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Interview – Jonathan Dee


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Jonathan Dee Interview July 12, 2012

William H. Coles

Jonathan Dee Interview

Palladio by Jonathan DeeJonathan Dee is a professor and novelist and teaches at Columbia University, the New School, and Queens College, in Charlotte, NC. He was associate editor of The Paris Review and personal assistant to George Plimpton. His most recent novel, “The Privileges”, won the 2011 Prix Fitzgerald prize and was a finalist for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His five novels are:

The Lover of History (1990)
The Liberty Campaign (1993)
St. Famous (1996)
Palladio (2002)
The Privileges (2010)

 

WHC

I’m here in Portland, Oregon at Reed College with Jonathan Dee, who’s just taught a course in fiction writing at Tin House.  I’d like to thank you very much, Jonathan, for agreeing to talk to www.storyinliteraryfiction.com.

JD

My pleasure.

WHC

I'd like to start with . . . what are the essences of story that you conceptualize as you write?

JD

Well, I begin with a premise that I can’t necessarily work too quickly.  One of my favorite stories is from the author William Maxwell who used to say that when he had an idea for a story in particular, but also for a novel, he would sit at his desk and put his feet up and think about it for the morning.  And if, if in the course of that morning, he could think of the ending, he wouldn’t write the story.  He would take that as a sign that the idea was not a fruitful one because there was nothing in it that wasn’t easily discovered. 

So, when I think about a story, I think about a credible psychological character arc over the long term and I think about the principles of drama, of conflict, and tension between opposites.  I wish that I could boast that I could see everything entirely when I began a book, but I never can.  It works itself out.

WHC

There was an interesting concept about form and content that came up from one of your students when he joined you leading a seminar the other day.  He made the point that there’s always a controversy about form and content, and he implied that there really was no difference between form and content.  Is that what you think too?  Or do you think in terms of form at that time when you’re sitting back with your feet on the desk, even though you may not think of an end, and do you think in terms of emotional arcs and beginnings, middles, and ends?  Would you ever create form from content??

JD

Well, I guess I’d say that as a writer, I wouldn’t say that form and content are indistinguishable, but I will say that I can’t go forward past a certain point until I feel like I’ve solved the story’s formal problem . . . until I’ve come up with a kind of idiosyncratic form that meets the needs of the story; and it’s not because I tend not to write very heavily plotted novels; I never have a sense of one size fits all or of having a template that any story will adapt to.  It’s really the other way around.  I need to find the shape of the story, and until I find that, which involves obviously a lot of trial and error, I tend to get up to the, you know, the 30- or 40- or 50-page mark and then just go back and start again and again and again until the answer presents itself.

WHC

How do you deal with timelines in stories?  Do you think of timelines at the beginning?  Or do they just sort of come to you as you go along?  And if that’s true, at what point do you usually begin to think in terms of story . . .  something that happens over a time period?

JD

Well, when you say timeline, do you mean the span of time that the story will cover or . . .

WHC

Well, yes, all of that in fact.  But if indeed a story is a number of sequential inter-related scenes  . . .

JD

Yes.       

WHC

 . . . do you think of those scenes in terms of the relationship to the timeline?  For scene length, scene interactions, scene positions in the story, and for dramatic effects . . . that sort of thing?

JD

I do, yes.  And particularly if you’re writing a novel that contains multiple perspectives or multiple points of view.  Then I think you really have to be keenly aware of the clock running at all times.  In my case of not going backwards any more than absolutely necessary, it’s a constant balancing act . . . and it definitely determines things like length of scene.  When you know that you have, along the same timeline, to switch to another perspective, so you don’t want to go past the point where you’re going to pick up that perspective.

WHC

You said something interesting the other day.  You said that people are no longer reading novels.  Why are people not reading novels?

JD

Oh, well, I don’t know if I said that.  I mean I sure hope people are reading novels.

WHC

I quoted you "exactly."  [Laughing]

JD

I think people are definitely reading fewer novels that are printed on paper, that’s for sure.  I know that the number of men reading novels, for whatever reason, is going down.

WHC

Most male college graduates don't read a novel after school. 

JD

Yes.  I’m reminded constantly by my publisher, that women buy most of the novels.  And I think that novels themselves are getting shorter and that’s probably–more than anything–in response to technology.  But if I said that, perhaps I was just getting carried away because I think that would be overstating the case to say people don’t read them anymore.

WHC

But do you think that there’s a gender influence on both the selection of novels that are published as well as the influence of gender on the type of the novel written; and just to carry the thought a little farther, is there maybe, in some ways, gender bias that is affecting the popularity or the enjoyment traditionally gleaned from novel reading?

JD

I’m sure it’s true.  I mean, I really only see the inner workings of the publishing industry in regard to my own books.  But my impression is that, of course, they respond, like any business, to the market.  And in this case, it’s a market that, you know, if it isn’t contracting, it’s not greatly expanding either.  I do know that they would never tell me what to do.  They would never advise me to create a novel along a certain line because it would be more commercial.  However, you can see the excitement level take an uptick when, for instance as in my forthcoming book the protagonist of that book is a woman in her 40s.  You can see their eyes light up over that. 

WHC

What’s the title of that book?

JD

It’s called A Thousand Pardons.

WHC

Thanks.  I look forward to that. 

From your days of reading for the Paris Review, and your multiple readings of contemporary literature, is the state of literary fiction changing?  I want to say degrading or degenerating, but that’s not quite fair.  Has literary fiction changed over the years?

The important part is to have something to rebel against when you define yourself as a writer.

JD

The artistic state of fiction you mean?

WHC

Yes, exactly.  And the purpose for writing.

JD

I think there are still just as many essential writers now as there used to be.  I think any literature is generational and writers are always acting in response to looking for [changes].  So I see changes in that sense.  I mean, I think right now, there’s a bit of a of a reaction to the basically big fat American novel, the idea of the ambitious socially panoramic novel as practiced by Johnathan Franzen, or earlier by Tom Wolfe, or more traditionally by Norman Mailer, people like that.  That's less in vogue than it used to be.

But all those trends, I mean at this point, I’ve lived and written long enough to know that, if they go away, they will come back again.  The important part is to have something to rebel against when you define yourself as a writer.

WHC

What do you see as the differences between, literary fiction, memoir, essay, creative nonfiction?

JD

You know, I tend to be more dogmatic about that than I think most writers . . . even of my generation.  I think that the line is pretty bright, and I like it when writers try to keep the line as bright as possible in terms of what is acceptable to fudge or correct, and what is not. 

WHC

You mean in terms of credibility and truth and veracity . . .

JD

Yes.  I’m incensed, for instance, when people try to defend something like, let’s say, a little piece of the James Frye book, and say, well, the response to the revelation that what was purported to be truth is in fact made up.  Truth, fiction.  What’s the difference?  There’s a kind of faux sophistication to that that I really find enraging.  My very valued and great former teacher, John Hersey, wrote a great essay, a beautiful essay, I think in the 1970s–I mean as long ago as that; it was called The Legend on the License.  And he was writing in that case mostly about Truman Capote.  [See Jonathan Dee's interview with John Hersey in the Paris Review.]

But it’s amazing how much he saw coming in that respect, and how much he was already trying to put a sort of conservative stop to notions that he could see taking hold that early, even though Cold Blood and books like that are, in most respects, wonderful books.

WHC

Do you, do you see a difference in the readers among those different disciplines, and the effects on those readers?

JD

I don’t if I can answer in terms of the effects on readers.  I’d be interested to know if the contemporary readership of novels skews more toward women, and I’d be interested to know if there’s a similar tilt in terms of nonfiction . . . and maybe there is.  My own experience with my own students is pretty uniform.  I don’t get the sense that men like memoir better or anything like that.

WHC

I've come to the belief that well-written fiction, in the classical sense, has an interesting potential for a certain reader, a reader who likes character-based plots, meaning, and enjoys thinking about posed metaphysical questions–as opposed to the reader who really enjoys the sort of voyeuristic sensibilities of memoir and creative nonfiction.  The rewards are different and techniques of developing those rewards are different.

JD

And the participation is different too.  I mean we’ve talked about this in this class, that when you’re in a novel, the sense that you’re trying to create in the reader is a sense of a sort of experimental self, a blended identity.  And this is particularly true with the main character in a novel happens to be not a wonderful person, or even just someone whose experience is very far removed from yours.  You want to make the reader share that self for a while.  Raymond Carver once said that good fiction is always a bringing of the news from one culture to another.  And in memoir, you don’t get that because in memoir you never lose the sense that what you’re reading about is not even hypothetical.  Your own experience is the experience of a genuine other. 

WHC

So if we look at that and the state of literary fiction, has there been a tendency, in your experience as a teacher, for fiction to be conceptualized by students more as memoir embellished in the sense you must reach deeper into yourself, bring yourself to the writing, bring your family, bring your experiences to the world, and then when it gets finally into the grist mill, it comes out creative nonfiction and loses the creativity and the inventiveness of creating a fictional story?  Do you see that trend at all?

JD

I would say it a little differently, and I think that it’s always been the default option or at least the common option for young novelists–young would-be novelists–to draw at first on their own experience because that’s all they have to draw on.  I mean, you know, the autobiographical first novel is not a recent invention, but I think one thing that is different nowadays is that more young writers in that position will consider just writing their first book as a memoir–to be the first option. 

The first time I can ever think of that being done was Frank Conroy’s book, Stop Time, which I think was in the late ‘60s.  You know, a beautiful book at the time, but we forget now.  At the time it was completely unprecedented for a young writer to make his first book length publication nonfiction in that way.  It used to be the presumption was you would turn it into a novel somehow.  Now, some people, some young writers I see, do that.  Others don’t consider it necessary. 

WHC

Is the concept of character-based fiction something that you teach specifically?

JD

As a writing teacher, I try very hard – and it is very hard because I believe in certain things passionately, to do things the way I do them for a reason.  However, I don’t think that you’re doing anyone a lot of favors as a teacher if you try to move them away from their own expression and get them to write more like you.  Unfortunately, I know a number of teachers who do that.  I do my best to try to be as completely empathetic as possible in the classroom, and even if someone is writing the sort of book that I personally would never write or perhaps never even read, I don’t feel it’s my job to pass judgment in that way.

I try to put myself in their head to the greatest degree possible.

WHC

You had an interesting comment in class about morality in fiction. In good fiction, is morality suspended?

JD

Yes, moral judgment.

WHC

Moral judgment.  Yet there is always some moral cobweb in good fiction . . .

JD

Absolutely.

WHC

. . . that is defined by the author in the sense that the characters work under this moral umbrella with defined moral thinking and actions–and that’s where the judgment comes in, but the judgment is on the reader’s side judging the characters.  I wanted to be sure that I had it right from your point of view. 

JD

Yes.  The point, for me, the primary morality, when I’m writing a novel, the primary objective is just to write a good novel.  And I think that novels that are too explicit about the judgment to which they want to lead you are just not interesting to read, even if you agree with the judgment.  You see what I mean? 

WHC

Sure.

JD

A moral, an author’s moral point or moral stance may be completely unimpeachable, but if the characters turn into essentially moral archetypes or figures in a parable so that you can see developments coming before they happen, then that to me is not a novel worth reading, no matter how correct it is.  So the idea is a moral judgment is not banished, or considered invalid or irrelevant, but it’s suspended.  It’s held aloft.  It’s delayed at least until the book is closed.  At that point, you can make up your mind about it.  But if you feel that your mind is definitely made up about the characters and about the proceedings in the middle of the book, then the rest of the book is really just like watching a sentence carried [out].  And a sentence carried out against fictional figures of your own invention seems to me like shooting fish in a barrel.

WHC

Right.   Thanks. 

We write novels and critique them in class; there seems to be two things that fight against each other.  One is plot progression, and one is character development.   Is there a difference in your mind between genre fiction–how it’s written, and how it’s received and how it’s enjoyed–being related to plot, and how literary fiction is perceived, enjoyed, and related to character development and character change?     And when you actually read words in a novel for the first time, do you actually sense if they are plot oriented or character oriented?

JD

Well, yes, I do, of course.  And I think a writer who’s very good on this subject is E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, where he talks specifically and a little surprisingly really, about  plot and character, not only as different force in a novel, but sometimes as opposing forces.  This is from the point of view of the writer.

WHC

Yes.

JD

That they have their very different imperatives that need to be  juggled and constantly reconciled and constantly compromised because the strict attention to long-term character development can be critical in terms of plot and vice versa.  Different books have had a different imperative for me in terms of plot.  I guess I can say that they all contain an element of long-term psychological character development.  Only some of them are really plot heavy.  Some are much plot heavier than others, and the most recent one, I think, I was very conscious of wanting the whole thing to be constructed and of the characters being in service to that construction.

WHC

Characters have flaws and strengths that contribute to the plot, to change the action of the plot, and as writers work to help the reader enjoy a change in thinking about the characters and the story world, is it helpful to construct stories more as literary writers, not as genre fiction writers?   Do you find the union between the strength  and flaw helpful in teaching to emphasize the character aspects for literary fiction?

JD

Yes.  And I think from a writer’s perspective, the useful, the essential thing about what you call a character flaw is that I do see this a lot in student work sometimes – a character will be drawn  to such an extreme that the problem is not credibility; the problem is that in terms of development, there’s only one direction in which that character can develop.  You know what I mean? 

WHC

Yes.       

JD

So whether somebody is too villainous or whether somebody is too virtuous, it only gives you one direction in which the book can go, and the reader picks that up very quickly.

WHC

Interesting.     

Literary fiction always seems to me to shine a little bit more if it deals in some way with a metaphysical question. What is beauty?  What is love?  Who are we?  Why are we here?  Those sort of questions.  Do you feel that too?  I mean do you feel that to think along those terms in creating stories there is advantage to having some association with metaphysical unanswerable questions . . . in the sense of were here for some reason and this character and this plot setting is going to give you [the reader] some insight.

JD

You know, it’s a really good question.  But it’s funny because I guess in my case, the answer is that, yes, I do think about those things.  But when I think about them, I try very hard to forget them.  Because I feel like if you let any answer or commentary to  a question like that in your own work, [it] has to be generated by the work and you have to keep your focus very narrow.  You have to keep your nose close to the ground by which I mean you have to attend to the characters and their story, and let thematic or symbolic concerns emerge from that. 

Another answer to the question is to say that there’s a tension [created].   I think probably every good writer is aware of differences between discussing the questions you’re talking about, like what Faulkner used to call the eternal verities, and also addressing the question of whether or not writing a novel is a matter of leaving a record of what life was like in your own time.  What the answers to these questions were in your own time.  So there’s a balance between wanting the book to connect to something eternal, so that at least in theory someone could pick it up in another culture, in another society, in another century, and still find something to connect to . . .    and also wanting it to speak to your contemporary audience and to address the way things are now, and thus differentiate it from novels that are about the way things used to be.

WHC

In some ways this seems like an attitude adjustment for authors. I’m wondering if thinking about these metaphysical questions isn’t  similar to those teachers who say if you want to write well and you want to write great fiction, you better go out and live life.

JD

Yes.       

WHC

You’ve got to go out and kill a whale, or work in a diamond mine.  But I’m wondering also, would you recommend thinking about these metaphysical questions, and humanity, in a way that it prepares you in your writing to begin to deal with depth of characterization in different ways? 

JD

I’m not sure.  I’m not sure I’m grasping the question here.

WHC

Well the whole idea is about people who might dwell on these questions.  I mean, some of these metaphysical questions are religious in a way.

JD

Sure.

WHC

Some are philosophical.  Some, are, political. – I know I hate to say it, but when students are advised to go out to climb a mountain or work a cruise liner and think about their experiences in objective, not so much subjective way, it helps them prepare for writing literature.

And what you about existence?   I mean are we here just to survive and procreate?  Or is there something else, do you know what I mean?  What did the ancient Greeks feel about that [existential] part of existence?  Is there something about the mysteries of life that can help a writer develop an attitude about how to create characters, and how we develop stories really, to have meaning, to have significance, to have – I don’t mean to have a ponderous attitude toward this, but

JD

No, it definitely helps.  It definitely helps you just to think about  humanity.  It’s one of your [duties] as a fiction writer . . . to read about those, to read about those questions and about what other thinkers have said about them . . . and to think about your own answers as well.   It’s also true though– it’s in the nature of every writer I’ve ever known, and I’m sure it’s true for you too–that you don’t really know what you think until you write it.  You know what I mean?

WHC

Yes.

JD

I know I’ve had, and I know many other writers have had, the sensation of thinking of a story idea and then the writing of it, even if that takes place over several years.  The writing itself is a kind of answer to the question of why you found that interesting in the first place.  So the questions about the broader philosophical matters that you’re discussing, or questions about existence, you can begin with the questions, but I feel like often the story itself is the answer.  It's the coming up with a way of thinking.  Writing a novel is itself a way of thinking; it’s not just a way of expressing thoughts you’ve already had.

WHC

In class, as manuscripts are critiqued, it seems often that students are looking for credibility . . . for credibility of actions, ideation,   opinions . . . and quite often, there’s a resistance to suspension of disbelief . . . you know, "I don’t believe that’s going to be true."  It's a search for veracity, really, in the story itself.  And yet suspension of disbelief has been a [necessary] tool for writers.  

Do students who critique want to find truth and erase suspension of disbelief to discover the overall moral or meaning of the story.  Does credibility make better literary stories?  The most complicated question I've ever asked.

JD

Well, we’re all in here [in a workshop setting], [and we're] obviously at something of a disadvantage in that we’re not reading whole books.  We’re reading small excerpts from books.  Any good book will establish the terms of its relation to the real.  And any good book, obviously I’m far from the first to say this, but a good book teaches you how to read it as you read it.  And since we don’t get that experience, since we’re sometimes reading nothing but Chapter 15, our default setting as readers is the real.  That’s where we begin.

So yes, you’re right, we hear that question a lot in [class].  But students are not given enough to work with on the page in order to start thinking about things in a different way.  That’s just the nature of workshop.  I mean one of my all-time favorite examples of that idea of a book teaching you how to read it, or at least showing you right away that you are on some plane other than the real, is the novel Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee, a great South-African, Nobel prize-winning novelist.  Waiting for the Barbarians is a kind of an extended parable really about racism and colonialism, but you know instantly, even though the language is very familiar, he wrote it before the end of apartheid [1991].  The settings are generalized but familiar.  The very first thing that happens in the book, in fact in the very first sentence, is, “I have never seen anything like it.”  And then there’s a long, elaborate description of a visiting government official at this colonial outpost [who] has come wearing [something] on his face.  And you read the description, and the description is clearly of a pair of sunglasses.

But in that first paragraph, for that one detail, you realize that you are in a world where no one has seen sunglasses before; it lets you know that other assumptions you might have are not assumptions that these characters have.  And you are in a very recognizable but explicitly fictional and different world . . . and I love that.

WHC

Right, and a valuable technique used, probably not consciously.  [And it demonstrates the need to see the novel in its entirety.]

JD

Yes.

WHC

I didn’t mean to imply that reading portions of novel was unique to your class.  It's a widespread practice.  I was looking for ways to avoid crimping the overall critiquing setting.  And you’ve answered it.  The most accurate, and fair, critique probably comes after reading whole novel.

JD

Yes, ideally that’s what we would say.  The class I teach normally at Columbia now is an all-novel workshop, and there are a small number of students who submit repeatedly, and you actually can, if they’re productive enough over the course of a semester, you can read the whole novel.  And you probably wouldn't be surprised [that reading the entire novel] makes a big difference [in understanding and critiquing.]

WHC

Great.

JD

And you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn it makes a gigantic difference.

WHC

Not surprised. 

In workshops, what is it critiquers do that is most valuable to you as a teacher?  And what are their most valuable characteristics [as critiquers]?

JD

It’s people who internalize the idea.  I talked about it here on the first day.  It’s very easy for me now because I’ve been doing this for decades.  But for people who are new to this setting, it’s hard to realize that you have to learn to read a different way.  Normally, when we read, we read reactively, and I do that when I go home and pick up a book and read it.  I’m not engaged in reading that book in such a way that I would be thinking about different ways to [write] it.  I would just be reacting to the way in which it has been done. 

So the ideal student or critiquer in a classroom is someone who is just constructive and always operating from the presumption that what’s in front of him [or her] is not fixed, it’s temporary.  That’s if you can read it not in terms of your own goals as a writer, but in terms of–in so far as you can pick them up–the author’s goals and try to figure out alternative strategies, alternative techniques for getting closer to [the author's] goals.

WHC

Thanks.  You talk of suspense and you talk of it in terms of drama often in your classes.,   To achieve suspense in genre fiction,  it’s withheld information or information manipulated . . .

JD

Yes.

WHC

– to be revealed.  Whereas in suspense for literary fiction, a character is created for the reader so that the reader is invested in that character and then the story makes the reader worry that something is going to happen to that character they care about.     All information essential for the story is presented up front [or when needed for the story] without withholding it or manipulating it.  I’ve heard you discuss this in different ways, and I wonder if you could expand for me the ways to be able to do that [create suspense] in literary fiction.  In other words, create the suspense through character rather than information withheld . . . manipulation, I guess.

JD

Well, first of all, I think you know, the word suspense, unfortunately, has a sort of genre connotation itself.  I mean, sometimes it's something much simpler, more on the order of uncertainty.  But to try to answer the question, I’ll offer an anecdote from Alfred Hitchcock.  Maybe you’ve heard this before.   Alfred Hitchcock’s classic definition of suspense versus surprise.  He said imagine that you’re filming two men sitting at a table having a cup of coffee  and after five minutes a bomb goes off underneath the table and explodes . . . and they’re both killed.

Now that’s shocking.  That’s genuinely shocking.  Now imagine that same scenario, but when you show the two men sitting at the table drinking coffee, you also show a shot of the bomb.  Then those same five minutes, which are filled with the most banal conversation with people asking for more sugar or whatever, they become unbearable because you’re in possession of information.  You’re in possession of more information than the characters have. 

Suspense via withholding information, I think, is so simple that ultimately a good writer will decide that it’s not worth doing.  And there’s suspense that’s generated that way, and then there’s suspense that’s generated by a profusion of information, by your having everything that you need to make sense of the scenario, even, and especially if the characters are in possession of some of that.   So yes, I’m always in favor of profusion of detail rather than the kind of artificial withholding of detail as a way of generating uncertainty, of generating a sense of irresolution waiting for something to happen.

WHC

It’s difficult and it sort of varies with every story, doesn’t it?

JD

Definitely.

I do feel I have a stronger sense now of how hard it is to be original.

WHC

I mean as to how you can do it and the effectiveness of what you do.  I was surprised in one of the seminars you said that, you never think about readers when you’re writing.

JD

I don’t; it’s just a fact.  It’s not a conscious decision, and as I said, that’s not to say that I don’t care about readers.  I mean from the moment something is done, if I do something and I print it out and I hand it to you, then I’m in agony over what you think of it.  But when I’m actually engaged with the page, I’m engaged with the sentence.  I’m only thinking about how to make it good enough for me.  I don’t know why that’s true, but it’s true.

WHC

What are the things you want a reader to get from reading your work?

JD

. . . I’d like a book of mine to be morally provocative in a way that other forms of entertainment or other forms of information don’t offer.

Wow, that’s a really good question.  I think the reason I became a writer, the same reason probably most people become writers, is that there was just nothing else, even as a young person, in the world that gave me the particular pleasure that reading a good story does.  And so I guess the primary answer would be that I want what I do to be good enough and well-crafted enough–and ingenious enough–to give others that same pleasure.   Beyond that, as I get older, my goals get a little loftier, and I do feel I have a stronger sense now of how hard it is to be original.

And I would like, I would like readers to think when they finish a book of mine, that it’s not really like anything that they’ve read before.  And I’d like it to be, morally provocative in a way that  other forms of entertainment, or other forms of information, don’t offer–a record of really of what it’s like to be alive and conscious now.

WHC

Right.  And you’d like them to remember it.

JD

Sure.

WHC

You’d like them to be engaged in it so that they can get involved in the action as well as the characterization.

JD

Definitely.

WHC

You would like them to have some perception of change in the world, and their perception of humanity, or is that going too far?

JD

I’m trying to think of what the classic definition of poetry is: that it makes the strange familiar and the familiar strange?

WHC

I don't know.

JD

So yes, ideally, if you do all those other jobs effectively and correctly, then when the book is closed it will make the reader see at least some aspects of the world around him or her in a fresh way.  That’s one reason why I don’t write historical novels; I’ve gotten in trouble for saying this before.  I don’t write historical novels.  And I really will never write a historical novel.  It’s not that I hold it against other people when they do it, but I don’t understand what would draw [readers] when there are already a lot of good novels about the, say, 18th century.  I don’t see why you’d go back and write another one.

A novel seems like a kind of artistic, moral, and philosophical engagement with what’s around you.  And that’s just me.  I know other writers have, you know, a different way of looking at it.

WHC

This is a touchy one, and I say that because in other interviews I’ve had a lot of different reactions to this.  But do you want readers to be entertained?

JD

Yes, I do.  Obviously there are different scales of entertainment.  You know, seeing a 30-second video with a cat in it on YouTube is entertaining.  It’s a different grade of entertainment than the entertainment I feel when I’m reading Tolstoy, for instance.  I mean Tolstoy is hugely entertaining.  Entertainment is not the only thing I want to do, but yes.  I can keenly remember the disappointment of reading certain books that you know are good, and you have been told are good, and you know, in some sense, they’re good for you.  But they just aren’t entertaining when you’re reading them.  They feel like medicine.  I felt that way about Gertrude Stein, just for one example.

WHC

I agree!  I’ve had people say that if your purpose as an author is to entertain, you cannot write literary fiction as an art form.  Does that sound true to you?

JD

I guess I would insert the word "only" there.  If your only purpose is to entertain, then that might make more sense.

WHC

Right.

JD

But even that’s a pretty broad generalization.  I think, you know, I’m sure Jonathan Franzen wants to entertain the bejesus out of his audience.

WHC

The last thing I wanted to talk to you about in this very very interesting and stimulating discussion is the idea about an authorial presence in fiction.  When you analyze classical fiction, the greats rarely have an authorial presence in the narrative, although the author might directly address the reader at times.  I mean the authors were obviously there, but their authorial presence wasn’t directly in the voice or the narrative telling.  Examples might be the Brontes, Jane Austen, Flaubert, and even Chekov.  The author is present as the creator, but there is not an authorial presence in voice or POV. 

Today, in contemporary fiction, the author is almost always there.  The author is really giving his or her identity through the characters, with the characterization, through the dialog, through almost every voice within that story setting.  Do you agree with that?

JD

I see what you mean.  I think that the movement would be more from the idea of authorial omissions to the idea of authorial subjectivity.  And that’s an idea that’s 60 or 70 years old, but the notion that what makes the only validity in fiction is to see as one person sees . . . and that there is something presumptuous, and godlike.  And by virtue of being godlike, outdated in terms of writing, even if you don’t have the presence in the prose that you’re talking about of writing from a position of divine authority. 

You know, I mentioned in class the other day, the quote “An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere” (Flaubert).  That was a great idea then.  You don’t see it much in practice now.  Now, there’s one sensibility that’s front and center–the idea that there should be a more divine sensibility than there is in the prose.  That is, I think, now considered presumptuous.

WHC

To regain  the enjoyment of reading classical literature,  is it possible that bringing back the concept of a narrator telling stories, characters acting out in the stories, and authors creating stories but that the author does not become the narrator in a fusion sense, have any value?   Do you think we could create as authors today that really objective sense of wonder plus subjectivity that the classic people created?  Is that a possibility?

JD

Sure.  I’d love to see it.  I mean, it’s a little bit different than the problem I was talking about before of generations reacting against each other and trends going away and coming back.  Because this is really, I think, the whole question of point of view in fiction that is related to  a more oceanic, philosophical change in the way we live and the way we think.  And, you know, frankly, even in the role of religion in our lives.  But that said, I’d love to see it, and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be done, and maybe who knows that that’s not the next frontier.

WHC

Please tell us about your most recent novel, and how we can access it.

JD

Well, it won’t be on sale until February.  It’s published by Random House and it’s called 1000 Pardons.  It’s the story of a public crime followed by the public repentance followed by the public rehabilitation.  You see this happening, of course, with celebrities and disgraced politicians all the time, and it struck me that the ritual that’s being acted out there–very earnestly acted out–is itself religious.

But it doesn’t really correspond to any religious feeling anymore.  So in the book, a woman named Helen Armstead, who winds up going back to work more or less unexpectedly and stumbles into a job in this field, discovers that she has a gift which – I don’t think I ever use the word in the book, but I think of it as a priestly gift – for convincing powerful men to apologize, to go before the public and repent.  She’s very good at it.   It works out very well for her.   On the other hand, the better she gets at it the more others are eager to exploit it.   So that’s where that story goes.

WHC

We'll look forward to it. 

JD

Thank you.

WHC

Some of the readers of this interview, I’m sure, will want to explore ways to be able to study with you.  You teach at Columbia, and you teach at the New School . . .

JD

Yes, in the MFA programs in both places.  So there you’d have to obviously make a big commitment.

WHC

You’d have to matriculate.  You can’t come in and audit . . .

JD

Not in those programs, no. 

WHC

And there’s no limited residency where you teach?

JD

There’s no limited residency option in those programs.  I do teach in low residency program in Charlotte, North Carolina, at Queens University.   It's a wonderful program.  I’m there only one semester a year, but it’s a two-year MFA program.  It really only requires the students do two weeks of residency, so it’s a nice option for a lot of people.  And then I occasionally do just a week-long gig such as this one [Tin House].  Really [only] one or two a summer.  That’s about it.

I also am very conscious of wanting to feel like a writer who teaches and not like a teacher who writes.

WHC

Do you do private teaching?

JD

I never have.

WHC

. . . mentoring?  No?

JD

I never have.  I love teaching, but I also am very conscious of wanting to feel like a writer who teaches and not like a teacher who writes.  You know what I mean?  And so I try to limit.  If I have one class, one graduate workshop a semester, I spend a lot of time.  And so even two in the same semester tends to take over my working hours more than I’d like.  Maybe, at some point if I stop teaching at a university, I might teach privately.  But for now, I don’t see it.

WHC

Listen, this has just been great.  You’re a great person, and great to talk to about literature.  It’s been a very enjoyable.

JD

Thank you.

WHC

And I appreciate your willingness to talk to www.storyinliteraryfiction.com.

JD

My pleasure.  Thank you for asking.

 


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William H. Coles's books on Goodreads
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Story in Literary Fiction: A Manual for Writers Story in Literary Fiction:
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