If you think you’ve arrived, then you're dead
The lost interview
Herewith an interview I did shortly after my story collection Savage Love appeared in 2013. This was in the heyday of my magazine career, and there are several references to Numéro Cinq, the monthly arts and lit mag I used to publish.
A Canadian magazine, which shall remain nameless, assigned two editors to ask me questions via email. A lengthy list of questions duly arrived. Trouble was that the interviewers had a point of view that was quite different from mine. Their questions insisted, it seemed, on trying to corral me into taking, admitting or revealing political positions in the context of my writing where no political position had been intended (or at least not the sort of political position they had intuited). Northrop Frye once said that to answer a question is to accept the assumptions on which the question is based. These questions revealed assumptions that I didn’t share and often just plain annoyed me. My answers were combative and gruff, edging into contempt. I got carried away with my own rhetoric and enjoyed getting carried away. The interview was a train wreck of misapprehensions. Quite funny in retrospect. Publication canceled.
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Later I looked at the questions and answers with a cooler eye, lopped out several of the interchanges and reshaped the remaining questions and responses. In retrospect, I should have been more forthcoming with my misgivings, but throwing a tantrum now and then is fun and liberating. In this case, no one was hurt, and one of the interviewers is still on emailing terms with me.
Topics covered include the ideal reader, Marshall McLuhan, irony, the intense suffering of my characters, the necessity of changing yourself, Elle turning (or not) into a bear and how that made her a writer, Rabelais, teaching writing, the Internet, etc.
As you read through, it might add to your pleasure if you try to spot the assumptions in the questions and my evasions of same, using tactics like re-defining the terms, subverting the assumptions, lengthy recontextualizing, etc. As my son Jonah once said after watching me do an on-stage interview, “You never answered a single question.” He was laughing. Then I told him about Northrop Frye.
If you think you’ve arrived, then you’re dead
Q: Attack of the Copula Spiders is divided in its assessments of writers, readers, and the literary marketplace. On the one hand, articles about Alice Munro, Mark Anthony Jarman, Cees Noteboom, Leon Rooke, Thomas Bernhard and Juan Rulfo are optimistic about the ability of artists to escape “the anaesthetic faux humanism of contemporary market-driven fiction.” On the other, the book decries our post-literate age. “We are in a Tea Party Lit trough these days, driven by politics, recession and the cultural terror inspired by the digital revolution,” you write. One implication of living in a post-literate age is that a golden age of literacy has been lost. Was there ever a golden age of literacy?
GLOVER: The essay you’re referring to is a polemic as well as a writing lesson on the use of verbs. That phrase “post-literate age” is not new, not mine, and I used it as shorthand for the situation as I experience it anecdotally in the course of teaching writing students. People seem to be reading fewer books, the traditions are not much regarded, and the rigor of written work seems to have lapsed somewhat. But to go from the brio of polemic to the light of cold critical reason with that kind of evidence is a bit beyond me. I said what I said in that essay not so much to make a claim as to inspire people to read more and better. The truth is I don’t really know what people read. My data pool is quite small. There comes a point where one ought to keep quiet about it. I did, of course, enjoy writing that Tea Party Lit line and hoped that it captured the tone of the Zeitgeist. But I don’t know if there ever was a Golden Age of literacy. There have been, in one culture or another, at one time or another, small groups of particularly well-read and gifted people. But they have mostly been in a minority, and perhaps all we see now is a democratization of the act of writing, the desire to write and publish, and in my own snobbish way I am calling it Tea Party Lit.
There is another way of looking at this, one that appeals to me (and I’ve written about this at length in several of my books including The Enamoured Knight and Elle and also my long essay “Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought”). The age of literacy began for Western culture at the moment the Greeks discovered writing. Prior to writing we all lived in an age of orality; everything from gossip to high literary art occurred by word of mouth and depended on individual human brains for storage and retrieval. Thought changes as soon as you can write things down, and it changes primarily because now you can remember (or forget) more things; literary works can get longer and research material can accumulate. The age of literacy is simply the age in which the primary vehicle for memory storage is books.
The post-literate age, in this second sense, is the age of computers and electronic data storage and retrieval. This has all sorts of repercussions for writers and publishers who are used to a certain sort of data transmission (marketing) system. I find that interesting but not threatening. But it also may have an effect on the way we think and write, an effect not yet clearly discernable in the world at large. For example, the novel is largely a form of the literate age, of books. What new form might be invented to take advantage of the new technologies?
Q: Do you think the “trough” is temporary? Is “Tea Party Lit” a matter of economic forces, or is the digital age itself a force for mediocrity?
GLOVER: All troughs are temporary; they last until the next trough. Actually, a trough is just a metaphor, something like Northrop Frye’s U-shaped universal plot structure. We’re in a spot now, it seems to me, and again I speak only anecdotally, that is defined by fear, market forces, defensiveness, and lack of adventurousness and spirit. And this is mainly because 1) the economy still sucks, 2) because the population is aging and these are the moral characteristics of many older people, and 3) because we’re in, as I said, an era of immense technological upheaval that is hard on publishers. You can understand why publishers are acting the way they are; actually none of this is surprising, or even particularly awful. You have to deal with the age you’re born in, try to understand it and how it affects you.
I grew up in the Sixties. I had a terrific time living through the youth revolt, the sexual revolution, the counterculture, the heyday of Canadian nationalism, and women’s liberation. But I am also glad those days are gone. It’s easier to work when you are less driven by group ideas.
Q: In Attack of the Copula Spiders, in the chapter “Scrupulous Fidelity,” you talk about Wittgenstein’s notion that ultimately language cannot speak the truth, but can only talk about itself, or “play” with itself (pun intended), and consequently, difficulty and incomprehensibility become aesthetic virtues. So, when one considers style itself as a vehicle for meaning, what would you say are the necessarily ironic socio-political-economics of what might be called complex, self-referential, and/or “difficult” stylistics in writing?
GLOVER: Pretty much everything I have written about literature concentrates on the idea that art isn’t primarily a vehicle for meaning. Meaning, or what we call meaning, is idea-text (thematic passage) inserted into the work and manipulated the same way every other aspect of the text is manipulated to create an aesthetic experience (pleasure). Or it is external to the text and comes from the reader through association and interpretation. There are, of course, lots of writers who do think they are sending a message, but the writers I am interested in are more likely to be exploring the vectors of complexity and technical elaboration instead of politics.
Difficult, elaborated, satirical, parodic, mixed-form art has existed for millennia. I think here of the Menippean satire, or what is known of it. An ancient form. Elle is my version of a Menippean satire. I am not sure how you can nail a form that has existed for millennia to an ideology or economic system. I do like what Bakhtin says about Rabelais and the spirit of the novel, that the novel represents a conflict of discourses, and that the style of Rabelais is to make comedy of the conflict between low discourse (the body) and the discourse of authority. Perhaps one could say that many difficult books are difficult because they are trying to undermine some authoritative or received mode of thought. But I am not sure that beyond subverting an authoritative discourse, whatever that may be, that there is a political economic basis for ironic discourse.
Q: Do you feel a new writer must have a web presence? You describe Numéro Cinq, your online magazine, as “A Warm Place on a Cruel Web.” Does the web hurt? To borrow from Frederick Jameson, does it refuse desire and set inexorable limits to individual as well as collective praxis? Is the web also the future of writing?
GLOVER: I am not sure if a writer has to have a web presence. It’s a good question. Most people think of the web as a marketing tool, a way to get yourself known. I know people who use it and some who don’t. I certainly don’t think it hurts, and I tend to think a writer, any artist, should be up to date with the main currents of his age. The Luddite position, as a position taken from ignorance, gets old pretty quickly. One interesting observation: The web has created an immense space for the printed word, huge amounts of copy are needed and generated to fill that space. I don’t suppose so many words have ever been written before so quickly. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
Any technology sets limits and in so doing refuses some desires; one of the fundamental conditions of life is that alternatives exclude. But a technology also opens up other/new opportunities for expression and dissemination. It’s not true that technology closes off desire, period. To start with, the web is cheap (so far). NC wouldn’t exist if we had to pay for printing and mailing. Nor would it have the international readership that it has; the Internet is brilliant for maximal distribution. All of a sudden certain limitations that accrued to the old print culture have disappeared. Will this change the collective praxis? I would say yes, undoubtedly, just as the invention of the press and printed books changed the collective praxis in the 15th century. NC is an experiment, a gesture on my part, into the new world of the web and digital publishing.
Q: Your novel Elle, a finalist for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and winner of the Governor General’s Award for Fiction offers a portrayal of a Frenchwoman known only as “Elle” who is left marooned on a bleak island on the East coast of Canada in the 16th Century. After horridly difficult living conditions, a near death experience, and encounters with Indigenous peoples, she eventually returns to France where she has a relatively brief relationship with “F” (François Rabelais), and helps assemble the fifth and final volume, Le Cinquième Livre in his La Vie de Gargantua et de Pantagruel. The suggestion is that “Elle” patched together his notes and fragments, embellished a bit and then saw the volume released after Rabelais’ death. Rabelais’ satires display fantasy, the grotesque, and a peculiar sense of humour. For satire, there is always an object of attack. Elle features ribald grotesqueries throughout, and the female protagonist observes that: “Life is punishment. It’s making small talk while the thumbscrews work, telling jokes in the Land of the Dead.” I think of ironic quests in other satires by authors such as Cervantes or Voltaire. When you wrote Elle what was your strategy in establishing the book within the larger global discourse, or in dialogical juxtaposition to earlier satires on the apparent pointlessness of human suffering?
GLOVER: As I said, Elle was conceived in part as my version of a Menippean satire. Mixed form, jokes, satire, experimental elaboration. As satire it has a set of nominal targets: official histories (of Canada, of Europe, of the novel), men, culture, book publishing, writers, Europeans, European explorers, colonizers, the Church (Catholic or Protestant), natives, anywhere I could find a useful piece of conventional wisdom to subvert. The book is a parody of the quest motif (as Elle says, it’s an anti-quest) and, obviously, of Robinson Crusoe (I even have Elle discover a footprint). So at the outset the book was conceived as a work in conversation with all sorts of other works.
To suggest that beyond that I had a strategy for establishing my book anywhere is to ascribe a level of wily self-consciousness not usually associated with moi. I didn’t set out to situate my book in a larger global discourse; on the other hand, I actually think in terms of that “larger global discourse.” It’s not something outside of me (I know that as a Canadian I am supposed to think it’s outside of me, but I don’t). The book isn’t a manipulated projection; it’s my natural voice as a writer. I couldn’t possibly write any other way.
The material about Rabelais developed out of my research. Well, I had read Rabelais and, of course, I wrote a book about Cervantes. That thinking dovetailed with my concern with 16th century France and Canada. The New World, the new religions, the new printing presses. And then I discovered in reading more deeply into Rabelais that there had been a rumour of his interest in Cartier’s voyages and so I had a natural entry into the novel for Rabelais as a character (and then it turned out that he had actually disappeared for some crucial months around the right time). And of course someone probably did pull together his notes for the last part of his book. So it wasn’t very hard to jump to the idea that a lost girl in Canada helped invent the modern novel. I think of it as a subversive joke.
Q: Elle, in part depicts the conflict between Eurocentric Christianity in contrast with Indigenous views as they mesh with “Elle’s” own unruly and headstrong tendencies. Elle eventually seems to adopt the shape-shifting power of native peoples, by sometimes transforming into a bear, but this apparent shamanism is tempered by Elle’s own questions about the nature of reality when she asks, “Did I really turn into a bear, or was I but a captive of a system of belief into which I had wandered unknowing?” Regardless of the actuality of turning into a bear, Elle experiences a profound sense of liberation; in a way her spirit overflows and is set free when she assumes her animal guise. Elsewhere in the novel, Elle comments on “F.” or Rabelais, noting that “Like all writers, he is a man fighting with himself for purchase, for confidence, for the moment when his spirit overflows onto the page and he is himself and free.” To what degree is your depiction of transmogrification into one’s animal self, an analogue for the experiences of any author as she/he struggles to allow the spirit to overflow onto the page?
GLOVER: If you look at my essay “Mappa Mundi: The Structure of Western Thought” you will see that I think humans pretty much everywhere operate under the metaphor of two worlds, the world of existence and the world of myth and /or Being. We conceive everything as bifurcated, self and other, subject and object. This leads to all sorts of antinomies: love is impossible because, ultimately, we can’t leap over the gulf between self and other; communication is impossible because language doesn’t transmit ideas perfectly from one mind to another. (Of course, love and communication are possible in some half-assed, vague, imperfect mode, which is how we get along in life. I am talking about concepts, absolutes, and the logic of definition.)
The general theme of both Elle and The Life and Times of Captain N is that humans are paradoxical: they want to stay at home and they want to go abroad; they want to stay safe amongst comfortable and predictable things (self) and they want to have adventures and learn new things (encounters the other, love, transcendence). Self, family, tribe, country, and cultures are organized systems inside which there is safety and predictability. The experience of otherness is one of confusion and unpredictability but also, suddenly, a release from the old rules. In the interzone between one culture (or person) and another, there is a moment of creativity and crime (it’s also the place where genocide happens). Both these novels are, in part, explorations of what it might be like to experience the interzone and, in Elle’s case, to transcend her old idea of self. Elle seems to turn into a bear; Captain N, dying, imagines himself being tortured in a native ritual.
Does Elle change into a bear or hallucinate? Who has the language to tell? But her power and authority come from having traveled into the interzone and briefly become other than herself. Or to put it another way, she has escaped form (the form of a white French girl in 16th century France) and is between forms (not quite native, either). And thus, of course, is marked as an outsider when she returns to France.
And, yes, to answer your question (finally), in both Elle and The Life and Times of Captain N. I claim in the text that this state of hybridity or dual-mindedness, also the state of being an outsider, is somehow necessary for the artist, the writer. It’s not so much the experience of changing into a bear as it is the experience of becoming other than herself, of finding that perspective, that makes Elle a writer. That’s what I seem to be saying in the novels. I am not at all sure that I hold to this view precisely outside the novel. Although I suppose my status as a loyal Canadian who can’t seem to manage to live in his own country defines me as an outsider and with dual-mind of sorts. And I do think that situation energizes me as a writer.
But to answer your question (after all this preamble), I don’t think that I intended an analogy between Elle becoming a bear and Rabelais trying to write. They are related in some way, but not a simple analogy.
Q: Your work in Numéro Cinq and your print publications share interests and I wonder how much your impulse to write is an impulse to teach. For instance you publish in Numéro Cinq your reading perspective on Munro’s “Meneseteung” – notes that you used to write your article “The Mind of Alice Munro” (published in Canadian Notes & Queries and Attack of the Copula Spiders). Could you speak about the impulse to teach? As a teacher/critic, do you have a political purpose?
GLOVER: No. No political purpose. Aside from that general ironical impulse to subvert authoritative statements. I can’t say as I hew to a political line except that I am influenced by some of the Critical Theorists who in turn have Marx at their backs. But this is all at the level of general culture analysis, which does not, it seems to me, lead one to a particular movement or party. Critical Theory is not a positive political philosophy. And what I teach and think about in terms of writing is form, structure and technique. I am a Formalist, vaguely influenced by Viktor Shklovsky.
The impulse to teach, of course, comes in part from a need to make a living and partly from the need to create a culture of readership that can read my work. But then I seem to have a natural bent for imparting ideas. I enjoy it when it’s appreciated at the other end. But my interest in form, which is initially my impulse to teach myself, spills over into teaching students. Form is something you can teach quite easily. Here’s a device, here are some examples, go try it out. So the way I think about writing, the way I teach myself and expand my own formal repertoire, lends itself quite well to a teaching environment. And, yes, much of my nonfiction writing is intimately connected with teaching. Several my essays started as lectures. I like to read a good writer carefully, it’s an act of piety and a mode of self-teaching.
Q: Wallace Stevens has spoken about writing with reference to the sense of the sleight-of-hand man. In Elle not only does the narrator/protagonist appear to become a shape-shifter, but there is also a shamanic “bear-woman” who apparently removes small objects (bits of bone, miniature carvings and the like) from Elle’s body, drawing them magically through Elle’s skin as the old woman tries to heal Elle. Later in the novel, “F.” (Rabelais) who is also a doctor and a scrupulous scientist suggests that the old bear-woman was using trickery and simply concealed objects in her hand as she pretended to remove them from Elle’s body. “F.’s” conjecture gestures to the clash between innocence and experience (reminiscent of Blake, perhaps). Elle notes later in the novel, that “our lives are bracketed in fog. And yet there is no holding back. We change ourselves by plunging into the thick of things (a wife, a lover, a New World). We change ourselves or die.” Is this not also the condition of the author? To plunge into the darkness and use sleight-of-hand, to draw stories out of tormented bodies?
GLOVER: I like that idea of the sleight-of-hand man. I think that’s exactly right. The sleight-of-hand is that the writer makes it look as if he is plunging into darkness, he dramatizes his thoughts in this fashion, but he is apt to do most of the plunging in his imagination and on the page. I imagine a lot of writers are like me, people who make a precarious living, who like to be alone and play by themselves, who enjoy following obsessions and creating objects that are whole, complex, rhythmic and pleasurable. It’s more a cottage industry than a medical practice or a magic act. Me, I write in bed with the lights on and my dog nearby.
But on another level (when dealing with complexity, it is always important to specify levels): In The Life and Times of Captain N there is a line that goes, The most violent things are things that change your mind. That’s crucial to understanding my motifs. Violence and sex are mostly metaphors for mental or spiritual interactions. And to a certain sort of writer, changing the self, finding a new form, finding a new mode of expression or a new idea is both crucial to creativity and internally violent. Derrida says, in La Carte Postale, Destination is death. (The French are so good at saying this kind of thing.) Destination is death means that if you think you’ve arrived then you’re dead, as in not growing, renewing, putting out shoots, procreating, moving around, breathing – the heart is not beating. So you look around, you try out a little something, try to change yourself in the sense of finding a form, a new container.
Q: Your books Elle, Savage Love, and 16 Categories of Desire, among others, feature remarkable degrees of intense suffering. Your writing is punctuated by lists and litanies of mutilation, amputation, starvation, emaciation, deformation, and deaths of infants as well as those who have endured great suffering. Yet, that moment between life and death, however long or brief, or painful, is still life, and still has the potential to bring fleeting moments of rapture as Elle discovers upon the birth of her deformed child who lives only a few moments. Could you comment on the double-edged sword in your satiric perspective which simultaneously mocks and revels in the absurdly painful conditions faced by the human spirit?
GLOVER: Your question bearing on the simultaneity of mocking and reveling is interesting. I talk in The Enamoured Knight and in my essay on Thomas Bernhard about the “flickering” quality of irony. Now this, now that. A double-edged sword? Sure. As long as you just mean the mind’s capacity to hold two different thoughts in play in the same moment. And I think this is crucial to my project, which is to open a door for complexity in our judgement of human affairs. I am chary of definitions, expectations, presuppositions, the voice of authority, but I am equally chary of just taking an alternative position and over-simplifying things in turn. So I parody forms and use irony to subvert authoritative statements and received wisdom. The irony always has that flickering quality: statement and counter-statement and statement again. Ultimately, it leads to the idea that everything is more complicated than we think it is and that humanity lies outside the general statements and forms.
This flickering quality runs through the texts as you noticed. Terrible sadness and loss and then a joke. Patterns of light and dark, flickering. On one level it’s like music, like counterpoint, to be enjoyed for its own sensuous effect. And on another level it is meant to infect the text with a very wide range of human experience in a small space.
Q: Subsequent to the earlier question on writing and teaching, your magazine Numéro Cinq offers comprehensive advice on constructing fiction, notably the novel. The idea that you picked up from Robert Day at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop on the “novel as a poem” offers a succinct piece of advice on patterning in fiction, while adding four additional points on language overlay, sub-plots, background generated through revery, and the narratological advantages of having a confidant for the protagonist. All of this advice reveals as much about your own writing, as it does to share knowledge. Walter J. Ong once said, “The audience is a fiction.” Given this centripetal/centrifugal impulse simultaneously gesturing inward (self-referentially to your own writing), and outward (providing advice on writing techniques), just who do you imagine as your ideal readers and what do you hope they will gain from your shared views?
GLOVER: That’s an interesting and difficult question, difficult because I tend not to think in terms of an ideal reader or any reader. Experience has taught me that there is no one who gets all my jokes and all my intellectual discoveries and happy runs of prose. The ideal reader doesn’t exist and I write for myself, which reduces art to the level of a man shut up in a room listening to himself. And actually I don’t mind that.
Walter Ong was one of Marshall McLuhan’s students and, like McLuhan, practiced inventing runic aphorisms. As did many of the stars of the theoretical universe: Nietzsche, Derrida, Barthes, etc. This one means something fairly simple in phenomenological terms: that is, that all utterances are addressed to an imaginary version of the other (the listener, the receiver, the reader), an image we have in mind as we speak or write. This imaginary other is part of the construction of the speech act, part of its intentionality. In absolute terms we cannot know who the other is or how he will receive the utterance. We make do with the imaginary version, or, as Ong says, the fictional version, the made up version. On those terms, in terms of a simple speech act, I suppose I feel I am addressing someone, but that person never rises into my consciousness as an entity I could describe. And it is no doubt just a version of myself.
I don’t write for an audience, fictional or otherwise. I write for myself (in conversation with myself) and I naturally hope there are some readers out there for my work. The thought of writing toward a reader who is not me would paralyze my writing organs. It seems to me an author needs to be as independent of expectation, the gaze of the other (even an imaginary other), as possible in order to write with maximum spontaneity and liberation.
What I hope some real reader will take from my work is a vision of the complex situation that is human existence, its horror, heroism, stupidity and humour. I hope they will come away with a more complicated and generous sense of the problematics of human relationships, self and other. And you are right to intuit a certain amount of teaching going on in the prose; I tend to be fairly straightforward in telling the reader what he is reading; I am always teaching some reader how to read my writing, its difficulties and its ironies. Maybe I don’t think there are ideal readers, or think in terms of writing for that ideal/fictional person, but I am happy to try to shepherd readers towards a better understanding of what I am doing.
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