The Dan Schneider Interview 1: Charles Johnson (first posted 5/28/07)
Thank you for inaugurating the Dan Schneider Interviews series. As
my first guinea pig I may stumble a bit in finding my legs, but the purpose for
this series is what I have spent years decrying (in person and on my website)
as not only the lack of true intellectual discourse in modern life (online and
off), but even the outright aversion to it, as if discourse, itself, is anathema
to modern American life.
That said, and before I soapbox, for those readers who have stumbled upon my site and this interview, or are drawn to it merely because I bill it as an in depth interview with a National Book Award-winning author, could you please give a summary of who you are, what you do, your literary career to this point, and why I would want to interview you in the first place?
CJ: In the last 59 years, I’ve been a professional cartoonist, producing two published collections, Black Humor in 1970 and Half-Past Nation Time in 1972, over 1,000 cartoons and illustrations in print, most recently one in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to accompany my essay on literature and literacy; and I created, hosted and co-produced in 1970 an early PBS how-to-draw series, “Charlie’s Pad,” which ran for about a decade. I’m a fiction-writer, with four published novels and three short story collections. Sixteen books in all, counting works of non-fiction and philosophy. I’ve also been a screen-and-teleplay writer, doing about 20 scripts in two decades for PBS and Hollywood (lots for PBS, where a docu-drama I co-wrote with John Allman on the life of young Booker T. Washington, entitled Booker, won the 1985 Writers Guild Award for “outstanding television script in the category of television children’s show”), though a couple of years ago I retired from the Writers/Producers Guild to draw my monthly pension check. However, I’m still free to write in this area if something interesting comes along. I’m also an essayist, my favorite collection in this genre being Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing. Added to all this, I have a doctorate in philosophy from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, where my dissertation was the phenomenological aesthetic manifesto, Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970 (published in 1988) which is the only book-length critical work of aesthetics by a black American writer of fiction. That work explains my aesthetic position in its first three chapters, “Being and Race,” “Being and Fiction,” and “Being and Form.” The second half of the book is devoted to commentary and analysis of black writers up to the year of the book’s publication. In 1998, I received a MacArthur fellowship for (according to the citation) “works that address fundamental philosophical questions and transcend the boundaries of class, ethnicity, and culture that separate us.”
I think it’s probably important to say that I did not come to writing fiction as many of my friends and colleagues did, as something I had a burning desire to do. In my teens, my only burning desire was to be a cartoonist and illustrator (I was a student of the late cartoonist and genre-fiction writer Lawrence Lariar), and so in 1965 I began publishing illustrations (for the catalog of a magic tricks company in Chicago) and cartoons when I was 17 (also some very short short-stories for my high school newspaper at Evanston Township High School in Evanston, Illinois). This career carried me through undergraduate college at Southern Illinois University, where I majored in journalism for my bachelor’s degree, drew for the campus newspaper, the town paper in Carbondale, Illinois, and the Chicago Tribune, where I was an intern and stringer in the late 1960s. By 1970, I began writing novels---6 in two years, one every 10-week academic quarter---because I discovered I had ideas and stories that could only be expressed in the novel form. For novel seven, my first published novel (1974), called Faith and the Good Thing, I had one of America’s finest writing teachers, John Gardner, looking over my shoulder as a mentor.
When I began writing novels I had---and have always had---but one goal in mind: namely to deepen and expand works in the area of what is called American philosophical fiction in general, and black philosophical fiction in particular. For the latter, I acknowledge three predecessors---Jean Toomer whose book Cane begins the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s (for his work that turns us toward Eastern philosophy, as in his book of aphorisms, Essentials), Richard Wright (for the Marxism and existential that infuse his fiction), and Ralph Ellison (for his imaginative blending of existentialism and Freudian psychology in Invisible Man). Because I love the process of storytelling, I have created works that are not purely philosophical in their thrust---screen-and-teleplay assignments, the historical stories, for example, in my second collection Soulcatcher and Other Stories which were originally written as 12 fictions to dramatize the history of slavery in Africans in America, the companion book for the PBS series in 1998; and every year I write a light tale for a Seattle event I founded in 1998 called “Bedtime Stories,” where writers (local and from out of state) compose a new story based on a theme (or topic) given to us by Humanities Washington; this yearly fund-raiser generates money for programs that promote literacy in Washington State.
But the heart and soul of my literary project is the philosophical novel or tale. My intention was to bring 2,000 years of Western philosophical reflection to the interpretation and dramatization of life in general, and specifically black American life. Also, since I was raised in the black African Methodist Episcopal church, my intention was to explore the life of the spirit in fiction since this fell away with the rise of modernism. Thus, Christian spirituality for the past 2,000 years is of great importance in my fourth novel, Dreamer, about the last two years in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. (Oddly enough this is the only novel we have that explores King’s philosophy and vision).
Since 1997, I’ve been a very public Buddhist or, more appropriately phrased, a follower of the Buddhadharma. I write for the main, mass market Buddhist publications---Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma, Turning Wheel, and I’m a contributing editor for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review. Buddhism has been my refuge (as it was intended to be for practitioners) since I was 14-years-old, and first sat in formal meditation. One area of my scholarship is phenomenology, another is African-American literature, and a third is Buddhism, its theory and practice, and I often call my work “phenomenological Buddhism.” Part of my literary project, especially with my novel Oxherding Tale, was to interface Western philosophy and the black experience with Eastern Buddhism (as well as Hinduism and Taoism).
So all of that is just to say that I came to fiction-writing from two other areas---the visual arts and philosophy. Actually, I cringe whenever anyone calls me a “writer,” though that is what I’ve done for about forty years; I prefer just to say that I enjoy creating as an artist---sometimes it’s a drawing, other times a story or novel, still other times an essay, or doing martial arts, which I’ve been involved with since I was 19, and which I taught here in Seattle for ten years with friends at our now defunct Twin Tigers studio, a kwoon for the practice of choy li fut kung-fu. Although I’ve taught in an MFA creative writing program for 31 years, the only creative writing course I ever took was when I was a junior in high school (and at that time obsessed with not writing but drawings). The only writer I ever worked with was John Gardner. So I have a certain psychological distance from the book world, MFA programs, feel no attachment to them (as a Buddhist), and simply do my work, day in day out, for the decades I’ve been blessed to enjoy the creative process in several areas.
Let’s jump right in with some of the posits you have on specific things.
I’ve read, now, all of your fiction, and recently read your previously
mentioned 2003 nonfiction book, Turning The Wheel: Essays On Buddhism
And Writing, published by Scribner’s, so I know you have strong opinions-
ones reflected in some essays I will also quote from. To start, let me make this
claim, and see if you agree: the failure of ‘published’ literature today
lies more with the failings of publishers, editors, and critics to do their jobs
well, more so than the bad and generic writers who are published. My point
is that bad writers have always been with us, but the cronyism, favoritism, and
grants giving NEA cash cow has led to a system of writers and editors who dare
not say negative things about another writer’s work lest find their own
publication chances minimized, if not extirpated. Do you agree, and if so, what
observations can you add? And, is not the MFA writing workshop archipelago
merely a vast networking tool for the bad writers who are gulled out of their
money? Is not the NEA a cronyists’ dream, one that dashes any real hope of
funding for the best writers, ones who challenge orthodoxies as those the very
concept (much less reality) of the NEA represents? Is it not far too politicized
to the Left?
CJ: This is really several questions--- great and penetrating ones---all at once. Let me start by saying, yes, there is an unwritten rule in the arts that one is not supposed to criticize one’s peers, just as former Presidents are not supposed to rank on current ones, though Jimmy Carter just called Bush’s Presidency “the worst in history.” I suppose the rule is based on politeness, the general feeling we have that, regardless of a writer’s talent, he (or she) is doing the best they can. We also feel, I suppose, that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Or elevate themselves above others by concentrating only on their flaws, seeing no weaknesses (The sixth and seventh of the first ten Buddhist precepts, observed by both monks and Buddhist lay people, upasakas and upasikas, address this very matter). But this is a rule we break in private conversations all the time. Some critics---H.L. Mencken and my friend Stanley Crouch---break the rule publicly, in print, by pointing out the lies and politically-motivated falsehoods spun to promote artists of questionable talent. Such critics serve us well and, in Crouch’s case, he gave me and other black American writers in the early 1980s the courage to also stand up and take the measure of artistic products in our time. (His fine 1982 review of my second novel Oxherding Tale in The Village Voice led directly to its acquisition by a paperback publisher, which kept it in print.)
Editors---like Hollywood movie people---tend to chase the last successful creative project. For example, in the early 70s black writers (who were seldom published by major white publishing houses in the 20th century as late as the early ‘70s) I knew joked that Alex Haley would “save us all” when his long awaited book Roots appeared (As an undergraduate I met him in a history class in the late 60s when he was at work on that title, which he talked about when visiting campuses around the country). Roots was a very financially successful work, though badly flawed, and now understood to be based on faulty scholarship. But rather than encourage new work by black writers, editors I knew in New York wanted another Roots, more generation-spanning black family stories in the mid-70s, and for years between 1977 and the late 80s I wrote PBS scripts inspired by the success of Haley’s book. In other words, a new, original work frightens people. Also, it cannot be imitated, commodified, or turned into a cash-cow. There is always resistance to work---or ideas---that challenge our assumptions, upset our preconceptions. Yet, ironically, as writer Clarence Major once pointed out, in French the word novel means “new thing.” In my view, that is what a novel should be---a new thing, something that breaks new ground.
When I published my first novel with Viking in 1974, the writer who was paying the bills and keeping the lights on was the author of Day of the Jackal. Everyone was reading it. It’s a pure “entertainment,” good storytelling, with suspense. No, it wasn’t a literary masterpiece. But it brought in money, which meant---in those days---that New York publishers could try out the work of an unknown, literary first novelist like myself, one who might bring critical acclaim and perhaps a national literary prize to the company, and build an audience over time. What has happened since those days? Well, the answer is simply that the salespeople (not fine editors like the late Lee Goerner at the long gone Atheneum, who published Middle Passage, and fought hard for his writers for 15 years at Knopf before assuming the role publisher at Atheneum) triumphed. All they wanted was a list of bestsellers. The mid-list book of the 70s (a title that might sell 15,000 copies) vanished. Publishers stopped reading unsolicited manuscripts in the slush pile. And editors like Lee Goerner died with a broken heart. Book publishing began to imitate Hollywood---the glamour photos for writers, advertising only for the Stephen King type of novel, etc. In sales meeting people would ask if the writer was a good reader, if he was personable when confronting the public, would he do interviews and book tours? They checked the sales figures on his previous books. In other words, the writer, not just the book, was “packaged.” The problem was not with the editors back then, for many went to the mat for their literary writers, and they celebrated---threw a party---when they got a serious book past the sales people. But those days, as we know, are gone. Many high-profile editors today just make the deal---the notorious O.J. Simpson book, for example---then moved on to the next deal, leaving the actual editing to be farmed out to a free-lance person in, say, California.
I don’t condemn writers like Stephen King, and many of my friends who write hastily executed books for profit. They keep publishing houses afloat, make it possible for employees at book companies to put food on their table and clothes on the backs of their kids. Think about it. Are we going to have a groundbreaking literary masterpiece every fall book season? I doubt it. So the junk books, which many people like to read, keep the publisher’s door open so they can do a fine, original work of literature. The point is that publishers must make room for those literary works, as they did before the 1980s, take a financial risk on them, and none of us should mistake “industrial fiction” as literature.
When students ask me whether they should apply for acceptance to MFA creative writing program, I simply ask them what it is they want from those two years of their lives. What most want---and need---is having someone impose a deadline so they actually get their work done. I remind them that creative writing at American colleges and universities began after World War II. Before that, writers learned their craft on newspapers---how to turn in three stories a week, how to write for a wide audience of readers, how to do interviews and research and check their facts with three sources, and how not to see their copy as sacred or set in cement, because it would travel across the room to an editor, who would delete and add things against the writer’s will, but then his (or her) name would still be on that story. (In other words, one learns humility.) So there’s nothing essential about creative writing programs for learning one’s craft. All a young writer needs is one good teacher with more experience, or a friend deeply learned in classic and contemporary fiction, someone the writer trusts, to look over their drafts. And the young writer needs to read, to accept reading the great works past and present in not only the West but also the East, as a life-long labor, a task he (or she) will never complete.
Writing itself is the best teacher of writing, so a young or old writer must learn that, if necessary, his ratio of throwaway to keep pages might turn out to be 20 to 1. (90% of good writing, as the saying goes, is rewriting.) To give you an example of what I mean, I wrote six novels between 1970 and 1972. I wrote ten pages a day, which meant each novel went through three drafts. But I didn’t know how to revise---I just rewrote the books from start to finish and had a new one every three months. John Gardner slowed me down. He told me you can’t go on to the next paragraph until the last one is perfect. (Wise advice, but Gardner was a wonderful extremist, so I think we should modify his advice a little.) For the seventh novel, Faith and the Good Thing, I threw out about 1200 pages and wrote the book in nine months, which at age twenty-four I felt was a ridiculously long time to spend on anything. Then, with Oxherding Tale, I spent five years on it, throwing out about 2400 pages. (I had learned by then just how serious is the business of writing, what was at stake with every book.) Middle Passage was six years in the works---for 17 years I’d collected material on the slave trade (I began the book when I was an undergraduate; it was the second novel in my series of six between 1970 and 1972), but in 1983 I knew little of the sea, so I reread all of Melville’s novels (not for theme but for props, clothing, language, life at sea), Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, Jack London, the Sinbad stories, slave narratives and poetry that touched on the middle passage, the Sinbad stories, Appolonius of Rhodes’ The Voyage of Argo, studies of Cockney slang (for the voices of the white sailors on my fictional ship) nautical dictionaries, ship’s logs, books on how 19th century sailing ships were constructed, and my next-door-neighbor, a model ship builder, created for me (just for cost of materials) what he thought a wooden slaver would be like, with 20 feet of rigging (That ship sits in my library to this day). That was research that had to be done between 1983 and 1989 when the book was in composition---I threw out maybe 3,000 pages. For Dreamer, the next novel, I spent two years immersing myself in histories of the Civil Rights Movement, biographies of King, studies of his rhetoric; I visited and took notes in his Atlanta birth house, also at his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where he was killed. Since people knew I was working on this book---Publisher’s Weekly announced this after I won the National Book Award for Middle Passage---they felt the need to send me things like declassified F.B.I. documents related to the movement. So for two years I immersed myself in King’s brief 39-year life in order to know every single microscopic thing about him---all that before I wrote the first word. Then the book was in composition for five more years. I easily threw away another 3,000 pages to arrive at around 250 that I could believe in, believe in every sentence, in other words. And all this, of course, was written as I taught, lectured around the world, completed many other book, film and shorter projects, and my wife of 37 years and I raised two children.
This information about the “process” of creation is what I share with my students. I like to think that my relationship with them is much like the one I had with Gardner: we meet, not always on campus, but at my daughter’s first business, Faire/Gallery Café (check out her website at fairegallerycafe.com), where we share work as artists perhaps did in the 20s in a Paris café, discussing literature, their new drafts, suggesting authors they might read, and I give them to the best of my ability the benefit of my forty years in the book world. If a creative writing teacher is prolific, then the students benefit. It’s like having a teacher who is a working scientist, in the lab making new discoveries, then he (or she) comes to class the next day and shares insights so fresh they aren’t even in the scientific journals yet. With writers like that in an MFA program (not deadwood, tenured people who haven’t published anything in 20 years), I think those two years can be useful for an apprentice writer.
I agree that the problem does not lie with genre writers like Stephen King nor
Dan Brown. I’ve always operated under the dictum that I don’t mind the 95
bad books published, as long as the five good ones get out- that’s the reality
of any human endeavor. It’s when ‘the system’ starts eating into the five
good books that my ire is raised. As for your process; I take it that, as a
writer, you are a sculptor, not a builder. I.e.- I’ve met two basic types of
writers, regardless of prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, etc. There are
sculptors- like you, who crank out reams of words, then pare back, the way
Auguste Rodin once mentioned that his sculptures were always there, and he just
removed whatever material needed to reveal them. I, however, am a builder. Were
we to both write two hundred page novels- irrespective of qualitative judgments,
your first draft might be 1200 pages, and then you shave; whereas my first draft
might be 120 pages, and then I embroider. Jessica, however, is a sculptor for
poetry and a builder for prose. In your years in the classroom, could you
ballpark a figure, percentage-wise, as to a sculptor/builder ratio? And, what do
you think that says of human creativity re: writing?
CJ: In my case, you’re right about the creative process. More accurately, though, I believe when I’m working I both sculpt and build. I generate lots of pages, cut away everything that isn’t the story, then I embroider the final drafts almost to death. The blank page is beautiful but daunting. However, once I’ve filled it up (raw material) in a first draft, I then feel the joy that comes from the freedom to carve, sculpt, and consider over and over every word, every syllable, every musical beat in a sentence. What’s interesting is how good some of the throwaway material might be. Good but just not right for a particular story or novel. A book I like collected “false starts, loose lines, dropped dialogue and other fragments from 101 renowned writers.” The title is Literary Outtakes, edited by Larry Dark (Fawcett Columbine, 1990), and it contains a brief scene I dropped from Oxherding Tale. So I love the process of revision more than anything else. I think John Gardner did, too. In the afterword he wrote for a 1982 collection of critical articles on his work, edited by Robert A. Morace and Kathryn VanSpanckeren, he said:
“True artists are possessed…they are messianic egomaniacs. They believe that what they do is unspeakably important: it is only that conviction that makes the writer himself important…So Beethoven does draft after draft of his works, scrutinizing, altering, improving them long after anyone commonly sane would have stopped, delighted…Only the absolute stubborn conviction that with patience enough he can find his way through or around any obstacle---only the certainty solid as his life that he can sooner or later discover the right technique---can get the true artist through the endless hours of fiddling, reconceiving, throwing out in disgust. If he does his work well, the ego that made it possible does not show in the work…He builds whatever world he is able to build, then evaporates into thin air, leaving what he’s built to get by on its own…”
On the critical side, one can merely look at the devolution of book reviewing in
magalogs (i.e.- catalogs of books masquing as magazines) like Rain
Taxi- run by a band of talentless hacks who blurb each other to stay on
the Twin Cities grant giving machine. These pieces and publications are mere
blurb factories. Their approbation is meaningless since they do not disapprove,
nor objectively look at writing. Emotion tends to surpass intellect as the
dominant paradigm in such writings. It’s what I call the ‘criticism of
intent.’ This is where what a writer or artist claims to want to have done
supplants what they have actually achieved. This leads to bad art being
championed- such as the horrid poetry of a Charles
Bukowski or even Pulitzer Prize winners like James
Tate, or Poet Laureate Donald
Hall being alibied for. This leads to bad films, like Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless,
being hailed as great cinema, despite a poor screenplay, bad technical aspects,
and the like. Or the monochrome or drip paintings of Abstract Expressionists
being hailed as comparable to the works of a Goya or Rembrandt. Ultimately, this
leads to young wannabe artists saying, ‘I can do crap like that in my sleep,
so I must have real talent, too,’ and a downward spiral of art being created.
Do you see this trend, as well?
Yet, I argue the criticism of intent kills real art, for intent in art is utterly meaningless- only accomplishment matters. Yet, it is far and away dominant. Is this the influence of Political Correctness, Postmodernism, both, or other forces? And what remedy can you foresee, other than the natural swing of the pendulum back to critical sanity?
CJ: I agree with you completely. Personally, I don’t socialize much with other writers. Just about ten or twelve I keep in touch with weekly. I only want to know most writers on the page, which tells me everything I need to know about their thought, feelings, technique, intent, etc. I even regret having met certain writers (or read their interviews), because as far as I’m concerned the artist is just the midwife who delivers the baby. He shouldn’t botch the delivery, and once the baby is delivered, he (or she) should step far away and not wave his hands, saying, “Look what I did!” People just want to see the baby. Readers can make up their minds about art without having a smokescreen of commentary around it. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t value literary scholars who can help us understand extra-textual matters of importance when we want to dig deeper into a book---the history of books similar to the one we’ve just read, the historical background, things in the writer’s biography and intellectual growth that can illuminate a text. But, as I say, these things are extra-textual. We need not ask about “intent.” As a phenomenologist, my position has always been that each of us must begin with the experience of the artwork, freeing ourselves from presuppositions and explanatory models when we encounter it, so that, the world can disclose itself for consciousness, leading to the deepening and transformation of our perceptions.
As you state so well, when people see second-or-third rate work, they naturally say, “Well, hell, I can do as good as that, so I must be a writer (or artist), too.” As Northrop Frye points out in The Educated Imagination, people always imitate in their writing what they read because they have to begin somewhere, have some exposure to “art,” however poor, in order to even get a sense of what, say, a novel or story is.
A final word on this question: the emphasis on “intent” went out the window with the New Critics of the 1950s, who simply taught their students to put aside what a writer supposedly “intended,” and then give the book or story a good, close reading to ascertain its meaning. I see---at least among the wonderful literary scholars who work on my fiction and created the Charles Johnson Society at the American Literature Association----a return to this virtue of New Criticism.
So, I take it that you disagree with the premise behind an Oprah’s Book Club,
i.e.- that reading ‘anything’ is better than no reading at all. Thus,
reading Chick Lit or gangsta novels or ‘bumper sticker’/message books- the
latterday equivalents of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, is akin to eating
candy, bacon, popcorn with butter, and washing it down with soda or beer, then
wondering why your body is so out of shape?
CJ: I’ve read my share of junk fiction during my lifetime, and a lot of it can be fun. But the problem with the argument that we have to give people who don’t like to read simple books to get them started---“Ulysses-on-training wheels”---is that too many people simply never advance beyond the mental fast food. They just want to read more junk fiction, and never crack open a complex book.
Speaking of Oprah, what of the movement toward art as therapy? Does this
abnegate the art and craft of art? Also, since real artists are naturally more
empathetic and sensitive toward the world, this allows those mentally ill or
unbalanced, whose problems may include heightened sensitivity, to delude
themselves they are artists- and when they cannot match their sensitivity with
talent, this claim that ‘everyone is creative,’ or that ‘everyone is an
artist,’ does far more damage in the long run than the fallacious claims that
the mentally unbalanced are ‘artists’ does to their egos in the short term.
No? It’s akin to calling retarded people ‘special,’ as if a mere word will
relieve their ills. Then, some of the ill use their sickness as a weapon. At my
old Uptown Poetry Group
in the Twin Cities I once had a guy come, who stated right away he was bipolar,
then read a screed against President Bush, claiming it was poetry. Even if one
agreed with the sentiment, it had zero literary value, and I told him so. The
man raged, and claimed I was abusing him, since he told me he was bipolar. I
told him he could be tripolar, but the ‘poem’ was still doggerel.
CJ: Well, we can all see how “expressing” oneself can be of therapeutic value to the mentally ill or to people in prison or to shell-shocked war vets. This is simply using the techniques of art for non-artistic purposes, like teaching meditation to help CEOS relax so they can return refreshed to their capitalist endeavors---all without any teaching of the philosophy behind Buddhism, with its ethical system as embodied in the Eightfold Path.
Too many people think that all artists do is “emote” or “express” their feelings, with no intellectual rigor (study, discipline, etc.) involved in the creative process. Obviously none of these psychological appropriations of art have anything to do with serious artistic endeavor.
Getting back to PoMo. It is just another in a seemingly endless laundry list of
silly -isms and schools of art that any real artist must dash, for the greatest
art and artists are those most individuated. One does not mistake Whitman’s
poetry for Milton’s, nor does one mistake a Hemingway paragraph for Proust’s.
Real artists rebel against stricture; only hacks find comfort in their confines.
CJ: On February 1 this year, I delivered the Solomon Katz Distinguished Lecture in the Humanities here at the University of Washington. The title was, “Whole Sight: The Intersection of Culture Faith, and the Imagination.” In that lecture, I said, “Art can never have the luxury of being just ‘entertainment,’ or a form of escapism. On the contrary, it must be a probing of reality, because art has a phenomenological duty to perform, the duty of disclosure, and not just for black Americans, but for all human kind.” That has been my aesthetic position for my entire adult life. That art transforms our perception and performs an epistemological service by allowing us to see the world of consciousness, culture, and the universe in new ways. It can never be a confirmation of the status quo, of calcified ways of seeing. If readers would like to read the full text of that Katz lecture, or see a video of it, they can go to www.simpsoncenter.org. There they will find several lectures on tape and transcripts for some of them. Readers can also take a look at two of my essays, Philosophy and Black Fiction (1980) and “Whole Sight: Notes on New Black Fiction” (1984), which are reprinted in I Call Myself an Artist: Writings By and About Charles Johnson, a 398-page collection of my nonfiction, edited by Dr. Rudolph Byrd (Indiana University Press, 1998).
In a related vein, I posit, ‘Only bad artists claim all art is subjective.’
Logically, if all is subjective, then there’s no reason doing a damned thing
in this life. Yet, just as a single drop of blood would de-purify, say, the
Pacific Ocean- were it wholly purely water, so does one objective fact objectify
a subjective universe, for anything then can be related or parallaxed to or
against it. In writing, as example, clichés are greatly numerically repeated
images or groups of words that are placed together in greatly numerically
repeated situations. Thus, there is nothing subjective about a manifest cliché
like ‘bleeding heart.’ Only if a writer somehow subverts that, out of the
context of emotional sorrow, and perhaps uses that phrase in a poem or story
about someone literally stabbed or shot in the heart, might that term be
annealed or wholly subverted. Similar claims can be made about poetic rhythm,
enjambment, the ability to characterize in a non-stereotypical fashion, etc. Do
you agree or not? And, how does this account for the dominant claim in most
writing today, that agents and publishers toss off in rejection slips, that
it’s a ‘subjective business?’
CJ: People who say “All art is subjective” are fools. They do a disservice to all the arts with that statement. We all can confirm what is---and is not---objectively there on the pages of a work without slipping into the infantile reaction of what we “feel” about it, or whether we “like” it or not, as if we’re talking about a meal we just had and not an aesthetic object. For fools who don’t like the idea of objectivity, then tell them to use the phenomenological word “inter-subjective,” which means more than one subject experiences an object, and they agree (or disagree) on what they see (as in the sciences) based on empirical evidence---what is right there before them in print on the page.
Would you say this crutch of ‘subjectivity’ in the arts is symptomatic of a
larger puerility that infects American culture? Or, am I being provincial? Is
this not merely an American, but a human, problem?
CJ: Personally, I think this problem of subjectivity bordering on solipsism is cultural, and very much related to the mind-set of the “Me Generation” of the 1970s. I’m a Baby Boomer. I belong to that generation born right after World War II, a generation that enjoyed a period of material prosperity and rising expectations unknown to our parents who lived through the Great Depression. Sometimes I simply despise Baby Boomers for their sense of entitlement. I think members of my generation are the most self-absorbed, narcissistic, and selfish in American history. But a lot of our children are proving to be even worse, caring about nothing beyond themselves, what they “feel” or think they feel.
DS: Back to the
emotional aspect of this idea of subjectivity and criticism. Many writers are
terrible critics, and just like actors who call bad screenplays brilliant. This
is true of big names like a T.S.
Eliot to current writers/reviewers for the New York Times. When I
read reviews or criticism- on any art, I always cringe when I see the words
‘like’ or ‘dislike.’ They simply have no place in critical thought nor
writing. It is a wholly different axis from which to judge art than good/bad.
One cannot argue with one’s liking of something, but one can disagree with its
excellence. As example, many studies have shown that babies only a week or two
old- far too young for cultural brainwashing to have seeped in, react positively
when shown photos of people with symmetrical (i.e.- beautiful) features vs.
those with asymmetrical (i.e.- ugly) features, regardless of the racial and
ethnic makeup of the baby or displayed subject of the photograph. Of course, a
particular person may like men with big noses or women who are obese, but by and
large there is an objective underpinning to beauty. I would argue such an
underpinning exists for excellence, albeit more multivalent since art demands
more things be accounted for then mere symmetry. Agree?
CJ: Yes, the intelligent way to talk about art is not in terms of liking or disliking. That way is simply naïve. Also, too many people mistakenly feel being a “critic” means to be critical of something (Perhaps they watch too many TV talking heads like Siskel and Ebert). So I try not to use the word “critic” when I can avoid it, but literary scholar instead, i.e., one who can explicate a work based on what is undeniably present on the page.
DS: As stated,
the PoMo and PC claims of subjectivity amount to a cowardly attempt to stifle
real debate on the arts. I’ve similarly argued with people who deny race
exists. Yet, studies show that infants can, again, differentiate a Swede from an
Indonesian from a Congolese from a Peruvian from an Eskimo. The argument they
make is that race is fluid, therefore a shallow thing. My retort is, ‘Yes,
race IS a shallow thing, but shallow things are no less real- thus
objective, than the deep, and THAT is the point.’ Of course, I dislike some
great art, like the overall work of Robert
Frost- for aesthetic and other reasons. But my dislike for him- or his work,
or my distaste for the careers of T.S. Eliot or Ezra
Pound does not lead me to deny the great poems they produced. Similarly, I
love the bad epigrammatic poems of Richard Brautigan and the 1960s era Godzilla
films of my youth. I do not, however, mistake the love I feel for Godzilla
for the deep emotion that a great film like Ikiru,
by Akira Kurosawa, or Late
Spring, by Yasujiro Ozu, leave me with. So, my query to you is, why do
almost all critics and wannabe artists today find it impossible to distance
themselves from emotion-based subjectivity and towards intellectual objectivity?
Is it merely self-interest because of the fellatric way the publication world is
now set up?
CJ: My position on race (for my entire life) is that it is an illusion, with numerous scientists pointing out that it is a social and cultural construct, with more differences within so-called races than between them (And, as Sinclair Lewis pointed out, the entire theory of races falls apart when you encounter someone “black” who is passing for “white”). But the point, as you say, is that it is a lived-illusion, a delusion that causes enormous suffering. My position on this is actually very Buddhist. People live illusions all the time, every moment of their lives, one of the greatest being a belief in an enduring ego of self (or soul), which cannot be found---as Hume pointed out in A Treatise of Human Nature as well as Shakyamuni Buddha two millennia before him----if we empirically look at our experience, where we find only a process of ever-changing feelings, perceptions, and sensations. Any essentialist sense of identity---not just “race”---is an illusion. I always say we are processes, not products. We’re verbs, not nouns.
Is this the position, then, that all life- or, more specifically- all sentience,
is just an aspect of one thing with many seeming aspects? That seems like the
tales of single giant fungi that cover several football fields in area, yet
sprout mushrooms that merely seem to be different entities. I have problems with
that sort of claim, or even analogy, just as I have problems with the idea of
reincarnation. My own position is that you, I, or Readers 1 through (hopefully)
2,456,323 are all so individuated and unique that it’s Romanticism to try to
link all in one. Of course, uniqueness does not- to me, equate with ‘specialness’-
that PC bugbear. I would argue that an artist, or scientist, whose contributions
serve a greater good, and past their mortal existence, are worth more than a
plumber or garbageman. Of course, without garbagemen, epidemics would rage
within a month, so they are manifestly needed, but there are far more many good
garbagemen than great novelists or budding Alexander Flemings or Isaac Newtons.
CJ: I’ve never heard the analogy of the giant fungi before. I don’t believe it has anything to do with the Buddhadharma. For a follower of the Dharma, all sentient beings, whether great scientists or garbagemen, all basically want the same two things: happiness and freedom from suffering. Good Buddhist teachers discourage their students from even thinking---not just talking but thinking---about the idea of reincarnation, about future or past lives, because all we have to work with is the here and now. If we take care of the present moment with mindfulness, then the future is not something we need to worry about.
DS: On a related score, another noxious claim is that ‘all art is political.’ Aside from its logical absurdity; one can substitute the words ‘about poodles’ for ‘political,’ and the statement is just as true, or absurd. If one does not deal with poodles in one’s story, poem, or painting, then one is actually making a statement about the condition of poodles in the cosmos by ignoring their plight. No? Of course, this is silly, yet it dominates the art that the ‘system’ buoys up today. Anything can be defined in relation to another thing in a simplistic manner. So what? Is shitting a political act? Are you, as a black man, making a more daring political claim if you piss sitting on a pot, and I- a white man, stand at a urinal? These may seem absurd to young readers of this interview, but LITERALLY, I have heard such nonsense espoused in Marxist, Feminist, PoMo, Christian, and other methodologies on art. Similarly, the ‘all art is truth’ claim is likewise BS, for ‘art’ has the same root as ‘artifice.’ It can NEVER be truth. Comments?
CJ: Once again, I’m not “black” and you’re not “white” in any essential way, only in terms of social conventions in our time. To say, “Johnson” is black is, clearly, to shape your experience of me in terms of your ideas about what a “black” person is. Names often delude us into believing in a “nature.” Both phenomenology and Buddhism are all about “bracketing” (putting to one side) all presuppositions and assumptions so that we can undergo a fresh, direct experience with phenomena. So, naturally, I oppose all pre-established meanings, and I’m profoundly suspicious of all explanatory models (which Plato would say are simply “likely stories”) whether from the left or right, whether Marxist, feminist or otherwise. As Wittgenstein once said wisely, “Don’t explain, LOOK!”
DS: I have found
that almost all ‘political art’ fails because the art is given a backseat to
the politics. What are your thoughts on ‘bumper sticker’ books- those with
mono-dimensional political aims? In the Introduction to Oxherding Tale- a
novel I would rank in the top five or so American novels, and top twenty or so
novels period, you take a none too veiled swipe at Alice Walker’s The Color
Purple; to me a classic super-simplistic bumper sticker book- although now
one would call it an Oprah book; the sort of dumbed down proto-deliterate
work that ushered in much of the crap we see published today. Did you take heat
for that comparison? Were you accused of literary dick-waving? Has Walker ever
chided you for your claim?
CJ: I’ve met Alice Walker. We met in the ‘70s at a New York book party for her novel Meridian. While I have artistic and intellectual problems with The Color Purple, I think the author is addressing a legitimate problem: namely, the pain many black women have felt, historically, from not being able to rely on their men being men (reliable, supportive, there to help raise the babies they make) in a society and culture that since the 17th century has tried to emasculate black men. (See my discussion of her novel in Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970). Walker has never said anything to me about that statement in the preface to Oxherding Tale. But there are, I know, some black (and white) feminists who probably hate me, but that’s their problem, not mine. (As a buddy of mine always says, “Hate kills its host first.”)
DS: This leads
into another pet peeve of mine- the writers and critics who always speak
nebulously of other writers, especially when they admit the overwhelming amount
of published material is garbage. You see it in phrases like, ‘unlike other
writers…..’ yet no names are named. Even when a name is named, as in bad
fictionist Dale Peck’s New Republic review of a few years ago, when he
wrote, ‘Rick Moody is
the worst writer of his generation….’ he ended the piece basically
stoop-kneed and retracting that provocative claim. Will you name me some living,
published writers today who are simply bad writers, and should never have been
published? Then you can name some overrated dead white male classics. I’ll
start and say David Foster
Wallace. He simply cannot write a compelling paragraph, and has no
characterization skills. Dave
Eggers may be worse- he lacks any ear for real conversation and bathes in
triteness. Joyce Carol Oates
and T.C. Boyle can at
least write competent paragraphs, but their fiction is larded with clichés and
stereotypes. Oates’ Blonde was staggeringly bad, and her short fiction
only slightly better. Her criticism is a joke. Richard
Russo, in a fair and just world, would not even be able to get a job writing
for All My Children. Then there was memoirist James
Frey- who should have been pummeled for being a sub-Eggers level writer, yet
was pummeled because he dared to get ‘creative’ in a genre- memoir, that
exists solely because, unlike its kissing cousin biography, it necessarily has
to have distortions and lies in it to avoid a lawsuit. Will you name some- and
not the obvious genre hacks like Dan
Brown, Stephen King,
or Danielle Steel? I think it’s important for the future of literature and
criticism to do so.
CJ: You know, I don’t see much point in naming specific, contemporary writers who I think are bad. I just don’t read them. If someone else gets something out of their work, that’s fine by me. If I look, as a black reader, at almost any American white writer before the 1960s (exceptions including Sinclair Lewis in Kingsblood Royal, a clumsy tract of a novel, which I wrote a recent introduction for, the Modern Library edition), I find something in their portrayals of the racial Other, specifically black Americans, that turns my stomach----some nasty passage in D.H. Lawrence’s essay “On Being a Man” about how he can’t relate to “niggers,” or the white supremacist vision underlying Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was shared, by the way, by Abraham Lincoln: both wanted to ship newly slaves back to Africa so America could remain a white man’s country (I also did the introduction for the recent Oxford edition of this work). There’s always something racist there because before the Civil Rights Movement too many white writers were creatures of their time, and bought into a spurious sense of racial superiority, and this mars their work and makes one question just what else they may be wrong about in their interpretations of the world around them. But I would never throw the baby out with the bath water. All people of color who are serious students of literature have to read past those disappointing moments in literary masterpieces of the past.
And as for contemporary writers, I take---as a Buddhist---the step called “Right Speech” in the Eightfold Path very seriously. I interpret this ancient urging of us to engage in responsible speech to mean that whatever we plan to say should first be frisked at Three Gates before we release it into the world. Those Three Gates are Questions: Is it true? Is it necessary? And will it do no harm? If our proposed statement passes those tests, then we should say it. (By the way Passing The Three Gates is the title of my collection of interviews covering about 25 years, edited by Jim McWilliams, and published a couple of years ago by University of Washington Press.) In other words, we don’t need to say publicly everything we know to be true, especially if it will cause more harm than good.
DS: Ok, I’ll
get no names, but you mentioned Lincoln, and I tire of hearing that he was a
‘racist.’ Well, duh! So were Darwin, Marx, and any other prominent
white person of the 19th Century. He was also, doubtlessly, a sexist,
homophobe, and suffered from other –isms. To me, that makes his evolution on
race and Emancipation all the more heroic and incredible. I mean, if he did not
believe blacks were morally or socially equal, yet was willing to grant them
political equality (if in writing only, and because of a political expedient),
well, that’s the sort of ignorant person I’d like to know. Were only
anti-abortionists or supporters of the Iraq War as willing to not demonize those
who disagree with them, their benightedness would actually serve discourse, and
the nation better. No?
DS: Let me
return to the James Frey mess of a year or so ago. The very subgenre of memoir
exists so that one can distort names and places so that the guilty will not sue.
I find this ironical in that since so many in the arts claim art is about truth,
that such a genre needs to exist. Yet it does. I wrote a four volume memoir a
few years ago, and when I posted a few pieces online, within days, I got legal
threats from several people from my past. One fellow, whom I had not seen for
over twenty years, and not spoken to in nearly thirty, threatened the website I
was posted in not because I said anything untrue nor libelous, but because he
was afraid that the public knowledge of a medical condition he had, that I
mentioned, would ruin his life. My wife was stalked by a girl from Finland she
met on a Sylvia Plath e-ring. There is a friend of mine who had a psychotic
published writer unsuccessfully try to get him fired at work, claiming he was
on company time. I’ve even had several published poets threaten to sue me for
my This Old Poem series
where I humorously satirize and critique bad poems. Poet Wanda
Coleman bitched and thought I was making fun of her racially, when I was
really satirizing the way she demeans her own persona with racial stereotyping
of herself. She just did not ‘get it.’ Other times I have gotten stalkers
who have sent viruses to my computer, and even jealous and envious people I’ve
encountered in the arts scene, who have spent years lying about me- even to the
point of starting a hate list about me, and then threatening to sue me when I
pointed out the very reasons for their irrational hatred. In America, of course,
the truth is always up for sale, so poor folk like me- and most writers, have to
capitulate when rich individuals or corporations threaten small websites, even
though nothing libelous is stated. That being the case, why do so many in the
arts have such a perverse stance on ‘the truth’?
CJ: To me, the James Frey story is just a sad mess.
As for being sued, some of my relatives talked about doing that to me in 1975 after my novel Faith and the Good Thing appeared because I used for one character the name of one of my cousins. The character had nothing to do with my cousin, of course, but I learned a good lesson from this experience. Change the names of real people in a work of fiction, if only to protect oneself legally.
I published one longish autobiographical essay with Gale Research (This is also reprinted in I Call Myself an Artist), and there I used real names in my effort to make memory “speak.” That’s the closest I’ve ever come to memoir, which as a form doesn’t interest me at all---I prefer imaginative storytelling, fictions where writers write about people other than themselves. Generally, I see memoirs today as narcissistic, as a piece of jewelry to hang on the illusory ego. There are good memoirs, of course---classic slave narratives overlap with the category of memoir---but most people mistakenly assume they’ve had lives interesting enough for other people to care about them. And their lives just haven’t been that special or unique in some culturally significant way.
DS: I agree. One must either have led an interesting enough life to merit its telling, be good enough a writer to make one’s life interesting to read, or both. Sadly, most memoirists hang a donut on all three scores. Let’s get ontological for a moment re: truth, truthiness, and memoir- or any writing. Even if a book is 99.9% truthful it’s still 100% untrue. As example, if I write, ‘I am interviewing the writer Charles Johnson via email for my website,’ I am 100% true, yet if I change one word, it’s 100% untrue. ‘I am interviewing the writer Tony Johnson via email for my website,’ or ‘I am interviewing the politician Charles Johnson via email for my website,’ are 100% untrue, even if they are also mostly true. The claim, of course, is that Frey willfully made up whole incidents. My response is ‘So what?’ I would not do it, but I changed names, condensed timelines, dramatically juxtaposed incidents, and focused on those interesting aspects of my life that readers would want to read of- growing up poor, associating with lowlifes and mobsters, incidents with corrupt NYC cops, some comic and preternatural things, my sex life, my writing life, etc. To read my memoirs one would think my life would put daytime soap operas to shame, when the reality is that most of it is banal, boring, and a slog. And, of course, there is always the he said/she said aspect to things. But, I state early on that my memoirs are my takes on things, and not the truth write in marble. So, if Frey wants to exaggerate his prison stay from 8 hours to three months, or whatever, so what? Especially if it makes it a good read. Unfortunately, that’s the sticking point for me- the book is VERY badly written, yet those who damned its verity said nothing of its horrible composition and third grade writing level. Why? Memoir exists because it is different from biography in that it allows truthiness. In a full-fledged biography one cannot state that, say, President Eisenhower had a mistress, but if the mistress writes a memoir, she can get away with her claims.
CJ: Ontology, if I’m not mistaken, is about the study of Being. As one teacher once said to me, it’s the new, acceptable word for metaphysics (which Kant supposedly buried with his Critique of Pure Reason). What you’re addressing here, I think, is the veracity of truth claims. Frey’s work is, at best, a mixture of fiction and facts as he remembers them----but, as we all know (and as I say in Oxherding Tale and Dreamer), “Memory is imagination.” Aristotle pointed out that words and things belong to different ontological orders (perhaps this is why you brought up ontology), so that, words never “capture” an experience---rather, they shape and give meaning to it. Nature gives us no metaphors. The imagination and language bring those into the world. Where we err is by taking a correspondence theory of truth and applying it to fiction. That works in the sciences, as does a pragmatic theory of truth. But in the arts I prefer a phenomenological approach to truth, which Max Scheler described as alethia, letting a disclosure of something---a new profile (or meaning), one of many possible---shine forth from the object. Thus, there is no one truth. We have many partials truths, with the “whole” truth a horizon we shall never reach.
DS: Back to art
and politics. In my twenty plus years in the arts- in several states, I have
found censorship to be far more prevalent amongst the Left than Right. Leftists
and Feminists want Huckleberry Finn or Catcher In The Rye gone
from libraries more than the Christian Right. Why is this? Should not a
‘Liberal’ know better? And aren’t terms like Liberal, Conservative, and
Libertarian so bastardized nowadays as to be meaningless? After all, no real
liberal would want to ban books, no real conservative would peer into people’s
bedrooms nor care of what a woman wants to do with her body, and no real
libertarian (often forgetting the silent and elided ‘civil’ part of the
term) would shill for corporations over individuals. Is not PC really just Left
Wing Fascism? It claims it wants ‘the truth,’ but only if that truth is
PC-approved? Years ago, I recall, at The Hungry Mind bookstore in St.
Paul, a group of radical Feminists started heckling former ACLU head Nadine
Strossen at a reading of her book Defending Pornography. I stood up and
called out one shill who claimed to have been forced into prostitution by her
husband, yet after I grilled her on things anyone in ‘the biz’ should know,
she recanted and claimed that she was merely against the book because it was
‘the Devil’s work.’ Yet, she claimed to be a Feminist. Why have
universities fostered this sort of intolerance and deceit, if not outright
thuggery? As I left the store, for instance, a group of that shill’s Feminista
friends spat on me for siding with ‘the demonic Strossen.’
CJ: Both the Left and Right have quite a history of banning books. Once again, I fear this is a very human thing we’re talking about. It might help to think of all education in every country and society for the entire history of the human race as being a form of cultural indoctrination. An effort to shape children into the kinds of citizens we think they should be. Japanese history books avoid mention (until now) of enslaving Asian women as “comfort girls.” Chinese history books leave out whole periods when the Communist Party failed at one of its programs. Fundamentalist Muslim madrasas teach lie after lie about dinosaurs being the invention of Jews, who created them to eat Muslims. Here in America, since the time of the colonies, what we have taught children is based on cultural presuppositions (or call them illusions) of the time. Thus, a work that contradicts any of this indoctrination---or certain political agendas---is a danger. It must be suppressed. As a teacher I have always taken the position that my job is simply to give students the tools of thinking and creating, not to tell them what to think or create. With tools, they can think on their own, and even contradict me in the future, if that becomes necessary.
DS: What of the
art that PC promotes, where writers will take the safest of stands- such as
being against rape, nuclear war/winter, genocide, etc.; as if there were large
lobbies for those things? Should not writers of talent and greatness spend all
of their time doing what they do best- as should all people? After all, if Charles
Johnson- National Book Award-Winning Author, writes or speaks on the sad
state of literature, it may encourage other ‘name’ writers to do the same,
and get a wave going to change the system that promotes such bad writing?
However, if you are involved in a Save The Whales campaign, or anti-AIDS
rally, or some other campaign, you are merely another voice in the crowd, and no
matter what you say it cannot have the same impact as your declamations on
published literature’s current illness. I just see such side endeavors as a
waste, part of the ‘all art is political’ bullshit mantra; and I grew up
with Great Depression Era parents for whom waste was THE cardinal sin.
CJ: I agree with you. I’ve always been amused by my white friends who shy away from any discussion of racism in America (because even as liberals or leftists they are probably implicated in this, or at least benefited from the privilege of “whiteness” in a very Eurocentric society) and instead are very loud champions of environmentalism, which is quite important, of course, but hardly as risky---on a personal level---as confronting one’s own relationship to the racial Other, i.e., the fact that they don’t know any black people, would never date or marry one, have no knowledge whatsoever of black American history (which is American history), yet still see themselves as enlightened people.
DS: Earlier, I
used a neologism- deliterate. It’s a term I came up with in opposition
to illiterate. By deliterate I mean the willful choice to not read
great nor compelling writing. To avoid the classics in favor of reading blogs.
To write in emailese rather than proper grammar. Basically, I claim that
deliteracy is far more a problem than illiteracy is. First off, I object
strongly to the idea that there is some crisis
in public education. More children today- in raw numbers and
percentage-wise, can read basic writing, in a primer sense, than ever before in
this nation’s history. Many of the claims of ‘crisis’ stem from a
misreading of data. As example, before the 1980s, most claims of this nation’s
education and literacy levels scrupulously avoided schools and districts in poor
neighborhoods of the inner city, black and minority ghettos, white Appalachia
and rural areas, so the claims of a greater literacy are based upon comparing
the upper 60-70% of the whole nation at that time to the entire 100% that exists
now, and that’s wholly distorting and illogical. Most children today have
reams more knowledge of the world than their counterparts fifty or a hundred or
two hundred years ago. There simply is no comparison. Today, as well, there are
no longer cream puff classes in citizenship nor penmanship to boost up the bell
curve. However, I do agree that while children today have more knowledge, they
may have less wisdom- the ability to properly apply knowledge. In Turning The
Wheel, you speak of such differences. What comments do you have?
CJ: I love the term you invented, “deliterate.” It says much more, covers more ground accurately, than saying someone today is “illiterate.”
DS: On a
technical level, let’s speak of the effects of deliteracy. I recently got an
email from a website where I post film reviews, and the editor literally did not
know the difference between hyphens and dashes. She wrote:
like you to break up your paragraphs into smaller chunks….Smaller paragraphs
are especially important in online publications because large blocks of text
have a tendency to overwhelm the eye.
A related issue is your use of very long complex sentences….If you could re-read the piece with an eye toward picking out and simplifying the worst of them [meaning longest, not ill-wrought] I think it would be very helpful to your readers. Lastly, you might want to restrain your use of the hyphen as a form of punctuation. They have their place, but in most instances, a comma would better serve your purposes.
Another time a different editor did not even know the difference between a complex and run-on sentence. How can one claim to be an editor if such things are not known? To me, that’s even worse than the PC aspect, because it shows utter grammatical incompetence that is essential to good writing. And why do most online sites contribute to the dumbing down by wanting only simple declarative sentences? Semi-colons seem to be on the endangered species list, as is the negative use of ‘or.’ Nor goes with not, not or. It seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy that the sites with the most dumbed-down writing styles get the dumbest readers. Yet, on Cosmoetica, by far my three most popular pieces- a manifesto against the Iraq war, a book length essay comparing the JFK Assassination and UFO mythologies, and a defense of the film It’s A Wonderful Life, clock in respectively at over 20k, 70k, and 10k words in length. Could it be I’m getting all the intelligent readers willing to read longer well-written pieces simply because my site is virtually alone in serving that niche?
CJ: Your critique here (above) strikes me as sound. Many younger, twenty-something editors I’ve met (and older), as well as others in the book world have come to their jobs eager to be involved in working with writers, but confess they are still learning, still trying to catch up on all the things they know they should have read and/or thought about. I would say that on close inspection, 90% of everything we humans do in any field is, at best, mediocre. This is frustrating, yes. But when has it not been so?
DS: A few years
back I co-hosted an Internet radio show called Omniversica,
with another artist who is a Buddhist- Art Durkee. On one show we spoke with a
poet named Fred Glaysher, who- in arguing with Art, claimed that, in art, change
does not come until some giant- or great artist, comes along, and buries the
rest of the wannabes. It’s akin to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure Of
Scientific Revolutions. Do you agree?
CJ: I both agree and disagree. Stanley Crouch points out that even the pop arts (films, say) of the 30s and 40s were a cut above what we have today because there were so many great writers producing, and the result was that, even in pop culture, all boats rise during
a period of artistic excellence. The popular filmmakers laboring in the Hollywood studio system knew what the greats were doing, and they knew they weren’t doing that, but even their simpler fare was a cut above what we have today since contemporary pop writers don’t bother to read works that challenge them. That, at least, is Crouch’s idea, and I find it worthy of thinking about.
DS: But as, say
Whitman, in American poetry of the mid-19th Century, or Picasso with
Cubism and Modern Art, do you think it takes someone great to push an art out of
its doldrums? After all, you earlier mentioned the copycat tendencies of book
publishers. Certainly lesser artists are as guilty of trying to sponge off the
greats? And, where I agree that there are side benefits to having hacks like Dan
Brown or Jackie Susann have crap blockbusters that can help get a great writer
in print (even if that model is now dormant- to be ever hopeful), I see little
upside to the tenth rate Whitmans or Picasso wannabes, etc. Do you?
CJ: Many of my friends see no reason for trees being sacrificed to produce the work of tenth-rate writers. I feel the same way.
DS: Back to arts. I have always maintained that the creative arts are higher than the performing or interpretive arts, because you are basically starting with less to work with. In short, an actor interpreting Shakespeare or O’Neill has it much easier than the two playwrights did in conjuring the drama. Similarly, I posit that writing and poetry are the two highest general and specific art forms, for writing is wholly abstract- black squiggles on white that merely represent and must be decoded, whereas the visual arts are inbred, and one can instantly be moved by a great photo or painting, while even the greatest haiku will take five or ten seconds to read and digest. Poetry is the highest form of writing because, unlike fiction, it needs no narrative spine to drape its art over- it can be a moment captured, and wholly abstractly, unlike a photo. Do you agree with these views? If so, why do you think this is so? I would bet that since language (at least written) is only a six or so thousand year old phenomenon, while sight has been around for 600 million years or more, that’s a hell of a head start the visual arts have over writing.
CJ: Hegel attempted to rank the arts. The hierarchy he came up with is very questionable. All such rankings make me nervous, based as they are on a presupposition of some sort (an art is purer, more perfect, say, the less representational or mimetic it is). Rather, I see each art form as a different way of experiencing, engaging and interpreting the world, each having its own integrity, methods, and history. And for a Buddhist, the dualism involved in “higher” and “lower” is an illusion, something we impose on our experience.
DS: Many artists
seem to deny their own creativity, pawning it off on God, or some other force or
demiurge. I call this the Divine
Inspiration Fallacy. There is no Muse. For better or worse, it’s all
me, or you, or any artist. Comments on its existence, origins, verity?
CJ: As I mentioned, I was raised in the AME Church. God was a gift my loving parents gave me. A saying I much like is, “Life is God’s gift to you, what you do with it is your gift to God.” (This appears in my novel Dreamer.) In a sense, then, I see all my actions, deeds, stories and other creative work as a sacrifice---humble, flawed and imperfect, to be sure---that I offer back to God as thanksgiving for the gift of life. People can use whatever name they please for God---the Tao, Emptiness (shunyata in Sanskrit), or Aristotle’s Prime Mover. Really, I don’t care what they call the origin of creativity. But with each formal meditation I’ve taken since 1980, each sitting, what I do is hold a funeral for the ego, the illusory self or I, getting clear of that so I can think with spontaneity and creativity. Do the ideas---the work---come from God? I see no harm in saying so, for at the end of the day we do live in a universe of mystery. What do I mean by that? Let me explain. In 1998 scientists discovered dark energy, which makes up 73% of the universe. Before that, they knew about dark matter, which makes up 23%. We know nothing about dark matter or energy since we can’t measure or observe them. That leaves only 4% of the universe we can observe and measure---planets, stars, galaxies, etc. As Bertrand Russell once put it, what we know is “vanishingly small.” All predication is a risk, subject to change based on new evidence that we will receive tomorrow. This fundamental skimpiness of our knowledge means, in my view, that the best way for one to live is with what I call “epistemological humility,” a phrase I borrow from phenomenologist Herbert Spiegelberg.
I also believe that artists are fundamentally different, intellectually, than
non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more greatly different.
Let me quote from an essay I did on Harold
Bloom: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the
Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests
purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract
basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any
measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this.
It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply-
especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And also to be able to lead
observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the
Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts-
or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to
see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good
predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic
(Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose
will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or
Functionary3 .’ What are your thoughts on this?
CJ: It’s a good heuristic model for getting us to think and talk about possibly different kinds of intellect.
DS: Let’s turn
to some of the points you make in Turning The Wheel. In your preface you
quote W.E.B. Du Bois, and it put me in mind of the old debate between poets
Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, wherein Hughes insisted he was and could
only be a Black Artist, while Cullen countered that he was an Artist first and
foremost, and his skin color was just happenstance. Where on that spectrum of
thought do you fall?
CJ: Again, “blackness” and “whiteness” are illusions. However, my family (predecessors and ancestors) in America have a history important to me, one shaped by the illusion of “race.” And I’ve written a great deal about this historical subject (slavery, the era of segregation, the Civil Rights Movement)---in that sense Hughes and I have some similarity. But the literary scholars who write about my work correctly call me “an anti-race Race Man” (this term, I think, is from my former colleague, critic Ross Posnock, and appears in his book Color and Culture). That means Cullen and I can walk arm-in-arm together, too. It’s really not an either/or question. One is simply human, and writes about human history, one unavoidable component of which is events based on the illusion of race. One can no more ignore it than one can gender.
DS: The Du Bois quote and mention also put me thinking about modern rap music, and its effect on kids (of all races), as well as the sort of empowerment some try to use art for. It reminds me of blacks who try to bolster a young child’s ego by telling him/her that they ‘were descended from kings,’ as a counter to the debilitating effects of slavery and persistent racism today. This goes back to the ‘all art is political’ canard, but where do you stand, politically- as man/artist, on the role of the past on individuals? And is my asking such a thing falling into the trap you later mention in the book- assuming your expertise on race relations for your blackness? After all, as a white man, I’ve heard things white folks say behind the backs of blacks that you can only speculate on, so while you (as a black man) may be expert on the effects of bigotry, I surely am far more expert on its causes and extent; at least the American black-white form of bigotry. Neither of us is likely qualified to speak on native bigotry in Madagascar, for instance.
CJ: Actually, I must disagree with your statement that what you’ve heard in only non-black company is equivalent to my knowledge of race. Yes, I have 59 years of personal racial experiences, as you no doubt have years of the same. But as a scholar, I’ve devoted myself since I was an undergraduate discussion group leader for the first big lecture course on Black American History at Southern Illinois University in 1969 (when Black Studies courses began there) to the systematic study of black American history, culture, and thought since the year 1619 when the first 20 Africans became indentured servants (and later bought their freedom) at the Jamestown colony. (Interestingly enough, one of them took the name “Johnson”.)
As you said, I can’t speak about bigotry in Madagascar, because unlike my research in black American history, I’ve not studied that for a lifetime, as I’ve done with the history of my own people.
DS: I mentioned
a friend of mine named Art
Durkee, and he often complains of the dumbing down of Buddhism in the West.
I liken it to middle-aged white men who preen on about jazz, and affect hepcat
speech, to show their love of ‘Bird,’ ‘Trane,’ and the like. It’s as
if Buddhism is the fashionable religion of middle-aged white
pseudo-intellectuals. I recall Art exasperating over just such a moron we
encountered online, who claimed to be a poet (he was a doggerelist) and
Buddhist, who wrote ‘poems’ of sexual incantation and claimed Buddhism was
dancing about a fire, banging tambourines with a hard on, and shaking his
‘wooden cock.’ Do you encounter many faux Buddhists? And, in brief, can you
explicate the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path of Buddhism that you
mentioned earlier? Are these akin to the Twelve Commandments?
CJ: In America, we have a large convert Buddhist community. Many here who embraced Buddhism are middle-class and Jewish. These issues have been discussed at length almost since the first issue of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review appeared. Also, we have many people of color (blacks, Hispanics) who belong to the Soka Gakkai sect of Japanese Buddhism, and they are the largest group that includes black Americans, one reason being that they proselytize (something Buddhists traditionally have not done) in the major cities, in the inner city. (My sister-in-law and her friends in Chicago are Soka Gakkai.) Convert Buddhists are usually contrasted to those Asian Buddhists who brought their Dharma practice along with them in their suitcases when they arrived in America from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, or other places in the Far East.
Buddhism was really unknown to the general public in the West before World War II. After the 40s, when American black and white soldiers came back with Buddhist wives, and the first teachers (Suzuki was huge back then) came to these shores, Zen Buddhism flourished among artists and so-called hip people, like the Beats. But they misunderstood a very great deal. Since the 50s, the translations of important, canonical texts have improved (and since 1998 I’ve been a student of Sanskrit so I can read the original sutras in that language, and in order to have a passing understanding of Pali, which is similar to Sanskrit), and the teachers have gotten better---they come with better credentials, experience, etc. Now, thanks to the great, selfless work of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhism seems to have supplanted the earlier, badly understood versions of Ch’an (or Zen) that first caught the public’s attention in the 1950s. Personally, I love the Mahayana tradition with its emphasis on the bodhissatva (from which Zen and Tibetan schools derive), but I feel comfortable in my practice with Theravada, the earliest school of Buddhism (the “Teachings of the Elders”) that emphasizes the arhat as an ideal.
So, yes, there are “faux Buddhists,” and people afoot who mistake Buddhism (with its incredible rigor) for silly New Age thinking. For an explanation of the Eightfold Path, I refer readers to my longish essay “Reading the Eightfold Path,” which they can find in Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing, or in the wonderful collection of essays Dharma, Color and Culture: New Essays in Western Buddhism, edited by Buddhist nun Hilda Gutierrez Baldoquin.
The steps on the Eightfold Path are nothing like the Ten Commandments. Buddhists never command anything. We have no interest in imposing our will on others. Like the precepts, the Eightfold Path offers a blueprint for ethical living that leads to awakening or nirvana (The word suggests to blow out the illusory sense of self, nir meaning “out” and vana “to blow”.) The Buddha made it clear that we are not to accept the Four Noble Truths or Eightfold Path on his (or any) authority. Rather, we are to confirm (or deny) their truth in the depths of our own experience, and proceed from there, adapting the Eightfold Path to our own experiences, time and place. No two people arrive at awakening on the same path. And, as with all things in this world that are impermanent, arising and passing away (which is everything, nations as well as our thoughts and feelings, from one moment to the next), Buddhism is subject to change, and grows as it passes from its origin in India to China, then to other countries of the Far East, and most recently to Europe and the Americas. It is the one religion, as Einstein said (or so I’ve read) in a 1954 interview for the Los Angeles Times, compatible with the new physics, quantum physics, that emerged in the 1920s.
DS: So, Buddhism seems more like philosophy, which can grow, adumbrate, be revised, etc., rather than a religion. I.e.- it is more compatible with the scientific method rather than the typical religions, with their all or nothing dogma?
CJ: Yes, exactly. I’ve read that when Christian missionaries first encountered Buddhism, they classified it as a philosophy, not a religion, because the texts they saw and teachings they heard made no mention of God. I believe they were right.
DS: Buddhism is
often used as the basis of New Age thought, yet that is loaded with charlatans.
To name a few: Tony Robbins, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Moyers, Joseph Campbell, Deepak
Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Wayne Dyer. When I see these people preen on
television about empowerment and the like I simply laugh, if not vomit. I
recently read that former tv sitcom star Kirk Cameron is going to debate, in
May, on ABC’s Nightline show, with atheists, over the existence of God.
There is a hilarious video
of him citing a banana as proof of God. Yet, atheists are no better, and just as
deceitful and dogmatic- I argued
with a couple of the nation’s top atheists, claiming they were really
agnostics, and finally got them to concede that denying the existence of a deity
is illogical. Why is there such anti-intellectualism in this country? There
seems to be, not only in religion, a desire to damn any real cogitation on
issues. Is this the ignorant hand of Postmodernism come to cover all subjects?
CJ: The simple answer is that Americans have been anti-intellectual since the 19th century, most likely in reaction against the culture of England. Bertrand Russell once observed that most people would rather die than think---and, in fact, many do.
DS: Even if one
is a ‘true’ Buddhist, cannot one be ill served by it, as in any religion? Some
years ago, my wife and I were in the resort town of Stillwater, Minnesota,
and there was some Buddhist monk convention there. It was odd, in this
lily-white town, to see a bunch of barefoot bald Oriental men in flaming red and
pink robes, walking around. But, as my wife and a friend of hers, who was with
us, went off, I sat on a bench in a store, where three monks came in. The
youngest was the only one who spoke English, and in the course of our
conversation, it became apparent that monkdom was merely a family business
he’d given no serious thought to. When we parted I think I left him in an
existential quandary; one I’ve often wondered the result of. Is this not a
pitfall all religions, even Buddhism, entail? After all, every religion is based
upon deeper human ethics, those that are secular. No?
CJ: I’ve not heard of anyone ill-served by the Buddhadharma. Most Buddhists around the world are lay Buddhists, like lay Christians, and relate to rituals, which the monks dutifully perform, because that is what the laity best understands. Lay people are seldom scholars of Buddhism or Christianity. They don’t meditate regularly or study the theory and practice and history of their religion. But, as a wonderful Thai abbot said to me in 1997 at his meditation center in Chiang Mai, one studies Buddhist theory and practice to eventually move beyond it. All the texts and teachers, he said, are just tools to help us reach awakening. One day we “let go” these things, just as one does not haul around on shore a boat after it has taken one across the waters. If Buddhism is about anything, it is about radical freedom and taking complete responsibility for one’s life, one’s own happiness and suffering. No---no true Buddhist has been ill-served by the Dharma. And, for a Buddhist, there is no reason to fall into the dualism of dividing things into the little, restrictive boxes of “sacred” and “secular.”
DS: I recently
had a job as a telephone salesman, trying to sell alumni books to members of
fraternal organizations and alumni of schools, and this led me to speak to many
religious folk- especially in the clergy, and missionaries. And despite my own
anti-religious and agnostic stances, I have to admit that the really religious-
despite whatever blinders they wear, were FAR happier and focused in their lives
than the anomic suburbanites or career-oriented MBAs. What power does Buddhism
hold in your own life, and why do you think that is? Could not your own
tailor-made religion or philosophy work as well? Is not Buddhism, like all
religions, thus dogmatic, rather than pragmatic? And, in reading the first half
of Turning The Wheel, it seems to me the basis of Buddhism is to end
suffering and its causes. Yet, does not one learn from suffering? Only in error
is wisdom gained. To end all suffering- pointless or not, would mean stagnation-
CJ: One learns from suffering, of course. Some people like to suffer (That does increase their own illusory sense of their “self,” their petty ego because it is “my” suffering, “my” hurt. They finger their wounds like a sick man does his sores and revel in what they see as their “victimization,” as the character George Hawkins tragically does in my novel Oxherding Tale). But Buddhists decide at some point in their lives that they have wearied of self-created suffering. As my friend, writer Candace Robb, puts it, “Pain is something that naturally comes in life, but suffering is voluntary or optional.” This is a very succinct formulation, and I’ve quoted her often. There is nothing dogmatic in the Dharma. Nothing at all. It is a philosophy, and the meaning of philosophy is “the love of wisdom.” We find the Dharma in many places, East and West, in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, in a quote by Ben Franklin on what kind of friends one should have, in some of the Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart---wisdom is just wisdom. And, as a phenomenologist and Buddhist, I seek wisdom from my peers and predecessors wherever I can find it, in the past or present, in the East or West, among whites or blacks or Asians. There is even no need to label ourselves as “Buddhists,” and many people do not. We simply say that we are students of the Dharma (which means, variously, wisdom, duty, law). And Buddhism, a process philosophy of constant, never-ending change can never be described as stagnant. It is the very opposite of that.
DS: Re: your
friend’s quote, I’ve got a saying that is a perfect corollary: ‘All
offense taken is a choice.’ Today- be it in sex, politics, religion, or
science, people try to claim an upper hand, ethically or dialectically, by
claiming offense, but it’s just dishonesty- as well as puerile. In that vein,
does not personal maturity, regardless of philosophy, play a part in
suffering’s ease? Yes, not to an African in the Middle Passage, a Gypsy on a
train to Dachau, or a dissident freezing to death in a Gulag, but to someone who
may have been sexually abused as a child, or had a parent murdered? I mean,
these things/traumas can and perhaps should haunt someone for a few years, but
if you were raped or incested at 8 or 9, to use that as an excuse for abusing
others or hating the world, at 50, is just wrong and self-defeating. Why do you
think this society encourages victimization and immaturity in so many areas? Is
personal responsibility a thing of the past? And by ‘personal
responsibility,’ I truly mean it, not in the Right Wing codeword way that
damns people on welfare and exculpates the rich and powerful. I mean, why
doesn’t a CEO of a corporation, say the late Ken Lay of Enron, take
responsibility for his crimes? Why doesn’t President Bush take responsibility
for the horrors he’s unleashed in Iraq?
CJ: People always take flight from personal responsibility. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre called this “Bad Faith.” Always and forever, humans flee the challenge of freedom, for freedom can be frightening. If we are free, if we shape our own lives, then we can blame no one for how our lives turn out. It is always easier to blame others. This is antithetical to the Buddhist approach.
DS: Or, the reverse happens- someone speaks his mind and then is immediately kowed into silence and apology. Take the Don Imus imbroglio. He’s a shock jock, not a great thinker. What he said was dumb and silly, but if I was one of the Rutgers female basketball players, I would have laughed at it and said, ‘Here’s a middle-aged, grumpy old fossil from the 1960s, who’s so out of touch with things he has no clue about rap, basketball, nor anything else. Why should I be offended if he volunteers to make an ass of himself?’ Was not the whole brouhaha an example of condescending PC paternalism, as if the team members were still children, and not adults?
CJ: Personally, I was deeply offended by Imus’ remarks about those young black women. I feel he had to go. He had quite a long history of insulting black people---Wrong Speech--- in public life. But when he attacked our children, he crossed the line. We cannot allow our children to be harmed or assaulted, verbally or physically, not if we consider ourselves to be adults, if we love them and care about their well-being. There’s an issue here that transcends PC. It is the tendency I’ve known in many white friends since my youth to try to pass off a racist remark as a “joke,” to slip it into a black person’s ribs like a knife, then gloss over it by saying, “Don’t you have a sense of humor?” or “Well, I insult everyone regardless of race,” as if that makes a racist statement acceptable. Such statements, in my view, are never acceptable, because they cause harm, psychological damage. They hurt people. Such statements can never pass as “entertainment.” They are a sign both of emotional and spiritual immaturity and a covert streak of ill will and destructiveness aimed at the racial Other.
DS: Of course,
that was all eclipsed by the Virginia Tech shootings. Yet, again, a total lack
of any intellectual interest. Why did the kid go nuts? His ramblings on paper
held up as evidence of his predestination toward murder. Yet, every male under
25, who has an itch to write, writes such furious things- dickwaving,
triumphalist crap were he slays all the evil-doers who’ve oppressed him, and
fucks the cheerleading squad. Were all men who wrote out such thoughts, or had
enemies lists, to act on them, only the survivalists in Montana would be left in
America. And I won’t even get into Nikki
Giovanni. Still, there is no real probing nor thought. What has happened to
real discussion? Old tv show hosts like Phil Donahue, David Susskind, Tom
Snyder, even Bill Buckley- love him or hate him. Only Charlie Rose is left on
PBS, but near midnight.
Have you seen changes on your campus since the Cho shootings? Have you ever had such threatening incidents, or literary stalkers?
CJ: You’re right, of course, many questions of real importance were not raised in the aftermath of that event. Here at UW, efforts are underway to help students and faculty better understand how to deal with a situation like the one that took place at Virginia Tech.
DS: Back to Buddhism. Is there a middle ground between the Oriental concept of Being vs. the Occidental goal of Becoming?
CJ: No middle ground is necessary. The Buddhist doctrine of “dependent origination,” which is a description of how nothing comes into existence on its own, but arises instead moment by moment, from a wide concatenation of causes and conditions, makes Buddhism a philosophy of Heraclitean Becoming, not Parmenidian Being.
DS: Speaking of
being, in the essay A Poet Of Being, you wax on of Jean Toomer and Cane.
You also mentioned Cane earlier. I agree Cane
is a great book, but why do you recommend it?
CJ: Because in Toomer’s Essentials he is wise, probing, a writer in the tradition of the 19th century American Transcendentalists, a tradition in which my literary scholars correctly place my own work.
DS: Earlier, I
mentioned the tendency of whites to assume any black person having expertise on
race (similar to ‘all brothers bein’ down w’each other’), and you speak
of this as sort of a black self-segregation of intellectual pursuit in The
Role Of The Black Intellectual In The Twenty-First Century. Expound on your
CJ: During the age of slavery, then the era of Jim Crow segregation, when whites separated themselves from blacks, they needed a black individual to tell them what black people thought, desired, needed, etc. (How else were they going to find out?) Often that person was the black community’s minister; later writers served that purpose, from Richard Wright to Ralph Ellison to James Baldwin. I personally think in the post-Civil Rights period a black person is wasting his (or her) time, the preciously few years of their lives, by devoting their energy---as a “spokesman”--- to explaining so-called “black” things to white people. Whites can---and should---do their own homework. Read from the vast library of books on black American history and culture. Take a course, for God’s sake, on some aspect of black history. Then black individuals can be free to pursue the whole, vast universe that awaits their discovery (as it does for any white person), leaving behind emotionally draining racial discussions to investigate astrophysics, DNA sequencing, cosmology, Sanskrit, the Buddhadharma, mathematics, nano-technology, everything in this universe that remains such a mystery to us.
interesting that you mention this racial post-spokesman era, because one of the
scheduled upcoming interviewees for DSI is astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, who
is most well known as a spokesman for science- period, not as an interpreter of
science for blacks. He’s sort of this century’s Carl Sagan, and succeeded
Stephen Jay Gould as essayist for Natural History magazine. So, I think
the tide is turning in that respect. Incidentally, are there any science writers
you read regularly? The two aforementioned were excellent wordsmiths, and I
would urge you, or any reader, to get ahold of anything written by the
Eiseley. His prose is simply supernal, much better than his solid
CJ: I’ll go to the bookstore tomorrow and get what they have by Eiseley.
DS: You also
mention that the term intellectual has a checkered past. Manifestly, in
the 1960s it became tainted with Marxist ideology, yet even today I associate it
with out of touch, Ivy towered pedants.
Another term that annoys me is genius. Yes, it has come to mean an
individual of Einsteinian or Mozartian gifts, yet to me, I prefer using it in
the non-human noun sense- i.e.- ‘he has a genius for rhetoric,’ or the like.
Too often it’s slapped on meaninglessly, as in Michael Jordan was a genius
with a basketball. Sorry, raw athletic skill is not genius, no more so than
someone who can dead lift half a ton has a genius for strength. Again, as in
political terms, there seems to be a bastardization of the language- from
emailese to hip hop to legalese to corporate speak. Is this inevitable, and what
is its cause? And is there a solution?
CJ: Well, people use terms imprecisely. Also, Michael Jordan’s skill is probably not best described as “raw.” He trained, refining a natural ability to the very highest level of performance, through discipline and self-sacrifice in his chosen athletic event, playing on a game-winning level even when he was sick---as a naturally gifted martial artist must train daily, pushing the body’s performance to new heights. Shall we call this “genius”? We can quibble over words, but Jordan stands (literally) head and shoulders above others in his field.
DS: We also
mentioned art as empowerment, yet if one has self-confidence, and is not falsely
modest, you catch hell, too. Some years back, a local
weekly paper did a piece on me, and aside from the expected distortions and
lies, people hated that I said a) I was a great poet, and b) that I wrote more
great poems than Walt Whitman- true, but distorted by the paper as me saying
‘I’m better than Whitman.’ Obviously, I could not write the best of Leaves
Of Grass better than he could, but I have more formal range, more great
poems, and a far more ranging subject mater. I trump him, and other poets on
quality, quantity, and diversity. Should I be falsely modest? I see that as
dishonesty. In your case, should you have not implied (but, let’s face it, you
are stating) that Oxherding Tale is a better book than The Color
Purple? It is, clearly, and your novels are far superior than her canon.
They are superior to Toni Morrison’s- Nobel Prize or not, and will be read
long after her books are a footnote. To get away from the racial connection-
they are superior to the oeuvres of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner- that
Trinity of Modernist Dead White Maledom, as well. Of living writers, I would
only state that William Kennedy is in your league, but your works and styles are
so different it’s like arguing the superiority of Wilt Chamberlain over Jordan
in basketball. If you lack confidence, by God, let’s pump’em with
self-esteem, but if you put the salami on the table and say, ‘Is yours
longer?’ they rail, as well. Is this more evidence of American attitudes
toward things as diverse as art, sex, politics, and religion being bizarrely
screwed up? Is this Puritanism’s ghost? I also recall getting an email from a
dissenter, to an essay I wrote on W.B.
Yeats, which claimed that ‘Yeats was far beyond us all,’ as if his shit
didn’t stink? Why is there this perverse need to demonize or hagiographize
mere human beings- even if they accomplish great things? To me, it’s still a
divorce from reality.
CJ: Let me say, in response, that Americans are very schizophrenic when it comes to the question of “greatness.” I think it’s important to remember that in this country we applaud the virtues of egalitarianism, the idea that all men are equal. We derive such ideas from the Declaration of Independence and the preamble to the Constitution. They define the “American experiment in democracy,” as I’ve called it. But as I explored in both Dreamer and a story about affirmative action called “Executive Decision” (in my third collection, Dr. King’s Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories), this experience of equality does not occur in nature. No two things in nature are the same. In A Theory of Justice, philosopher John Rawls points out that we are born with differing degrees of intelligence, talent, beauty, etc., and none of these things can we say have been earned. They are matters of fortune, contingency, accident, or genetic inheritance. If we are “equal,” it is only before the law and in the eyes of God. Otherwise, equality is just an abstract term in the sciences and mathematics.
But the fervent desire to believe in social equality runs up against the obvious fact that some people in many fields are more gifted than others. Some books are on a higher level of performance than others. Yet to admit this makes lots of people uncomfortable because in a society with an egalitarian ideology they do not wish to appear elitist. But art is an elitist activity. There is no PC way to get around that.
DS: I agree.
I’m all for elitism, on things earned by applied talent and/or hard work.
Elitism based upon things such as social status, financial worth, or personal
popularity, seem frivolous. After all, I want an elite doctor to treat me, not
merely a nice guy. In Progress In Literature you quote Hemingway, in
fact. He states, ‘What a writer in our time has to do is write what
hasn’t been written before or beat dead men at what they have done.’ Do
you agree and what is the source of the quote and thrust of the essay? In the
Introduction to a book on the films of Antonioni, Bergman, Fellini, Herzog, and
Ozu, I wrote this: ‘one will not find me trumpeting the new with
obsession. Too often critics try to bolster bad art with terms like its being a
‘new form,’ ‘innovative,’ ‘experimental,’ etc., when the art is
palpably none of the above, merely poorly wrought art that is claimed to be new
because the artist proclaims it so- this again falling under the fallacious
‘criticism of intent.’ In fact, almost nothing new comes ex nihilo, in art
nor life, but in the mash of the old and discarded, repackaged and embroidered
upon. Thus the PC and PostModern political desire for ‘newness’ in the arts
is one that can never be achieved, in their terms, since they palpably do not
understand the actual term and what it means. But ‘real’ newness can be an
integral part of a great work of art, as well as greatness stemming from
Classical values- something many critics sneer at.’ How does that gibe
with Hemingway’s posit?
CJ: I think the quote you cited gibes well with not only Hemingway’s statement, but also Eliot’s position in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” As Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn tirelessly says, we live in a world of “interbeing,” this being his neologism for “dependent origination” (pratitya samutpada in Sanskrit). Everything is connected to and depends on everything else for its existence, including “new” works of art, which stand on the shoulders of past works of art, creating---as many say---an epic dialogue between the great works.
In that same essay, I was delighted to see you mention Rod Serling in a serious
literary vein. He may only be known now as the host and creator of the 1950s sci
fi television series The Twilight Zone, but he wrote some of the great
1950s teleplays, as well as the first version of the film Planet Of The Apes.
He was sometimes too didactic, yet he had a great gift for words. In a similar
vein, in a DVD review of the Bergman film Scenes From A Marriage (Scener
Ur Ett Aktenskap), I wrote, ‘It is a writing tour de force, and
dwarfs everything Bergman did before, in power and scope, and is the equal or
superior to anything ever penned by dramatists like Ibsen, Shakespeare, or
O’Neill. One could make a great argument for Bergman, even as a mere
screenwriter, as the greatest published writer of the Twentieth Century.’
I believe there are 12-15 films/screenplays of his that are immortal. What
novelist can match that number? What playwright? Yet, people have emailed me,
astonished not only of the claim’s assertion, but that I would even think that
far ‘outside the box.’ Yet, to me, Bergman is a writer, as you or I. That he
directs films and plays, as well- and primarily perhaps, does not detract from
his writing. You seem very catholic in this regard re: Serling. Where does this
artistic ecumenism stem from, and what does Serling mean to you? Were you
entranced by the storytelling possibilities of The Twilight Zone?
CJ: You may be right about the “Planet of the Apes” script, but what I read is that Serling came onto that project to do a rewrite and, as an original contribution, did the final scene.
What I love about Serling, the prolific Ray Bradbury, the pulp writers of the ‘30s who pounded away at their typewriters for less than a penny a word until their fingers bled (an anecdote I read about the primary pulp writer for the “Shadow” stories), and my friends today who are pop writers, is that they are, first and foremost, storytellers. Bradbury didn’t even bother to call himself a “writer.” For all my emphasis on “literary art,” I was weaned on the work of pop (and pulp) storytellers, those heroes who could whip out a new story as quickly as medieval troubadours---journeymen all---traveling from one town to the next. (Just as I try to do every year for Seattle’s “Bedtime stories” event.) Here’s Johnson Rule About Writing: “All great art entertains, but all entertainment is not art.” No matter what we say about the greatest writers---Homer, Shakespeare, the Beowulf poet, Dickens---they knew, as John Gardner once said, everything about entertainment and the powerful depiction of character and event. Some of our pop writers are better at this---plot---than our so-called literary writers, for whom plot is a word that makes them tremble. But plot is the writer’s equivalent to the philosopher’s argument (Gardner). All the technique and craft exercises I’ve given my students are for one purpose: namely to give them the means to deliver the baby undamaged when the fiction gods drop onto their laps a rousing, great, imaginative story. In my essay, “Storytelling and the Alpha Narrative,” published in the Winter, 2005 issue of The Southern Review, I point out that such a capacious and rich story may only happen once in a writer’s lifetime. He may produce for fifty years, a full shelf of books, and make a living as a writer, but only stumble on such a pure story once. (Or never.) If he (or she) does, that writer is blessed. If it happens twice, that writer is a major figure in his (or her) time. If it happens three or more times (my goodness!), then most likely we’re taking about a literary creator who has earned his place in history. The vast majority of writers never find such a story, no matter how long they write. They are “writers,”sure, and oftentimes very hard-working ones, taking care of their families, paying the bills from their work, but they are not storytellers. Those are the folks---storytellers---that I admire most. Literary sophistication, a vast knowledge of literary theory and practice, all that is only in the service of telling a whopping good story.
DS: I think that
Johnson Rule is also a Schneider Rule; but age before beauty, so I’ll concede
you the quote. In The Beginner’s Mind,
you open the essay admitting you do not know what a writer should be. Is that
mere rhetoric? Should not a writer, like any other profession, strive to write
as well as he can? Period. You end that essay with the late playwright August
Wilson’s Rules For Writing. What are they? Expound if you will.
CJ: No, it’s not rhetoric. As a writer, I like to keep my ideas about my creative possibilities open. There’s no need to completely put myself and my work in a box. As for August’s four rules, the last two are the ones I value most----an original artist needs to forget about his audience (which he can’t predict anyway, unless he’s doing formula fiction, romance novels or detective fiction or screenplays as a writer-for-hire) since from one original work to the next he may appeal to different audiences. The audience for Middle Passage may not be the same as for Turning the Wheel, which again may not be the same as for the book I co-authored with civil rights photographer Bob Adelman, King: The Photo-biography of Martin Luther King Jr. And, as August suggests, the artist must protect himself (or herself) in the social world, nurturing his own talent, because no one else is going to do this for us. Those who are not artists will not understand what it is we do. (How can they?) If art is about doing “what hasn’t been written before,” as Hemingway says, then no one---no friend, parent, spouse, and certainly no Hollywood studio or book publisher, and perhaps not even many other artists----can completely understand what one is trying to do, because if it is new, then there is nothing (or almost nothing) to compare it to. So the artist must be the shepherd of his own talent and vision until others catch up to what he is doing, which may take decades.
In your essay, A
Boot Camp For Creative Writing, published in The Chronicle
Review you cite your mentor John
Gardner quite a bit, as you have here. What was your relationship, and I’ve
not read that much of him, but the short stories I’ve read, while better than
most published today, were merely solid. They did not move me or wow me the way
the best short story writers do- be it current writers like an Edward P. Jones,
or the best of forgotten greats like Irwin Shaw. Is this an example of a Master
(yourself) being humble in light of his mentor? Often I find great artists
citing mediocrities as Masters, which leads me to believe, as stated, that most
artists make poor critics, for they do not understand even the craft they’ve
mastered. I end a sonnet of mine with the line, ‘Greater
than transcendence is its recognition.’
I.e.- to know why something is great or succeeds is better than succeeding, for
it allows replicability. It’s sort of like the Christian ideal of teaching a
man to fish being better than giving him a fish.
I’ve written extensively about John Gardner and our relationship. A few essays
are “John Gardner as Mentor,” “A Phenomenology of On Moral Fiction,” the lengthy introduction for Gardner’s
collection of essays On Writers and
Writing, and most recently a new, long introduction for the re-issue of his
first bestseller in 1973, The Sunlight
Gardner, as I’ve said often, was the hardest-working writer I’ve ever known in my life. “Writing is the only religion I have,” he once said, and this was true. He was prolific, innovative, learned (a scholar of medieval literature ), radically independent, a translator who said he knew twelve languages, a poet, librettist, novelist, short story writer, a composer of scripts for radio and films, a critic and literary scholar, player of the French horn: a true cornucopia of creativity. He could write for 72-hour stretches without sleep. But, no, he was not a gifted storyteller, as he would have admitted. His most enduring novel is Grendel, which is, of course, derived from the story we receive from the Beowulf poet. But he was an American philosophical writer, like Saul Bellow. I praise him often, because---once again---as a child of the AME church, I was raised to “honor thy mother and father,” and this is advice I’ve always extended to my best teachers and “literary” mothers and fathers. Despite their faults, I focus on the valuable things they gave me, the things they selflessly offered that helped me find my own way as an artist. It is my hope that such praise fits with Buddhist “Right Speech.”
You also urge young writers to get outside themselves- to write a character of a
different race, sex, age, etc. I know, I do that in my fiction. I have
unpublished novels where the leads are a black boy of ten to twelve, an
anti-Semitic Jewish dwarf film mogul, a hedonistic white male CEO, and a
Hispanic pedophile. I’ve had many lead female characters in short stories and
poems, as well as other ethnic groups- and even homosexuals. My wife has a
manuscript (one of several) where the lead character is a black male from the
1930s, yet, like my stuff, this dumbed down culture, and the system of
deliterate agents, editors, and publishers, won’t even look at such things, or
if they do, they sneer that it’s not saleable if you write outside your
experience. Hello? Imagination! It seems incredible to even have to talk
about such a thing, yet, most people do write of their own race and culture and
religion. Even you. While there are some white and female characters in your
fiction, have you ever thought of writing of Eskimos or Aborigines or Tibetans
CJ: Seventeen years ago, I read a tribute to the late Ralph Ellison after Middle Passage won in the fiction category. During a joint interview we did with reporters, Ellison said, “You don’t write out of your skin, for God’s sake. You write out of your imagination.” I believe you (and he) are quite right on this matter. In my own work, I’ve published stories where the race of the main characters is never stated (“Kwoon”), and yet others where the protagonist is Japanese (“Kamadhatu: A Modern Sutra”), a white male (“Executive Decision,” many of the stories in Soulcatcher), and a white woman (“Martha’s Dilemma,” where the narrator/protagonist is Martha Washington). I’ve not done Eskimos or Aborigines because I’ve not studied their cultures.
In a recent Seattle Post-Intelligencer article you use the term post-literate.
Define that, and is that akin to my aforementioned neologism, deliterate?
CJ: Our culture is not just post-literate. We live in a period of late decadence. If we had to compare ourselves, as writers, to anyone in the past, the best choice would be Petronius, author of the Satyricon, written at the end of the Roman Empire. One feature of our post-literacy is, as your term deliterate indicates, an unwillingness people have to exposing themselves to works in the great legacy of literature that we inherit from our predecessors. One of my writing colleagues pointed out recently that students in his classes struggle with the very idea of metaphor, and fail at metaphorical thinking, which has been the basis for many great works of fiction. Another sign of post-literacy is the boredom the young feel with narrative, its slow accumulation of detail, and its demand upon a reader to pay attention, to wait, to selflessly immerse themselves in fictional, unfolding lives other than their own. I’ve talked with many young people who have told me they want to write but they do not like to read. These, to my eyes, are signs of post-literacy and late decadence in American culture.
Interestingly, another writer I hope to interview for DSI is evolutionary
biologist Richard Dawkins, who coined the term ‘meme.’ Yet, what I find
ironic is that, if you read his definition and usage of the word, it is clearly
a metaphor. Yet, in virtually every published non-Dawkins mention of the term
that I’ve ever read, its metaphoric sense is lost, and the meme is treated as
a material thing. The meme’s meme, in other words, has been dumbed down to a
memetic dead end. This is surely not a good augury. Any thoughts?
CJ: Only that I agree with you.
In that same article you wrote, ‘Where, as Joyce Carol Oates observed
two decades ago, “We have a lot of fiction but very little literature”.’
Yet, I note the irony in citing her, for, from what I’ve read of her- and I
admit it’s only a fraction of the seventeen books a month she publishes, she
herself falls squarely into the fiction camp. She’s not in a league with you
or a Kennedy, nor even the recently deceased Kurt Vonnegut- perhaps last
century’s greatest humorist and Mark Twain equivalent. I would not even put
her in a league with a good, but flawed, writer like Toni Morrison. Yet, again
we get damnation of the current literary mess with no solution, nor even a
naming of those who perpetrate ‘crimes against literature,’ if you allow a
little hyperbolizing. Are writers and critics like Oates- or even worse, the
dismal duo of Harold Bloom and Helen
Vendler, the real problem, or merely symptoms of this post-literate society?
After all, neither Bloom nor Vendler can see the manifest flaws in much of
Shakespeare’s poetry nor plays. Like the Yeats fan I mentioned, he is seen as
a God. Yet, this is more uncritical thought, for unless one admits that two
thirds of his plays were melodramatic soap operas and most of his sonnets
tongue-twisting bits of nonsense, then one’s plaudits for his truly great
works means nothing.
CJ: I’ve met Joyce Carol Oates several times, and I think highly of her, and her honesty. She amazes me. She’s much like a 19th century writer in her productivity, or one of the pulp writers I admire from the ‘30s. But, like you, I’m simply never able to keep up with all the books she publishes.
Back to Morrison: I view her and Frank
McCourt as prime examples of even good writers who were ill served by their
editors. Morrison’s novels (I’ve read Beloved and Jazz- Jazz
being better, and some short fiction and essays) tend to peter out and bog down
in her stylistic experiments. In Beloved, as example, the most compelling
character was the guy from the Andersonville POW camp, yet a good writer knows
when they mine gold, and despite her intent, that was the character to pursue if
that work were to be truly great. You can always start again with a great
premise, but that sort of lightning has to be captured, and she let it get away.
This suggests that she does not recognize that the recognition of transcendence
is greater than transcendence. And in his three memoirs, but most especially the
first and most famous, Angela’s Ashes, a good editor would have
recognized the manifest structural problems in that book. The first two thirds
of the book are repetitive and document McCourt’s privations through the age
of six or so while the last third whizzes through a dozen or so years, and
potentially great scenes- such as his loss of virginity to a TB sufferer are
shortshrifted. As he was not- in Morrison’s case, a big name yet, why did an
editor not see such manifest flaws? One can argue that an established writer
like Morrison can give the finger to a publisher, but a first time writer of a
manifestly flawed work? Then again, perhaps both flawed books were ok’d by
deliterate editors. Any thought on either of these writers, their works, or any
horror stories with editors you’d like to share?
CJ: John Gardner once said to me when I was a young, soon-to-be-published writer that famous authors seldom are edited. So, he felt, it was necessary for a writer to make his manuscript as perfect as possible before turning it in. I feel his view on this matter reflects the wisdom that comes from experience.
DS: I actually
met you in the mid-1990s, when you were touring. I believe it was pre-Dreamer.
You even signed my copy of Middle Passage. What of the act of
autographing? Is that a mere substitute for real human contact? I’m thinking
of pro athletes who charge for a signature; this whole Antiques Roadshow
approach to the act? I’ve resolved to never autograph, when I get my work
published. I will ask, in lieu of that exchange, ask me one truly intelligent
question- beyond the who’s my favorite writer or why did you start writing
CJ: What do I think of autographing books? I see it as a service for the reader, a very old service that readers expect, so I do it. And I always try, if time permits, to chat a little with a reader, to get to know something about them, so I can personalize the inscription I write on the book’s title page.
DS: At that same
event, you were being interviewed by writer Alexs Pate. He had a couple of
novels published, then did the novelization of the Spielberg film Amistad,
and has now basically slipped back into obscurity. Another writer of my
generation is Sherman Alexie.
Yet, he’s another of these PC writers whose work is very hit and miss, and is
in need of a good editor, as well as a personal vision. His latest book is about
a very Cho-like spree killer, from what I hear. This seems to be a sign of
spinning one’s wheels. Why do so many writers- even those with some promise,
like Pate and Alexie, simply either lose the impetus, or squander their talents?
Granted, most artists peak between 35 and 50- certainly most poets, but could
early publication, when their tyro work is granted wide approval, stymie them
from growing. Do they get fat and sassy?
CJ: No, I don’t think they get fat and sassy. I think they probably just run out of things they want to say. Personally, I don’t think anyone should write just for the sake of writing something. One needs something original to say. Furthermore, I think it’s a very good idea---and I tell my graduate students this all the time---to look at literature, the literature of one’s country, determine what is missing from it and what is there, what one’s predecessors have achieved and not done, and then determine what they, as individual artists, can add to enrich this body of work that precedes them. For me, as I mentioned earlier, it is the enrichment of American philosophical fiction in general, and black American philosophical fiction in particular. This is why I “showed up” in 1974 as a writer, and that is still my mission statement today. Do Alexs and Sherman have mission statements as artists? I don’t know. Maybe they do. But they might just be stumbling---as the vast majority of fiction-writers do---from one book to the next with no vision (or program) for what they’re creating as an oeuvre, a coherent body of work. It’s not for me to say….
I agree with not writing unless there is something to say. As example, after
twenty-plus years of poetry, I have not written it the last two years. I was not
challenged, and felt more of a challenge in telling a story. That’s not to say
that, were something to hit me, I could not write a great sonnet, or even go
back into poesizing with a fury. But, why waste time if not really moved? And
this is a key point: the vast bulk of writing, art, or human endeavor, seems to
always be motivated by things other than a true love of the thing. While I
intellectually understand some of those motives- fame, money, approbation, sex,
etc.; on an emotional level, it’s wholly alien to me. Are you in a similar
quandary re: grasping such things in others?
CJ: Absolutely, yes. One of my friends, Michael Anderson, who was for a long time a New York Times Book Review editor, puts it this way: what many people want is “to have written.” The love for creating isn’t there. Only the desire for what creating something good, true and beautiful might bring them. I think this is very sad, indeed.
DS: What of
these endlessly exotic and PC writers. I’ve read Nell
Freudenberger’s stories, and she is wholly generic. I’ve read Zadie
Smith’s first novel, and she cannot write well, period. And Jhumpa
Lahiri thinks good fiction comes from mere description of spices. Yet all of
their books are marketed with photos displaying their claimed sexual
attractiveness, as if my wanting to fuck any of them makes them real writers. Is
this more of the post-literate society?
CJ: I think those silly glamour photos are just the influence of Hollywood marketing on book publishing. Better, I say, not to even include a photo on a book. Let the midwife retire into his (or her) life after the baby is delivered. By the way, I published a cartoon about just this situation, of writers looking nothing like their glamour author’s photos, in a New York publication called Literal Latte. It’s reprinted with about 27 other cartoons in Humor Me: An Anthology of Humor By Writers of Color, edited by John McNally (University of Iowa Press, 2002). Sherman Alexie also has a piece in that book.
DS: About description; it seems that most fiction today, even if coherent and cliché free, devolves down to endless description- as if knowing the size of a character’s nose, or the color of their divan is important. Only essentials seem to be needed, unless the lead character is, perhaps, OCD. I once wrote a story of a middle-aged American Indian reservation cop in love with a seventeen year old girl on the Res. The story is that her horse is stuck in a mud hole, and sinking to its death. The tale reveals his psyche and their relationship. Yet, when it was sent for submission, even those who thought the tale was good, or merely ‘liked’ it, asked me to add in the color of the horse- as if its being a roan or chestnut would have made a difference to the relationship of the two protagonists. Simply put, if most readers and editors are that stolid, is all hope lost?
CJ: As some writer pointed out, whenever one stops the forward movement of a story to paint (or describe) a pretty picture, the story stops. Description, like all other aspects of fiction, must be in the service of storytelling. So a writer needs to develop a knack for pacing, knowing how to provide just enough detail to help the reader’s imagination, and he shouldn’t test the reader’s patience with passages only the writer probably likes. One must cut mercilessly. One must “kill one’s babies,” the passages you love if they interfere with the story’s organic story flow.
Perhaps it’s the poet in me, but I always save a good line, image, or
metaphor, for use in another work, if I have to cut it from one work. Do you?
And is there an example of such that you can give?
CJ: Oh, I’ve kept
writer’s workbooks since around 1972. They fill up a whole shelf in my study.
Almost every day I’m recording a thought or image on the pages of my current
workbook for future use. The workbooks, as I see them, are a memory aide. When I
revise a story or novel, I go through all those workbooks to see if there is an
image or idea that I might have had, say, thirty years ago that is useful for an
in-progress fiction or essay. It takes me about eight hours (at least) to tramp
through all those workbooks when I’m in the final stages of revision. I do the
same with old drafts of novels. For one of the six novels I wrote between 1970
and 1972, I did research to describe a character using heroin. When writing Dreamer,
I dug up those old pages and used the details for my character Chaym Smith, the
fictitious double for Martin Luther King Jr. The literary journal Zyzzyva
publishes a featured called “The Writer’s Notebook.” If you’d like to
see a marked-up page manuscript page from Middle
Passage, outlines and notes for the novel I wrote between 1983 and 1989,
even a note on the eating habits of Captain Ebenzer Falcon written on stationary
from the Sheraton-Palace Hotel in San Francisco (I was in that hotel, eating a
meal from room service after giving a reading and it suddenly struck me how to
individuate Falcon by the way he eats), those pages are reprinted in the Fall,
1992 issue of Zyzzyva.
DS: In a related
vein, I’ve read that you research your historic novels to a great degree, thus
the years between them, and you’ve acknowledged such here. Do you simply write
slowly? Is historical reality that important in a work of fiction? Edward
Jones’ novel, The
Known World, plays fast and loose with history. Granted, despite its
Pulitzer, it’s a mediocre book, at best, so that may bolster your case. But,
should not the characterization and drama be the main goal? I read a critic once
dismiss Middle Passage- a book that’s a more concise yet deeper Dickens
novel, because of some trivial anachronism, and another because its lead
character, Rutherford Calhoun, was too literate and smart to be a convincing
black character, circa the 1830s. Like the editors who needed to know the color
of the horse in my story, I find such criticisms incredible, and saying far more
of the critics’ lack. In the first instance; I believe something about a
sidearm Calhoun bears not being made till a decade after the events of the book-
so what? In the second instance the critic missed the fact that the whole
novel is, if I recall, told from a future perspective, likely postmortem,
therefore the narrator (Calhoun) is omniscient and would have knowledge of
things past his lifetime, as well as with a depth not displayed in life. But,
putting aside the missing of the structure of the novel, there’s the very
racist assumption that there were no educated blacks in the 1830s. Incredible.
CJ: No, I don’t write slowly. I’ve almost never had to spend more than four or five days, for example, on a short story. But with each novel, my process is to achieve layers and layers of meaning. I’ve often described this process---my process---as being like archaeology. I’ve never believed in that nonsense that “first thought is best thought.” Rather (for me) best thought may be 20th thought, or 50th thought, or even 500th thought. (Remember: my training and background are in philosophy.) For a historical novel, research---having a sense of authority about one’s subject--- is crucial if one wants to gain the reader’s trust. But even in stories not anchored in a previous historical moment, I write each novel as if it will be the very last thing I ever do, my literary “last will and testament,” as if I’ve never written a novel before, and will never do one again. The phenomenological “world” of each novel must be unique to its set of characters, so that, one cannot lift a sentence from Middle Passage (where the narrator’s speech is infused with the language of the sea) and drop it into Oxherding Tale (where the narrator speaks with the diction and sensibility of a Tom Jones in the English 18th century novel) or into Dreamer (where 2,000 years of Christianity inform the diction and metaphors of the narrator). With each new novel, I try to utterly forget my previous ones. I use each novel as the vehicle at that moment in my life for a fresh “making sense,” a fresh interpretation, of all aspects of my experience. When it’s done, I want to have the feeling that if I’m hit by a car and killed right after the manuscript is dropped in the mail to my agent, that’s OK, because this book is my best thought, best feeling, best technique during this phase of my life, a book my kids can look at after I’m gone and say, “Now, this is the sense that Daddy made of the world.”
For me, then, each novel must be a completely separate self-contained “world” that is coherent, consistent and complete (the terms we traditionally use to judge a work of philosophy). I would never write the same novel twice. Why do that? That would bore me to tears. So it must be specific and unique right down to the ontology of that world, the language used by its characters (Think of the language used by the characters in A Clockwork Orange), and the physics (or understanding of physics) of the Lebenswelt (“Life-world) the characters inhabit.
DS: Let’s wind this interview up with some quick takes: Has race been a help or hindrance in your career? Or a wash? What does that say, pro or con?
CJ: Naturally, I’ve thought a great deal about this. The way white and black writers (and white and black people in general) move through the world is not (and has never been) the same, and it is from that difference that my own work arises. See my Katz lecture for a much fuller explanation of how black Americans in a predominantly white, Eurocentric culture develop by necessity an expansive “aleph consciousness,” as Jews do in a culture of Gentiles, women in a patriarchal culture, or even Europeans raised in, say, the Far East, i.e., the ability to process meaning from several cultural reference points (I borrowed this term, aleph, from a story of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges).
DS: Why is being a good or great artist mixed up with being a good human being? After all, the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke was a bad husband and father, Pablo Picasso was a misogynist, Ezra Pound a Fascist, and on and on. I can see the two as different aspects of a person. Had Albert Speer been a great poet, for example, it would not detract from my appreciation of his work, and I’d certainly prefer to read one of his great poems than another bad PC poem on the Holocaust. Any thoughts?
CJ: That question is also asked about philosophers. The assumption is that if someone is great at something (poetry or philosophy), and wise, they will also be moral. We have many cases, as you point out, that disabuse us of this romantic notion. My friend, the critic John Whalen-Bridge, recently pointed out to me that the public just loves writers who are “shits,” drunks, drug-addicted, spouse-abusing, selfish, lying kinds of people. But they have to produce, that is, keep entertaining us if they want our forgiveness for the mess they make of their personal lives.
DS: Thanks for
this discourse, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like-
politics, art, philosophy, Buddhism, science, the Iraq War, and end with these
thoughts of my own. Feel free to comment on them before you close. I believe bad
art robs one of their time, pains the soul, and often demeans its audience, and
should be pilloried- fairly and wittily, so at least there is some joy (in
humor) that comes from the waste. I also believe that if people read more, and
read better writing, they’d be able to detect clichés and other hallmarks of
bad writing more easily. Clichés especially, since they are easily numerically
detectable. Lastly, courage is an often overused and inappropriate term tossed
at artists, so I shan’t damn you with it. Courage is running into a burning
orphanage, not speaking your mind. All people should, and the onus should be
placed on the prevaricators and dissemblers, not praise for those who are merely
not such dastards. Nevertheless, thank you for having for the balls to say what
few in your profession would not dare. As the Jews say, Charles Johnson: you’re
CJ: I guess we’ve covered about pretty much all I have to say (It’s taken me ten hours to respond to all your fine questions). Thank you for giving me this opportunity. All best and blessings to you in all ways and at all times.
[This interview originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]
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