M&C Interviews Charles Johnson
M&C: Let’s jump right in with some of the posits you have on specific things. I’ve read, now, all of your fiction, and recently read your previously mentioned 2003 nonfiction book, Turning The Wheel: Essays On Buddhism And Writing, published by Scribner’s, so I know you have strong opinions- ones reflected in some essays I will also quote from. To start, let me make this claim, and see if you agree: the failure of ‘published’ literature today lies more with the failings of publishers, editors, and critics to do their jobs well, more so than the bad and generic writers who are published. My point is that bad writers have always been with us, but the cronyism, favoritism, and grants giving NEA cash cow has led to a system of writers and editors who dare not say negative things about another writer’s work lest find their own publication chances minimized, if not extirpated. Do you agree, and if so, what observations can you add? And, is not the MFA writing workshop archipelago merely a vast networking tool for the bad writers who are gulled out of their money? Is not the NEA a cronyists’ dream, one that dashes any real hope of funding for the best writers, ones who challenge orthodoxies as those the very concept (much less reality) of the NEA represents? Is it not far too politicized to the Left?
CJ: This is really several questions— great and penetrating ones—all at once. Let me start by saying, yes, there is an unwritten rule in the arts that one is not supposed to criticize one’s peers, just as former Presidents are not supposed to rank on current ones, though Jimmy Carter just called Bush’s Presidency “the worst in history.” I suppose the rule is based on politeness, the general feeling we have that, regardless of a writer’s talent, he (or she) is doing the best they can. We also feel, I suppose, that people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Or elevate themselves above others by concentrating only on their flaws, seeing no weaknesses (The sixth and seventh of the first ten Buddhist precepts, observed by both monks and Buddhist lay people, upasakas and upasikas, address this very matter). But this is a rule we break in private conversations all the time. Some critics—H.L. Mencken and my friend Stanley Crouch—break the rule publicly, in print, by pointing out the lies and politically-motivated falsehoods spun to promote artists of questionable talent. Such critics serve us well and, in Crouch’s case, he gave me and other black American writers in the early 1980s the courage to also stand up and take the measure of artistic products in our time. (His fine 1982 review of my second novel Oxherding Tale in The Village Voice led directly to its acquisition by a paperback publisher, which kept it in print.)
Editors—like Hollywood movie people—tend to chase the last successful creative project. For example, in the early 70s black writers (who were seldom published by major white publishing houses in the 20th century as late as the early ’70s) I knew joked that Alex Haley would “save us all” when his long awaited book Roots appeared (As an undergraduate I met him in a history class in the late 60s when he was at work on that title, which he talked about when visiting campuses around the country). Roots was a very financially successful work, though badly flawed, and now understood to be based on faulty scholarship. But rather than encourage new work by black writers, editors I knew in New York wanted another Roots, more generation-spanning black family stories in the mid-70s, and for years between 1977 and the late 80s I wrote PBS scripts inspired by the success of Haley’s book. In other words, a new, original work frightens people. Also, it cannot be imitated, commodified, or turned into a cash-cow. There is always resistance to work—or ideas—that challenge our assumptions, upset our preconceptions. Yet, ironically, as writer Clarence Major once pointed out, in French the word novel means “new thing.” In my view, that is what a novel should be—a new thing, something that breaks new ground…
M&C: I agree that the problem does not lie with genre writers like Stephen King nor Dan Brown. I’ve always operated under the dictum that I don’t mind the 95 bad books published, as long as the five good ones get out- that’s the reality of any human endeavor. It’s when ‘the system’ starts eating into the five good books that my ire is raised. As for your process; I take it that, as a writer, you are a sculptor, not a builder. I.e.- I’ve met two basic types of writers, regardless of prose or poetry, fiction or nonfiction, etc. There are sculptors- like you, who crank out reams of words, then pare back, the way Auguste Rodin once mentioned that his sculptures were always there, and he just removed whatever material needed to reveal them. I, however, am a builder. Were we to both write two hundred page novels- irrespective of qualitative judgments, your first draft might be 1200 pages, and then you shave; whereas my first draft might be 120 pages, and then I embroider. Jessica, however, is a sculptor for poetry and a builder for prose. In your years in the classroom, could you ballpark a figure, percentage-wise, as to a sculptor/builder ratio? And, what do you think that says of human creativity re: writing?
CJ: In my case, you’re right about the creative process. More accurately, though, I believe when I’m working I both sculpt and build. I generate lots of pages, cut away everything that isn’t the story, then I embroider the final drafts almost to death. The blank page is beautiful but daunting. However, once I’ve filled it up (raw material) in a first draft, I then feel the joy that comes from the freedom to carve, sculpt, and consider over and over every word, every syllable, every musical beat in a sentence. What’s interesting is how good some of the throwaway material might be. Good but just not right for a particular story or novel. A book I like collected “false starts, loose lines, dropped dialogue and other fragments from 101 renowned writers.” The title is Literary Outtakes, edited by Larry Dark (Fawcett Columbine, 1990), and it contains a brief scene I dropped from Oxherding Tale. So I love the process of revision more than anything else. I think John Gardner did, too. In the afterword he wrote for a 1982 collection of critical articles on his work, edited by Robert A. Morace and Kathryn VanSpanckeren, he said: “True artists are possessedâ€¦they are messianic egomaniacs. They believe that what they do is unspeakably important: it is only that conviction that makes the writer himself importantâ€¦So Beethoven does draft after draft of his works, scrutinizing, altering, improving them long after anyone commonly sane would have stopped, delightedâ€¦Only the absolute stubborn conviction that with patience enough he can find his way through or around any obstacle—only the certainty solid as his life that he can sooner or later discover the right technique—can get the true artist through the endless hours of fiddling, reconceiving, throwing out in disgust. If he does his work well, the ego that made it possible does not show in the workâ€¦He builds whatever world he is able to build, then evaporates into thin air, leaving what he’s built to get by on its ownâ€¦”
And this is just from the first page of the interview, there are three pages more, all absolute must reads.
It is very seldom that one reads quality interviews like this on the Internet, so a big thank you to Dan for forwarding it to me. I found it to be an enlightening read.