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nobel prize

Photo Credit: Marco Muñoz

I have found that all work, including the so called professional and creative work of teaching at a university, boils down to certain false indicators which we must endure. In point of fact, the factory may be a little more accurate: you can’t fake a spec. Doing a plate within two tenths of a thousandth run out over eight feet of stainless steel edge cannot be faked. It’s a spec. It is not wholly accurate but it’s within a range of accuracy far more precise than any sort of academic measure. But even with the finest technology, there is no such thing as zero tolerance. There is ever closer proximity to zero run out, but no complete absence of deviation. All measurement is approximate. As my teacher, the great tool maker, Joe Pilot, told me, “It’s just as easy to say everything is wrong as it is to say nothing is perfect. Error is the only reality we know, and the one thing we are least likely to forgive or admit.”

When universities only brag about their award winning students, they show themselves to be the same sort of collective idiot who preferred the operas of Meyerbeer over Wagner, or Rosini over Mozart. The measure of greatness is awards. By this measure, Pearl Buck was a far greater writer than Eudora Welty, and equal to Faulkner because, hey, she won the Nobel prize. The measurement of greatness is: 1. Awards 2. The word of mouth of one’s peers. 3. Posterity and duration. If one wins big enough awards, one’s peers side whisper that one has have gone down the crapper (awards seem to raise envy and lower estimates of talent). If one wins no awards, one is consigned to career hell. If one is still known after death, so what? You’re dead. I don’t think Mozart enjoyed his fame after death. Wagner was lucky enough to be embraced in his later life, but for a good 20 years, he was in the shadow of Meyerbeer who was considered Europe’s top opera composer. Wagner spent most of his time running from his creditors (literally). In a writing world controlled by academics, only awards matter, because it is the pathology of measurement known since the first grade. After all, these are A student types. I would define an A student as fitting the standard idea of a good mold almost perfectly. Originality, true originality, is not what A students are about. A students uphold the standard. In short, when university people say they want great writers, they are lying. What they want are writers who fit the mean of the highest standard mold.

Greatness is a an error that becomes the new standard. As my teacher, Joe Pilot told me, “you can’t see anything new that comes down the pike because your eyes have no frame of reference for it. You can only see it when it first starts to get turned into a standard mold, when its newness has already begun to wear off. You can only see it when it resembles something you have already seen. A truly original piece has got to resemble something in the past, or people can’t see it. The Greeks accidently invented the steam engine in 400 BC, but had no frame of reference for it, made a couple toys powered by it, and then forgot it. We didn’t see a steam engine again for over a thousand years–when the age of mechanics and Newton made that kind of thing imaginable. All genius, all originality is an error, kid. The world does not progress by excellence or correctness. An error that has an advantage to it is how the world goes forward. An error with an advantage, a fortunate sin, is how we always get to the next base. We move by a series of errors. We call them truth, or perfection after the fact. We are full of shit. It’s like a guy who trips on a stair, but is smart in his error, and turns it into a new dance step.”
I made an argument against award pathology. I brought up students who were not award winners, but who were making a true living in the arts (or almost a living) ten years after they were my students. I brought up those who are doing excellent work, who may not be winning the big prizes. I said a university must not base its reputation on award winners alone. It ought to rest more importantly on building a population of students and alumni who have the ability to see what is not readily visible, and who can create a milieu in which true greatness is likely to transpire–the holy accident which confounds all professional expectation because it is, after all, outside the schema of awards.

Universities should serve the fortunate accident, the judicious error, the mutation. They should do this by teaching students how to achieve the standard without believing it is a true measure. They should instigate and agitate for the “perhaps.” Creativity is founded on the perhaps. Perhaps this pratfall is not a stumbling, but a new form of ballet. Let us see what we can do. It is impossible to explain this to functionaries. For them the proof is always in the pudding. They never think that the pudding was some sort of deviation from the norm that the cook turned into a favorite dish.

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