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.)
Kio Stark is the author of Follow Me Down, which was published earlier this year by Red Lemonade.
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 don’t think literature—or rather writers—have any particular responsibilities in their work related to specific historical events. It’s our job to reveal things that are otherwise invisible, to spark imaginations. I find the current climate of protest, revolution, and occupation utterly thrilling and inspiring. It gives me hope in a very concrete way, if hope can be said to be concrete. But that doesn’t mean I’ll write about it. I think every human has a responsibility to respond to their political world, but writers don’t have to do that in their writing.
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?
Not really, no. I don’t think that much about audience while I’m writing. Audience is more of an editing question for me. And at that point I’m trying to balance my tendency toward the literary (and sometimes the obscure) with a desire for approachability. I want to tell stories that will be meaningful to a wide range of readers because writing is a form of connection, for me. My partner is one of my best readers, and it’s because he’s not part of the literary world in any way. He reads mythology, comics, sci-fi and he’s a maker, so he has a certain orientation toward mechanical explanations for everything including human behavior. That means he pushes me toward dramatic storytelling, and a sense of resolution, the latter of which I resist with all my might.
I’m not sure about what counts as “serious.” I think that publishing is changing so much right now, and that includes changes in the way that work gets credentialed as literary.
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 place a high value on interacting with readers, whether they are from the literary establishment or not. My own work isn’t totally transparent to me, and readers teach me a great deal about what I’ve done and where I’ve succeeded and where I’ve failed. The guy who designed my book’s cover gave me the most nuanced literary analysis I’ve ever had. So yes, it’s less of an isolated cult, and overall, I’m finding that’s making the world a more interesting place.
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?
So far, I’ve supported my writing habit by working intermittently as a copywriter in advertising. This is my first novel, and it’s doing well for a literary debut, but it’s certainly not paying the bills. When I was a child, my father, a poet and city planner, was friends with William Bronk, a poet and businessman. Bronk got quoted around our house a lot as having counseled all the young poets thusly: “You can’t expect art to support you.” I think in any economic system, people who get supported by art are extremely fortunate and often work incredibly hard, but it’s not something any artist can comfortably expect right now. No one can even expect to find a job at this point! In some ways, that makes it a great time to be an artist or inventor, to take risks in general. You have less to lose.
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?
I’d say it’s more individual, although it’s certainly an expression of the urban, if you consider that a system of thought.
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 a deeply political person, and am against the war in its ground-level and ideological forms. As public people, writers surely have a responsibility to speak out against injustice, corruption, repression, and violence. Whether that translates into writing about those things is a separate question. My friend JoAnn Wypijewski wrote a beautiful piece about Occupy Wall Street pointing out that the generation most represented among the occupiers was raised in a climate of constant terror; she sees the movement as a source of joy for them, something uncommon in their lives. Joy is the business of art and mass action alike. Beyond taking a stand as public figures, our job is to feed imaginations, and imagination is the precondition for change.