by Morgan on June 18, 2011
I meet David at the entrance to the La Brea Tar Pits on a beautiful Friday morning. April first. Sun’s shining, tar’s smelling like tar, and watching people scuttle around, I’m reminded, for the millionth time, how lovely it is to walk in Los Angeles. David walks to the interview, in fact, and we spend the first ten minutes, on a bench in the park, talking about walking. This is so “LA” already: only here is the novelty of walking such that this conversation isn’t completely moot.
I get down to business. Or rather, closer to business: I wax poetic on the iPhone’s recording capabilities. I’m nervous. I haven’t done many interviews and I’m afraid the questions I’ve prepared are pedestrian and amateur. But mostly, I’m excited. I’m stoked to have David reaffirm my decision to dedicate myself exclusively to reviewing and writing about books. (It occurs to me now that I went into the interview the way most people go into reading – simply to have their opinions affirmed, their assumptions about the world validated. In retrospect, what a horrifyingly amateur mistake for and interviewer. Note to self: must read The Art of the Interview.)
** Note that the following is me waxing poetic again, not a full transcript of the interview.**
I start by asking David how and why he came to do what he does here, in Los Angeles.
“The first thing that appealed to me about LA — this is a fantasy, but it was real at the time, from 3,000 miles away — I was 24 or 25 and trying to find my way into the New York literary culture, which was not interested at all in anything I was doing. It seemed really big and monolithic and difficult to crack. From a distance, my experience was that the LA literary community was smaller and more porous, so I liked that. I felt like there was more give, in a certain way.”
And when you actually arrived?
“This was in 1991…my wife and I came out here, and I started reading a lot about the city. I mean both the classic stuff — Chandler, and I’d been reading Didion for years — but also there’s a great book by a guy that’s now a friend of mine, Richard Rayner, called Los Angeles Without a Map. That book really opened my eyes, and Richard Meltzer’s LA is the Capital of Kansas…”
I love that we’re talking about experiencing the world through reading.
“Reading is the original filter through which I look at the world, or engage with the world, so it made sense that this was the way I would look at Los Angeles… I had this sense of the city through having read about it.”
So then what?
“I got really interested in the literary culture of Los Angeles, the history of it and the present tense reality of it, so I started writing a lot about it – for The Times, The Reader, The Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine and other publications, writing about the iconic figures — Nathaniel West, Chandler, Fante — but also writing about, say, Michelle Huneven, so it felt like a nice sort of double vision. Then I ended up doing a couple anthologies of LA literature, which helped solidify the whole thing for me.”
So what is the present tense of the LA literary scene? Like, now.
“I think it’s still a bit below the radar screen, certainly in the country’s or the world’s sense of Los Angeles, maybe more so now in terms of the country’s perception of it, because I think there are moments of fascination, and I don’t think we’re at one.”
What about within the city?
“You’ve got a lot of first-rate writers at the top of their game right now…I think it’s a pretty vibrant literary culture, but it’s vibrant at a level just below the surface of mass public visibility.”
Is that cool?
“I think it’s great. That’s what’s always been great about LA. From my point of view, as a writer coming here, it was great. It freed me from too many people paying attention, so I could fuck up….I could write about stuff where maybe I’d fail and the whole project would fall apart, and I had that kind of leeway. Whereas, for me anyway — and I think it’s different for everybody — but for me, to be in the fishbowl of New York, where the literary culture is so prominent and there’s so many people back-and-forthing all the time, I think it would have felt too public.”
So here we are: fishbowl. New York. I’m anxious to get down to the stuff I’ve been privately and publicly bemoaning for months: the fact that most reviews running in the major publications are written by other writers, not professional critics. The flagrant back-scratching that passes for journalism.
David tells me, straight up, that he likes the idea of writers reviewing. Shit.
“The thing that makes a review artful — and I do think there’s an art of reviewing — is that you need to conceptualize it as a kind of self-standing essay about the book, or about your response to the book. And I think that writers who write in a variety of forms, including narrative forms, have a more fluid sense of how to construct those kinds of essays, just the writerliness of them.”
But what’s good about writerliness?
“They know how to tell a story, not in terms of plot synopsis, because I don’t like those types of reviews, but when you’re reviewing, you’re basically telling a kind of intellectual narrative, or a critical narrative, of your passage through that book …so I like the idea of having writers review, writers who have a critical grounding and who’ve done reviewing, so they understand it…but at the same time, they’re not approaching it entirely from a critical point of view. They’re also approaching it from a literary point of view, so they’re thinking about the construction of the piece.”
Right. But good reviewers, full-time reviewers: they can be just as good at that. They can be writerly too, and maybe more objective than another writer.
“I think there’s a kind of internalized crit-speak that evolves among full-time critics — not all full-time critics, but many full-time critics — that I think is as problematic as the kind of back-scratching you’re talking about.”
I guess I can’t argue with that. If there’s some kind of anathema to compelling, broadly readable journalism, it’s gotta be crit-speak.
“Another reason is that reviewing is a three-way conversation: the writer of the review and the writer of the book, but also the reader of the review. And I think that writers, as opposed to full-time critics, are more aware of the idea of an audience, or the idea of a readership.”
I like this because it acknowledges the reader. It regards them as part of the equation, which of course they are.
So, naturally, we have to talk about the internet, about blogging. There’s a part of The Lost Art of Reading where David talks about the architecture we construct around books, our tendency to talk around the book instead of about it, and so I wonder how the internet is perpetuating that.
“I think the broadness of the conversation about books, particularly on the web, is a great thing, and the more voices the better. I do think, for me, sometimes I can get too absorbed in that conversation, or that conversation seems to be more about the mechanisms of the culture rather than the culture itself. So when I feel that, I often back out and go to the source.”
I think about that a lot, too. But I worry about the fate of that source. Of books.
“Literature’s not going anywhere. I mean, first of all, narrative is absolutely not going anywhere, because narrative is – I actually believe that narrative is an evolutionary imperative….written language is still, I think, the only art form, narrative or otherwise, where we come directly into contact with the interiority of someone else, so that there’s a real potential for vulcan mind melding; and that is rare and valuable.”
Preaching to the choir. But what the predicted extinction of actual books with pages?
“What I’ve been talking about a lot lately is the idea of consciousness in a certain way…If you’re going to be a writer in a digital culture, you’re making choices, there’s no longer a default mode. So if you want to write a traditional essay for print, or a short story for print, you can do that, but make a conscious choice – ‘This is the kind of thing I’m writing.’
If you want to write something that has a digital component to it, don’t just go digital by default. Think about what that means. I have a friend that runs an independent press in LA, and what she talks about is the transparency or lack of transparency of the container, and I really like that idea. Don’t just think of what you’re writing as a transparent container that has nothing to do with the content, you know…it’s a book because it’s a book and we dont even think about that. But now we have to think. Think about what the container is, and what that container does, and how you can use that container as the best delivery system for what you’re writing.”
So we have to keep up with technology, and consider it, include it, rather than just use it.
“If you look at a lot of e-books, they’re not really designed. The text is just dumped in, and I think that that is the producer just using the format as a transparent container, and they just stuff the stuff into the container without really thinking about how it works. What’s the interaction of the reader with that thing?”
But secretly, we both know books are still better and always will be.
“I love books. I love the pure physicality of them. I love that you have to adjust your body in order to hold the book or adjust your posture around the book. Books are grounding in that way.”
We chat as David walks me back to my car. I’m supposed to go to pilates. Instead, I find myself sitting in the parked car for twenty minutes, considering everything.
I guess I expected David to be an old-schooler. I expected him to lament the underdog status of LA’s literary scene, instead of appreciate it. I expected him not to have an e-reader, not to care about blogs; to long for the “good old days” when people who wrote book reviews in the New York Times didn’t also publish novels, when there was a definitive line between artists and critics.
April Fools. David is truly an optimist: he sees all the things that disgruntle me as opportunities for doing things even better, so long as we’re conscious. So long as we make choices. We have to adapt, we have to evolve, so we might as well do it well. And, “Sure, it could all go to hell. But I like to think that it won’t.”
I won’t fill you in on the details of my existential turmoil. But I’ll say that I’m 40 pages in on my novel, and I have Mr. Ulin to thank for that.