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.)
Steve Himmer is the author of one novel, The Bee-Loud Glade. He teaches at Emerson College and edits Necessary Fiction.
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?
I think literature needs to respond to the world as it is, upheavals and all, but I wouldn’t call that a responsibility so much as artistic necessity — if the world you’re writing about doesn’t resonate with readers, it won’t have much to show them. A writer who’s paying attention, who’s curious and concerned about the world is always responding to it even if not in literal ways. I guess that’s why I shy away from calling it “responsibility”: that sounds like a response needs to be direct, and immediate, and literal, rather than the slow burning consideration I think fiction, at least, is best suited to. So if we write about the past or the future, even an imaginary past or unlikely future, we’re always really writing about the present. That’s unavoidable, because even if you want to write a Victorian novel you can’t, now that we don’t have Victorian minds. It’s as unlikely as the future fashions on Lost In Space. And I think literature always loses when it tries to compete with other genres at their own specialties, whether that’s the immediacy of news coverage or the factual conservation of documentary. When I read a novel that’s too concerned with tackling an issue or event head on in the most literal terms, I often feel like I’d be better served reading non-fiction about it instead.
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?
I don’t write for a definite audience, but I hope I write for a broad one (if not a very large one). What has meant the most to me in the response to The Bee-Loud Glade is that it has appealed to some “casual” readers as well as academic ones, to some non-writers as well as writers, and to some people who probably haven’t read many of the books that mean the most to me and that I see all over the pages of my own novel. I’m happy about that, not necessarily because I want to be a populist but because I’d rather risk having readers not like something than have them unaware it exists. A wide conversation is the best response to my writing I can imagine. As to the audience for serious writing, I don’t have any numbers one way or the other, but what I’d like to think is the audience is the same if not larger, and only seems to contract because the choices expand — even when there are more people reading, there will be fewer reading any given book because we have easier access to so many books published by presses large, small, and smaller. Certainly the conversation about books has become bigger and more inclusive — bottom-up, instead of top-down.
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?
To be honest, I don’t know quite yet how I value criticism. I’ve only published one book, and for the most part the response has been positive. Sure, there are some reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere that don’t seem quite accurate, but of the more “professional” reviews there’s only one that got under my skin. The responses I value are those that engage the book thoughtfully, taking on questions the story raised, because then I feel like the reader — professional or otherwise — and I are thinking together about the world. That doesn’t mean we agree, or that they liked the book, but those seem less important than the exchange of ideas. So what worries me, as much as I enjoy the casual, amateur conversation about literature the web makes so easy, is the disappearance of critics paid for their experience and expertise, the ones who — like them or not — are genuinely committing their lives to that exchange and to a belief it matters. Critics who are taking literature seriously as not only entertainment — which it can be, of course — but are making connections between fiction and history and the whole world of ideas. It takes time and practice and work to do those things well, to gain the context and capability to do so, and people who do it well — many of whom are doing so online for free — deserve to be honored and paid for their skills.
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 make my living by teaching, as so many writers do. And that’s okay with me, because I genuinely enjoy teaching and it makes me a better writer. I don’t think I’d stop even if I made enough money writing that I could afford to, though I might change how much I teach to create more time to write. I worry, a bit, that having more financial pressure or expectation on my fiction would make me nervous to write what I want to instead of what’s marketable, though that’s a worry I’m certainly willing to test if anyone wants to pay me enough to find out. I used to imagine getting paid to write full time as being about leisure, the ability to come and go and work as you choose, but now I think it’s more about creating time for all the things you have an opportunity to do as a writer. And those opportunities seem to multiply rapidly, even with the most modest “success,” so I can only imagine what it’s like for someone in a more prominent position. Right now, I’m just hoping my royalty check will pay for the iPad I preemptively spent it on before my book tour this past summer.
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?
Everything I write stems from my own obsessive, idiosyncratic interests and experiences all clattering together and contradicting each other. It’s hard to think that’s anything more than individual, or that it adheres to any particular group unless there’s a group of people who’ve held all the same jobs and travelled to all the same places and taken the same college classes I have. But what it does reflect, I think, is my academic and cultural background, not just in terms of nationality, class, and those more apparent things, but I suspect the way I approach the world is pretty embedded, for better or worse, in early- to mid-90s cultural politics and social theory and so on. I see this all the time in talking to my students, that I have a worldview marked by a particular intellectual era, and I think it shows in the type of stories I write: ecological fatalism, post-Cold War anxiety, a general distrust of institutions, those sorts of things that are cliché, sure, but are also part of my DNA. Other than that, the closest I come to an allegiance is a commitment — though one that’s more personal than political — to writing about intersections between culture and technology and ecology that overlaps with what a lot of other people are interested in, the kind of thing you’ll read about in the pages of Orion, for instance.
How would you describe the political tendency of American writing, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?
There’s a tendency in fiction, at least, to take on politics very literally, whether it’s writing from the point of view of a terrorist or creating a group of characters representative of all sides of an issue. That approach doesn’t usually appeal to me. It seems to invite the recurring complaint that fiction is irrelevant now because real life has outstripped imagination. There’s an argument that pops up again and again about fiction being irrelevant now, that real life has outstripped imagination — lately it was Zoe Williams asking in The Guardian if we should “ditch fiction in times of crisis.” But I think Zadie Smith considered all this more usefully in “Two Paths for the Novel”, suggesting the crisis is one of realism, not imagination. Fiction that tries to be political in an immediate, literal way seems destined to fail or at least to be unreadable in the future. Maybe the problem is also one of treating politics— be it elections, terrorism, whatever — as discrete events in time rather than nodes in more complex networks of power and ideas, the way Carolyn Nordstrom writes about political violence in her remarkable ethnography A Different Kind of War Story. I’d rather read a novel that grapples with the condition of being ensnared in those networks not just by telling us we are or by choosing an isolated event to somehow stand in for all that, but by giving us a less literal experience of how the condition of living within them shapes us day in and day out, through language and thought and material life. Still, it’s easy to see why those big, realist, political novels garner praise and win awards, because they give a satisfying sense, after reading them, of being able to say, “Well, and now I understand that,” and to put it behind you as if all is right with the world once again. But maybe it’s not that simple.
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 the responsibilities of writers in general are, in the midst, of unending war?
You know, when I was younger I had this dumb, romantic sense that art and literature produced under oppression mean more, somehow. That when the stakes are higher, when you’re sneaking samizdat from hand to hand and across borders, at risk of prison or worse, literature matters and that importance is tangible. I can’t imagine anyone working that way would turn down a chance to write under safer conditions, yet I’d allow myself to wish for drastic, dramatic circumstances to live in, something bigger than suburban angst, as if it would automatically make me a better and more important writer. In hindsight, I probably watched Red Dawn too many times. Now, I’d say the responsibilities don’t change whether it’s wartime or not: to keep telling stories, to keep believing stories matter, and to get them to as many people as we can — all kinds of people, not just those with whom we already agree — whether it’s through bookstores or websites or around campfires or whatever. To tell stories that don’t shy away from difficult questions, from injustice, from power, from the possibility of making things better, even if you’re approaching those problems not quite head on.