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.)
Darin Strauss is the author of four books. His most recent, Half a Life, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and teaches writing at New York 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?
No. There’s a great line from Melville. I’ll butcher it, but he wrote something to the tune of: The writer needs to say No! in thunder. This means — and the critic Leslie Fiedler had a good essay about it — the “No, in thunder” is not the no of the manifesto. Merely saying no to one political idea (no matter how wrong the idea) makes for bad literature; it means saying yes to some other, opposite idea. The no of a good book isn’t partisan; it’s absolute. Fiedler (and Kundera) (and Woolf) argues that — in effect — being a novelist is the opposite of being a debate team captain. The easy yes, the politically unimpeachable yes — a book arguing against nazism, for example — is not what we should expect from literature. Even something like The Crucible (a play about Salem witch trials written during the McCarthey era) is no more than a piece of well-reasoned, absolutely correct and virtuous propaganda. The no of a good book should offend all sides. A Missourian once asked Faulkner why some local writer didn’t “do for Missouri what you did for Mississippi. He loves it so!” Faulkner (according to Fiedler) responded: “To write well about a place a man has to hate a place.” And then, after a smile: “And love it too. Like his own wife.”
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 think of the audience as one really good reader. Writers all have their perfect reader, their imaginary bibliomanic, a snufalupagus in bifocals. Nabokov’s perfect reader was himself, “with time and a dictionary handy.” Mine is kinder and smarter than I — kind of like David Lipsky (“Absolutely American”; “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself”). He’s the reader I turn to at the end of a draft. He rescued my last book when it was on the ropes.
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?
Good question. Hard to say. It’s made it more democratic, more wide-spread. Which is good, right? On the other hand, I got an Amazon review to Chang & Eng that read: “I didn’t like this book because it was fiction, and I bought it hoping it was true, though it says ‘a novel’ on the cover.” You can look it up. So — yeah. If the culture of professional criticism is shrinking, that’s a problem.
On the third hand (literature deserves many hands), there seem to be a growing number of great book-blog critics. Mark Athitakis and Maud Newton come immediately to mind, but there are many others…
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’ve been lucky. I teach at NYU, but I do so because I like it (and because it has medical benefits.) If I didn’t have a family to support, I would still teach — it gives me a lot, even in terms of helping my own writing. But yes, I think it’s hard but possible. I would like it to be easier.
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?
See [previous] answer: I’m with Woolf, who said one (when writing) should feel no allegiance to a nation or a political group, even to gender — just to the story. Otherwise, you do what Saul Bellow (sorry to be Rain-Mannish with all the quotes) said you can’t do: That is, you’d consign some of your characters to hell, just for their political views, without the due process of art.
How would you describe the political tendency of American writing, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?
I have been energized personally, since 2001, by an anger toward the far right wing of this country. I don’t like the feeling — it seems every election is a Last Stand. But I try to keep that out of the work.
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?
I think writers should — in their public lives — do what they can. I read in an event to raise money for John Kerry (see how well that turned out) and later against the Net’s proposed move to Brooklyn (again, my success rate). I have supported Occupy Wall Street, and have been talking about sending them some fiction to use on a website, and/or journal. But, again, I don’t think that should be in the writing. Polemical novels are almost inevitably bad novels.