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.)
John Warner is the editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He is a contributor to The Morning News and was co-editor of the humor anthology, Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans. His debut novel, The Funny Man, was published in September by Soho Books.
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?
Being old-fashioned about these things, if we believe that as a category of art, literature has a responsibility to attempt to render something that is “true” about life as it is lived (and I do), then the answer is of course, “yes.” I further believe that the raw material of contemporary artistic expression is the world we live in, so I’m not sure how literature could really do otherwise, even if it wanted to.
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?
When it comes to writing for a definite audience my answer is a very definitive, “yes,” but also “no.” “Yes” in that I have specific notions about the subject matter of my work as well as how I go about expressing that subject matter, so by default my audience will be those people that respond to what I write about and the way that I write about it. That’s a tautology, I know, which is why the real answer is probably “no” because at this juncture it’s not clear if these people actually exist outside of a very very small circle. If there is a specific audience beyond the inside of my own skull, it may be illusory. My goal, though, is to write for every sentient creature who can understand English.
I would say that the audience for “serious” writing of the prose and poetry variety has for sure contracted, but I’m also among those that believe we see a much much higher quality of writing in other media, most specifically television. It’s a bit of a cliché at this point to say that The Wire or Breaking Bad or Mad Men are on par with any “Great American Novel,” but things become cliché because there’s plenty of truth in them. Louie is just about the best domestic drama (not a misprint) I’ve experienced in the last five years. It also happens to be very much “of” the current culture. Note that Breaking Bad and Louie are definitely not exercises in “realism” and yet they still feel vital and true to the times, suggesting that a return to the 19th Century isn’t necessarily the prescription for what may ail American Literature. Also note that these shows are not “popular” entertainment, as these works fill relatively small niches (several million viewers), but even those numbers dwarf the best selling serious writing by a 10 to 1 margin. I’m not sure it has to be that way, though.
Two of the most popular and most heavily publicized and marketed works of serious fiction of the last year, The Marriage Plot and The Art of Fielding, seem to me to be works primarily written for book nerds since the core subject of both books is books. I enjoyed them very much, but then I am a book nerd, so I love me some Derrida inside baseball and Melville references. That said, I can’t think of a single person I know who isn’t also a writer or English professor or at least an English major who wouldn’t find vast swaths of The Marriage Plot opaque and/or dull. (Please note, I found it highly enjoyable.)
But that this is the “serious” fiction that gets a Times Square billboard suggests to me that if serious fiction is no longer the drug of choice for the average thinking human looking for narrative stimulation, it might be because we’re either not writing the stories that engage them, or the stories we have that may engage them are not getting Vanity Fair profiles and Times Square Billboards, or maybe even published at all.
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?
Because I have an ego that is both overly large and somewhat fragile, I have an incurable curiosity about what people are saying about my work. This resulted in me going so far as to email the guy who seemed to hate my novel more than anyone else. My only regret is that there isn’t a lot more talk (good or bad, doesn’t matter) about my book.
I think the most flattering thing in the world for a writer is to be taken seriously, and so I’m a big fan of the democratization of criticism that’s been fostered by the move online. Without it, I don’t think my book would’ve been covered anywhere, period. Credentials do not the serious reader make. Quality is as quality does, and the sites that gain readership do so by being engaging and relevant to audiences.
As to whether or not it’s made literary criticism less of an isolated cult, I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I think there’s a greater volume and variety of criticism than ever. At least I’m reading more than I ever have before because there’s at least a dozen sites that I can go to where I’m pretty sure to find an ongoing conversation about something I’m interested in. At the same time, I have a sneaking suspicion that these sites are essentially talking to the same chunks of audience, with significant overlap in their Venn diagrams, and it’s not doing all that much to expand the tent. I have no real hard evidence for this, though.
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?
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! No, I have not found it possible to live on my writing alone. In my very best two years out of the last ten, during which I’ve published four books and had a fifth — which I got paid for — torpedoed by an 11th hour threatened lawsuit, I could probably have gotten by, provided my needs extended not too much beyond food and shelter. Certainly if I’d been responsible for my own health insurance, I probably couldn’t have made it without wracking up some fairly significant debt. If you include money earned from editing (which I enjoy very much), my fortunes improve, but just the writing, no way.
I’m not sure there’s a place in our current economic system for any kind of profession that isn’t tied to a handful of very practical career paths, so I don’t see writers as some specifically underprivileged class. Neither could I have made much of a living exclusively plying my other trade which I’ve practiced for the last ten years, non-tenured teaching of college. (Full-time position, salary = 26k.)
If we were smart, we’d all be in the app development business. It’s both fun and easy to lament the collapse of the culture and decry our shabby treatment at the hands of the great unwashed, but I tend to think that it’s literature’s job to make the audience pay attention, just like the humanities needs to remind the broader public of its importance in the face of curricular rollbacks and monetary cuts.
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 think there’s no doubt that my writing reveals all of these things, probably in multiple unflattering ways, but I can’t really consider my own work that way. That’s what we need the critics for. I will say that my writing tends to betray a certain Midwestern fatalism which always keeps it from illustrating some kind of true “triumph of spirit” because in the Midwest, one never ultimately triumphs. I definitely want my work to say something, but for me, the process has always been about first figuring out what’s going on in my own head. I’d be more than happy to have some serious readers explain it to me.
How would you describe the political tendency of American writing, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?
Wow. This is tough to answer. The whole of American writing is an awfully big space so it’s hard for me to say that this vast array of work has a specific political tendency. I’m thinking you could find just about any political view imaginable in the realm of published writing.
If you narrowed the field to commercial literary publishing (serious books that also have the backing to seek a non-micro-niche audience) the dominant political tendency feels a little proscribed and cramped, i.e., traditionally liberal of the NPR-listening, New Yorker-subscribing, Prius-driving ilk. (I’ve just described myself, by the by, which is probably an answer to question 5.) By and large, we mean well, but there’s a core caution that could be read as cowardice. For all of our critiques of the system, the system hasn’t done us all that wrong and while we retain the requisite humanity to recognize injustice, and wring our hands over our cultural decline, this doesn’t mean we’re all that inclined to do much about it other than cluck concernedly to each other about it on social media.
The dominant political narrative post-9/11 is fear, and I’m no less prone to its effects than anyone else. As economic insecurity creeps further up the class ladder, we may see more and more people overcoming their fear out of necessity. Or at some point we may decide to just pull the ladder up, saving ourselves and letting everyone else fend for themselves.
Recent events, like the OWS movement, are perhaps serving to push this comfortable quasi-paternalistic liberalism in more radical directions. It’s hard not to feel genuine outrage when confronted with the scenes of peaceful protesters being lathered in pepper-spray by riot-geared cops, but it’s yet to be seen if the broader revolution goes further than tweets and Facebook updates expressing solidarity. It’s easier than ever to be “for” something without doing anything. When the cops rolled the OWS library into the dumpsters following their sweep of Zuccotti, I donated some books and felt good about it, but in my darker moments, I also recognize that this action is a balm for a guilty conscience that I don’t do more, even as I recognize there’s much more to be done.
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?
When hasn’t America been at war with something? Even between our officially declared wars or “actions” that involve sending our military out-of-country, there’s something that we’re battling: poverty, drugs, obesity, teenage sex, cancer, tax hikes, Wall Street, acne… As a global superpower, the American lingua franca is “war,” and so every problem is viewed in those terms no matter how unproductive it may be. Even with all of our setbacks, we can’t seem to shake our “manifest destiny.” To be a plausible candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, you have to believe that the United States was uniquely ordained as righteous and good by none other than God himself.
In war there is no accommodation or compromise because to compromise is, apparently, to lose. I guess I see this as perhaps related to my above thoughts vis-à-vis “fear.” This is strange, because in our day-to-day lives, by necessity we are all about the compromise. Like right now, I am sitting in a café drinking a hot chocolate. In the war against my own personal (at the moment, thankfully hypothetical) obesity, I knew I should not have the hot chocolate, so I ordered it skim, even though skim is decidedly inferior to whole. I also eschewed the whipped cream because I knew I would be weak and order an accompanying sugar cookie because there is nothing better than dipping a sugar cookie into hot chocolate, immersing it just long enough so the cookie is saturated to a melting-on-tongue degree. I also jogged four miles this morning, every moment of which was unpleasant. I made these choices because I want my hot chocolate and cookie and to drink/eat them too, but I also want to live a relatively healthy and productive life.
I think most of us go about our days making these compromises in small and large ways because if we didn’t our lives would grind to a halt, and yet, when it comes to macro problems of much greater import and complexity like drug use or terrorism we think that we can somehow “defeat” them with a purely war-like approach. I can’t imagine anything more naïve.
What is the writer’s responsibility towards this? To remind everyone that when it comes to war, “I’ve met the enemy, and he is us.”