Steve Almond is the author of two story collections, My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the non-fiction book Candyfreak, the novel Which Brings Me to You, co-written with Julianna Baggott, and (Not that You Asked), a collection of “Rants, Exploits and Obsessions” released in 2007. He and his family live outside of Boston. Keep track of Steve and read some of his work on his site.
(DJ): You end your recent Boston Globe piece on David Foster Wallace ( “A Moralist of Hope”, published 9/21/08) with the following:
“We have lost one of our most powerful imaginations, a man whose works provided us a means of rescue.”
To turn this inward, do you see your work in any way providing a means of rescue? Reading your fiction and non-fiction, you’re obviously OK with exposing yourself and putting yourself out there. Within this, readers have the chance to laugh at you, with you, and at themselves. There’s a sense of rescue to that, and I’m wondering if you feel the same.
(SA): “Rescue” is probably a little lofty in my case, but that’s the basic idea. Foster Wallace – like Vonnegut before him – was a guy who was openly concerned with the fate of the species, and the terrible moral decisions we make in the day-to-day. His work was full of complex ideas, and lots of sly irony, but it was also driven by a single idea, not at all ironic, which is that humans have a duty to take care of one another.
I’m not interested in writing – or art more broadly – that doesn’t have that kind of compassion at its center. I’m not saying I want to be preached at, but I want the author to have a Christ-like mercy for the people he or she is writing about.
(DJ): There’s this quote from a Jonathan Yardley review that you mention early in a 2005 Salon essay, “The Blogger Who Loathed Me”, and that also appears in (Not that You Asked):
“If Almond devoted a fraction of the efforts [sic] he brings to self-promotion to his writing, he might finally be on to something. But I doubt it.”
If the writer/author doesn’t go about promoting his/her work, then who does? To me it’s part of an old way of thinking that contributes to the “starving artist” archetype, as if we’re all meant to die drunk and penniless. I’d like to get your thoughts on the importance of self-promotion and what it takes for someone to get beyond their unwillingness or reluctance to do so, and approach it from a place of acceptance and even enjoyment.
(SA): The quote isn’t from Jonathan Yardley. It’s from the blogger. Yardley is a critic. It’s his job to focus on writing and whether it succeeds or fails, and how. Bloggers tend to focus on authors. My sense is that bloggers are sensitive to authors who “promote” their work because bloggers are, by and large, engaged in a pretty bald form of self-promotion.
As for my own career: I started as a short story writer. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was going to have to make some effort if I wanted people to find my work. So I’ve focused on doing the sort of stuff I enjoy and/or know how to do: readings, events, writing essays or Op/Eds. There are plenty of authors who don’t want to spend their time doing these things, who would rather devote themselves solely to writing, who are less needy for company. I have great admiration for them.
(DJ): Digging a little more out of the same Salon piece, you refer to the essay’s subject as being something of a mirror for you, representing “the desire to avoid the solitude and humiliation of sustained creative work, to choose grievance over mercy, to find a shortcut to fame.” Is this still something you guard against, considering how much of your work is out there now? Or do you feel established to the point where now you have a whole new set of worries?
(SA): I have a wife and two kids, so that’s definitely a whole new set of worries. But you never stop worrying about creative challenges. I’d like to feel that someday I’m going to be able to write a decent novel. I’ve written three of them at this point, all thoroughly suck-ass. But the main thing, I think, is to keep trying. Not necessarily to succeed, but to keep trying.
(DJ): At the end of the piece you write, “We both face the same doomed task: to write in an era that has turned away from the written word, to love the world in the face of considerable self-hatred.”
Do you still believe we’re in an end-state of writing and literature as we’ve known it, or is it a case where it’s time for writer/author/artist to evolve, embrace new technologies and find new ways to communicate the many layers of the human condition? Within this, as we go on living in the era of text messaging, are there still ears to listen and eyes to read?
(SA): I don’t know if we’re in an “end-state” exactly. But it’s obvious that our screen addiction has amphetamized our intellectual metabolism. When I was a kid, TV had, like, half a dozen channels. There were no computers, let alone cell phones or i-Pods. But the students I used to teach at Boston College grew up with those technologies. There’s nothing inherently wrong with technology, of course. But the bottom line is that the act of reading requires a sustained period of concentration. At least the sort of writing that asks the reader to enter into a fictional world, and to immerse themselves in the most complicated and sometimes painful emotions of the characters. What’s endangered at this point is the willingness – if not the capacity – to do that sort of work. Humans are still doing plenty of reading. It’s a question of how much that reading is making them feel.
(DJ): Thanks for being so willing to talk about some older pieces. It’s interesting to return to them through the lens of the last few years. I’d like to ask about a 2003 interview with Bookslut.com, discussing your first collection, My Life in Heavy Metal. You refer to our literary culture as “anemic”, then go on to say that we’ve “got to find a way to make people understand how important literature is.”
In five years, have things grown better or worse? How much of it depends on the writer getting out there more, being willing to self-promote and taking advantage of new ways to connect with readers?
(SA): I hate to sound like a gloomy Gus, but it’s gotten worse. People still read, and a certain segment of the population will always read, will find succor in that pursuit. But it’s a smaller segment.
I’m basing this on my own sense of the world. We’re a visual culture, fame-obsessed, pornographied, imaginatively stunted and in full retreat from our internal lives. In a lot of ways, we’ve made progress as a species. But in terms of our capacity for engaging with works of imagination, we’re headed in the wrong direction. A hundred and fifty years ago, people were arguing over the latest installment of “Great Expectations.” That was the hot new commodity.
(DJ): Let’s come back to the present then, something you wrote as Guest Editor for the Best of the Web 08. You mention something called a “backlog of bitterness” that pervades the blog world, and write about the phenomenon where we’re generating new books and new writers without any corresponding means of generating new readers. The “backlog of bitterness” then plays itself out on the Internet, with people taking aim at one another. You write, “That’s what most of literary content on the Internet boils down to – it’s not creating work….not even serious criticism. It’s gossip.”
If this is the case – and you’re careful not to blame the machine, but rather point out that the machine merely enables us – how do we point the ball in a new direction so it rolls along in a way that helps “reinvent literature”?
(SA): I don’t think there’s any sweeping solution. We live in a country – thank God – where people are free to say whatever they like. The problem isn’t that online commentators say mean things. It’s that other people consume those mean statements. That’s how they choose to spend their one and only life.
As a species we’re in pretty big trouble. Lots of blameless people are dying everyday. Our scientists tell us we’re pretty close to blowing the planet’s thermostat. Religion has become a tool of dangerous fanaticism. And the best we can do is to sit around saying mean things about each other? It’s so infantile, so sad. And it’s completely at odds with the role of art, which is to make us feel more human.
I can only hope that, as the world gets scarier and more chaotic, people will return to literature. Vonnegut says we’re dead if we don’t. And he’s been right about everything else he ever predicted.