Interviewer: The Paris Review has one quintessential question, which it has asked everybody from William Faulkner to Ernest Hemingway. What is the implement that you write with?
T.C. Boyle: I use my toenails actually—collect them, hammer them down, mold them into shape …
William Styron didn’t write in notebooks. He tried notebooks, but they didn’t work for him. They do work for Paul Auster, though, so he writes in notebooks. He likes the ones with gridded lines, which he calls “quadrille lines — the little squares.” When Auster’s done with the notebooks he types everything up. He has a typewriter he bought in 1974.
What is that supposed to tell us? What does this reveal about Styron? What do we know or understand about Auster that we didn’t before?
The Paris Review has been interviewing writers since 1953, and for more than five decades they’ve been asking this question about implements, about the actual, tactile things writers use to write. The question is, why? What is it we actually want to get at with this “quintessential” question? What are we supposed to know when we know the answer?
Hemingway would sharpen all his pencils — seven No. 2s — before he started writing. This is what he said, anyway. He said this in the Paris Review interview in 1954, which is about half way between his Nobel Prize and his suicide, after he’d stopped publishing books, and in the interview, when he says it, it sounds like it could be a joke, or maybe a self-made myth, a little mystification.
I don’t even have any pencils in my house, much less seven, and the last time I can remember writing with a No. 2 was when I took the SATs and filled in those little bubbles. If I had them, though, I’d take them out now and sharpen them all and lay them out in a row. And then what? What would I know?
It’s possible, I realize, that I’m thinking about this wrong. It’s possible the question isn’t probing at anything deeper. Maybe we really are just earnestly interested in typewriters and notebooks, pens, paper and blank computer screens. Maybe it’s just interesting to know. It’s framed, though, as an important question. The question seems to me to be about more than it’s about. It’s like a fetish. We seem to think there’s a secret here, a revelation to be revealed, a mystical, magical something we want to learn.
I’ve been thinking about this question because I’ve been reading all the times it was asked in those old Paris Review interviews. They’re all online now, as of a few weeks ago, which means they can be more easily looked at as a group. I have often liked particular interviewers and found them interesting and useful. As a whole, though, as a corpus, there’s something disturbing there.
There’s something very canonistic about them. Something … institutional. By which I mean, literature is presented in a weird way; its mystified, presented as if authorized, and made into something sort of magisterial.
Maybe its the problem with the interview as an art form: the condition of the interview is that the subject be worth interviewing, be an institution, be recognized. The author, in the interview form, can only be approached respectfully. The author is given, granted, this assumed position of authority to speak with finality, an authority that’s something like God’s. The author-god gets the final word, gets to answer the question about meaning in final way. That’s the ground of the form, the assumption of it. If the author-god protests against that assumption not least because it diminishes the work itself, marks he work as insufficient to itself, as something that needs this supplemental pronouncement, if the author-god protests as Faulkner does in his interview, saying “The artist is of no importance,” and “If I had not existed, someone else would have written me,” the protest is feeble in the face of the force of the assumption. Even as he says it it’s undermined by the fact he says it as Author. Anything he says is said from this position of having the right to the last say, and of course even if the author refuses to answer, that only heightens the mystery and makes us surer, because we were refused, that the author has the secret, the ultimate answer.
It’s not an accident, I don’t think, that the Paris Review interviewed its first author in 1953, inaugurating its “alternative to criticism” in a series that developed and popularized a form of discourse giving authors ultimate authority to pronounce on (and foreclose) the meanings of their texts. This was the same year and the same place that Roland Barthes published his first book, Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, which looked at the arbitrariness and constructedness of language, beginning a career that developed and popularized the school of thought that pronounced authors dead. It’s literary equivalent of the parting of Abraham and Lot, when Abraham dwelt in Cannon and Lot went down to the cities on the plain. The interview form might well be thought of as the counter movement to the movement that killed the author, though the effort wasn’t one to keep the author alive as much as to enact a kind of deification. But, just as the death works to liberate the work, to open it up to criticism and to thinking, the enshrinment of the author acts to canonize literature, it lock it up in an orthodoxy.
This can be seen in the Great Books movement, which happened in America at the same time: The great works of Western literature were bound in black and peddled from door to door, 54 forbidding volumes of works you were supposed to read.
They were, with this mystification, authorized, and elevated, raised to an aspirational level where they would be safe from reading. Instead of literature as a loud conversation, this was literature as a cathedral. It was conceived of as a class marker, a taste marker, as something genteel the middle classes could work towards and aspire too.
Don’t misunderstand, this isn’t just an attack on the great books. Or even The Great Books capitalized as they so often are. I went to the college I went to so I could read the canon, and I have read and value having read Virgil and Dante and Milton, Chaucer, Cervantes, Whitman and Hawthorne and Melville. But reading, for me, only makes sense as a struggle. Reading is a fighting-with. It isn’t and cannot be an act of reverence, because to read I must engage, and engagement implies a kind of conflict, a struggle. More than one conservative old prof. told me I was doing it wrong, but for me the great books is a big street brawl.
I guess this is what bothers me about the quintessential question they ask at the Paris Review. Writing is mystified with this question. The objects are presented like they’re magic, and they become objects to fetishize.
Joseph Heller wrote stuff down on 3×5 cards he kept in his wallet, which he called a “billfold” in ’74. Gore Vidal writes fiction on yellow legal pads, but essays and plays on a typewriter. John Updike had a typewriter too and Jack Kerouac had two. Gay Talese wrote outlines in different colors of ink on the shirt boards he got when his clothes come back from the dry cleaners.
What if none of this information actually acts to reveal anything? What if what it does is conceal? I think the question could offer a chance to think seriously about the materiality of writing — Don DeLillo does this, a little, with his answer, as does Jonathan Letham — but most of the time the question and these answers act to do the opposite, to cover up the complications and contingencies, to mask writing and make it mystical. It could be a good question. It could be followed up with questions that open it up: What difference does it make that you write the way you write? How does how you write shape your writing? Do the tools you use naturalize the text for you, make it kind of invisible, or does it heighten your awareness of the text as text and make more apparent the texture of the words?
It could, I think, really open some questions about writing up to thinking, but it doesn’t. Instead we end up with pin-up pictures of typewriters.
It’s like seeing a math equation with all the work erased. This is the example Roland Barthes uses, talking about Einstein in popular culture and how a fetish developed about his brain. Culturally, Barthes says, we began to talk about his brain as a machine, but not to actually reveal the thought and explain how the thoughts were thought, but to veil it in the mystery of genius. He says,
“Popular imagery faithfully expresses this: photographs of Einstein show him standing next to a blackboard covered with mathematical signs of obvious complexity, but cartoons of Einstein (the sign that he has become legend) show him chalk still in hand, and having just writing on the empty blackboard, as if without preparation, the magic formula of the world.”
If they asked Einstein, at the Paris Review, “what do you write with? what is the implement you use?” he would have said chalk. He would have said, “I write on a blackboard.”
But the answer to the quintessential question wouldn’t tell us more about his writing, but less. It wouldn’t reveal, but conceal. It would enable us to make a fetish out of his chalk like we make a fetish out of his brain, and we could put his chalk next to Heller’s note cards and Hemingway’s pencils, but we wouldn’t have a better critical understanding of the formula of the world, or how it was different because it was written with chalk then it would have been if it was written in red ink, or in a margin, or on a note card on a rooftop at dawn.
I really think it could be a good question. It could do what Charles Bernstein said he wanted to do in L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Vol. 4, when he said he wanted to “establish the material, the stuff, of writing, in order, in turn, to base a discussion of writing on its medium rather than on preconceived literary ideas of subject matter or form,” a way to make the materiality of writing visible instead of repressing it and “making the language as transparent as possible.”
What we end up with, though, is a fetish. Another way to not think about writing. The quintessential question is quintessential as an “alternative to criticism,” which is also, I think, an alternative to thinking, and isn’t just an alternative, but actually a defense against it