Mark Slouka is an American writer who has published eight books, fiction and nonfiction, that have appeared in 16 languages. The son of Czech immigrants, Mark has two stories in Best American Short Stories, and three pieces in Best American Essays. Further credentials include Harpers, Ploughshares, the Paris Review, Granta, Guggenheim, the NEA, Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago. You get the idea.
The part you don’t yet get but will is that when a writer with this CV exchanges the security of the academy for the unfathomability of east-central Europe, it’s incumbent that the rest of us give serious consideration as to why. Mark recently gave me two solid days on Skype—Prague to Kyiv—making a strong case for the necessity of book learnin’ and more.
The Millions: So now that you’re retired from the MFA business and living in Prague, where is the good writing going to come from?
Mark Slouka: Thanks for that, but my guess is, pretty much where it’s always come from, which is to say, probably not an MFA program. Honestly, the MFA industry in America is a wonder to me: The less people read, the more they seem to want to write, and a whole lot of them think that dropping the big bucks on an MFA is the only way to do it. It can work for some. For others not so much.
TM: How so?
MS: Okay, for example, when I taught at Columbia, the bill for an MFA came to around 70,000 bucks and we offered precious little financial aid. There was one student sleeping in her car with her kid until I found out about it. What’s worse, I was on the acceptance committee—one of the people who had to call students to give them the good news. So, I make the call and somebody’s mom out in Ohio picks up and I can hear her whispering, “Oh, my God, it’s Columbia University!” Then the student gets on, her voice shaking, and I say “Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to the Columbia MFA program,” which is followed by much rejoicing. Then she musters up the courage to ask if there’s any financial aid and I say, “absolutely, we’re awarding you a $3,000 scholarship,” or whatever. To offset the blow—or sucker them in, in my opinion—we were supposed to tell prospective students that they could apply for a teaching fellowship in their second year, omitting the fact that only a small percentage of applicants actually got one. I felt like I was hustling sub-prime mortgages. To my credit, I always told them the odds of hitting the teaching jackpot were low, so if money was a concern and they had better offers, they should consider taking them.
TM: Okay, but for those who could afford it, the workshops were worth it, right?
MS: I don’t know, maybe. I had some amazing students, but the sad truth is that all too often the culture of the workshop can lead to a kind of “blind leading the blind” situation: As an instructor, you’re not really allowed to just lay out the problem and suggest solutions.
TM: Not allowed?
MS: Let’s say, “discouraged.” After my first class at Columbia—I’d never taught writing before—‚a student came up to me and said, “Um, professor, I’m not sure you understand how it works around here.” And I said, “Probably not, what am I doing wrong?” And she explained that I wasn’t giving students enough time to frame the conversation themselves and I realized I was expected to step back and let them lead each other. Results were mixed. Sometimes a good student would take it in the right direction. Other times, someone would write, “Her tears fell like pebbles on an iron grate,” and I’d try to say something about what metaphors are supposed to accomplish only to get a chorus of, “But I loved that pebble thing!” But hey, lately I read a review by Dwight Garner of The New York Times, who singled out for praise the line, “The moon is a huge sanitary pad,” so what the fuck do I know?
Bottom line is that writing is not done by committee. If you try to please everyone in your workshop you end up with this sad, neutered thing that any agent or editor worth her salt can smell from a mile away.
TM: Russians say, “not fish, not meat.”
MS: Exactly. If you want to write, make reading your MFA. Find the writers who move you and try to figure out what they’re doing on the page. If I’m honest, my teaching at Columbia, and later at the University of Chicago, really just came down to disarticulating the written page.
TM: Meaning . . .?
MS: Meaning teaching students how to read like writers, showing them what their options are in terms of voice, silence, time, dialogue, and so on. How certain moves on the page—a period in the right place, to recall Isaak Babel—can break your heart. If it was up to me, I’d teach nothing but example-based craft seminars, which go straight to the issues writers encounter, then cut people loose to do their own work.
TM: I have to say, it sounds like a sweet deal: guided looking, credentialed people shaping your study—
MS: I’m not saying there aren’t some great programs out there. Just that sometimes the MFA program’s guiding principle seems to be “the shortest distance between two points is a cube.” People will say there are good reasons for this, that students need time to write in a supportive environment, to develop relationships or whatever. Fair enough. But if somebody considering an MFA today were to ask my opinion, I’d tell them to at least consider saving the dough and doing what every writer in history had to do until a few decades ago: read their ass off, then take the leap.
TM: You have a PhD in American literature. How much does that shape your views on this?
MS: God, I don’t know. Some, maybe. I mean, if nothing else, a degree in literature introduces you to some great writing, right? Virtually none of which was written by committee, by the way.
TM: We’re a mimetic species, though. Isn’t any act of writing somewhat of a collective function? If I look at the novel you’re writing now, do I hear Kent Haruf in there? Steinbeck? Who makes up your writing committee?
MS: I see where you’re going: committee as influence. In that sense you’re absolutely right—writers are sponges. We absorb everything—a metaphor here, a bit of dialogue there. To some degree, we’re made up of the writers we loved, and for all I know, the ones we hated too. So…yeah.
As far as my committee goes, I wouldn’t know where to start. I mean, I grew up falling asleep to my parents and their friends singing Czech and Slovak folk songs late into the night, my dad reading me those dark fairytales the Czechs love so much . . .
MS: Oh, I don’t know—there’s one called “Otesanek” that I wrote about in The Visible World. It’s about this couple who have a baby that can’t stop eating. It devours everything—the chickens, the plow-horse, its own parents—until it makes the mistake of swallowing a little girl who’s sitting at her sewing and this little girl, finding herself in this community of the consumed, takes her scissors and delivers everybody out of the monster’s stomach by a kind of reverse caesarean. I loved that story when I was a kid. It’s a parable of fascism, of course, and how it always dies from within, having consumed too much—though I somehow doubt I got that when I was six. Anyway, mix all this Slavic stuff in with Shane and Old Yeller and “Coo-coo for Coco Puffs” and Daniel Boone and Man from Uncle and you’ve got . . . what? Me, I guess.
TM: Any particular writers who had an influence?
MS: Melville, for sure, who, by the way, you strikingly resemble.
TM: Young, rugged Melville, no doubt.
MS: Absolutely. I guess if you forced me to name names, I’d say I was most influenced by Melville and Kafka—which makes sense. After those two, though, the floodgates are open: all the writers of the American Renaissance–Thoreau, Whitman, Poe–a mix of American voices from Cotton Mather to Frederick Douglass, Wharton, Ellison, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Fitzgerald, Richard Yates. European writers from Dante to George Eliot to Woolf and Musil, Hamsun and Hrabal. Essayists from Montaigne to E.B. White to Joan Didion to, I don’t know, more contemporary voices like Charles D’Ambrosio and Thomas Lynch. Pro tip: never ask a writer what his or her influences were–they’ll never fucking shut up.
TM: Perhaps some of those names help explain the aphoristic quality I pick up in your writing, particularly your fiction? Like, for me, the key line in Brewster: “Stay somewhere long enough, you don’t really see it at all.”
MS: I hadn’t really thought about it. But it’s true, don’t you think?–that a place begins to fade with time? Maybe the biggest struggle in life—or the biggest prize, if you want to get all positive about it—is to just keep on seeing.
TM: You hung around academia for 30-years plus, taught at half a dozen universities—did you stop seeing it?
MS: No such luck.
TM: So how do you see American higher education today?
MS: Oh, Jesus. Ask me about daffodils and sunsets.
TM: Any position on daffodils and sunsets?
MS: I’m pro-daffodils. And sunsets.
TM: I can quote you?
MS: Sure. Important to get that out there.
TM: Absolutely, so . . .
MS: I honestly think the state of higher education in America today—and I’m talking about only the humanities here and completely ignoring the huge, structural changes the pandemic has forced—is pretty well screwed. The humanities are an endangered ecosystem, just hanging on between the subdivisions. Whether they’ve slipped below the threshold of genetic viability is anybody’s guess. Extra credit.
TM: What’s endangering them?
MS: A dozen things. For starters, the humanities are being forced to justify their existence on economic grounds—What kind of job will this Shakespeare class get my Jimmy?—even though their real value is civic; they form human beings, citizens, not workers. Asking the humanities to justify themselves in economic terms is like asking a tomato to hammer a nail: It’s a fucking tomato—it serves a different purpose. But that’s a tough case to make to parents shelling out a king’s ransom for their daughter’s college education.
TM: Sounds like a feedback loop: As the price of education goes up, market forces come into the classroom, forcing it to become more vocational.
MS: Exactly, one standard of value comes to dominate everything. Of course, the marketplace bias is hard-wired into our culture. Consider Marco Rubio, that paragon of American statesmanship, who once memorably said that what America needs is more welders, not philosophers. Really, it was probably only a matter of time before the universities morphed into the corporations they now are. Of course, I’d love to ask the good senator from Florida why a philosopher can’t also be a welder, or whether he realizes that “manly labor” vs. “effete book-larnin” is a cliché as old as time. Maybe he could write me a five-page essay on why the Founding Fathers would have found his statement ridiculous, while Herr Goebbels would have applauded it. Of course, to write that essay would require something resembling a humanities education, so . . .
TM: So where does this leave students?
MS: Equal parts entitled and ripped off. The story of higher education these past two generations is that as tuition costs skyrocketed, students morphed into customers. It makes sense: if you’re paying a quarter mil for a four-year BA, it’s not unreasonable to want to have some say. But just because something makes sense doesn’t automatically make it a good idea.
TM: I’m going to need something more concrete…
MS: Sure. At the end of every semester, college professors all over America hand out evaluation forms so the students can evaluate their teaching, the class, whether they found it a rewarding experience—stuff like that. These forms factor into promotions, tenure decisions, and so on. Which sounds fine except that it doesn’t take professor X very long to figure out that he’s handing out customer satisfaction surveys, and that Ted will be a happier customer, and rate professor X as a genius, if professor X gives him an A instead of a B and doesn’t bust his ass with demanding exams and 15-page papers. The incentive, clearly, is to inflate grades while depressing requirements.
What it boils down to is diminished rigor and party favors all around. My so-called career basically tracked this paradigm shift. When I was a student, a 15-pager due on Monday was a 15-pager due on Monday. It never occurred to me to argue or to feel aggrieved if I missed the deadline. By the time I quit my professorship at the U. of Chicago 30 years later—and we’re talking about a place that fetishizes rigor—things had changed. Obviously, there were exceptions—professors who struggled to maintain standards and students who appreciated a rigorous class—but these were the exceptions. I had students in my office at Chicago in tears because I’d given them an A-. They’d never had an A- before.
TM: An A-? That’s pretty heartless.
MS: Oh, there’s more! All this stuff I’m describing—the corporatization of the university, the transformation of students into customers—has had the unintended side-effect of turning the classroom into the perfect petri dish for grievance. How many stories have I heard lately about some professor being taken to the woodshed for assigning a book that caused a student offence? It’s gotten to where some students don’t even bother discussing it with the prof—they just show up during office hours with the administration’s legal representative. Thank God I split when I did because I’d last about 20 minutes in today’s environment.
TM: I’m guessing you’re not a “safe space” kind of guy.
MS: How could you tell?
TM: Melvillian intuition.
MS: Let me put it this way: I think “safe spaces,” where a student can opt out of a discussion that might upset them, are well-intentioned. But I also think that, with rare exceptions, that option makes about as much sense as having science labs in which students can opt out of undesirable results from an experiment.
This whole movement toward customizing our education, making it more about us—above all protecting our tender sensibilities from anything that might upset us or, God forbid, force us to defend our position—is anathema to the humanities. The entire purpose of the humanities is to do the exact opposite: to force us out of ourselves, to challenge us, to flay our pieties. I wrote as much in a piece for Harper’s. The humanities are supposed to make us question our givens, disturb us, unsettle us. A safe space? The humanities are life itself. Where’s the safe space from that?
TM: You’re not concerned about blowback?
MS: I’ve stuck my foot in it, so let me earn my hate mail for real. To my mind, the whole notion that education, or art, should match the consumer’s background, that Latino students need to read more Latino authors and Black students more Black authors makes about as much sense to me as saying that privileged, white, male students need to read more privileged, white, male authors to the exclusion of everything else. What we need is to read good writers—Black, white, Latino, you-name-it. Whatever hue, whatever cultural background. Especially those who confound us, or piss us off, or tell us something that goes against what we believed to be true. Kafka still says it best: a book should be like the axe for the frozen sea within.
TM: So how would your ideal classroom be run?
MS: Openly, dangerously, fearlessly. Against the grain. Everything on the table, nothing exempt from discussion, debate, argument. You say James Baldwin’s use of the “n-word” offends you? Good—it should. Now let’s discuss whether it’s the word itself, Baldwin’s use of it, or my having assigned Baldwin’s essay in the first place that offends you, and why. Let’s talk about Baldwin’s reason for deploying that word in the context of his time, and how that particular slur’s payload has changed over the years, how it’s been weaponized by some and co-opted by others…That would be my ideal classroom. I actually had something like it back in the 1990s when I led discussion groups for a course called “The Making of the Modern World” at the University of California, San Diego. An amazing time in my life—I’ll remember those students, and some of the conversations we had, till senility do us part.
TM: And that’s no longer possible today? Only 30 years on?
MS: Honestly, I don’t know that it is. Between the orthodoxies of the right and the orthodoxies of the left—in academia, definitely more the left—professors have to walk between the raindrops.
TM: Orthodoxy is something we’re both familiar with, considering where we both live.
MS: Sure. I mean, during the Soviet era, whether in Kyiv or Prague, certain expressions were sanctioned and others condemned, certain works deemed correct, others criminalized. Which is more or less what’s happening in the U.S. now, with the right and the left both clawing for the right to decide what’s “acceptable.” It’s just a matter of degree, but given our criminal ex-president’s interest in criminalizing dissent, who knows how long that gap will hold?
TM: There’s something else at work here, though, isn’t there? Tech. What part does it play? Twitter’s an easy target. A vital tool of free speech, but also a cesspool of tendentiousness and impulsivity when it’s called on to address an important cultural stress-point. Though it’s not entirely the fault of the tool, rather, what techies call “an IBM error”—the Idiot Behind the Machine. User error.
MS: Sure. What’s happening in academia is obviously just a subset of what’s happening in the culture as a whole. The decline of rigor in education—and, again, I’m only talking about the humanities here because I’m not competent to discuss the sciences—is part of the general dumbing down of society.
TM: Okay, Boomer.
MS: Careful, comrade—I might be offended. Some professor has argued that “boomer” is a slur, right?
Seriously, though, this stuff is real. I’ve watched student attention spans atrophying over 30 years. Slowly breaking up—fracturing might be a better word. And it’s not just students—we’re all under attack. My honest opinion is that the assault on the silence of the inner world will be the biggest story of our time. I see it as a form of colonization, masked by convenience and speed. The new gadgets are extraordinary—and extraordinarily addictive—but each new thing plants a flag on a bit more of our inner space. That stillness we need in order to figure out who we are and what we believe.
TM: Your first book was about this, wasn’t it?
MS: Yeah, it was. I was yelling about this back when having any reservations about the digital revolution at all made you kin to the Unabomber. At least he seemed to think so.
TM: Hold on. You know the Unabomber? THE Unabomber?
MS: I wouldn’t say “know,” exactly. We corresponded a bit in 2012 because I wanted to write an essay comparing Ted Kaczynski and John Brown—basically exploring the connection between fanaticism and prophesy—and I thought it might be interesting to get his view.
TM: How’d that go?
MS: The essay? Never wrote it. Harper’s wasn’t interested and they were my go-to guys back then. I let it slide.
TM: And your correspondence with the Unabomber?
MS: Not so good. For starters, ADX-Florence is a supermax, so all correspondence has to be handwritten. I was fine with that—I still write letters by hand now and then—but the list of things you couldn’t send—no seeds, no body hair, etc.—was pretty weird. I mean, it’s not like I was dying to send Ted Kaczynski some tomato seeds and chest hair. Anyway, I just didn’t find him all that interesting. Worse, he’s a terrible writer, but the thing that creeped me out was when he said he had some people on the outside researching me, hoping I’d be helpful for “the cause.” Which is not what I had in mind.
TM: Ted’s People are looking you up. I’d move to Prague. But back to literature—what it did, what it does, what it’s supposed to do. I mean, once upon a time, a liberal arts education, for all its lack of currency, provided an examination of classical literature that exposed a student to elements of anthropology, phenomenology, metaphysics, ethics, rhetoric—to the story of human progress, basically. But contemporary fiction—and I say this as somebody who’s working pretty hard playing catch-up to contemporary literary thought—it strikes me that it so rarely goes for the bigger picture. We get a lot of unvarnished processing of personal experience, which, frankly, most of the time isn’t interesting enough to warrant a novel.
MS: I heard a two-part question.
TM: You’re generous that way.
MS: Tell my publisher. Anyway, part one has to do with what’s being taught in the universities today—with the disappearance of what used to be called a classical education. Personally, I think there was a lot of value in the core curriculum at Columbia. It required us to read—or at least convince our professors we’d read—the so called “classics” of world literature, political philosophy, and so on. Of course, almost all the books were written by dead white men, since white men were the only ones empowered to write until a nanosecond ago, but they still had value. My take would be: Absolutely, mess with the canon, challenge it, include more contemporary voices, female voices, non-Western voices. These have been neglected for far too long. But don’t throw out Aeschylus and Machiavelli because they happened to be privileged, white, and male.
Part two has to do with what’s being written today, and that’s tougher to talk about. I do think that literature has been forced to respond to the changes wrought by the digital revolution. We expect to be gratified instantly by what we’re looking at now—if we’re not, we swipe it away. We’re more visual, more short-form. We’re increasingly impatient with complexity, nuance, indeterminacy—all the things that bend toward wisdom, all the things that literature once trafficked in. The market has adjusted accordingly, as markets do, so that for most novels to succeed today—and, again, there are wonderful exceptions—they basically have to do the impossible and break through the noise, the distraction of the culture.
About 80 years ago, reporting on this new gadget called the TV, E.B. White wrote that “the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between the things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist at RCA and the angel of God.” It’s a great sentence, but the point is that the angel of God has been taking it on the chin for a while now. A novel that whispers rather than shouts is going to have a tough time finding the light.
TM: No room for the still, small voice. And this fits in with the corporatization of higher education and identity politics and–
MS: God, you had to ask.
TM: It’s why I get the big bucks. Swing away…
MS: Why not? So, when I said that we expect to be gratified instantly now, I guess that in literary terms, that would mean either entertained or comforted. Still, there are so many exceptions to this that I’m not entirely comfortable with the generalization; I mean, Louise Erdrich just won the Pulitzer. But I have this sense that more and more people today are turning to books to get away from the complexity of the world, not to confront it. And given the direction of things these days, from the climate crisis to the rise of a fascist political party in America, who can blame them?
What I’m trying to say is that I think it’s possible that this need to be comforted has resulted in people wanting to read more about people like themselves—entrenching themselves in their tribal group or whatever—which in turn has led some to question whether writers have the right to imagine characters different from themselves. That’s a problem. The whole point of literature is to imagine another world, another consciousness. Taking this nonsense to its natural conclusion would imply that you shouldn’t read Huckleberry Finn because Twain wasn’t a runaway slave and neither are you. But read that book and for the duration of that reading to some extent you are Jim. And Huck. And the King and the Duke. You’re taking your ego out for a spin. That’s what defines imaginative fiction. Your genotype doesn’t determine your ability to write fictional characters, your imagination does. Of course, you might do a lousy job of writing a character who is “not you,” but you have the right to try. If the writing sucks, if your imagination can’t cut it, prepare to be criticized. But to incarcerate a creative spirit, to say, in effect, “you don’t have the right to imagine that”—that’s the end of art.
TM: Does the critique of cultural appropriation misunderstand how fiction works? And is this the place to talk about the lingering effects of Soviet cultural policy?
MS: The effects of Soviet cultural policy…?
TM: I mean the way the rank and file were compelled to develop this uncanny bullshit detector, which produced the unforeseen consequence of spilling over into their ability to read fiction.
MS: Well, as far as the cultural appropriation thing goes, like I said, I honestly think it’s another one of those well-intentioned absurdities. Art begs, borrows, and steals, and the rest it imagines. Force artists to stay on their racial or gender reservations or whatever, and you may as well forget about it. Again, you can argue with the accuracy of a writer’s depiction—its success, its spirit, what-have-you—but don’t forbid an artist, a priori, from imagining the other. That’s nuts.
But you’re probably asking the wrong guy about this. My first novel, maybe still my best, was God’s Fool, in which I imagined the lives of the Siamese twins, the women they loved, the children they had, the slaves they owned, and yet I’m neither Siamese nor a black slave nor a woman nor born in the 19th century—though my kids would probably argue that last one. My point is that after the novel came out, I had people who’d lived in Thailand for decades asking me when I’d lived there. I’d never been there in my life. So.
But your second question, about the effects of Soviet cultural policy and how it’s led people to basically be suspicious of fiction, to see it as just an elaborate form of lying, is more complicated. Basically, as somebody who writes both fiction and nonfiction, I’m always amazed when people assume that fiction is “made up” and non-fiction is “real.” The genres bleed into each other all the time—there’s no fixed border between them. Which is not to say that certain things didn’t happen at certain points in time–I have no patience with historical relativism–just that our retelling of what happened, no matter how objective, always borrows from fiction.
MS: Okay. Let’s say you’re retelling an event in a personal essay. That retelling’s going to involve chronology, selection, memory—you’re basically lining up events in a certain sequence, stressing certain things while leaving others out, possibly misremembering what actually happened…All these things shape the remembered event in a certain way. There’s nothing wrong with this—you’re not consciously falsifying anything—but some degree of subjectivity is baked in. Again, I’m not saying there’s no difference between the genres, or that we shouldn’t have certain expectations when we read them; all I’m saying is that the most wildly imaginative fiction is rooted in empirical fact, and the most objective essay borrows from fiction.
Sometimes I wish that some university out there would set up, I don’t know what you’d call it— a Reality Studies Program—basically a discipline that would map the territory between fiction and nonfiction in all forms of private and public discourse—histories, novels, diaries, political speech, legal opinions, journalism, you-name-it. I mean, what could be more relevant in our shapeshifting, post-truth age, right?
TM: Do I hear a desire to go back to academia?
MS: Honestly, only if I felt I could be part of the conversation about what’s happening with the humanities—and part of the solution, hopefully. I wrote a piece on the humanities for Harper’s in which I interviewed a bunch of people—the president of Harvard at the time, the head of the National Endowment for the Humanities—who basically confirmed what I’d been seeing. That there’s less and less room at the table for the humanities. That no one’s making a very compelling argument for them. That the sciences are gobbling up market share at an extraordinary rate because money talks. The reality today is that private capital and U.S. Department of Defense contracts flow into MIT, for example, the good folks at MIT cook up a product they can sell, and everyone splits the profits. If I’m teaching a course on Kafka, I’m not part of that show. There’s no product. I’ve got nothing the DOD might want. Which would be fine except that I’m being asked to justify my existence according to criteria the sciences use, criteria that guarantee my eventual erasure. I care about the humanities too much—I think they matter too much—to want to be part of that charade.
TM: So, it’s a marked deck? No point in playing?
MS: Not at all. If a group of people were to get together to try to articulate an argument for the humanities—an argument that played to our strengths—I’d love to be part of that. I’d love to try to figure out how best to explain to Senator X from Wyoming why he should fund the humanities. Maybe I’d ask him if he knows why it is that the authorities in Tehran, say, will happily let me teach chemistry, but not history. Or why the communist authorities in pre-revolution Czechoslovakia always planted a spy in my English classes. If I’d been teaching physics, I’d have been free to do as I pleased.
TM: How much of the problem with the humanities has to do with what they’re producing? Unreadable papers loaded with jargon; books that seem deliberately opaque?
MS: A lot. Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the average educated person could read academic literary critics like Lionel Trilling or Richard Poirier and understand what they were saying. Except for James Wood and a few others, try that today. Some of the most God-awful prose in the known world is being cranked out by university literature departments.
TM: What created this?
MS: You got me. The operating principle seems to be “obscurity equals genius.”
TM: Is advancement, understood differently, undermining literature as well? Or changing it? I mean, are writers, tyrannized by the market, being forced to self-censor?
MS: I think they are.
TM: I gotta ask: censorship is something I know a little bit about.
MS: I know you do.
TM: And self-censorship is what the Soviets were after. In the current context, who needs censors, enforcers of orthodoxy, if you can get people to censor themselves?
MS: Censorship is a loaded word, of course, but I think the question is legitimate. Basically, I see a market that rewards a certain kind of creative work and discourages a different kind. Fine. That’s how markets work. You could argue that it’s always been like this, but I also think that until fairly recently there was still this charmed space where writers whose books didn’t sell a lot of copies could at least hope to find shelter. Survive. My sense is that this space is getting smaller. The market dominates everything now. Agents, editors—good people, people who went into it for all the right reasons—are being squeezed. A lot of them are fighting hard to resist the forces we’re talking about, but they need to survive too. The result is that books they admire sometimes have to be cut loose.
TM: So, the writer adjusts to the market?
MS: Or not, but it takes a lot of energy not to adjust, to ignore everything and just write your book, especially if you’re in the unhappy position of actually having to make a living. I don’t think there are many writers in America who haven’t struggled with this. You’re working on a novel for three, four years, all the while ignoring that voice in your head whispering, “Your last one sold 4,000 copies, you idiot. How’re you going to pay Billy’s tuition next year?” It’s not easy to ignore that voice saying, “Well, you could juice it up a little, bend it this way or that.” I’m guessing it gets even tricker if you’ve had some real success, because then you start thinking, “Hell, I’ll just give them a little more of that!” Fortunately, that’s not something I’ve had to deal with.
TM: I’m going to venture that tech—access—makes the situation worse?
MS: Bet your ass. Writers today can look up their numbers on Amazon for example. See the rankings of every book published in America, from #1—Stephen King or somebody—to some poor schmo at #12 million. This is like crack for writers. If my book jumps from 800,000 to 512,000, I feel great, I have some value in the world. If it goes the other way, hide the belt and the scissors. And then there’s the commentariat—people who think you’re Tolstoy and others who think you’re the antichrist of literature.
TM: So, what do you do?
MS: You go on saying what you need to say, bleeding market share, wondering how you’ll pay the bills. And then somebody from Australia writes to tell you she’s reading your novel for the third time because she’s going through some difficult times and it helps her—and suddenly it all makes sense, somehow.
TM: The bigger picture: are human beings losing interest in stories?
MS: Not at all—I think they’re craving stories. I mean, look at TV—it’s full of stories, and some of them are terrific.
I’m repeating myself, and I’m sure there’s a lot more to it, but I do think a lot of what’s happening has to do with the marketplace. Books have to compete with Netflix, so publishing houses are looking for what they can market—which by the way also means writers they can market. Writers who look like fashion models or have exotic life stories. I can’t even blame them. Unfortunately, I don’t really check off those boxes. I don’t have a brand. I’m interested what used to be called the human condition—that’s it.
TM: But that should be enough, shouldn’t it? I’ve just reread The Visible World, and there’s that heartbreaking story in there where the narrator is trapped on a tram with this old guy who tells him about the day his father was arrested during the German occupation. It’s so convincingly told—he could be the old guy who lives two floors above m—a guy who’s probably riding every tram that passes my building. It strikes me that it’s not to the benefit of the culture when stories like that struggle to get published.
MS: I’m glad that story spoke to you, but seriously, there’s no way to respond to that without sounding like an asshole who believes his stories are a gift to the culture. On top of which, though recent years have been harder, I haven’t really “struggled” all that much. I’ve written the books I wanted to write, I’ve had the good fortune—so far, anyway—of getting them published, the critics have generally been kind, and now and then I get a letter from a reader who actually took the trouble to write to me. Not bad.
If I take myself out of the equation, though, I couldn’t agree with you more: In some slow, sedimentary way, literature—and I use the L-word without apology—builds human beings, human beings capable of imagining lives other than their own, so to the extent that literature struggles, and I think it is struggling, we’re all the poorer for it.
MT: What’s the way forward?
For me, I’d say more of the same. I’d like to think that as we get older some of the bullshit peels away and we’re able to see who we are and what we’re drawn to. I’m drawn to characters who have a history, who’ve taken some hits and have the scars to show for it. I’m interested, basically, in how well, or not, we’ve survived the life we’ve led. That’s my territory, and I’ll keep coming back to it, one way or another, for as long as I write.
At the same time, I’d say it’s important to take your work more seriously than yourself. Keep a sense of humor, if possible. I mean, most of us have had the experience of walking into some venue to do a reading and there are two people in the audience and one of them is your wife and the other seems insane. It’s not fun, but it’s okay. It’s survivable. You can rend your mantle and defile your horn in the dust, or you can figure, “Fuck it, I get to go to dinner an hour early.”
But that’s just me. On the larger, cultural level, I guess the way forward might involve something as simple as putting down our phones and picking up a book.
TM: Good luck with that.
MS: Yeah, I know. You see it everywhere now, though it’s worse in the States. Groups of friends hanging out, each one on a device. Couples having dinner or sitting on a bench, both on their phone. We’ve created a space that doesn’t exist and we’re migrating into it at extraordinary speed. I can’t predict what the blowback will be, but it’s going to be considerable. I just don’t believe we can sever ourselves from everything that’s sustained us for millennia—in the blink of an eye, evolutionarily speaking—without suffering some kind of psychic kickback. But there I go again, bitching about tech.
TM: A bit. Still, a couple more? Tell me about your decision to give up tenure at the University of Chicago and move to Prague. You were Chair of Creative Writing there, right?
MS: There were some years between the two moves, though I guess you could see them as related. Basically, the U. of Chicago and I didn’t see eye to eye, let’s just put it that way. It’s a strange place: An extraordinary university, and at the same time, I don’t know how else to put it, a kind of Mecca of depression—the pilgrims drag themselves to it from the four corners of the earth. My family and I stuck it out for a while, then split. For all I know, I’m the only person dumb enough to give up a gold-plated professorship like that without having something lined up to replace it with. I’m blessed with family members as impractical as I am.
TM: And so, Prague.
MS: After a decade or so in Brewster, Canton, New York, and Winslow, Ariz., yeah. What can I tell you? I love this city, though it regularly drives me nuts. And, of course, our kids live here, which is huge for us. But coming here was also an economic decision. Around the time writing became my sole source of income several my venues from the old days had dried up, Harper’s had gone in its own direction, a couple of books had gotten good reviews but didn’t sell well…you get the picture. And so, it came down to either figuring out how to make more dough or moving to a place where the little we had would be enough. We chose, “b,” and it was the right call.
TM: It’s likely that some people assumed it was because of Trump.
MS: Yeah, which was funny for two reasons. First, because the moon wouldn’t be far enough if that was our intention, and second, because the Czechs have their own corrupt leaders in Zeman and Babiš (the current president and prime minister of the Czech Republic) who they’re going to have to get rid of just like we got rid of Trump.
TM: A positive note to end on…
MS: Qualified. As the Czechs say: Pravda zvitezi, ale veme to fusku!—The truth will triumph, but it takes some sweat!
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