Hari Kunzru, Part Two (BSS #441)

Hari Kunzru is most recently the author of Gods Without Men. This is the second of a two part conversation. The first part can be listened to here. But I’m afraid that This American Life isn’t the only program forced to issue a retraction. We’ve discovered that one of our longest conversations contained numerous extensions. This week, we detail this deeply troubling problem in the first few minutes of our program before carrying on with the second part of the Kunzru conversation.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Unpacking the complexities.

Author: Hari Kunzru

Subjects Discussed: David Mitchell, Kenneth Goldsmith, Tom McCarthy, what is considered valid artistry in 21st century literature, connections between Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Bolaño’s 2666, narrative and functional strands, reviews of Gods Without Men, compromises with editors, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, publishing job duties, Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, rejecting the inclusion of glossaries, editions of books that Kunzru isn’t satisfied with, visiting Michael Moorcock in 2010, what Kunzru takes away from genre, the division between genre and literature, China Miéville, genre fiction that pretends, prizes given to disreputable fiction, postmodernism and the detective novel, science fiction as a method of conceptual confrontation of current trends, simulated worlds, the problems with conventional characters, playing role-playing games, Moorcock’s multiverse, getting the non-Mike people into Moorcock’s work, Moorcock and JG Ballard, a number of very geeky Moorcock references, physical locations, travel writing, writing impressionistic accounts in hotel rooms, the downside of purple lilac hotel room interiors, being close to a location to write about it, Burning Man as a business expense, skepticism about utopias, the literary value of dust storms, knowing what you’re doing before walking across desert country, mysticism, geodesic domes, avoiding certain words, imposing linguistic limitations, Kunzru’s affinity for technical vocabulary, Mormon religious terms, finding the truest deities within computers, Kunzru’s first computer, the ZX Spectrum, the Timex Sinclair 1000 vs. the Timex Sinclair 1500, early efforts to use networks, cradle modems and university computers, Lunar Lander, Adventure, Kunzru’s early efforts to write a Pynchonesque novel, not desiring to be a professional philosopher, the Conspiracy Nation newsletter in the early Internet days, connecting with the world of weirdness from your desktop, Kunzru’s days at Wired, journalism as a way into fiction, the network as a primary form for understanding culture, resolving a ridiculously pedantic pissing match between @drmabuse and @harikunzru, the results of Kunzru’s social media experiment, literary journalists, Jami Attenberg’s report on Jonathan Franzen, Twitter as a way of finding who your people are, the importance of writers getting involved with non-literary interests, how a secular writer can persuasively approach the issue of faith, the relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of expression, doubt as an ethical position, reading The Satanic Verses at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and being better friends to the believing Muslim.


Correspondent: So what then, Hari, do you make up when you write a novel? I mean, I also detected, for example — I saw at least two David Mitchell nods. Not just “Segunda,” which of course I have also plucked. But also there is an early incident with Nicky in which he complains about the waiter not understanding that he’s saying “water,” which I’ve heard David say a couple of times.

Kunzru: Oh really?

Correspondent: Yeah. And I was thinking, “Oh! Now I know they’re friends.” (laughs)

Kunzru: Yeah.

Correspondent: But I am curious about this idea of plucking almost everything from other incidents. Is this something you can help? Do you make shit up to combat that in any way? To keep it real or to keep it authentic? Or do you not even care?

Kunzru: I simply think that you’d be lying if you said everything — let’s see. There’s various positions. On one end of the spectrum, it’s that people like Kenneth Goldsmith and Tom McCarthy would say, “We’re at the end of this tradition. We’re playing in the ruins. The only valid artistic act is a kind of reconfiguration of existing material.” You know, I frankly that’s much easier to say as a straight white guy. Because you’ve had two thousand years of airtime.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Kunzru: Maybe you feel that’s all there is. But actually I think we’re in a moment where there is a lot that’s genuinely new and there’s a lot that’s genuinely unsayable. So, however, my experience of the world isn’t of this kind of wonderful, sort of romantic notion of the primary creation out of nothing and that the extraordinary poetic mind of the creator shaping raw material into art — that simply is not an accurate description of the pragmatics of making literary art. Is it important to distinguish one kind of thing from another? Only when the lawyers turn up. I think any literate person these days is literate in a way which encompasses the notion of source and secondariness. And in words: bad writers borrow, good writers steal. You can make something your own. David Mitchell’s project is interesting. We are friends. I’m friends with Tom as well. And I have productive conversations with these guys about it. I mean, Dave is a much more orderly character than me, I think. A lot of people — mostly because Dave’s blurbed my book; so that’s very nice of him. But Cloud Atlas, to which various people have connected Gods Without Men, is a very different project. That’s a response to Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, where Dave just could not stand the fact that all these stories opened and then didn’t close. And he made this very beautiful, nested structure, where the stories open, open, open, open, open, center, close, close, close, close, close, end. And that’s one way of seeing the world. And it’s a very formally perfect thing. And it allowed him to show that he’s head and shoulders above most other people working today. As I said before, I’m more interested in breaking that formal perfection and allowing silence. A model I had for this book was Bolaño’s 2666, where there are these very big — three, four very big slabs of narrative. They seem as you read to have no damn connection to each other at all, but gradually, in this almost ineffable way, they start to vibrate in harmony with each other. And it becomes clear that this is a work. I admired that so much.

And also, I think, given that plot at this point is taught everywhere. I mean, I’ve been in some screenwriting lately. You know, this world of the three act structure and this has to happen at this point. It’s those wonderful little clockwork things that you can make out of plot. And the only way of breaking out of that slightly clockwork feeling is literally by breaking out, by making openings, by making strands where things are not functioning as they are expected to function. And it’s been quite a pleasure to see that, in both the US and the UK, the reviewers who have not fundamentally liked this book have all, despite themselves, basically — I mean, Michiko Kakutani did this in the New York Times today; I was just reading her review. They all say, “Why was this not tied up properly? Why did he not concentrate on the straight story of this couple and their child? Why is this imperfectly integrated material been introduced in the book?” And that’s the project. And that’s where I find interest.

Correspondent: The Millions also accused you of doing too much style.

Kunzru: I mean, fair enough. I will never be a kind of cool writer in a certain sort of way. I don’t…

Correspondent: In a literary sort of way?

Kunzru: In an affectless sort of way.

Correspondent: A plain, hardboiled realism degree of fiction?

Kunzru: You know, I feel I have a reasonably nailed down and possibly even cynical view of human relations. But just in terms of writing prose, I like the idea of pretending to be an 18th century Spanish dude. And I like to do the different voices. And that’s the opposite of a certain sort of literary call. I read a lot of post-writing school American fiction in particular, which I find painfully self-conscious because it’s very scared of being uncool. It’s very scared of what might look like style, what might look like showing off, or what might actually look like fun. And it adopts a kind of Carver, who’s obviously the big — you know, all the sentences are stripped down. The most emotional moment is the downfall at the end. I mean, this stuff is now being put out by the yard. Because it’s become a kind of MFA staple. I think it’s what happens when a bunch of hyper-conscious 25-year-old MFA students critique each other in a room for too long. It’s that acute self-consciousness, which I think you’ve got to lose. You need to basically be able to make yourself look slightly ridiculous to be a writer. You need to ideally make yourself look a bit ugly. I mean, there are writers I admire because they can be unlikable on the page and because that’s interesting to me.

Correspondent: I agree with you. But I think we’ve seen a shift — especially from the agents and the editors. I mean, I have heard this. Editors are saying, “You know, all the novels that I get tend to hit these same notes.” This problem we’re talking about. This fear of offending. This diffidence when it comes to chronicling unlikable characters or unlikable perspectives. On the other hand, when you have agents as gatekeepers, who are preventing those types of desired perspectives from actually hitting into publishers and you’re also dealing with the need to get a return on revenue, I mean…

Kunzru: It’s structural, isn’t it? You can’t just blame the writers. You have to blame the way the industry is structured. And there are many, many ways which make books — I haven’t read Chad Harbach’s book yet. But it’s very interesting to me that that book was given the keys to the kingdom very immediately. My partner, the novelist Katie Kitamura, is reading it and, at the moment, has found it very unsatisfactory. I mean, there’s a kind of prose that is deemed by the gatekeepers to play in the Midwest.

Correspondent: Yes.

Kunzru: And hence kind of gets through. And this structural stuff — I can’t have a book that looks like I want it to look. I mean, the physicality of my book is not under my control because the publishers have certain job descriptions. There’s an art director. There’s a designer. I mean, my books would not look like the published objects that they are. Those objects should be considered as compromises. You know, you fight for the kind of cover that you feel you want. I mean, my visual taste is not always the visual taste of my publishers and my editors. In terms of font. In terms of spacing. Let alone if you were to point to really fooling around with formal stuff or you wanted to try and open your book in some way that wasn’t the traditional novel. All these things exclude certain types of things you can do with writing and make the novel look like the novel looks now. And I don’t know whether it’s fixable. Because in a way, I’m kind of into the idea that, as a writer, you’re in this very impure situation. My gallery artist friends are shocked by the lack of control I have over the presentation of my work. Because they’re able to control minutiae. Because they’re just trying to sell six things to six very wealthy dudes. You know, I’m trying to sell six thousand — hopefully more than six thousand — to many, many people. So there is this point. You’re in the market. You’re in this very, very different kind of aesthetic world. And yet you’re trying to make art in this situation. And it’s an interesting one.

Correspondent: But what do you do? Do you pull a Mark Danielewski? Do you go to Random House and sit in a carrel for three to four weeks and say, “I know exactly how this novel should look”? I mean, if you have to compromise on these levels, I’m curious also — narrative-wise, textually-wise — what compromises do you make to keep this real?

Kunzru: I know. I think that’s really a very personal question for each writer. You have different things that are redlines and things that aren’t.

Correspondent: But what are we talking about?

Kunzru: Well, I mean, I give completed drafts to an agent, an editor, a couple of other people, and I listen when they say, “I don’t understand why this is happening.” So even if I think something is clear, and I think it’s not communicating to that extent, that’s when I’ll change. I don’t know if that counts as compromise. I dug my heels in structurally on this book — in that there was a point of view that I should cut certain sections and that I should give more help, tie up more neatly. And that was precisely what I didn’t want to do. Same with previous books. I mean, I was asked to put a glossary into The Impressionist. But I figured that would be a way of saying that this book is for non-Indian readers rather than for Indian readers who will already know these words and I had written in a way where I thought that all the Hindi and slang words and stuff would be understandable from context. So I said no to that. Where do I compromise? I have ended up compromising on all the visual stuff. I’ve never really beyond a certain point tried to impose. I mean, publishers have house styles in terms of fonts. I’ve never really tried to fight my corner very hard in that.

Correspondent: Can you ever be happy with the final way that the book looks and feels and is?

Kunzru: I like some of the books that are out under my name. The objects that are under my name. I mean, I’d say that there are editions that I’m embarrassed to carry around.

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