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.)
Geoff Dyer is the author of several works of fiction and nonfiction. His latest work includes a novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varnassi, and a collection of essays, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, which we reviewed early last year. Mr. Dyer was also kind enough to talk with us about his work back in August.
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 so. Responsibility is an important civic and personal quality — obviously — but literature is free to be as irresponsible as it wants. Having said that, many of the writers I care most passionately about would argue — and have demonstrated — exactly the opposite.
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?
Definitely not. For many years I had almost zero audience and that was probably a liberating thing — or at least I was so successful in persuading myself that it was that I now can’t imagine it otherwise. I would guess that the audience for serious writing has remained pretty constant.
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 always thought I would love reading what people wrote about my stuff and, obviously, I much prefer people to say nice things than nasty but, overall, I’m struck by how quickly I grow bored reading about myself (i.e. about my writing). This is not modesty, probably the opposite. More generally, one thing that is noticeable is that even if you think people writing in “established” papers are wrong or misguided or whatever at least the process of getting their opinions into print means that the spelling and grammar are cleaned up and corrected. The fact that everyone can now share his /her thoughts through the blogosphere is appealing from an egalitarian point of view but it’s opened the doors to wholesale ignorance and illiteracy.
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?
A red herring, this: I’ve always liked doing a mixture of book-writing and stuff for magazines and so on. To be honest it’s always struck me as an amazing privilege that it’s possible to earn any kind of living through writing so on this score at least I’m not complaining — and never have done. I have been formed so deeply by my working-class background that I’ve always been conscious of what a cushy life this is — the literary one, I mean!
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?
Just me as an individual (but see question 4, above, re: how that individual has been constituted: I am absolutely a product and beneficiary of the extension of opportunities for education, social mobility etc. of the post-war settlement). Oh, and when my latest book got copy edited and type-set, spelling and punctuation were fully Americanized — and it just didn’t work. I had to accept, albeit a little grudgingly, what an English writer I am. What was it Lawrence said: “English even in the teeth of England,” or something like that?
How would you describe the political tendency of American writing, as a whole, since 2001? How do you feel about it yourself?
Just that some of the best writing coming out of America now — i.e. some of the best writing in the English language — is in the form of reportage which of course has an inherent and immediate political dimension.
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?
After the riots in England in the summer Cameron declared ‘a war on gangs.’ I couldn’t believe he said such a stupid thing since the wars “on” things — drugs and terror — have been such disasters. At least Reagan had the wit to say about his war — on poverty — that poverty won. I see that question of “responsibility” has come up again. See my answer to question one.