Sunday, August 30, 2009

Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers

While there may be many right times to read a certain book, there are also many wrong times as well. When I was back home this month, I came across the Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers (2005), which I got over three years ago and has sat unread on my shelf ever since. I didn't bring it to D.C. with me, as I brought some other unread books, perhaps knowing instinctively that it was not yet the right time for me to read the book. It contains 23 conversations between writers and the writers they admire, some which were published in the Believer magazine (which I used to subscribe to), others which were previously unpublished.

But now was the right time, because if I had read it any sooner, I wouldn't have read books by some of the authors interviewed (Haruki Murakami, Zadie Smith, Jamaica Kincaid), and I wouldn't have heard of many of the other writers mentioned in the interviews. I wouldn't have been contemplating/rethinking my job as a journalist, and wondering if it is really the best use to my abilities. I wouldn't have been writing fiction again and been able to benefit from the abundant advice that the writers inexplicitly offer in these pages. In short, if I read the book when I first got it, I wouldn't have gotten any semblance of what I got out of it when I read it this month.

This has happened before — with a number of "classic" books that I read in high school, (especially To Kill a Mockingbird and The Great Gatsby), first readings proved underwhelming, while subsequent readings were enlightening. It also makes me wonder what other books I simply read at the wrong time. I hated A Confederacy of Dunces, but maybe I was just in a mercurial mood.

But back to Writers Talking to Writers. From John Banville being interviewed by Ben Ehrenreich on what qualifies as literature:
I suppose I would say that it must have a quality of the transcendent. I do not mean metaphysical transcendence, but a kind of heightening. In the work of art, the world is made for a moment radiant, more than itself while at the same time remaining absolutely, fundamentally, mundanely, utterly itself.
to Marilynne Robinson on Herman Melville's use of metaphor:
The method of Melville is just opening, opening, opening. He sees something, he transforms it metaphorically, he in a sense takes in from it what can be comprehended, what the fabric has allowed him, and then he feels the insufficiency of the thought. So the process begins again… One of the things that it does is make demands on language that language is almost uncannily capable of meeting, demands that are almost never made under any other circumstances.
and Robinson later on writers' abilities with characterization — "it comes nowhere near capturing the actual experience. When you are with somebody you love, that seems as it ought to be. But when they're absent from you, you are more aware of them because of their absence. Loss can create a more profound presence than presence itself,"

the interviewers/writers extract insightful thoughts and engage in wholly compelling discussions on literature and the act of writing.

But it's not all serious —we learn that James Salter laments the passing of an age ("I miss letters, ocean liners, New York when you could drive anywhere and park, and I miss the indifference that once existed toward popular culture"), that Joan Didion re-reads Joseph Conrad's Victory anytime she starts writing a novel, and that the same novel (which I have not read, but just bought this morning at Capitol Hill Books) "travels with" Shirley Hazzard.

I eat this stuff up — whenever I'm really taken with a work, I read as much about the author as I can — interviews, biographies, sometimes other works — because for me it grounds the book in such a way that I get much more out of it and develop a greater appreciation for what the author is doing. I'm glad I wasn't studying literature when new criticism was in vogue. The 2008 version mixes up the interviews, and includes one with David Foster Wallace, so I might have to track that one down.

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