Recently, InDigest had the chance to bat around a few questions with novelist and essayist John Domini about his latest collection of essays, The Sea God’s Herb. The author of Earthquake I.D. and A Tomb on the Periphery (which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award) had a lot of terrific and insightful things to say!
InDigest Magazine: I’ve heard people attribute a declining interest in literature to the shallowing of analysis we see in modern book reviews. However, though many outlets like newspapers have trimmed reviewing due to cost cuts, the interest still seems to be there…people having to search more to find out more about books. If the shallowing of reviews isn’t due to lack of serious interest, which seems to be the case, what do you think the cause might be?
John Domini: A nice, simple question! Don’t the issues you raise, first literature and second reviewing, seem better suited to a book? A doorstopper? But, okay, let’s confine ourselves to #2, the reviewing. After all, the state of American criticism is what made me write “Against the ‘Impossible to Explain,’” Sea-God’s lead essay. That’s the argument that drove the book, its selection and arrangement.
This Herb, ideally, puts across a polymorphous argument, the tentacles extending over three-four decades, for a more sensitive treatment of the experimental, the non-traditional, in the fiction (mostly) of our same half-century or so. Ideally, I’m proposing ways to read that elude far too many reviewers for the New York Times. I’m proposing that an artist like Gilbert Sorrentino, still unknown to a dismaying number of readers — and treated like an outlier, a freak, by the major critical forums — that his vision and craft in fact may better address our disturbed and disturbing times than the straightforward stuff.
In other words, I intend my book as a stay against what you call “shallowing” (not a bad neologism). The good news is, the consistency with which I’ve gotten my Defense of the Strange into print over the years suggests no loss of interest. The bad news is, my spotty record at larger venues like the Times — spotty at best — suggests the editors at such places don’t want to hear it. Hence, my call to change.
I could go on, unpacking the history — but as I say, that way lies a doorstopper.
IDM: Your reviews demonstrate an uncommon level of engagement. Do you put in this level of work more as a service to the writing, contributing to the general ongoing literary discussion, or more because you simply enjoy digging into literature in that way?
JD: This one seems suited to a biographical tidbit. Let me take you back to the days of the typewriter, when I first wrote the longer Barth essay. This was assigned as a review for The New Republic, but a new editor took over and killed the piece. He didn’t go for such books; he was, he wrote, “a meat-and-potatoes reader.”
Now, wouldn’t the sensible response be to show the review as is to one or two other editors, and then if they didn’t take it, stick those 800 words in a drawer?
Probably, but instead I wound up back at the typewriter, working up a more complex examination of LETTERS. Actually I began revisions with one ankle in an Ace bandage, propped up on a stack of books. The result wound up in a literary quarterly, and now (revised again, on new technology) it finds a home here.
The moral of the memory? God knows I’m stubborn, stubborn and vain, the bastards can’t stop me and I’m smarter than all of ‘em put together… yeah yeah yeah. We’re all stubborn and vain, God knows, but as I look back at that wounded child over his typewriter, I see a love story. My prime mover had to be the pleasures of the dig, the joy of the trowel, not the dream of fame as the Man Who Discovered Atlantis.
As for the other motivator, contributing to the larger discourse, there’s no denying that helped shape the Barth essay. Helped a lot, maybe. I wanted to direct the conversation, some, a desire also at work in other pieces, even a brief one like the Can Xue. That woman demands consideration as one of those who matter. Still, I must lie down where all the ladders start… in the ventricles and atria.
IDM: I noticed you are frequently able to be familiar with a writer’s larger body of work when considering a particular piece, placing it in its context. Is that more from opportunity to review authors you follow that already interest you or do you deliberately seek out a larger context when reviewing?
JD: For starters, see above. If I’m driven primarily by pleasure, as I claim, then doesn’t that carry over to the books I seek out for review? Take Jaimy Gordon: first I fell in love with her c. 1990, and when at last I got a shot at examining her at length, c. 2012, I seized it. In a relationship like that, I come to my beloved with baggage — with context.
But you’re also raising a question, aren’t you? You’re asking how context bears on a critic’s work, and my answer would be “a bunch,” or the equivalent in sophisticated vocabulary. Context had a bearing on every selection in Sea-God.
It doesn’t take a blindered Marxist to see that an author’s life and times has a lot to do with how he or she applies talent to obsession. We’re all of us whacked by history and economics, even those imaginations more lightly tethered to earth — like say, Italo Calvino. Now, as for my reading of Calvino and his Cities, here, I’d like to think it’s valuable for its own sake, not just for how it perceives that text’s place in his historical moment. But I’d also like to believe the essay reveals bridges by which the more plodding among us can cross over to that man’s imaginative space. So too, my “Selected” makes its selection out of my moment. It’s modular, I say in the Preface, in the sense of pieced together out of many parts, a construction that allows the book to enact one man’s fumbling attempt to define the developing postmodern monster, over a significant period in the Frankenstein’s development. If the book works, it both exemplifies context and, at the same time, performs an analysis.
IDM: What influenced the particular reviews you selected for this book? Did you feel they were your best reviews, were about works you felt were most significant, a combination thereof?
JD: Bottom line: the greatest influence for these reviews and essays were their subjects. The novels and authors themselves, plus The Wire on TV and Hot Rats on the turntable, all the babble of culture, this resonated within the chambers of my aging skull until it began to produce responsive choruses.
That is, for me a primary critical task is to address the artwork in its own language: to understand its givens, like its range and form. For me it seems destructive to presume that a work of fiction will present its world according to a certain template. The common template remains that of the social novel, hammered out in the middle 19th Century, and indeed such novels these days often use a setting from decades back, “historical.” Yet, even a master player of such compositions, like Toni Morrison, will demonstrate restlessness with its strictures. Morrison at her best, Sula at the top, gives surprising shape and color to her community portraits.
That said, sure I’ve got critical models. In the Preface, I mention a Robert Coover. Two figures considerably older also shaped my approach, though they couldn’t be more different: Edmund Wilson, basically a popularizer, if brilliant, and Mikhail Bahktin, basically a visionary about the language of storytelling. Naturally, I know more recent figures, Marxists like Eagleton (though I prefer John Berger, on painting), Deconstructionists like Derrida (though I’ll take Roland Barthes, at the movies).
No one, however, had the impact of Susan Sontag. No response to my criticism meant more to than a letter she sent, out of the blue, in praise of my Barthelme piece. Her essays came across to me as cleansing the doors of perception, as opening better ways of seeing.
IDM: Given the level of rigor you’ve learned to bring to reading, do you ever have trouble shutting that off when you want a more relaxing, lazy Sunday kind of reading?
JD: Should I reveal that I’m usually a month behind on my Times Book Review? I shelve them as bathroom reading, and work through a review or two at a time — and even that tends to shrink to, say, three paragraphs out of five.
Believe me, I’ve got my limits. In the ‘90s I did a stretch as a full-time father, then another writing for money (business reports, copywriting, etc.), and of course that cut into my literary reading. If I defy the wear and tear, in any way, it’s that I tend to keep up the literary reading. During that same difficult period I finally read Anna Karenina; I discovered Louise Erdrich and Mary Caponegro.
And when I’m at my limit, when I reach for the mellow gold, like many others I settle for non-fiction on subjects I enjoy. I’m always up for intelligent writing about rock’n’roll. I’ve tried my hand at that myself; you can track down my mid-‘90s piece on Chrissie Hynde. Then there’s southern Italy, and its visitors, going back three thousand years. I love that stuff, and not long ago I gave over a couple of days to Robert Harris’ potboiler Pompeii. As for the evenings, I’ve whiled away on baseball reading, well, St. Peter’s keeping the box score. When it comes to baseball reading, though, often I find myself back in the rarified air of Qual Lit. The Greatest Slump of All Time, by David Carkeet, anyone?
IDM: Your reviews demonstrate your capability to intelligently analyze much more than just literature. Do you consider yourself a polymath, or is it more that you have polymathic interests?
JD: Joe, I know you mean well, but this question leaves me uncomfortable. I’ll grant you that I may’ve developed my own brand of tinnitus, but to my ear, it sounds like, “You really are a genius, aren’t you?” Leaves me squirming.
The one worthwhile thought I can come up with is that I’m fundamentally a fiction artist, even now, I have stories and a novel coming, and such imaginations tend to work like magpies, building their nests out of whatever they pick up. Most excellent case in point, William Shakespeare, called “myriadminded” by Coleridge. But what writer would ever risk comparison to Shakespeare?
IDM: You review a range of works from the highly complex, requiring a great deal of effort to puzzle out and talk about, and the readily approachable. I understand and agree with the idea that both must be contemplated, but do you prefer reviewing one over the other?
JD: Do you see how your question presumes a reader? It presumes a norm, regarding the difficulty of the text, a norm that matches up with the “average reader,” that publisher’s will-o’-the-wisp. Now, granted, I meditate on a couple of crowd-pleasers here, like The Sopranos, and a couple of the books in Sea-God are “readily approachable” I suppose. The English Patient was an international hit — but then, down in the poetic weeds of Ondaatje’s syntax, his sex scenes in particular, one wonders, would an “average reader” lose his way?
My point is, I can’t review based on pencil-marks along a wall somewhere, intended to indicate how easy or hard something is to read. The question makes me recall that, when I was a teenager, half-informed or less, I read Donald Barthelme in the New Yorker. Did I miss a lot of what he was about? No question. Did I catch something crucial nonetheless? I believe so, ineradicably, and in the later ‘80s I composed a long essay, with no idea of where I might publish, out of that conviction.
Were I to define what draws me to a book, what makes me want to write about it, I’d say it’s not the craft but rather the vision. Of course vision makes itself felt at the level of craft, the molecular level of phrase and sentence. Of course as I’m reading a book, minute by minute, I’m testing it at the level of craft. After all, when I did that review of Matt Bell and Blake Butler, among the earliest serious assessment either writer got, I had little to go on besides their way with the language. Still, I’d argue that the language in both reflected larger concerns, a grappling with the best way their art might forge some fresh linkages between their world and mine.
Then next — and this too is an issue, a major issue, concerning the books I review — I struck out with every editor I approached about reviewing Bell’s and Butler’s followup books. I had to sit on my hands.
IDM: Have you ever had an author outright disagree with your analysis? If so, what happened?
JD: Well, that’s the risk of integrity, isn’t it? Sea-God actually includes an example, my first review of Stephen Dixon, in the New York Times no less. The assignment was one of his lesser story collections, and I said so. Meh, I said, though I believe I gave credit where it was due. Then, what, three months later, I found myself face to face with the man at a Johns Hopkins event. No blows were exchanged, no drinks spilled, but he made clear he wasn’t happy, and that the review may have cost him.
Reviewer’s nightmare, no? But, ah, here’s the happy dream: a dozen years further along, I got the chance to praise his novel Interstate. That’s by any measure a more challenging work, each chapter throws us bewildering changes.
IDM: Do you think we should be teaching reviewing more at the university level?
JD: The short answer’s “yes.” Such a course would be instructive both for the apprentice literary artist and for anyone interested in the liberal arts. But like most of your questions — and good for you — this one raises a larger issue. It speaks to the growing quandary of Creative Writing curriculum with the Humanities.
Creative Writing, these days, props up university English. Students are required to take comp, and often Intro to Lit, but if they’re drawn back to English after that, in the vast majority of cases they’re taking Creative Writing. As Michael Martone told me once, about his Alabama department: “Nobody’s showing up to study Milton.”
Now, is this a bad thing, for the culture? Such questions lead us to another doorstop tome, but in academics these days, the debate’s irrelevant. Rather, CW is a fact of life, it’s fundamental to the economic underpinnings of that life, and so the challenge becomes establishing an academic justification for the workshops. What are the kids learning? What history or the art, what aesthetic philosophies, do they come away knowing? Maybe they don’t study Milton, but shouldn’t someone with an MFA in Poetry know something of Paradise Lost? And iambic pentameter? And a time when a poet was one of the king’s closest counselors?
A course in reviewing (year-long, in my Utopia U), would help address these concerns. Reviewing, by its nature, forces us to find connections between book and world: between the private tortures and toys of the artist and the world his or her object enters. Every book, even Kafka’s nightmare geegaws, supposes a place in the world for itself. And Kafka too had his circle, his politics, his schooling: all the stuff of early-20th-Century Prague that shaped his artistic production.
Reviewer: discuss, in 800 words, and on deadline of course. Such an assignment sounds delicious to me — and such a course.
IDM: Have you ever been presented with a book for review that you just didn’t think you could find anything worth talking about?
JD: In Portland, OR, once, I lost a friend, a kind of friend, over my refusal to review his book, or more precisely my refusal to try. But was about personalities, more than books and how to criticize them. I’ll just say that, while it’s far more common to have editors keep me from reviewing some title I want to, every once in a while, yes, it’s my own doing, when I sit on my hands. See Donald Barthelme for a wittier way with silence.