If you are even a moderately engaged reader the name Sven Birkerts will not be unfamiliar to you. Birkerts has published over a half dozen books—The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age is probably the most well known. For a time he reviewed books prolifically for a wide stripe of publications including the New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, Parnassus, The Yale Review, and so on. He has taught at a number of institutions of higher learning in New England. Currently Sven edits AGNI magazine and heads up the Bennington Writing Seminars.
Sven and I met recently at my local coffee sanctuary in Boston, the Keltic Krust, under the pretext of the publication of his latest book, The Other Walk (Graywolf)—resuming a conversation that began in the mid ’90s and continues into the new millennium.
The current conversation is marked by Sven’s singular verbal alacrity. Among the subjects we danced our way through: a day in his life; book reviewing; the disappearance of the middle; the attention economy; the Balkaniztion of online literary venues; Kavalier & Clay; memory and recall; Thomas Sanchez; the resurrection of The Baffler; reviewer fatigue; and a word here and there about his new opus. Read on.
Robert Birnbaum: Do you follow sports?
Sven Birkerts: No. I’ve never followed anyone.
RB: Are you embarrassed?
SB: No, I just feel I am losing a lot of American boy points. I just never started—
RB: My estimation of you has just plummeted.
SB: I know. But I do know the addictive possibilities because every now and then I will get suckered into some particular playoff thing. And then I will be glued for four or five nights. I’ll realize what it’s all about. But I can’t follow a season.
RB: That’s fine. You’re right back up there with the boy points.
SB: I certainly followed the Celtics for a couple of seasons, at the end. I was one of those wussy followers.
RB: You wouldn’t go to a football game, take your shirt off, and paint yourself in team colors?
SB: I wouldn’t take my shirt off anywhere, never mind a football game.
RB: (laughs) As I conscientiously tried to read the piece you wrote for the LA Review of Books, I began to wonder what one day is like for you. Care to reveal that?
SB: I’d be happy to. I’m just afraid that it would be so utterly boring.
SB: But I suppose that within the boringness there is other stuff too. The day starts far too early and not with work—but because I am an early riser who then has to wait and do all the morning driving. I usually go in and log three or four hours at AGNI down at BU.
RB: How early do you get up?
SB: I am usually up at 5:30. And I will be in there [AGNI] at eight and back home in Arlington by noon. And then it’s always been all about whether I am able to coordinate the inner balance enough so that I can hit something for an hour or two. Which is—unless I am in the deep throes of finishing something—about the good life of sentence-making for me.
RB: Didn’t Bertrand Russell say something about how if you could do one minute of original thinking a day you were accomplishing a lot?
SB: Yeah, I am actually sympathetic to that.
RB: How do you do with deadlines?
SB: Eschew them (both laugh).
RB: I guess that disqualifies you from journalism.
SB: I could have gone that way. I have done a major life-flip because I’d say the first 15 years of writing was a huge amount of reviewing and most of it was on deadline. I created a discipline-monster who I have since repudiated, or begun to. And I am not sure which leads which, but the stuff that used to arrive effortlessly in terms of the kind of mental structure of a review—it was like butter, I could just sit down and it would all come together. And that very thing has become almost unthinkably difficult for me. Everything in me resists writing the sentence that says, “In the opening of her latest novel…”
RB: Too facile, too banal?
SB: Well, you wear yourself out with your own repetitions. That’s also the basis of any progress in the arts, turning against what you can’t do anymore.
RB: Why do you have to make journalism art? (laughs)
SB: Well, that’s an interesting question. There is a fine line between day-work journalism and trying to write things that would allow me to be a little more comprehensive, that could also morph into little essays, literary essays. I have done a lot of reviewing that I know the instant I finish I will never look again. It is utterly ephemeral. But I started trying to write the comprehensive thing, and even with that there are only so many approaches you can take. So sometime about 10 years ago the essay began to beckon. The open-ended essay began and the topical review began to drift away from me.
RB: You still seem to do them occasionally.
SB: I will.
RB: What’s the basis upon which you accept those assignments?
SB: It’s often if I have worked with an editor I liked, to keep the continuity of that relationship.
RB: Are there many you still like?
SB: Well there are a few.
SB: But they have less to hand out. This is the big truism in the reviewing world. The venues have—I don’t know the percentage of shrinkage, but it’s easily down by a third in the last few years.
RB: It doesn’t seem that the new online journals are being counted—LA Review of Books, Toronto Review of Books, Slake. So there are many venues that are gone but new ones have taken their place. What do you call the LARB?
SB: I call it a wonderful new initiative that pays nothing (both laugh heartily). I mean, that’s the beauty of it—you take a piece that in former days you might have flogged for a price and you think, well, I still want to get this out there, and maybe they’ll like it, and fine if it’s for free if it gets some exposure…
RB: Yeah, the new attention economy.
SB: That’s a good phrase.
RB: Which people like Huffington have exploited.
RB: For people who operate under Samuel Johnson’s edict, these places are embarrassing.
SB: Yes, they are—the blockhead edict [“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”].
RB: But look, if that’s what you are—a writer, then that’s what you do, recompense or not. If you are a photographer you take pictures, a painter, you paint—
SB: Sure, and there is always the hope that the law of secondary effects kicks in. Some person somewhere sees it and says, “This is the guy we want.”
RB: Frankly I don’t even understand the reviewing enterprise any more. I think it’s pretty degraded. Given the expectations mixed with the cynicism of newspapers about their content—you know?
SB: Yeah, I think on the outer face of it is cynicism. The inner face—the editors all feel sorrow. It’s the transformation of this thing that they understood in a different way.
RB: Who bridges this transformational period—from the old newspaper and magazine coverage to its current state? Not the New York Review of Books editor, Robert Silvers.
SB: Right. And in a weird way—but it’s not really reviewing—Lewis Lapham moving from Harper’s to start Lapham’s Quarterly. There’s this small hardy group of mainstays and I sure hope they can stay that way for a while—The American Scholar, etc.
RB: Those are called small magazines. And they will get their readers.
RB: The mistake newspapers make is that they are not promulgating reading. No one is championing the book, or reading. The Wall Street Journal includes e-books in their best-seller list.
The whole premise of my existence has always been, whatever the origin, reading—the joy of reading. So I feel like I have to keep that line open at any price.
SB: I know.
RB: And this conflicts a lot of readers.
SB: Of course. The argument keeps shifting around. At first it was centered on the structure we grew up in and understood. Which was: writing books, reviewing books in newspapers that were disseminated in print.
RB: Which conceivably you might talk to other people about—there might be a conversation somewhere in the real world.
SB: Yes. Then I began to have to make allowances and began to make them. I’m thinking that maybe it’s not so much the book that is at issue, but the public cultural literacy that happens in whatever channels and whatever media—and there is some optimism there because there are an awful lot of smart people putting their energies into things that are predominately online. But something is leaking away—the idea of a focal center. It’s so narrowly cast and balkanized, or whatever word you want to use.
RB: Fractured? Fragmented? It’s happened in music. There is no Top 40. All these various formats. There is no free-form radio—not even at the college level.
SB: What I can’t determine is how much all these things depend on how old you are. I am looking at this stuff as someone who just turned 60. But I was shaped and conditioned by the older dispensation. I wonder about the person who is 20 or 25, coming in. It’s been so fluid and amorphous. The notion of taste preference and culture—it’s all out there. The goods exist but the presentation is randomized, or the savvy ones have figured out how to get to stuff that I just haven’t located.
RB: How do we know that younger people are looking? I remember Darin Strauss telling me that when he was teaching freshman English at NYU in the early ’90s, his kids didn’t know who Kurt Cobain was. Yesterday I had what I hope is an inspiration. I contacted a random group of writers of my acquaintances, inquiring what was their favorite book of the year 2000. The initial response was: was that a typo? Did you mean 2011 and not 2000? I was thinking about enlarging the window we view books through. Also, of course I wondered if people remembered. For example I can’t remember what I read last week—if you gave me a list I could identify. Oddly, I can vividly remember almost every thing about when I began reading 100 Years of Solitude [in 1971].
SB: I can too.
RB: All the details and some physical sensations. So I wanted to see about other readers’ experiences. After an initial wave of “Is that a typo?” a surprising number immediately named Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
SB: I would have to be brought into the neighborhood of that year and then I could think about it—
RB: I wasn’t asking for an off-the-top-of-the-head response. The range of responses was interesting—some immediately knew. And a few really resisted.
SB: My whole book sensibility was created and made strange by the fact that instead of going in the direction toward academia, I worked in bookstores—I put in about 15 years of standing behind counters and shelving books. So my relation to the cycle of print and what comes and goes in books is to ask somebody who works in a record store “what’s your favorite piece of music?” I can’t. If I could be brought back—
RB: Does that jade you—working in the retail book business? Or does it make books more precious?
SB: If both could be simultaneous—
SB: It jades—you get a deeper sense of the ephemeral and the vanishing. That’s the jading part and then you also get a much deeper sense of the things that stay afloat and endure. I can still walk into a bookstore, and often do, and feel a kind of validation walking along the shelves saying, “Oh yeah, oh yeah.” Like these small electric pulsations.
RB: I don’t go into new bookstores.
SB: Well, books come to you.
RB: Oh sure, and that is a blessing and a burden—an embarrassment of riches. I love going to used bookstores. Obviously they are not predictable and they tap into a longer time line. It’s a lot of fun.
RB: I wouldn’t say it’s the most fun. I find myself buying books I have, feeling a sense of rescue, finding good homes for books I love and admire.
SB: That’s the true mark of loving a book: when you want to buy something even when you know you have it sitting there at home.
RB: That, of course, also ties into the problem of rereading. I just found a copy of Mile Zero by Thomas Sanchez.
In my experience, most of the times—not all—when I have really convinced myself that I was being snubbed or dissed—and I have been snubbed and dissed—I have been so off. The whole thing had nothing to do with my elaborated sense of insult.
SB: He wrote Rabbit Boss.
RB: This one takes place in Key West, with the expected group of diverse, odd, and weirdo characters. In a way I am hesitant to read it again.
SB: Because of the fear of not liking it?
RB: I have experienced the disappointment of rereading a beloved book and wondering what I’d been thinking, what was so gripping.
SB: Yeah. Yeah.
RB: Although I am reading Blood Meridian right now and it still is profoundly affecting.
SB: I have felt both ways. It’s not like I don’t have anything to read right now, but I’ve just picked up that book Netherland again. Something in me wanted more of that. It’s like I never read it—I’m only 20 pages in.
RB: I am amazed when that happens. How does that happen? Same words.
SB: I keep the feeling, “Oh yeah, that was what that room was like.” And that allows me to dispense with having to cultivate the whole larger setting when I’m reading and suddenly I am looking much more closely at what the writer is doing with his character. I have a certain freedom.
RB: I see. So you have a kind of unconscious familiarity with the feel and look of the setting and now you want to know what the character in the corner is doing.
SB: Exactly. Noticing the adverbs or some weird thing.
RB: These days you are running a magazine, AGNI out of Boston University. How are things at the university these days? Do have any contact?
SB: Well, sure, we’re plunk in the middle. Our main relationship is through the writing department which is upstairs from us. They send us interns which means a circulation of personality and talent coming from them. Otherwise, we are beholden in all the standard ways.
RB: Was Boston University the last refuge of The Partisan Review?
SB: Yeah, we’re actually in the old offices of The Partisan Review.
RB: Anything remain there?
SB: Sure. We have walls of their old issues for one thing. The circumstance of their leaving BU is so mysterious. It was characterized by the fact that when we arrived there were still unfinished coffee cups. People had just said, “Fuck this,” and left. There was some high-level disagreement.
RB: Who was university president at that time?
SB: It was under John Silber. It was just “we are out of here” and everyone left. Shoes were left behind in bags.
RB: No attempt was made to find another home?
SB: No, I just don’t understand. It was an abrupt end of an era.
RB: Maybe some one ought to resurrect it?
SB: Well, we’ll see how John Summers does resurrecting with The Baffler. There is a certain amount of resurrection going on.
RB: I have been trying to arrange a chat with Summers—he seems to be snubbing me.
SB: In my experience, most of the times—not all—when I have really convinced myself that I was being snubbed or dissed—and I have been snubbed and dissed—I have been so off. The whole thing had nothing to do with my elaborated sense of insult.
RB: I am already vilifying the guy and he’s no doubt busy with his resurrection. It’s hard to make allowances—its better to create festering grudges. (laughs)
SB: Yeah, what would life be without holding a whole bunch of them?
RB: Which of the things that you are doing is the most satisfying?
SB: Well, I have this whole other job, which is directing the Bennington Writing Seminars.
RB: That’s still around? (laughs)
SB: Yeah. And it’s a core part of my life. When you asked me the course of my day, part of it is that I always have five students in non-fiction. And every month they each send me a packet—because it’s a low-residency format. I then read the work, edit it, and send the students a long response letter. So always somewhere in the afternoon I am reading their work with a pencil in my hand, making little notes. There is always trying to remain a person who can read in a fresh, uncorrupted, unjaded way. Which takes an enormous expenditure of energy.
RB: Jeez, trying do this when you are almost 60.
SB: I am 60. I do so much reading which is work related, whether it’s reading submissions or reading students’ work. But you see, the whole premise of my existence has always been, whatever the origin, reading—the joy of reading. So I feel like I have to keep that line open at any price. Sometimes that’s a chore. That’s the line that feeds directly into writing, whatever form it might be taking.
RB: When you pick up a book are you compelled to finish it?
SB: I used to be much more that way. I take longer to pick books up—I circle my quarry, three or four times now rather than once. By the time I have picked something up I have looked at it every which way.
RB: Are your piles of books organized?
SB: I do organize them and then I ignore my organizations. My best reading experiences are always impulse grabs. Or there’s something I have been aware of and then suddenly the bell goes off and then—
RB: I discovered Justin Cartwright like that, though William Boyd mentioned him to me 15 years ago.
SB: That will now enter my reading bank—the next time I see the name I will have a look.
RB: I liked The Song Before It Is Sung—about the failed general’s plot to assassinate Hitler. Cartwright was good about getting the ambience of the era.
SB: John Banville was good like that in The Untouchable. It deals with the British double agents.
RB: How did we get onto that? (pause) Oh, I was recalling Justin Cartwright. Apropos of nothing, I was reading a review of Amy Winehouse’s posthumous recording, a review by Jon Pareles, who has been around a while—I wondered if it was the Times style or just him. The review seemed so tired. Lifeless. Where was the love of music?
SB: Yeah, yeah, no. Reviewer fatigue. You can smell it when it happens. I haven’t read that review so I don’t know.
RB: I wasn’t impressed by Winehouse until saw some of her performances. She’s endlessly fascinating. She’s magnetic. She’s doesn’t seem to repeat stuff.
SB: This is what I hear.
RB: She dances in an awkward way but with the beat. All natural. Mesmerizing. Despite what Pareles wrote, I think Winehouse not at her best is better than most singers. It’s all interesting, even the duet with Tony Bennett.
SB: I’ll bet.
RB: She’s amazing to look at—spellbinding.
SB: I agree. From the pictures I have seen, she’s quite arresting.
RB: Anyway, what is the reviewing engine about today? I joined the NBCC just to see what critics in the aggregate think their mission is.
SB: My sense is what has fallen out in a big way is the great middle that used to be occupied by the dozens and dozens of critics and reviewers you could have named some years ago. They were writing for a host of papers that paid a certain kind of attention to books. And those are the places that have disappeared or are shrinking. So you have the upper end—you’ll still have James Wood writing in the New Yorker—
RB: Less and less.
SB: Right. And you’ll have some smart reviewing in Harper’s and a few places. But it’s the disappearance of whatever it was that newspaper pages on Sunday used to represent. And now, because of this shrinkage, the reviews editors of those places are desperately playing catch up, saying “We have to do something with this because it’s such a highly-touted book.” What doesn’t get attention is the spectrum—not even the B-list, all those quirky books that are not even going to sell 5,000 copies.
RB: Doesn’t it strike you that as a consequence the [book] awards are looking at books from tiny publishers—as in Tinkers and Jaimy Gordon’s book?
SB: Sure. This situation is probably giving them extra permission to look harder there. They are picking books that in a different order of things should have gotten enough attention so that they wouldn’t seem strange when they were put forward. But because of this great void in the middle no one’s ever heard of them, or they’ve been reviewed once or twice.
RB: Void in the middle? There is no middlebrow—is that the void you are referencing?
SB: I actually meant the middle in terms of the literal production of readable column inches of type—reviews—in the mainstream media.
RB: Daily newspapers.
SB: Daily and Sunday.
RB: Which were focused on the so-called middlebrow.
SB: That too. I think that’s linked to it. Honestly, a book would come out and you’d wait and see what happened. The Chicago Tribune would weigh in, the Washington Post, the LA Times—there were 10 or 12 major papers—and all of those places are review-decimated. They are just ghost towns.
RB: So you occupy—there is a Yiddish saying which I can’t reproduce which alludes to not being able to sit on a toilet with two behinds.
RB: In a way you occupy three. You are at a literary magazine, so you are a purveyor of writing. You are at a school, so you are a promulgator and inspiration to literary aspirants and a writer. How can you tell people they have a future career in writing? Instead of suggesting working at a hedge fund?
SB: I would supplement that by saying that in each of those three areas I am feeling seriously embattled. With the journal, for example, I feel we are fighting an action in the face of diminished attention, and that wasn’t the feel of it when there was more action on that front. With the teaching I really feel like, “Boy we have to keep this enterprise alive,” to keep communicating a buzz around serious writing. Who knows what’s going to happen? So it becomes a rear-guard mission there, too. And with my own writing: definitely.
RB: It’s not a contradiction but there is a kind of conflict that faces people who create—much of your world is not real. The real world is when you go to the grocery store or gas station. And then you deal with people who are attuned to scrambling to pay their bills and not the wonders of the creative enterprise. And I feel artists and writers have given up on those people, and there is something self-fulfilling about that attitude. Why did newspapers cut their book sections?
SB: It was largely economics.
RB: To cut features that a loyal core of the circulation read? Why would I go to the newspaper if they didn’t write about what I care about?
SB: That’s true, too.
RB: Old or young—why would I want to get ink on my fingers? The Times survives based on all sort of advertorial publications—fashion, travel, design etc.
SB: I don’t worry about the Times, it’s everyone else.
RB: Who is everyone else? Do you care about the LA Times?
SB: Sure I care. As a writer I care.
RB: Who owns them now?
SB: The last I heard it was the Tribune Co., but there was so much financial anxiety happening there... I just know they are—
RB: In bad shape—none of these are what they used to be.
SB: I know. So it sends a message percolating down through layers. Not only is there less attention given to books, but there is a subtext insofar as you look at the paper to see what’s worth looking at, and books have only so much representation, very little, and so in your mind the notion of the power and centrality of books diminishes further. It’s not enforced so—
RB: Maybe our problem is that we have unconsciously adopted a business model that expects the population of book lovers to grow. I’ve been told that the epigram on the Freud memorial in Vienna says, “The voice of reason is small but persistent.”
There is more information than ever. The distinctions and hierarchies of information are so… indistinct. You have to keep deciding “Is this important? According to what is this important? I better hold on to it in case it becomes important.”
RB: Maybe we should stop worrying about it. It’s like our environmental concerns—the hubris we hold that we can the both save or destroy this planet. (laughs)
SB: Sure. The question is whether we live in a culture and psychological climate that is made up of people who feel there is a reason to play the game or else made up of a lot of people who have given up. I’d prefer the former.
RB: Conscious people are more affected than unconscious people.
RB: Even when they are obnoxious—speaking of which, I was thinking of Christopher Hitchens because he represents someone who can write at will, just sit him down. And he doesn’t have many drafts.
SB: I imagine the drafts are few and far between.
RB: I marvel at that. Despite his overbearingly trenchant style. He is brilliant. George Scialabba just published a long piece on Hitchens’s latest anthology.
SB: Oh good. I haven’t seen that but I am sure I will.
RB: A brilliant survey of Hitchens’s work. He recalled what Hitchens has been doing going way back.
SB: This is the beauty of George and his work. He doesn’t take the idea of culture and seriousness in quotation marks. He still assumes it. And he writes out of that assumption and he makes you as a reader join him in assuming it for a little while.
RB: It was splendid. He drew a parallel with William Hazlitt and Edmund Burke, comparing Hitchens to Burke. A spellbinding display of erudition. Where would Scialabba’s work have appeared 10 years ago? Would the New Yorker publish him?
SB: No, he has never been there. The beauty of it—and this is another facet of what we’re talking about—is that George was a weekly staple back in the glory days of the [Boston] Phoenix.
RB: Who edited him there?
SB: As I remember he was edited by Kit Rachlis and then by John Ferguson. George would turn in wonderful serious cultural journalism week after week. Now, who picks up the Phoenix? It’s a give-away.
RB: I’d love to see that movie that Joan Micklin Silver made about alternative papers in Boston, Between the Lines. There were all these papers around the country that were magnets for aspiring writers and journalists.
SB: Oh sure.
RB: And then Jann Wenner and other short-fingered vulgarians would take credit for them—Kit Rachlis, Steven Schiff, George Kimball, etc., when really all they cared about was advertising dollars. So apropos the subject: is there anything interesting happening in Boston now?
SB: First there aren’t many concrete venues—
RB: The Improper Bostonian, Boston magazine, Boston Globe, Boston Common, The Daily Dig, and the community newspapers. Is there anything else?
SB: Yeah, I’m sure not going to those places. I am waiting to see the Baffler reappear. I will look at the Phoenix but they stopped doing books, they used to have a literary supplement.
RB: I find their attempt to be typographically contemporary to be ineffective. Where is all the oppositional press? Where are the oppositional writers?
SB: Yeah, that’s the other question. I can’t speak for them, but I am certainly aware that’s the other big part of the picture. So what are your go-to places when you get up to find out what’s happening in the world?
SB: What’s your ratio of cruising to immersing?
RB: If I am interested in an article, I will make it into a PDF and file it in a desktop folder called “Readings.”
SB: And then do you have a ritual about sitting down—?
RB: If only. I wish I could be that organized. I am easily distracted.
SB: That’s one of the consequences of the nature of getting your stuff on screen. I keep flagging things and then I find I’ve flagged so many things that I need to flag the flags to remember where they are.
RB: There was an image from the LARB piece in which you allude to the writer sitting in front of the flickering screen. Fifteen or sixteen years ago I don’t think you would have used that imagery. Was The Gutenberg Elegies written on a computer?
SB: No. I started writing on a computer maybe 10 years ago. It was not a direct move—I would still do everything longhand, but then instead of typing I would put it in a computer. Now I actually write on a computer. But I am writing much less.
RB: The concern about attention spans is a real issue. There is so much information. I no longer flagellate myself for not remembering what I did last week.
SB: The big problem is the energy it all takes—because of the access. There is more information than ever. The distinctions and hierarchies of information are so… indistinct. You have to keep deciding “Is this important? According to what is this important? I better hold on to it in case it becomes important.” So that’s the other gate-keeper function, which used to be a little more clearly carried out.
I have an unorganized library. I find that with me it’s not whether I have read something as much as it has survived my repeated attempts to get rid of it.
RB: I have been very critical of the journalistic default gambit of list-making, as well as literary prizes. I did have a change of heart after reading and talking to Umberto Eco about lists—he even curated an exhibition at the Louvre on lists.
SB: Oh really?
RB: He sees lists as catalogues of civilization.
SB: That’s interesting.
RB: I think the task of making a list is and ought to be unconscious—that’s when I can recall stuff. I just looked at the New York Times “top” or “best” list. Why bother?
SB: The 10 or the 100.
RB: The 10. It’s an unfortunate organizing principle.
SB: I think you are on to something with what you just said—what you arrive at unconsciously. At a certain threshold of saturation the consciousness semi-abdicates. And I do—I trust my unconscious.
RB: Eco reportedly has a library of 50,000 volumes. I asked him if they are catalogued—which they are not. Nonetheless, he knows where they all are. I asked if he read all of them. He hadn’t but said he had gotten something from all of them.
SB: Yeah, I would sign off on that. I have an unorganized library, but it’s much smaller. Same thing. I find that with me it’s not whether I have read something as much as it has survived my repeated attempts to get rid of it.
SB: And if it has… Things that survive hold such a charge of your own sense of promise about yourself—which is valuable. Or it’s that they hold information that you know according to some obscure scheme is going to become important to you. I think the books that go unread are so important. If I got up and looked at my library and everything was a book I’d read, to me that would be like reading tombstones. I love the agitation, left and right—“Oh yeah, oh yeah.”
RB: I got rid of my vinyl albums. I should do that with books—what an albatross.
SB: Oh yeah. You need your ruins around you.
RB: That would require an enlarged sense of history.
SB: Right, and you have a visibly presented record both of your hopes and your failures. (laughs) It’s all there, kind of mapping you.
RB: Has anyone created a characterological analytic codex based on people’s libraries? You take 20 writers and examine their books and then you create parametrics and algorithms for categories.
SB: An arbitrary slice?
RB: A reasonable sample. We go to people’s houses and look at their array of books—
RB: What’s our takeaway? Did I interrupt you when were talking of Bennington–low-residency means the students already have some kind of life and livelihood?
RB: What are their aspirations?
SB: They are the ones that have survived the first crashing of their—
RB: —dreams? (laughs)
People don’t think that sitting utterly inert in front of a screen is as hard as laying bricks. They think, “Well he’s doing nothing. But that guy over there is sweating.”
SB: —life ambitions and have reconstructed them They are, many of them, coming back to writing in a way, which to me is wonderful. These are people who realize, “This is what I want to do.” People who had to go through raising their families, or building their careers in order to make the living [that affords their studies]. There is a wonderful purity—the conversations up there [Vermont] are away from the world and they are really, almost in a corny way, about literature and writers. Without the urban cynical overlay.
RB: So you spend two weeks times two up in Vermont at the low-residency program? Who is teaching with you?
SB: We have a whole group: Martha Cooley, David Gates, Amy Hempel, Dinah Lenney, Askold Melnyczuk, Bret Anthony Johnston, Paul Yoon, Susan Cheever, Alice Mattison, Bernard Cooper. Phillip Lopate, Major Jackson, Timothy Liu, and on and on. We have 23 faculty.
RB: Is Bennington the largest low-res? Or Warren Wilson?
SB: We are similar to Warren Wilson. We have 105 students. We’ll all be going up there for 10 days in January. James Wood is going to come up with his drum kit at the end. We have a little band…
RB: James won’t sit for another conversation with me. He liked my dog Rosie but I felt that he came off lacking a sense of humor.
SB: Oh he is quite the reverse. He’s very funny. Tell him you want to talk to him about The Who.
RB: Are there endowed chairs at Bennington?
SB: No, Bennington is not big on the endowments.
RB: No blue blood, old New England Brahmin alumni?
SB: I’m sure they have some. I know that the endowment is a perpetual major topic there.
RB: So what was your favorite book of 2000?
SB: I have to think what came out then. What era are we in? You mentioned Michael Chabon.
RB: Someone mentioned Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin.
SB: That’s a question I’d like to phone in to you.
RB: I have been doing a web journal—and it is a pleasing opportunity not to have to write to please anyone else. No “Could you tweak this—make the black character white?”
SB: I understand. I’m totally with you. To me that’s the true freedom—the only thing that would make it ideal is if once you wrote something it would happily find a place to land.
RB: As much as the words “creative capital” are bandied about, there seems to be no acknowledgment of the creative part. Apparently the industrial-model/factory model pertains.
SB: People don’t think that sitting utterly inert in front of a screen is as hard as laying bricks. They think, “Well he’s doing nothing. But that guy over there is sweating.”
RB: Is this a period of mass psychological depression which allows for rampant stupidity or is this period not special in that way and we are just experiencing normality?
SB: I think both are true. We have two things happening. We have more seductive amenities available than the world has ever had, but at the same time the notion of a meaningful futurity has been essentially syphoned off.
SB: And so we are bombarding ourselves with this surface massage of great wonderful exciting things. In terms of where we are, a huge part of any consciousness—collective or individual—is about how you relate to what’s coming. Whether it’s with anticipation, dread, or neutrality. We are all flexed and armed—either the climate is going to go south, the economy is going to collapse. We are in this watchful, provisional, preemptive mode. Which I contrast with the utterly absurd idealism, which I still remember of the ‘60s, where many of us stupidly thought it was all going to really change. Of course it didn’t. But I still remember the sensation of being that age and feeling my life through that.
RB: We were convinced—
SB: It was reflected in all the things—music, culture—that would pick up the vibration of the time.
RB: And then Richard Nixon was elected. OK, I feel compelled to ask why you wrote the book.
SB: Which one, the new one, The Other Walk?
SB: It’s a book that came on me unlike any other thing. In intense short pieces that when they came seemed irresistible to me. I had to write them. It was all about finding suddenly, magically, in my mid-fifties—hitting those strange horse latitudes—that every day was filled with—not exactly déjà vu, but close. Everything started triggering me back to the past for a while. This was especially true for objects. And this has rarely happened to me, but the triggering created a kind of direct circuit—of wanting to sit down and arrest it and get the feeling of that mind-state. It was all about time—only seen not memoiristically but epiphanically. These are the little mid-life ambushes that happen. Because, like I said earlier, my day is so predictable and boring. On the surface. But inside it’s not really boring. I just have to go in there and drill deep to find where it’s not boring. It has to do with layered states of mind and flashes of awareness and memory.
RB: Might you have seen this as an act of bravery?
SB: That word hasn’t come up. How do you mean that?
RB: You are offering very personal observations—did you assume that this would be interesting to a reader?
SB: Oh, this is the big thing, the leap. The bravery—I don’t know if its bravery or foolhardiness. I guess the two are nearly synonymous. The thing I am always confronting is the “who cares?” question. Who cares that I found an old cigarette lighter that reminded me of a girlfriend? But in that premise one has to take the great leap into the dark and say it’s really about larger things, about attention and awareness and memory and time.
RB: Did you cite that Flaubert quote—“Anything becomes interesting if you look at it closely”?
SB: I have used it.
RB: This book certainly is a departure from the things I have read by you. Which brings me to a difficulty, for lack of a better word, I had with the collection. Given one’s expectation—to read a book cover to cover in a compacted time frame—I couldn’t see reading The Other Walk in that way. I feel the same way about George Saunders’s writing. I could not read more than a bit at a time.
I forget everything, but I am fascinated by the mysteries of retrieval.
SB: Oh absolutely. I had many more pieces that didn’t make the cut. So the idea that there was cutting to be done presupposes an organic overlay on it. And I did eventually feel there was one. They really were written very much as, in that Virginia Woolf phrase, “moments of being.” They came out of such a compression that every one felt closed off onto itself. Which would explain why it’s hard to read one and flip to another. Each is a separate little economy. That was something new for me in writing.
RB: Has this book been reviewed?
SB: Some. The Globe. Newsday and various online venues.
RB: What are your plans or goals? Want to do something wild?
SB: Yes. In the realm of writing—I want to do something stretchy and different in the essay, do something that in some way—I can’t yet imagine makes sense of this utterly transformed world that we are moving around in. That gives it a kind of identifiable voice.
RB: The Zeitgeistian essay.
SB: That’s nice. If I steal that from you, you’ll know where it came from.
RB: I probably stole it (laughs). A noble ambition—I like this line from Spy Games where Robert Redford says to Brad Pitt: “The object of the game is to get enough money to die somewhere warm.” Do you think you ever forget anything?
SB: Nothing that matters. I forget everything, but I am fascinated by the mysteries of retrieval. The premise of the book is that something of that order had to happen in my life in the present to get me to write each separate piece. So there is always in there a smell or something, though it maybe it’s not apparent to anyone else.
RB: How does someone review a book like that?
SB: The Globe reviewer, I forget his name, basically complained that these were short pieces that needed to be developed (both laugh) into the essays that they wanted to be. That to me felt so far off, I couldn’t go there.
RB: No wonder you forgot his name. Well, thanks very much. Let’s call this chat, Part III.