I count Elisa Gabbert among the essayists I would eagerly read on anything. It happens to be the case that the things that tend to interest her—translation, literary style, and disasters, to name a few—tend to interest me, too. But the real pleasure of reading Gabbert is in letting oneself be carried along in her thinking, which is cuttingly clear and delightfully digressive. The Word Pretty—Gabbert’s fourth book, following two books of poetry and one book of very short prose pieces—collects 22 previously published essays on a wide variety of themes. The subjects range from notebook-keeping to the guilty pleasure of reading only the front matter of books to the TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Each is a journey through some of Gabbert’s idiosyncratic interests by way of her formidable intellect.
Gabbert generously answered my questions about The Word Pretty over email.
The Millions: On Twitter, you described The Word Pretty as “a collection of [your] critical essays, rarities, & B-sides.” I love that description, in part because of the way it uses the language of music rather than literature. I’ve been wondering about the way that collections function as books, which seems different from the way that book-length works do. The Word Pretty is a good case for thinking about this, because you acknowledge its heterogeneity, and the book itself makes no claims to, say, thematic unity, yet it does feel to me like a whole. Does it feel that way to you? If so, is it in a different sense than your previous books, which are also wholes made of isolatable parts?
Elisa Gabbert: I often feel that where books start and stop is essentially arbitrary. I start to think of something as a book when it’s clear to me that I’m repeatedly returning to a certain set of concerns and a certain shape or structure or form as an approach to those concerns. Once I’m able to describe the concerns and the form to myself, it’s fairly easy to imagine the shape of the finished book. But it could always be a little shorter or longer, or arranged slightly differently and so on—at some point I just decide it’s done, maybe only because I get sick of the project and want to work on something new! The Word Pretty didn’t quite make sense to me as a book until I figured out the three sections. Then, if I wanted to add a new piece, for example, I knew which section it would go in, and I didn’t have to rearrange the whole table of contents. Sections and structure are important to me. I don’t write fiction, but I’m really interested in chapters, too, and I have a fantasy course mapped out in my head called “Chapter Studies.” In any case, after the fact of writing, I find that a book feels like a book partly because it’s time-delimited: I started it in a certain month of a certain year and finished it in a certain month of a later year. So whatever the genre, the book feels to me like a record of my thinking during that period.
TM: You told me, also on Twitter, that this book is “the kind of thing [you] always wanted to do but thought you had to be famous first.” What did you mean by that? And how did the book come about?
EG: I tweeted once—not that long ago actually, in early 2016—“I want to do one of those books of random bits and bobs of unrelated prose that only famous people get to do.” I was thinking of these collections that come out by J.M. Coetzee or Siri Hustvedt or Zadie Smith or, when they were living, John Updike or Gore Vidal—basically people who are some combination of “working writer” and “public intellectual” so that every few years, they’ve published enough essays or criticism to be packaged up into a book, and the fans buy it because they’ll read anything by that author, they just want the point of view. But debut collections of essays are usually not that freeform, unless maybe they’re on a small press. As it happens, later that same year, I had a small press approach me asking whether I had a manuscript of essays they could consider. Around the same time, I learned that my poetry publisher planned to launch a nonfiction series. So I got my wish via the small press route.
TM: I’m curious about the sequencing of the book. The essays are divided into three unnamed sections. Resonances abound, but there’s no clear thematic demarcation. In at least some instances, it seemed as if the ordering of essays within a section might be guided, in part, by shared references. For instance, “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” follows “The Inelegant Translation” (though there’s a section break in between), and both mention Lydia Davis’s introduction to her translation of Madame Bovary; “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” is followed by “Seeing Things,” both of which mention Howards End; “Seeing Things” is followed by “Impossible Time,” both of which mention The Catcher in the Rye. Am I right that you had this in mind? What other priorities guided the sequencing?
EG: In my mind, the middle section is made up of all my little “I noticed a thing” essays (a term I borrow from my friend Catherine Nichols) in the literary criticism category. Most of those started when I noticed a thing in a book I was reading (an idiosyncratic use of paragraphs, say, or a kind of POV), then thought about that thing as a thing, then started noticing how other books handled or achieved that same thing. Within that section I tried to sequence them in such a way that you might get a hint of an idea in one essay and then read an expansion on that idea in the next essay, as you suggest. That said, I’m not one of those people that tries every conceivable order of parts in a book to see if one permutation turns out better than the others—not that that’s actually possible. (Google tells me 12! ≈ 479 million—can that be right?!—and that’s just the essays in the second section.) I think on some level I’m just letting the juxtapositions do their own work. The first section and the third section could really be one section, but I wanted to split them apart, so there’s a more personal voice at the beginning and again at the end, with the more pure (-ish) criticism in the middle. Really, there’s plenty of I throughout. I got thoroughly sick of myself while proofing it.
TM: You began your career as a poet. How did you come to write essays? Do you think of your poetry and your essays as related or overlapping projects, or as discrete?
EG: I think essays are basically chunks of prose (nonfiction prose to be a little more exact), and I’ve been writing chunks of prose my whole life—papers, reviews, blog posts, whatever, they’re all essays if essays involve thinking about something for a while and then writing about it. At some point I decided to be more purposeful about calling them essays, and calling myself an essayist, probably around the time editors started asking me to write essays. Later, when I was working on a book proposal (not for The Word Pretty, but for the book I’m writing now), my agent asked me if I was committed to calling it essays—rather than, just, you know, a book—and I decided that yes, I really wanted to align myself with that tradition specifically. I think you approach a book of essays differently than a nonfiction book in chapters, and I wanted people to approach my essays as essays. (Incidentally, my second book was a collection of chunks of prose, and because, as you note, I started off as a poet, many people think of that book as prose poetry. It was actually marketed as a book of essays, but regardless of how it’s officially catalogued, it’s very obviously made of chunks of prose, and I think it reached a much larger audience than my collections of pro-forma poetry for that reason. More people read prose than poetry! No question!) But to get back to what you asked—I think my poetry and essays do have overlap in terms of my voice and sensibility and obsessions. But it feels very different to write prose versus poetry. It’s kind of like, I can either think in sentences or lines, in poetry or prose, but they’re distinct and exclusive modes. And my default mode is prose. Poetry is harder work. (At least in the drafting phase.)
TM: While I was in the midst of reading The Word Pretty, at a moment when I wasn’t actually reading it, I had this thought (which I considered tweeting, but decided not to): People talk a lot about overwritten prose, but what about the more common problem of underwritten prose? When I returned to The Word Pretty, I was surprised to find, in your essay “Writing That Sounds Like Writing,” first a discussion of overwritten prose, and then this: “of late I’ve read a few books I thought of as underwritten.” This could be a coincidence, or maybe I had read this essay of yours before (I can’t remember if I had) and was anticipating it. But another explanation would be that your essays so effectively convey your style of thinking that reading them helped me to have an Elisa Gabbert-style thought. What do you think of my hypothesis? Is that at all in line with what you think your essays accomplish, or what you intend them to?
EG: Oh, I love this story. It’s hard for me to think of a better compliment than “recognizable style of thinking.” But yes, what I look for in essays, and what I try to do in my essays, is interesting thinking. And sometimes I like when writers really show every step of the proof, as it were. Maybe they’re revealing all their missteps or false starts or the bad ideas they had on the way to a better idea. Or maybe they aren’t missteps exactly, but a series of small but necessary steps to get to something more profound. That level of thinking can be so interesting, even if you don’t really know what the writer is talking about! Like this paragraph I read yesterday, from a brief essay about Shostakovich’s 15th symphony by Tom Service:
Weird. Yes, Shostakovich has set up a sort of pre-echo of the William Tell tune in some of the rhythms we’ve heard; but when the trumpets play the tune, it’s a shock. So is it ironic? Not really, there’s a genuine musical connection, a reason for it being there. A parody? Again, it’s not that simple; Shostakovich doesn’t frame this moment as a separate kind of discourse from what we’ve heard so far, this quote isn’t in quotation marks. And in fact, I don’t actually think this is a quotation at all: what I mean is that the effect of hearing this music at this point in the symphony is so utterly removed from the original function, expression, and associations of Rossini‘s tune that it becomes, in fact, a totally different object. Instead of infectious operatic cheeriness, we’re in a place of existential symphonic crisis. If anything, you hear the disjunction in meaning and context even more precisely because the pattern of the notes is so familiar. Make sense? Possibly not – but these are the kind of labyrinths Shostakovich’s symphony leads you into… (Even Shostakovich himself couldn’t properly explain the reason for the quotes in this symphony: “I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them,” he told his friend Isaak Glikman in a tortuous bit of triple-negativity.)
I know almost nothing about classical music (does Shostakovich even count as classical?) but I read this three or four times. It’s such a great example of attention, representing the act of attention within the text, along with the uncertainty that follows attention, the questioning of what you thought you knew. Also, your story makes me think of that bit at the end of the Anne of Green Gables essay, where I talk about binge-watching TV and then feeling like I look like a character from the show, like looking at a face so much has warped my self-image. It sounds like you experienced a version of that!
TM: It’s clear that your writing is informed by a robust reading life, in which you take seriously the choice of what to read when as a part of living. Is developing a certain kind of reading life something you’ve worked at, or has it come naturally? How is your reading life related to your writing life?
EG: I have worked at it! I’ve loved reading all my life, but I made a conscious decision about five years ago to be more disciplined about it. I felt like approaching my reading in a haphazard, undisciplined way wasn’t cutting it anymore. So I made all these little, or in some cases not so little, habitual changes in order to make reading more central in my life. I started going to the library all the time—this has at least two positive effects. One, there are always stacks of unread books around, so there’s never the problem of having “nothing to read.” Two, due dates are deadlines, so I can’t put off reading a book forever. I also pretty much stopped watching TV. I know it’s supposed to be the golden age of prestige TV blah blah, but for me, good TV still isn’t as good or rewarding as a good book, and even bad TV is addictive. It’s just too easy to get sucked into, so I avoid it entirely. Another thing I started doing is documenting all the books I finish, then publishing little mini-reviews of all of them at the end of the year. I like writing them and I like when people read them so it gives me extra incentive to finish books. As for how my reading life relates to my writing life, it definitely feeds it, but lately I feel like the balance is a little off. Too much writing and not enough reading!
TM: I love the way the essays in The Word Pretty ground the acts of reading, research, and citation in your life and in the world. For instance, you thematize the act of finding something to quote in “Meditation on the Word Pretty”: You write, “I flipped through my copy of Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic from grad school; I had not recalled that it paints Edmund Burke-ian sublimity as practically a loathsome side effect of testosterone,” and then you quote it. I think this is related to the way, in “Seeing Things,” you write about picturing characters and spaces in novels by drawing from people and spaces from your life. Essays that engage texts often give the impression that the essayist is a brain in a vat encountering texts in some abstract way. Yours never do that, even when you don’t explicitly dwell on or dramatize the physical or imaginative encounter. Is this grounded textual engagement a way of achieving a certain effect? Are you writing against a tendency in essays or criticism?
EG: Ah, this is one of my signature moves, incorporating notes on the process of writing an essay into the essay itself. It feels more authentic, or maybe I should say truthful, to reveal that process, which can involve chance and randomness, or cursory, passing interest in things. I don’t want to create the false impression that every time I cite a book, I’ve necessarily read the whole book or that author’s whole oeuvre. (But I’m trying not to do this move reflexively or let it turn into a tic. There’s a danger of understanding your own style too well, and then imitating yourself.) I think I’m also using, in a sense, critical or topical essays to write about my self in the world. I’m always trying to situate who and where and when I am in relation to the books or other things I’m writing about. Partly it’s an ethical position, a way of highlighting my subjectivity, and partly it’s just ego.
TM: Do you have a favorite essay from the book?
EG: Yes. My favorite essay is the last one, “Time, Money, Happiness.”
TM: I know you’re working on a new book. What can you tell me about it and how it’s going?
EG: I just finished the penultimate essay, so I think I’m allowed to say it’s almost done. Writing it while also working a pretty demanding full-time job has been incredibly stressful and difficult, but it’s a good kind of pain, I guess you could say. (As I just tweeted the other day, writing it is taking years off my life, but seeing as it’s about disasters, it’s making me want to die sooner anyway.) Working on it is giving me forward movement and purpose at a time when it would be easy to succumb to the whole “LOL, nothing matters” ethos. Nothing does matter, but also this book is important to me. I want to finish it, and I want people to read it.