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 Almond is an author, journalist, and commentator. His work has appeared in Playboy, Zoetrope, Ploughshares and Ecotone. His newest short story collection is God Bless America.
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?
Oh gosh. I’m not sure that it’s fair, or even wise, to ask artists to “respond to popular upheaval.” In a sense, we should all be responding to what’s happening in the world around us. We all have that moral duty. Literature’s essential moral duty is to make us feel more than we did before, to induce the radical empathy that helps us imagine the suffering and exaltation of other human beings. It’s not about what’s on the news so much as our attitude toward the news.
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’m not sure if the audience for serious American writing is getting bigger or smaller. It’s a good question. What I can say is that the percentage of readers who are also aspiring writers keeps getting larger. That poses its own problems — too many writers, not enough readers. But literary readers have always been a minority population. The larger cause of that is a culture that is inattentive, visually rapacious, and in retreat from intense feelings. In other words: late-model capitalism.
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?
Much of what’s “on-line” isn’t criticism. When some blogger says they hate my work, it’s not criticism. It’s not a serious engagement with the work, and a revelation of the pleasures and disappointments to be encountered therein. Nor do most online critiques make an attempt to trace the literary lineage of a particular work. But the same is true of much printed criticism at this point. Good criticism does these things, and I’m grateful for it — as any author should be — wherever it appears.
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?
Oy vey. Yeah, I do make a living. But it’s by combining lots of different pursuits: freelance writing, teaching, manuscript editing, books. In the end, very few artists — literary or otherwise — survive by their art. You have to take a patron. Most writers wind up taking the academy as a patron. I happen to have several dozen patrons in any given year. Which allows me to support my family and get some (though not as much) literary work done. There’s not a lot of money out there for literary art, so you have to learn to uncouple financial expectation from the creative process.
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?
The goal is always to cut beneath circumstantial allegiances, and get at the stuff we’re all carrying around. But my basic system of thought is about where Christ came down on the mountain: pay attention to people, don’t pretend your neighbor isn’t, in some way, your moral responsibility, stop hating the poor, etc. I also believe we’re sunk as a species if we stop engaging with acts of imagination.
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 think of “American writing” as having a political tendency. I just don’t think in those terms. I think about books and stories and essays — which aren’t acts of rhetoric. I do think that the attacks on 9/11 freaked people out, and most of the reactions were histrionic. They weren’t forms of grieving, but a twisted sort of fandom. And I do wish that more authors spoke out about the destructive excesses and exploitation that came out of those attacks. That’s what I think Philip Roth was doing in The Plot Against America, a vastly underrated novel. But that’s a personal inclination. I have no right to tell people what they should be writing.
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’m happiest when I read stories, such as George Saunders’ brilliant short story “Home,” that attempt to reckon with what we’re really doing, which is sending very young people, men mostly, into violent and morally incoherent settings. And they come back damaged. That’s just what happens. And we, as a nation, are responsible for that. This is why two of the stories in my new collection are about veterans. Not because I’m trying to make some “point,” but because it’s a human thing that’s happening right now, and I’m deeply troubled about it, and so it finds its way into the work.