In 1939, The Partisan Review sent out a questionnaire to a number of prominent writers, asking them about literature, politics and their identities. While the questionnaire hasn’t been completely forgotten, we felt that these specifically political questions were rarely being asked of our writers. Considering that 2011 was a year of global unrest, we felt that it would be particularly relevant to update The Partisan Review’s questions. (For the curious, here are the original questions.)
2011 was the year of the Arab Spring. There have also been massive protests in Greece, Spain, Britain, and most recently, the United States. Does literature have a responsibility to respond to popular upheaval?
No. Literature and art are, for the most part, a poor vehicle for things like this. That is the business of essayists and reporters. It’s only later, when everything is over, that artists really begin to have a role, interpreting what happened, giving a framework for people to understand the events and how they may have shaped society. Art is where most of our myths are formed and recorded; we look to art for guidance about the way we are supposed to think and feel about things. But, speaking generally, this is only after the events in question have already taken place.
Do you think of yourself as writing for a definite audience? If so, how would you describe this audience? Would you say that the audience for serious American writing has grown or contracted in the last ten years?
Of course. But the first audience member I need to interest and satisfy is myself. Philipp Meyer the writer is writing for Philipp Meyer the reader. I am not writing to hear myself talk, I’m writing books that I always wanted to read, but no one else was interested in or capable of writing them. The people who like my work probably share my aesthetic and narrative tastes, at least on some level. Or maybe I share theirs—however you want to think about it. As far as the audience contracting in the past decade, I’m a little skeptical. I think that internet boosters make a big noise about how the internet has changed our lives and reading habits completely, that it is making a new species out of us. But they forget that before the internet, books survived first movies and then television. In the thirties, a lot of modernist writers were worrying that the “talkies” (i.e., movies with sound) would be the end of the novel. And well, eighty years later, here we still are. Reading novels. And one thing that’s easy to forget is that literary readers have always made up a minority of the reading audience. Even Hemingway and Fitzgerald, whom we think of as having worked in some golden age of literature, were usually outsold by the mass market or commercial writers.
Do you place much value on the criticism your work has received? For the past decade we’ve seen a series of cuts to predominant literary magazines and literary supplements, and in response, criticism has moved online. Do you think this move to the non-professional realm has made literary criticism more or less of an isolated cult?
While I’m personally grateful whenever someone says something nice about my work, I don’t place much value on it. You can’t. I make art for my own reasons, according to my own standards, and again, while I am enormously grateful that people like my work, it wouldn’t change anything if they didn’t. You don’t choose to be an artist. It’s something you just are. The only question is how much you are willing to sacrifice to make art. In my case, the answer is nearly everything and I have found this is a very common trait in writers who have made it. As far as criticism moving online, there are some brilliant sites that I visit, and some brilliant folks doing criticism online. It’s impossible to overstate how happy it makes me when I read something profound, something a critic has written that helps me understand literature and art in a new way. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s written in a blog or in the NYRB. But I think we can all admit that about 99% of what you read online, whether it’s someone’s comments about literature or politics or sports, is complete bullshit. Places like the NYRB are a lot more reliably interesting and intelligent than some blog picked at random. I’m dubious about the “democratizing” power of the Internet — the signal to noise ratio is way too high. It’s like a million people in a crowd all shouting at once. There MUST be some smart people in there, but it’s hard to hear what they are saying. In the end, I don’t think the Internet works much differently than any other form of media. The folks who are strong and interesting thinkers will attract an audience. None of us have the time to read a million blogs or sections from a million unpublished novels, despite the fact that it’s now technically possible. In the end, there are always going to be cultural gatekeepers. The only thing that will change is who those gatekeepers are, and where we will go to find their opinions.
Have you found it possible to make a living by writing the sort of thing you want to, without other work? Do you think there is a place in our current economic system and climate for literature as a profession?
It’s always been insanely hard, and very financially stupid, to try to make a living as an artist. I don’t think anything has changed in that regard. You don’t do it to make a living, you do it because you have no other choice. For the moment, I’ve made it. It took fifteen years of working very hard and the art I care most about happens to be a commercially viable medium (literary fiction). If I were a poet, I guess it would still be theoretically possible—my friend and mentor August Kleinzahler teaches only once in a while, for instance—but much more difficult. Making it as a working artist is probably about as common as making it as a professional athlete. Because we can all write, we think we have it in us to make it as professional writers. But it’s a bit like the folks who played sports in high school. A few may end becoming professional athletes, the vast majority do not, and luck has very little to do with it. The ones who make it do so because they are willing to sacrifice everything to get good. The ones who practice regularly, but only give 80% — they will never make it. Writing and making art are no different — it takes thousands and thousands of hours of practice to reach any level of competence. I think it was Malcolm Gladwell who said that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of something. That strikes me as accurate. That’s 10,000 hours of literary writing, trying to make art, not writing papers for a class. And definitely not reading. That is required but doesn’t count at all. You need a very durable ego and a maniacal work ethic. And you need to really give everything. If you ever take the easy way out, whether artistically or any other way — say by sending a manuscript out before it’s ready, or writing something you don’t care about that much (because you think it will be marketable) — it will always bite you. You have to be pure — even if you are just making the purest version possible of “chick lit” or stories about rich ladies going shopping. You have to give everything you have, expose yourself in every way necessary, and still know that somewhere in the back of your head, it might not be enough.
I am saying this to be encouraging. People do make it, there are hundreds of us who are living proof. I wasn’t born with any connections. I worked my tail off, not getting a single acceptance or note of encouragement for ten years. I probably accumulated around a thousand rejections before I got my first book published. And every published literary writer I know has the same story — a ton of discarded novels and a sob story involving a decade of soul-crushing rejection, enormous financial risks. But that is what it takes. You really have to be willing to risk everything.
Do you find in retrospect that your writing reveals any allegiance to any group, class, organization, region, religion, or system of thought, or do you conceive of it as mainly the expression of yourself as an individual?
My writing is me. Of course, I’m a product of my environment, just like everyone else, and I have strong feelings about the art I like, and the thinkers I like, but I’d say that’s about the extent of it. I don’t consciously work in any mode or tradition, though I’m obviously fairly modernist in my tendencies. When I’m working, the specifics of politics or philosophy are the furthest things from my mind. They come from a completely different part of the consciousness. What I’m trying to figure out what is true, trying to figure out the best way to tell stories that explain why people are the way we are. It’s no different from the reason people have always told stories. This is us, and this is why. Or this is them, but it’s really us. If that makes sense.
How would you describe the political tendency of American writing, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?
I’m not sure I think much about it. If we’re talking about 9/11, I don’t think we have enough perspective yet. The things that are really helping us think about 9/11, so far, are certainly not novels, but works like The Looming Tower and Generation Kill. All non-fiction, or close to it. I think Apocalypse Now is a pretty good example of the minimum temporal distance and perspective you need to make good art. Vietnam had been over for several years by the time the movie was finished. And the book that most people think of when they think of Vietnam fiction, namely The Things They Carried, didn’t come out until 15 years after the war ended.
Over the past ten years, America has been in a state of constant war with a nebulous enemy. This war has extended to fronts throughout the world. Have you considered the question of your opinion on an unending war on terrorism? What do you think writers’ responsibilities are, in the midst of unending war?
My opinions when it comes to politics don’t really mean much. I vote, but that’s about the greatest impact I’ve had and expect to have. I think ten years ago I went through an activist period when I went to protests and wrote stuff about them, but not any more. You have to figure out how you are going to harmonize your desire to help people with what actually does help them. Everyone has to follow their own moral compass on this. As far as the question of unending war, if we are talking about America, I’d argue this is nothing new. It wasn’t until the mid-1870’s that the last substantial portions of the American Indians (specifically the Comanches and the Lakota) were either killed in battle or surrendered. So we are talking a continuous state of war from 1700 until, say, 1875. Maybe there is a short break until the Spanish-American wars start up, but after that it’s pretty constant. So I’m not sure the period since 2001 really represents anything new for us, other than a change in the technology of war. And from a historical perspective, I suspect that being constantly involved in one conflict or another is basically the norm for a country of our size and status. Which doesn’t make it right, but I think it’s important to separate reality from the way we wish things were or want them to be.