Three dialogues on literature
Caleb J. Ross and Pablo D'Stair
This dialogue is presented over the next four weeks in a style of
"progressive fragments." The exact order of inquiry and response as
presented is not the order of inquiry and response as it happened
between the two dialogue partners. Therefore, 'Statements' and
'Responses' from one week may not be directly addressed by both parties
until subsequent weeks.
It is the hope of both parties that the space between these responses
allow readers the time and opportunity to more fully and experientially
engage with the propositions, for themselves, rather than looking at the
dialogue as a closed circuit.
Caleb J Ross: How do those readers who know exactly what type of book
they want to read ever come to a book in the first place? A reader must
be able to have intentions of reading a vampire novel (re: novel about
vampires, not a blood-sucking novel), for example, without having to
start at the beginning of the bookshelf and work to the right, right?
Isn't universal categorisation, beyond the ego of the reader, important,
even if it is not the most important thing?
Pablo D'Stair: My honest opinion, just a gut, personal philosophy
thing, because obviously you have a fine unarguable point about
something in the world that will not change, is that writers do
themselves, long term, a great disservice (personally and to literature)
when they write with it in mind that readers 'select books' is this way
and readers, really, do themselves and literature a general disservice
by doing it.
I know I say this in an extreme way and in the terms you put it, of
course, who cares-but bookstore culture, excessively labelling, all of
that is more-or-less new in the form we know it (even in my lifetime)
and I think, truly, it is only about marketing, only about
brand/platform building, only about careerist aspects of the writing
Even the set up of a reader "wanting a certain type of book"
well...it's no tragedy if they can't find it and to my way of thinking
it's better, just better (I leave the world unqualified and repeated for
emphasis) if it's, at worse, a bit harder to find out "which book is a
certain type of book" and, at best, something they cannot in that moment
find and so just pick up something else.
CJR: On a long enough time-line we'd be able to devour Borges' entire
mythical infinite library. But unfortunately, our time is limited. So, I
think of labelling not as restricting a potential audience or attempting
to fit into a marketing mould but as a way to speak the language of the
people, to take the quickest bite out of Borges' library. When in Rome,
right? If I want people, who by nature are category obsessed, to read my
books shouldn't I speak in labels and genres?
By simply labelling a book (or TV show or food, ) you've already
jumped one hurdle en-route a readership. And I'm not referring to a wide
readership or an ideal readership-just any readership, which is hard
enough to acquire. Now, this doesn't mean that a book has to maintain
that label strictly. This is why cross-genre work is so appealing to me.
If I can introduce a category obsessed reader to a work that traffics
in alternate categories then I've succeeded in planting that seed of
doubt, of hesitancy to accept that their chosen category is the only
category worth reading (assuming they were thinking that way to begin
An example: when I was in high school, music had to be heavy. If I
couldn't jump around in my own room, really work of a sweat with all my
faux-scream and emotion bleeding, then the music wasn't for me.
Korn = yes. Fiona Apple = No. But if someone had handed me a Fiona
Apple CD and told me that it shared a lot of the similar dissonance that
was a staple of Korn's music, then I would have fallen in love with
Fiona Apple much sooner and would likely be years ahead of where I am
now in terms of music appreciation.
It's mind-games not strong-arming. But, there is something to be said
about strong-arming, I suppose.
CJR: By the logic, 'what you think given a constructed situation
built for the sake of moot exploration' we're never fully capable of
knowing what we think, eh? And that's just too damn depressing for me. I
figure that if I am limited by my own human comprehension, then there's
no point in trying to know everything, so I must instead work within
those limitations and be satisfied. And I am.
If I am limited by human comprehension then am I ever really sole
arbiter of presentation, content, and happenstance even in my fiction? I
think we're getting into a rabbit hole here, which is easy to do. And
that ease is why I think it's not only impossible, but a waste of time
to philosophise on thought itself too much.
Coincidentally (or not, depending on your motive, O' asker of the
questions) Stranger Will explores that very concept, that once we
recognise our limitations we can begin to live within them. In a way,
it's an anti-philosophy book. It tells the thinker to just shut up and
live life. Of course, you know, as anyone reading this dialog now knows,
I still love to explore thought no matter how moot I know it to be.
PD: Well, I cannot really allow a distinction between thinking and
living, I really can't. I know what you mean, but I don't think any
philosophy-at least none that I've ever heard of-suggests anything other
than a full and zesty embrace of all aspects of self and life.
Especially philosophies of thought and art, which at their core almost
must be prompted by a zeal toward selfishness.
But, that being neither here nor there, I wonder at the very notion
of writing and having someone read a book or explore a
theoretical-certainly a book, a fiction, is not needed to tell people to
go live their life and it's a bit odd to present utter fancy and
rhetoric as a way of suggesting "go, live fuller, be fuller."
My reaction (good natured I promise) here is based on an inherent
disliking of considering art a "call to anything" or a revelation of
something more than the self. This, especially, in reference to "Authors
showing Readers," which is somewhat implicit in suggesting books "say
things" to people in the sense of "showing them" and especially when
this is said of fictions.
I find it troubling, the tacit idea that a reader is somehow looking
for something other than themselves in fiction, that some piece of
writing is approached for either "escape" or "broadening horizons" and
the author being so posited as personally necessary for the very fact
that they "make things up" you know?
CJR: Some people don't like to be 'learned to,' I think. There is a
sense of discovery with fiction, even if that discovery is truly a
veiled purposeful dictation by the author. I think it's entirely
possible to learn history from a novel (dodging capital P Philosophy for
a moment and just looking in broad terms of learning facts) in the way
that people may learn history from a text book. It's that three personas
thing I've talked about before; every piece of writing has three
inherent personas: the reader, the character (even if only implied), and
We cannot escape the fact that a book simply existing, words simply
being, implies a human hand in the text. Broaden that fact and suddenly
a novel is the same as a text book. Of course, there are conventions and
editorial measures that must be respected for each, but in terms of
human involvement and philosophy of People are People (if I can extract
a philosophy from a Depeche Mode song) they become the same.
Does that mean that a text book is then 'lowered' to the level of a
novel or does that mean that a novel is 'raised' to the level of a text
book? Not sure. Maybe it's that text books teach me dates and facts;
novels/narrative teaches me the empathy necessary to respect those dates
CJR: The situation on paper can never anticipate or replace real
life. Think of it more as a mental exercise. Would anyone actually come
to me and ask "so, would you really consider killing your own child out
of some nihilistic belief in inevitable demise?" Probably not. But,
would someone ask me, "were you ever scared about having kinds?"
Definitely. Both questions (really the same question) are explored in
Stanger Will, and I believe that because of that book I have those
responses at the ready.
Often, the story comes about first as an image or mis-heard sentence,
and after a few paragraphs takes on a philosophical trajectory. For
example, I'm writing a story now called The Lipidopterist. It's about a
guy who collects human lips. Honestly, I just thought the image was
funny (a play on words of the term for butterfly collector).
But after just a few paragraphs the story became about a guy getting
divorced and being forced to give up half of his lip collection to an
ex-wife who doesn't even want them; she just wants to hurt him (I'm in
no way projecting my own marriage, I assure you). So the question then
becomes, how much am I connected to my own belongings. How important are
things if other people don't find them important?
Would I ever hate anyone so much that I'd destroy something they
loved, even if that thing had no intrinsic value? Though the climax of
the story may not answer any of these questions directly, the narrative
itself is a useful sandbox.
PD: So, here I'm going to be sinister and just outright ask this-take
a moment to steel yourself-and I think I do ask it with a bit
of...proddingness, a bit of antagonism. You say you ask yourself some
question about yourself and then create a fanciful story to explore
Or another way of putting it is that you recognise, in your fiction,
that the central question you seemed to be concerned with on a personal
level is a...personal one.
So, the direct question: is it not more to the point to write a book
about "am I scared to have children" even if fictionalised, somewhat,
than it is to write a story about fanciful debates about eugenics and
crimes and infanticide, if the question is truly to be explored? No harm
no foul if not, but things don't really go both ways, I don't think.
Elsewhere, you (and many others) talk of this idea that "Who would
want to read just some guys thoughts about being scared of being a
father" and suggest the fictionalised narrative is the sugar in which
the medicine is stowed, that "the reader" would not be interested to
hear the self-centered meandering of someone talking about themself .
Yet, no matter how it is decorated, that is what's going on-and by
layering "real concerns" in with fancy, it must be admitted that the
impact of the actual is only hurt, never helped-that is, there is always
a point in a fiction where one realises, "This is symbolic (so to speak)
of a struggle with impending fatherhood" but that the parallel loses
real gravity as the fiction takes center stage of the proposition. "Oh,
of course I wouldn't kill my child...but I" and then the reader is off
on their own.
It could be said that the book "suggested the question" but to anyone
puzzling with the "actual question" there needs no prompt.
All of this to say, again bluntly, isn't it better to just say "I
like making things up" and that's all the fiction is, instead of playing
at a balancing act of "fiction is needed to examine fact"? Fiction
doesn't really (really) get anyone but the author closer to a thought
about things tangible, does it?
CJR: Writing fiction is simply more fun than writing an explorative
manifesto. I wish my answer could be more complicated than that, but it
can't be. The author has to enjoy the process, right? Writing a book
that addresses the question more directly might work for some writers,
but not for me. I'm not too interested in the restrictions and required
jargon that comes with a non-fiction exploration of a mental state.
Fictional characters are a way of inventing my own jargon to describe
an illness. The impact of the actual may be hurt, yes. But that's a risk
I'm willing to take. Me having fun and the reader potentially having fun
and me and the reader both possibly getting something "deeper" out of
the narrative-all of these maybes are more important to me than a more
likely, yet surely more boring, probably.
Besides, doesn't the best art confront where confrontation is most
needed? Most people won't see Stranger Will as an exploration or as a
response to a morbid question. But the one person who does see that,
that's got to count for something.