Against Interpretation: And Other Essays

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A Year in Reading (And Not): Mark O’Connell

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For me, 2012 has been at least as much a Year in Not Reading as a Year in Reading. Like a lot of members of the book-based community, I’m prone to making aspirational purchases, as though buying a book were somehow the first link in an unbroken chain of causation that ends, inevitably, with having read it. For me, it’s become increasingly clear that this is a form of magical thinking, but there’s no sign of my changing my ways just because I’ve had this realization. I’m always buying books on the basis that they are exactly the books I should be reading, while knowing that the likelihood of my ever starting them, let alone finishing them, is vanishingly small. I am, as we say in Ireland, a divil for it. I have no idea how many works of academic literary criticism I have bought on this basis, but it is, I fear, a number approaching shitloads.

There’s one book in particular that I have spent much of this year not reading, and that’s Adorno: A Biography by Stefan Müller-Doohm. I’m pretty sure that my relationship with this book is a lot more intimate and emotionally fraught than it would be if I’d actually read it. For the past nine months or so it has been squatting on my desk, in all its arrogant bulk and imperious disdain — like Ray Winstone in scholarly-volume form — taunting me with the fact of my not having read it. The thing about Adorno: A Biography is that it couldn’t care less that I haven’t read it; in fact, it seems to derive a kind of smug enjoyment from my continuing failure to do so. It knows all about the life and writings of Theodor Adorno, and will continue knowing all about them regardless of whether I read it. It also knows me better than I know myself, this book; it knows that I’m the type of person who will buy a 648-page biography of Theodor Adorno, but not, crucially, the type of person who will read it.

I allowed that domineering bastard into my life in the first place after reading — as opposed to merely purchasing — Adorno’s Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (which, ironically, I wrote about here in the context of its bucking the trend of my failures of readerly steadfastness). It’s an amazing book of short essays and elegant aphorisms on a vast array of topics — love, capitalism, war, fascism, children’s toys, architecture, psychoanalysis — that contains some of the most beautiful accumulations of sentences I’ve ever come across. Like this, for instance:
Waking in the middle of a dream, even the worst, one feels disappointed, cheated of the best in life. But pleasant, fulfilled dreams are actually as rare, to use Schubert’s words, as happy music. Even the loveliest dream bears like a blemish its difference from reality, the awareness that what it grants is mere illusion. This is why precisely the loveliest dreams are as if blighted.
I also sat down and properly read a couple of books by Susan Sontag — Against Interpretation and Where the Stress Falls — and loved more or less every word of both, especially the stuff I vehemently disagreed with. I also dipped in and out of the first volume of her journals. As with so many of the best cultural commentators, Sontag’s critical persona was itself a kind of ongoing work of art. I love the spectacle of her hawkish aestheticism; for its own sake, certainly, but also for the way it forced me to think more clearly about my own cultural values. (Right now, I couldn’t tell you exactly what these are, but I do remember having a sense of them at the time).

The most fun I had with a book all year was definitely the Sunday I spent reading David Rees’s How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening, for Writers, Artists, Contractors, Flange Turners, Anglesmiths, and Civil Servants, with Illustrations Showing Current Practice. (With a title like that, it’s basically immoral to shorten it to its first four words.) It’s a deeply funny and fascinating exercise in sustaining a rarified tone in the face of an apparently absurd subject matter, and it’s also a covert quasi-memoir about obsession and coming to terms with difficulties and disappointment in life and art. Primarily, though, it’s a very, very detailed guide to sharpening the bejesus out of a pencil, and it’s stood me in good stead in that regard. The second most fun I had with a book all year was the second time I read it, about three weeks later.

As for fiction, I spent quite a lot of time this year harassing friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers to read the Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares, who I feel confident is lurking somewhere in the general vicinity of genius. I read his “Kingdom” series of novels — Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, and Joseph Walser’s Machine — straight through, one after the other, and the experience was a full-on revelation. He’s one of those writers (like, say, Kafka or Beckett) who makes almost all other writers seem not fully serious, as if they are, on some crucial level, just messing about. Not everyone I bullied into reading him was as impressed as I told them they would be; a couple of people said they found his fictional world too cold and inhuman, but this is, I think, exactly what so enthralls me about him. In the best possible way, he writes like an alien.

Chris Ware’s Building Stories was also a rich and remarkable experience. I don’t really know what else to say about it, except that it’s definitely a masterpiece.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

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Report from Paris: Kicking around at the Shakespeare and Company Festival

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In certain bus stops around Paris, there’s an ad up for for Sex and the City 2: a glittery stiletto heel crushes a soccer ball, while the caption reads: “In theaters during the World Cup.”

With slight modification it could have been the poster for the fourth biannual Shakespeare and Company literary festival, which also took place in Paris this weekend during the World Cup, except instead of watching the game we were listening to Martin Amis declare himself a “millenarian feminist.” Always on the periphery of the festival, the Cup provided the ambient background (cars driving by on the quai, honking and flag-waving; crowds cheering in front of Notre Dame and in nearby bars) as well as a ready metaphor for many of the panels. The theme of the festival was “Storytelling and Politics,” and over three days, 6,000 people gathered in a tent in a small park across the river from Notre Dame to hear writers like Will Self, Martin Amis, Fatima Bhutto, Ian Jack, Breyten Breytenbach, Philip Pullman, Hanif Kureishi, Nam Le, Petina Gappah, and Jeanette Winterson talk through the relationship between the storyteller and his political context. But the World Cup was on everyone’s mind; in nearly every session I attended, someone tossed off a reference to it…

National literatures are like national teams
…an unstable notion in our cosmopolitan world, where half the Algerian team was born in France and half the French team was born in Algeria, as Breyten Breytenbach pointed out on a panel on the World Cup. “Our societies all over the world are far more complex and hybridized than they used to be,” he said. “A few years ago I saw an exhibit, Magiciens de la terre, at the Pompidou, and it was African artists doing African work, but many of them were actually living outside Africa, and some of them were even born outside Africa. The one point I’m trying to make is that while there has been far more movement from one continent to another, there is still something that endures. Why would someone of African descendance born in Britain define himself as an African artist, or an African soccer player?”

“My influences are transnational,” the Botswana poet TJ Dema said in an interview for the Festival and Co Gazette, a daily broadsheet circulated to catch festival-goers up on what they might have missed the previous day. “My generation has been accused of being heavily influenced by the American arts landscape, which is not wholly incorrect. But I feel you are a product of your environment. If you’re growing up not listening to your grandmother telling stories around the fireside, but instead in front of the television, and there are American people on that television, there is no way that isn’t going to be a part of your mindscape.”

“I’m a child of the universe,” she said. “Everywhere I go I pick and choose what I want to become part of my work.”

Except writers don’t play on teams
Repeatedly the writers at the festival sought to distance themselves from any kind of group identity. “I didn’t want to be a part of a communality,” Martin Amis said on foiling Christopher Hitchens’s attempts to get him to join the Trotskyists when they worked together at the New Statesman.  “I was very committed to not being part of a group.”

The South African writer Njabulo Ndebele wore the yellow South African football jersey to his panel. “But I wouldn’t wear it at home,” he explained. “I have an inclination that when the crowd goes one way, I want to go another.”

Mark Gevisser, another South African writer, commented that one of the things that has struck him about the World Cup is the tension between the ways people are making their own national identities and they way they are decided for them — “how they choose to put a flag on their car — how you pimp your vehicle, by flying flags, or those funny little socks that people put on their rearview mirrors in South Africa, or those amazing hats that are a feature of South Africa football — and how on the other hand you  might become subject to the flag that’s put in your hands by the leader.  It seems they’re two different ways of belonging to a nation.” This idea was echoed throughout the festival by writers like Ian Jack, Nam Le, and Hanif Kureishi, who each discussed the complicated relationship they feel as writers to their own ethnic or national identities: “You don’t just play for one team,” someone might have said, but didn’t.

Sports bring people together, and can even help avoid civil wars, kind of like the rugby World Cup in that movie Invictus

Ndebele first spoke on a panel entitled “Biography as Political Storytelling in South Africa”; he read from his 2004 book The Cry of Winnie Mandela, which is an essayistic, fictionalized biography of the former first lady of South Africa — he explained that he chose to concentrate not on the drama of the relationship between the Mandelas, nor on their political moment, but on the everyday intimacy he imagines existed between them.

There is a subversiveness to writing about normality, he said; it “could be one of the most radical ways of fighting the system, because the system has to respond to complex individuals, rather than cardboard boxes.” But under apartheid, writing even about unspectacular things was “a very risky thing to do, because you could be accused of being blind to the suffering. […] reclaiming an experience of regular life. Even under apartheid, people still fell in love, they had uncles who visit.”

When asked about the possibilities of recuperating from apartheid, Ndebele evoked two great moments in South African sporting history: first, the 1995 Rugby World Cup, when Mandela appeared at the stadium wearing jersey number 6, the number of the team’s captain, Francois Pienaar.  “Rugby was very much a white South African’s game, and for Mandela to actually stand there on that particular day was an extremely radical move, and of course, he made all those people who were in that stadium at that particular moment identify with him in a very special way.”

Second, Ndebele referred to a recent rugby match between Cape Town and Victoria, which couldn’t be held in the usual stadium because it’s currently occupied by the World Cup, and it worked out that the newly renovated stadium they were assigned to play in was in a mainly black area. “There was a lot of excitement about the fact that white South Africans — particularly the Afrikaaner kind — were going to play in a black township for the first time in a major game. Thousands of white fans went to see it. It was extraordinary, because for over the time of 80 or 90 minutes of the game, the fears that white South Africans had about black people (despite the fact that we’ve been all free since 1994) ceased operating. It was so good that many of them ended up having drinks afterward in [the neighborhood], in the places associated with violence and terror. Some of them forgot where they had parked their cars, and the locals took them to look for their cars. No one was molested, not a single car was stolen, and nothing disappeared, but the common memory was of a day of great fun an reconciliation.”

Ndebele stressed the fact that it is in the “unplanned interactions that in the end resonate much more deeply than political declarations. It is interesting that it is sporting events that do this, rather than the political rallies.”

Having the World Cup in South Africa promised redemption and recognition, kind of like the rugby World Cup in that movie Invictus, except this time for the entire African continent

Ndebele spoke again about this moment with Mandela the next day, on a panel with Breyten Breytenbach and Petina Gappah — “What the World Cup Means For Africa: Four Writers Kick the Ball Around.” The panel kicked off with Gappah’s son blowing the vuvuzela, and with a discussion of France’s shameful loss the previous evening, and Algeria’s win the evening before.

Mark Gevisser said that from what he had observed in the streets of Paris after the games, this dual defeat/win had prompted some feelings of rebellion amongst the Algerian population in France, that it provided at the very least “a moment of redemptive joy.”

“The possibility that the colonial masters are going to be sent home, and that Algeria and Ghana are going to make it to the next round on African soil I think is very exciting,” he said. “This world cup is not just about football. The former president, Thabo Mbeki, whose grand projet the World Cup was, said that it would be a moment when Africa would stand tall, and resolutely turn the tide of centuries of poverty and conflict.”

This seems a pretty tall order for a ball game, but we listen on:

“It has been called as important to Africa as the election of Obama was, and one of the most interesting moments of the last few days has been when the current president of South Africa Jacob Zulu went to wish the Bafana Bafana, which is the South African team, good luck (which didn’t do them any good), he was saying to them: bring home the cup, and he was very self-consciously imitating what Nelson Mandela did in 1995, with rugby, and as those of you who saw the Clint Eastwood movie know, that 1995 rugby cup was something of a redemptive moment when the Springboks, an all-white team, won the World Cup and South Africa was saved from civil war, because Nelson Mandela managed to seduce white Afrikaaners.

“And I think that the current World Cup holds a similar redemptive quality. Will this current World Cup do for South Africa and Africa economically, spiritually, psychologically, what the 1995 World Cup did?”

Ndebele and Gappah lamented the shortcomings of South Africa’s performance in the cup. Ndebele said this is linked to the social reality in South Africa, which is still being created. “Bafana Bafana,” on the other hand, “represent the story of South Africa, which is still in the process of being made.”

Petina Gappah confessed to being “a lot more pessimistic because the only reason the World Cup is being held in South Africa is because South Africa has become a brand — it’s something very specific, the rainbow nation, Mandela, and so on. I’m not sure that any other African country would have the same success of bidding for the World Cup. And so to me, the World Cup being held in South Africa is […] a story of South African’s inclusion in this moment of globalization. South Africa is part of the machine now, like it or not.” Gappah, being from Zimbabwe, lamented her own country’s exclusion, in spirit because of the human rights abuses of the country’s long-term leader, Robert Mugabe, and in practice because, well — they lost in the qualifying rounds.

Finally, Gappah concluded, if the World Cup will not ultimately do much for South Africa, much less the entirety of African, it is “because Bafana Bafana are not very good, they’re not the team that’s going to inspire South Africa and bring the country together in some kind of happy momentum.”

Sports are like books: they bring people together through a common idea… except no one ever said “the sporting industry is in crisis.”

André Schiffrin, Philip Pullman, and Olivier Postel-Vinay, editor-in-chief of the French magazine Books (yes that’s what it’s called in French, too) gathered for a panel led by Ian Jack called “Do Books Change Things? Are Things Changing Books?” Philip Pullman took the anti-technology stance, on the grounds that e-books and the Internet are not “self-sufficient, you can’t do them on your own. It depends on an enormous infrastructure that you can’t see in order to get it done at all.”  You could make a book if you really wanted to, but it takes Amazon to make a Kindle.

“Books as books will survive until the last leaf of paper decays on the last book on the last shelf,” he asserted. “Books will decay, as do all human inventions, but the idea of the narrative of some length will last as long as human beings themselves do.”

Andre Schiffrin took a broader view. “There’s nothing wrong with the technology,” he said; it’s the way it limits what’s available to the reading public. “The problem is the conflict between form and content, there is the question of whether the new forms will change the content, and in what way.”

The changes in the publishing landscape, he said, “came more in the structure than in the technology — it changed by the fact of ownership, by the fact that large conglomerates recently bought up all the publishing and determined that it should be much more profitable than it had been, historically.”

“How can we afford to allow these monopolies to be established? Because of course once you have a monopoly, you can determine what’s going to be available, and a lot of what is being written will not be available on these machines. The idea that if you have a Kindle or an iPad you can get anything in the world is mythology. The books that are going to be available are the very same books that are on the bestseller list or the classics that can be had for free, but they’re not going to include the wide choice that you need.  I say ‘need’ because in any democracy the ideas that come in books are an essential part of any debate.”

The point Shiffrin was making is that a bottom-line driven publishing industry means that the books that are most widely available are the ones with the most economic potential. Which, he argued, limits the field of options for readers; moreover, the conglomeration of the publishing houses leads to less editorial variety. Of course, more publishers would lead to more competition, but only if they’re each getting an equal shot at a share of the market; the larger publishers with more money have more of a chance at getting their books into things like the Kindle under the most favorable terms and onto the front tables of Barnes and Noble than a small independent publisher.  A bottom-line oriented publishing industry ends up narrowing down the field, rather than becoming more inclusive; what readers want to read may not be available to them on their new electronic readers. It’s a little like if you’re a Zimbabawe fan but your team didn’t make it through the qualifying rounds so you have to content yourself with rooting for South Africa.

Countries are like people. Male people. But they should be run by female people. This idea = Amisian feminism

Countries are like people, Martin Amis proclaimed in his talk with Will Self, “and not very nice people. Very touchy, vain, obsessed by appearances, by face. There’s a tremendous anomaly in historiography, at least in Anglophone historiography, and that is countries used to be referred to as ‘she.’ [But] if we change it to ‘he’ then it all makes sense.the  aggression, the unappeasable nature of state leaders is highly masculine.”

“Uh-oh,” the friend I came with said. “Here we go. Women are gentle, they are never violent…”

“I now am a millenarian feminist in that I believe what we have to evolve towards with some urgency is women heads of state who bring feminine qualities to government.”

At this, a few confused people applauded. “Stop clapping!” I hissed.

“The trouble with feminism as I see it now is that it’s founded on this idea that pole-dancing is empowering, and empowers women. What feminism has to do is not think that it’s emerging from Victorian values, it has to go back much further than that. Patriarchy [at this point I can’t understand what he said on my recorder as I am laughing too hard and a siren is going by]… for five million years. The idea that you could rise above that and really change things in a generation is an illusion. You’ve got to feel the weight of the past. But we have to be able to envisage a future — science has shown that there are certain basic differences between a male brain and a female brain; there are massive differences in acculturation, that women are kinder and gentler, and less close to violence than men, and this idea has to be reflected on the international scale.”

My friend the illustrator Joanna Walsh, who did all the drawings for the festival, sketched three journalists sitting in the front row grimacing. But the crowd is pleased. It has been told many funny jokes. And we all know what feminism really is — who cares if Amis has it a bit convoluted? We’re here to enjoy ourselves, not to theorize.

Still.  For the rest of the festival Amis’s remarks were a touchstone of every conversation between  female attendees.

While half the world goes nuts over a soccer ball, we sit under a tent talking about books.

Jeanette Winterson took the stage while the sound system blasted Pink’s single “Please Don’t Leave Me” and the audience — a full house spilling into the park on all sides — went nuts, as if they actually were at a rock concert.

She began. “So Europe’s in economic crisis, and the Third World is in poverty, the Middle East’s a warzone, the USA is dealing with political unrest and a huge environmental disaster, and China is set to become the world’s leading trade nation, and will do so at the expense of the environment. So the human race on planet Earth could easily manage a Gotterdammerung of a meltdown, and here we are, you me, at a literary festival. [Big laughs from the audience.] So. Are we crazy? What on earth have books and art got to do with the present state of the world? The money’s run out and nobody’s got time to do anything except survive! But Shakespeare and Company has got up a tent to celebrate books and ideas.”

The impact of the work of art, she maintained, is that it makes us “conscious and awake, frees up our own energy so that we can think clearly and feel honestly and act accordingly. There’s nothing passive about a work of art. And when we engage with it we throw off our own passivity. We realize that there’s always something that we can do, always someone that we can be, and we move, probably diagonally, like a chess piece, a little bit closer to being a human being, instead of a by-product of consumer culture.” She quoted Sontag’s Against Interpretation, reminding us that a work of art is not about something, it is something.

“I believe that artists should be politically engaged,” she said. “This is our world, and we have to fight for our values. But if the only art that’s important is the art that deals directly with contemporary issues, then we could have no relationship with the art of the past. […]Art doesn’t have to struggle to be up to date with its subject matter. Because its real subject is humanity. Its territory is us, now, and in the past, and in the future. To remember Calvino’s first novel, it was a political novel. And after that he wanted to write very differently. And his friends in the Communist Party thought that he was betraying the cause. But he had the courage to honor his imagination, and that’s why we still read him. Because anyone who will follow their imagination helps the rest of us to follow ours.”

Where would a World Cup be without death threats?

Nigerian midfielder Sani Kaita received death threats on Sunday after receiving a red card, which led to his team’s loss to Greece.

Meanwhile here in Paris, there were rumors that Fatima Bhutto and Emma Larkin had both received death threats. For Bhutto, niece of Benazir, whose uncles, aunt, grandfather, and father were all assassinated, this is nothing new. She doesn’t even have a bodyguard; she tells the audience she doesn’t want one.  Security is beefed up anyway.

Emma Larkin writes about Burma from inside Burma and apparently that isn’t allowed in Burma. She’s the only writer in the program not to have a sexy black and white author photo; instead there’s a photo of her book. Emma Larkin is an assumed name, too.

No one did any tailgating, but there was plenty of champagne

On Friday night after the last panel, over at the at the Refectoire des Cordeliers near Odéon, Paper Cinema presented their curious storytelling project: drawings projected onto a screen, wordless stories told to music. There are people actually moving the drawings around in front of a camera to create the story on the screen. Joanna is transfixed. But the music is foreboding and the drawings kind of macabre and freaky, so I don’t stay for it. There is food and champagne and lovely weather outside in the courtyard. I get so wrapped up in conversation out there I almost miss the Beth Orton concert which follows the freaky puppet show.[1]

Saturday night, we headed to the very exclusive private party at an hotel particulier in the 7th.  Kristin Scott Thomas is there, in sky-high Louboutins.  Jeanette Winterson wears a dress. All the big writers and big sponsors are here.  We underlings are thrilled to be at this kind of event: everyone is nervous; everyone is on their best behavior.  Some of us congregate outside in spite of the unseasonable chill.

“What is this place?” Nam Le asked, fresh off a plane from Italy, looking up at the house.

The girl who fetched him from the airport took this as a sign of Nam’s unfamiliarity with Parisian geography, and launched into an explanation. “Well you see if someone were to frown” — she frowned — “then the frown is the Seine, it goes like this, see?” and she began to point out all the monuments of Paris on her face. “So we’re here,” she said, indicating a point right under the middle of her frown.

“Oh,” Nam said. “I was actually wondering about the history of the mansion.”

Kristin Scott Thomas sat on the floor while Natalie Clein gave a transcendental cello performance; meanwhile the kids in the crowd passed around a piece of wood on which someone had painted the words “post-cello dance party!” Natalie eventually finished playing but no one danced.

11:30 rolled around and we were bodily kicked out of the space. We lingered in the courtyard until we were chased from there too. Half of us headed to an after-party at the flat of one of the people who work in the shop. The other half (my half) went home.

Sunday night was the closing party on the patio in front of the shop.  There were piles of crushed lavender on the ground outside in front of the champagne station. It looked, and smelled, like an aromatherapy litter box.  Storyteller Jack Lynch climbed up on a bench and launched into a story about a Scottish giant.

The party inside the shop was private, while the one on the patio was public. I was not aware of this until I wandered into the shop, where I had heard there was more champagne, and was stopped at the door and looked over. “You look familiar. You know someone or something. Come on in.” I went in and found various friends who also knew someone. We are a group of “know someones.” At least it’s a step up from “know nobodies.”

George Whitman, the 94 year-old founder of the bookshop, came down to the party around 9:30 and was given a special blue felt chair. His daughter Sylvia, who now runs the bookshop, sat with him for awhile, Tumbleweeds[2] gathering at their feet.

Dozens of people milled around until after midnight, while the staff closed up the shop for the night — they’re the only ones who are waiting for the party to end, as they have to have the shop open as usual at 11am the next day.  The alcohol was finished and rumors of an extra bottle of champagne forgotten by Jeanette Winterson were dashed when the empty bottle was found in the green room, along with a couple of Tumbleweeds holding plastic cups of champagne in their hands, looking abashed, but happy.

Back | 1. To be fair this is one woman’s narrow-minded opinion. Everyone else really did love Paper Cinema.

Back | 2. Shakespeare and Company slang for the writers who stay at the shop for free in exchange for an hour of work per day (they have to read one book a day in addition to their bookselling duties).

[Image credits: Badaude]

The Millions Interview: Phillip Lopate

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Phillip Lopate is a master of many literary forms. Best known as an essayist and a champion of the personal essay, Lopate has also written three books of fiction and two volumes of poetry, with his next, At the End of the Day, forthcoming in January. This spring Princeton University Press published his latest book, Notes on Sontag, as the first in a series of Writers on Writers. In Notes on Sontag, Lopate weds his memories of Susan Sontag as a teacher (though never his), cinephile, cult figure, and intellectual idol, with an analysis of her essays and fiction, and in doing so takes on her aversion to the personal essay. Lopate states accurately in his introduction, “Those who are looking for a hatchet-job here will be as disappointed as those seeking hagiography.” The end result is a thoughtful, intellectual, and at times comic account of Sontag’s writing and life. As Monica McFawn’s Quarterly Conversation review claims, “Lopate’s strongest case for the personal in literature is his own riveting sketch of Sontag.”

I was lucky enough to take a nonfiction workshop with Lopate this summer as part of the Summer Literary Seminars in Vilnius, Lithuania. The intellectual rigor and witty sense of humor that informs his prose made the class both stimulating and enjoyable. We met one morning in Vilnius, not far from Cathedral Square, to speak about Susan Sontag, the personal essay, and his book.

The Millions: In your introduction to Notes on Sontag, you call your ambivalence for Susan Sontag “a promising basis for a work of literary reflection.” Could you talk more about your ambivalence and why you thought that was a good starting point for this book?”

Phillip Lopate: I think the essay gravitates toward doubt and self-doubt. And then you untie the knots along the way, only to create more knots. So in many ways this book on Sontag is a defense of the essay. It’s a book-length essay, and what I value most in Sontag is her work as an essayist, especially her first three collections of essays: Against Interpretation, Styles of Radical Will, and Under the Sign of Saturn.

I have a complicated relationship with Sontag, both as a reader and as an acquaintance, and I thought that this project would give me the chance to work out what I really thought about her and her work. Ambivalence is a good starting point because you don’t run out of things to say. You’re always at war with yourself, in a sense, and that guarantees a certain tension.

TM: You mention your personal relationship with Susan Sontag. One of the things I really enjoyed about the book was the way that you interspersed analysis with personal reflections. I was wondering how much that played a role in your conception of the book, and if you think you would’ve written the book without having known her. It obviously would’ve been a different book.

PL: Well, I’m a personal essayist first and foremost, and one of the curious things about Sontag was that she went on record expressing a disdain for the personal and thought there was something tacky about writing about yourself, though the times that she did it she did it brilliantly. So, in some ways, I’m a different kind of essayist from Sontag and this book is mainly an analysis of her work. I would say it’s 80 percent analysis, 20 percent personal vignettes and memories. You can’t be 100 percent objective. I wanted to show that a human being was writing the book, and one comes with certain predispositions, prejudices, and so on.

I also thought it would be funny because a lot of the memories are funny. One of the amusing sides for me in the book is that Sontag was a brilliant writer who was not particularly known for having a sense of humor. A lot of my material is comic, more or less, and so I thought that even though Sontag isn’t funny I could find a way to write in an amusing way about her and about myself. Because, in a way, there’s nothing funnier than someone who takes herself very seriously and has a solemn reverence for greatness. So I was able to play with that.

I think that one of the main things that gets me going as a writer is the opportunity to do mischief. And in this particular respect I was analyzing one of the sacred cows of contemporary literature, an icon really. I knew that I was on thin ice a lot and that itself piqued my interest because I could get in a lot of trouble. One of the ways I could get in trouble immediately was by confessing that in some ways I had always wanted Sontag’s respect for me as a writer, and I had never quite gotten it. I would be handing those hostile to the book a weapon against myself, saying, Oh, well, he’s just got an ax to grind, or has a vendetta, but in fact I really wanted to give her my respect every time I could for the work that I love by her. So I don’t think it’s at all a hatchet job. It’s really an attempt to be much more measured. But I gave critics the opportunity to say, He doesn’t understand that he’s just working off his pique. I did understand I was playing with that. The personal is part of what makes the book dangerous—dangerous for me, anyway.

TM: In the book, you mention that Sontag ended up writing quite a bit about herself in spite of her desire to avoid the personal. I’m wondering in what ways you think she revealed herself through her essays and what is the source of her disdain for writing about herself.

PL: Well, it’s funny, when she was quite young she said in a diary entry something to the effect that all writing is an exposure and that you basically want to say something to express yourself, but then she joined a kind of high-minded backlash against the memoir, saying that self-expression was not important and what was important was imagination. She herself moved away from the essay and thought more and more of herself as a fiction writer. So in a way, she devalued her own thinking and put a greater value on making up plots, making up characters, in other words, getting away from the self. That’s one thing you can do. I’ve done that myself—I’ve written fiction where I’ve made up characters, but a lot of what I do is also detaching myself from myself and making myself into a character so that I know I’m not exactly the person I call Phillip Lopate in my writing.

Now, her work is very expressive, for better or worse, of her character. And you can track that development, how she was enthusiastic first about some things and how that changed. It’s very revealing. One of the things that I say in the book is that she didn’t think against herself. She liked to take a strong position and back it up. And then ten years later she would take the opposite position. But in a way, one way of defining the difference between us is that she was an enthusiast and I’m a skeptic. As soon as I begin to march in one direction for a cause, I begin to see the arguments against it and wonder. You could say that I’m just more doubtful from the start.

So it is a kind of conversation between two writers. Even though one of the writers is no longer with us, she has written all these books and I am talking to her. She is my captive audience.

TM: It’s an interesting choice to write about Susan Sontag, given that you’re a personal essayist and that she avoided the medium. How does one write a personal essay without becoming too self-absorbed, or having it become therapeutic? What’s the line?

PL: I think the line is you attend to the form of the work. That is, it’s not a question of what you need therapeutically but what the essay needs. You keep shaving off one part, adding another part, and building a form the way a potter works with clay. I don’t think that writing is intrinsically therapeutic, though I do think that it helps us to come to terms with our demons and it helps us to attain some consolation or equanimity. There is a kind of psychological benefit from writing, at least I’ve experienced it as such.

But I think that if you can make a work of literature—it doesn’t matter whether you’re starting from your own experience or inventing something—you are imaginatively shaping it in some way. There’s the imagination of the real as well as the imagination of the made-up. For me, starting from more experience and shaping it into a pleasing meditation or a pleasing autobiographical piece or memory piece—that’s the justification. Really, giving pleasure is the justification. And the reader can tell right away whether you’re fooling yourself or whether you’ve gained enough detached perspective on yourself. The reader really is the final judge and you just have to internalize the reader and say: Oh no, that’s way to self-absorbed, the reader doesn’t care about that, why are you going on about that? That’s how you acquire some sense of perspective.

TM: Returning to what you were saying about the imagination and Sontag’s writing, in spite of her triumphs with the essay, she preferred to think of herself as a novelist. In the book you mentioned that you, as well as many others, don’t think that her fiction measures up to the level of her essays. Do you think her disdain was a reflection of a greater literary sentiment?

PL: Certainly I think that fiction has more status than nonfiction, just as poetry does. In the beginning of MFA programs, God created fiction and poetry and saw that it was good. Some upstarts came from nonfiction and said, “Hey we want to get in on this boat, too.” I think that if you look at the prizes that are given out every year, there are many more given out in fiction and poetry than are given out in essay writing or other kinds of nonfiction. I don’t think that Sontag was alone at all in this. She was part of a whole generation of writers who actually can be said to have been better at nonfiction than fiction but preferred to think of themselves as fiction writers. I include in that James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Gore Vidal, possibly even Norman Mailer, Joan Didion.

Sontag felt the big game was fiction. And that’s where you win the Noble Prize. You don’t win it for writing essays. That’s understandable and that would’ve been great had she been a great fiction writer. Some people can do both, but she lacked a deep sympathy for other people—which is okay if you’re a critic because you don’t have to be that empathetic if you’re a critic, you just have to know what you think about something. And she lacked, for the most part, a sense of humor. It’s hard to be a great novelist without those two things. Somehow she also disdained realism and naturalism for a long time, so that meant she didn’t put that much emphasis into building characters and situations but was much more interested in experimental fiction; when she practiced it, it seemed a little dry. I’m not saying anything that devastating because she was so good an essayist, it’s not a crime not to be a terrific fiction writer also. It’s just that because I love the essay, I regret that she came to put her eggs in another basket.

TM: You are a champion of the personal essay, we’ve talked a lot about this in class. I was thinking about Sontag’s dismissal of nonfiction in relation to our nonfiction workshop, where many people are turning in pieces of fiction. What do you think about the status of nonfiction in general?

PL: I think nonfiction is going to be around forever, and in many ways may sell more books than fiction. That is, in the marketplace, nonfiction probably does better on the whole than fiction. But it’s still hard to get collections of essays published. You can get them published individually in magazines, but you have to create an aura of specialness to get a book of essays published.

I do think that recently nonfiction has been invaded by the allure of fiction and poetry, and there’s a great deal of hybridization that’s fascinating in some ways. It’s a period of experimentation and mutation. It just so happens that I cherish the assets and values of good nonfiction, so I am championing them and saying before we mutate too much in the direction of fiction and poetry, we should just take a step back and realize there are some things quite wonderful that nonfiction can do, including reflection and analysis. You don’t have to make everything into a scene with dialogue. You can actually have the narrative voice reflect as hard and as stimulatingly as possible and give us the full benefit of the thought.

TM: Speaking of reflection, you write that when reflecting on Sontag, she is always provoking you to think harder. At one point you speak of her heroes of the intellect, including Antonin Artaud, Roland Barthes, and Walter Benjamin, and how they shaped her intellectual approach. I was wondering if you would include Sontag as one of your heroes of the intellect, and what aesthetic standards you hold yourself to.

PL: I certainly would include Sontag as someone who had a great influence on me as an essayist. She taught me how to write, let’s say, the twenty-five-page essay where you go in and you circle something from all sides, the way she did in “Notes on Camp.” Clearly the title of my book, Notes on Sontag, plays off of “Notes on Camp,” and the idea of taking notes and arriving at some greater understanding is something that appeals to me a lot. And also, she wrote in a rather epigrammatic, aphoristic, condensed way and I do find that attractive just as I find it attractive in the people who she was inspired by, such as Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin. In a way, Sontag and I were both drinking from the same fount. She certainly was one of my intellectual heroes and the people who were her intellectual heroes were some of my intellectual heroes as well. I guess I also consider myself more proudly American than she did, and so I don’t only take inspiration from abroad but I take it from American writers as well, including a lot of American essayists, like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling and Mary McCarthy.

TM: In Notes on Sontag, you follow a section called Don’t Get Personal, about the ways that Sontag avoided the personal essay, with a section of your own reflections, Later Memories of Sontag. I thought that added to the levity and the humor that you spoke about earlier. In that section you also mentioned a desire to become closer to Sontag, and this reminded me of your essay about Donald Barthelme,“The Dead Father,” where you speak of a desire to be closer to him, too. Do you think the personal distance they imposed on you and on others enabled them to write as well as they did? I was also thinking of the section in Notes on Sontag where you cite, “Sontag commented often how difficult it was for a woman writer to appropriate the oceans of alone-time that every writer needs.”

PL: Well, they were both, for want of a better word, provincials. They both came from other parts of the country and moved to New York, Sontag from the west—Arizona and California—and Barthelme from Texas. In a way, they were both self-invented and they came to New York. They remade themselves in New York. The whole avant-garde is always from out-of-towners. I’m a native New Yorker, and so in some ways I’m more traditional, you know, because native New Yorkers have seen avant-gardes come and go. We say, “Yeah, yeah, I’m not going to get too excited about this.”

I think that in both cases, my piece about Barthelme and my book about Sontag, I was working on the double portrait. And the double portrait means that it’s going to be about the other person and it’s going to be about me. And that creates an extra interest and tension. In both cases, I was exposing myself to the charge that I was basically chagrined that these literary lions did not take me to their bosom. It’s funny because there have been a number of terrific writers who have given me the benediction and said that they really liked my writing. But it’s less interesting to write about that than it is to write about relationships that only grew so tall. I call them bonsai tree relationships. I wanted to investigate why some acquaintanceships don’t turn into friendships, for instance. What is it that prevents them from growing more? And of course that says something about the literary life and about people protecting their status and choosing quite carefully who will be a peer, who will be an acolyte, and so on. That’s part of what makes the literary life so brutal and so fascinating. In both cases, with Barthelme and Sontag, I was younger than they were but not so young that they could embrace me as one of their mentees so to speak, and therefore more threatening. I was breathing down their necks.

But that’s a curious thing—the whole notion of how people choose to withhold themselves or to give themselves is very interesting and I have to say that I’m the same way. I’m fairly self-protective. I’ll be cordial and helpful with my students but I won’t necessarily let many of them become my friends. Writers have to be very protective. They can’t just give pieces of their heart to everyone.

TM: Is that because you have to maintain space in order to write?

PL: Yes. And in Barthelme’s case he was an alcoholic, which meant after a certain hour of the day you weren’t getting the full sober Barthelme, you were getting somebody who was, you know… in a funny way alcoholics lose some of their individuality. But he was certainly brilliant during the working hours.

TM: I’m wondering if there’s something that I didn’t touch on that you’d like to talk about.

PL: I’d just like to say that for me the book was a literary and stylistic challenge. What I was really trying to do was to write well. To do a kind of peculiar thing, which is a book-length essay that functions on a lot of different levels so that it has this kind of novelistic component, as though it’s about a relationship. You might say that Sontag is an older sister. It has this familial quality but it also has a lot of literary criticism, but I didn’t want to be an academic literary critic who was applying ready-made theory. I liked the idea of reading her work and then saying, “What do I really think about this passage?” Not, “What should I think about it?” but, “What do I actually think about it?” and, “Does this ring true, does this ring false?” without the benefit of a ready-made theory. So you might say it’s amateur literary criticism, but honest, trying to be as honest as I could.

What, if Anything, I Taught Them

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This fall, among other pursuits, I’ve been teaching one section of “Composition & Rhetoric” at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus. I’ve led fiction writing workshops at the university level before, but this has been my first foray into expository writing. At times, I’ve found myself questioning my professorial fitness (as regular readers of this blog may even now be doing); how can I claim to explain a set of forms that I haven’t myself mastered?But when it comes to writing, we’re all apprentices (to paraphrase Hemingway), and I’ve been blessed with a group of creative, curious, and hardworking writers-in-training. Of my 16 students, 14 are enrolled in the Alvin Ailey School of Dance – which is to say that they’re well on their way to being artists in another medium. This may account for the high quality of their work.Or maybe it’s the pedagogical principle I cribbed from my quondam teacher Lawrence Weschler: Assign your students readings that you really love. My syllabus, thrown together in a single manic week in August, wound up coalescing loosely around ideas of New York before and after September 11, 2001. Even in a week when my Socratic skills failed me, my class and I would at least have the consolation of having read something complex and beautiful, like the city itself. What follows is a diary of our mutual education.Week 1: “Here is New York,” by E.B. White (from Essays)For me, this is what a good essay looks like, but at this point in the semester, I can’t quite explain why. My instructions: “Go sit in Central Park when you read this. You can thank me later.” They do.Week 2: “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” by Herman Melville (from Great Short Works) and “Bartleby in Manhattan,” by Elizabeth Hardwick (from Bartleby in Manhattan and Other Essays)One of the weird things about literary criticism at the college level is that students are often asked to write it without ever having read it. I’m hoping that this pairing might provide an object lesson in good criticism. My class, of course, prefers the story to the essay. The fiction writer in me sees this as a promising sign.Week 3: “Still-Life,” by Don Delillo (an excerpt from Falling Man originally published in The New Yorker) I tell students to treat DeLillo the way Hardwick treated Melville. That is, critically. Instead, they fall in love with him. I end up thinking more highly of Falling Man than I did when I first read it, and liked it.Week 4: “Echoes at Ground Zero,” by Lawrence Weschler (from Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences and “Against Interpretation,” by Susan Sontag (from Against Interpretation)The Weschler reading, which included photographs, leads to a discussion of reading images critically – a skill we all need these days. Then we read the Sontag, which is kind of an argument against everything I’ve been teaching them up to this point. Is this brilliant, or suicidal?Week 4: “Come September,” by Arundhati Roy (from The Impossible Will Take A Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear)Moving away from literary criticism and toward social criticism proves difficult, as many readers, myself included, find this essay frustratingly orthodox in its politics. We end up talking about “preaching to the choir,” and the failure of partisan arguments to persuade their opponents. Victory snatched from jaws of defeat.Weeks 5 – 7: The Fire Next Time, by James Baldwin.Rereading this clarifies some things for me. Among them, that an essay doesn’t always have to be an argument; that it can be an exploration. This will become a theme. (Damn you, Sontag!)Week 8: “What I See When I Look at the Face on the $20 Bill,” by Sarah Vowell (from Take the Cannoli)This one doesn’t get quite the reaction I had hoped for; students find it a little didactic. Maybe I should have chosen “Ixnay on the My Way.” Still, the Vowell essay on Cherokee history does offer an example of how exposition can be structured narratively.Week 9-Week 10: “The White Album,” by Joan Didion (from The White Album)With its jagged, discontinuous structure, this memoir of the ’60s provokes the strongest responses I’ll probably get this year, ranging from, “I loved this” to “I hated this” – which is pretty much what I’ve been hoping for all semester. When I read my students’ personal essays, I’ll see that “The White Album” has challenged them to become better writers. It never hurts to expose undergraduates to a surgically precise stylist like Didion, either.Week 11: “Dancing in the Dark,” by Joan Acocella (from Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints)Yet another of those frequent occasions when the professor learns more from the students than vice versa. The dancers tell me all about Bob Fosse, and evaluate Acocella’s claims critically. In the end, most agree that Fosse’s choreography is more about power than about sex. And again, exposure to a writer of Acocella’s intelligence and lucidity can only help their prose. It’s certainly helped mine.Week 12: “Speak, Hoyt-Schermerhorn,” by Jonathan Lethem (from The Disappointment Artist)This should be interesting. We’re now in the middle of the research essay unit, but I’d love to see my students push beyond the conventions of the term paper; to combine research, personal reflection, and critical thought as Lethem does in this essay about a subway stop.Week 14: “Last Cigarettes,” by Marco Roth.This piece originally appeared in N+1, and has a lot to say about college, and becoming a writer. Like the Lethem essay, it pushes against the rigid boundaries of the “four rhetorical modes.” If I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that good expository writing doesn’t always adhere to such neat distinctions. Though at times I’ve wished I could tell my class, “This is how you write an essay,” throwing them into the messy process of discovery may ultimately be a more honest initiation into the pains – and joys – of writing.

Surprise Me!