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.)
Porochista Khakpour is the author of a novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects. Her non-fiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, and The Rumpus, among many others. She also curated Guernica’s first Iranian-American issue, which came out last month.
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?
Literature has a responsibility to nothing but the creation of the best art possible, I’d say. However there is a type of literature that responds to popular upheaval and I am very happy it exists.
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?
My fiction and nonfiction split this question for me. Perhaps I see and understand the audience for my short nonfiction (mainly newspaper personal essay journalism) more, than my audience for my long fiction. During the book tour for my first novel, I came to understand a lot of twentysomething comp lit student types were my novel’s audience. I think this will change with the second and third. I do have my own personal readers—the folks who see the early drafts—who I think I have in mind more and more as I write these days—what would they make of this ending? Would it disappoint them? Does this sentence live up? Etc. But I guess what made me want to be a writer in the first place was incredibly antisocial tendencies, not at all compelled by the notion of a receiver on the other end; I wrote to escape and shut out much of my real world and create an alternate one, not to dialogue or participate with it in any way actually.
I would say the audience for serious American writing seems contracted but maybe it always does. I suspect the memoir has done some damage just as the YA-for-adults phenomenon in that maybe they’ve altered people’s expectations and tinted what they want out of a reading experience. Sometimes it feels like people crave the most mindless pageturner more than anything these days; everyone seems so starving for juice. But this has been moaned and written about so much that I choose to ignore it and think the best from readers—at least readers who would read me, people who know my fiction isn’t entirely commercial, isn’t bestseller fare. I’m quite happy with the limited audience I have.
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?
I value criticism, certainly. I am one of those writers who gets the “critically acclaimed” tag over the “commercially successful” one and that’s about all I get. I don’t think of “online” as a non-professional realm though really, not so much anymore. I see some great academic journals in the humanities for instance making use of saving costs and expanding readership via the internet. I think literary criticism is not so isolated at all — instead it’s maybe been spread out and redistributed. I mean, do I value a blogger’s opinion as much a Times Book Review critic’s? Yes, these days, quite often I do. Often, in our world, the blogger has the same education, experience, and understanding as the Times-approved critic. Some of my favorite reviews came from tiny new journals on the web — good for them, I say. It waters down the old idea that one or two reviewers, if they even bothered to find you of interest, could make or break you — how old-fashioned, terrifying, and stupid, really.
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?
I do make a living the way I want to — I work and I write. I don’t understand writing without work of some sort. My work is linked to writing — it’s the teaching of writing. And I love it, I don’t find it a burden at all. I’m glad I’m out in the world, doing something that maybe more tangibly and obviously alters and hopefully betters lives. I sometimes think I’d be better off expanding my day job pool into things like cab driver or waitress or plumber or whatever, and I’d have even more to write about. I hate the sort of special-snowflake syndrome writers and many artists have where they somehow feel they have a higher calling or something — they attribute to it all sorts of sacred-sounding and spiritual-seeming words and phrases, which I hate. I write stories. That’s all. I’m really lucky I’ve been paid for it. But I’ve got to work to earn money — everyone I know works. That’s just how it is. I suppose the root of the question here is why don’t we live in some ideal world where writers were paid more for their manuscripts. But some are — some are paid obscenely high amounts. And yes, most very little. But doesn’t that go for so many lines of work? I just don’t feel like different rules should apply to us. I already feel so lucky that so many universities have paid me very decent salaries to teach classes when I really have one year of graduate education under my belt — the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. And a novel instead of a thesis, which I also got paid for. And everything I write, I generally get some money for. Tell all this to other academics, who are in grad school for sometimes six or seven years, who spend years of their life on their dissertations that sometimes remain unread and certainly more often than not unpaid, and who then publish papers for the rest of their careers for no pay at all. If anyone should complain, it’s my colleagues in those areas. I feel very grateful to academia for letting us artists in with rather open arms.
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?
I guess the latter. I suppose anyone who had any idea of me of as a writer or even as a minor public figure would figure out the rest pretty easily: very liberal, pretty godless, etc.
How would you describe the political tendency of American writing, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?
I don’t know if I would call it more political or less. American letters has always had room for political writing, I suppose. In fact, for many years post 9/11 there was that “too soon” notion. Remember when the first wave of 9/11 — themed fiction came out in 2003? People didn’t even read much of it — they just immediately cried “too soon.” Which was embarrassing and dumb, I think. I’m very happy people wrote about it and are still writing about that aftermath era, which I feel we are still so deeply entrenched in. How can we not write about it? We live in lunatic times. But what’s consoling — and maybe also depressing, interestingly — is that writers have made that call for so many eras in history. So goes the world and the stupid monkeys who run it.
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?
Again, I think a certain type of writing and certain writers address this, not all. I don’t like the word “responsibility” when I think most of them feel more of a “calling” in that direction perhaps — it’s more self-motivated than a resignation or a requirement of some sort. It’s hard to watch insanity all around and you — I’ve found this moment you mention very hard to live through silently and I’m heartened that I’m not alone at all. And for many, feeling powerless leads to the urge to do something, however small. Writing is one way and it happens to be an important way — a potent, nonviolent, easily accessible, communication method. The exchange of ideas in our times, in all times, has always been more instrumental in social and political change than guns and bombs and wars, right? Well, maybe I should stop there — maybe believing that is what keeps me a writer. But I don’t see any other choice — there is no difference to me between living through it and writing through it, and I mean that in the most non-mystical, non-spiritual, non-special-snowflakey-way possible.