[Interview conducted in October, 2012]
1 V. S. Naipaul has declared there are not any important writers anymore, Philip Roth has predicted the novel will become a cult activity, Peter Stothard has asked if fiction writing simply used to be better, Cullen Murphy, David Shields, Lee Seigel, and Geoff Dyer have all stated that non-fiction is superior to fiction. The list of people of letters who apparently have lost faith in literary fiction goes on an on; it is clear that an elementary questioning of the novel is not a passing cultural phase. Furthermore, the short story seems to be under siege as well: many agents and multinational publishers do not handle/publish story collections, small magazines seem perpetually underfunded, and a YouTube-ification of text and image seems to be taking short narrative in new directions.
What is your opinion? Do the novel and shortstory have a future?
There’s two affective things going on here. One is the imposition of the marketplace over all cultural and educational activities, which has transformed most fiction writing into arid exercises in conventional behavior—trying to please novel-reading little old ladies who want to escape their lives with Robert McKee-grade mechanical nonsense. The other is a “natural” degradation of the importance of written literature in the face of more technology-driven forms of narrative—television series drama (which is approaching a golden age), motion pictures, the Internet, and really, the nightly news, which has writers making up arbitrary narratives about how human reality is unfolding, and at a minute-by-minute speed that authenticates it as fact to the unwary.
All the evidence suggests that what we thought of as literature—the novel and the short story—will end up as a minor heritage activity with little or no cultural impact. I’m probably closest to the position David Shields has, which is that both fiction AND non-fiction are epistemological absurdities, and that the boundary between them was always a cultural illusion.
I think there IS a way of writing that does have cultural relevance: it’s that tiny edge of postmodernism that never got far beyond the experimental and the precious, but which I still think holds allpostmodernism’s valuable mineral core, where writers seek a paratactic depth and transparency at the same time that allows readers to move as quickly as the human mind now naturally moves while being completely candid about where the materials are coming from and how they’re being deployed. I’ve probably written about 15-20 passages across my various books that succeed at this. It’s really hard work, but its also a huge amount of fun. The Spanish writer, Javier Cercas, is probably the most successful writer who regularly achieves this, most recently with Anatomy of a Moment.
If so, what kind? And will e-technology alter the very forms of them? If so, how?
I think I answered the first question. The second question really isn’t very interesting. E-technology is here. It works, sort of, and will get better, maybe, and will end up with 50-70 percent of the book trade. The danger lies in Google and the text mash-up crowd, who are going to, if they get what they want, undermine the evidential/referential systems upon which Western civilization is based. So what’s at risk here is the rule of law and the judicial systems. What happens to individual authorship is a crucial element in this, even if literature isn’t. How e-books will change conventional novels is relatively speaking, not very important. Literature might be, because it remains the most effective device for long-form thinking that exists outside research collectives. And long-form thinking is what got human beings most of the good things civilization has created.
2 Are the very significant structural changes taking place in the publishing industry having an effect on novel or short story writing? If so, how?
Of course changes are occurring. It’s winnowing out everyone who isn’t terminally conventional or independently wealthy. And it’s contributing to the general dumbing down of readers.
3. Is the cutting back of mid-lists and a general cautiousness about taking risks on new or relatively unknown writers affecting the caliber of writing that does manage to get into print?
Probably. But there are lots of nuances here. It’s been a big boon to young writers coming out of the creative writing factories, because they’ve been taught how to market themselves, and how to be acceptably conventional. Publishers are looking for “new, fresh writers” because that’s a prime marketing category. And really, if, as a writer, you’re just trying to get laid by the market, why not go do real estate, where there’s real money to be made?
4 Do you have an author's website? Does it help you sell books?
No, and no. It’s sort of like having a Visa card. If you don’t have one, you lose elements of full citizenship. The test of this is simple: can you find an author’s website that isn’t so crudded with bullshit and self-congratulation that you feel like barfing after 20 seconds?
5 How do you feel about running an author's website? Do you feel its a labour of love or an annoying imposition? Or something else altogether?
I don’t have one, so I can’t say. But I’d think it would be an ongoing humiliation for any writer who isn’t completely stupid or fixated on the market (which is more or less the same thing.
6 Is the selection system for novel and short story manuscripts fair? Should it be made blind?
No, and No. On the first question, no, because it can’t ever be fair, because human beings are social, and thus gossip and sleep with one another and talk and think and do elementary detective work. No to the second question because the last thing we should do with literature is put it in the hands of bureaucrats and their systems. I’ve been on a jury in a blind manuscript selection procedure. The reality was that all the jurors knew who 2/3rds of the writers were, because good writers write distinct sentences. I went out of my way to point that out, along with who most of the writers in the competition were. That got me permanently blacklisted from literary jury duty, but it did get the best manuscripts on the table.
Rick Salutin once remarked that there are only about 900 people in Canada, and they all know one another—or should. He was talking about Canada as a cultural entity. You can froth at the mouth about how shocking and appalling this is, but it won’t change it, and if you erect a bureaucracy aimed at preventing it, you’ll end up in Stalin’s lap with a bunch of tight-assed dickheads telling you what to do.
7 According to media reports, e-book sales now represent a significant percentage of overall sales.
They’re lying about this, but it’s coming.
But small bookstores see them as more a threat to their survival than anything else, and a lot of book people remain printpeople.
The independents are going to be wiped out by it. And print people are going to get old. There’s no pleasant future to any of this.
8. Are you enthusiastic about e-books?
No. But not for the reasons you might guess.What worries me about the e-book industry is that it will put an end to the editing of books. And that would be an intellectual catastrophe, because most e-books right now are really just blogs, which is to say, they’re mostly unedited. You can see the effect of this already in the U.S. where publishers—even the major ones—are demanding that books arrive already edited.
9. Do they hold the potential for a renaissance in literary publishing?
Only if you believe in the old Kerouac “Firstthoughtbestthought universe, which I think may have been the greatest disaster to have befallen intellectual life in the 20th century. I happen to love being edited, for the simple reason that two minds are always better than one.
10. Or are they over-rated and too susceptible to piracy?
I don’t care about rating or piracy. I care about the demise of editing. That’s a cultural catastrophe.
11. What do you think of literary prizes? As Jason Cowley has commented, they reduce our culture's ability to think in a critically complex fashion? Do they suggest, “this book is worth reading and all these others aren't?”
That isn’t the problem with prize culture. The problem with it is that prizes always reward conventional behavior. And that has led to a situation where books being published are run through the prize mill, and if they don’t get nominations or wins, the publishers abandon them, and the morons who run the chain bookstores, people who have expertise in marketing, don’t order them. Meanwhile, the books that win prizes nearly all disappear within a few years, because they’re mediocre. This is, by the way, more true in Canada than in any country in the English-speaking world, and it’s utterly toxic. We need to worry less about prizes and more about the stupidization of the public realm that this is part of.
12. Philip Marchand once stated, “Not even the most fervent partisans ofCanadian literature will say that Canadians have done fundamentally new things with the novel form, or changed the way we read in the manner, say, of a Joyce, a Kafka, a Nabokov, or a Garcia Marquez. Marchand is correct as far as *perceptions* go; Canadian writing is not considered formally or stylistically groundbreaking. However, is this in fact the case when one regards our de facto production? What examples can you think of (including your own work) which would suggest otherwise?
I’m guessing you never saw Gender Wars: A Novel & Some Conversation about Sex and Gender: 1994, Somerville House. If you want radical with the novel form, that has it, in both content and graphic representation. It may not succeed as prize “fiction”, but it’s as crazy as it gets and travels at 4 times the speed. I also thought that Ondaatje’s “Coming Through Slaughter, George Bowering’s Burning Water, and Barbara Gowdy’s We So Seldom Look on Love were ground-breaking by any International standards. Phil’s beef is with the Jane Urquhart/later Ondaatje universe, along with every nominee/winner of the Giller since it began, of which his description is accurate. What he doesn’t say (even though he knows the truth) is that conventionality is what literary prize culture begets.
12. What are you working on now that you're excited about?
The Epic of Gilgamesh According to Enkidu, where the issue is whether or not I’ll ever know enough to finish it. The truth is that I do know how to finish it, but I'm just not a temple priest, and they’re the ones who wrote all the other versions.