Briefly stated, this is the continuation and conclusion of an interview with A D Jameson begun last week. – Matt
“It strikes me as an incredible exercise in futility to waste energy writing negativity. […] I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be able to articulate why you don’t like something, but it seems to me much more progressive & useful to be able to articulate why you do like something.”
With all the hate that tends to thrive on the Internet, is this a refreshing and viable alternative?
A D JAMESON: I review regularly for Dalkey’s Review of Contemporary Fiction, and they have a policy of not running negative reviews. I see the value in that: “Space is limited; we’d rather talk about things we like than things we don’t like, &c.”
Although, personally, I don’t share this view. The way I look at it is, the culture is out there, and I want to talk about the culture. This will involve me looking at things I like, things I don’t like, things I don’t have an opinion about either way. And I want to be able to discuss it all. (Adding, of course, that I’m probably best known, if I’m known at all, for a negative review.)
Ultimately, however, I’m not all that interested in reviewing. Will someone like or dislike something? I myself often like and dislike things simultaneously. I’m more interested in criticism, in saying something pertinent about a cultural artifact. Even with that Inception post, I was less interested in making people “not like the movie” than I was in contributing to the conversation the culture was having about it—to point out other ways of viewing the film. At the end of the day, whether someone likes a thing or not is between them and their god.
I do have a few ground rules, though. I won’t, for instance, negatively review a book by an author who’s just starting out; that’s just cruel. I’d rather reserve my critiques for those in power.
OK, so here’s something for you. Something having to do with neither negative or positive criticism but writing in general. I wanted to get your thoughts on the process of writing a piece of fiction. What’s your process? For instance, do you work strictly on one piece at a time?
No, I work on many, many things at once. Right now, for instance, I’m working on…fifteen different books? (I’m not joking.) As well as dozens of reviews and articles and posts for Big Other.
But they’re all in different stages. My process is to revise heavily. I begin with very scattered notes, which I then reorganize and add to (I’m very organized). Some of those thoughts become projects, and others drift away; I let them go.
And when I finally get going on something—when it accumulates a certain momentum, or critical mass, and I know I want to finish it—I become more and more obsessed with it, so it crowds out everything else.
For instance, when I wrote my first novel, Giant Slugs, I grew very obsessed with it, and started dedicating all my free time to working on it. I stopped working out regularly, and being careful about my diet, and I fell out of shape. I also neglected a relationship I was in at the time, which is something I regret. But GS demanded my constant attention. I can see now that I was neurotic about being able to finish my first novel; I had to devote all of my energies to it, because I was deeply afraid that I wouldn’t be able to finish it. But I did finish, and afterward I resumed exercising, eating properly, relaxing (some!). Since then, I’ve tried to be a lot more balanced, and to worry less about my writing, too. (I just do it.)
Speaking of athleticism, I’ve read a handful of books and stories on that subject: DeLillo’s End Zone (football), Roth’s The Great American Novel (baseball), Jim Shepard’s “Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak” (football again) … We might also include Infinite Jest because of the Enfield Tennis Academy and Orin Incandenza’s professional football punting career.
Well, why, then, do we have the stereotype of the author as an unathletic nerd who’s hostile toward sports?
My guess would be that, as far as that stereotype goes, a lot of people who aren’t interested in physical activities devote their time and attention to things like writing, instead. Certainly I know plenty of people like that.
But you’re an athlete; I’m an athlete. I run, bike, swim, do yoga. Recently I’ve gotten back into weightlifting (which I love). My life would be just as incomplete without sports as it would be without writing. Actually, I might even give up writing before I gave up athletics… Although they’re both things I feel compelled to do every day, so I don’t think I’d have to choose.
Although they often do conflict with one another. And it’s easy, in this day and age, to neglect the body. US culture is rather unhealthy, physically. There’s not much pressure to eat well, stay fit. And sitting around in front of computers doesn’t help. Our culture is, overall, very Apollonian: enamored with wit and with the heady. Very little priority is given to the Dionysian, but both are necessary. I’ve been trying more and more as of late to spend less time in my head, and more time on my feet, and in my body as a whole. (I should also specify that by “our culture” I mean “white, middle class culture,” which in turn dominates so much of the US.)
Lately I’ve been trying to think about ways in which writing is a physical activity. My friend Jeremy M. Davies and I have been conducting a series of interviews with authors, asking them questions about the physical and material aspects of their respective writing practices. And I’m planning a series of essays with various walking artists I know, all of whom are also writers (as walking artists tend to be).
It’s a subcategory of performance art (arguably), somewhat in vogue in the art world these days. (It deserves to be more in vogue.) Some famous walking artists include Hamish Fulton, Richard Long, Marina Abramovic, Andy Goldsworthy, Francis Alÿs; there are also historical precedents, like the Situationist dérive, Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur, even perhaps the gleaner (especially when viewed through Agnès Varda’s perspective). In Chicago I’ve been fortunate to know and work with Michelle Tupko, Aurora Tabar, and Amira Hanafi. (We’ve done some dérives together, and I participated in some conceptual walks they organized.)
I do a lot of walking myself—it’s my favorite way to get around—and I like to walk an hour or two each day. Marrying walking with art and writing is gravy.
Yes. And there’s a lot of walking in Giant Slugs!
Broadly speaking, what else can we expect to see in it? And how much does it depart from Amazing Adult Fantasy?
All of my books differ from one another; I conceive of each one as its own project, with its own unique identity—conceptually, thematically, stylistically. No doubt there are still similarities—I’m drawn to certain aesthetic principles time and again, despite my best efforts to often resist them—but I try to make each book its own unique thing.
I wrote Giant Slugs between 1998 and early 2009 (although that included a few false starts). It’s a much longer book than Amazing Adult Fantasy, 100,000 words, and literally epic in scope, spanning years and numerous cities, and with dozens of characters. It’s loosely modelled on the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest surviving narratives. I took the overall structure, characters, and plot points, then adapted them to my own ends. (Actually, I modelled Giant Slugs on the well-known twelve-tablet Akkadian version of the Epic, composed between 1300–1000 BCE by Sin-liqe-unninni).
The story involved many ins and outs—the book is very plotted—but in short, the narrator, the spoiled heir to the kingdom Uruk, gets forced into exile when giant slugs invade that city. He then dedicates his life to finding a way to regain his hometown and his crown. (Whether he deserves either remains an open question.)
Stylistically, the novel takes the pun as one of its central organizing conceits. Most sentences contain one; language play is dominant. It’s also a fairly Maximalist work. One of my rules when writing it was that anything I thought of, I had to put it in; I had to find a way to make it work. There’s also a lot of poetry in the book—I wrote perhaps thirty poems for it, and the final chapter is entirely in verse.
But Giant Slugs also shares some concerns with Amazing Adult Fantasy; I wrote them at roughly the same time. They’re both bildungsromans, both absurdist. And they share a fondness for pop culture references: GS has a Super Mario Bros. theme running through it, as well as numerous references to ALF and Batman. There’s also a pornographic parody of The Legend of Zelda which I’m rather proud of. And there are ninjas. The whole thing is rather prurient, in fact—the narrator is a teenager, and very immature—despite being fairly well educated and verbose.
GS was also, like AAF, partially motivated by political concerns. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a work of Iraqi literature (the word “Iraq” descends from the city name “Uruk”), and I wrote Giant Slugs during the US-Iraq War. So it contains my thoughts and concerns about that fiasco. The Sumerians who built Uruk and wrote Gilgamesh also invented written language (cuneiform); they invented many of the basic building blocks of present civilization. So it just infuriated me that, about five millennia later, the United States was so concerned with “saving” the region. (I even heard people say that we were going to bring civilization to Iraq—what arrogance!)
But I’m an artist, not a political scientist, so my thinking and criticism is more artistic than explicit. For instance, I was fascinated by the fact that the Sumerians used clay not only to build bricks and buildings and walls, but also to write their literature. Walling in a city gave them time and space to write; writing helped them administer their burgeoning agriculture-based government.There’s a poetic circularity—as well as a physicality—to it all that I find rather beautiful.
And of course most of that culture, physically, has not lasted: the tablets have shattered, and Uruk has been swallowed by the desert (and bombed repeatedly by the US). All this despite the fact that Gilgamesh ends with the title character—the greatest king the world had known to that point—taking solace in the fact that, even though he himself was mortal and doomed to die, the walls of Uruk would outlive him, their millions of bricks gleaming beautifully in the desert. I find that conclusion terribly moving and sad (and not at all unfamiliar); hopefully Giant Slugs captures something of those emotions.
Because even though the authors of Gilgamesh were working thousands of years ago, I feel a kinship with them. I am a descendant of an artistic lineage that they started. And although they couldn’t imagine our modern world, our world today is not so terribly different. Gilgamesh is, if it’s anything, an expression of the fear of death, the fear of change and loss. It’s an attempt to make something that will outlive the self. Writing my first novel, I felt what I think was the same anxiety; I would lay awake at nights terrified that I would get hit by a bus before I finished a single book, or a novel.
Once I finished Amazing Adult Fantasy and Giant Slugs, as I said, I learned to relax a little. Maybe writing Gilgamesh did the same for the Sumerians. It’s pleasant to think so.
That’s an extremely fascinating way to think about completing a novel, to think about the kinship inherent to contributing your own unique work to the great artistic tradition, whether or not it survives beyond you — which in a certain sense seems arbitrary. But I’d like to talk about that anxiety you went through while writing Giant Slugs. It seems it definitely colored your experience of writing the novel, but can you think of any particulars? And were there ever any times when, more than anything, you just wanted to be rid of (i.e. finished with) the story, if only to relieve this anxiety?
Most definitely. It was in 2008 that I buckled down and wrote Giant Slugs (following, of course, the aforementioned years of research and false starts and other preparations). And since it was my first novel, I didn’t know how long it would take to finish. Starting around October of that year I could tell I was in the final stretch—I’d completed a third draft, and had started polishing, plus correcting the remaining logistical errors—but I had no idea how long that work would take. Some days I felt I was nearly there; at other times, I thought it might be another year. And that uncertainty was often frustrating. (As it turned out, I had only four months left; I finished in late January 2009.)
But I remember reflecting at the time on how much fun I was also having, and knowing that I would be terribly sad when I finished. Writing Giant Slugs was possibly the most pleasant writing experience I’ve ever had. I don’t know what others will make of the thing, but I loved writing it. (It is, above all, meant to be a fun, playful novel. Well, a fun, playful, mournful novel.)
For the last year and a half or so you’ve devoted much of your critical energies to the group blog Big Other. You’re also someone who’s by your own admission not terribly plugged into contemporary pop culture (I believe you’ve mentioned you haven’t owned a TV in quite awhile). How has this helped / hindered your contributions to the Internet? Do you feel at all an outsider or on the margin in the great big world of blogging and other web communication?
I’ve started watching TV again, recently, after a break of nearly ten years; I watch it while on the elliptical machine at the gym. (I work out every day.) Mainly I watch sitcoms: Friends, Seinfeld, The Office, Sex and the City. Three of those shows I’d never seen before (I watched some Seinfeld in the 90s). And it’s a fascinating thing to look at, because so much cultural information is delivered through television—as David Foster Wallace said, it’s our “main artistic snorkel to the universe.”
This is changing—the Internet and its devices are replacing television—but television is still a very primary source of popular information.
When I stopped watching TV in the late 1990s, I very quickly stopped understanding the popular culture. I was working as a technical writer at the time, and on those rare days when I went into work, it was as though my coworkers were speaking a different language. And I realized that all they ever talked about was what they’d seen on TV the previous night. Which sickened me, and caused me to retreat further from the mainstream: I stopped going to cineplexes, and listening to commercial radio. I became something of an art snob, interested only in books and Peter Greenaway films. Moving overseas after grad school didn’t help matters; to this day, I don’t really know what happened in the US between 2003 and 2005.
All of that changed about six years ago, when I relocated to Chicago. Gradually, I found myself being absorbed back into the larger culture, or larger subcultures. I’d go to a coffeehouse, and The Killers would be the PA. Friends would want to go see some new movie. And throughout I was reading some pretty mainstream websites, like Pitchfork and Topless Robot.
I like pop culture a great deal; I’m just suspicious of it (but I’m suspicious of everything, even Peter Greenaway films). I’m always wondering, why does the culture want me to think this at this moment? (Because—make no mistake!—the culture wants to do your thinking for you.) And of what value is it to me to think this? And, more importantly: where is all this stuff coming from? What is it teaching me? Who’s profiting from it? These are questions I learned to ask in college and in grad school; they saved my life.
Do you see the Internet as more of an outlet for niche groups to meet and share opinion or as a place for something more widely inclusive? Or is it more of a conflation of these two?
It’s many things and more. Mostly, it’s a waste of time. An entertaining waste of time, but still.
I don’t read many blogs, myself. I don’t own a data phone. I spend as little time as possible online. When I look back at my life, I don’t want to remember it as something I did staring at a screen.
Keeping all of the aforesaid Internet-related questions in mind, then, is there a “good” Internet and a “bad” Internet? If yes, how might you define them?
That’s a very interesting question; it reminds me of Curt White’s distinction between “good” and “bad” Enlightenment. Because the Enlightenment has given us not only secular humanism and penicillin and the Internet, but also bureaucracies, packaged food that’s drained of all its nutrition, mass extinctions, genocides, the ability to destroy nearly all life on the planet. And the omnipresent cell phone (which many people are using, quite loudly, in the computer lab where I’m typing this). (For more on this distinction, see Curt’s 2005 book The Spirit of Disobedience.)
The Internet is a tool. Obviously it can be used to do wonderful things: like most, I love having email and Skype and Google Books and Netflix. When I want to hear a song, odds are I can find it at YouTube. (I’m listening to a YouTube mix as I type this.) What did we do without those wonderful things?
But what doesn’t bring its own problems? I’m sitting in a chair (not a particularly comfortable one) in a computer lab with horrendous fluorescent lighting. I’m not typing properly (I never learned how to do it), and so I’m damaging my hands second by second. (When I relax my hands, my fingers curl up, a result of all the typing I do.) Staring at screens so much is hurtsome to my eyes; I get headaches if I work at a computer too much (which is why I do most of my writing by hand). Meanwhile, it’s a pretty nice day outside, and I’m not out there, enjoying it. And even though I can tell myself that I’m talking to someone else—you, whoever else might be reading this—the truth is I’m really sitting by myself—as you might be right now, you, whoever you are.
And do people read books any more? And if they don’t, is that a bad thing? &c. All those costs must be taken into account.
Let’s end on a happier note, and a question near and dear to Untoward. How has humor impacted your writing?
I’ll take that happy note and turn it sour (my mutant talent). To be sure, I’ve always gravitated toward funny writers—James Thurber, Jane Bowles, Stanislaw Lem, Donald Barthelme—so I like to think that much of my writing is funny. And when I was younger, I wrote mostly comical stories and poems.
And yet the past ten years have seen lots of funny writing, very clever and ironic writing that’s primarily intended to be arch and witty, and which has caused me to steer away from such humor. I find it pretty easy, in fact, to write that kind of stuff—abstract, clever, purely intellectual prose. But as I’ve already said, I’m suspicious of what comes easy. (I’m a contrarian.) For some reason or another I like writing things that don’t yet exist, stuff that’s out of step with what’s dominant in the surrounding culture. And so I’ve come, in fact, to mostly despise irony, and to be increasingly suspicious of what is clever. Rather, I find myself attracted to more sensual, intensely emotional art, more Dionysian than Apollonian, which is what I find myself wanting to make.
This desire no doubt has a lot to do with the fact that I’m a pretty rational critic. Anyone who’s read my work at Big Other knows that it’s pretty methodological, exacting, hyper-articulate. These are things I consider important, if not necessary, for criticism. (I’m a formalist, and I don’t have much stomach for the obtuse, highly-metaphorical Theory so popular today.) But I’m drawn to extremes, and making art and making criticism are totally separate enterprises, in my estimation, and so making very irrational, emotional art is one way of distinguishing my artistic self from my more rational, critical self. This also creates tension which is, I’d argue, absolutely essential for any artwork to be successful. Good art needs some kind of conflict, some internal struggle or sense of mystery—it needs for something to be at stake. And sometimes humor can come about, as one result of making art like that, but, no, it’s never my ultimate goal.
All right, well that’s it. “That’s a wrap,” as folks say. A special thanks to A D Jameson for answering our questions here at Untoward. Fortunately for you all, I am willing to attempt to undue A D’s “sour” ending by instead ending with a word I find funny: potato. (It looks as hilariously malformed and lumpy as it is in tangible form.)