Dances with Concepts: a Conversation with Sam Lipsyte [Part 2 of 2]

[Continued from Part 1]

In this context, is serious fiction relevant?

What I think a lot of people find distressing is not even what is lionized in our culture, but how few books get to really be presented to the public. It’s not that it’s this book, it’s that this is the only book that is important this season, because there’s only room for one book.

I was just thinking about how there has been a lot of griping about how there are no good literary feuds anymore. What happened to the old days? First, the kind of macho posturing necessary for those feuds is a little ridiculous, but also, I don’t know if the serious fiction economy could handle it, because it can barely handle getting a message out to people that there’s a book to read. There can’t be two books to read at any given time. That makes things a lot harder, plus, everything that is going on with e-books and all that — we can talk about the economics of publishing, but it doesn’t really matter.

The broad strokes are that you shouldn’t go into this for the money. All of the book critics have been fired from newspapers and people from the academy don’t really want to read living writers, they prefer the dead ones. Where is contemporary fiction living? A few books are coming out of the big houses, others are coming out of independent presses, and there’s a lot of thoughtful criticism on the Internet. Writing is doing really well, and I think people are writing some great stuff right now. But I don’t see it seeping into the culture the way that it used to.

People like to talk about “the death of the book” in conversations like this; as if books have failed, or something.

I think there might be some failure. Or, maybe not a failure, just an end of a technology. People aren’t getting their catharsis and their thoughts about what it is to be a human from literature. Except for a few. There will always be a few. It’s like jazz. Jazz is still going on and there are still some great jazz players and jazz clubs, but it’s not one of those revolutionizing things.

I don’t know. You read all of these articles about the death of the novel, and because it’s dead, we should all be writing semi-autobiographical non-fiction. I find that kind of pointless. I think the novel offers pleasures and other kinds of writing offers other kinds of pleasure. There’s a melding of the two anyway. You can call it all “novel.” People are still finding out new ways to be exciting on the page.

Also, I think what some people are coming back to is that you’re not going to compete with movies and video games by just depicting visual elements in nothing-language. The one thing that sets writing apart is that you’re using language, and I think that’s causing a lot of people to really dig in and start making some great prose.

And who is writing great prose these days?

One of my favorite writers is Edward Dahlberg. He wrote from the 20s to the 70s, and I picked up some books by him recently that I hadn’t seen before. I love his cranked-up, old-fashioned sentences. I’ve also been reading My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knaussgard, and there are a lot of clichés in the translation but there’s something very fierce and honest about the book that keeps you reading. I’m always eager to read the next thing by Gary Lutz or Ben Marcus or Deb Olin Unferth or Heidi Julavits. I’m waiting around for those people to put out the next thing.

The list goes on. I’d give you different names at different times.

Going back to the “if you want to write, but don’t” question; I should rephrase — just because you can write, should you?

If you could do something else, then yes, you should do it. If writing is just one thing on your list… People aren’t looking to fiction writers — and maybe they shouldn’t, though non-fiction is flourishing. I’m just talking about people trying to work out things in the form of fiction. Fewer and fewer people are looking to writers of fiction to start the process of thinking about who they are or what they’re doing. That’s just the way it is.

I think you’ll have a harder time being perceived as a major prophet of our age or some kind of truth-teller, because I think people are looking to other media for their truth-telling — movies and TV shows. For a time, you couldn’t put the truth on television. And now you can at least put the surface truth on TV. You can show people on the toilet or cursing or speaking intelligently. Again, whatever relevance fiction has now, it’s through what it can do with language, through the music it can produce. This helps us perceive things in fresh ways.

If you’re writing fiction in the 21st century, you have no choice but to be influenced by other media.

Does the fact that I watched the Cosby Show or Cheers affect what I think a scene is? Occasionally I have a glimmer of that, and I have to ask myself, is this working for me or against me? I tend to try to tweak the expectations there. But sure, we’re formed by all sorts of things. The songs running through our head from childhood, and the things we saw behind garage doors that we really shouldn’t have seen.

Speaking of garage doors, I want to talk about punk rock again. People speak of you as being approachable, and your writing invites this as well, I think. Outside of the music, do you think your background in punk culture has affected the way you live and work as a writer or an artist in general?

I hadn’t thought about that before, but I think you’re right. I think there’s something to being in communities of like-minded people who are trying to do a certain thing, and there is an iron law against preening or thinking that you have an elevated status just because people like your stuff. That was drilled into me. Don’t be arrogant. It just seems to make more sense and be a better way to inhabit the world. In that way, in terms of codes of ethics and codes of living, I think there’s definitely a carryover. It’s where I learned how to be around other people in a productive way. That’s important.

People think of punk rock as a very aggressive thing, and it can be, but it’s also about a search for equality, a search for a community away from the communities you feel rejected from. I feel like I have students and fellow writers that I interact with, and if you walk around like King Shit, it can be isolating and bad for you. It disconnects you from the things that can help you be a better person and a better writer. I think those things are connected for sure.

Certainly there’s some performance in what you do now, as well — live readings, Q&As, etc.

I was never much of a musician. There were people in the band that were, and maybe if they had gotten rid of me, something might have happened for them. I do so many readings and live Q&As, especially when books come out, that I still get a taste of that performance experience.

People often caricature writers as introverted, self-centered. But your musical background, as well as your tendency to be fairly public, suggests that you don’t fit that type. Are you more introverted or extroverted?

I sometimes think that I can be both. I think a lot of people can be both. Very few people just hole up in a room, and very few people are open to everybody all the time. We take breaks and shuffle those modes. I think there are times where I would just as well be home writing or hanging out with my kids, but I need to do a show. But I’m not resentful or angry about it, I just kind of switch into this other mode that’s just as genuine as the other thing.

What do you make of the writers who willfully support this notion of writer-as-sequestered-introvert?

They might think they’re preserving something. I had a teacher who said “squander it,” and he meant, in writing fiction — and I think this is great advice — don’t hoard one little paragraph that you think is so great, because it will keep you from writing twenty more that are better.

When I have a book out, I appear a lot. I just saw an interview with Christopher Walken where he said that he never turned down a movie role, and you can tell. He might have been kidding, but there’s a truth to that. But for me, these aren’t other people’s movies; this is just me talking to people. The only thing I worry about is that it is interfering with me getting my own work done. I think it helps get my work out there. I want people to read it. I’m not just trying to write for a few people and I’m not trying to conceal it from the world. I’m interested in getting people to look at it, and part of that is getting out there. I don’t have a situation where I can stay at home and do one interview with Charlie Rose. In band-terms, I’m still more in that world where you have to drive around in a van and play shows everywhere.

What do you make of someone, say, like Philip Roth. He’s not exactly shy, and certainly the news about him being
“done with writing” made a lot of waves; like he’s accomplished everything he’s wanted to accomplish, and that’s that.

I don’t know if that’s what it is. Maybe he will write again. That’s a possibility, but I think that maybe he doesn’t want to die in the middle of a book. I think that’s a fear a lot of people have. I don’t think about it a lot, but that’s a fear as you get older. You think, “Just let me live long enough to finish this thing.”

I know different people like different books that I write, and that’s fine, but to feel content, I need to feel that I’m still struggling. I published my first book at thirty-two and until that point, I thought, once I publish a book, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something. And then I published the book and all of a sudden, I’m with all of the people who have published a book. So then I think, is my book is as good as the books by all of these people who have one book? And who is going to have a second book? We keep getting to places that present new challenges. You just want to be writing the next book, facing the new problems. You make a life this way.

What are you working on now?

Some of the stories were written already, and then for a couple of years I wrote a lot of stories. The Ask was a two-book deal, so I knew that the next thing I would write was a collection, and I had a period of time to do it. Now I’m trying to write something longer. It’s going to take its own time and be a horror show trying to figure out what it is and what I’m doing. There will be moments where I will think, I’m fucking done, the wad is now officially shot, and then I’ll get past that.

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