Welcome to the 19th installment of The Millions' annual Year in Reading series! YIR gathers together some of today's most exciting writers, thinkers, and tastemakers to share the books that shaped their year. What makes the series special is that it celebrates the subjectivity of reading: where yearend best-of lists pass off their value judgement as definitive, YIR essayists take a more phenomenological tact, focusing instead on capturing the experience of the books they read. (I'm not particularly interested in handing down a decision on "The 10 Best Books of 2023," and neither are this year's contributors.) This, of course, makes for great, probing essays—in writing about our reading lives, we inevitably write about our inner lives. YIR contributors were encouraged approach the assignment—to reflect on the books they read this year, an intentionally vague prompt—however they wanted, and many did so with dazzling creativity. One contributor, a former writer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, arranged her essay like an art gallery, with each book she read assigned a museum wall label. Another, whose work revolves around revolutionary and utopian movements in history, organized her year by the long-defunct French Revolutionary calendar. Some opted to write personal narratives, while others embraced the listicle format. Some divided up their reading between work and pleasure; for others, the two blended together (as is often the case for those of us in the literary profession). The books that populate this year's essays also varied widely. Some contributors read with intention: one writer of nonfiction returned to reading fiction for the first time in 13 years; one poet decided to read only Black romance in the second half of 2023. For two new parents, their years in reading were defined by the many picture books that they read to their infants. There were, however, common threads. This year, contributors read one book more than any other: Catherine Lacey's novel Biography of X, which chronicles the life of a fictional artist against the backdrop of an alternate America. Also widely read and written about were Dan Sinykin's Big Fiction, an analysis of the conglomeration of the publishing industry, and the works of Annie Ernaux (a star of last year's YIR as well). I'm profoundly grateful for the generosity of this year's contributors, the names of whom will be revealed below as entries are published throughout the month, concluding on Thursday, December 21. Be sure to bookmark this page and follow us on Twitter to stay up to date. —Sophia Stewart, editor Emily Wilson, classicist and translator of The IliadVauhini Vara, author of This Is SalvagedJenn Shapland, author of Thin Skin
It has been a year of reading in fits and starts, indeed of doing everything in fits and starts, fits and starts being the general run of things when you have a baby. For articles I was writing, I happily revisited passages from several books, including: Little Women Elizabeth Costello The Garden of Eden Tropic of Capricorn Bartleby & Co. A Sport and a Pastime Yann Andréa Steiner NW To the Back of Beyond Charlotte’s Web For my next novel, I read bits of books about fathers, including letters between Wolfgang and Leopold Mozart; books about Italians, including Luce D’Eramo’s Deviation; and books about conspiracy theories and “the power of the lie,” including David Aaronovitch’s Voodoo Histories, Rob Brotherton’s Suspicious Minds, Hans Rosling’s Factfulness, and a timely new anthology entitled Orwell on Truth. I read books that were sent to me, including Free Woman by Lara Feigel and the forthcoming Such Good Work by Johannes Lichtman. In preparation for events, I read Kevin Powers’s A Shout in the Ruins, Aminatta Forna’s Happiness, Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble, and Kim Fu’s The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore. Each made me grateful for the forces that delivered it over my transom. In London I read Sally Rooney’s absorbing Conversations with Friends while my daughter patiently paged through an old copy of The Cricket Caricatures of John Ireland. In Tobermory I read about the history of lighthouses and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped in The Cicerone Guide to Walking on The Isle of Mull. On a flight from San Francisco to Boston I read Nick Drnaso’s Sabrina and wished it were twice as long. On Thanksgiving I read Updike: Novels 1959-1965, including the biographical chronology at the end, marveling at a prolificacy I think only Simenon outmatched. I read The New York Times, most avidly the obituaries, which are like little novels. I read The New Yorker. I also listened to The New Yorker, and to Jeremy Black’s A Brief History of Italy, and Hermione Hoby’s Neon in Daylight, because of course listening is a way of reading when your hands and eyes are otherwise occupied. I read books about motherhood, including the Sebaldian Sight, by Jessie Greengrass; And Now We Have Everything, by Meaghan O’Connell; and too many books about how to get your baby to sleep, none of which helped except for the one that asked me to consider what kind of memories of my daughter’s infancy I would like to have. I re-read Strunk & White. I read What’s Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, which Philip Roth sent me 40 days before he died. And, with my daughter in my lap, I read many more books, most of them multiple times, including Il flauto magico, One White Rabbit, The Range Eternal, Where’s Mr. Lion?, Giochiamo a nascondino!, Pinocchio, Biancaneve, Good Night, Red Sox, and an especially treasured box set illustrated by the late artist Leo Lionni: Due topolini curiosi, whose cover features a duly curious little mouse with her whiskers buried in a book. More from A Year in Reading 2018 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]
In her collection of essays and talks The Wave in the Mind, Ursula K. Le Guin wonders why we have book tours at all. “It wasn’t until the seventies, I think, that publishers realized they could sell more books by sending their author to two hundred cities in eight days to sign them,” she told a Women in Language conference in 1998. “So now here in Berkeley you have Black Oak and Cody’s, and we in Portland have Powell’s and the Looking Glass, and Seattle has Elliot Bay Books running two readings a day every day of the week and people come.” I packed The Wave in the Mind into my luggage as I set out from Britain for North America. Not least because I’d be visiting Portland, Ore., Le Guin’s home city; and not only because 35 percent minimum of my carry-on is reading material; but as an unknown British writer, I needed to holdfast to Le Guin’s promise for my 12-events-in-seven-cities first book tour: people come! I hoped my other reading would be as encouraging: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, and, on the recommendation of a friend, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. I’d pick up others along the way. All would be serendipitous. I’m going to learn from them not only how to handle a book tour better, but how to be better, fully stop. Lantern Books, Brooklyn, N.Y. “This is how I want to spend my life,” writes Gilbert in Big Magic, “collaborating to the best of my ability with forces of inspiration that I can neither see, nor prove, nor command, nor understand.” This was how I wanted to spend my life, too—as a published author. I’d come to Brooklyn for the launch of my debut, The Pig in Thin Air. The event marked a psychological “end” to writing the book; despite having done publicity events in the U.K., New York provided closure on the book’s making. Lesson one, perhaps: writing a book is a desperately personal thing, and only you know when it’s “finished.” I needed a public introduction for that. I needed that moment to be recognized. Pig is my first published book. I’ve always written: journalism, non-fiction, short stories, flash fiction, and I teach writing too. I have a mob of novels complaining bitterly of unfinished business from their various stashes. Pig came after a 2014 tour of North America working with organizations and individuals changing our species’ relationship to nonhuman animals. I approached Lantern Books with an idea based on this trip: a carnivore-to-vegan literary memoir, and a study of how we come closer to the animals we eat. The publisher was keen. I wrote the book in six months. Another nine of rewriting, copy editing, and proofing later, and Pig was published. Then the hard work began. If you’re Thomas Merton, it’s okay if your books “stand outside all processes of production, marketing, consumption, and destruction.” For the rest of us, there are sales to make. A publisher to please. It means months of emails, organizing events. It means the people at Powell’s and Elliot Bay saying, “We’ve got Murakami that night…what did you say your name was?” It means more time on social media than is good for any writer, in an attempt to secure an audience. I’ve got an audience in Brooklyn. Readers, artists, wine buyers, magazine editors. My introduction is conducted by my publisher. I calm my nerves (will I read well?; answer clearly?) by recalling Big Magic’s closing exhortation: “we did not come all this great distance, and make all this great effort, only to miss the party at the last moment.” On the face of it, you couldn’t get two more different books, or writers, than myself and Gilbert; Pig, and Big Magic. But in other ways I couldn’t have chosen (okay, it was a recommendation) a better book as company. Before Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert was a writer without fame or fortune. She had three well-received books, and still worked full-time elsewhere. But like Gilbert, “my intention was to spend my entire life in communion with writing” and that meant finding a way to be the professional writer; maybe even making money from it. Because I was not making any money from this tour. Lesson two: in Gilbert’s words, “I became my own patron” to make this tour happen. Even mid-list authors at big publishing houses are expected to organize, and usually pay for, their promotion and travel. And that’s okay. Lesson three: opening nights will always be nerve-wracking. But that’s okay too. The evening is full of goodwill and good sales and good food and fireflies and my new shoes start to break in; and, yeah, I’ve finally achieved something I’ve dreamt of for 35 years. I count myself lucky; a little bit of big magic has found its way to my door. Various Locations, Including a Chicken Slaughterhouse, Toronto The last two chapters of Pig tell the story of my involvement with the Save Movement, a group advocating for the end of the exploitation of nonhuman animals, which holds regular vigils to bear witness to the vast numbers of animals killed every day. Pig is one of the first published accounts of this movement, and it’s important for me to return and support their work; okay, as well as sell my books. On the flight from New York I read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. As a vegan writer, there are few representations of veganism or vegetarianism in literature; I want to study them, to see how we come across. Pig is a vegan memoir; in my fictional writing, also, I experiment with vegan characters to explore difference, especially around toxic masculinities (the macho need for meat). The Vegetarian was—or should have been—the ideal book to read before hosting a potluck, reading to a crowd outside a slaughterhouse, and giving a talk to activists at the University of Toronto. But The Vegetarian is a disappointing book (Jon Yargo and I will have to disagree on this one). The emotions are “vague” and “almost.” The female protagonist is passive; we hear her voice only through italicized fragments or the eyes of of other people. As Kate Tempest says, “there’s a temptation to create passive female characters. It’s a narrative trap set up by the male standard that you’ve got to fight. I don’t know why I fell into it. I don’t even know any passive women!” It’s easy to see what Kang has tried to do by exploring the ways in which male culture objectifies women—but do you do that by again objectifying a woman? But The Vegetarian was the right book to read for Toronto. It made me observe more closely the active (not passive) and present (not withdrawn) women who lead the advocacy movement in the city. The vigils are organized and run mainly by women. There are men participating, but the Save movement is led and shaped by proactive, intelligent, and compassionate women. So across my three events, I prioritize reading the sections that speak to the ways in which feminist ethical thought has shaped my work. That feels the right thing to do for this white, British, middle-class man with a book in his hand. I need a new book for travelling. My host Lorena, who runs healing circles for those who attend the vigils, tells me about a second-hand store 10 minutes walk away: Circus Books & Music. Within half an hour I’ve got four new titles, including The Beluga Café by Pacific Northwest writer Jim Nollman, a book that will come in handy later. The FARM Animal Rights Conference, Los Angeles Four days in a hotel. I’m here to “work the room” and promote Pig to hundreds of animal-loving attendees as well as help out on the Lantern Books table, and do my first official signing. Conferences can be good places to sell your book if the theme is aligned. But four days? That’s a lot of “working the room” for a writer who prefers early nights. By Day Three and the awards dinner it’s all a bit much. I’ve done my “meet the writer” signing. I need time out. I get caught reading a novel at the bar while the other 1,700 delegates are, mostly, attending the gala. At least the novel is Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, the most well-known fiction to explore our relationship with the animals we eat. The only “appropriate way and indeed the only way in which to absorb [the novel],” says Costello, “is in silence and in solitude.” It’s too cramped in the gala; too many people; and too much weird singing. For an introvert writer, a book tour is a many-peopled challenge. And the conferences at which our books might sell are one long, tiring, smiling engagement. A Hollywood music producer comes over and starts chatting. This is the type of contact I should be cultivating, says my promotional brain; she produced the sound for the new advocacy film Unity. She’s attractive, too. “Does the mind by nature prefer sensation to ideas; the tangible to the abstract?” asks Coetzee of Elizabeth Costello’s son as he lies in bed with a woman he’s just met at…okay, a conference (albeit one at which his mother, not he, is the invited writer). Well, tonight the mind prefers the ideas, the abstract. I need quietude; to read. As soon as I say this, the music producer admits she’s overwhelmed by all the people too. She squats down—I don’t ask her to sit—and we talk about the need for creative solitude. I didn’t expect there to be much on this tour—but this little? Another lesson: you cannot, as Le Guin says, be both a writer and a person on the book tour. “People line up to ‘meet the writer,’ not realizing this is impossible,” she continues. “Nobody can be a writer during a book tour […] All their admirers can meet is the person—who has a lot in common with, but is not, the writer. Maybe duller, maybe older, maybe meaner.” Right then, probably all three. Writers live with this contradiction. We read in solitude, and we write in solitude. But in between, we need to make connections, and it can be a trial, a judgement. We do it as person or writer (or both); and yet who this I, this you, this writer/person is, is anybody’s guess. Perhaps, as Le Guin says, the book tour “recovers for us the social act.” It brings us out into the world again. It might feel like the gates of hell, but it is also a doorway to other people. Phinney Books, Greenwood, Seattle, Wash. The dreaded fear on every tour is, of course, that no one will turn up. Well, not no one. That would be okay; you slink off with only the bookseller’s disdainful smile and a few hours saved (nothing more welcome than a cancelled social engagement). But if two people and a dog turn up, you have to sit through the embarrassment and shame that they know that you know that hardly anyone came out for you. And that despite your author-status, in this town, on this night, you’re still a nobody. That smarts. Apparently there’s an anthology about book reading failures. I cannot find it, and perhaps the included writers have thought better and sought injunctions to have it censored. Or maybe it’s that, as Gilbert says in Big Magic, failure is not what it seems to be. According to the acclaimed Anne Enright, “failure is what writers do.” Tell that to a writer waiting for a crowd to arrive on a warm, sunny evening in Seattle. Warm and sunny means people don’t want to come inside. Great. I go onto social media to seek advice from fellow writers. The best is from ethicist Carol J. Adams, author of The Sexual Politics of Meat. “Don’t judge by numbers. Give those two people (and the dog) everything that you’d give a larger crowd. Then you know you haven’t let them down. Or yourself." And so that’s what I do. Seattle is my smallest event. But there are some people, including a friend, and including a woman from the mid-sized non-profit Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, who happens to be in town. She buys a book, and is generous in her praise of the talk. And yet that isn’t the magic. About halfway through, two young girls (and a dog! called Fenway) slip in at the back. When the questions begin, one of the girls shares her story: she was diagnosed as diabetic, and was on her way to losing her sight and having a foot amputated. But she adopted a vegan diet, recovered her sight and saved her foot. She’s still diabetic, but her health is massively improved. I understand that—while it is no panacea or cure-all—vegan food practices are healthier for humans, and the only way to feed a planet of nine billion. Others in the audience give the girl incredulous looks. But the woman from PCRM corroborates her story with direct reference to medical research. Then I understand: this event isn’t for me. I didn’t organize it to sell books. I organized it so this young woman could have her story validated by the woman from PCRM, who she would never have met otherwise. And I learn this lesson well: you don’t write the book for yourself. Once it’s published, it’s not yours. It’s theirs. Before I leave, I ask Tom the bookseller (and author of A Reader’s Book of Days, essential desktop material for all writers) what he’d recommend. He puts in my hands The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt. “It’s an old book, but reissued,” he says. “It’s my favorite right now.” “Okay, then I’ll take it,” I say, equally unequivocally. I’m full of relief the evening is over, eager to settle up and have a drink at a bar. So eager in fact that I trade the sale of three Pigs for which Tom has taken the money, for The Last Samurai. This is a learning in itself: that getting out of the bookstore with your profit can be an escape act—not because of the bookseller, but because of a) the relief of selling any at all; and b) what else do you do with cash in a bookstore? So I leave two bucks down, and four copies of Pig heavier, taking back some advances I’d sent ahead. I start reading The Last Samurai that night. It’s a sublimely written tale of the life of Ludovic, a child genius, and his mother Sybilla, that explores the limits of genius (or knowledge porn, as Brian Hurley puts it) through Ludo’s search for his father, told through his prodigious learning—dozens of languages, engineering, history, literature, film. All this is sieved through their mother-and-son obsession with Akira Kurosawa’s film Seven Samurai. It’s only now that I wonder if my fear of the low turnout and the, well, actual low turnout, was on Tom’s mind as he recommended The Last Samurai. In the last pages, when Ludo’s narrative arc has come to its end, he meets another genius, a pianist his mother once took him to see in concert. This pianist cannot play concerts any longer because of his unconventional and noncommercial approach. Their discussion turns to what art is worth making and how to put it into the world. That is, even if there are only five people in the world who will buy the pianist’s CD (my book) but they are the type of person who will buy his CD (my book) and get off their train (path in life) to work for a sculptor in Paris (challenge themselves and do something amazing)…does he (me) need 10,000 people to buy his CD (my book)? Does he (I) need 1,000 people at his concert (my reading)? Or just the five people (and dog!) that matter? Discuss. Village Books, Bellingham, Wash. Or, let’s talk about fathers. Jim Nollman’s The Beluga Café is an enjoyable book. Considering it was published in 2002, it was weird how often it turned up on shelves during my tour. Perhaps the most magical element is that, for an adventure with “art, music and whales in the far North” the artist-adventurers never actually see any whales. There’s a hint of this when Nollman quotes Rainer Maria Rilke: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.” But it’s a good book for touring the Pacific Northwest. It’s a story of the clash of cultures between Western colonial whites and the Inuit. It would be a lifesaver during the reading at Village Books. I’d fallen on a successful pattern for book readings of less than 20 people. I’d introduce how I wrote Pig, then read for 10 to 15 minutes and open it up to the audience to hear their stories, before reading another section. I ask Clarissa, a local vegan who’d given me support on Twitter in generating interest for the event, to share her story. Then I open it up to the wider audience; a man in his '60s puts up his hand. “So, you, as a vejjan [sic]” he says to me, “what do you think about the Native Americans hunting whales?” I’d wanted the moment to be a sharing of stories, not Q&A, and whales hadn’t featured; but okay, I’d read Nollman so I was prepared. No, I’m not another white British colonialist telling the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest they can’t hunt whale. But for myself, as for Jim Nollman and his companions, I just don’t believe people can “own” whales. It settles him. The conversation continues, I read another section, and then there’s the Q&A. The troublemaker raises his hand. I often read from the first half of Pig, a memoir of growing up as a meat eater, and the family consternation at my attempts to go vegetarian. So I talk about growing up, and explain how my father is/was an alcoholic, and in 2008 went on a bender and went missing—and remains missing. I read this bit, admitting that it’s also for affect. I want to move people with my writing; and this bit moves people. I never guessed anyone would actually ask me about it. “So can you explain the relevance of your missing father to this book?” Later, a friend says she wanted to hug me (and slug the guy). But wasn’t this why I’d written the book? To answer that question: not for him, but for myself? I say that toxic masculinity is a major global problem; the perverse need for men to dominate others, to own or consume their flesh, is wrecking our world. And maybe having a father whom I rebelled against at such an early age, who left my mother when I was two, providing my sister and I with a childhood shaped more by women who cared and less by men who drank, made me feel this way. Staring down the crises we face—climate change, deforestation, water pollution, our common health problems, gender inequality, the suffering of other species—calls for care and interdependence, not more toxic machismo. Another guy in the crowd thanks me for what I’ve said, and shares his own story. After the reading is over, the troublemaker comes up. “You know, I rescue those little black and red ladybugs from my car windscreen and put them into the grass,” he says. “So maybe I’m a little bit vejjan too.” Hey, maybe. Isn’t that a start? Silently I thank Jim Nollman and his sober failure in the Arctic, a failure that, as a writer and artist, he suffered, but was able to blend into a humble story of adventure and commitment. “Few professionals make their livings describing internal demons,” writes Nollman. “These professionals have decided that the internal story must be excised from their documentaries and non-fiction accounts, best left to novelists and feature-film writers to invent. What is it? Sissy? Too difficult? Too personal? Or is it just deemed uninteresting?” [millions_ad] Too difficult? Too personal? I don’t know. What I do know is I’m glad I wrote that part about my father. I’m glad I read it out. And I’m glad I was asked that question. Portland, Ore., Vancouver, B.C., the End There are two more stops on the tour—Portland and Vancouver, B.C., and five more lunches and readings and dinners and signings, including a talk in a church to 150 people, which emphasizes the lessons I’ve learnt. Not least of these is that having locals on the ground organizing and supporting makes the event go swimmingly. So what practical things have I learnt for the next tour? two people and a dog is okay, too—and sometimes, better invitation is better than confrontation rely on social media only so far don’t think that you’ll get downtime in between events being professional counts; those sore shoes, trimmed nails, suit jacket all go towards the impression you leave on the individuals who turn up I may have laid down on the floor of an Airbnb apartment and cried that I did not want to get up and travel for another six hours to do it all again. But I did get up. I did do it all again. And what I earned from doing that will not be taken away easily. What did I earn? Freedom. Freedom from the fear that your work doesn’t count. It counts. Even if it’s for the five people who buy your book, but those five people, as Ludo says, cross the bridge, take a train, and go to work for a famous sculptor (or some similarly beautiful thing) because they read your book (or listened to your CD). “The most ancient, most urgent function of words,” writes Le Guin, is “to form for us ‘mental representations of things not actually present,’ so that we can form a judgment of what world we live in and where we might be going in it, what we can celebrate, what we must fear.” We create books or write essays and invest in the infrastructure around that writing; we put it into people’s hands and ask them to read, or listen. This is an auxiliary but no less essential part of the writer’s craft. It is a hard slog; there is little downtime in the downtime. But the joy of meeting people and having them hear your words; the emails and reviews that emerge from the ether; the connections made between people who ‘get’ the same mental representation that you do… All this means that maybe you’ve given them something to think about, and that changes them. And remember this: you will never have a first book tour again. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Teju Cole is a novelist, essayist, photographer, art history teacher, and Twitter aphorist. He approaches each of these roles as an amateur. This is a compliment. He is not trying to master any particular form as much as he is trying to work inside each with the curiosity of a young craftsman. Open City, his first book to appear in the U.S., chronicled the wanderings of Julius, a Nigerian psychology student living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Julius filters ideas one usually encounters in a graduate school seminar through his own precise diction, as he describes the problems that theory often fails to confront. A Japanese-American professor, his mentor, remembers the internment camps of his childhood but sidesteps the subject of his homosexuality until the very end of his life. On a trip to Europe, he encounters anti-Semitic Muslims who harbor a justified paranoia of American power. And finally he finds himself caught within the tentacles of rape culture. Every Day Is for the Thief, a work of fiction about a man returning home to Lagos from America, was first published in Nigeria in 2007 and is now making its first appearance in the U.S. Cole’s narrator studies Nigeria’s kleptocratic culture with a melancholy eye and considers the constant threat of violence and poverty in one of the 21st century’s megacities. The new edition includes pictures of street scenes Cole took many years after first writing the book. His prose guided but did not dictate the subject matter of his un-posed photographs. I met Cole in Seattle on March 26. He had a full schedule for his book tour and he wanted to see the central building of Seattle’s Public Library system, a beautiful Rem Koolhaas structure located in the city’s downtown. We got to the lookout point where his reliable 40-year-old Leica M4 busted. He spent most of the hour of our interview trying to fix it. We spent a good portion of our time together standing by the elevators at the top of the building. We went downstairs to the library café for about 20 minutes and then we returned back upstairs. The following is a condensed version of our conversation. The Millions: You maintain an essayistic voice in both your novels. You have more freedom with that essayistic voice in a novel than you would in an essay, because you are not as responsible for the ideas that are presented. Teju Cole: I think that’s right. It becomes a way of exploring other ways that things could be, other thoughts that you might have. The master of this is Coetzee. TM: You are talking about Elizabeth Costello. TC: There are also long disquisitions in the more recent books like Diary of a Bad Year. Summertime has long essayistic NYRB-type stretches. [On the camera.] I’m having such a day with this. Why? And I think that’s interesting, because it actually allows us to confront those ideas in a way that if someone gave a talk about them from their own reasonable or defensive point of view it would not be as provocative or would not get as far with it. Don’t you agree? TM: I don’t know if I do. With an essay, you are putting much more on the line by saying, “This is what I’m saying. This is who I am.” When you put those ideas in a character, it’s an act of ventriloquism. TC: Precisely. But you never know [whether the character or the author is speaking.] And because you don’t know which that sets up an interesting tension between the reader, the author, and the narrator or the leading character. Personally, I find it very intriguing. TM: Well, it may be one of the reasons why Proust lives on. We read these thoughts filtered through a narrator who is not Proust. TC: But who may be close enough to being Proust that we’re not sure. And I’m especially interested in those characters who advance ideas that I would find less attractive or a bit less friendly. [Fiddling with the camera.] I’m sorry. I’m not distracted, but I’m being mechanical and I’m listening to you. TM: You had a line at the beginning of your essay “The White Savior Industrial Complex” that a good novel does not have a point. How does that apply to the essay as it compares to the novel? TC: That’s an interesting example to bring up. Because it’s probably my best-known essay, but it’s definitely not my best essay, and I think you know that. It’s an essay that is definitely meant to have a point. It is actually an activist essay. I’ve done long non-fiction narratives that contain ideas in them that I like as much as anything I’ve done that is fictional...Yes, an essay still has a point. It’s also exploratory, but fiction is more exploratory. And the analogy I would give is of people who take a picture of something like that yellow sign over there. [points to sign describing rules of library etiquette.] They say, “This is the frame,” and you take a picture of the object. But what I strive for both in fiction, but also in the best non-fiction that I try to write, is to actually take a photo of a situation rather than an object. So, if I take a picture of this right now, [points to view of street down below from the perspective of the lookout point] there’s no object I’m taking a picture of. I’m taking a picture of the light on the glass, the vehicles down there, the zebra crossings, how they interact with these crossings over here [points to the railings and the diagonal frames on the windows.] That complexity is the subject as opposed to taking a picture of an object. I think an essay might do that. I’m interested in how one might break the essay and do new things to it. So, in that particular essay, I made this assertion. An essay has a point and a novel does not. Well, that particular essay had a point, but many essays actually do not. However, I stand by that essay. I thought that essay was necessary. Absolutely. I 100 percent stand by it. TM: I found Every Day Is for the Thief incredibly depressing. TC: Could I tell you that many Nigerians thought it was hilarious? TM: Well, that’s my question. I thought that if Naipaul had written some of those scenes, I would have been laughing. TC: Interesting. Why? TM: Well, he wouldn’t talk about the terrible pressures that the environment created. TC: He would distance it and he would not bring in the personalized pathos of these people’s lives. TM: You are writing about this kleptocratic culture. TC: And I try to bring across the hurt of it as well. TM: Yes, and the constant pressure, the feeling of betrayal over and over again, the inability to have a fellow feeling with the person you see walking down the street. TC: Right. Right. TM: Now, when Naipaul writes about it... TC: He’s straightforward and brutal about it. He’s like, “I don’t give a shit about these people. I’m going to tell you how ridiculous they are.” And he can also be quite funny about it. I find it quite painful to read him when it comes to this stuff. TM: But I didn’t laugh when I was reading your book. TC: Except if you were Nigerian you would laugh, because that’s the only thing you could do. That was a very pleasant surprise for me when the book came out in Nigeria, that people really did find it hilarious. TM: You did not intend it to be that way. TC: Not so much, because I’m also writing with the sad distance of somebody who doesn’t live there anymore. [Fidgeting with the camera.] It’s a comic sequence. This has never happened to me before. It takes me one minute to change some film. I’ve struggled with it and I’ve made certain things loose and now it’s not working. It’s not loving me back. TM: Open City was mostly just as fragmented as Every Day Is for the Thief. You didn’t have a sense of an arc until the last 50 pages or so. TC: There’s a way in which Open City...is actually a more conventional novel. I don’t call Every Day Is for the Thief a novel. I call it a work of fiction, or when pressed I’ll say it is a novella. So Open City is more novelistic. It does have these instances of continuous drama that have been foreshadowed and all of that interweaving. So there’s a certain sophistication to the way that it is all working together. What I’m experiencing now that Every Day is for the Thief is being reviewed [are] the normal ways people talk about a person’s earlier work, not that Open City is [earlier]...just [how they talk about] other work that they know. Quite amazingly, almost uniformly, they all like Open City. So this is the benefit of the distance of time. “If all you motherfuckers had shown up when it came out!” It’s now this settled thing that Open City is a good thing...But as the author I know there was a lot of hemming and hawing about that book when it came out. “Oh nothing happens. Or the stuff that happens at the end is not resolved.” TM: The second to last chapter is what made that novel work for me. TC: There was a lovely review in The Times by Miguel Syjuco, a really, really positive review, and he thought that the end was an amateur move. TM: To me Julius was the intellectual 30-something version of a likable narrator in a young adult novel. TC: Absolutely. Absolutely. The Catcher in the Rye is one of the not-often-noticed shadows of this book. TM: He’s an interesting person for you to listen to, and you like his observations. But he is capable of committing something so heinous. TC: And that exactly is the point. TM: That might be the best defense for the essay in the novel form. I guess it’s similar to what Coetzee does in Elizabeth Costello. TC: Which, by the way, was panned. TM: Well, there’s something of a consensus that since he’s moved to Australia he’s not as good. TC: That’s right. I think that’s a bullshit consensus. He’s making it work. He can’t just sit back and relax on what has worked. That’s not how he got to where he is. He found out how far he could go with conventional forms. Now he has to interrogate those forms, and go farther and farther with them. It’s hard to part ways with an audience that would like to keep liking you in the ways they’ve always liked you. But that’s the way creativity is. That’s why late work is so puzzling. Every Day Is for the Thief had been widely read in Nigeria. When Open City came out it was met with quite a bit of excitement there and almost total puzzlement. Like, “It’s too bad, he lost it. He had a good thing going there.” I’m sorry to make you stand. [On the camera] I’ve brought it all the way across this continent. And I’ll be damned if I can’t use it. And I can see the damn thing. I can see this picture and not being able to take this damn thing. The light’s been changing the whole time we’ve been here. It’s driving me nuts. This is not what I’m here for. This is nonsense. [Takes a picture with his smartphone.] To me it’s an interesting image. This is my friend, this machine. I love it very much and now I’m a little bit worried. [We go downstairs to the café where he continues to toy with his camera.] TM: In this work of fiction, Every Day Is for the Thief, you are describing objects that were never there. So when I read this work of fiction and see these photographs, suggesting you are taking pictures of real things...it’s jarring. TC: Well the thing you are reading was not made out of whole cloth. Already a lot of what you are reading leans toward memoir. But you know a lot of it must have been made up, not just because of the label, but because of some of the texture of the recollection. It is too precise not to be made up in some way. There are a number of coincidences in this book that almost nobody picks up that I’m embedding inside the text. So then you’re struggling. “It’s reading a lot like a memoir, but I want it to be fiction because it says it’s fiction.” And then you see these photos and it seems someone went on a trip and took these photos. [Points to picture of a goat on the street, which relates to a passage in the book.] I’m not trying to pat myself on the back, but...I didn’t have to set that up. It’s a street photo. It was by chance and by patience and just by the way anyone makes a street photograph that’s worth keeping. One thing I’ll say about this photograph is that this photograph appeared about seven years after the text, but it wasn’t posed. It is a street scene from Lagos. [These photographs] are also works of fiction. TM: [One passage in the book describes a lynching, a filming of which circulated on VHS tapes.] You can’t photograph a lynching. TC: I could go out and photograph a lynching, but that’s not what I want to do. You see this and you see that. TM: No, you couldn’t do a lynching. Not in this book. TC: Well maybe not here in the U.S. TM: Well not in this book. It wouldn’t be acceptable. TC: To whom? Maybe Random House would not want to publish it for its own reasons. But I totally could. You don’t understand what it’s like on the street over there. You have never driven down the street and seen a body decomposing for three days. It’s inconceivable. It’s not inconceivable in Lagos. And nothing would stop me from leaning out of a car and taking that picture. And you can go on YouTube and see lynchings. TM: Yes, but you still wouldn’t put it in the book. TC: The reason I wouldn’t put it in the book is because it wouldn’t function psychologically the way I want it to function in the book. TM: Exactly, that’s what I’m getting at. Everything else is much more emotive. TC: That’s right. Most of the photos in this book are anti-spectacular pictures. TM: The photographic evidence of a child being lynched here would be assaultive. TC: That would not keep it from being in the book, and I’ll tell you why. If you look at the work of someone like Sebald there are pictures not of piles of bodies, but of camps and empty interiors of cells or whatever. We have seen pictures of Auschwitz. They do exist. And they have a role that they play in these narratives. So it’s not impossible. It’s just that I was trying to do something different in this book. I was trying to present a series of pictures that if you did not read the text and you just looked at each photograph in the sequence that is presented, there is a kind of psychological mood that I’m building, which is quite similar to the one of the book. I think of it as a slant rhyme. [The photographs] rhyme with the book in a slant way. TM: Not having that image of a lynching in this book plays off the narrator’s own desire not to look at something like this. TC: It’s true, except that he does relive it in great detail. I don’t know. There’s definitely an aversion from the horror. When you’re in Lagos, you can’t avert your eyes. I’ve seen people being burnt. You can’t not see it. I don’t know. It’s a little complicated. I don’t know what role photography plays in terms of that particular act of violence. But if that’s what you want to do in a place like Lagos, you can do it because that’s a place where things like this happen and you can see the aftermath. [He finally fixes his camera.] Can we stroll up there before we lose the light? [We head back upstairs.] TM: There’s this idea that the maximum city is this late 20th-/early 21st-century phenomenon. Your approach to writing about [New York as well as the maximum city of Lagos] is [through the] intimate view of the flaneur, or stroller. Why? TC: I think it’s because I believe in small-scale stories as a thing that can be revealing about what is true of a place. You don’t need to be that guy [Kenneth] Jackson, the guy who does those big New York books. You could do it that way, as an encyclopedia. Do we need that? Nobody needs to read a 1200-page history of New York. Now I’m writing a non-fiction book about Lagos. It’s more panoramic. It’s going to owe a lot to Every Day Is for the Thief, to Open City, [but also to] [Orhan Pamuk’s] Istanbul, to [Michael Ondaatje’s] Running in the Family. It’s going to have a lot of those essayistic/memoir-ish aspects but it also will have lots of interviews. TM: Do you love Lagos? TC: No. TM: Do you love New York? TC: Yes. TM: I sensed that in both books. TC: It’s funny. When I was writing Open City I thought I hated New York. As I was writing it, I saw it was a love letter. When I was writing Every Day Is for the Thief, I had a love/hate relationship with Lagos. But then afterwards I realized that I love Lagosians, but I hate Lagos. Because I hate what the city does to the people who live there. [Problem with the camera] Once again. Unbelievable. TM: Are you drawn to write about Lagos from a feeling of responsibility? TC: That’s how it’s being sold, but even if you don’t love the place, it’s an interesting subject. You don’t become a war reporter because you love war. You report on war because it expands and complicates our idea of what war is. As a Nigerian-American who lives in the United States, I would like to complicate our sense of what Nigeria is, of what Lagos is, of what Africa is like. So that’s why I write about it. Not because I hate it. Not because I’m from there. I’m working on my second book on it, and it probably won’t be my last. Image Credit: Wikipedia
With no mention of the titular character in it at all, critics have been squirming in their seats, unsure of what to think about the title of J.M. Coetzee’s new novel, The Childhood of Jesus. Since its publication in the UK and other English-speaking countries in March, it has become the occasion of many outpourings of critical anxiety. Rare is the occasion when someone like Christopher Tayler in the London Review of Books can feel excited about their confusion; or address it honestly as Leo Robson does in the New Statesman. More common is a scramble to make sense of the thing, like Theo Tait’s ingenious attempt in The Guardian, or the dismissal of its importance in giving the book some other framework for evaluation, as in Justin Cartwright’s otherwise interesting guide to the book for the BBC. And with the publication of the work in the U.S. we can only expect more of the same. The problem isn’t that the title doesn’t describe what’s in the book. It’s the way it doesn’t. It’s too big a title, too grand. It describes a character who, even if he is not literally related to the character in the book -- a boy named David -- works on such a larger scale that it wouldn’t even work figuratively. And so even when we can’t find anything meaningful in it, it is hard to believe that Coetzee didn’t mean it to be there. It seems, in other words, indeed serious, in being a little too serious -- there’s no letup, no obliqueness in it, no irony that is clear and distinguishable. The funny thing about it is that Coetzee may well indeed mean what he says, and to be taken to task for this is rather strange: as if once he seems too serious, critics think he can’t be serious at all. And this shows that however petty their reaction has been, the critics are on to something. We know Coetzee as a postmodern writer, a coy writer, playful, always up to something, or trying to be up to something. What we witness in this book is a change of emphasis towards seriousness, a stylistic change, or experiment in changing, which is remarkable to watch. It’s visible in the straightforwardness of the story itself. The book is about a little boy David and a man old enough to be his grandfather, Simón, arriving in a strange Spanish-speaking land. We don’t know where they are from; we even don’t know their real names, since it was Belstar, the refugee camp where they were, that gave them these. Simón himself, through whose experience we witness most of what happens, doesn’t know anything about the child: details are hazy. “There was a mishap on board the boat during the voyage that might have explained everything,” as Simón puts it. “As a result,” he continues, “his parents are lost, or, more accurately, he is lost.” The rest of the story is simply David developing under Simón's care, as they both attempt to start what they call a “new life” together. After a few failed attempts to find the boy’s father and mother, Simón struggles to get a more permanent home for the boy. An old washed-up romantic, but without the confusing animalistic drives of a David Lurie (the hero/villain of Disgrace), he gets it into his head that what the boy needs is a mother. This can be achieved, he thinks, by simply finding one; Simón seems to assume, rather strangely, that a bond like this can be created just by arrangement. Improbably enough, on a hike one day he finds someone willing to be David’s mother, and delivers the boy up to a woman named Inés. But he still watches the boy from afar, and misses him. He folds himself back into the family, doing chores for them and small tasks, and monitors the care of the child, entwining his destiny more and more with his. There is a strange feeling you can get while reading Coetzee’s work that you merely are hearing a yarn: in other words, that the direct, incredibly precise style is the only thing remarkable about what is simply a straightforward tale. The exact narration of plot borders on bottoming out and becoming the -- exquisite, no doubt -- chronicling of mere events. This feeling was, in Coetzee’s previous work, always countered by the work’s form breaking up, or turning against itself, which would remind you the precision and exactness was slowly working towards a point: that is, that the work was spare for a reason, that the economy plays generously with the things you are hearing about. But here we have no postmodern tricks as in Slow Man or Diary of a Bad Year. No strange intertextual references as in Foe. No metafictional scenes like the close of Elizabeth Costello, wherein a strange set of judges in the afterlife ask the titular character, a world-famous author, if fiction itself is really worth anything at all -- a fiction in which we hear about the meaning of fiction, and in which the status of the fiction we are reading seems to hang in the balance because of what happens within it. Here we simply have Simón befriending a child and believing in him, as it were, so it is no wonder that this feeling of flatness sticks around, and we think Coetzee has decided to stop with all this beating around the bush, with these sidelong ways of probing the depth of his characters. There are a few tricks still up his sleeve, however. First and foremost there is the pace at which the tale is told, in another instance of that narrative economy which Coetzee has so perfected and which would make anything he writes engrossing. Then, more importantly there is the boy himself. He is, simply, fascinating. Especially in his conceptions and ideas of the world, which Coetzee relates sympathetically and which Simón can’t stop listening to. This despite their childishness, all their petulance and profundity, all their (in a word) contrariness. “Why do I have to speak Spanish all the time?” David asks Simón once. Simón patiently explains: “We have to speak some language, my boy, unless we want to bark and howl like animals. And if we are going to speak some language, it is best we all speak the same one. Isn’t that reasonable?” “But why Spanish? I hate Spanish.” “You don’t hate Spanish. You speak very good Spanish. Your Spanish is better than mine. You are just being contrary. What language do you want to speak?” “I want to speak my own language.” “There is no such thing as one’s own language” “There is! La la fa fa yam ying tu tu.” Coetzee has David shout things like this often, in the way children do sometimes, where they have been thinking of something by themselves for an hour or so, playing out some internal fantasy of some sort, and suddenly inform you about it as if it was real, and as if it made sense to everyone and was obvious. It happens as David learns to read and talks about Don Quixote as if he were real, as he learns math and talks about numbers as if they had strange properties, as he talks about other people, and their strange characteristics or powers, and in so many other occasions in the novel. And while these fantasies are contrary and counterfactual, they compel. After hearing the boy’s own language, Simón objects: “That’s just gibberish. It doesn’t mean anything.” “It does mean something. It means something to me.” “That may be so but it doesn’t mean anything to me. Language has to mean something to me as well as to you, otherwise it doesn’t count as language.” In a gesture that he must have picked up from Inés, the boy tosses his head dismissively. “La la fa fa yam ying! Look at me!” He looks into the boy’s eyes. For the briefest of moments he sees something there. He has no name for it. It is like -- that is what occurs to him in the moment. Like a fish that wriggles loose as you try to grasp it. But not like a fish -- no, like like a fish. Or like like like a fish. On and on. Then the moment is over, and he is simply standing in silence, staring. “Did you see?” says the boy. The key thing about this moment, and about other similar moments, is that Simón did not see, or saw only for a second. But that this reserved and fiercely independent man can so thoroughly commit himself to trying to see, or, at the very least, can so thoroughly commit himself to seeing what it would be like to see, or, at the very very least, can so thoroughly commit himself to seeing what it would be like to see what it would be like to see...this shows Coetzee’s child here is much more than someone relating the wisdom that comes out of the mouths of babes -- even perhaps the mouth of a baby Jesus. David is the vehicle for Coetzee’s effort to explore belief’s ability to conquer doubt -- more particularly, the doubt of Simón -- and of the way fantasies can coax even doubt itself into becoming a form of trust, of faith, of belief. And as David’s fantasies increasingly disrupt the class in school, and the school threatens, eventually, to kick the boy out and put him in a disciplinary facility for children, Simón has to take this commitment even further, and consider whether he will follow the boy and run off again, away from the authorities, to somewhere else, another new life, or try and stick it out in the town and educate him out of his fictions. For critics, the biggest problem with Coetzee in his early career was the way his style failed to engage with serious, real-world problems. As critics complained, he lived and wrote in South Africa in the midst of one of the worst crises of the century. Where, in the interesting fables he then fabricated, was anything of the brutal situation around him? Postmodern authors were addressing politics even as they wove interesting tales: Yet Coetzee worked in a sort of neo-Modern arid and ironic style implying that art needed to concentrate on things more ambiguous, sometimes concentrating on colonialism through allegory, representing the colonizers as much as the colonized. He was being contrary, in many ways. Yet by now Coetzee has published much dealing with animal rights, among other things, and Disgrace dealt directly and provocatively with South African issues. What seemed lacking in the purity of his representations of life has been filled up with a closer and more interesting relationship with the world around us. In the recent edition of his correspondence with Paul Auster, Here and Now, we even find him grumbling about the financial crisis. In this respect, the dust jacket’s claim that The Childhood of Jesus is “allegorical” is misleading, a throwback to an earlier contrarian mood. For now we seem to find Coetzee dealing with a problem different in character: a question about the internal, rather than the external, limits of his work, the limitations of his own style. It is a question of how far irony, self-consciousness, coyness, evasiveness, whimsy, reserve, and simple but efficient avoidance of the commonplace and real, can indeed address the opposite: sincerity, seriousness, truth-telling. While the world can be represented, can it only be played with? Can’t things be believed in? The Childhood of Jesus reminds us again how baffling Coetzee can be, but also that he can be tender, can have, as Frank Kermode once put it, “reserves of feeling that are tragic or even religious.” These are moments where he pretty clearly reminds us that no, we can believe in things, and we do even as we doubt. Play and seriousness have a way of communing together sometimes, with childlike simplicity.
Following is a continuation of my interview-conversation with David Shields, author of 10 books of fiction and nonfiction, most recently Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, the subject of this interview. Click here for Part One, wherein we discuss the nature of a “manifesto,” love of lists, Leonardo DiCaprio, Joyce, Chekhov, and the novel as a dead shark. The Millions: Another element of conventional fiction which you take up is the notion of a resolved plot arc, the falsity and myth of the “complete narrative action,” in favor of the entropic, the incomplete, the underprocessed. I wondered, though, in assembling the text-collage that is RH:AM, if you had some sense of narrative movement or “story” as you arranged, ordered, and created a structure for its fragments. David Shields: Oh my goodness yes. The book pretends to be entropic, but it has an unmistakable movement to it. Collage is not a refuge for the compositionally disabled; it’s an evolution beyond narrative (as I say, more or less, in the book). The book gets increasingly personal, keeps developing its argument(s), keep opening out and inscaping in; I hope that is manifest. If the book is a collection of 619 riffs, it’s not working for the reader. It’s an absolutely sustained argument about appropriation, genre, and doubt. TM: What about process? Did you arrange and rearrange a million times? Lay out little post-it notes on a giant canvass on the floor, Jackson Pollock style? Had you been “collecting” quotes in a notebook for 20 years? Etc. (I recall that in workshop you would sometimes pull out from your pockets your notes, scribbled on the backs of grocery and ATM receipts. Ah, the romantic image of the scatter-brained artist.) DS: A dozen years ago or so, you took a graduate course with me, Sonya, in self-reflexive gesture in documentary film and essay, did you not? [Yes – good memory, exactly 12 years ago.] Can’t remember if I was teaching the course then. Over many, many years I’ve been teaching the course, and the reading material for the course has tended to be a very unwieldy packet that I developed, hundreds if not thousands of passages from various people. And each year, the packet would get slightly more refined, focused, and the big break for me was seeing how I could push these passages into rubrics, otherwise known as chapters. Then I needed to organize each chapter for maximum effect, and all of the chapters for maximum effect. I thought it was still a first draft for the book. But I read it and kept rereading it and rereading it, and I realized that for me, at least, the form worked, as is, to my astonishment, in a variety of ways. A rabbit pulled out of a hat—my favorite kind of book. TM: Junot Diaz recently wrote on a New Yorker blog that President Obama’s central failing of the last few months has been absence of narrative. He wrote: "Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing[…] The story always wins.” Did you happen to catch that, and what do you think of that? DS: I didn’t see Junot Diaz’s blog, and I haven’t read his work. But he’s a fiction writer; of course he’s going to say that: story is all. I’d say pretty much the opposite. I’m interested in ideas. I love the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, because Nick Carraway is thinking really well about things for 20 pages. The rest of the book is a snooze, because it’s just a bunch of sops to the lazy reader, otherwise known as not particularly revelatory plot developments. I wake up a little for the last 2 pages. So, too, I adore the introduction to Slaughterhouse-Five. The best 30 pages Vonnegut ever wrote. That’s the entire book, compressed to thought, to consciousness. What separates us is not what happens to us. Pretty much the same things happen to us: birth, love, death. What I want is to gain access to how you think. That will assuage my loneliness. I want work that foregrounds that to an extraordinary degree. A few such books are published as novels: Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello, Camus’ The Fall, Proust. TM: What, if any, would you say is the distinction between the kind of raw, collagey, reality-fiction art forms that most interest you, and plain old reality TV of The Real World, Jon and Kate Plus Eight, Keeping Up With the Kardashians variety? DS: I’m not really very interested in reality TV, I must say. There’s kind of a difference between, say, Ross McElwee’s self-reflexive documentary films—which have had a stronger influence on my aesthetic than just about anything I can think of—and Jon and Kate. What is the distinction? An animating, artistic intelligence that is organizing material into a metaphor that ramifies. TM: Given RH:AM’s “evangelistic” impulse, does the possibility that the majority of readers who have a fidelity to fiction and the conventional novel form won’t be reading RH:AM trouble you at all? DS: Hmm. To me, the book is much more self-critical than that. Also, see answer to the question about novels. If you’re opposed to abortions, don’t have one. If the argument doesn’t fly for you, I’m sorry that I didn’t bring you along. But fiction and poetry have ancient cheering sections. Thrillingly great nonfiction—essay as art—needs a fuller articulation of how and why epistemologically sophisticated nonfiction (Bouillier, Wenderoth, McElwee, Simon Gray, Spalding Gray, Cyril Connolly, Nietzsche, Markson, Lesy, Adler, Brainard, Dyer, Fusselman, Galeano, Lindqvist, Manguso, Maggie Nelson, Sebald, Trow, Thernstrom, Castle, Bernard Cooper, Annie Dillard, Pessoa, Mendelsohn, Spiegelman, Hardwick, Cioran, Rousseau, Duras, Pascal, Rochefoucauld) is about as exciting as prose gets. For that task, I’m your man. One needs to shout to be heard sometimes. TM: Funny, though: it’s obvious to fiction writers that nonfiction rules the day, commercially speaking – money, readership, likelihood of getting published, etc. When I teach fiction classes, there’s always a demoralizing moment at the end of the term where I tell students to have low expectations for publishing fiction, because fewer and fewer people read it; if they want to get published and want to be read, they should write nonfiction. Why do you think each side sees itself as the David and the other as the Goliath? DS: It’s a funny idea. Writer as perpetual spy in the house of love. Victim-lit as a way to psych oneself up. Crucial for me in writing this book—and in a way I’ve been writing it for thirty years, and certainly for the last fifteen years—was my vexed sense of the way in which great nonfiction is badly boxed in by straightahead memoir, on the one hand, and straightahead fiction, on the other. If I felt nonfiction ruled the day, the book may not have had its (willed? invented?) raison d’etre. The winner may get to control the story, but the loser always has the best stories. TM: You quote at length Kevin Kelly, from an article in the New York Times: Copies don’t count anymore; copies of isolated books, bound between inert covers, soon won’t mean much. Copies of their texts, however, will gain meaning as they multiply by the millions and are flung around the world, indexed, and copied again. What counts are the ways in which these common copies of creative work can be linked, manipulated, tagged, highlighted, bookmarked, translated, enlivened by other media, and sewn together in the universal library. The only way for books to retain their waning authority in our culture is to write texts into this library… In the clash between the conventions of the book and the protocols of the screen, the screen will prevail. Then you go on to write: It’s important for the writer to be cognizant of the marginalization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and more visceral narrative forms…I don’t think it’s a very good idea to write in a vacuum. Culture, like science, moves forward. Art evolves. Did you at all consider publishing RH:AM in a more digitally-driven or technologically hybrid form, i.e. not primarily as a book? Do you think your work from here forward will be in print/book form, or something that incorporates more a fundamentally multi-media conception? The approaches of documentary and other cinematic forms, as well as music, for example, seem to figure integrally into your Manifesto. DS: Interesting. One offer I had from a UK publisher was to publish the book as a series of tweets. I was tempted, but I decided not to go that way. I feel like my bluff got called. Here was my chance, but I was still somewhat loyal to good old print. We shall see where I go next, Sonya—whether this book will find its way digitally and what I’ll do next. I’m extremely interested in opening up the floodgates, but part of me still loves the monumental old dam up on a hill. I’m working it out. TM: Lastly: in RH:AM’s epigraph, you quote Picasso’s “Art is theft.” In the first sentence of the book, you write about artists “smuggling” reality into their work, and then later you quote Bacchylides: “One author pilfers the best of another and calls it ‘tradition.’” At The Millions, editor Max Magee recently published an interview with an anonymous “book pirate,” and the interview prompted a lively and heated discussion among readers, and a record number of comments. How are we to negotiate/understand this new landscape of borrowing and stealing and sharing literary content in a way that is generative for literature, not merely parasitic? DS: “After decades of measures that have drastically reduced the public domain, typically by extending the terms of protection, it is time to strongly reaffirm how much our societies and economies rely on a vibrant and ever expanding public domain. The role of the public domain, in fact, already crucial in the past, is even more important today, as internet and digital technologies enable us to access, use, and re-distribute culture with an ease and a power unforeseeable even just a generation ago.” (Public Domain Manifesto) Two-thirds of Shakespeare’s Henry VI (parts I-III) is taken directly from other sources (especially Plutarch)—none of which are cited, of course. As I say in a preface to the appendix (I wanted to publish the book without any citations, but I wound up needing to do so, to comply with Random House’s legal obligations), “I can hardly treat the topic deeply without engaging in it. That would be like writing a book about lying and not being permitted to lie in it. Or writing a book about destroying capitalism, but being told it can’t be published because it might harm the publishing industry.” “Who owns the words? Who owns the music and the rest of our culture? We do. All of us. Though not all of us know it, yet.” (William Gibson) Art is a conversation between and among artists; it’s not a patent office. Reality can’t be copyrighted. The citation of sources belongs to the realms of journalism and scholarship, not art. Citation domesticates the work, flattens it, denudes it, robs it of its excitement, risk, danger. I want to make manifest what artists have done from the beginning of time—feed off one another’s work and, in so doing, remake it, refashion it, fashion something new. Cortázar: “To quote someone is to quote oneself.” Walter Benjamin: “Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them.” “My taste for quotation, which I have always kept—why reproach me for it? People, in life, quote what pleases them. Therefore, in our work, we have the right to quote what pleases us.” (Alain Robbe-Grillet) “Language is a city, to the building of which every human being has brought a stone, yet each of us is no more to be credited with the grand result than the acaleph which adds a cell to the coral reef that is the basis of the continent.” (Emerson) “Genius borrows nobly.” (Emerson again) “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” (T.S. Eliot) “About the most originality that any writer can hope to achieve honestly is to steal with good judgment.” (Josh Billings) “People are always talking about originality, but what do they mean? As soon as we are born, the world begins to work upon us, and this goes on to the end. What can we call our own except energy, strength, and will? If I could give an account of all that I owe to great predecessors and contemporaries, there would be but a small balance in my favour.” (Goethe) "A great man quotes bravely and will not draw on his invention when his memory serves him with a word as good. What he quotes, he fills with his own voice and humor, and the whole cyclopedia of his table talk is presently believed to be his own." (Yet again Emerson, who is unfailingly brilliant on this subject). The mimetic function has been replaced by manipulation of the original.