A Conversation With Anis Shivani

by Roxane Gay

I am always fascinated by people with whom I disagree, vehemently and sometimes violently, about matters of mutual interest. I have read some of the literary criticism Anis Shivani has written for The Huffington Post and in other venues and regardless of his subject matter, I always have a reaction, usually a reaction that is anything but subdued. Nine times out of ten, I disagree with what Shivani has to say about everything and anything. I suppose that is the mark of a critic who is doing their job effectively–inspiring a reaction, a conversation, a response to their ideas. I am especially curious about what makes Shivani tick because he seems so committed to his opinions on the one hand, and so committed to provocation on the other, though, as you’ll see, he would disagree with that latter statement. I don’t know that you can ever really know how someone thinks or what motivates them but I asked Shivani a few questions about contemporary literature, criticism, the role of the critic, and how he approaches his critical work. He had, as you might imagine, a great deal to say and I disagreed, as you might imagine, with much of what he had to say but as ever, I had a reaction, a response and we had an interesting conversation.

You do a lot as a writer–fiction, poetry, criticism. What is your first love?

Fiction has always been my first love.  I write criticism to learn more about fiction.  I could also easily have devoted myself to poetry, but although poetry is satisfying in its way, only in fiction does my soul fully engage.  There’s no rush like writing fiction, and I can’t do it on autopilot, as it’s possible to do with criticism or even poetry at times.  The feeling of euphoria and satisfaction from writing fiction is incomparable.  Writing a successful novel is a great challenge, and you have to be a bit of a poet, a bit of a critic, a bit of a dramatist, a bit of a philosopher, a bit of a social scientist, to pull it off.  Writing long poems is more exciting than short lyrics, but then one needs a lot of commitment for that.  I’m in two minds about having written so many stories early in my career; on the whole perhaps it was a net loss, because I didn’t spend that precious time writing novels.  The economics of publishing dictated that I write short stories for many years and get them published in the literary journals, but the story requires a different mindset than a novel and it’s difficult to get the story’s habits out of the mind when one is writing a novel.  It teaches compression, which is both a virtue and a fault.

It’s only an unfortunate specialization that limits writers to operating within narrow genres—short stories about a specific region and milieu, for example, or novels dedicated to the same few characters, or lyrical poems relentlessly exploring one’s own ethnicity or geography—otherwise writers in other countries still write in different genres at the same time, and this has always been the case since the beginning of time—until, that is, the academic specialization of literary writing under university patronage in the U.S. in the late twentieth century.  I think writers should see themselves as workers in the broad field of the arts—including even Hollywood or popular music, and certainly what used to be called literary journalism in every possible genre.  Anything to break the rut, to push the mind toward new challenges so that writing doesn’t fall into preestablished grooves—which is very easy to do, based on the successful formulas in existence.  Film is a particularly fruitful cross-fertilizer, as is painting.  Really, the arts cannot function in isolation and shouldn’t be practiced and critiqued that way.  It’s only unprecedented specialization that has created this unnatural situation, and the writer must be very conscious of that and work hard to break down the false institutional barriers preventing a catholicity, even eccentricity, of interests.  The mind desires to switch between different levels of intuition and emotion and logic and these desires should be fed.

What is the responsibility of the critic?

The responsibility of the critic is to use his preferred set of criteria to judge and evaluate whether or not a work of art is good.  If it’s not good, he should provide historical context to explain why.  One can learn as much, if not more, from so-called negative criticism than from positive criticism.  The critic’s responsibility is very moral in this sense.  He should be fair to the work or author or national literature in question, not asking more of it than it can reasonably deliver, but he shouldn’t go easy either.  The responsibility of the critic is to challenge the reader to not read passively, uncritically, unthinkingly, and to open up for him a whole set of issues that he might not have thought of otherwise.  The critic, in my view, is a democrat, in wanting to see different styles of writing flourish, and seeing the good in as many genres as he can possibly keep up with; he shouldn’t be a narrow partisan for a narrow style of writing.  It’s the responsibility of the critic to be trained well in his field, just as we expect fiction writers or poets to have mastered their field, so that instead of expressive or spontaneous or on-the-spur emotional reactions, when he critiques he’s as much in conversation with past and present critics as he’s in conversation with the given author’s matrix of influences and connections.

I’m trying to develop a theory of the critic as the literary entrepreneur par excellence—I don’t mean anything as debased and clichéd as a public intellectual, a reactionary idea promoted in defense of a generally acquiescent political culture; I don’t mean the set of promotional and partisan and political commitments implied by the designation “public intellectual.”  I mean that the writer of the future should conceive of himself first and foremost as a critic.  It’s not that different from how it’s traditionally worked.  This would replace the model of the writer learning “craft” by practicing under state or corporate patronage, and instead learning the tradition—assimilating it and arguing with it—at an increasingly deeper level as criticism teaches him to separate the good and the bad in art.  I would like to see the critic of the future crossing different cultural fields as a way to broaden his understanding of his own chosen field, and reaching out to mass audiences rather than limiting himself to coterie groups.

In short, I see the renewal of strong criticism as absolutely central to reviving the moribund literary project—and I think we can all agree that it’s in pretty bad shape today, culturally marginal and deservedly so.  The responsibility of the critic is to relentlessly ask the question, What is art for?  Is there a moral dimension to it?  If so, what is it, and does it change, depending on the needs of the society, the state of the world at large, and the particular challenges humanity faces at a given time in overcoming its perennial problems of misery and suffering?  The critic is a moralist—yes, it can only be that way.

What does it require to be taken seriously as a critic? Why should you be taken seriously as a critic?

A critic builds a reputation over a long period of time.  This doesn’t mean that he can’t have flashes of insight early on in his career.  In fact, it’s those early intuitions that often determine his future path, as the rest of his life is spent elaborating and rationally exploring the intuitions that hit him early on without much effort.  In my case, in the mid- and late 1990s, it was obvious to me that—not to put too fine a point on it—theory was bullshit, that postmodern preening among secure academics was a lifestyle gesture and pose, not worth taking seriously.  I found revolting the whole enterprise of ridiculing “Western” rationality (is rationality Western?) or deploying Derrida’s phallogocentrism and other stolen nonsensical terms, by those who were hyperprivileged beneficiaries of the same phallogocentrism, munificently remunerated, removed from all threats and insecurities at lush ivy-covered campuses, while they decried the benefits—or even the very idea—of science and technology!

My undergraduate education was in economics and at the time, in the early and mid-1990s, I used to think that a faux naïveté toward liberalism (admitting all we know about the tragedies of the twentieth century and yet valuing liberalism’s basic presumptions) was a necessity for poor countries then making the transition to democracy.  In the last fifteen to twenty years—since the end of the Cold War consensus—we as a country have regressed tremendously.  We’ve become incapable of criticism—that seems to me the fundamental change—and it penetrates politics, culture, social life, even intimate life.  We’ve become grossly indulgent and delusional and whiny and increasingly leery of responsibility.  So we need to return to the fundamentals of liberal morality, and I’ve forced myself not to get out of touch with reality as I saw the academics of the 1990s doing.  Connected with postmodern indulgence was the favoritism shown to multicultural literature, which seemed to me shallow and irresponsible, in the form corporate publishing promoted it and academic culture adopted it.  I saw a frightening emptiness to prose narrative, defined by narcissism and lack of global understanding, a willful denial of reality.  I may have understood all that at the gut level but it took many years to order these intuitions in a coherent intellectual framework.

So to answer your question the critic, to be taken seriously, must have thought long and hard about the fundamental questions he’s set for himself at the beginning of his career, and proven himself by the increasingly more sophisticated articulation of his views.  Of course, he may still be taken seriously, if the insight is blinding and ferocious, at an early age, but then the response will be in the nature of asking those insights to be proven, backed up with logic and reason.  I’ve extensively published my developing ideas in criticism—they didn’t just spring up overnight at the Huffington Post—for a decade.  Do people in the online world still read the Georgia Review andMichigan Quarterly Review and Antioch Review and Cambridge Quarterly and London Magazine?  I’ve published similar criticism as you now see online in the very best literary journals for a long time, but unfortunately reaching only a minimal audience; I’m grateful to have a much wider audience now with the online opportunity, for the same ideas I’ve been publishing in relative obscurity.  The quality print journals can be quietly ignored; not these new venues.

How is the role of the professional critic evolving now that certain forms of criticism have become rather democratic, or some might say, anarchic?

Yes, this is the absolute crux of the matter.  I would say that thanks to the Internet—which is going to be the crucial public sphere of the future, though it has barely begun to deliver on the promise—criticism is definitely becoming democratic and even anarchic, and that’s wonderful, the greatest development critics can build on.  The legitimacy of gatekeepers is crashing, and they were responsible—because of their parochial interests—for taking the passion out of literature.  I think the process took off in the early Cold War years, went through different phases, and most recently has manifested itself as a corollary of neoliberal political hegemony; it’s in the interest of elite gatekeepers, like the New Yorker and the New York Times and Poetry, to keep literature at a low boil, to persuade the public that there’s not much going on that’s worthy of passionate debate.  Now everyone has a viewpoint and a platform to present it—a review on Amazon, if nothing else.  The problem is, as usual new gatekeepers have emerged, so that the solitary voice on a blog read by no one or a review at a site like Amazon doesn’t have quite the same currency as views appearing on the better-read sites.  Still, we must believe that if a critic is strong enough, he will eventually gain a wide following; and this is more true than in the old days of print gatekeeping.

It took me a while to come around to the power of the Internet; in the early days I used to think of it as an irredeemable wasteland, but this changed with the rise of blogs in the mid-2000s.  Even today, the overwhelming bulk of it is wasteland, although there is some worth even in articulating in public the kinds of thoughts people previously uttered in drunken rages or while feeling suicidal at the proverbial three in the morning.  How should the Internet rise to the challenge?  How and where will powerful new criticism emerge?  As far as literary criticism is concerned, unfortunately the majority of blogs are extensions of the narrow cliques of writing program groupthink.  Aside from the more traditional print literary quarterlies, the newfangled ones, the pure product of writing programs, don’t publish any criticism; or if they do, it’s unmitigated praise of fellow writers, a kind of shameless publicity.  The major literary blogs are infected by the same cliquishness; they don’t do criticism; they do publicity.  But I see this as a transitionary phenomenon.

Ideas about what form criticism should take on the Internet will rapidly evolve until it’s unrecognizable from the present constrained formats.  I’ve tried in my work to create all sorts of visual and auditory excitement, but I can see that the potential is still mostly untapped.  As the hegemony of current forms of writing dissolves—and the structures are so moribund, it’s bound to happen—democratic criticism on the Internet will become a reality, and real quality, in formats hard for us to imagine at this point, will reach a wider public than ever thought possible.  Yes, I’m a raging optimist about the potential of true democracy on the Internet.

A lot of your criticism is quite aggressive and provocative. Why do you take that approach?

It’s “aggressive” only from the point of view of someone writing for one of the tame literary journals or websites; it’s not aggressive from the point of view of the sharpest critics who have plied the trade over the centuries.  Most Internet “criticism”—reviews which are really blurbs in flowery language, reverential interviews which never challenge a writer, the sycophancy and nervous politeness and feudal praise—is so far mostly an extension of the genteel, apolitical, personalized mode of thinking engendered in the writing programs.  The great critics have been pretty aggressive—it fires me up when I see the New York Times follow a consistent agenda of praising mediocrities and ignoring real literary quality, and shouldn’t it fire you up too?  How aggressive should you be when confronted with the literary equivalents of George W. Bush or Sarah Palin?  Is any rhetorical tool the limit in countering mediocrity propped up by tottering institutional supports?  What deserves my loyalty, art or prestige?  Internet criticism, as it exists today, is a form of socialization; a rather elevated form, but that’s what it amounts to.

I’m somewhat surprised by the graduates of writing programs taking up arms in defense of their masters; what did these masters ever do for you and what will they ever do for you?  All right, maybe they will come through yet with a recommendation or favor, and maybe you believe they “taught” you certain writing skills, but come on!  I’m sorry to have crashed the drunken party, but a couple of years ago, when I started writing online, criticism online was absolutely dead.  There was nothing interesting going on, it was all bland and hypocritical and anti-intellectual, and for the most part, it still is.

Provocative—that depends on where you’re coming from.  If you’ve never read the great critics of the past—who certainly didn’t shy away from controversy, and deployed every polemical tool at their disposal to sway the reading public to their point of view—and if you’ve only hung around in safe Facebook confines where your friendly doppelganger serves as your own publicity overlord, then of course my criticism will seem aggressive and provocative.  You should hear the language I use in my head when I think of the latest literary celebrity cashing in on ignorance.  It’s not very pretty language.  I actually think I’m quite moderate even in my most “provocative” essays.

The list of 15 overrated contemporary writers you compiled last year has received a great deal of attention. What prompted the writing of that list? Why is compiling such lists a worthwhile exercise? Why are we so enamored with lists designed to calculate greatness or the lack thereof?

It’s absolutely the central role of a critic to define the good and the bad.  The idea that one should just leave the bad alone—because time will take care of it, or one should either praise or remain silent—is ludicrous!  Understanding the bad helps us understand the good—and in a star-driven culture industry driven by hype and propaganda, this function is all the more important.  As for the overrated piece at the Huffington Post, the ideas behind my criticism of Billy Collins, Jorie Graham, Sharon Olds, Jhumpa Lahiri, etc. were developed and published incrementally over many years in the literary journals; if you check out Against the Workshop, you’ll find reviews taking Collins to task, such as when he edited the Best American Poetry, and a substantive essay in the leading British journal of criticism taking apart his whole career (along with Graham, Olds, Glück, and Philip Levine).  Collins is a poetry clown, yet he’s the best-selling American poet.  I haven’t heard any complaints about the New York Times compiling end-of-the-year best books lists; and yet that’s pure puffery, based on the power and heft of the major trade houses, nothing more than that.

We all have internal ranking systems, and while list-making can sometimes be silly, if it’s backed up by serious thought it can be a very useful exercise to get readers thinking about why the instruments of propaganda—among which I include all the major literary awards in this country—are trying so hard to get us to like certain authors.  In the Huffington Post piece, I wanted to get out some core opinions about popular authors in an entertaining fashion.  Different personas are in order when approaching different audiences, and judging by the ensuing worldwide clamor, that particular style was a hit.  I might just return to that supremely bitchy tone for an encore later this year!  Critics can’t be dour and pedantic all the time, they have to learn to approach different audiences at different levels, and in fact create new audiences for the standard stuff of criticism.

In your “New Rules for Writers” essay on Huffington Post, your first rule is for writers to disobey the system. I’m all for working against systems but you attended Harvard and publish in some of the very publications that rise out of the “system.” There seems to be a tension there between what you advise and where you write. Do you perceive that same tension? How can you advise writers to avoid the system when you seem to be deeply entrenched in the system yourself?

This is a particularly bizarre question, which seems to come up again and again, in blogs and in comment threads.  And it seems to follow from a real misunderstanding about what I mean by the system and corruption within it.  If I publish in the Threepenny Review or Iowa Review, or my books of fiction or criticism are published by reputable independent or university presses, am I disqualified from criticizing the system?  In order to point out its corruptions, must I be unpublished, unknown, and uneducated?  There’s a difference between honest plying of the field and outright manipulation and corruption.  The system works to the advantage of certain authors and to the distinct disadvantage of others.  It’s a definite liability not to have been part of the MFA system, whereas even ten or fifteen years ago this wasn’t as true.

I started off with no connections in the literary world, none whatsoever, and built my credibility based on my writing alone.  I submitted to patient editors like Dan Latimer at Southern Humanities Review or Laurence Goldstein at Michigan Quarterly Review or Robert Fogarty atAntioch Review or Stephen Corey at Georgia Review or Wendy Lesser at Threepenny Review or John Matthias at Notre Dame Review for years and years before they started taking my work.  This is how I learned my trade, and I had zero institutional credibility to back me up.  They didn’t know me from Adam (or Adam Haslett), I was never legitimized by the workshop system, and I never got a fellowship from Yaddo or MacDowell—and I never will either, no matter how good my writing gets, because I don’t have the institutional connections; heck, I wouldn’t be able to get a library carrel as an independent scholar, no matter how good my writing, because that’s just not how the system works.

Although I was lucky to have the book accepted almost immediately upon first submission,Anatolia and Other Stories would probably have gone over the heads of ninety-nine percent of small press editors (we won’t even talk about the major houses), had it not been for a brilliant editor, Colleen Ryor (unfortunately no longer with Black Lawrence Press), who picked the manuscript; I consider her something of an outsider too.  I don’t doubt that this entirely atypical book would have caused anything but nervousness among the vast majority of small press publishers who like to imagine themselves as mavericks and talent-spotters.  That’s been the pattern with all my books, and that’s generally also true of my journal publications.  And whatever good things happen to me in the future will probably be as a result of intuitive association with publishers and editors in sync with my nonconformist tendencies.

After college, I decided to go it alone and do whatever was necessary to make time for independent learning (I didn’t “buy” two years of time by paying $100,000 to an MFA program—no one owns my time, I don’t have to buy it back from someone), which involved unimaginable sacrifice and persistence.  For about ten years I lived in abject poverty and did nothing but read—I wrote too, but I didn’t just start submitting, I was more interested in filling the huge gaps in my learning.  Looking back at it, the intentional hurdles against not having an MFA or being part of the system are so great that it’s absolutely foolhardy to attempt it.  Everything I’m doing now is in collaboration with people who are at odds with the system in some way or another and want to see a better situation for books.

Compare this with the experience of the callow, inexperienced, unworldly writer who milks the system for all it’s worth; some good-looking guy or gal in their mid- to late twenties goes straight from Yale to the Writers’ Workshop to the Fine Arts Work Center to the Stegner fellowship, with stints at Yaddo and MacDowell in between, and very thin to non-existent (often just cranky online) publications to back it all up—all because the network functions purely on connections, a very corrupt, almost medieval exclusion.  The writing world today is the antithesis of meritocracy.  I imagined more than fifteen years ago that meritocracy would be more prevalent in the literary world compared to academia, but the situation is a thousand times worse than in scholarship.  Oh, and by the way, I was a fucking rebel at Harvard too—you should ask some of the people who knew me then.  The best minds of my generation fucked themselves up on Wall Street—or deconstructing literature for the always already privileged.

Some of your harshest criticism is directed toward MFA programs. I don’t have an MFA but there is ample evidence that MFA programs work quite well and produce good and often great writers. I certainly don’t believe an MFA is necessary to become a writer, but I don’t begrudge the MFA program’s existence. What did an MFA degree ever do to you? What brings about such impassioned criticism of the MFA?

At the root of the discomfort with the critique of MFA programs is an anti-intellectualism, which usually takes the form of assailing the critic’s “generalizations.”  We do need to understand the philosophical moorings of an institutional system that by now recruits almost every literary writer in this country.  Wallace Stegner’s dream has come true, and we have moved from “writers who teach” to “teachers who write.”  (A really disturbing new phenomenon is the incorporation of commercially successful literary fiction writers into the academy, after they’ve made it big and presumably don’t even need the money; they’re proud to be asked to teach at Yale or UCLA or NYU or Columbia.)  I’m not new in my attack on MFA programs—others preceding me include John Aldridge (to go back a while in time), and more recently Donald Hall, Joseph Epstein, Dana Gioia, Eve Shelnutt, Diane Ackerman, Vernon Shetley, Greg Kuzma, J. D. McClatchy, D. G. Myers, and many others.  Most of the critiques of the last two decades have focused on poetry, while my analysis is very broad, tries to take in the whole picture, connects all the different institutions in play, and begins to imagine alternatives to the MFA system.

Just because it exists and is prevalent doesn’t mean it’s the right or best way.  A particularly unfortunate recent justification of the status quo is Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, where he supposes that because the system is so dominant it must be for good reasons—it obviously serves certain self-interested constituencies, and from McGurl’s functionalist point of view, that’s good enough.  I suspect that McGurl’s defense will be the high point of MFA orthodoxy in this country, after which the questioning and skepticism will erode the system’s legitimacy over time—and I certainly intend to play my part in its downfall, which will come not a minute too soon.

The question is not what an MFA did to me, but what an MFA does to you, Roxane, or to writers like you, to all honest writers in general.  The MFA promotes and rewards a certain kind of writing, and forbids and punishes other kinds of writing.  We have to accept that as a starting premise, because any institutionalized system will perform this function.  So then the question becomes, What kind of writing does it favor?  Within the parameters of MFA writing, certain writers look pretty damn good—Louise Glück, for example, or Aimee Bender, or Denis Johnson, or Marilynne Robinson.  Outside its parameters, it’s a different story.  I disagree that the MFA system is producing good, let alone great, writing.  I’ve dissected in many reviews and essays the kind of writing being produced under the MFA system, and I consider none of it good or great, and the overwhelming majority repulsively bad.  The system is churning out copy because of the oversupply of writers, but it won’t last—and I’m not the first one to attack it for its superficiality.

Among the things the MFA does to you:  You can’t easily establish yourself as an independent literary entrepreneur because writing that is most rewarded takes place within the system.  One reason why literary writing is so poorly compensated is because of this oversupply.  It’s difficult to set yourself up as a publisher if you’re competing with the flood of mediocrity issuing from the system.  We could argue that because there’s so much mediocrity, good writing will stand out even more, but we’re just being optimistic when we say that.  The options for writers outside the MFA system have become radically diminished—and that’s a real problem.  The hegemony of the MFA system deserves unsparing criticism.  The MFA relies on overspecialization (writers work within narrow niches in one genre only), exclusion of literary criticism as we’ve known it, and separation of the writer from the mass reading public—all major concerns.

I read an interview with you where you stated that in order to learn to write well, one must study the classics, absorb the ways of the masters. Is there nothing to be learned from contemporary fiction?

In the early stages of a writer’s career, when influence is more easily accepted, I think it’s best to stick to the classics.  It’s easy to pick up bad habits.  So much of American storytelling—Antonya Nelson, Frederick Barthelme, Mary Gaitskill, Maile Meloy, that monstrous new writer known as Wells Tower—is absolutely destructive of how a writer should approach the story.  If you have extra time, why not go back to Chekhov—again and again and again?—since you’ll learn more from one story of his than a lifetime perusing the likes of Nelson and the living Barthelmes.

The contemporary American story is terribly constrained by a few arbitrarily-imposed rules of realism, very artificial in form and structure and thematics, and founded in a regressive aesthetic, which it’s amazing to see making a comeback after the heights of modernism and postmodernism.  American poetry is likewise terribly impoverished today; there are great classical examples to follow and learn from, and poetry written in other parts of the world—Eastern Europe, for example.  As a model to follow Antonya Nelson is easy, because instead of organic connection between the writer’s reality and the deep structures of the world in a global, universal, historical sense, and being similarly connected with the tradition of writing over the centuries, what you have is replication of mundane experience for its own sake.  This is true of American poetry as well, Stephen Dunn for example.

I see a break having occurred in American writing after World War II, a pulling back from inventive energies which has had a cumulative half-century effect, and this is why one must treat this body of writing with some skepticism.  There have been great writers anyway—Richard Yates, or Jean Stafford, or, despite the institutional limitations, John Cheever.  And there have been many wonderful poets in the post-war period.  Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is a very important book of the last decade; I don’t see any American writer being able to pull off a book so at odds with the optimistic, cheerful, sociable, delusional American writer’s world of make-believe, a devastating critique of empire in its last stages.  Give me a book like that, and I’ll read contemporary fiction.

There are fantastic European and Latin American and Asian and African writers among the contemporaries, and of course one must learn how they address current reality; that’s not something you can get from the classics.  I think Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie, and J. M. Coetzee are the world’s three best contemporary writers, in that order, and beneath them are so many other writers who offer fresh looks into consciousness and reality.  One must study all of them—as long as Chekhov and Forster aren’t getting short shrift.  You “compete” with your contemporaries in very different ways than you do with the classics; you need both these relationships in order to be a complete writer, and you need to let frustrations and envies and resentments and admirations fester and fertilize in complicated ways if you want to do something original.

In a lot of your criticism I detect a real sense of fatigue with modern letters. I, on the other hand, feel like this is a really exciting time as both a reader and a writer. There is, indeed, so much writing out there but so much of that writing is so damn good. Where does your fatigue come from? Is there anything about literary culture right now that inspires you?

It’s not fatigue, it’s a rational criticism of illegitimate literary institutions.  And if you follow my work at the Huffington Post and in print, you know that I spend far more time promoting underappreciated writers, especially young writers, than I do taking down the likes of David Orr and Jonathan Franzen.  Unfortunately, the negative criticism gets infinitely more attention than the positive criticism.  I have to add that the ambition of young American writers today is severely limited, and even when I admire their work I feel they could be doing so much more.  But then one gets into the practical issue of acceptance and publication.  If you write a challenging long poem in the tradition of Williams or Dorn, who is going to publish it?  Likewise for a novel that bucks convention.  Criticism is dead for now—it’s mostly mutual flattery.  I cringe at the rampant Internet cliques wildly overpraising in-group writing—there’s some verbal ingenuity there, but the flash fiction and prose poems are generally very minor, even trivial, and have a mechanical, workshop-exercise feel.

But I reject the idea of fatigue.  I’m really turned on by developments in world literature.  I believe that within the next couple of decades we’re going to move to a global market in literature, so that trends in one place will affect those in every other place; just as the economy is one connected whole, the same will be true of literature.  That will be very exciting.  For example, I see publishers in India already taking the lead in promoting exciting writing; this is only the beginning, and you’ll see the initiative coming not necessarily from the present metropolitan centers of the world but from the supposed periphery.  The new cosmopolitan outlook is going to change everything; I’m terribly excited about that.  I’d like to point to Rana Dasgupta’s Solo as an exemplar; where do you place the book, what region and national culture does it belong to, who is its ultimate audience?  These are impossible questions to answer in the old ways:  Dasgupta is a British-born writer who lives not in New York or London but in Delhi, and his novel re-imagines the history of Bulgaria in the twentieth century.  It’s one of the first truly global books of the current era.

How does it feel, as a critic, when harsh criticism is directed to you? How do you respond to what your critics have to say about you?

I have the thickest skin of anyone you’ll ever know, and that’s helpful when you attack as many sacred cows with as much venom and fire as I do.  The most disgruntled public responders have been those in the MFA and publishing hierarchies who feel threatened that for the first time the inside business of writing and publishing is being aired for a mass public online with such lack of concern for polite conventions.  Dan Chiasson, formerly of the Paris Review, wrote after my overrated essay that I should be blacklisted by publishers; some other entrenched writers spoke in similar vein.

I feel inspired by the fervor of private messages I get in support of my views; you’d be shocked at the kinds of people in the very highest reaches of publishing and writing who support me; they can see the problems too, but it’s not possible for everyone to just come out and say it.  The attacks are often personal—he’s bitter or unsuccessful or failed, or he’s too successful or part of the system or an insider—and I can dismiss that, but a lot of it reflects the anti-intellectuality of American writing; writers in the age of new media are required to behave by kindergarten rules of politeness, saying only nice and pleasant things about other writers and about the writing culture.

There are many, many blogs that ensue in response to my criticism, and I’m very happy when sometimes they engage with the substance of my arguments.  I would like to see much more of that, systematic refutations of my logic, if necessary.  If you think Jorie Graham is a good poet, let’s hear it, defeat my propositions, or if you think the Pulitzer Prize is a good barometer of worthy writing, then let’s hear your arguments.  If you disagree with my interpretation of the psychology of the writing workshop, then let’s hear about your psychology of creative writing.

How do you read when you’re going to review a book? How much do you read in a given week? Are you able to read for pleasure?

I read way too much for my own good—for the good of my imaginative writing, that is.  If I like a book, or if I’m going to review it, I read very slowly and systematically.  I’ll read, even for an ordinary newspaper review, everything the writer ever wrote—certainly for a poet, and for fiction writers with huge oeuvres, as much as possible to situate the book in the author’s history.  I’ll probably read a lot about the history and politics and art of the region or era in question.  I’ll make extensive notes in the margins as I read, and scribble twenty, thirty, forty questions in the back of the book, versions of which might become the basis for the review or the interview.  I read constantly—pretty much every bit of time other than writing and whatever I need to do for sheer bodily survival.  I read not just literature, but extensively in the social sciences and humanities and arts.  I manage time to the minute, and I think the discipline acquired from my corporate period (hah!  I surprised you, didn’t I?) has something to do with the obsessive measurement of time.

By this point, I’m pretty much unable to read for pleasure, which is a great loss.  There are so many venues and opportunities to treat books in a critical manner that it’s become almost impossible to read for pleasure alone; the only authors I can say that about are those, like Proust, whom I’ve decided not to treat critically.

Right now, on one shelf of the bookcase next to my bed, I have these books lined in order:  Beckett’s Murphy (must get a grip on Beckett), e. e. cummings’s collected poems (much underrated, maybe because of his conservative politics?), Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (I still haven’t come to a final conclusion about Pynchon), DeLillo’s Americana and End Zone (his first and second novels, and I want to say some new things about his novels of the seventies), Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus (very much after my own heart in his positive take on the Internet’s social potential), Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (I love the lack of hesitation in the language), Coetzee’s Dusklands (must write a comprehensive essay on Coetzee), Alfred Kazin’sStarting Out in the Thirties, Nabokov’s Ada (ah, Nabokov, one of my greatest inspirations—now this I do read for pure pleasure, because I have no desire to critique him, and I have no idea what he’s up to in Ada and I don’t want to know), Gass’s Omensetter’s Luck (radical experiment with language), Mailer’s An American Dream, Dickens’s The Old Curiosity Shop (for pure pleasure and for sleep inducement), Pamela Haag’s Marriage Confidential (yes, abolish traditional marriage, please), Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Eugenio Montale’s Otherwise (I love the Italian hermeticists, particularly Ungaretti), Tomas Tranströmer’s collected poems, Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience (to finally finish it), Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, Lan Samantha Chang’s All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost (the head of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, up to the usual tricks), Herta Müller’sThe Land of Green Plums (did the Nobel people know what they were doing?), Adrienne Rich’s poetry (for an interview), Martin Espada’s poetry, W. S. Merwin’s poetry (for an interview), Jay Parini’s The Passages of H. M. (for an interview), Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, Naipaul’s The Mimic Men (among the greatest writers in the world), Konstantin Fedin’s Cities and Years, Ha Jin’sNanjing Requiem (I’m reading all his work), and Clayton Eshleman’s poetry (for an interview).  Eventually most of this will materialize in some form of criticism.  Dickens and Nabokov and Stendhal, people I’m not thinking of critiquing, are perhaps my only sources of reading for pleasure—and the greatest poetry, which I can read again and again, without feeling the pressure to comment.

What’s the last great book you read?

The last truly great book, of historical proportions, I read was Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence, which stands well with his greatest novels like My Name Is Red and The Black Book.  The ambition of Museum is colossal—and the writing technique poses so many challenges that a fiction writer can lose himself in it and acquire everything he needs to know for a full-blown career, from this book alone.  Also around the same time, Coetzee’s trilogy, BoyhoodYouth, andSummertime, which is as close a reading of the spiritual ambience of my own childhood and adolescence (though not mature adulthood) as I’ve ever read; I actually followed most of the prescriptions in Youth for a budding writer—including the monkish life and no sex or relationships—for considerable periods of time.  I recently read/reread all of Salman Rushdie’s writings, and I can’t express how highly I think of him; The Satanic Verses—though wrapped in needless controversy—may well be his most original, inventive, and rebellious book.  I wish he’d continued in that direction, but he didn’t; that’s a book people will be reading for eternity, hopefully for all the right reasons.

What do you love most about your writing?

That it organically blends the intuitive and the rational, that it suggests much more underneath the surface than visible, and that it strives for a new language, whether it’s fiction or poetry or criticism, because if a writer isn’t trying to discover new ways to shape language in response to the needs of his time, then he’s shirking his ultimate responsibility.  I’m the happiest person on earth to be able to write as I want to, without having to follow limits and expectations.

Anis Shivani’s books are Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), Against the Workshop:  Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011), and The Fifth Lash and Other Stories(forthcoming, 2011).  He has just finished a novel called Karachi Raj, and is starting a new novel called Abruzzi, 1936.

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I Want It All To Be Kind of Shitty: An Interview with Johannes Göransson

by Blake Butler

I can’t say enough about how important the work of Johannes Göransson has been to me, both as a field of language and image, and as a person. Besides co-editing both Action Books and Action Yes, two places where you can always depend on reading work that is new, singular, challenging, and actually fun, he has published four full length books of his own work, including Dear RaA New Quarantine Will Take My PlacePilot, and most recently Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate from Tarpaulin Sky, as well as translations of important Swedish writers likeAase Berg and Johan Jönsson [if you haven’t read his Swedish issue of Typo, holy shit], and wrangling of the insane machine that is the hybrid litblog Montevidayo. Not to mention being a teacher (which, when reading some of his students’ work, and what mechanisms he gets out of them so early, equals a particular feat), a father, a husband, and a person. In no small words, a fucking force.

Over the past few weeks I exchanged emails with Johannes about all of the above and more.

* * *

BB: I remember reading pieces of the Pageant years ago I think under the name New Torture Operations, yeah? How did this project begin and manifest itself into the book it is, on an assemblage level?

JG: Yes, I think that was one early version of what became, among other things the pageant. It also became the second half of the performance piece The Widow Party and my novel Haute Surveillance (which is not published). Assemblages do play a big part in the way I compose these. In part they come out of a piece I wrote over a couple of years a few years ago, The Black Out Sessions or The Secessions (it has many names), and which I haven’t and won’t publish (well I did publish some of them before deciding that it wasn’t the right thing to do), but from which I create various assemblages – such as in The New Torture Operations, The Widow Party and Pageant, all of which form assemblages between torture and fashion, the anorexic body and performance, atrocity and kitsch, colonialism and the nuclear family.

When I was working on these Black Out Sessions I was also studying Brazilian-Swedish artist-poet Oyvind Fahlstrom’s work from the 1950s and 60s and he uses this funny pun – he doesn’t make “collage,” he says he makes “kalas,” which is Swedish for “party”. And the way this works out is that his artworks parties (though it’s usually translated as “feast”) on other works of art or texts. So there’s a party on Mad Magazine, or a party on Burroughs etc. So the Black Out Sessions were parties on just about anything I could find. I was both very creative and totally unfocused so I decided this wasn’t a finished text but something that I would party with/against/on with these other manuscripts. The Black Out texts became a kind of “party” energy which I used on other texts and subject matters to form assemblages. In the particular pieces that are in The New Torture Operations and pageant are parties on this 19th century antique textbook a student gave me years ago – what every student needs to know about the world. This includes chapters on astronomy, “The Vasty Deep,” and “The Flowery Kingdom” (China). A lot of what a student needs to know, it turns out, is about the morality of various colonial ventures (Stanley and Livingston get their own full chapter). Interestingly my home country of Sweden gets I think one sentence in a paranthesis and it’s something like “… (in difference to the Scandinavian countries, about which not much is known other than that they are the ugliest and least intelligent of people).”

 

But then at some point I decided that it would have to be a pageant. I think I decided that after doing The Widow Party performances in Chicago, which was such an amazing, electrifying experience for me. One key influence in this choice was the pageantry of Abu Ghraib, which figures heavily in The Widow Party, and this made me think about JonBenet Ramsey, how her death seemed according to the TV news to be foreshadowed (or almost equated) with her pageant participation, so that the artifice of her getups was seen as a kind of violence on par with her murder.

Also, one of the main causes for the pageant was when my daughter Sinead and I were out walking one day in our city in Indiana and we came across this boy who was naked except for a too-small “dream team” basketball jersey from the 90s. He mumbled incoherently. I tried foolishly to talk to him, then these other people came and called a cop and he was taken away. I thought about him as the opposite of JonBenet – naked and mumbling in Indiana, instead of dressed up in front of cameras and singing. So that became one of the main characters, Miss World. So then I formed an assemblage between artifice and abuse. And I fused Courtney Love and Genet in him. I didn’t want him to be a victim child. I wanted him to forge a connection between contagion, artifice and crime. Singing and mumbling: I wanted these modes of language to be part of the dynamic.

BB: I found it interesting that there were all these forces at play, and at times the Passenger, your central character to some extent, seemed like a foreigner, but also an American, as if he were both a transplant and a staple of the terrain that the book takes place in. The book specifies at the opening too that its second stage, the one where your daughter (who is never seen) dances is in South Bend, Indiana, while the other settings, one “full of ornaments and crime,” the other a mall, could be anywhere, but also felt to me throughout as that familiar claustrophobic and constantly opening space of media and bodies that feels particularly like the psychic lockdown state of the U.S. Do you see this as an American book? Does that matter?

JG: Yes, that’s the way I see the book too: This motion from the local to another place. The cramped physical space to the mobile. The location is in one sense very specific but it is also supposed to open up. That’s the poem. Kyle’s review of the book did a great job analyzing this effect. The passenger is an immigrant figure, but even the natives tend to not be entirely unforeign (in fact they act quite a bit, suggesting they’re a bunch of fakes). The family exist as a kind of colonial outpost, so they’re not native though they are in charge. Is this an American book? I would say it’s an American book like a tourniquet. A riding lesson. Like Abu Ghraib is an American movie (teenagers smooching in the back). Like we’re in Kansas, but we’re in the whirlwind. When Sinead first saw Wizard of Oz, she said: “This is scary.” And I said: “Should I turn it off?” And she said: “No! I like scary.” That’s what my attitude tends to be as well.

[Johannes reading his poem “Trauma” for Jubilat]

BB: How did the idea of changing the shape of the book into a pageant alter the way it was assembled? For instance, the stage directions are really compelling as action, in that most of the work itself is done by voices, and often the directions are simply conditional, sometimes based on previous media, taking cues from The Fall of the House of Usher and the Twist. I’m interested in how your infatuation with the pose or the gesture operates between the actual speaking, which ends up giving what could be a simpler series of poems a kind of growing body that accumulates as it continues.

JG: Yes, you’re again very correct: I’m infatuated with the way Art and the Body interact, and the role of violence in that interaction. I think again that came from The Widow Party. I first wrote that play while recovering from a car crash. Everything was a little hazy, a little achy, a little jammed up. I watched a documentary about the 1960s (the widows are the black one and the white one from the assassinations of this era). And reading about our wars and so on. So the body was deeply involved with art and violence from the start: in my own body, hammered, watching acts done to other bodies. And then seeing this piece actually performed was so thrilling and unnerving; the way these violent motions and actions were brought into/onto the bodies of the actors, of the audience. In response to the show, I remember poet-blogger Josh Corey saying he felt uncomfortable with the lack of critical distance from the violence, and that’s what I found so thrilling and unnerving about it: the way the violence penetrated the bodies. Sometimes it’s hard not to see Art penetrating everything: like the macabre pageantry of the boy I found in the backroads of Indiana. Or MLK’s widow with her stunning outfit. Or (at its worst) our government’s metaphoric visions of war. Or how when I first came to this country as a teenager, I was attacked for the clothing I wore. I love “The Fall of the House of Usher” because it shows everybody, everything possessed by art, everything collapses into the eye-wound-lake. I love the sister who is/ins’t dead, a body seeming both killed and animated by Art. A little like the un-kill-able girl in Ringu, who seems to be animated by the duplications of artistic montages. The Twist is such an amazing name: since it suggests a horribly torturous movement. Something Patti Smith brings out in her song on “Horses.”

BB: That is one thing I really love about your work, the invention of things objects or gestures that are given space often only as names, or as employments, which also often reference bodies outside the text that then become admitted: the Red Robe of History, the Passenger, Bird-Child, Father Exchange, etc. Burroughs did that all the time, and to an effect that feels similiar here. These words are also employed beside clear historical figures like Charlotte Bronte and Baghdad, etc. The way they are inculcated and then used as tools, forms that the language does violence on or absorbs and then allows to just be, really make the book bigger than if they were to use those images more explicitly, the way so much other writings want to do. Would you talk about this method of both borrowing from culture, and creating culture, and smearing them together almost in a collage way rather than by narrative (though narrative, by its sheer nature, appears). What is the function of image vs. moniker to you?

JG: Blake, again I’m startled at how closely you’ve read my book. I have not really consciously thought about this dynamic, but I can see now that this is something I do quite a bit of. If I get your argument, you’re taking note of the way the text interacts with figures from “outside” of the text and that I don’t fully integrate them into the text. My feeling is that I want the text to function like a conduit of violence, an interaction, not a separate autonomous space. I don’t want the text to be an authoritative description of a historical context. I don’t want to be Charles Olson and folks like that – I don’t want to be a documentor. I don’t think of art as separate from the world, nature etc. Nor am I interested in art which claims to be part of the world; art that claims to not be art. I am interested in art that is invested in its own Art-ness – with all of its crass devices and costumes, all of its kitschy metaphors and pageantry, all of its infected toys. On the other hand I’m not interested in creating a kind of refined space of contemplative art either, I don’t want art as an escape. I suppose in all of these what I object to is a kind of stability, a kind of space that art depicts or documents or provides. I’m more interested in art as violence, art as a haunting, as a spirit photograph, as what Aase Berg calls a “deformation zone” or what Joyelle has called “necropastoral.” (Joyelle’s actually right now downstairs playing some gloomy Cure song from the 80s for our daughters.) Art that is both Art and a contagion in the world. By not fully accounting for these figures, what I want them to be is this unstable matter. I want it all to be kind of shitty, you know.

BB: I was wondering what you think about the idea of metaphor in this context. A lot of people seem to need to give context to work like yours that makes hybrids of these violences and images into a metaphor for something, but I’ve always thought of the sentence as a function of the real. That it creates the space it exists in, and is not a metaphor. To separate it is damaging to both ends. As a teacher and a father, I wonder if there are methods you can use beyond the writing to bring people beyond placing the work in those ways?

JG: This is another great question. On some level, “metaphor” is something I’ve always been very interested in, but the more I think about it, the less certain I am that what I’m writing are metaphors. I’m not even certain I know what metaphors are. If it’s the new critical idea of vehicle/tenor then I don’t really relate to the idea: the relationship seems to stable and too separate. I want my tenors to be vehicles, my vehicles to be tenors. This is another way I suppose of saying that I agree with you that my words are not metaphors “for” something. Some of my influences when I started writing were the letters of insane people (and serial killers) and drug-related writings about hallucinations, and in part what I liked about this was that they were not exactly metaphors but something more literal – literally fake. At the same time I read a lot of Surrealist writings and Rimbaud and from them what has stayed with me is a sense of alchemy, a sense of metamorphosis (rather perhaps than metaphor). So in some sense I guess I’m approaching writing as something a little less stable than the term “metaphor” implies. On the other hand, I love the idea of using devices like metaphor and simile because they’ve become such kitsch items in contemporary “experimental writing.” But the very word “like” (in a simile) has its own effect – tchotchki-like no doubt, but an effect nevertheless. I do think about my writing (and others writing) in pretty spatial ways: sometimes I like to open the space up, sometimes I like to create a claustrophobic space, other times I want to shut the space off.

As for sentences: I love sentences. About 10 years ago I decided my sentences were not good enough so I wrote a few notebooks full of the best sentences I could find (Nabokov, Genet, early Delillo etc, but also non-literary sources, film etc). I’ve been using those sentences ever since. But now I feel they’re not quite right for the project I’m working on, so I’m generating a new set of sentences, sentences (and words) having to do with plagues and fashion mostly.

BB: Has becoming a father changed your methods or thoughts?

JG: I don’t have as much time any more anymore. I’m more exhausted. But kids also say funny things and look at the world in funny ways. Aase Berg has a fantastic essay about the connection between poetry and psychotic relationship between mother and child. One enters into a little cocoon where language is different (full of “poopee” and “peepee” but also puns etc – the other day I asked Sinead if she remembered “farfar” (grampa) and she said “he lives far far away”). I’m sure this psychosis has affected me in some way.

BB: Do you consider your work political?

JG: Yes, all writing is political (and pig shit). But my writing is not a “critique.” I don’t relate to the prevailing ideal of “critical distance” in “experimental poetry.” I’m interested in utter saturation, I’m interested in infection. I’m interested in costume dramas and bleeder’s disease.

BB: I wonder also about the influence of your interest and activity in translation in your work, how the experience of shifting the language of people like Aase Berg and Jönsson and the like ends up affecting the way you think about connecting language in your own writing? Does the act in some way change the way you are wired? Is that act of translating political in another kind of way from writing itself?

JG: This is something I have thought about a great deal. American writers/readers are so troubled by translation: it’s inauthentic, counterfeit, kitsch. They want the real thing, not this fake, possibly pathological thing that foreigners peddle. Part of being an immigrant is being suspect, part of translating is the same suspicions. We’re cheaters, we’re not quite real. I’ve been repeatedly accused of making up the poets I translate (I take it as a compliment!). But then I’ve also been suspected of fucking Lara Glenum. We’re pathological agents, foreigners and translators, treasonous kitsch-makers with unofficial access to jouissance. One way of solving this problem is not to read things in translation (very common); or to see it as a necessarily flawed imitation but necessarily good for you; or to focus on interlingual writing. The last one is seductive indeed, and in part I have participated in this answer: in a lot of my works there are interlingual puns or auto-translations (in a variety of ways – homophonic, stutttery, infected, bled-out etc, all very technical terms), especially in my book Pilot (“Johann the Carousel Horse”), which aims to create a kind of leaky in-between language that sounds like partly a backwards-tape that drags and partly like Swedish and partly like English. I get all spassy when I read it, so I don’t read it very often, but it’s more like a performance piece, something that needs to be read (as Stina Kajaso just wrote on her blog “performance” really basically means “show your tits!”); I want to hear English as a foreign language. The problem is when such interlingualism becomes an excuse not to deal with foreign lit in translation, and more importantly, a way of dealing with foreign languages that does away with the scandalous counterfeit nature of translation. I don’t want to remove that. That’s the politics of translation in a nutshell.

BB: What are you working on now?

JG: A murder mystery novel/poem/notebook about Images and infection, atrocity kitsch and The Law. A Starlet has been murdered, terrorist attacks happen, children are born and get pregnant in mysterious fashion (constantly multiplying), the son is locked in a tower with his favorite horse toy, the penis is a death prong through which – on the ouiji board – the murdered children of the Vietnam War finally gets to “speak,” they talk about the mall and the law, there are twitter feeds about motorcyclists who come from the castle outside of town, terror suspects who are given rubber gloves and led through the mirror, “Kingdom of Rats” it says above the mirror, it’s all about photography, hares, the body in snow, the body covered by a plastic bag, Art as Death. Etc. It’s always a staging, a pageantry, a b-movie. I hope that gives you some idea. I’m calling it The Sugar Book.

I’m also working on a staging of The Duchess of Malfi. Back in the day a girlfriend and I made a video version of The Duchess of Malfi which we shot at a shooting range (she was into guns and knew the manager). “The Ouch-Ouch” we called it. I want to go back into that space – the shooting range, the wax sculptures – but I want to pay even more attention to the clothes, the seams. I want the movements to be more exact this time.

* * *

Johannes’s most recent book, Entrance to a colonial pageant in which we all begin to intricate, is available now from Tarpaulin Sky.