I had the pleasure of meeting with David during his visit to OSU earlier this year.
Over many decades, you've moved from fiction to nonfiction; 1992 marks a big shift in your writing. What was driving you then, and what's driving you now?
Published in 1984, Heroes, my first novel, is a rather traditional book. I was in grad school at Iowa, where a deeply traditional aesthetic dominated. I then wrote a somewhat more interesting book: Dead Languages (1998), a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up with a severe stutter. Dead Languages folds into a Bildungsroman, a somewhat theoretical contemplation upon/deconstruction of language.
Handbook for Drowning: Novel in Stories (1991) contains a variety of work: traditional stories, collage-like work, barely disguised essay—but I think of 1996 as the year my writing life changed. After writing a traditional novel, an autobiographical novel, and a novel of stories, I published Remote: Reflections on Life in the Shadow of Celebrity (2003). I had spent years trying to write this book as a Don Delillo-esque or Milan Kundera-esque novel, but novelistic gestures had gone flat for me. Out of this impasse or caesura was born the next twenty-five years of my writing life—a cascade of wayward, book-length essays: Reality Hunger, Enough About You (2003), Trouble With Men, Black Planet, The Thing About Life, Nobody Hates Trump More than Trump, etc.
You wrote yourself into your form.
That's a nice way to put it. Thanks. Into that gap I fell, discovering the form that releases my best and strangest intelligence. This form isn't the novel. It's not the conventional memoir. Nor is it traditional scholarship or straight-ahead journalism. It's an odd amalgam of different gestures: wayward, poeticized, collage-like nonfiction. Something like that.
You mention how novelistic gestures had gone flat for you. I'm reminded of John Barth's 1967 essay, "The Literature of Exhaustion."
I don't want to see us endlessly rebuilding the Sistine Chapel, endlessly recomposing the Jupiter Symphony. There are many, many, many novels published today—but for a few references to cell phones and Netflix—that could have been written in 1840. These are often the books which are most widely praised and often most commercially successful.
Such work fits into a conventional middlebrow, middle-class groove.
The overwhelming majority of writing that celebrated today is more or less a retreat from contemporary life. If offers the consolation of dreamscape, of nostalgia, of reassurance regarding the verities. This shouldn't be the charge of serious contemporary writing. V. S. Naipaul says, "If you want to write seriously, you have to be willing to break the forms." Walter Benjamin says that all great works of literature either invent a genre or dissolve one. I believe in pushing form forward.
If you continue to write collage nonfiction, do you think the indie press is the way to go?
I take it on a book by book basis. I'm just trying not to be bored by my own work. I'm trying to stay alive as a creative artist and sentient being. That's all that matters to me, to be honest—pushing myself and pushing the form forward.
What writers come to mind who are advancing the form today?
Simon Gray. Spalding Gray. Leonard Michaels. David Markson. JM Coetzee. Nicholson Baker. Sarah Manguso. Maggie Nelson. Amy Fusselman. Annie Ernaux. Marguerite Duras. Renata Adler. I could go on and on and on. The writers I love aim to alter the face of an art form in order to say what only they have to say. These are the writers I really love. The writers I teach. The writers I read. This is the writer I aspire to be.
You teach creative writing.
I'm struck by how many of my books have emerged rather directly from my teaching: Reality Hunger, Remote, I Think You're Totally Wrong, Life Is Short (2015), Fakes (2012), The Inevitable (2011), How Literature Saved...