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.)
James Boice is the author of three novels: MVP, NoVA, and, most recently, The Good and the Ghastly, which we reviewed last year.
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?
Literature has no responsibilities except to CAUSE popular upheaval.
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?
More and more I have a better idea of who I am writing for, or more so who I am not writing for. It’s very freeing to write with a specific type of reader in mind and not for everybody. Books are like music — not everybody likes the same types. Just because someone likes music doesn’t mean they will like everything. It’s weird how if you like books, you’re thrown into this weird mass bin of others whose tastes are 100% different from yours, for no reason other than they also like books, and you’re expected to get along.
It’s very homogenous. All fiction is only broken into a few big categories — popular fiction, mainstream literary fiction, and indie fiction — when people’s tastes are so fragmented and particular. There should be 1,000 subcategories for fiction, just as there is for music.
And that’s happening more and more every day. It’s great. Having just six publishers, a few booksellers, and just one or two sources for people to find out about new novels — NPR, New York Times — made no sense. And so it’s changing, because we the people are willing it to.
The audience for serious American writing has grown in the last ten years. It has not shrunk. More than ever people want to know why things are happening and why things are the way they are. And why we humans are the way we are. And what we can learn about ourselves. And how to deal.
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 like when people say nice things about my books because I spend so much time on them and have no idea if anyone will get them. But I take both positive and negative criticism with a very large grain of salt. It’s one guy’s opinion, no matter if that guy is James Wood or someone on Amazon. It’s one guy. If someone’s critical comment really bothers me, then I wonder if maybe he/she is correct. Otherwise I try not to let anyone’s comments — good or bad — affect how I feel about my work or myself. I skim the reviews I get, but don’t read them very closely and quickly forget about them as I move on to a new project. Books last forever — reviews don’t. Writers live forever — critics don’t.
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?
Haven’t made a living at it yet, but I will. There is a place for it if you’re good enough at it.
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?
It is the expression of myself as an individual staggering through life, feeble and foolish but trying to be honest and prudent and good and to learn and keep my head above water and maintain my integrity. I try to share my experience of life. All of what I write is very close to home for me. It is the prism through which I experience the world.
How would you describe the political tendency of American writing, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?
Hyperbolic. Everybody’s got an opinion. As far as journalism, there are far too many outlets and too many people trying to make a name for themselves as journalists — and too little actual news. It’s a dungheap. So 98% of it is manufactured fake news of no consequence, even though it seems otherwise.
As for literary fiction, that world has always been dominated by people who lean left and probably always will. I don’t think that has changed since 2001 or ever will. So there have been no changes in its political tendencies.
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?
My opinion is that I hope no religious idiot blows my ass up on the train, especially if I am in the middle of writing a new book. And that no religious idiot blows up anyone else, especially anyone I love.
From our perspective, the War on Terror represents man’s eternal battle against Death. And Evil. It wants to come out of the blue and lay waste to our peace and happiness. And it has — and partly because we have opened the door for it by being international thugs. So we are complicit in our own troubles. Because man is flawed and fallen. So this is nothing new. It’s all something that could have been written about in the Bible or Shakespeare or Stephen King. It’s classic literature.
From the perspective of the religious lunatics trying to kill us, of course, it’s classic too: David and Goliath. It’s Rocky.
A writer has no responsibilities in unending war except trying to end it with his words. Social upheaval — in a good way.