BEA 2013: All’s Fair? Book Reviews & The Missing Code of Ethics

I was fully prepared to ignore the National Book Critic Circle’s latest effort to organize a confab parroting prefab guidelines for how to review books, influence the few, and otherwise eat your own tail. But when I espied a Great Publishing Professional sitting on the floor in a secret access area that I am not at liberty to reveal, I abdicated my seat to this valiant soldier and proudly cried out to the Great Publishing Professional (and others), “You, sir, have decided my fate. I shall cover this panel so that you, good sir, have a physical seat to do your work!” It’s possible that I left the room with a spin on my heel, my arms gliding with the desire to hold an umbrella and leap into the air. But I must confess that the opportunity to ridicule that mendacious puffball Carlin Romano was also too ripe to decline.

But here’s the big surprise. While the panel got off to a lumbering start — ten minutes of introductions (Romano’s, of course, being the longest), reiteration of NBCC wonkery, business serving in lieu of sleeping pills — I was surprised by how smooth it ran. Indeed, it would have been drastically improved had Carlin Romano, a man so in love with himself that he seemed to think the panel was entirely about him, been rolled into the Hudson River, attempting to deliver his gant-inducing gasbag banter with his nose just above water. America the Philosophical indeed!

The panel sprang from the froth of an uncooked souffle concerning whether a universal code of reviewing ethics should be adopted to combat the “Wild West” feel of outlets that were online and offline, print and digital, short form or long form, missionary or doggy style, coffee or tea, and any other dichotomy that comes to mind when overthinking an insoluble problem in needlessly complicated terms. NPR’s Maureen Corrigan seemed to flail against this right out of the gate.

“Why would you want to read a review that was so flensed of bias that it was almost written by an automaton?” she said. She pointed out that the late, great critic John Leonard accompanied Toni Morrison to the Nobel Awards and that seeing how an interesting mind reacted to a book outweighed issues of partiality. “I certainly wouldn’t want to sign on to any kind of contract that required me to leave my biases at the door. My biases have made me worthwhile as a critic.”

After Carlin Romano rattled off points he had delivered in 2007 (and, as a source informed me, reportedly identical to a recent Romano appearance at a biographer’s conference and thus not particularly reportable here), New York Times Book Review editor Parul Sehgal stepped in to rescue the discussion from these unnecessary displays of narcissism. Citing Virginia Woolf’s reviews, Sehgal pointed to the idea of a critic creating a shared space for newer writers. Sehgal was not only the sharpest panelist, but she also valued criticism as a passionate place for expressive possibilities.

But The Paris Review editor Lorin Stein looked to criticism as a place for bright iconoclastic writing. He bemoaned “when a book review editor assigns a novel to a young novelist. I think that creates an impossible conflict of interest.” He stood against what he deemed “tepid, polite reviews.”

I am not entirely sure why agent Eric Simonoff was on the panel, but he did feel that readers of book reviews and blurbs were “pretty smart.” And he agreed with Stein that the “logrolling in our time” that has crept into a few recent publications needed to be avoided. Because this was precisely what a smart reader would detect. “When you feel the tepid poetry of someone who doesn’t want to give offense, you’re reading between the lines.”

Sehgal seemed surprised by much of this. She saw criticism as its own pleasure. “To miss the chance to write an interesting piece of writing for its own sake is what’s done.”

I have neglected to note the contributions of moderator Marcela Valdes, who I really wanted to hear more from. But she was obliged to read back recent responses from an NBCC survey on ethics. Two starkly different responses provided a conversational starting point. The first: “I think that even a very casual acquaintance can inspire undue generosity or vitriol.” The second: “I think the idea that there can be a permanent hermetic seal between author and reviewer is an ideal.” (To be clear, an impossible ideal.)

Addressing these points, Sehgal saw no problem with biases or connections, provided they were explicitly stated in the review.

Romano then raised his impatient finger, beckoning for attention like an impatient five-year-old talent show contestant who wanted to play his violin first.

“There’s one feeling I have after years of thinking,” said Romano. “Literary ethics don’t take place in a vacuum.” He pointed to “the very short memoir about the Sri Lanka woman who lost her family.”

“Sonali Deraniyagala’s The Wave,” cried out the more informed majority in the audience.

“How do you review a book like that if it’s bad?” asked Romano, who clearly had not considered the plentiful finesse established by countless critics over the last few decades. But Romano wanted to matter. He had played his violin. Now he hoped to inveigle the crowd with a few bluntly thrown Molotovs. This was BEA! This was Romano’s Moment!

“Any biases can be overcome by ruthless honesty,” said Romano. “A best friend could write a devastating review of a friend and lose that friend.” Thus, in Romano’s view, objectivity was not possible.

This led Maureen Corrigan, bless her heart, to push back against this hogwash.

“You’re not reviewing the Holocaust,” replied Corrigan. “You’re not reviewing the tsunami. We’re reviewing the book.”

Romano, clearly not listening to Corrigan, then tried to pull himself out of the choppy waters he had created for himself by suggesting that a reviewer might write that the author of a tsunami memoir “should have gone under the waves also.” It was telling how swiftly such blunt asininity sprang from the Great Carlin’s lips.

Lorin Stein had more interesting things to say about being provocative: in large part because his finger appeared more firmly on the pulse of recent newspaper developments. He and Simonoff both noted how outlets had declined in recent years. But Stein saw an equivalency between a blurb and a tepid review. “There are bad books that need to be shut down and that seems to me a very important service to do,” said Stein.

But I think Seghal best comprehended why a review’s identity was so important. “There are some reviewers I read,” said Seghal, “because I want to know how your mind works. I want to be in a space with you.”

Valdes then asked the panelists if there were any hard and fast rules. “You really have to read the whole book,” said Romano. Stein disagreed with this, suggesting that better reviews might be honed if the reviewer wrote about why she didn’t read the whole book. He wanted to avoid writing performed by people who clearly weren’t critics. Seghal was committed to getting the facts right. Corrigan wanted a review to consider a book on its own terms.

“Actually,” added Stein, “a black author said to me, ‘Goddammit, you have to stop reviewing bald white guys. If you keep doing that, you’re going to drive away readers.'”

“In some ways,” said Corrigan, “writing the short review is writing poetry.”

With that sentiment in mind, here is a haiku devoted to Carlin Romano:

Vested man falling
Ground below, boiler plate, ouch
Can’t repeat the past


BEA 2013: Shaping the Future of the Book

On Wednesday afternoon, Open Road Media CEO and co-founder Jane Friedman demonstrated her commendable skills in repeating the same talking points that she delivered at IDPF last year: (1) don’t ignore the elephant in the room (that is, the e-book), (2) we have to think of books in terms of p and e, and (3) Open Road is not a self-publisher. One wonders how many times she has enacted the part of a tottering robot. At least she had the honesty to tell the audience, “All of what you’ve heard so far, I’ve been hearing for 40 years.” But this year, Friedman was speaking before booksellers instead of wild-eyed evangelists who would erect a small nation of geodesic domes if it meant a universe where people read nothing but digital.

Two booksellers attempted to tell Friedman very politely that she was a misguided fool on the subject of e-book implementation in independent bookstores. The first bookseller was a respectful man with long gray hair who informed Friedman that customers would happily download e-books from their computers rather than patronize a physical bookstore. “it’s too easy to get somewhere else,” he said.

“You’re dealing with a universe that’s telling you what they want,” replied Friedman.

This was a sharp contrast to John Sargent’s strepatements this morning, in which he declared with confidence that “the growth of e-books is pretty much pegged.” But then Friedman keeps the Open Road portfolio tied up in digital only and has a natural interest in ignoring any stagnation realities if it means squeezing a few more dollars. (Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch was careful to point out, “Our job is to be nondenominational.”)

When the first bookseller respectfully shambled away from the microphone, Word Brooklyn manager Emily Pullen stepped up to point to the problem more lucently: “If I were to sell an e-book to every consumer coming through, I would go out of business in a week.” Friedman replied, “Not all e-books are 99 cents,” which severely misses one of the chief reasons why consumers are attracted to e-books.

If that condescending remark wasn’t bad enough, Friedman continued by telling Pullen, “if you sell one e-book to a customer in your store, that person comes back to your store and downloads ten books.” But there’s a fundamental problem with this thesis. When the consumer can simply press a button and have a new book turn up, why would she want to spend the time and gas to hit an independent bookstore? And why should the independent bookseller have any reason to shack up with a snake oil saleswoman — indeed, one who referenced “back to the future” three times during the interminable hour — who undercuts her business.

For the bookseller who was concerned, Friedman took a cue from the 1990s informercial king Tommy Vu. She couldn’t explain to the booksellers in person why her strategy would work, but insisted that they come to her seminar…er…BEA party.

This was the high point in a fairly dull panel moderated by a gentleman who was dull in his relentless agreement with various points and whose questions revealed the regrettable patina of inexperience. I wanted to scream. So did several other booksellers, many of whom offered audible sighs at the people entrusted to “shape the future of the book.” Well, I’ve seen the future. It involves smug people making enemies out of booksellers with hubris (“Maureen Dowd, who is a columnist at the New York Times” — yeah, I think most literate people know this), left in the cold when the bubbles have long fizzled out in their champagne.


BEA 2013: Publishing, Bookselling, and the Whole Damn Thing: A Conversation with John Sargent

John Sargent is a lean man who could be north of fifty, yet dresses and moves like a dude just south of that tetchy line of demarcation sealing a nervous breakdown. He has closely cropped hair with the soft beginnings of gray gently cloaking around a neat skull. He looks a bit like the Christopher Eccleston incarnation of the Doctor. He doesn’t wear leather but he dons muted jeans and a trim light blue dress shirt. He is the CEO of Macmillan and he is something of a maverick, simply for having the gumption to stand up to the Department of Justice. He is here on Wednesday morning to inspire booksellers gathered in a basement room of Jacob Javits Convention Center.

“It is dangerous for us as an industry if everyone lives under a pall of the Department of Justice,” says Sargent. And he means it. This is the man who famously stood up for the agency model as publishers were under fire by that august authority for alleged collusion and price fixing. Sargent was forced to settle for $26 million and the agreement with the DOJ expires on December 2014. (When asked by ABA President Becky Anderson if he would move back for the agency model in 2015, he did not wish to discuss future strategy.) But he’s willing to speak his mind at a trade show if it means firing up a few uncertain souls. And if that means calling the DOJ “extraordinarily myopic” to win some applause, he’ll do it. Even though he’s due to testify next week in the ongoing trial.

He tells the audience that he doesn’t do interviews and that quietude is his natural inclination. Elaborating on this, he says, “I put myself in other people’s shoes who aren’t in the middle of it each day.” But if you look at his feet, you won’t find sneakers.

“I have a great fear of what I think of as the victim effect,” says Sergant when he talks about what he owes the community of booksellers. Under the terms of the settlement, he is not allowed to discuss price. But he can discuss piracy, which makes him feel “pretty bad,” but that he sees as a mild scourge as best. He famously made digital editions of Tor Books DRM-free and it hasn’t hurt his business. He’s quick to point out on Wednesday morning that despite “an explosion of screens,” “the growth of e-books is pretty much pegged.” Macmillan sees 33% of its business goes to e-books; the remaining 66% holds with print. He compliments booksellers on being superb at reacting to “cataclysmic change.” “You guys adjust to that,” he says. “What you need is some time to adjust.”

But the booksellers are watching Sargent for something more than knowledge. They see Sargent, a man who likes to splay his fingers and slice his hands through the air to articulate points, as something of a cowboy. And Sargent lives up to this image with the big square buckle, which looks as if it’s been plundered from the closest thing Manhattan has to a dude ranch. Sargent’s regaling his points from a pad that’s not quite as big as a yellow legal pad but not as small as a memo pad, a clean metaphor for the tone you need to hit when you’re playing a slightly recalcitrant libretto.

But make no mistake: Sargent will follow the consumer’s desires. For all his charisma and his refreshing candor (rare in an industry that is spearheaded by introverts who can sometimes be dry and inarticulate before a large crowd), if the industry were to shift entirely to digital, then Macmillan would veer that very direction. What’s holding Sargent back from extreme digital adoption (rather than highly competent adaption) are sensibilities that he defines as “old-fashioned.” Sargent has been hesitant to release YA books in digital format. As he puts it, “There is something pretty magical about a kid sitting on your lap and reading a book.” He is not a guy who returns home and looks at a screen. And it could be these emblematic 20th century qualities that make him a draw.

Sargent points out that he answers every question he gets on a card, no matter how tough. And he is unafraid to point out certain prejudicial observations, such as the fact that the only people in Congress who want to talk with him are representatives from New York. Publishing is, after all, based here.

But even though Sargent’s talk purports to cover “the whole damn thing,” it’s really more about the innocuous modifier than the noun enchilada. Much as Richard Russo revved up the booksellers last year, Sargent is the confident patriarch encouraging booksellers to shout “damn” in a crowded bookstore.


Elliott Holt (The Bat Segundo Show #500)

Elliott Holt is most recently the author of You Are One of Them.


Author: Elliott Holt

Subjects Discussed: Confusion on what word to emphasize in the book’s title, Elizabeth Bishop, Holt’s stint at ACT in San Francisco, the comparisons and differences between acting and writing, being a failed playwright, reading aloud your work for revision, Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman, Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three, Samantha Smith, writing an introvert based almost exclusively on what she sees and avoiding the interior monologue, smugglers who deliver KFC to Gaza through tunnels, hooking Russians on Coca-Cola, having to answer to the Coca-Cola Company in Dr. Strangelove, the weak perception of Boris Yeltsin, Yeltsin’s 1994 “Truth Decree” in advertising, creating an enemy to define yourself, Cold War cola wars, memorizing slogans to survive, Holt’s experience working as an ad agency in Moscow, the dreadful term “creatives,” Russian cigarettes, trading one form of propaganda for another, characters who are defined by advertising, child ambassadors who become branded, the joys of decrepit Moscow, why Russia is hooked on dichotomies, when mapping personal identity is obstructed by societal forces, how people spill their stories to friends and therapists and what the novel offers in return, Alice Munro, hating the Eagles, why Moscovites love “Hotel California,” Russian accents, Boris and Natasha, church vs. George, the adventures of Holt’s mother in Russia, The Moscow Rules, The International Spy Museum, conveying international calls through brackets and ellipses, having no real designs on journalism, Hollywood cliches in Russia, what people associate with Russia, taking author photographs of Reif Larsen, hanging out at the Propaganda nightclub in Moscow, nude men swimming in fish tanks, Russians on American cleanliness, menacing babushkas who enforce cleanliness in the shower, getting use to being reprimanded by Russians, cultures driven by superstition, the Russian notion of “????” (i.e., soul), being deemed a “star of tomorrow” by New York, being paralyzed by pronouncement, people who feel resentful towards those who are successful, and whether it’s okay to hate other writers.


Correspondent: I did some research and found that you had gone to ACT in San Francisco.

Holt: How did you find that out?

Correspondent: Oh, I have my ways.

Holt: Oh god.

Correspondent: And this is interesting. So you had an acting career at some point.

Holt: I did.

Correspondent: Roughly at the time that I was there. And I was making these short films and plays. And I’m wondering why we didn’t actually run into each other.

Holt: That’s so funny. I did go to ACT in San Francisco. I was a drama major in college.

Correspondent: Oh!

Holt: I went to Kenyon. I was in lots and lots of plays.

Correspondent: That explains why all your answers are in iambic pentameter.

Holt: I was in a lot of plays in college. And I wrote some plays in college. They were terrible. But I think because I took playwriting and read a lot of — I read Aristotle’s Poetics and I read a lot of plays by Pinter and Beckett and Mamet. And I think I was a terrible playwright. I thought I would like playwriting because I had been writing fiction since I was a little kid and one of the things I always liked about fiction writing was dialogue. And so I thought that because I liked to write dialogue, it would be fun to write plays.

Correspondent: Were any of your plays performed?

Holt: Well, my two best friends from college and I — they actually are playwrights. They’re really good playwrights. They’re working playwrights. But when we were in college, we had a student theater group. And we sort of staged our own short plays in those kinds of black box theater. I never staged any full-length thing. There were some scenes I wrote. But anyway, the point is that I was actually a terrible playwright. But I think reading all those plays helped my fiction writing. Because I think I have a really strong sense of subtext and of the importance of scenes as opposed to just interiority. So I think it helped me as a fiction writer, but I was a really bad playwright.

Correspondent: Do you still have any kind of performance quality when you are conjuring up a scene or getting in the head, in this case, of Sarah Zuckerman? I mean, did you feel..

Holt: You mean when I’m writing?

Correspondent: When you’re writing. Do you have to perform sometimes to pinpoint her voice?

Holt: No. I don’t perform. I do think that, when I’m writing, it’s not so different from when I was acting in the sense that I’m really imagining my way into the head of someone. But it’s not like I read things aloud. I think I have a good ear as a reader. And I am very sensitive to modulations in tone when I’m reading fiction. So I think I do hear the language while I’m writing. But I’m not reading it out loud. I mean, later, when I have a full draft, I’ll read it out loud to sort of hear the spots that I think would work. But…

Correspondent: Do you read the whole book? Because Laura Lippman, I know, does that too.

Holt: Yeah. And it helps. You really hear the weak sentences. But, no, not while I’m writing. I’m not performing anything. But yes, I do think in terms of scenes. And I’m sure that’s because I’ve read a lot of plays.

Correspondent: Well, since you have very kindly stepped into the fray of this revived Bat Segundo, I’m going to have to give you one of these massive Bat Segundo questions on your book, which I very much enjoyed.

Holt: Okay.

Correspondent: So this book reminded me of two specific masterpieces. Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, of course. Because we have Nathan Zuckerman and Sarah Zuckerman. But not just that. Also the whole thing with Jennifer Jones reminded me of that Anne Frank situation in The Ghost Writer.

Holt: Oh, that’s so funny. I didn’t even…

Correspondent: And then of course, I have to ask you about Billy Wilder’s masterpiece One, Two, Three. Especially since Coca-Cola is here. You’ve got the whole Russia thing. And I’m wondering. Do you need to have partial narrative frameworks — like, in this case, The Ghost Writer or One Two Three, possibly — in order to pinpoint Sarah’s life in this case? Because there’s a good chunk of the mid-section where it’s pretty much Sarah just kind of thinking. And we’re in her head. And then we go back to the plot. So it’s almost like sometimes you adopt narrative frameworks with which to provide Sarah some momentum and with which to provide the reader a good sense of steering the life along a kind of track. And then it kind of dissembles. And then it kind of reattaches again. And I’m really curious about that.

Holt: Dissembles.

Correspondent: Yes. Absolutely. So I’m curious, first of all, were these two masterpieces inspiration for you?

Holt: No.

Correspondent: No? Not at all?

Holt: I’ve never seen One, Two, Three.

Correspondent: You have not seen One, Two, Three!*

Holt: No.

Correspondent: It’s Jimmy Cagney!

Holt: I’ve never seen it. And I love Billy Wilder.

Correspondent: Oh my god.

Holt: I’ve never seen One, Two, Three.

Correspondent: This moves at a machine gun pace. And it has Coca-Cola and Soviet relations at the hub. And paternal stuff. There’s a lot of paternal stuff in [your book].

Holt: No, I’ve never seen it. And actually I think I read The Ghost Writer in college. I love Philip Roth, but I haven’t read The Ghost Writer in a long time. My favorite Roth books that I love the most are American Pastoral and The Human Stain. And I love Portnoy’s. It’s like such a great first book. No, I wasn’t conscious. I think on some intuitive level, I knew I was playing games by naming her Zuckerman in a Roth thing. But I wasn’t thinking about The Ghost Writer. What I was thinking about in terms of — no, I didn’t have the conscious narrative frame. I was inspired by Samantha Smith. So I had a historical — I had history to play with. So I had some history as a frame. And I think, otherwise, no, it wasn’t like there was a conscious frame that I was working towards. I mean, I don’t want to give too much away. But, to me, this is a book about history, personal and cultural. And the obsessive nature of grief. And I think this is a narrator who has a kind of fantasy about doing her past over or getting to see this person that she hasn’t seen in a long time. And she’s really susceptible to a lot of things when she gets to the former Soviet Union. Because there are things she wants to believe. And she gets kind of caught up in her own little spy story in her mind for a while. Because that’s her association with Russia and she wants to.

Correspondent: Sure. On that subject, I was really keen to talk with you about the way you capture Sarah’s introverted nature. Which is a little different from other books. Because it’s almost as if we can get inside her social reservations by way of what she observes in Moscow and the very specific details. It’s almost as if that exists as a way for you to not necessarily inhabit the full nature of her head. She’s taking things in. She’s trying to actually figure out how this relates to her own identity and how this relates to Jennifer Jones, this girlhood friend who has disappeared. She’s trying to make complete sense of this. But she’s doing so by merely bouncing off of the sights that she observes in the regular world. And I’m wondering. Did you feel that you wanted to avoid this almost interior monologue or descent into someone’s head? Because, most of the time, when we read an introvert in fiction — especially in, say, A.L. Kennedy novels — we’re totally inside that head. Which is fine. But in your case, you don’t always go there. And in fact, we don’t actually see what becomes of her until very late in the game when we see some more present day memories. Aspects of her life that are later. And I wanted to ask you about that.

Holt: Well, I don’t think it’s a conscious decision. This is probably just — I probably write the way I do because of the kind of writers I love to read. I mean, Chekhov did exactly that. You have a sense of the character more from what the character is observing than from anything else. And I think the other thing about this book is that Sarah is a character who has spent her life thinking of herself as a footnote in someone else’s story. Kind of playing martyr. And in this book, this is finally when she tells the story herself. But she’s not the most reliable narrator. I mean, she is still evasive in some ways. And I don’t know. But I guess what I’m saying is that it’s, for me, a pretty intuitive process. So it’s not like I thought, “Okay, this is a character whose introvertedness is only going to be revealed by what she observes.” I mean, I think it’s just the way I write. And I think it’s more to do with the kind of books that I love most.

* — Warning to Listener: This moment, featured at the 9:22 mark of the show, has the Correspondent responding to Ms. Holt in a very high-pitched and enthusiastic timbre. The Correspondent apologizes, but he cannot fathom going through life without watching One, Two, Three, a delightful film that you should watch immediately.

The Bat Segundo Show #500: Elliott Holt (Download MP3)

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A Conversation with Jack Butler (Bat Segundo Special)

This one hour radio special is the first in a series of “at-large” conversations presently categorized under the old “Bat Segundo” label. It features a rare interview with Jack Butler, author of Jujitsu for Christ, a highly underrated novel that has recently been reissued by the University Press of Mississippi.


Author: Jack Butler

Subjects Discussed: Moving west over a lifetime, having a double bachelor’s in English and math, the yin-yang existence, reading science fiction as a boy, why the stars are so inspirational in the Delta, using the Holy Ghost as a narrative device, Lautréamont, narratives within the Bible, Ulysses and The Waste Land, theological implications within fables, Finnegans Wake, speaking in tongues, starting a book with only 60 pages, becoming an accidental novelist, the poet’s life, the strange yet highly modest financial incentives of novels, the Judo for Christ Club, Tom LeClair and “prodigious fiction”, comparing novels with a 7-Layer Burritos, how to present information within a story, the College of Santa Fe, Los Angeles as a source of escape, why Butler’s fiction left the South, writers who become unintentional spokesmen for the South, not being bound by assumptions, “authentic” vs. “smart,” Eudora Welty, Faulkner, science fiction and Southern literature as lowbrow inspirational territory, literary authors who scavenge from genre and write unsuccessful novels, how genre can be used to write meaningfully about humanity, African-American stereotypes, caricatures, missed opportunities because of bigotry, living in shanties, common experience, scavenging from comics and used books to form a borrowed bedrock of knowledge, the character “Jack Butler” in Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, “autobiographical fiction,” the neediness of novelists, combating desperation in a world that increasingly devalues risk-taking authors who don’t sell, Bum Festrich modeled on the Clarion-Ledger‘s Tom Etheridge, using racist newspaper rhetoric as an unsettling guide for fictional perspective, writing about sex, religious blasphemy vs. sexual blasphemy, Hugh Hefner’s philosophy vs. the Baptists, being part of the way actuality goes, why religion in fiction often causes the author to create a comparative ideological construct to present contrast, gay rights, the Belgian Malinois making mysterious noises in the back, corporeal collision in debut novels, approaching the holy through the material, chalk talks, tragicomic side characters, when the ABA voted Jujitsu worst title, mixing the funny with the repulsive, writing about humidity in Mississippi, massive IBM clone computers in the 1980s, writing a book on a 400 pound computer, slowing down writing speed, whether or not a writer needs a sense of compulsion, chasing down a locale in one great shot, allowing the reader to experience life as Butler saw it, The Illumination of Elijah Lee Roswell, what happened with Butler’s agent, the dangers of writing with the idea of money in mind, the virtues of academics, forbidden styles, the benefits of rebellion, people who sell out, clearing the head of extraneous voices,



Correspondent: I wanted to first of all talk about how you got your start. You were a poet before you were a fiction writer. And I also know that you have a bachelor’s in English and a bachelor’s in math. And I was wondering. How does a guy like you have the yin-yang thing going on here? It seems that you have a yin-yang thing in terms of what you studied and what you ended up doing as a writer.

Butler: Yeah. A lot of that — at least as far as math and the arts go — is that I loved science fiction as a kid. I used to read it all the time. Most of it is literarily horrible. But I was in a Baptist conservatory in Mississippi and they weren’t really aware of science fiction. So that was something I could get away with and what I really loved was just the ability to speculate. You know, that the world might be different from what was right around you. For pretty obvious reasons. But I’ve always been interested in mathematics. I think one of the sad things about our culture is that we have such a dichotomy set up between art and science or math. I mean, the two things I say that people are most afraid of are poetry and mathematics.

Correspondent: Yeah. How has math and poetry encouraged you to speculate? Both in terms of your imagination and in terms of, for example, books like Nightshade?

Butler: I guess it’s just that they give me the tools. I’m pretty picky about details, even though I do get some things wrong. Just in case there’s anybody listening, I’m not a medical person at all and I gave the exact opposite cure for angina. I said digitalis. And that will kill you. (laughs)

Correspondent: (laughs)

Butler: Aside from that, I had to not only get the gravity of Mars right. I had to allow for it in every action. Which you just don’t really see very much. So it’s more nearly that it’s given me the tools to do what I’m psychologically inclined to do.

Correspondent: So with science fiction, do you feel that it’s that speculative nature that really makes it fiction or meaningful? That this was the drive for you when you were growing up reading a lot of it as a boy, as a young man. That kind of thing?

Butler: Yeah, right. And as I said in the interview with Brannon (PDF), I believe, the Delta had a big wide sky. Because of all the flatland and not too many trees. So in spite of the humidity, you could really see the stars. And I loved the stars. That got me going on that.

Correspondent: Your first three novels (Jujitsu for Christ, Nightshade, and Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock) all feature some intriguing narrative mode somewhere between direct first person and a quite literally godlike omniscient voice. It almost reminds me, to some degree, of Lautréamont’s narrator in the way that you suggest to the reader that the narrator has lived and this allows the narrator to share some experience with the reader. And I’m wondering. Why did you need this particular type of halfway narrator to tell a story for these first three books?

Butler: Well, I’ll go back to — it’s not really an anecdote, but when I first thought of having the Holy Ghost — and I hasten to add that I mean this as a model of the Holy Ghost. I’m not pretending to represent the actual thing, if it even exists. But it’s like what Wallace Stevens said. “Not as a god, but as a god might be.” Well, not as the Holy Ghost, but as the Holy Ghost might be. And I couldn’t believe that nobody had ever picked up on it. You had the ability to have both first-person narration and a justified reason to switch personas. It was wonderful. And, of course, I got all that Holy Ghost stuff, a lot of it, growing up. It was drilled into me. So it was a chance to play with that a little bit. The Holy Ghost is narrator in Living in Little Rock with Miss Little Rock, but one of the main problems with Westernized Christianity is that we don’t have a trickster god. And of the candidates, I felt the Holy Ghost was the best candidate for that. So the Holy Ghost is kind of a trickster there. As for the other, one of the things I really like to think about is the nature of individuals. The nature of the individual. Mind. And so playing on narrators lets me play on that.

Correspondent: I’m wondering if this reflects any kind of storytelling you heard growing up. That when people told you stories, either around the house or around the town, that people were telling you the absolute truth or perhaps inserting their own asides. Was it something like that?

Butler: Well, it’s true that people love anecdotes in the South. I think I’ve really gotten more of my tendencies from the fact that my father stood up in the pulpit every week and talked. So that’s always seemed to me to be a natural thing to do. And like you point out, there were a lot of things that didn’t scan for me with the stories I was told. And the Bible, it’s stories. I love the Bible. But I view it as a library, not as a book. It was written over several hundred years, maybe a thousand or more, by different people with different conceptions. And it’s more fascinating as a narrative than anything else. So my storytelling probably had more to do with that. But there’s a background nature that Southerners in general love language and they love to tell stories and there’s a premium put on wit. So I think that was so naturalized without thinking of it.

Correspondent: So if the Bible is a library, what is the Ulysses or The Waste Land of the Bible?

Butler: Well, it’s more beautiful than The Waste Land. Ecclesiastes is one of the more beautiful things ever written in my opinion and it’s very much — not quite nihilistic, but Ecclesiastes very plainly does not countenance belief in an afterlife. It says people are just like grass. Like the grass of the fields. We come from the same kind of place and we go to the same kind of place when we die. Nobody imagines a heaven for grass. So if we’re the same as grass, that has a lot of theological implications.

The Bat Segundo Show Special (“#499”): Jack Butler (Download MP3)

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