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.)
Danielle Evans is the author of the short-story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which was a co-winner of the 2011 PEN American Robert W. Bingham Prize for a first book. Her work has appeared The Paris Review, A Public Space, Callaloo, and Phoebe. She teaches literature and creative writing at American University.
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 if literature has any fundamental responsibility, it’s to be a little bit unruly, so I’d be hesitant to say that all literature is obligated to do one particular concrete thing instead of another particular concrete thing. There are a lot of ways to be writing about a tumultuous world, and not all of them involve immediate response or fiction in the realist tradition. But I do think as a writer you have to be paying attention to these kinds of things, however they work their way into your work, that it’s your job to be awake and alert and somehow relevant in the world. When I say relevant I mean relevant in the broadest sense — aware of danger and aware that there are things in the world worth saving and willing to make the reader confront both. Sometimes I talk to people who want to be relevant in the sense of having the most “important” material and turning it into fiction and unless it comes from a place that’s personal to them I am a little wary, because if all you really want is for someone to be aware of something, sometimes the facts alone, or the stories of the people who actually lived through it, are the most important and useful tools there, and your job is just to get out of the way and let the story get heard. If I see students struggling with “big” material I sometimes ask them, “Are you using this material, or are you giving something to it?” Because “relevance” is not something you can just drop into a story in order to make it matter.
I’ve been writing this novel for years that has a timeline such that it has to take place in a particular year, so when I started it was set in a slightly altered near future and it’s now set in a slightly altered recent past. When I hit the summer where most of the action in the book takes place, I struggled a lot with what I could or couldn’t edit out. In the real world, there was a hole gushing oil in the middle of the ocean that summer, and I wondered, in 20 years, will this be the beginning of the end apocalyptic moment such that it needs to be foregrounded, or will this be a historical footnote that will feel pasted in if I have the novel engage it? I joke sometimes about some things that have happened with this book — the main character is a textbook writer, and the year after I started the book, there was all that controversy about the Texas schoolboard setting textbook standards for the country. The first chapter used to open with a woman getting kicked out of a museum for freaking out about a Gaugin painting, which then actually happened at the National Museum of Art a few years after I wrote the chapter. I rewrote that chapter for various reasons about a year ago, and it ended up opening with a young person protesting something by camping out in a park, which, lo and behold. So I’ve been kidding that I need to moonlight as a psychic, but the truth is I think weird coincidences like that are pretty common for writers — you are paying attention to the world you live in and it is in some sense your job to understand and predict human behavior, especially at its most extreme or eccentric, and to situate it in your cultural moment so that your work is a map of the future. As a fiction writer, if you’re doing your job and tuning in to the world you live in but also adding some kind of insight, you’re not necessarily writing about the revolution that is happening, or the one that just happened — often, even if your book is set in the past, you’re in some sense writing about the next revolution.
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?
No. I don’t think of audience at all when I write. If I do think about audience, I can’t write — it’s constricting. It’s interesting to me, because it seems to me that a lot of readers think about audience all the time. I get asked a lot “who did you write this book for?” Or, when I am teaching a book and a student doesn’t like it, I sometimes hear what the student intends as a polite apology — “I am probably not the audience for this book,” or worse, “It wasn’t relatable to me.” I always ask them to parse that word — if the book was not able to connect emotionally because it wasn’t about your direct personal experience, then either the book failed in some fundamental task of being a book and it’s your job to critically articulate its failures, or you failed at being a human being and were not willing to step at all outside of your comfort zone, so you need to read it again with the understanding that you are not the center of the universe and must be capable of empathy. I guess, as an African-American woman, it’s always been so clear to me that so much of the literature I loved was not about me or intended for me or written by anyone who could have even anticipated that someone like me would read it someday, that it never occurred to me that other people were just as invested in the idea that they were the audience the writer intended. But the amazing thing was that as soon as I could read, anything could be mine anyway, and I could love it anyway, I just had to work for it. So maybe that’s my ideal audience — people who are willing to work for it, people who are willing to put their big kid pants on and meet me halfway. I would say that for all of the handwringing about the death of literary culture and the millennial generation being unempathetic computer zombies or whatnot, the population of the world willing to put its big kid pants on and meet you halfway remains, in my unscientific opinion, the same size that it always was — small, but present. Now, the amount of American writing that takes itself seriously and is competing for that audience’s attention may be greater than ever, but that is perhaps a different and more dangerous question.
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 think, to perhaps contradict the answer I just gave, I am not the intended audience for criticism of my own work, which is as it should be. When the book first came out, I read everything, because it was really amazing and gratifying for me to see that people were talking about my work at all, and some of it illuminated things for me, good and bad, that I hadn’t even known I was doing. But after about a month I stopped reading criticism of my own work altogether. It was making it too hard to write from the perspective that the audience doesn’t exist. It felt a little bit like the time that a few years after graduating workshop, I finally threw out the box of workshop letters that I’d carried around through four moves in three years. I had taken what I could take, you know, and the work was either done or I had let it go, and I was comfortable enough in what I was doing or at least trying to do that I didn’t feel like I needed to keep searching the letters for the key to it. And I think criticism feels a lot like that process of workshop— some of it is really smart and insightful, and some of it is really interesting from a human perspective, because it signals to you where a reader is coming from and might form the basis of an interesting conversation about experience or aesthetics, but is not particularly instructive when it comes to you and the blank page, and some of it makes it clear that the critic has decided that you or your work are representative of some group or cause or phenomenon that the critic loves or hates and the actual discussion of your work gets lost in the noise.
I do, however, place a lot of value on criticism in general, and on reading criticism as a way of sharpening my own aesthetics and thinking about where we are as a literary culture. My concern about Internet criticism is not so much the format in which things get published — though I do think we need to be concerned about the lack of paying jobs for critics — but about the way the internet has made criticism aware of the writer. Because so many writers do read all of their critics, and even get instant Google alerts reminding them to do so, I think a lot of critics are writing as though the writer is in the room. Because on the Internet, the writer is always in the room, so to speak. So a lot of the criticism ends up being benign or blandly positive and the negative criticism is often anonymous and nasty or overly personal or so grounded in the critic’s determination to be an iconoclast that it loses perspective and doesn’t do much engagement with the actual text that is allegedly being reviewed. I think there needs to be a cultural space for the mixed review and the negative review that’s grounded in serious argument and not hysterics.
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?
Well, with the exception of two one-year gaps, I have literally been teaching creative writing at universities since I was 21, so do with that what you will. Luckily, teaching is also “the sort of thing I want to do,” in that it’s something that genuinely excites me, which I think is fortunate because that’s not true for a lot of writers who end up in academia, and I’ve been lucky enough to stumble into a pretty fantastic variation of the academic job, and I am well aware that a lot of awful variations of that job exist. But it is also “other work,” and so there’s certainly a time trade off. Honestly, I think the single biggest factor keeping writers in the U.S tied to academia or other day jobs is the lack of universal health care. That fear that you are one slip and fall away from a lifetime of having insurmountable debt and being uninsurable keeps a lot of people willing to make very little money teaching 5/5 in some city they hate even if it means their writing time is virtually nonexistent. I always wanted — even before I wanted to be a writer — to be an academic, and so I’m certain I would have gone on the academic market at some point, and it’s turned out to be serendipitous in a lot of ways that I was looking for academic jobs when I was. But at the point that I was looking, I was 24, and I had just sold my book, and if it hadn’t been for that fear, I probably would have spent a few more years writing full time and traveling and basically using my writing money pay myself what I’d been making as a graduate student and continuing to live that way.
Even that imagined life was only theoretically possible because I was young and had no children and had gone to a college where my financial aid package was grants instead of student loans, and my advance was relatively substantial for an unpublished writer of literary fiction — there are a lot of caveats to trying to make a living as a full time writer in a culture that doesn’t see that as a legitimate career. I intended to end up in academia, but I didn’t really intend to so before I turned 30, and that initial motivation to look for jobs at the time that I was looking was somewhat substantially about my fear of being uninsured. I think if we ever really saw universal health care in this country, it might make a lot of artists more willing to be full time artists, and might across the board change the kind of major decisions people make about everything from employment to marriage.
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?
Allegiance is a tricky word. At least for me, it conjures up recitations of the pledge of allegiance, and makes me think of unflagging, unquestioning adherence, and there is nothing I feel that way about. Fiction has to be a little bit ruthless, which means even the things you love or take for granted get interrogated or get hurt. At the same time, I wouldn’t call my writing an individual expression, if by individual expression the question means untethered to all of those other forces and institutions. Obviously I’ve been shaped by all of those forces and am often engaging them or responding to them. In life and in writing, there is no such thing as a person without context.
How would you describe the political tendency of American writing, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?
I’m assuming that framing the question around 2001 is in part a way of asking whether U.S literature has responded to the September 11th attacks. I’ve noticed, as have we all, various cultural and political shifts, but not so much shifts in literature and literary culture. I think there’s been a shift to the right in U.S politics — and I include not only Bush but Obama in this, because I think when you elect someone who is and has only ever promised to be a conservative moderate and call it a triumph of progressivism, that is indicative of some pronounced recentering of the conversation. There’s always been a good deal of fiction in politics, but I think, due in part to the rise of fear-based politics and in part to the rise of internet culture, there’s been a sharp and alarming decline in the number of people who believe in independently verifiable facts, and that’s allowed a lot of the implicit fictions that help people sleep at night to become explicit fictions on a public stage. Maybe the fact that all of that could happen and U.S. literature could as a whole fail to respond to it does indicate that in some sense a lot of U.S writers feel themselves outside of or above politics. Partly I think that’s a function of where U.S literature was before 2001. In the context of teaching African-American literature, I talk to my students about the tradition of the protest novel, which you don’t see as much of anymore. I don’t entirely know why that is, but I have some theories, and one of them is that one of the most pressing political problems we face in the U.S today is the lack of people who are willing and able to think critically, and so all of the lovely ambiguity and complexity in contemporary fiction is political insofar as it is a response to that, an argument that the world is not black and white and reducible to sound bite. There’s also the fact that there’s a great deal of reliable and well-written non-fiction, and that seems to me in some sense the best medium for addressing a lot of these cultural shifts — some of it can only be confronted head on.
It does seem odd to me sometimes how many characters in American fiction live in a world where history is real, but politics are not — you’ll find, for example, many stories or books that reference September 11th, even in passing, but fewer books that have the characters engage in political discussion about what September 11th means, even though people were talking about the political implications of September 11th all the time when it happened. History divorced from politics is strange to me, but that’s partly a product of my own background — one could pick any number of examples of the way politics has made my life possible, but perhaps to start with the most basic, my grandparents’ interracial marriage was illegal in most states at the time that it happened, but was not illegal in the state of New York. I was also born and raised in DC, where most of the people I grew up with had family working for the federal government, whether it was as a secretary or a security guard or an elected or appointed official, so national politics was personal, and it wasn’t until I lived away for a while that I really understand that for a lot of people, national politics feels like a remote thing.
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?
I think the writer’s responsibilities are as they have ever been: empathy, compassion, perspective. Most of the history of the world has been irrational and brutal. But, to paraphrase Baldwin, most of human history is not all of it. The writer’s responsibility is to keep writing as though life is inherently valuable, whether that means writing about war or writing about daily life outside of it. As for my own personal feelings, I am generally opposed to declaring wars on nebulous abstract entities for rhetorical purposes.