[Interview conducted in October, 2012-revised in 2019]
1 V. S. Naipaul declared there are not any important writers anymore, Philip Roth 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 and 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 the short story have a future?
First of all, Naipaul was right, and Roth was, too. I think that the novel already is a cult activity, one that has become an economic cult among publishers and writing schools. Hard to say what Peter Stothard is on about, but it seems to me that the best fiction writing is being done for television limited series, and that it’s as good as any fiction ever written. We’re experiencing both technological change and cultural shiftings, so of course everything is changing.
The simple answer is that the novel hasn’t had much of a future since the invention of motion pictures, and the short story has been on borrowed since the invention of television. And then there’s non-fiction, which is perhaps the most epistemologically silly and at the same time most unambitious commercial genre publishers have imposed on writers. What does “non-fiction” mean? That by default, the genre it describes must be factual and true? That writers are thinking in those brainless commercial terms is shameful and self-destructive.
It’s shameful because we’re accepting the terms of an industry so incompetent that it has managed to turn books into the least valued cultural item produced by Western civilization, and it’s self-destructive because we’ve let industrial book publishers turn writers into museum widgets while we’re still living and breathing.
A part of this is the imposition, during the post-Soviet capitalist ecstacy of self-congratulation, of the marketplace as the sole model for cultural and educational activities. That has transformed most fiction writing into arid exercises in conventional behavior—trying to please novel-reading little old ladies who want to escape their dowdy lives with Robert McKee-grade mechanical nonsense. The other part, as hinted above, is a more or less inevitable degradation of the importance of written literature in the face of 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. I’m not a supporter of Donald Trump, but he’s onto something with “fake news”. I’ve been saying for decades that most news is at very least ideologically constructed and at worst systematically falsified.
All the evidence suggests that what people think of as “literature”—the novel and the short story as cultural artifacts—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, one that we should get over.
I think there IS a way of writing that does have cultural relevance: it’s in that edge of postmodernism that never got far beyond the experimental and the precious, but which I still think holds all of postmodernism’s mineral core, where writers seek a paratactic depth and transparency that allows readers to move as quickly as the human mind now naturally moves while being completely clear about where the contents 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 it’s 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.
Will e-technology alter the very forms of the Novel and short story? If so, how?
I think electronic technology has already altered the forms with movies and series television. If you’re talking about E-technology as e-books or screen-reading on the Internet, that’s a more complex issue. E-books work, sort of, and they’ll get better, maybe, and so they might even end up supplanting 20-30 percent of the paper-based book trade. That’s quite a lot less than people thought it would get a few years ago, and the paper-based book trade itself has shrunk noticeably during that time for a raft of reasons that have nothing to do with the presence of E-books.
Personally, I don’t see any of those artifactual and industrial issues as terribly consequential. There remain lots of interesting sentences to be written, and an infinity of worthwhile thoughts to think and to string together into coherence, and that’s what writers need to be thinking about.
A serious danger, meanwhile, lies in the activities of Google and the text mash-up crowd, who are going to, if they get what they want, undermine the evidential and referential systems upon which Western civilization is based. What’s at risk here is something a hell of a lot more important than books and book publishing: at risk is the rule of law and our judicial systems, which can’t operate without rigorous rules of evidence, precedent, and authorship. What happens to individual authorship is an element in this, but the fate of “literature” isn’t. How e-books will change conventional novels is relatively speaking, also of small moment. Literature and some of its forms are relevant solely because it remains the most effective device for long-form thinking that exists outside scientific research collectives. And long-form thinking is what got human beings most of the good things civilization has created. If we lose it, we’re just a bunch of over-sized baboons, monkeys and lemmings. Or denizens of a Google campus.
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?
The imposition of the market model is winnowing out writers or publishers who aren’t terminally conventional or independently wealthy. And it’s contributing to the general dumbing down of readers. The current publishing system is both intellectually and economically incompetent, which may be why it’s in a state of collapse.
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?
That isn’t quite what’s happening. Before you even get there, you have to address the ongoing problem of over-production across the publishing industry, the most telling and accurate emblem of which is that if you find a box abandoned on a street corner, the box is most likely to be filled with books. Second, inside the industrial model, there are plenty of nuances. Mid-list is a highly moveable feast, one that shifts year-to-year. It’s been a big boon for the last decade to young writers coming out of the creative writing factories, because they’ve primarily been taught how to market themselves, and how to be acceptably conventional. More recently, minority writers, (in Canada, particularly aboriginalwriters) have been having lots of publishing success, if not always sales success. Publishers are desperately looking for “new, fresh writers” because that’s novelty is a fashionable marketing category, particularly inside a system that’s dysfunctional. But really, if, as a writer, you’re just trying to get laid by the market, why not 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. But I do recognize that it has become the equivalent of having a Visa card: if you don’t have one, you lose elements of full citizenship. My test for this is simple. Can you find an author’s website that isn’t so crudded with self-congratulation and exaggeration that you feel like barfing after 20 seconds?
5 How do you feel about running an author's website? Do you feel it’s 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 putting one up and updating it every time someone winks at you has to be an ongoing humiliation for any sane writer. Author websites are kind of poster children for the venality of the Internet. Blowing your own horn, once upon a time, automatically got you a reputation as an asshole. I’ve got better things to do than to spend my days secretly updating my Wikipedia entry, or trying to pump smoke up people’s behinds with an author website.
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. Human beings are social, and thus gossip and sleep with one another and talk and think and do elementary detective work, and so pretending that you’re blind doesn’t work, as anyone who’s ever been on a literary jury knows very well. No to the second question because the alternative to having authors judge one another is to put it in the hands of bureaucrats and their systems. That’s the last thing we should do with literature.
I’ve been on several juries with a blind manuscript selection process. The reality is that the jurors all know who 2/3rds of the writers are, because good writers write distinctive sentences. As a juror 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 subsequent 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 that they all know one another—or should. He was talking about Canada as a cultural community. You can foam 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 us what to think and say and do, and there’ll still only be 900 people in the country—and this time, they’ll all be bureaucrats and commissars. We’re not far off that right now, actually.
7 According to media reports, e-book sales now represent a significant percentage of overall sales.
They’re lying about this if they’re still claiming that. And it doesn’t matter, anyway. Small bookstores, when they still existed, saw e-books as a threat to their survival, but they were wrong. The real enemies in Canada were Heather Reisman and Amazon—in that order. Reisman went out of her way to destroy the independent bookselling sector, and has subsequently—mostly out of indifference—has helped bankrupt many of the small publishers in the country, and to turn the funding agencies against them. There’s no really pleasant future scenario for any of this, but at the same time, it isn’t as dire as it seems. Print people, it turns out, aren’t going get old and die, and there remain lots of reason for publishing books—just not to get rich and/or famous by doing it.
8. Are you enthusiastic about e-books?
No. But not for the reasons you might guess. What worries me about the e-book industry, and its ugly twin electronic self-publishing, is that it will put an end to the editing of books. That would be an intellectual catastrophe, because many self-published e-books right now are really just long 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. That’s a terribly slippery slope.
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 late 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 ratings 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 mills, 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 are people who don’t read, and so don’t order them. Meanwhile, the books that win prizes nearly all disappear within a few years, because they’re conventional and mediocre. This is, by the way, more true in Canada than in any country in the English-speaking world, and it’s become 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 of Canadian 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 know and respect Phil, but he does read with eye-flaps on, and with a fixation on the novel as a form of expression. There’s lots of experimental Canadian writing. 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. But it didn’t succeed as “prize” fiction, because the critics didn’t know how classify it? Was it fiction? Yes, some of it was. Was it non-fiction, Yes, a lot of it was. What they couldn’t handle was that it was as crazy as it gets and travels at four times the speed of most novels. I also thought that Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, George Bowering’sBurning Water and later, Pinboy and Barbara Gowdy’s We So Seldom Look on Love were ground-breaking by any International standard. 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 production issue is whether or not I can know enough to be able to finish it. I could finish it as conventional literature, but I'm just not a temple priest, and they’re the ones who wrote all the other versions of the epic. I’m trying to figure out what they didn’t say, which what Enkidu saw and thought, and what he knew about Gilgamesh.