, and then he wrote Sunshine, about a manned expedition to the sun. Alex told me about graphic novels. He said I had to read Alan Moore and Frank Miller and all these people. So from the Nineties onwards, I sensed that there was a whole generation of people emerging who had a very different attitude to sci-fi, and that there was a new force of energy and inspiration because of that. I may have had the crusty prejudices of somebody of my generation but I felt liberated by these younger writers. Now I feel fairly free to use almost anything. People in the sci-fi community were very nice about Never Let Me Go. And by and large I’ve rather enjoyed my inadvertent trespassing into the fantasy genre, too, although I wasn’t even thinking about The Buried Giant as a fantasy – I just wanted to have ogres in there!
NG: What fascinates me is that at the time when Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings it wasn’t regarded as in the fantasy genre, either: the first part was reviewed in the Times by W H Auden. It was a novel, and that it had ogres and orcs and Giant Spiders and magical rings and elves was simply what happened in this novel. Back then these books tended to be produced in exactly the same way as you produced The Buried Giant, in that you’d written other things, and now you wanted to do a book in which, for the novel to work, you needed a dragon breathing magical mist over the world; you needed it to occur in a post-Arthurian world; you needed your monsters and your ogres and your pixies. There were people like Hope Mirrlees – who wrote modernist poetry and profoundly realistic fiction and who was one of the Bloomsbury set, but produced a wonderful novel called Lud-in-the-Mist – and Sylvia Townsend Warner, who wrote books like Kingdoms of Elfin. And these were simply accepted as part of mainstream literature.
KI: So what happened? Why have we got this kind of wall around fantasy now, and a sense of stigma about it?
NG: I think it came from the enormous commercial success in the Sixties, when the hippie world embraced The Lord of the Rings and it became an international publishing phenomenon. At Pan/Ballantine, the adult fantasy imprint, they basically just went through the archives of books that had been published in the previous 150, 200 years and looked for things that felt like The Lord of the Rings. And then you had people like Terry Brooks, who wrote a book called The Sword of Shannara, which was essentially a Lord of the Rings clone by somebody not nearly as good, but it sold very well. By the time fantasy had its own area in the bookshop, it was deemed inferior to mimetic, realistic fiction. I think reviewers and editors did not know how to speak fantasy; were not familiar with the language, did not recognise it. I was fascinated by the way that Terry Pratchett would, on the one hand, have people like A S Byatt going, “These are real books, they’re saying important things and they are beautifully crafted,” and on the other he would still not get any real recognition. I remember Terry saying to me at some point, “You know, you can do all you want, but you put in one fucking dragon and they call you a fantasy writer.”
KI: Maybe there’s a dimension we’re not really tackling. Is there something about books – as opposed to films and TV – that’s inextricably linked with a sense of class? Do you remember Educating Rita?
NG: Of course.
KI: What happens there is, when a working-class girl wants to “better herself”, she goes to college and studies literature. That’s what separates her from her class roots. She can’t relate to her family any more, but she seems to be equipped in some kind of way to move into the middle-class world. There’s always been that aspect to books. I’ve been very aware that is part of why some people want to read my work: they think it’s prestigious to be seen to be holding a book by a literary author in their hand. If they are trying to make their way up the class ladder, it’s not enough just to make a lot of money: you’ve also got to be able to converse well about culture, read certain kinds of authors and go to certain kinds of plays. I’m always very uneasy about that.
NG: So we’re actually talking about reading for pleasure as opposed to reading for improvement. The Victorian idea of Improving Literature – people who want to somehow improve themselves or their mind; you can look at their bookshelves and know who they are – and the people who just read because they want to go Into the Story.
KI: I don’t have a problem, necessarily, about reading for improvement. I often choose a book because I think I’m going to enjoy it, but I think also it’s going to improve me in some sense. But when you ask yourself, “Is this going to improve me?” what are you really asking? I think I probably do turn to books for some sort of spiritual and intellectual nourishment: I think I’m going to learn something about the world, about people. But if by “improving”, we mean it would help me go up the class ladder, then it’s not what reading and writing should be about. Books are serving the same function as certain brands of cars or jewellery, in just denoting social position. That kind of motivation attaches itself to reading in a way that probably doesn’t attach itself to film.
Many of the great classics that are studied by film scholars are sci-fi: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Kubrick’s 2001. They don’t seem to have suffered from the kind of genre stigmatisation their equivalents would have done in book form.
NG: I remember as a boy reading an essay by C S Lewis in which he writes about the way that people use the term “escapism” – the way literature is looked down on when it’s being used as escapism – and Lewis says that this is very strange, because actually there’s only one class of people who don’t like escape, and that’s jailers: people who want to keep you where you are. I’ve never had anything against escapist literature, because I figure that escape is A Good Thing: going to a different place, learning things, and coming back with tools you might not have known.
I was book-reviewing a lot in the early Eighties, and it seemed for a while like all young adult books were the same book: about some kid who lived in slightly squalid circumstances, with an older sibling who was a bad example, and the protagonist would have a bad time and then run into a teacher or adult who would inspire them to get their life back on track. It was depressing. The wonderful thing about J K Rowling was that suddenly the idea that you can write books for kids that go off into weird and wonderful places – and actually make reading fun – is one of the reasons why children’s books went from being a minor area of the bookshop to a huge force in British publishing.
When I started writing Coraline, in 1991, and showed it to my editor, he explained that what I was writing was unpublishable. He wasn’t wrong. His name was Richard Evans; he was a very smart man, with good instincts. When he explained why writing a book intended for children and adults that was functionally horror fiction for children was unpublishable, I believed him.
KI: The objection was what, exactly? That it was too scary?
NG: It was too scary, it was very obviously aimed at both children and adults, it was weird, fantastic horror fiction, and they didn’t have a way of publishing it. They knew which librarians bought what and how things got reviewed, and this was simply not something that they could have sold. It wasn’t until much later, when I was in a world in which the Lemony Snicket books had happened, and Philip Pullman and Rowling were being read, and the idea of crossover books aimed at both children and adults existed, that it was published.
KI: Perhaps things that deviated from realism were treated with great suspicion. But Coraline seems to be self-evidently a book that confronts all kinds of very real things. It’s about a child learning to make distinctions between certain kinds of parental love, to distinguish between a love that is based on somebody’s need and fulfilling somebody’s need, and what is actually genuine parental love, which may not at first glance look particularly demonstrative. I don’t see how anybody can mistake it for a kind of escapism: you’re not just taking children on some sort of strange, enjoyable ride.
NG: I think the rules are crumbling and I think the barriers are breaking. I love the idea also that sometimes, if you’re actually going to write realistic fiction, you’re going to have to include fantasy. For example, having friends who are very religious and who live in worlds in which God cares about them, and their dead ones are watching them from heaven – these are normal, sane, sensible, 21st-century people, but if one were to write about their world, you would need to write in terms of something that would be recognisable as either magical realism or, possibly, fantasy.
KI: My guiding principle when writing The Buried Giant was that I’d stay within the parameters of what somebody in a primitive, pre-scientific society could rationally believe. So if you don’t have a scientific explanation for why somebody dear to you has got ill, it seems to me perfectly sensible to go for an explanation that went something like, “A pixie came in the night and gave my dear wife this illness, and I only wish I’d done something about it, because I heard something moving around that night and I was just a bit tired and I thought, well, it’s a rat or something . . .”
If it was within the imaginative world of the people of that time, I’d allow it literally, in my fictional world, but I wouldn’t allow a flying saucer or a Tardis, because that was outside their realm.
NG: We’re getting a lot of confluence now. Looking at people like Michael Chabon, David Mitchell, Emily St John Mandel, writers who are just willing to go and explore. They grew up in a world where science fiction and fantasy were around; they grew up in a world of good children’s books.
KI: Yes, it’s almost become the norm, now, for new writers to think in terms of dystopian fiction or sci-fi.
NG: It’s a good way to go. I don’t think there’s a human being on the planet who has not, in some way in the last 15, 20 years, encountered the phenomenon of future shock that Alvin Toffler described: the idea that it’s all moving a bit fast, that things are changing, thatthe world that our parents and grandparents knew is not the world we are living in now. If you’re in that environment, then science fiction is a kind of natural way of talking about it, and particularly dystopian science fiction, which always begins when a writer looks around, sees something they don’t like
and thinks, “But if this goes on, then . . .”
KI: I think it’s interesting that the word “dystopian” has become so popular now. There’s something reassuring when I read that word, because it’s saying it’s some sort of dark, logical extension of the world that we know; it’s going to be a commentary on our world. And so that the fear of irrelevance isn’t there. If I sense that a writer is just weaving some sort of self-referential alternative world, that will not tell me anything emotionally or intellectually about the one I live in, I would lose patience and say, “I can’t be bothered to go there; why do I want to go there?” Do you have any sympathy with that?
NG: I am like you in that way. But I could extend this idea that escapism is simply good as a thing to include things like Mills & Boon novels, things that bring joy to people, a joy that will never be reviewed in literary pages, because it is simply – you know – the equivalent of eating an ice cream. I think that always gets viewed with suspicion, like the Victorian triple-decker novels that Miss Prism was writing in The Importance of Being Earnest, or the commentary in the Lady Chatterley case: “Would you let your servant read these?” – the idea that if servants are going to read things, they should read improving literature, not things that are simply distractions.
I’m not arguing that no book is better than another, I’m just saying that books have different purposes. Fundamentally, I’m all for the democracy of books, and for the idea that at least some of the hierarchy of books is artificial. There was a science-fiction writer named Theodore Sturgeon writing in the Forties and Fifties, who coined Sturgeon’s law. He said, “Well, 90 per cent of science fiction is crap, but then 90 per cent of everything is crap,” which is always a useful thing to remember.
KI: I would like to see things breaking down a lot more. I suppose my essential position is that I’m against any kind of imagination police, whether they’re coming from marketing reasons or from class snobbery.
But maybe the stigma against fantasy is something much wider than in the fiction world. Since industrial times began, it’s sort of true to say that children have been allowed a sanctioned world where fantasy and imagination is deemed to be fine, in fact, almost desirable. But then when they get to a certain age, they have to start getting prepared to be units of the labour force. And so, society has to start getting the fantasy element out of the children, so that they can become factory workers, soldiers, white-collar workers, whatever, because it’s seen to be not useful to the overall economic enterprise to have children growing up maintaining that fantasy element. You don’t want people who are too dreamy or who are imagining things: you want them to accept this is the nitty-gritty of real life, that they’ve just got to get on with it.
I’m not suggesting we’re necessarily being manipulated by some sinister government or anything; it’s just there in society. Parents will naturally discourage children once they get to a certain age from continuing with the fantasy element in their lives; schools will, too. It becomes taboo in the society at large.
Maybe the reason it’s been loosening up, and the stigma is going away to some extent in the last 25 years or so, is that the nature of our capitalist enterprise has changed. We’re no longer factory workers, white-collar workers, soldiers, and so on. And with the advent of blue-sky thinking, the new tech industries that have led the way in the last two decades seem to require some kind of imagination. Perhaps people are beginning to think there is some economic use in actually allowing us to indulge in what was once deemed childish fantasy. I sound like some sort of Seventies sociology professor, but I feel there’s something in this.
NG: You know, I was in China in 2007, and it was the first ever state-sponsored, Party-approved science-fiction convention. They brought in some people from the west and I was one of them, and I was talking to a number of the older science-fiction writers in China, who told me about how science fiction was not just looked down on, but seen as suspicious and counter-revolutionary, because you could write a story set in a giant ant colony in the future, when people were becoming ants, but nobody was quite sure: was this really a commentary on the state? As such, it was very, very dodgy.
I took aside one of the Party organisers, and said, “OK. Why are you now in 2007 endorsing a science-fiction convention?” And his reply was that the Party had been concerned that while China historically has been a culture of magical and radical invention, right now, they weren’t inventing things. They were making things incredibly well but they weren’t inventing. And they’d gone to America and interviewed the people at Google and Apple and Microsoft, and talked to the inventors, and discovered that in each case, when young, they’d read science fiction. That was why the Chinese had decided that they were going to officially now approve of science fiction and fantasy.
KI: That is so interesting.
NG: Which actually articulates your theory exactly. It’s about the economy and the workforce of a society in which the act of imagining is as important as the act of toiling. We have machines that can toil, but we don’t have machines that can imagine.
KI: Have you ever done an event at a Microsoft campus or Google?
NG: I have. I’ve done Google and I’ve done Microsoft. Google was like going to a magical party held by nice people – it was a few years ago; I don’t know if they’re still quite as enthusiastic and filled with sweeties and so forth now. Whereas I turned up on the Microsoft campus and had half an hour of trying to persuade the person on the front desk that my name was not something else that also had an N and a G in it, and I was not here to give a lecture on cyber-security, and eventually managed to find some people who were in a room where they had been waiting for me for 45 minutes, and apparently cellphones didn’t work very well, so they hadn’t been able to get our message. It was a strange kind of contrast.
KI: But the interesting thing is that you were invited to the Microsoft campus. Indeed, I was there last month. It is seen to be good for the company, and I suppose in a wider sense it’s good for the economy.
Moving on from the genre question, I’d be interested to ask you about these fascinating relationships which recur in your work, between somebody who has a normal human lifespan, and an immortal or very long-lived being. Do you know why you’re drawn to that relationship?
NG: There are things I can point at that probably set me off, the first of which was probably watching Doctor Who as a very small boy, and starting to realise that this man in this blue box was going to be functionally immortal, but his friends were going to be left behind in time. And also pets. You get pets and your lifespans do not match. I remember realising that as a very small boy, and thinking it was absolutely tragic. You know, my mouse has just died of old age and he’s three.
The human lifespan seems incredibly short and frustrating, and for me, one of the best things about being a reader, let alone a writer, is being able to read ancient Greek stories, ancient Egyptian stories, Norse stories – to be able to feel like one is getting the long view. Stories are long-lived organisms. They’re bigger and older than we are. And the frustrating thing about having 60 years or 80 years or, if medical science gets fancy, 120 years, is that actually 1,000 years would be really interesting. You want to step back and go, “Where do you get this view?” and where we get it from is passing on stories, and handing down knowledge and experience.
You sit there reading Pepys, and just for a minute, you kind of get to be 350, 400 years older than you are. I’ve always loved the idea of making things longer, changing perspective. And part of looking at things in the long term is also, I think, in a weird way, worry about the future.
KI: There’s an interesting emotional tension that comes because of the mismatch of lifespans in your work, because an event that might be tragic for one of us may not be so for the long-lived being. There’s an episode of Doctor Who that you wrote, called Doctor’s Wife, and one of the most haunting things about that was a passage where Rory and Amy are lost in some kind of weird time vortex thing. Rory ages enormously, he’s waiting like 70 years, while Amy is running around on the other side of the door . . . And she keeps getting visions of him grown really, really old and he’s been waiting for her, whereas for her, it’s just been like 20 seconds, and he’s saying, “Where were you, where were you?” Eventually he turns into just a pile of remains, human remains, and all you see is an angry, bitter piece of graffiti scrawled up on the wall, maybe in blood, for all we know. His love has turned to hate, because he just waited and waited for her.
Recently I’ve been interested in the difference between personal memory and societal memory, and I’m tempted almost to personify these two things. A society, a nation, goes on and on, for centuries: it can turn Nazi for a while and cause mayhem. But then the next generation comes along and says, you know, “We’re not going to make that mistake again.” Whereas an individual who happens to live through the Nazi era in Germany, that’s his whole life.
NG: If you’re going to try and tell one of those stories, then the urge comes to start figuring out a way that you can have a conversation between somebody who can see the big picture, or is the big picture, and somebody who is in some way a brick in the wall. One of the most beautiful things about fiction is that you can have those conversations if you need them.
KI: In those cases being able to resort to fantasy opens things up enormously. I’ve often done this, even if it doesn’t look so obvious, even if there aren’t things that look like mythical creatures. Creating an incredibly stuffy English butler in The Remains of the Day, I was very aware that I was taking something that I recognised to be a very small, negative set of impulses in myself – the fear of getting hurt in love, or that urge to just say, “I don’t want to figure out the political implications or the moral implications of my job, I’m just going to get on with my tiny patch”; those kinds of little urges we all recognise in ourselves – taking those and exaggerating them, and turning them into a kind of monstrous manifestation. The butler doesn’t look like a conventional monster, but I always thought that he was a kind of monster.
NG: I love the idea of Stevens as a monster!
KI: I’m reminded of something Lettie says in The Ocean at the End of the Lane: “Monsters come in all shapes and sizes. Some of them are things people are scared of. Some of them are things that look like things people used to be scared of a long time ago. Sometimes monsters are things people should be scared of, but they aren’t.” I thought that last category was really interesting. What are the monsters that stand for things that we should be afraid of but we aren’t?
NG: I think it’s very easy to not be afraid of slow things, and not be afraid of things that apparently have your best interests at heart, and sometimes not to be afraid of things that mask themselves in efficiency and humanity. I was reading the memoirs of Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz, and his letters home are filled with talking about how his men were working hard, who was doing well, how they got an extra trainload of people in, and: “By the way, give little Willy the present I sent and the chocolate, and I hope you enjoyed the schnapps.” And it was so horribly human.
It is the monstrosity that waits there inside normality, that waits in humanity. I wish that all monsters could be serial killers, could be crazed, could be dangerous, but the problem is that they’re not. Some of them are, horrifyingly, people who in their own head have somehow got to the point where they think they’re doing a good job, doing the right thing. But they’re still monsters.
KI: You wonder about Boko Haram, these people who shoot buses full of children, who believe girls shouldn’t be educated and so on. Do they actually believe that they’re doing good?
NG: The tragedy for me of something even like 9/11 is that I do not believe that the people piloting those planes were going, “I am an evil person doing an evil thing.” I think they were going, “I am doing what God wants, I am doing God’s will; I am doing good, look at me striking against evil.”
KI: I wanted to ask you a bit more about stories being very long-lived beings. You’ve said that some stories actually adapt and survive as society changes around them.
NG: My favourite example of a story that mutates is “Cinderella”. The story may well have begun in China, where actually they care a lot more about foot size than they do in the west. But it reaches France, and you have a story about a girl whose dead mother gives her these fancy fur slippers, fur being “vair”, but somewhere in the retelling the V-A-I-R becomes V-E-R-R-E, and they become glass slippers. The homonym happens, and now you have glass slippers, which make no sense. You didn’t really have the technology in medieval France to make glass slippers; wearing them would be stupid, they would cut your feet, they would break. Yet, suddenly, you have an image that that story then coagulates around. And now “Cinderella” just spreads and spreads – it has a huge advantage over all the other stories about girls who are sort of dirty and sit by the fire and magic things happen to them. “Cinderella” is the one that survived.
KI: Do you think that if stories are left in the hands of professional storytelling institutions, like film studios and publishing houses, they are less likely to mutate in an honest way? Do you think the commercialisation of storytelling could actually be interfering in the natural development and growth of this kind of long-lived being?
NG: What a lovely idea! Where stories are concerned, I tend to be very Darwinian. Because I look at something like “Sleeping Beauty”. Disney retold “Sleeping Beauty”; one can assume that its “Sleeping Beauty” reached more people than any other version has. And yet, if people tell the story you won’t get the Disney version where she meets the prince that morning, you’ll get a tower of thorns growing up and a hundred years passing before a prince turns up. It feels like a much better version.
I think that there’s definitely the battery farming of stories out there, but I don’t think they take over: they simply indulge our craving.
KI: Is fan fiction today an example of stories starting to mutate? Now you have this phenomenon, which involves both professional writers – P D James writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, or Sebastian Faulks writing another James Bond – and amateurs making up things around their favourite books, and writing prequels and sequels.
NG: It’s not a new phenomenon. I love the fact that, you know, in the early versions of King Lear, the story had a happy ending. Shakespeare turned it into a tragedy, and through the 18th and 19th centuries they kept trying to give it a happy ending again. But people kept going back to the one that Shakespeare created. You could definitely view Shakespeare as fan fiction, in his own way. I’ve only ever written, as far as I know, one book that did the thing that happens when people online get hold of it and start writing their own fiction, which was Good Omens, which I did with Terry Pratchett. It’s a 100,000-word book; there’s probably a million words of fiction out there by now, written by people who were inspired by characters in the book.
KI: What do you feel about that?
NG: Mostly I feel happy about it. But I think the happiest and proudest of people would have been, in those terms, the Stan Lees and the Jack Kirbys, the people who created characters in comics. Kirby was the artist, but also the creating, driving force behind the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, the X-Men, in the early Sixties. These guys created characters about whom people are forever inventing, spinning off, and there’s something very wonderful about that.
KI: Yes, there is. I’m often asked what my attitude is to film, theatrical, radio adaptations of my novels. It’s very nice to have my story go out there, and if it’s in a different form, I want the thing to mutate slightly. I don’t want it to be an exact translation of my novel. I want it to be slightly different, because in a very vain kind of way, as a storyteller, I want my story to become like public property, so that it gains the status where people feel they can actually change it around and use it to express different things.
NG: Yes, the moment that you have a live actor portraying a character, something exciting is happening; it’s different, and if it’s really happening in front of you live, then, again, you’re seeing something that’s new.
So I do love it when people grab my stuff and take it and do things with it. I love copyright – I love the fact that I can feed myself and feed my children with the stuff I make up. On the other hand, copyright length right now is life plus 75 years, and I don’t know that I want to be in control of what I’ve created for 75 years after I’ve died! I don’t know that I want to be feeding my great-grandchildren. I feel like they should be able to look after themselves, and not necessarily put limits on what I’ve created, if there’s something that would do better in the cultural dialogue. I loved Les Klinger’s legal case, establishing that the Conan Doyle Estate had basically been running a shakedown operation for the last 20, 30 years, where they’ve been getting people to pay money to license Sherlock Holmes when Holmes was out of copyright.
KI: I didn’t know about that, actually. Since Sherlock Holmes went out of copyright, certainly, he has started to mutate and evolve in a very energetic way. I don’t know if it would have been possible, for instance, to have the Cumberbatch modernised series, had it been under copyright. And Holmes is a very interesting example, I think, of a figure who’s mutated over the years and evolved. I think if you did a big study of Doctor Who, you’d see that the essential story has actually changed to serve the different climates of the times. It’s clear that the Daleks started off as Nazis and the Cybermen were communists. But my daughter was saying that, for their generation, the Cybermen represent the people being turned into mindless wage slaves in the 21st-century workplace. Now the fear of the communist takeover of the world has receded, the Cybermen can become almost the opposite – something that represents a unit of the rampant capitalist culture.
I wonder if Doctor Who will turn out to be one of these creatures who live for a long, long time, as a story that will be a hundred-year-old being, a 300-year-old being. I love this idea of yours of stories being long-lived beings because it seems to have implications for what our ambitions should be, as people who sit at home and write them.
NG: I know that when I create a story, I never know what’s going to work. Sometimes I will do something that I think was just a bit of fun, and people will love it and it catches fire, and sometimes I will work very hard on something that I think people will love, and it just fades: it never quite finds its people.
KI: Even if something doesn’t catch fire at the time, you may find it catches fire further down the line, in 20 years’ time, or 30 years’ time. That has happened, often.
NG: Exactly. There’s a beautiful essay by A A Milne where he says, “I want to draw your attention to a completely forgotten book that none of you have ever heard about that is one of the best books in the world, and it’s by Kenneth Grahame. And you’ve all heard of him, because he wrote Dream Days and The Golden Age” – two popular books – “but he also wrote a book called The Wind in the Willows, which none of you have heard of.”
KI: Aha. Stories are interesting in that way. They sometimes just emerge, after some mysterious kind of hibernation period. You can never tell what is going to be one of these long-lived creatures and what isn’t. It would be interesting to think, if stories are creatures, whether some of them are actually deceitful creatures. Some of them would be deeply sly and untrustworthy, and some of them would be very uplifting.
NG: There would definitely be bad ones. But how would we know? How would we ever find out?
It is a delusion to think that the rules of society reflect any moral truths about human nature. The same is true about the “rules” for writing fiction. Any paradigm that exists in our collective consciousness is just that—a model of interpretation, or a structure within to project a reality. Any significant paradigm shift will incite anxiety: “If I gave up this reality for another one, would I even exist?” When radically innovative art is condemned by the mainstream, it is often an expression of that existential anxiety. There is nothing more upsetting to the status quo than the assumption that such a thing doesn’t even exist.
When you read a story or a novel, you suspend your allegiance to your own reality and entertain one the writer has created. If its discrepancy from your own reality is too great, perhaps you’ll say, “I can’t get into this,” and put the book down. Or maybe it’s just a bad piece of writing. There’s plenty of that out there. Still, the act of reading fiction is truly magical. The imaginative power to make what is only literarily true feel literally true is a wonderful aspect of human consciousness. It means that we are capable of imagining realities other than our own. Furthermore, a great piece of writing can permanently shift our paradigms. “This book changed my life,” people say.
I don’t like talking about “how to write fiction.” I don’t like “craft” terms. Discussions about craft reinforce what feels to me to be an institutionalized paradigm for fiction dictated by the publishing industry. When I think of “narrative,” conventionally speaking, my mind refers to this: a character (with thoughts, feelings, instincts, will, an archive of experience and habituated mannerisms) appears in an environment. A situation, usually borne out of conflict or desire, presents itself. The character does something. Oftentimes the outcome is compromising. Drama ensues. A new aspect of the character is created out of adversity. The character does something else. The effect births a new reality. The character has been changed. It’s all very reasonable. It’s also very limited. In my writing, I like to use the mainstream paradigm and fuck with it to point out its limitations. I’ve found that this is one way to expand consciousness without alarming people of their own delusions too violently.
A few years ago, when I was very broke, I made up my mind to write a novel that would appeal to a greater audience than my previous work. I deliberately embraced the conventional narrative structure in order to reach the mainstream. I pictured a plausible audience of avid readers as people who live vicariously through books—in other words, people with boring lives. I considered the personal paradigm of a bored, imaginatively escapist person. Boredom is a symptom of denial, I thought. A bored person is a coward, essentially. So I conceived of a character trapped by social mores, who plumbs the depths of her own delusions and does something incredibly brave; I thought that would be fun for the kind of audience I was writing to. Thus Eileen was born. And I did make a little money. I’m telling you this because many of my creative decisions were motivated by the emptiness of my bank account. I looked at the dominating paradigm and I abused it.
And so you could say that I participated in the paradigm I’m so critical of. I drank the Kool-Aid. I ate the shit. But my aim was to shit out new shit. And so in writing, I think a lot about how to shit. What kind of stink do I want to make in the world? My new shit becomes the shit I eat. I learn by digesting my own delusions. It’s often very disgusting. The process requires as much self-awareness and honesty as I’m capable of having. It requires the courage to be hostile and contradictory. My creativity seems to gain traction out of this relationship with reality: I hate you, I hate myself, I love myself, you love me, I love you, I hate you, ad infinitum. I am interested in my own hypocrisy. It provides the turbulence for me to change.
I really don’t know how to teach anybody how to make the art they want. I think the desire should dictate the strategy. I believe in talent and self-education. And a writer needs to be in a position of some privilege to write: she needs time. But time is free. Time is not money, as the bullshit paradigm would have you believe. Teaching craft isn’t evil, but I think it’s dumb to accept a craft strategy whole cloth. A writer should do whatever she wants. If she wants to make money, she should do it. If she wants to spend a year in the woods confronting herself and nature, she should do that. Do whatever teaches you the most about yourself and your work. Go where you are least comfortable. You might find new shit to eat there.
“Make the material personal to you so that it feels real,” is perhaps the most confusing advice a writer can hear. But on the subject of what we write, I like something Slavoj Zizek said in a video about Hitchcock’s “The Birds”: “If something gets too traumatic, too violent, even too filled in with enjoyment [that] it shatters the coordinates of our reality, we have to fictionalize it.” It runs in tandem with advice I’ve given to people who’ve asked me how to write fiction: “What’s your problem?” I think artifice exists as a container for realities that can’t be safely contained otherwise. Think about that the next time you use a metaphor.
So, how can you pull a whole world out of thin air, describe it and animate it with language? I think language itself does a lot of the work for you. I don’t know how to write. I know how I write. And then the next day, I don’t know again. The not knowing is what makes writing interesting and enjoyable to me. There is no one true answer about what good writing is, but I tend to think of good writing as writing I want to read more than once. That means the world of the fiction was so rich and cool, I want to go back there. I want to keep shifting with it.
In thinking about your approach to your own work, you might consider your ideal reader. Write to your mother. Write to your best friend. Write to the love of your life. Write to your worst enemy. I think you’ll discover that the work for the enemy will be of highest quality. It will be the most daring and smart, because if someone is your enemy, she has the power to hurt you, and so you must hold her in very high regard and will take some pleasure in making her fear for her life.
1. The tale of Clive
I want you to think of a young man called Clive. Clive is on a familiar literary mission: he wants to write the perfect novel. Clive has a lot going for him: he's intelligent and well read; he's made a study of contemporary fiction and can see clearly where his peers have gone wrong; he has read a good deal of rigorous literary theory those elegant blueprints for novels not yet built and is now ready to build his own unparalleled house of words. Maybe Clive even teaches novels, takes them apart and puts them back together. If writing is a craft, he has all the skills, every tool. Clive is ready. He clears out the spare room in his flat, invests in an ergonomic chair, and sits down in front of the blank possibility of the Microsoft Word program. Hovering above his desktop he sees the
perfect outline of his platonic novel all he need do is drag it from the ether into the real. He's excited. He begins.
Fast forward three years. Somehow, despite all Clive's best efforts, the novel he has pulled into existence is not the perfect novel that floated so tantalizingly above his computer. It is, rather, a poor simulacrum, a shadow of a shadow. In the transition from the dream to the real it has shed its aura of perfection; its shape is warped, unrecognizable. Something got in the way, something almost impossible to articulate. For example, when it came to fashioning the character of the corrupt Hispanic government economist, Maria Gomez, who is so vital to Clive's central theme of corruption within American identity politics, he found he needed something more than simply "the right words" or "knowledge about economists". Maria Gomez effectively proves his point about the deflated American dream, but in other, ineffable, ways she seems not quite to convince as he'd hoped. He found it hard to get into her silk blouse, her pencil skirt even harder to get under her skin. And then, later, trying to describe her marriage, he discovered that he wanted to write cleverly and aphoristically about "Marriage" with a capital M far more than he wanted to describe Maria's particular marriage, which, thinking of his own marriage, seemed suddenly a monumentally complex task, particularly if his own wife, Karina, was going to read it. And there are a million other little examples ... flaws that are not simply flaws of language or design, but rather flaws of ... what? Him? This thought bothers him for a moment. And then another, far darker thought comes. Is it possible that if he were only the reader, and not the writer, of this novel, he would think it a failure? Clive doesn't wallow in such thoughts for long. His book gets an agent, his agent gets a publisher, his novel goes out into the world. It is well received. It turns out that Clive's book smells like literature and looks like literature and maybe even, intermittently, feels like literature, and after a while Clive himself has almost forgotten that strange feeling of untruth, of self-betrayal, that his novel first roused in him. He becomes not only a fan of his own novel, but its great defender. If a critic points out an overindulgence here, a purple passage there, well, then Clive explains this is simply what he intended. It was all to achieve a certain effect. In fact, Clive doesn't mind such criticism: nitpicking of this kind feels superficial compared to the bleak sense he first had that his novel was not only not good, but not true. No one is accusing him of so large a crime. The critics, when they criticize, speak of the paintwork and brickwork of the novel, a bad metaphor, a tedious denouement, and are confident he will fix these little mistakes next time round. As for Maria Gomez, everybody agrees that she is just
as you'd imagine a corrupt Hispanic government economist in a pencil skirt to be. Clive is satisfied and vindicated. He begins work on a sequel.
2. The craft that defies craftsmanship
That is the end of the tale of Clive. Its purpose was to suggest that somewhere between a critic's necessary superficiality and a writer's natural dishonesty, the truth of how we judge literary success or failure is lost. It is very hard to get writers to speak frankly about their own work, particularly in a literary market where they are required to be not only writers, but also hucksters selling product. It is always easier to depersonalize the question. In preparation for this essay I emailed many writers (under the promise of anonymity) to ask how they judge their own work. One writer, of a naturally analytical and philosophical bent, replied by refining my simple question into a series of more interesting ones:
I've often thought it would be fascinating to ask living writers: "Never mind critics, what do you yourself think is wrong with your writing? How did you dream of your book before it was created? What were your best hopes? How have you let yourself down?" A map of disappointments that would be a revelation. Map of disappointments Nabokov would call that a good title for a bad novel. It strikes me as a suitable guide to the land where writers live, a country I imagine as mostly beach, with hopeful writers standing on the shoreline while their perfect novels pile up, over on the opposite coast, out of reach. Thrusting out of the shoreline are hundreds of piers, or "disappointed bridges", as Joyce called them. Most writers, most of the time, get wet. Why they get wet is of little interest to critics or readers, who can only judge the soggy novel in front of them. But for the people who write novels, what it takes to walk the pier and get to the other side is, to say the least, a matter of some importance. To writers, writing well is not simply a matter of skill, but a question of character. What does it take, after all, to write well? What personal qualities does it require? What personal resources does a bad writer lack? In most areas of human endeavor we are not shy of making these connections between personality and capacity. Why do we never talk about these things when we talk about books?
It's my experience that when a writer meets other writers and the conversation turns to the fault lines of their various prose styles, then you hear a slightly different language than the critic's language. Writers do not say, "My research wasn't sufficiently thorough" or "I thought Casablanca was in Tunisia" or "I seem to reify the idea of femininity" at least, they don't consider problems like these to be central. They are concerned with the ways in which what they have written reveals or betrays their best or worst selves. Writers feel, for example, that what appear to be bad aesthetic choices very often have an ethical dimension. Writers know that between the platonic ideal of the novel and the actual novel there is always the pesky self vain, deluded, myopic, cowardly, compromised. That's why writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship: craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great. This is hard for young writers, like Clive, to grasp at first. A skilled cabinet-maker will make good cabinets, and a skilled cobbler will mend your shoes, but skilled writers very rarely write good books and almost never write great ones. There is a rogue element somewhere for convenience's sake we'll call it the self, although, in less metaphysically challenged times, the "soul" would have done just as well. In our public literary conversations we are squeamish about the connection between selves and novels. We are repelled by the idea that writing fiction might be, among other things, a question of character. We like to think of fiction as the playground of language, independent of its originator. That's why, in the public imagination, the confession "I did not tell the truth" signifies failure when James Frey says it, and means nothing at all if John Updike says it. I think that fiction writers know different. Though we rarely say it publicly, we know that our fictions are not as disconnected from our selves as you like to imagine and we like to pretend. It is this intimate side of literary failure that is so interesting; the ways in which writers fail on their own terms: private, difficult to express, easy to ridicule, completely unsuited for either the regulatory atmosphere of reviews or the objective interrogation of
seminars, and yet, despite all this, true.
3. What writers know
First things first: writers do not have perfect or even superior knowledge about the quality or otherwise of their own work God knows, most writers are quite deluded about the nature of their own talent. But writers do have a different kind of knowledge than either professors or critics. Occasionally it's worth listening to. The insight of the practitioner is, for better or worse, unique. It's what you find in the criticism of Virginia Woolf, of Iris Murdoch, of Roland Barthes. What unites those very different critics is the confidence with which they made the connection between personality and prose. To be clear: theirs was neither strictly biographical criticism nor prescriptively moral criticism, and nothing they wrote was reducible to the childish formulations "only good men write good books" or "one must know a man's life to understand his work". But neither did they think of a writer's personality as an irrelevance. They understood style precisely as an expression of personality, in its widest sense. A writer's personality is his manner of being in the world: his writing style is the unavoidable trace of that manner. When you understand style in these terms, you don't think of it as merely a matter of fanciful syntax, or as the flamboyant icing atop a plain literary cake, nor as the uncontrollable result of some mysterious velocity coiled within language itself. Rather, you see style as a personal necessity, as the only possible expression of a particular human consciousness. Style is a writer's way of telling the truth. Literary success or failure, by this measure, depends not only on the refinement of words on a page, but in the refinement of a consciousness, what Aristotle called the education of the emotions.
4. Tradition versus the individual talent
But before we go any further along that track we find TS Eliot, that most distinguished of critic-practitioners, standing in our way. In his famous essay of 1919, "Tradition and the Individual Talent", Eliot decimated the very idea of individual consciousness, of personality, in writing. There was hardly any such thing, he claimed, and what there was, was not interesting. For Eliot the most individual and successful aspects of a writer's work were precisely those places where his literary ancestors asserted their immortality most vigorously. The poet and his personality were irrelevant, the poetry was everything; and the poetry could only be understood through the glass of literary history. That essay is written in so high church a style, with such imperious authority, that even if all your effective experience as a writer is to the contrary, you are intimidated into believing it. "Poetry," says Eliot, "is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality." "The progress of an artist," says Eliot, "is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality." These credos seem so impersonal themselves, so disinterested, that it is easy to forget that young critic-practitioners make the beds they wish to lie in, and it was in Eliot's interest given the complexity and scandals of his private life and his distaste for intrusion ruthlessly to separate the personal from the poetry. He was so concerned with privacy that it influences his terminology: everywhere in that essay there is the assumption that personality amounts to simply the biographical facts of one's life but that is a narrow vision. Personality is much more than autobiographical detail, it's our way of processing the world, our way of being, and it cannot be artificially removed from our activities; it is our way of being active.
Eliot may have been ruthlessly impersonal in his writing in the superficial sense (if by that we mean he did not reveal personal details, such as the tricky fact that he had committed his wife to an asylum), but never was a man's work more inflected with his character, with his beliefs about the nature of the world. As for that element of his work that he puts forward as a model of his impersonality a devotion to tradition such devotion is the very definition of personality in writing. The choices a writer makes within a tradition preferring Milton to Moliere, caring for Barth over Barthelme constitute some of the most personal information we can have about him.
There is no doubt that Eliot's essay, with its promise to "halt at the frontiers of metaphysics or mysticism", is a brilliant demarcation of what is properly within the remit of, as he puts it, "the responsible person interested in poetry". It lays out an entirely reasonable boundary between what we can and cannot say about a piece of writing without embarrassing ourselves. Eliot was honest about wanting both writing and criticism to approach the condition of a science; he famously compared a writer to a piece of finely filiated platinum introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulfur dioxide. This analogy has proved a useful aspiration for critics. It has allowed them to believe in the writer as catalyst, entering into a tradition, performing an act of meaningful recombination, and yet leaving no trace of himself, or at least none the critic need worry himself with. Eliot's analogy freed critics to do the independent, radically creative, non-biographical criticism of which they had long dreamt, and to which they have every right. For writers, however, Eliot's analogy just won't do. Fiction writing is not an objective science and writers have selves as well as traditions to understand and assimilate. It is certainly very important, as Eliot argues, that writers should foster an understanding of the cultures and the books of the past, but they also unavoidably exist within the garden of the self and this, too, requires nurture and development. The self is not like platinum it leaves traces all over the place. Just because Eliot didn't want to talk about it, doesn't mean it isn't there.
5. Writing as self-betrayal
Back to my simple point, which is that writers are in possession of "selfhood", and that the development or otherwise of self has some part to play in literary success or failure. This shameful fact needn't trouble the professor or the critic, but it is naturally of no little significance to writers themselves. Here is the poet Adam Zagajewski, speaking of The Self, in a poem of the same title:
It is small and no more visible than a cricket
in August. It likes to dress up, to masquerade,
as all dwarves do. It lodges between
granite blocks, between serviceable
truths. It even fits under
a bandage, under adhesive. Neither custom officers
nor their beautiful dogs will find it. Between
hymns, between alliances, it hides itself.
To me, writing is always the attempted revelation of this elusive, multifaceted self, and yet its total revelation as Zagajewski suggests is a chimerical impossibility. It is impossible to convey all of the truth of all our experience. Actually, it's impossible to even know what that would mean, although we stubbornly continue to have an idea of it, just as Plato had an idea of the forms. When we write, similarly, we have the idea of a total revelation of truth, but cannot realize it. And so, instead, each writer asks himself which serviceable truths he can live with, which alliances are strong enough to hold. The answers to those questions separate experimentalists from so-called "realists", comics from tragedians, even poets from novelists. In what form, asks the writer, can I most truthfully describe the world as it is experienced by this particular self? And it is from that starting point that each writer goes on to make their individual compromise with the self, which is always a compromise with truth as far as the self can know it. That is why the most common feeling, upon re-reading one's own work, is Prufrock's: "That is not it at all ... that is not what I meant, at all ..." Writing feels like self- betrayal, like failure.
6. Writing as inauthenticity
Here is another novelist, in another email, answering the question: "How would you define literary failure?"
I was once asked by a high-school student in an audience in Chennai: "Why, sir, are you so eager to please?" That's how I tend to define failure work done for what Heidegger called "Das Mann", the indeterminate "They" who hang over your shoulder, warping your sense of judgment; what he (not me) would call your authenticity.
That novelist, like me, I suppose like all of us who came of age under post-modernity, is naturally skeptical of the concept of authenticity, especially what is called "cultural authenticity" after all, how can any of us be more or less authentic than we are? We were taught that authenticity was meaningless. How, then, to deal with the fact that when we account for our failings, as writers, the feeling that is strongest is a betrayal of one's deepest, authentic self?
That sounds very grand: maybe it's better to start at the simplest denomination of literary betrayal, the critic's favorite, the cliche. What is a cliche except language passed down by Das Mann, used and shopsoiled by so many before you, and in no way the correct jumble of language for the intimate part of your vision you meant to express? With a cliche you have pandered to a shared understanding, you have taken a short-cut, you have re- presented what was pleasing and familiar rather than risked what was true and strange. It is an aesthetic and an ethical failure: to put it very simply, you have not told the truth. When writers admit to failures they like to admit to the smallest ones for example, in each of my novels somebody "rummages in their purse" for something because I was too lazy and thoughtless and un-awake to separate "purse" from its old, persistent friend "rummage". To rummage through a purse is to sleepwalk through a sentence a small enough betrayal of self, but a betrayal all the same. To speak personally, the very reason I write is so that I might not sleepwalk through my entire life. But it is easy to admit that a sentence makes you wince; less easy to confront the fact that for many writers there will be paragraphs, whole characters, whole books through which one sleepwalks and for which "inauthentic" is truly the correct term.
7. Do writers have duties?
All this talk of authenticity, of betrayal, presupposes a duty an obligation that the writers and readers of literature are under. It is deeply unfashionable to conceive of such a thing as a literary duty; what that might be, how we might fail to fulfill it. Duty is not a very literary term. These days, when we do speak of literary duties, we mean it from the reader's perspective, as a consumer of literature. We are really speaking of consumer rights. By this measure the duty of writers is to please readers and to be eager to do so, and this duty has various subsets: the duty to be clear; to be interesting and intelligent but never willfully obscure; to write with the average reader in mind; to be in good taste. Above all, the modern writer has a duty to entertain. Writers who stray from these obligations risk tiny readerships and critical ridicule. Novels that submit to a shared vision of entertainment, with characters that speak the recognizable dialogue of the sitcom, with plots that take us down familiar roads and back home again, will always be welcomed. This is not a good time, in literature, to be a curio. Readers seem to wish to be "represented", as they are at the ballot box, and to do this, fiction needs to be general, not particular. In the contemporary fiction market a writer must entertain and be recognizable anything less is seen as a failure and a rejection of readers.
Personally, I have no objection to books that entertain and please, that are clear and interesting and intelligent, that are in good taste and are not willfully obscure but neither do these qualities seem to me in any way essential to the central experience of fiction, and if they should be missing, this in no way rules out the possibility that the novel I am reading will yet fulfill the only literary duty I care about. For writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world. If that sounds woolly and imprecise, I apologize. Writing is not a science, and I am speaking to you in the only terms I have to describe what it is I persistently aim for (yet fail to achieve) when I sit in front of my computer.
When I write I am trying to express my way of being in the world. This is primarily a process of elimination: once you have removed all the dead language, the second-hand dogma, the truths that are not your own but other people's, the motto's, the slogans, the out-and-out lies of your nation, the myths of your historical moment once you have removed all that warps experience into a shape you do not recognize and do not believe in what you are left with is something approximating the truth of your own conception. That is what I am looking for when I read a novel; one person's truth as far as it can be rendered through language. This single duty, properly pursued, produces complicated, various results. It's certainly not a call to arms for the autobiographer, although some writers will always mistake the readerly desire for personal truth as their cue to write a treatise or a speech or a thinly disguised memoir in which they themselves are the hero. Fictional truth is a question of perspective, not autobiography. It is what you can't help tell if you write well; it is the watermark of self that runs through everything you do. It is language as the revelation of a consciousness.
8. We refuse to be each other
A great novel is the intimation of a metaphysical event you can never know, no matter how long you live, no matter how many people you love: the experience of the world through a consciousness other than your own. And I don't care if that consciousness chooses to spend its time in drawing rooms or in internet networks; I don't care if it uses a corner of a Dorito as its hero, or the charming eldest daughter of a bourgeois family; I don't care if it refuses to use the letter e or crosses five continents and two thousand pages. What unites great novels is the individual manner in which they articulate experience and force us to be attentive, waking us from the sleepwalk of our lives. And the great joy of fiction is the variety of this process: Austen's prose will make you attentive in a different way and to different things than Wharton's; the dream Philip Roth wishes to wake us from still counts as sleep if Pynchon is the dream-catcher.
A great piece of fiction can demand that you acknowledge the reality of its wildest proposition, no matter how alien it may be to you. It can also force you to concede the radical otherness lurking within things that appear most familiar. This is why the talented reader understands George Saunders to be as much a realist as Tolstoy, Henry James as much an experimentalist as George Perec. Great styles represent the interface of "world" and "I", and the very notion of such an interface being different in kind and quality from your own is where the power of fiction resides. Writers fail us when that interface is tailored to our needs, when it panders to the generalities of its day, when it offers us a world it knows we will accept having already seen it on the television. Bad writing does nothing, changes nothing, educates no emotions, rewires no inner circuitry we close its covers with the same metaphysical confidence in the universality of our own interface as we did when we opened it. But great writing great writing forces you to submit to its vision. You spend the morning reading Chekhov and in the afternoon, walking through your neighborhood, the world has turned Chekhovian; the waitress in the cafe offers a non-sequitur, a dog dances in the street.
9. The dream of a perfect novel drives writers crazy
There is a dream that haunts writers: the dream of the perfect novel. It is a dream that causes only chaos and misery. The dream of this perfect novel is really the dream of a perfect revelation of the self. In America, where the self is so neatly wedded to the social, their dream of the perfect novel is called "The Great American Novel" and requires the revelation of the soul of a nation, not just of a man ... Still I think the principle is the same: on both sides of the Atlantic we dream of a novel that tells the truth of experience perfectly. Such a revelation is impossible it will always be a partial vision, and even a partial vision is incredibly hard to achieve. The reason it is so hard to think of more than a handful of great novels is because the duty I've been talking about the duty to convey accurately the truth of one's own conception is a duty of the most demanding kind. If, every 30 years, people complain that there were only a few first-rate novels published, that's because there were only a few. Genius in fiction has always been and always will be extremely rare. Fact is, to tell the truth of your own conception given the nature of our mediated world, given the shared and ambivalent nature of language, given the elusive, deceitful, deluded nature of the self truly takes a genius, truly demands of its creator a breed of aesthetic and ethical integrity that makes one's eyes water just thinking about it.
But there's no reason to cry. If it's true that first-rate novels are rare, it's also true that what we call the literary canon is really the history of the second-rate, the legacy of honorable failures. Any writer should be proud to join that list just as any reader should count themselves lucky to read them. The literature we love amounts to the fractured shards of an attempt, not the monument of fulfillment. The art is in the attempt, and this matter of understanding-that-which-is-outside-of-ourselves using only what we have inside ourselves amounts to some of the hardest intellectual and emotional work you'll ever do. It is a writer's duty. It is also a reader's duty. Did I mention that yet?
10. Note to readers: a novel is a two-way street
A novel is a two-way street, in which the labor required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers. The more accurate analogy is that of the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own, hard won, skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer and the composer gives her.
This is a conception of "reading" we rarely hear now. And yet, when you practice reading, when you spend time with a book, the old moral of effort and reward is undeniable. Reading is a skill and an art and readers should take pride in their abilities and have no shame in cultivating them if for no other reason than the fact that writers need you. To respond to the ideal writer takes an ideal reader, the type of reader who is open enough to allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason. The ideal reader steps up to the plate of the writer's style so that together writer and reader might hit the ball out of the park.
What I'm saying is, a reader must have talent. Quite a lot of talent, actually, because even the most talented reader will find much of the land of literature tricky terrain. For how many of us feel the world to be as Kafka felt it, too impossibly foreshortened to ride from one village to the next? Or can imagine a world without nouns, as Borges did? How many are willing to be as emotionally generous as Dickens, or to take religious faith as seriously as did Graham Greene? Who among us have Zora Neale Hurston's capacity for joy or Douglas Coupland's strong stomach for the future? Who has the delicacy to tease out Flaubert's faintest nuance, or the patience and the will to follow David Foster Wallace down his intricate recursive spirals of thought? The skills that it takes to write it are required to read it. Readers fail writers just as often as writers fail readers. Readers fail when they allow themselves to believe the old mantra that fiction is the thing you relate to and writers the amenable people you seek out when you want to have your own version of the world confirmed and reinforced. That is certainly one of the many things fiction can do, but it's a conjurer's trick within a far deeper magic. To become better readers and writers we have to ask of each other a little bit more.