(Don DeLillo, in a 1982 interview with Contemporary Literature).
Evan Lavender-Smith is an American writer who has published two books, Avatar and From Old Notebooks.
I really really really like his anti-novel (or whatever you want to call it) From Old Notebooks, which has recently been reissued by the good people at Dzanc Books.
(Here is my review of FON). I still haven’t read Avatar.
Evan talked with me about his writing, his reading, and other stuff over a series of emails. He was generous in his answers and I very much enjoyed talking with him.
Evan lives in New Mexico with his wife, son, and daughter. He has a website. Read his books.
Biblioklept: Do you know that first editions of From Old Notebooks are going for like three hundred dollars on Amazon right now?
ELS: Here at the house I have a whole drawer full of them. That’s how I’m planning to pay for the kids’ college.
Biblioklept: I read that Cormac McCarthy won’t sign his books anymore because he has this reserve of signed editions that are for his son to sell and corner the market on. Or I think I read that.
Speaking of your kids: the parts in From Old Notebooks about them are some of my favorites, perhaps because the moments you describe seem so real to me, or that I relate so strongly to the feelings that you express. (My own kids, a daughter and son, are about the same age as your kids are in the book). Is it weird if I ask how your kids are?
ELS: Glad to hear some of that stuff resonates with you. No, I don’t think it’s weird. I believe the book even sort of self-consciously anticipates a certain reader’s empathetic engagement with it. There’s that passage somewhere, for example, in which we get something like an interview answer, something like “The real Evan Lavender-Smith has never made it past the first section of Ulysses, the real Evan Lavender-Smith has no children,” which I think maybe winks at the possibility of that type of readerly engagement. So no, it’s encouraging to hear that parts of the book seemed to work for you. My kids are great, by the way. Sofia’s at her violin lesson, Jackson’s doing an art project with his mom.
Biblioklept: The faux-interview answers crack me up. I think we’ve all done that in some way—that we go through these little experiments of interviewing ourselves, performing ourselves, imagining how others perceive us. You write your own obituary; at one point we get: ” ‘With my first book I hope to get all the cult of personality stuff out of the way’.” You remark that you don’t put dates on anything as “an act of defiance” against your “literary executors.” Moments like these seem simultaneously ironic and sincere.
I’m curious as to how closely you attended to these disjunctions—From Old Notebooks seems incredibly, I don’t know, organic.
ELS: At a certain point I became very aware that I was performing some version or versions of myself in the book, and I think the book tries to find ways of grappling with problems I perceived as bound up with that performance. One way was to insist on a narrative tone or mode somewhere in between irony and sincerity, or to regularly oscillate between or conflate these competing modes. Something like “I am the greatest writer in the history of the world!” might later be countered by “Gosh, my writing really blows, doesn’t it?”; or “My kids are so beautiful, I love them so much,” might be followed by “I wish those little fuckers were never born.” While the function of this variability is, in From Old Notebooks, probably mostly an apology or a mask for a kind of subjectivity I worry might come off as cliche and naive, that particular representation of the thinking subject — cleaved, inconsistent, heterogeneous — does strike me as truer of human experience and perception than the more streamlined consistency of expression and behavior we tend to associate with the conventional narratological device called “character.” When I try to look deep down inside myself, to really get a handle on my thinking, for example, or on my understanding of truth, I end up facing a real mess of disjunctive, contradictory forces competing for my attention. For me — and likely for the book, as well — the most immediate figure for this condition might be the confluence of sincerity and irony, the compossibility of taking a genuine life-affirming pleasure in, and exhibiting a kind of cynical hostility toward, the fact of my own existence.
Biblioklept: That contest between sincerity and irony seems present in many works of post-postmodern fiction. It’s clearly a conflict that marks a lot of David Foster Wallace’s stuff. You invoke Wallace a number of times in From Old Notebooks, but the style of the book seems in no way beholden to his books. Can you talk about his influence on you as a reader? A writer?
ELS: Wallace hugely influenced the way I think about any number of things. I think his most immediate influence on my writing is this blending of hieratic and demotic modes of language when I’m dealing with pretty much anything that requires the serious application of my writing mind; the hip nerdiness of his language was and still is very empowering to me. He made it seem super cool to geek out on books — “The library, and step on it,” says Hal in Infinite Jest – and back in high school and college that example was so vital for me, as someone entirely too obsessed with being both cool and well read. He served to guide my reading of other writers in a way that only John Barth and Brian Evenson have come close to matching; I poured over his essays for names, then went to the library and checked out and read all the books he mentioned, then reread his essays. His fiction’s most common subject matter — addiction, depression, the yearning for transcendence, the incommensurability of language and lived experience, problems of logic vis-a-vis emotion, metafiction’s values and inadequacies — all of this stuff hit very close to home. To my mind there’s little doubt that Infinite Jest is the best English-language novel published in the last 25 years. His advocacy for David Markson has got to be up there among the greatest literary rescue missions of the 20th century. In “Good Old Neon” he wrote what may be the most haunting long short story since “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” He galvanized young writers everywhere right when the internet was taking off and unwittingly served as a touchstone for emerging online literary communities that thrive today. I think for a lot of young writers, myself included, he was, maybe next to the emergence of the internet, the most important force in the language’s recent history. The list goes on and on. And also he helped me out personally, providing encouragement and advice that was so generous and inspiring. I was extremely troubled by his suicide and wasn’t able to write much or think about much else for quite a while.
With all that said, there are some things he says that bother me a bit. The synthesis of art and entertainment he espouses as it pertains to the role of the writer in the age of television — which I think in many ways corresponds to his striving for a new aesthetic in which the cerebral effects associated with 60s and 70s postmodernist fiction are complemented by or synthesized with the more visceral effects associated with 70s and 80s realist fiction — strikes me now as existing very much in opposition to what I believe in most passionately about writing: that it can and in the most important cases should exist in a state of absolute opposition to our entertainments. I’ve come to better appreciate, years after reading Wallace, the writing of people like Woolf and Beckett and Gaddis, those writers who are uncompromising in their vision of narrative art’s most radical and affecting possibilities and who necessarily, I believe, pay very little attention to any sort of entertainment imperative. The books I love most make me feel things strongly, and think things strongly, but rarely do they entertain me. If I want to be entertained, I know exactly where to go: a room without books. I’ve come to think of certain books as my life’s only source of intellectual solace; when I’m not despairing over the futility of everything under the sun, that unflagging commitment to a truly rigorous and uncompromising art that I perceive in a writer like Beckett seems to me a matter of life and death, just as serious as life can ever get. When Wallace talks that shit about art and entertainment, or about the need to add more heart or greater complexity of character to Pynchon or whatever, it makes me feel like I want to throw up. I heard him say once in an interview that he felt he couldn’t write the unfiltered stuff in his head, that it would be too radical or something, and the admission really upset me; it felt like in some serious way he had allowed his projection of an imaginary target audience’s desire to determine the form of his writing. I often feel something similar in the essays; I find many of them to be merely entertaining. I suppose I often judge the essays in relation to the fictions, which I find far superior in their attempt to overcome the strictures and conventions of language and form. Wallace was always at his best, to my reading, when he was really bearing down — when he was at his most difficult.
But no doubt he’s been monumentally important to me, more so than any other recent fiction writer, and in more ways than I can name. There’s something in From Old Notebooks where the methodical awkwardness and wordiness of so many of his sentences is likened to the affectation of bumping up against the limits of language. That’s probably what I take away from him more than anything: when I sit down at the laptop to face the language, I often feel myself struggling with the words as well as struggling to demonstrate that I’m struggling with the words. That’s pure Wallace: word-by-word, letter-by-letter self-consciousness. (There’s another thing in From Old Notebooks about how I’m always talking shit because I care for him so deeply … which is why the paragraph before this one).
Michael Kimball’s latest book Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard) had its genesis in a performance piece at the Transmodern Performance Festival a few years back: Michael interviewed people for a few minutes and then crammed their biographies onto postcards. The project soon evolved into a blog, where Michael interviewed hundreds of people of all ages from around the world. The work is now collected in a book from Mud Luscious Press that features over fifty of the biographies, including the life stories of several contemporary writers, one dead U.S. President, a rooster, a T-shirt, a few cats, Edgar Allan Poe, and Michael himself.
In addition to Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (On a Postcard), Michael is the author of Big Ray, Us, Dear Everybody, and The Way the Family Got Away. He still holds the Meryl S. Colt Elementary School record for the 600-yard dash. Check out his website.
Michael was kind enough to talk to me about this latest book over a series of emails.
Biblioklept: What’s the hardest thing about writing someone’s life story on a postcard?
Michael Kimball: There are difficult things at different stages of the process. The first difficult thing is asking the right questions for the particular participant. The second difficult thing is being representative when condensing what I’ve been told. The third difficult thing is writing small enough to squeeze six hundred words or so onto a single postcard.
Biblioklept: When you started the project, it was a planned performance piece of sorts, but your description of it at the beginning of the book makes it seem rather off-the-cuff. Did you have a plan for the questions you would ask? How did the questions change as the project progressed?
MK: That first performance was definitely off-the-cuff. I had no idea what I was going to ask people and how I was going to write their life stories on a postcard. I mostly started with something pretty open-ended and then asked more specific questions about whatever I was told. As the project progressed, I developed a set of starter questions that elicited basic information and then asked more specific questions from there. Basically, I considered whatever I was being told to be important and then asked more questions about it.
Biblioklept: You interviewed people by email, in phone, in person — how did how you were doing the interview affect the process? Did you prefer one way over the other?
MK: I preferred the in-person interviews. There was a different kind of intimacy with those and there are a bunch of people I interviewed that way who are now friends. Of course, that wasn’t practical for lots of the interviews, since most people lived so far away from me. And the method did influence the process. With the phone interview and in-person interviews I was taking notes as fast as I could, but that was never fast enough. With the email interviews, it was easier for people to give me more detailed answers. Also, since I had the full text of their answers, I could use more of their language.
Biblioklept: Did you prefer to use as much of the subject’s language as possible? Maybe I’m getting into what you described as “the second difficult thing” — how much of yourself do you see in the pieces? I think there’s clearly a voice, a tone that unifies the pieces . . . I’m curious how much of the process was crafting or editing or revising or repurposing the subject’s original language…
MK: I tried to use the participant’s language wherever I thought it gave some sense of the person. At times, I thought of like using third-person close narration. Besides that, I was trying to be as objective as possible and I think that gave the life stories a certain consistency of tone. Clearly, I tend to write sentences a certain way, but beyond that I tried to keep myself out of it.
Biblioklept: What about pieces like “Chair” or “T-Shirt” — how did they come about?
MK: The first non-person one I wrote was Red Delicious Apple, which popped into my head almost fully formed, which happened because I used to almost always have apples on my desk, which just meant that I spent a lot of time with apples. But writing Red Delicious Apple opened up a lot of possibilities and so T-Shirt is written about my favorite t-shirt and Chair was written about a chair I once broke. And I have a great affection for animals, so I loved writing ones like Moose the Cat, Sammy the Dog, and Abby the Horse.
Biblioklept: You wrote over three hundred postcards. How did you choose which ones you would include in the book?
MK: The book would have been over seven hundred pages long if I had included all the postcard life stories, but it was difficult leaving any of them out. So, ultimately, it came down to trying to showing the range of the postcard life stories, which is why nearly every one I wrote about a non-human made it into the book.
Biblioklept: How did the Poe biography come about?
MK: That was for Gigantic’s Gigantic America issue. They asked me to write one of the great American bios that they printed on special card inserts and I suggested Poe, who had just had some anniversary of his life or his death.
Biblioklept: Several pieces in Life Story are about contemporary writers. Was writing about these writers different than writing about anyone else in the collection?
MK: Early on, it was other writers who seemed particularly keen on the project — Adam Robinson, Karen Lillis, Elizabeth Ellen, Elizabeth Crane, Blake Butler, etc. I approached every postcard life story the same way, but then let the participant tell me where they wanted to take it. I tried to ask questions that followed their answers.
Biblioklept: I imagine most people who asked to participate in the project were forthcoming with their answers. I’m curious though if you noticed any topics that people avoided or glossed over or maybe required additional prodding from you. Did you ever feel like your part of the interviewing process pushed your subject into uncomfortable territory?
MK: I didn’t realize it until later, but part of what made the project work was that people came to me wanting to tell their life story (rather than me asking them if they wanted it told). Still, there were a few times that people were reluctant to say things. There was one woman who was reluctant to talk about her husband and I couldn’t figure out why, but then they divorced not long after that. And there was one man who didn’t want to talk about his mother because she was really sick. But usually if there was reluctance, it was some kind of abuse or some other horrible thing that had happened to the person. In fact, I was reluctant to talk about the abuse I grew up with in my own postcard life story when it was initially written. In general, I tried to ask the difficult question, but then let the participant decide whether they wanted to answer and how much they wanted to tell me. And with particularly difficult life stories, I always showed the participant what I wrote and asked them if they were OK with it being public before I ever put their postcard life story out into the world.
Biblioklept: Talking about one’s own life clearly has some kind of therapeutic value. Do you think reading about one’s own life carries a similar value?
MK: Since starting the project, I’ve learned there are quite a few therapeutic techniques that involve narrative and telling (or retelling) one’s life story. Part of that process is hearing one’s life story told back or reading about one’s own life. There can be something useful in that perspective and there can be something reassuring about having a manageable version of one’s life story.
Biblioklept: What are you working on now?
MK: I’m very slowly working on two different novels and thinking about a third. I’m not sure if I’ll ever finish any of them.
Biblioklept: Have you ever stolen a book?
MK: I used to steal so many books, especially when I didn’t have the money to keep pace with my reading appetite and I couldn’t find the things I wanted to read in the library. I’ve tried to make up for that by giving away lots of books these days. I stole so many books that I’m not sure I can remember a specific instance. But it was always kind of thrilling and it seemed to make reading all the more exciting. Sometimes, if I didn’t like a book I would sneak it back into the bookstore.
How do you account historically for the school of resentment?
In the universities, the most surprising and reprehensible development came some twenty years ago, around 1968, and has had a very long-range effect, one that is still percolating. Suddenly all sorts of people, faculty members at the universities, graduate and undergraduate students, began to blame the universities not just for their own palpable ills and malfeasances, but for all the ills of history and society. They were blamed, and to some extent still are, by the budding school of resentment and its precursors, as though they were not only representative of these ills but, weirdly enough, as though they had somehow helped cause these ills and, even more weirdly, quite surrealistically, as though they were somehow capable of ameliorating these ills. It’s still going on—this attempt to ascribe both culpability and apocalyptic potential to the universities. It’s really asking the universities to take the place that was once occupied by religion, philosophy, and science. These are our conceptual modes. They have all failed us. The entire history of Western culture, from Alexandrian days until now, shows that when a society’s conceptual modes fail it, then willy-nilly it becomes a literary culture. This is probably neither good nor bad, but just the way things become. And we can’t really ask literature or the representatives of a literary culture, in or out of the university, to save society. Literature is not an instrument of social change or an instrument of social reform. It is more a mode of human sensations and impressions, which do not reduce very well to societal rules or forms.
How does one react to the school of resentment? By declaring oneself an aesthete?
Well, I do that now, of course, in furious reaction to their school and to so much other pernicious nonsense that goes on. I would certainly see myself as an aesthete in the sense advocated by Ruskin, indeed to a considerable degree by Emerson, and certainly by the divine Walter and the sublime Oscar. It is a very engaged kind of mode. Literary criticism in the United States increasingly is split between very low level literary journalism and what I increasingly regard as a disaster, which is literary criticism in the academies, particularly in the younger generations. Increasingly scores and scores of graduate students have read the absurd Lacan but have never read Edmund Spenser; or have read a great deal of Foucault or Derrida but scarcely read Shakespeare or Milton. That’s obviously an absurd defeat for literary study. When I was a young man back in the fifties starting out on what was to be my career, I used to proclaim that my chosen profession seemed to consist of secular clergy or clerisy. I was thinking, of course, of the highly Anglo-Catholic New Criticism under the sponsorship or demigodness of T. S. Eliot. But I realized in latish middle age that, no better or worse, I was surrounded by a pride of displaced social workers, a rabblement of lemmings, all rushing down to the sea carrying their subject down to destruction with them. The school of resentment is an extraordinary sort of mélange of latest-model feminists, Lacanians, that whole semiotic cackle, latest-model pseudo-Marxists, so-called New Historicists, who are neither new nor historicist, and third generation deconstructors, who I believe have no relationship whatever to literary values. It’s really a very paltry kind of a phenomenon. But it is pervasive, and it seems to be waxing rather than waning. It is a very rare thing indeed to encounter one critic, academic or otherwise, not just in the English-speaking world, but also in France or Italy, who has an authentic commitment to aesthetic values, who reads for the pleasure of reading, and who values poetry or story as such, above all else. Reading has become a very curious kind of activity. It has become tendentious in the extreme. A sheer deliquescence has taken place because of this obsession with the methods or supposed method. Criticism starts—it has to start—with a real passion for reading. It can come in adolescence, even in your twenties, but you must fall in love with poems. You must fall in love with what we used to call “imaginative literature.” And when you are in love that way, with or without provocation from good teachers, you will pass on to encounter what used to be called the sublime. And as soon as you do this, you pass into the agonistic mode, even if your own nature is anything but agonistic. In the end, the spirit that makes one a fan of a particular athlete or a particular team is different only in degree, not in kind, from the spirit that teaches one to prefer one poet to another, or one novelist to another. That is to say there is some element of competition at every point in one’s experience as a reader. How could there not be? Perhaps you learn this more fully as you get older, but in the end you choose between books, or you choose between poems, the way you choose between people. You can’t become friends with every acquaintance you make, and I would not think that it is any different with what you read.
Do you foresee any change, or improvement, in the critical fashions?
I don’t believe in myths of decline or myths of progress, even as regards to the literary scene. The world does not get to be a better or a worse place; it just gets more senescent. The world gets older, without getting either better or worse and so does literature. But I do think that the drab current phenomenon that passes for literary studies in the university will finally provide its own corrective. That is to say, sooner or later, students and teachers are going to get terribly bored with all the technocratic social work going on now. There will be a return to aesthetic values and desires, or these people will simply do something else with their time. But I find a great deal of hypocrisy in what they’re doing now. It is tiresome to be encountering myths called “The Social Responsibility of the Critic” or “The Political Responsibility of the Critic.” I would rather walk into a bookstore and find a book called “The Aesthetic Responsibilities of the Statesman,” or “The Literary Responsibilities of the Engineer.” Criticism is not a program for social betterment, not an engine for social change. I don’t see how it possibly could be. If you look for the best instance of a socially radical critic, you find a very good one indeed in William Hazlitt. But you will not find that his social activism on the left in any way conditions his aesthetic judgments, or that he tries to make imaginative literature a machine for revolution. You would not find much difference in aesthetic response between Hazlitt and Dr. Samuel Johnson on Milton, though Dr. Johnson is very much on the right politically, and Hazlitt, of course, very much an enthusiast for the French Revolution and for English radicalism. But I can’t find much in the way of a Hazlittian or Johnsonian temperament in life and literature anywhere on the current scene. There are so many tiresomenesses going on. Everyone is so desperately afraid of being called a racist or a sexist that they connive—whether actively or passively—the almost total breakdown of standards that has taken place both in and out of the universities, where writings by blacks or Hispanics or in many cases simply women are concerned.
This movement has helped focus attention on some great novels, though. You’re an admirer, for example, of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
Oh, but that is a very, very rare exception. What else is there like Invisible Man? Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has a kind of superior intensity and firm control. It’s a very fine book indeed. It surprised and delighted me when I first read it and it has sustained several rereadings since. But that and Invisible Man are the only full scale works of fiction I have read by American blacks in this century that have survival possibilities at all. Alice Walker is an extremely inadequate writer, and I think that is giving her the best of it. A book like The Color Purple is of no aesthetic interest or value whatsoever, yet it is exalted and taught in the academies. It clearly is a time in which social and cultural guilt has taken over.
I know you find this to be true of feminist criticism.
I’m very fond of feminist critics, some of whom are my close friends, but it is widely known I’m not terribly fond of feminist criticism. The true test is to find work, whether in the past or present, by women writers that we had undervalued, and thus bring it to our attention and teach us to study it more closely or more usefully. By that test they have failed, because they have added not one to the canon. The women writers who mattered—Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and others who have always mattered on aesthetic grounds—still matter. I do not appreciate Elizabeth Bishop or May Swenson any more or less than I would have appreciated them if we had no feminist literary criticism at all. And I stare at what is presented to me as feminist literary criticism and I shake my head. I regard it at best as being well-intentioned. I do not regard it as being literary criticism.
Can it be valued as a form of social or political literary criticism?
I’m not concerned with political or social criticism. If people wish to practice it, that is entirely their business. It is not mine, heavens! If it does not help me to read a work of aesthetic value then I’m not going to be interested in it at all. I do not for a moment yield to the notion that any social, racial, ethnic, or “male” interest could determine my aesthetic choices. I have a lifetime of experience, learning, and insight that tells me this.
In a 1934 radio interview, Gertrude Stein talks American football:
INTERVIEWER: You saw the Yale-Dartmouth game a week ago Saturday didn’t you? Did you understand that in the American way or the football way or how?
STEIN: IN the American way. The thing that interested me was that the Modern American in his movements and his actions in a football game so resembled the red Indian dance and it proves that the physical country that made the one made the other and that the red Indian is still with us. They just put their heads down solemnly together and then double over, while on the sidelines the substitutes move in a jiggly way just like Indians. Then they all get down on all fours just like Indians.
INTERVIEWER: But those jiggles are just warming-up exercises.
STEIN: It doesn’t make any difference what they are doing it for, they are just doing it, like the way the Indian jiggles in the Indian dance and then there is that little brown ball they all bend down and worship.
INTERVIEWER: But the ideas in that is to get the ball across the goal line.
STEIN: But don’t you suppose I know that, and don’t you suppose the Indians had just as much reason and enjoyed their dancing just as much?