A Conversation with Pinckney Benedict. Glimmer Train. 85 (Fall 2012): 109-125.
Born to a family of West Virginia dairy farmers and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Pinckney Benedict published two collections of short fiction (Town Smokes, Ontario Review Press 1986, and The Wrecking Yard, Doubleday 1992) and a novel (Dogs of God, Doubleday 1995) by the age of thirty-three. All three were named Notable Books by the New York Times and were published in England, Germany, and France.
For years his stories have frequented the pages of Esquire, Zoetrope: All-Story, and StoryQuarterly. His work has been anthologized by the O. Henry Award series (twice), the New Stories from the South series (four times), the Pushcart Prize series (three times), and the Oxford Book of American Short Stories. Benedict is also author of the screenplay Four Days, starring Colm Meaney, Lolita Davidovich, and William Forsythe, is co-founder of the Tinker Mountain Writers retreat at Hollins University, on the faculty at Southern Illinois University, and is co-editor of Surreal South, a biennial anthology of fiction and poetry.
Fifteen years after Dogs of God and nearly twenty since his last collection of short fiction, Benedict’s third book of short stories, Miracle Boy and Other Stories, was released with Press 53.
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Your work is already known for its unabashed, backwoods brand of storytelling, but Miracle Boy pushes well beyond the boundaries of reality into intricately designed worlds where talking crows channel the dead, hunting dogs possess the souls of their masters, and cockfighters confess their sins to mountaintop radio telescopes. It seems to me that in the fifteen years since the release of Dogs of God you’ve made a leap, not in the skill with which you craft words but in the limitations you place on your work and the places you are willing to go. What’s happened?
Pinckney Benedict: You’re right that the work I’m doing now is stranger, by a large margin, in its content and its intentions than what I was doing in my early books. Town Smokes is in many ways an homage to the work of the now long-dead writer Breece Pancake, another West Virginian whose posthumous collection of stories greatly inspired me. His work is almost entirely in a realist mode. There are no monsters, no ghosts, no angels-just people, and the only demons they battle are those that dwell within them. Pancake’s collection, the only book we’ll ever have from him, so deeply impressed me that all I wanted, at that journeyman stage of my work-I was an undergraduate writing stories for workshops when I was introduced to his fiction, by Joyce Carol Oates, who was my teacher at Princeton-was to try and do even a little bit of what he was doing, which was to explore the landscape of West Virginia and, more broadly, Appalachia, which was his home country and mine.
Also at that time, I was making stories for my creative-writing classes. You’re a veteran of any number of workshops, so I’ll put it to you: How well is fantastical work, or fiction that partakes of any elements of “genre” fiction, tolerated in the typical creative-writing workshop?
Well, I was pretty lucky. My mentors haven’t really encouraged or discouraged any sort of writing; rather, they’ve encouraged any sort of writing that is actually good. Not one of my teachers or colleagues has given me a hard time for writing in any sort of genre, but I’m writing poetry. Fiction, it seems, receives a different sort of criticism, which really doesn’t make a lot of sense. That said, I’m currently working with a woman in Los Angeles who is writing a mystery novel about a woman who is murdered on a tropical island, and the paleontologists charged with solving the crime. I consistently find myself delighted with the fact that she’s writing in genre, and is excited about writing it well. I also find myself moved by the freedom of the workshops we have, with the sense of discovery and motion that goes on in the writing of work that many might frown upon.
Emulation is terrifically important for young writers. Early on, I read the Saul Bellow quote that “a writer is a reader moved to emulation.” That was entirely true for me. When I was a little boy, and, at least until I became a teenager, I suffered from awful nightmares. I still have them from time to time. Many writers of my acquaintance seem similarly afflicted. I would wake many times in the night from truly horrific visions, things that took my breath away with their horror. I found some of those feelings and images and landscapes reflected in the work of horror writers who were working in the 1970s, and in particular the novels of Peter Straub-Ghost Story and the masterful Shadowland, which is a “horror” version, a junior varsity version, maybe, of John Fowles’s very great The Magus, a novel that used to be famous, but that seems now to be languishing, and Stephen King, whose Carrie is as fine a first novel as one could want. And so, as a teenager who had some skill with words, I initially began writing about my nightmares, trying to give them some meaningful shape, trying to transmute them into a form that made sense, and could transmit some of their power-because they were by far the most powerful things in my life, more powerful than movies I saw or books I read or television shows I watched, more powerful than friendships or family or girlfriends-to others. This practice at taking the raw material of my subconscious and turning it outward, making it into something that might communicate itself, that might communicate some of who I was at my most vulnerable, my most intense, my most frightened, and most private: that was a hugely valuable practice for me, and it made me not only resolved to my nightmares, but it allowed me to treasure them, to look forward to them, to participate in them, in a way. These visions, because of their very intensity, were part, so I believed, of what made me special.
The work of folks like Straub and King, and Lovecraft, about whom I learned through King, and Poe, whom I had known but not fully appreciated, and Machen and Algernon Blackwood-the work of all these folks gave me models for my own extremely naive work, my juvenilia.
Then, when I discovered Pancake, and particularly in the milieu of a Princeton University creative-writing workshop in the early and mid-eighties, I discarded the outer trappings, the monsters and the ghosts and so on, and I concentrated on horrors that were apparently more mundane: violence, both psychic and physical, and crime, and death by accident, and the terror of loss. I wrote in that mode for quite a while, though even in Town Smokes I managed at least one ghost.
I think it’s natural for readers to conclude that many of your early stories come from personal experience. “The Sutton Pie Safe” and “Rescuing Moon” immediately come to mind. But then there are these new stories that I doubt many readers would make this sort of assumption about, such as “The Beginnings of Sorrow,” in which a hunting dog learns to talk and quickly evolves into a lusty, alcoholic man/canine, while newsmen debate the voting status of the recently risen dead. Or take “Joe Messinger Is Dreaming,” which depicts the folding over of time that occurs in the altitude-affected mind of the main character before he plunges in a space suit from a weather balloon at 120,000 feet above the earth. Where do these new stories come from?
What I’m working at now, I suppose, is a kind of synthesis of those early inspirations-when I was a kid I really thought that I’d grow up to be a writer of popular horror fiction-and the more literary, more “adult” writing and reading that I’ve done since. It’s my return as an adult to the obsessions of my childhood, which have, no surprise, become obsessions once again. I’m trying to use the skills that I learned in all those years of working in a more conventional mode-realism as a mode has not been in vogue long, considering the full breadth of literary history, from the Epic of Gilgamesh on down, nor is it very widespread-to enact on the page the stuff that goes on inside my head. I’m still writing my nightmares.
And, after years of some success in seeing my work placed in anthologies like the Pushcart Prize and New Stories from the South and so on, I was thrilled last year when “The Beginnings of Sorrow” showed up in a collection called The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, alongside the work of Stephen King and Neil Gaiman, among others.
Your collection Miracle Boy pushes things narratively so far that, as I was reading it, I found myself repeatedly saying aloud, “No, there’s no way he’s going there…” Then you would and I’d say, “No, there’s no way he can pull this off…,” and then, in story after story, you did. As a reader of fiction I’m not sure I’ve ever had quite this experience.
That’s a kind and gracious evaluation of the stories. “Beginnings of Sorrow” has provoked a lot of conversation when I’ve, for instance, visited schools to give readings and to meet with classes over the last couple of semesters, more than any other story in the book, I’d guess-though “Zog-19,” about an alien who takes over the body of a young dairy farmer, runs a close second. Not all of the responses are positive ones, as you can imagine. The word I hear most frequently is “disturbing,” and in particular readers seem to be offended by the lust that the dogman exhibits toward Bridie, the young woman in the story who must deal with him.
This is one of the reasons Miracle Boy is so damned good. You have the guts to do what you and the story command. You don’t seem to worry about your reader too much. Is the reader someone you consider while writing, or do you divorce yourself from such concerns? Town Smokes is a fairly approachable collection of stories that depicts the comings-of-age of its central characters. And while we do see shades of your darker, more mystical side in “The Panther” and “The Electric Girl” in The Wrecking Yard, I wonder how many of your readers were prepared for just how far you were willing to go in these new stories. Are you at all concerned that readers of your earlier, more realistic work, might abandon you once they read Miracle Boy?
As to readers: I suppose that I am the reader I’m writing for. I’m trying to create that shelf of fiction that I desperately want to read, that I need to read, but that no one else has, to my knowledge, yet written and that no one else will likely ever write. My stories go exactly where my mind goes. I never tell myself, “No, my readers won’t want to see that happen and so I must put it away, even though it is demanded by the dictates of the story and the fictional world in which the story is happening.”
That’s one of the beauties of being an academic in the writing world, or a writer in the world of the academy: I am free to disregard the dictates of my readership, because, except in an extremely limited way, I don’t have a readership. I don’t have to make my living, at least in any direct way, from my writing, and so my writing can be exactly what I want it to be. It can look exactly the way I want it to look. It can look exactly like the inside of my skull. That’s what I’ve striven to do in Miracle Boy.
Do you think that others in your position work in this way? My gut response to this question is no. I’m not sure why and I’m not sure it’s fair to even look at writers in this way, but the very idea of academia is to allow for this sort of freedom. I’m not sure many writers actually take advantage of this freedom.
It’s odd, isn’t it? We’re in an era when a great number of our writers are housed-warehoused?-in the academy, which would presumably give them a firm foundation from which to make work that comes from the deepest, darkest, strangest, and most revelatory parts of themselves. And we are simultaneously in an era that is, at least to my eye, astonishingly timid in the questions that our literature takes on and the manner in which it takes on those questions. I am deeply bored by the writing of most of my contemporaries. They, of course, are likely similarly bored by my work, or horrified by it, which is their right.
There is a phenomenon among graduate-student writers, and to a lesser extent among undergraduates-lesser because undergrads are less conscious of the effects of their writing-that I call “writing so your classmates will date you.” Lots of my grad students do it: they write a kind of “worthy” fiction that shows them to what they imagine is their best advantage. They attempt to demonstrate that they are flawed, yes, and have darknesses, of course, because darkness and flaws are sexy; but they are good at heart, and they have all the right impulses, both artistic and political, and they believe all the right things, or could, at least, if only the right person would consent to have sex with them. I am not trying in my own work to demonstrate that my heart is in the right place because, quite frankly, it is not. It would be a lost cause for me to pretend to myself or to others that it is.
This phenomenon seems to me to have spread into the larger literary culture; or perhaps it has cascaded down to my students from higher up, and I’m mistaking the vector of the disease. In any case, most literary fiction seems to me less the working out of the horrors and the moral failings of the writer on the page, and less the creation of a coherent fictional universe within which these matters can be debated and considered and dramatically enacted, than a kind of display of the writer’s worthiness. “I am tortured,” this work seems to say, “and sad, but my heart is in the right place, and you and I believe all of the same things.” That’s the antithesis of a powerful or worthwhile literature, it seems to me.
And the academy doesn’t seem to reject this sort of writing. Rather, it seems to encourage it and to positively take it to its bosom. The academy seems to me to be wearing its bosom to a nubbin, taking this sort of writing to it.
This is true and not true at the same time. At some point the writer has to take her/his writing into his/her own hands. And while this “disease” probably has filtered down to those in programs across the country, it’s up to them to respond. I have been lucky enough to find people doing just that-or at least attempting to, failing, accepting the failure, and trying again-but it seems that a merging of “learning how to write” and having the guts to write what’s really demanded of you, or that the writing itself demands, is something that many of us are simply afraid to do. Writing well and writing meaningfully requires failure, and a lot of folks in MFA programs, like most people, are afraid of failure. But failure is exactly that which leads us to success. I say to my students to think of success and failure as all part of the same system: for every success, ten failures come before, or, in my case, lots more; for all the good stuff you write, a whole bunch of shit has to be pushed out of the way first.
I’m curious to know how your stories come together. What sort of process typically, if there is a “typically,” do you employ?
You’re right, of course, about failure. I frequently tell my graduate students that they need to learn to fail faster. They will fail, yes, but then they linger over their failures, and they work to redeem them and to resuscitate them, to make the work pay off that they’ve put into some particular piece that hasn’t come to fruition. As a writer you’re wise to recognize your own failures and to put them behind you as speedily as possible and to move on to the next endeavor, which will also likely fail. There’s a concept in the business world from which many writers could greatly benefit: it’s the notion of sunk cost, which is the value you’ve put into any business endeavor or property that is not recoverable, and from which you must walk away when the endeavor has failed, in order to avoid following good money with bad.
My own process involves a lot of walking away from wreckage. Again, one of the beauties of living under the academic umbrella is that my publishing, while it needs to be steady, does not need to be prolific. The cost to me of deciding that any piece of fiction into which I’ve put considerable labor is no longer capable of evolving into a successful story or novel is lower than it is for folks who are depending on their publications for their next meals and to support their families, or folks who are wedded to the idea of their own literary “success” and fame and the fortune that theoretically goes along with it. I can hit the delete button on a story that I’ve put days, weeks, and even months into, and my bottom line doesn’t go down one whit. By the same token, of course, my bottom line doesn’t rise much, if at all, when a story of mine succeeds, since they tend to show up in literary magazines that usually pay very little, if at all.
I suppose the pattern I’m seeing in my answers here amounts to something like: I’m free to be irresponsible in my writing. Having a small readership and relatively little financial stake in my work, and having some time ago got over, as much as one ever gets over, the illusion that I will achieve any appreciable amount of fame or notoriety from my fiction, I’m free to have an amateur’s fun with what I do.
Teach us a little about exposition. In Town Smokes and The Wrecking Yard you typically enter a story with a scene followed by a section break to signal a shift in time that allows for character development, setting, etc…. But the stories in Miracle Boy tend to eschew this approach, using breaks for entirely different means, keeping your narratives in real time while slyly feeding us something I’m more willing to call detail than exposition as the story unfolds in real time.
In “The Angel’s Trumpet,” for example, section breaks are used for interjections by the main character’s brother or to quote from reference books in his father’s library. Outside of these breaks, the story unfolds, more or less, in a linear direction. Likewise, “Joe Messinger is Dreaming” collapses time altogether so that expository prose, scene, and dialogue are one and the same. How exactly does this work in these stories?
That’s a terrific technical question, and I wish that I had a clear, concise technical answer. I like the adverb slyly for what I do in these stories, and some others in the new collection-“Pig Helmet and the Wall of Life” comes to mind-because I often giggle and high-five myself with how clever, and how sly, I think I’m being when I shift from the dramatic mode, using scenes and so forth. In part, I think what you’re noticing is that I’m no longer much concerned with preserving the illusion of the “fourth wall,” as show-business folks call it. I used to worry a great deal about shaking the reader out of the reverie, the waking dream of the story, and would go to great lengths to make sure that the story didn’t draw attention to itself as a story.
Now, not only do I not care much if the reader is startled out of the dream, which is an illusion in itself with which writers comfort themselves; for how often is anyone really “carried away” in the manner that we’d like to imagine they are? Who has room in their lives, or time, to vanish into stories more than very rarely? I take positive pleasure in pointing out to readers that they are in fact reading, and that what they’re reading is made up, and that’s it’s been made up by me specifically so that they can partake of the act of reading it. I love that mirror-looking-into-a-mirror aspect of writing now. It means that I don’t have to be wary of waking the sleepwalker. I don’t have to tiptoe around. I can wear the hobnail boots in which I am most comfortable.
So you’re having…like…fun?
Oh yes indeed, actual, tangible fun. The act of writing is, for me, as much fun as I can have with my pants on, as they say. If it weren’t, I wouldn’t bother with it. It’s one of the great freedoms of being a “literary” writer here in the waning days of the Republic: there’s no aspect of service or piety or sacrifice to the act. I’m not a priest. I’m a guy who a few dozen people, on a good day, know and like what he does, and so I can do it as I like. And it’s not worth doing any other way.
I can imagine doing drudgery if it were likely to make me dough, or if it were likely to win me friends, even of the Facebook variety, or if there were some other reward; but my career, such as it is, seems to have arrived at a place where I’m truly alone with what I do. So, if there’s not self-satisfaction, what is there? And I’m a shallow enough sort of fellow that enjoyment, pleasure, fun-that hated word in academia and in literary circles, because, I suppose, it smacks of the Great Satan Television, or the even greater demon video games-and self-satisfaction are tied together at a profound level.
Speaking of the waning days of the Republic and TV and video games, technology often figures largely in these new stories. There’s the radio telescope in “The Butcher Cock,” the weather balloon in “Joe Messinger is Dreaming,” the Exterminator suit of “The Bridge of Sighs,” and “the intricate machine men have built by men to show him this girl at the other end of space” in “Pig Helmet and the Wall of Life,” to name a few. These technologies are often harbingers of doom, or exist in environments in which the end of the world seems imminent. This theory of the imminent end of the world seems to figure largely in contemporary American literature. Kind of like films with giant, irradiated insects so common on the silver screen during the Cold War. Is technology simply a fascination of yours, or is its effect on American life part of what these stories are about?
You’re dead on about recurring images of technology in this book. There’s the F-4 Phantom, for instance, in “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil.” All of it is technology of a certain era, though, which is not really our own. It tends to be technology from, say, my own boyhood or young adulthood, and it tends to be deeply in decay. The radio telescope in “The Butcher Cock” is based on similar telescopes that reside at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Green Bank, West Virginia, in Pocahontas County, not far from where I grew up on my family’s farm. But it’s wrecked and abandoned, and the fellows who used to man it have gone off to Arecibo or some such place. Likewise, the technology in “Joe Messinger” isn’t space age: he’s basically like the old man in The Wizard of Oz, zooming off in a hot-air balloon with no real idea of where he’s going. And the narrator in that story-to go back to our earlier discussion about narratorial intrusion and the fourth wall and slyness and so on-grows quite angry with the protagonist about the false promises that technologists have made to us through the years: “Where is my hover-car, Joe Messinger?”
Generally speaking, I’m not trying to make any large cultural commentary in these stories, mostly because I’m not smart enough to speak profoundly on subjects of vast importance and, when I do, I am apt to be wrong or misinformed. No doubt I’ve committed both of those errors a dozen times over during the course of our conversation. My interest in technology is entirely personal: I love gadgets and must always have the latest one. I love to watch the NASA channel on television. I am a huge aviation buff who has logged many hours in the righthand seat of various small airplanes, from Cessnas to a very fast and technologically advanced Cirrus SR20.
I love it when my stories give me an opportunity to indulge my taste in gadgetry, as they often, and by design, do. In writing “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil,” for instance, I knew that I would need to deploy the knowledge and the attitudes of a highly trained fighter pilot, which I am not. This challenge is exactly the sort of thing that gets me out of bed in the morning.
I did the expected, which is to read everything I could get my hands on about military and some civilian aviation and pilots: Ernest K. Gann’s The High and the Mighty, James Salter’s The Hunters and Cassada, Paul Watkin’s In the Blue Light of African Dreams, all of which were richly informative. And I spent hours, over meals and drinks, talking to a friend of mine who was a Marine Phantom pilot in Vietnam. My favorite part of researching the story, though, was cobbling together a convincing flight simulator in my basement and spending hour after hour on it, taking off from carriers in the Sea of Japan and landing again, flying nap-of-the-earth over the Appalachians, as the pilot in the story does, and otherwise trying to embody the swagger and aggression and constant awareness of mortality of a fighter pilot. When I showed my fighter-pilot buddy the flight sim, he told me that he could “almost smell the cockpit,” which made me very happy.
And the flying in that story is only a very small part! A page or two, in a story that’s probably seven thousand words long.
So you like research as much as you like writing?
Embarrassing to admit, but probably more. I am frequently asked by my more prolific writer friends-and it is hard not to be more prolific than I am-this new one is my first book in better than fifteen years!-why I don’t publish more. One reason is that I throw a lot of stuff away. Another is that I spend a long time preparing to write, much more than I technically need to in order to achieve the effects that I’m trying to achieve. I mean, I have several paragraphs about the aurochs, the progenitor of all modern bovines, in “The Angel’s Trumpet,” but I bet that I’m one of the leading contemporary repositories of knowledge about the aurochs and of the evolution of our modern strains of cattle that you’ll find outside of an agriculture school. I really got into that shit! I can gaze for longer than is healthy at pictures of the massive Chianinas of Italy, just thinking about how much power there is in those giant beasts, and how much calm. I can easily see why cattle are the basis for our alphabet, for many major religions, for human culture as a whole. The bull that carries the world on its shoulders-that’s more than just a myth, at least to me.
Research, as you can see, makes me ecstatic.
You recently published a graphic story called “Orgo vs. the Flatlanders” in The Versus Anthology (Press 53 2009). What was it like putting that particular story together with manipulated illustrations, speech bubbles, and visual compositions on the page? Did you make these illustrations yourself?
I’m a great lover of comic books and have been since boyhood, when I’d spend my whole allowance on them. I am not, however, an artist, and so this particular passion has eluded me for decades. But with “Orgo,” which is the story of the hillbilly uprising against the dominant culture of the flatlands-Orgo, the titular character, is the hillbilly king, a man so dedicated to his people and his queen that he has peeled off his own skin-I thought I’d give it a computer-assisted try. Using at least a half-dozen different computer applications, ranging from 3D modeling packages to Photoshop to Second Life, the persistent online “universe,” I was able to cobble together thirty-some pages of illustrations for the comic. It was an extremely labor-intensive project, much more than I had realized going in. It was initially published in Idaho Review and a bit later collected in Josh Woods’s Versus Anthology.
Since then, I’ve done a graphic piece for Neil Anthony Smith’s excellent Plots with Guns webzine. It’s called “Go Killer Go Run Killer Run,” and it purports to be an instruction manual for life in the year 2509, when everyone in the world-there are very few left, and they are all good looking-has become a killer. That piece was titled by my then-ten-year-old son. And
I’ve published the first few pages of another graphic fiction, called “Kentucky Samurai,” in Berea College’s Appalachian Heritage, which is otherwise a very staid and respectable magazine, and one of my favorite places to publish. “Kentucky Samurai” tells the story of a young samurai from Kentucky, as you might have guessed, who becomes bored with life in the Bluegrass State, which is newly pacified under its shogun, who is half-man, half-tiger; for some unknown reason, many of the people who populate the world of “Kentucky Samurai” are at least half animal. So he sets off, with his father’s armor, helmet, swords, and 1967 Shelby Mustang GT, to the east, to slaughter the barbarians of West Virginia. I’m hoping, before I die, to develop “Kentucky Samurai” into a full-length graphic novel.
So we should be expecting some sort of collection to emerge from all of this?
It seems unlikely, though I suppose that anything is possible. Most folks seem to regard these ventures into the graphic novel-I do as well, truth be told-as larks or japes. They’re fun, for me at least, but I don’t have the technical chops to make them much more than curiosities or entertainments of a very slight sort, I don’t believe. They do seem to relieve some sort of pressure inside my skull, though, and that’s what my work has really become for me: a way to dig the things that obsess me, that oppress me, that won’t let me go.
Maybe I’ll go to createspace.com, when I have sufficient material, and put together my own book and publish it that way. It seems entirely possible that I’ll be self-publishing at least some significant part of my work from here on out, and sites like createspace make it extremely easy to do so. And then I don’t have to worry about the “seriousness” of any given endeavor, or its profitability to anyone else, even to a very small press like Press 53, which published Miracle Boy. Then the book can look exactly the way I want it to and I can give it away. That would be
So you’re going “off the grid,” so to speak?
Don’t know, exactly. I mean, I’m pretty well “off the grid” as it is now: no reviews in major metro dailies, a readership in the dozens, no ad budget, no book tour, no publicity, just a few visits to college campuses and so on. Really, it seems to me that there’s very little difference between publishing with a tiny press and self-publishing, unless you’ve got self-esteem problems and need a publisher somewhere to push buttons for you and to tell you that you’re great. The product is the same, and you have complete control over how it looks, what the contents are, and so on. It’s difficult for me to see the downside, except that my academic colleagues may not see it as proper “productivity,” but I hope that will be taken care of by my publishing stories in magazines. Though even there it seems possible that I’ll go the route of, say, Kindle singles and podcasting. I’d love to do a podcast of my own work, simply read it aloud and make it available on the web, through iTunes and so on, rather than go to all the hassle of trying to place it with magazines. I love writing, but I hate publishing, or at least publishing with other people. It’s always such a letdown.
Was it easier fifty years ago to publish a book with a real press? Has the proliferation of the MFA program led to the saturation of the publishing market people often complain about, even though there’s no hard proof of this problem’s existence?
Fifty years ago? Jesus, dude, how old do you think I am? I published Town Smokes twenty-four years ago.
I’m looking for wisdom here, not actual personal experience.
Ah. Okay. Well, it was easier to publish a book-if by book we agree to mean paper pages glued to a cardboard spine, with cardboard covers-fifty years ago, or a hundred, or twenty-five or so, as I did, certainly, for a variety of reasons, and for a certain sort of person. I attended Princeton and worked with prominent writers there and at Iowa, where I attended grad school, and thus I fit the profile of the sort of person for whom it was perhaps not world-beatingly hard to publish a book.
But to expose your work to the world? Far easier now, hands down, because of the proliferation of means of distribution. If you want to publish, you can do it tomorrow. Today, even, if you jump on the internet right now. If you want to publish with Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, though, or some other elite outlet, then you’re screwed. My sense is that there are-perhaps as a result of MFA programs, as some suggest-far more people who can write a decent sentence, a decent paragraph, a decent collection of five to seven thousand words, something that looks like a story, than there were twenty or thirty or fifty years ago. There is, sadly, no greater number of people who have something actually worth saying with those words, sentences, paragraphs, than there were at any time in the past, and, to judge from what I read, there are perhaps fewer than there were.
So, if you’re a gatekeeper at an elite institution, you’re overwhelmed by a vast confusion of competent work that seems like it might be good, if only you were sure enough of yourself and your tastes to know. And so you have to set up filters to make sure that you don’t drown. Those filters tend to be-at least this is what I gather-what they were many years ago, in that long ago age before the internet screwed everything up for the elites: do I share this writer’s canon of taste? That is, does she/he write anything that offends or worries me, or seems to question my motives or way of life? Do I share this writer’s apparent political leanings? Does this writer possess any political or cultural capital that is currently popular, and thus might be leveraged in marketing the writer’s work? After those questions are answered in the most comforting possible way, then the actual writing comes into play.
So the answer to your query is twofold: Yes, it’s a lousy time to try to publish excellent work in the old conventional manner. And yes, it’s a great time for alternative venues, assuming you have something that’s actually alternative to say, which most people, let’s face it, simply don’t. They have the same thing to say that the famous, putatively wealthy, well-published writer has to say, only they’re saying it not as well or not as interestingly.
The book, as you say, won’t go away as long as it’s the best technology for the function it performs. The scroll, for instance, was a great technology for its time, and probably had its adherents-“My God, our culture will cease to exist when I can’t unroll a good scroll to curl up with!” But it was a serial technology, meaning it was terrific for things that went one direction and one direction only: a list of properties, for instance, or some other record-keeping function. Its usefulness to narrative and poetry and myth and legend and so on was presumably entirely secondary and probably only accidentally discovered.
The book, bound on its left edge, is a great random-access technology. Think about how badly a scroll would suck for a story collection: to get to “The Beginnings of Sorrow,” for instance, which is in the middle of the book, you’d have to unroll the whole thing, past all those stories you don’t want to look at, or else you’d have a whole bunch of scrolls. A modern book: you flip to the contents page, and then you flip to the page you want. Random access. Also portability: you can put a book in your pocket. Durability: you can read it in the bathtub and, if you drop it in, no great loss. It can probably even be rescued. Don’t try that with your Kindle or iPad.
Paper books, however, will cease to be the primary source in which people find their narratives. That day is coming sooner rather than later. So long as I have narratives in the form in which I desire them, and reasonably conveniently, I have no nostalgia for the paper book. I don’t object if folks do. I’m nostalgic, for instance, for the 1972 Mustang Mach 1 or the 1968 Pontiac GTO. I also recognize that those beasts, while beautiful, to a particular taste, and monstrously fast and powerful, burned gas like a motherfucker. I’m glad there are still some around. I’m also glad that modern, technologically advanced cars with other virtues, more important to me now that I am old and have a family and love comfort more than speed, are inexpensively and conveniently available to me. Wait a moment while I grow misty-eyed over the vanishment of the Plymouth Roadrunner.
So, of the writers who have come out with novels or short-story collections in, say, the last fifteen years, who do you think we should be reading?
My favorite: Daniel Woodrell. I know that, with the success of the film version of Winter’s Bone, it will seem like I’m jumping on the Dan Woodrell bandwagon, the way everybody jumped on the Cormac McCarthy bandwagon those years ago, when Knopf started publishing his accessible novels and he started winning genius awards and Pulitzers and all that shit, but I was a Daniel Woodrell fan before that was cool. I reviewed his Give Us a Kiss for the Washington Post years ago, and I was a reader before that. He does a great mix of “genre”-crime fiction-and the literary-compulsively readable, character-driven, dramatic, and moving.
He tells me, by the way, that he was thought by his class at Iowa to be the “least likely to succeed,” so that gives you to know how much the judgments of the elites-at least the baby elites-are worth.
Pinckney, it’s been a pleasure. Please don’t take fifteen years to give us your next book.
I’ll try not to, but I’m not making any promises. Like Ernest and Julio Gallo, I will sell no wine before its time.