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.)
Laura van den Berg is the author of one collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us. Her fiction has appeared in One Story, The Pushcart Prize XXIV, and The Boston Review, among others.
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?
While I have huge admiration for fiction that directly explores social issues and political upheaval, I believe literature’s only obligation is to create a “vivid and continuous dream” (from John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction). Of course, one reader’s version of a “vivid and continuous dream” can differ wildly from another’s — which is the beauty of art.
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 don’t think of myself as writing for a particular audience. For me, to imagine an audience would be paralyzing; I have to write into the abyss. That said, in revision, I do certainly consider the reader — is this clear? Is this interesting? If I am deliberately taking one pleasure away, what am I offering in its place? Etc.
Regarding the question of audience, I only know that the more time I spend in the world, the more I encounter serious, passionate readers of fiction; each time I encounter a person who loves the written word, I find it deeply hopeful.
An anecdote: recently I was using a TV reference to illustrate a craft point in a student meeting, but the student had not seen the (very popular) show I was referring to. So what do you do with your time? I asked in jest. I just read, I guess, he replied. So take that, Death of Literature!
There have always been readers. There are readers now. Literature — American or otherwise — is always dead or dying. And yet somehow we go on.
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 the quality of a review depends entirely on who’s writing it. I’ve read some inane reviews in print and online and a lot of smart reviews in both forums. In respect to my own book, I found this review in The Millions to be one of the more interesting ones I received. Not because it was glowing — in fact, it was quite mixed — but because the author was making a larger argument about literature, as opposed to offering a simplistic thumbs up/thumbs down. The reviews I find most engaging are often on the longer side — the essay-like reviews that sometimes appear in The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books, for example, where the author has enough room to make an intelligent argument for something — but for many print publications, space is often so limited, while presumably one advantage online publications have is the luxury of space. So I remain hopeful.
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 live with another fiction writer and while we have not been able to skate by writing full time (save for a few short, glorious spurts), we have been able to make it with a mix of part-time work—some teaching, some writing income, a few freelance projects. For this, I am enormously grateful. It makes for a nice life, by my standards anyway. I very much enjoy being in the classroom, but at the same time I of course value having ample writing time and a flexible schedule.
Regarding the question about there being a place for literature as a profession in our current climate, I don’t think I’m equipped to answer in definitive terms. For one thing, I would imagine the answer would depend a lot on one’s individual circumstances and requirements. My partner and I live in an affordable city (Baltimore), are content with our one-bedroom apartment, share a car, managed to make it through school without crushing debt, and don’t have kids. So we’ve been lucky in some ways and we’re making particular choices in other ways. For me the goal is to try and shape a life that is secure enough to keep me from lying awake at night but also feels free. I’m deeply tied to the people I’m close with, but I like to be able to pick up and go whenever.
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 think it’s mainly an expression of myself as an individual, of my imagination. All the stories in my collection are narrated by women, so you could perhaps say that I am particularly concerned with the female experience, though I don’t tend to think of my work in those terms. My characters are probably defined by an absence of allegiance more than anything.
How would you describe the political tendency of American writing, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?
This semester, I taught a course in international fiction and one thing I noticed was the way politics were often part of the narrative’s natural fabric, meaning the text wasn’t necessarily anything that would jump out as a “political book,” or a book that seeks to make an overarching statement; rather politics — whether they be politics of gender, war, globalization, colonization — simply exist as a fact, an aspect of the milieu. At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, foreign literature often seems comfortable including politics but at the same time resisting making political questions the central issue or attempting to answer those questions in an explicit way. I’m not sure American fiction is always quite so comfortable with this more nuanced handling of the political.
Also, with American fiction, I think there’s this perception that there are the Political Books and then everything else is essentially apolitical, which doesn’t seem quite right, since there are, after all, so many ways for a book to be political. But of course that has more to do with how we respond to what’s being written than with what is actually being written.
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’m not sure writers have any particular responsibility, in terms of their art, but I do believe that we have a human responsibility to advocate for what we believe in, whatever shape that make take — protesting, volunteering, donating, writing, voting. We have a human responsibility to not become zombiefied by despair and complacency (an ongoing struggle for me). I feel that art needs to say something about the world, but I’m just as interested in an aesthetic argument as I am in a political or moral one. And when art becomes a polemic, it nearly always kills the sense of wonder and mystery that I cherish.
In the end, I do think it’s a mistake to conflate writing with living. Our human obligations are arguably knottier than our artistic ones. As an artist, I have to put my heart and imagination on the page; I have to ferret out the truth of my characters; I have to bring the worlds that exist in my mind to life on the page. As a person, I have to do more.