Gilbert Sorrentino Interview
by Alexander Laurence
- The Oulipo has come into focus in the past ten years. What is your own interest in this group concerned mainly with formalism? Under The Shadow seems to point in that direction of structures and constraints.
GS: I've always been interested in the formal, despite the fact that the word "formalism" as it is now used to describe a certain kind of mummified poetry, is not what I have in mind. My sense of the formal is that of a structure or series of structures that can, if one is lucky enough, generate "content," or, if you please, the wholeness of the work itself. Almost all of my books are written under the influence of some sort of preconceived constraint or set of rules. Some of these are loose and flexible, like the time scheme in Steelwork, and others are quite rigorous, like the alphabetical framework in Misterioso. My interest in Oulipo dates back maybe 10 years or so, when I became aware of what they were up to - I had, quite mistakenly, thought it a group somewhat involved with surrealism. But their concern with formal structures as permissive of and conducive to compositional freedom was right up my alley. Under the Shadow has a structure based upon the drawings done for Raymond Roussel's Nouvelles Impressions D'Afrique by H. A. Zo, drawings that, incidentally, have nothing to do with the text, but which, oddly enough, make a text of their own, a fragmented and discontinuous one, but a text nonetheless. Under the Shadow is Zo's "story" as it can be pulled out of his pedestrian but really haunting drawings.
- In the wake of the media overload and the Joycean overlap, how does art compete with popular culture? What is exactly the position of novel writing in such a cultural situation?
GS: I think that art has always existed with, if not competed with popular culture. When the court was reading "The Canterbury Tales," the illiterates in the street were singing folk tales and watching jugglers and clowns and God knows what. It's always been this way and probably always will be--the novel has somehow been posited for us as a kind of "mass item" and if it sells only 1500 copies is seen as a failure. I don't know if that's even a reasonably intelligent way of thinking. A novel, even a lousy novel, can't command the audience of the least successful TV sitcom, and yet such a form is "supposed to." Outside of the dreary rubbish that is churned out by god knows how many hacks of varying degrees of talent, the novel is, it seems to me, a very special and rarefied kind of literary form, and was, for a brief moment only, wide-ranging in its sociocultural influence. For the most part, it has always been an acquired taste and it asks a good deal from its audience. Our great contemporary problem is in separating that which is really serious from that which is either frivolously and fashionably "radical" and that which is a kind of literary analogy to the Letterman show. It's not that there is pop culture around, it's that so few people can see the difference between it and the high culture, if you will. Morton Feldman is not Stephen Sondheim. The latter is a wonderful what-he-is, but he is not what-he-is-not. To pretend that he is is to insult Feldman and embarrass Sondheim, to enact a process of homogenization that is something like pretending that David Mamet, say, breathes the same air as Samuel Beckett. People used to understand, it seems to me, that there is, at any given time, a handful of superb writers or painters or whatever--and then there are all the rest. Nothing wrong with that. But it now makes people very uncomfortable, very edgy, as if the very idea of a Matisse or a Charles Ives or a Thelonious Monk is an affront to the notion of "ain't everything just great!" We have the spectacle, then, of perfectly nice, respectable, harmless writers, etc., being accorded the status of important artists. I saw, for instance, maybe a year ago or so, a long piece in The New York Times on the writers who worked on some hero-with-guns movie. Essentially a pleasant bunch of middle-class professionals, with the aspirations of, I'd guess, very successful cardiac surgeons. Workmen, in a sense, who do what they're told to make a very good living. Not a shred of imaginative power left in them. But the piece dealt with them in the same way that the paper deals with Sharon Stone, Leonard Bernstein, Mark Rothko, Merce Cunningham, etc., etc. It's sort of all swell! My point, if I haven't yet made it, is that while it's all right to think of something as delicious as Dallas or Dynasty as, well, delicious, it's not a good idea to confuse them with Jean Genet. Essentially, the novelist, the serious novelist, should do what he can do and simply forgo the idea of a substantial audience.
- Do the ideas of William S. Burroughs translate into literature, or are they just tools for popular culture?
GS: Burroughs has translated his ideas into his own literature, but they seem to stop there. As far as Burroughs and pop culture go, I really have no clear idea of how they mesh or how one influences the other. Burroughs is a legitimate artist, but he is not as good as his admirers think and he is nowhere near as bad as the people who have never read him believe. Of course, Naked Lunch, is the text that most people read, while the rest of Burroughs more or less languishes, even though his trilogy, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express are his best books. But Naked Lunch appeals to the juvenile mind that wants to think of it as the crazy work of a really crazy guy full of smack and writing in a daze--Burroughs as Rimbaud on heroin! Then there's the school that thinks of Naked Lunch as a "satire" on authoritarianism and the state. But the text of Naked Lunch presents the reader with a classic aporia: it does not quite mean to say what we mean it to say. There is something vaguely "insincere" about it. By that I mean that Naked Lunch sends a number of conflicting messages, the most salient of which can be phrased--simplistically and reductively, I grant you--"Oh, how terrifying and horrible and impossible to tolerate is this destructive addiction to heroin ... you dumb squares!" So the referential function of the text works one way and metalingual function another. Naked Lunch, however,succeeds because of this conflict, i.e., Burroughs as good as tells the reader that the latter is in the hands of a con man, he is a mark. And what is the role of a mark? To believe the con, to think himself, as a matter of fact, superior to the con. That's precisely how he gets conned. The ideal specimen of the reader revealed as a mark is seen in the biography of Burroughs by Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw. You can see Morgan figuratively handing over his money.
- What is your impression of the term "postmodernism?"
GS: It's a really imprecise term, despite the work of Lyotard, Jameson, Guattari, etc., etc. I tend to think of it as an extension of the problems of unresolvability, indeterminacy and fragmentation proffered in the texts of high modernism. What is more "postmodern" than Finnegans Wake or Watt or At Swim-Two-Birds? Yet they are all arguably modern texts. Borrowings, quotations, inter- and intratextualities, references, collage, fragmentation, indeterminacies, ambiguities--they're all present in these texts. Yet they are all present in "postmodern" texts as well. One can't even mention irony, since modernist texts are full of it and some postmodern texts, like Creeley's late prose, reveal no irony at all. Maybe a better term would be late-late modernism, or contemporary modernism. You know that you're in terminological trouble when you hear clothing styles being described as "postmodern" and movie reviewers blather about "deconstruction" when you realize that they mean satire.
- Why were the elements of Black Mountain available to writers in the 1950s and not now? I don't want to suggest the notion of "the good old days" which just blurs the actuality, but were there stronger talents in that time, or has economics ruined the state of today's art?
GS: Hard to answer this question. I was on a panel a little while ago with Robert Creeley, and we were both being asked versions of your question. Apparently, young people are enormously interested in "how things were" in the Fifties. Creeley said something much to the point, to the effect that we all took art very seriously in those days, we were absolutely committed. He's right, of course, there was a sense then among young artists that we were writing for our lives--but maybe more importantly, there was a really drab "establishment" in place at that time--artistic and social and political--and young artists felt, rightly or wrongly, that they were destroying it, "deforming the ideogram," as Jakobson says.
- Experimental writing has been undermined by lazy readers and corporate tendencies of editors and publishers. How accurate is the previous statement?
GS: Absolutely accurate. But it's always been absolutely accurate. Joyce, Pound, and Williams commanded the smallest of audiences and were shunned by what we now think of as "major" publishing houses. Publishers have always been craven when the odds are not in their favor, it's just enhanced nowadays because there is so much money to be made if the publisher can hit the shit machine. What is most surprising to me is the number of--what can I call them?-- "absent" books published. These are books that have no literary merit, no spirit of aesthetic adventure, no rough but interesting formal design, and--this is most important--no chance of commercial success! That's what is so amazing to me--not the number of Judith Krantz-like novels published, nor the Calvin Trillin-Garrison Keillor warm and wise and witty and wonderful malarkey, but the novels that just lie there: life and love in a small town in Northern California, sexual awakening in a Baptist family in Pennsylvania--daughter flees to Greenwich Village, meets bum who makes her pregnant, discovers feminism--and on and on. Were I running these houses, I'd can all these editors in a minute. If they can't make millions, would be my thinking, I'll be God damned if they're going to put out excrement that will only break even, i.e., if we want to break even, I'd say, let's publish BOOKS. But, of course, the chances are that the people who own these houses would not know a book if it buggered them.
- Mulligan Stew is a parody of several literary cultures. Can this process have any meaning for readers who don't understand what's going on before their eyes? Can this sort of book still be written today?
GS: A parody only works if the reader or viewer is aware of the model that is being parodied. Sure, a book like this can be written today, but since there seem to be fewer readers, there will be fewer people who get the parody. Literature feeds on itself and people have to learn to read if they want to be readers. You can only learn to read by reading, but you can read only if you've learn how.
- How has your writing process changed? Since you moved to California in 1982, have you mellowed out and become an ornament of the university?
GS: I work the same way that I've always worked, or so I think, that is, I try to set aside a certain amount of time each day, if I can manage it, to write in. I'd like very much to be an "ornament of the university" by which I assume you mean that I would be a kind of sage and wondrous presence on campus, teaching no classes, advising no students, reading no papers, but more or less there as resident Old Artist. Unfortunately, it's not the case. Stanford requires the same teaching load to be borne by everybody, scholar, artist, or nitwit, so that's too bad. But I still have enough time to work. As for mellowing out, as you put it, California--at least the Bay Area--is so utterly antithetical to me that I find myself, at all times, struggling against its cuteness, its apathy, its general air of paralysis, its relentless small-townishness, so that it's hard to imagine being mellowed out while in the throes of battle. I don't quite know what it is about the place but the entire Bay Area, with the source of infection being, of course, that citadel of provincialism, San Francisco, has the air of an amateur stage production set in sinister natural surroundings. I had a student some time ago who said that the sun out here gave her the creeps. I'd agree, but with elaboration, that is, the sun shining on a street crafts-exhibition, complete with wine and local "performers." Now that is hell on earth.
- How does music influence you as a writer? You have made many references to jazz and classical music. Are you a musician yourself?
GS: It doesn't influence me at all, that is, any references to music in my work are just that, references, and my work is not musically structured in any way. I'm not a musician, but have fooled around, emphasis on the "fooled," with the tenor saxophone when I was in my late teens, and I have been a listener to jazz since I was 14. Classical music came later. It's hard for me to make any kind of useful remarks about music in other writers' work, although it is quite clearly an important structural element of Zukofsky's A.
- How do you see the relation of high art to popular culture? Does Mulligan Stew have any relevance for a society where literature doesn't influence the culture?
GS: I think I've more or less answered this already. They are both quite certainly present, and, as such, can be seen and talked about and so on and so forth. But it is bad news to confuse one with the another or to think that to know about one is to know about the other. If you only know the British poets of the 18th century and you've never watched TV, you don't "see" certain things in the culture of the society--and if you have memorized lines from lots of movies and you've never read The Iliad you are lacking in general education as a Western person. That is just that. As far as Mulligan Stew goes, its relevance to this essentially letterless society is the relevance of any and all literature to this society. Of course, "society" is a catchall word and includes everybody, the whole shebang, that is, the ill-educated person in the famous "inner city" (what a phrase, and how it indicates the contempt in which city living is and was held by the pitiful suburbs!) is no more distant from literature than a professor of electrical engineering, say, or a corporate attorney. Literature is there for those who want it and for those who don't want it there are dozen of substitutes. That is simply life, as they say, and there's no use wringing one's hands about it. The greatest problem, if it is a problem at all in this huge amusement park in which we live, is that the so-called educated stratum of society comprises people who are not in possession of the same materials, so that Mulligan Stew may not speak at all to people who are highly educated in one specific field--for instance, I cannot imagine it being read by Michael Milken, although I could very wrong. But I don't think I'd be wrong to say that it would not be read by Teddy Kennedy or Newt Gingrich or Jack Kevorkian or the chief of marketing at Coca-cola.
- What is one to make of the success/failure of the writings of Edward Dahlberg?
GS: Dahlberg is a writer whose work cannot be tamed or reduced or assimilated. He is a subversive and destructive master of prose, who is, at his best, so good that he takes your breath away. He is also zany, goofy, loopy, misogynistic, deeply prejudiced, bitter, nasty, paranoid and absolutely unfair. He has no politics that any politician could possibly find useful, and he is a great agent of the truth that only art can purvey. He is a great American writer, astonishingly original, a virtuoso without peers, and probably much too good for us. That he is hardly known and hardly read, that he is virtually ignored by academics, that he is still rather regularly mocked and patronized by literary scum, all testifies to our unerring vulgarity as a people--our vulgarity and stupidity. The circumstances of his life turned him into a desolate, half-crazed misanthrope, but as an artist he is the very definition of integrity and purity. Ten or fifteen pages of Because I Was Flesh or Can These Bones Live is a terrific antidote to the utterly fake prose that one is liable to bump into in the pages of The New Yorker, say, that "well-written" prose of the nightmare market. He will not play ball.
- Can you re-evaluate the beats? Are they nothing now but a cultural pose of rebellion?
GS: The beats can only be understood as a single manifestation, in the fifties, of the general dissatisfaction, among young, unknown artists, with the given norms of art then in ascendance. They have been distorted out of all reality by the popular media, probably because they make "good copy," but they were no less distorted at the time they emerged. Some of them did good work, some not, but that is the case with all "movements." That they were especially iconoclastic is an idea that will not wash, when one considers the remarkable innovations, the formal attacks on the norms of literature present at the time, by such writers as Olson, Creeley, O'Hara, Spicer, and so on. Strangely enough, some of the most compelling beat writers are more or less forgotten now--Ray Bremser for one, and then, of course, there is Irving Rosenthal, whose single book, long out of print and almost impossible to find, Sheeper, is perhaps the most elegant single work to emerge from that era. To talk about the beats without acknowledging these writers is to assume that the propaganda about that era is the truth about that era. This is all further complicated by the historical blurring that occurs when non-beat writers are lumped in with beat writers, when we are told that such writers as Amiri Baraka, William Burroughs, Michael McClure, even Gary Snyder, are beat writers. That's like saying that Raymond Roussel was a surrealist. Again, to understand the beats, you have understand the general cultural ferment that was going on in the arts in the fifties, the restlessness, the boredom, the unintentional comedy of an era that proffered Randall Jarrell as a very important poet and that valorized Robert Frost to the detriment of William Carlos Williams.
- What is your opinion of creative writing workshops?
GS: Creative writing workshops are useful in that they tend to bring together young writers who have nobody to talk to. Otherwise, I can say only that in my own experience of them, it is rare that bad writers can be helped or that good writers could not do as well without ever seeing a workshop. Of course, bad writers can often be helped to make marketable products by sheer dint of dogged revision and the mastery of certain modes of "craft," and good writers can be so regularly assailed--by instructors, colleagues, or both and/or mature, become dejected and confused as to the quality of their writing.
- Can satire still be written in the age of multi-culturalism, political correctness, and respect for women and minorities?
GS: If a writer worries about political correctness, it's probable that he won't be able to write satire, since satire, by its very nature, offends somebody or something. In our time, satire, in all media, tends to be very tame. The targets are almost always predictable--idiots of the right or left--or stars and celebrities. We are given satirical treatments of people like Madonna or Prince Charles or Teddy Kennedy or Clarence Thomas! You see the sickening spectacle of the victims of the satire laughing it up with those who satirize them--this is surely a dead giveaway that the satire has no teeth. Satire should wound, draw blood, even destroy. Some guy on Saturday Night Live, I understand, used to "satirize" George Bush, and Bush invited him to the White House! Sure, satire can indeed be written now, but the satirist must be willing to be despised and assaulted. Satire is heartless and anarchic. If it's not it's just another mode of entertainment in the great world of entertainment that the United States has become. This kind of juvenile "fun-poking" used to be the province of Mad magazine--fun for the kiddies. Now we have David Letterman "satirizing" his "guests" before they all run down to the bank en masse. On the other hand, maybe we're too far gone for satire, too corrupt, too Goddamned dumb.
- Joseph McElroy and Harry Mathews seem to be writers that are the most similar to you. All of you are unclassifiable and difficult. There are no real labels for writers outside of black comedy, post-modern, or post-post schools.
GS: No comment, really. I don't much understand groupings and I don't even know if they're legitimate. I do what I feel like doing when I feel like doing it. My new book, for instance, Red The Fiend, is not only unlike anything that any of the writers you mention has done, it's not like anything that I have done. One of the very best things about being as artist is that you don't have to care about anybody's expectations. If people don't like what you've done, they can, to paraphrase Edward Dahlberg, go read another book.
- Lita Hornick called you "a literary hitman" or "a Mafioso." What was that about? I am guessing that it had something to do with the situation surrounding Kulchur?
GS: I've told my side of the story in reference to Kulchur and Lita Hornick has told hers in the 1978 volume, The Little Magazine in America: A Modern Documentary History, so there's no point in rehearsing it again. I wasn't aware of the "literary hit man" or "literary mafioso" business, but the best-kept secret in America is that Italian-Americans may be insulted and maligned at will, any time, and in all strata of society, by the uneducated, the semi-educated, the highly educated and the over-educated. Italian-Americans don't, as a rule, care much, save for a few halfhearted attempts at official complaint by scattered organizations, probably because they have always viewed American society at large with a suspicious eye. Here's a society that gives lip service to children, women and the family, yet despises all these things--this is very un-Italian. It may also have to do with Italian-Americans' sense of their own past, I don't know. Italians have been around for a long time and the sense that society is, in essence, a kind of bust, permeates their lives. My father's family comes from a town in Sicily, Sciacca, that has been there since about 750 B.C. I'm not implying that this fact has anything to do with my "primary" makeup, since I'm absolutely American in every way, but such a heritage is given one in unspoken ways, and American culture seems oddly ephemeral when set against such an instance of fact. I mean to say that Italian-Americans somehow know who they are, without much to-do about it, and the Mafia gags seem, to most of them--of us--evidence of a supreme vulgarity. But Lita Hornick was not, in my recollection, what one would consider socially adept.
- What is the main concern of a writer?
GS: The main concern of a writer, if you mean a writer as artist, is to make art. He must have the luxury of being permitted to do this, just as the physicist is permitted to do physics and the surgeon to operate. An artist makes things. All else that he does, in his role as an artist, is incidental, accidental, or peripheral. If he worries about being an anachronism then he should quit writing and do something else.
- You spoke of Edward Dahlberg as "clearing the ground." Attacking what needed to be attacked. In a similar way, have you felt that you've cleared the ground with your own work, and are saying what you want to say?
GS: I don't have that sort of view of my own work, and I don't know whether I've "cleared the ground" at all. I've done what I've done best I could given the circumstances granted me and although I sometimes wish that I'd been better at what I attempted to do I can't imagine doing anything other than what I've done. Donald Barthelme says in one of his stories that the function of an artist is to fail. He is, of course, right. No artist ever conceptualizes his vision and he knows that this is the fact as he begins the process of conceptualization, since the vision that serves as the impetus of the work is changed, reformed, corrupted, dissolved, and so on in the act of making the work. As the work is made, the vision is transformed, and the final work is that which has been made despite the vision. So all is really a drive against an ideal, and the artist knows this as it occurs--he fails as he works and the failure is apparent to him.
- Are there any writers that you approve of?
GS: I don't much like to make lists of writers I like or dislike, but at this stage of my life I can say that the writers I like are usually writers who are nothing at all like me. And I usually say, "This writer can really write, I wonder why I don't write this way?" In the back of my mind I know that were I to write this way, I wouldn't really be writing, but exercising my intelligence in a display of self-betrayal.