The Greatest Living American
Rock Star: a conversation with the incorrigible Neal Pollack
by Kenan Hebert
Pollack wipes his ass with your novel. He can't abide by your bloated
pretentiousness, or your elitism, and he's not going to idly sit by while
you suck the fun out of reading and the vitality out of culture. His least
favorite word may be "literature," a muddled, meaningless noun that sums
up all that is wrong with books - self-importance and self-love, carefully
crafted and marketed in as high-fallutin' a fashion as possible. He hates
your literature. He wants you off his bookshelves and out of his life.
It's not surprising, then, that Pollack left controversy, bitterness,
and befuddlement in his wake after his appearances at the usually conservative
and geriatric Texas Book Festival. Author Edward Swift actually issued
veiled threats after a panel appearance with Pollack, promising in the
third person that "the Texas Book Festival and Neal Pollack will rue the
day they got crosswise with Edward Swift." (One can just imagine him holding
a clenched fist in front of his face as he said this.) Pollack is unperturbed.
Of course he'll be back next year. He puts butts in seats.
Pollack's reputation is growing among younger audiences, both because
of his hilariously ironic writing and his habit of turning book readings
into rock and roll shows. The Neal Pollack Invasion is a still-budding,
ramshackle crew who has played Austin twice since Neal's moving here earlier
this year. In the course of one show, Neal reads from the amazingly pompous
introduction to John Updike's biography, and he does it as John
Updike. He introduces himself later with, "I'm Jonathan Safran Foer, and
you can all go fuck yourselves." And then he proceeds to belt out gloriously
unaccomplished rock numbers like "Memories of Times Square" with its chorus
of "Hey yo dildos, juggling dildos, up in the air, dildos, dildos!";
and "New York City Is a Pile of Shit." The whole show, and indeed the
whole stage persona, serves only one purpose: to take a piss. This mixture
of punk rock and writing seems natural to Pollack, who sees the same sort
of pompousness happening in rock as he does in literature, and hopes he
can explode two arrogant mythologies at the same time.
The Neal I met was somewhat different from the angry, bitterly ironic
man I'd seen onstage. He wasn't screaming obscenities, and he didn't throw
beer at anyone. But the same palpable disgust for the state of literature
informs his real-life dialogues as much as they do his onstage bile-lettings.
Wearing a stylish leather blazer and sporting some carefully planned stubble,
Neal talks easily and at length about the Texas Book Festival, poetry
slams, rock criticism, blogging, and why the Strokes are no better than
Jonathan Safran Foer.
How did you get involved in the Texas Book Festival?
They e-mailed me and asked me to participate. I think they'd heard about
the readings I'd done at Book People. I made it pretty well-known that
I was moving here; I tend not to enter situations quietly and subtly.
So they e-mailed me and I said okay, because I want to sell some books.
What am I gonna say, "No, you're too bourgeois for me?" What a fucking
idiot I'd be.
Well, you could have said, "You're all too old."
Yeah, but they said they're doing this after-hours program, and they wanted
me to host it.
That's a new thing.
Right, well they're trying. They're trying to bring in a younger audience.
Next year, we're going to do it even differently. We're going to have
two or three nights of after-hours programming, and we're going to do
them at clubs as opposed to in a theater, and we're really going to make
it an alternative book festival within the festival. Because book festivals
are stuffy and boring. They're traditional literary culture, and traditional
literary culture is a drag. That show I hosted Friday night was definitely
not like the other book festival events I've been to. We didn't even have
a podium. It was just a wicker chair that we put our stuff on, and the
microphone kept coming out of the stand… it was very half-assed, which
is good. It's what after-hour events should be like. It was essentially
punk rock. And then there was this poetry slam in the middle of it all…
I was going to ask you about that. How do you feel about…
Well, I think that a poetry slam has it's place in an after hours program,
but I don't see myself being on the same program as one again. I like
the guy who organized it, but I don't really like poetry slams. Nobody
does, except for the people in the scene. I would say they should be included
next year, but they should be somewhere else, where they usually are,
and they have their built-in crowd, and that's fine.
Poetry slams are not punk rock.
No, it's just coffeehouse… poetry. At it's very very best, which is rarely,
it's hip-hop. I think that slam poets have the right lifestyle to be writers
-- they're sad, lonely people, living on the fringes. Which I feel that
ideally, a writer should be. There are some poets who do it very well,
but the vast majority… well… you see it parodied all the time. It's so
easy. A lot of slam poetry is just pulled from the newspaper and run through
a mild ideological filter. It's artless and boring and pretentious.
I don't like the word "pretentious" usually, but that seems to apply.
I think the word "pretentious" applies to a lot of literature. It's pretending
it's something it's not. You know, slam poetry pretends that it's poetry.
Most literature pretends that it's culturally relevant, when in fact,
if it's not the most irrelevant of popular art forms, it's certainly up
there. Considering the people who care about it, and the amount of headspace
they give it, it has surprisingly little relevance to the rest of the
You created some controversy at the Book Festival with Edward Swift,
after you shared a panel with him. In the Austin Chronicle, he was quoted
as saying afterwards, "that Pollack man should be thrown out the window
... he is vulgar in every sense of the word. From the toilet. [The festival]
should put him in a room of his own and invite everyone who loves his
scatological language to go there and bathe with him." What the hell happened?
You know, I'm not quite sure. He showed up with a prepared lecture that
began with a dictionary definition of satire, never a good place to start,
and the moderator and I had to work very hard to wrest control of the
panel from him, but after the first 20 minutes or so, I thought things
went pretty well. He and I certainly have different styles, and there
was definitely a generation gap in terms of attitude, but it's not like
I was all, "fuck you, man. Old writers suck." Because that's not my approach,
and I would be an idiot if it was. I think he partly rankled because such
a large percentage of the audience was obviously there to see me, at least
judging by their age and the slovenly quality of their dress, and partly
because he is, well, a prude. I don't care that he disagreed with my approach,
or found me vulgar, but to go behind my back and bad-mouth me to the festival
organizers shows a distinct lack of class.
Which brings us again to punk rock, which is the ethos you seem to
Pretty much by accident. I didn't even know what that ethos was when I
started writing. I had no clue at all, and I just started living it by
accident, by circumstance. I wrote a book that was… not self published,
but published by a company that had never published a book before, and
rather than do what most self-published authors do, which is fade quietly
into the background, I almost just accidentally went on a nationwide cross-country
book tour that I funded myself. That's what I thought authors did. Some
do, but the vast majority of them don't. They certainly don't go to 25
And they certainly don't take their shirts off.
I wasn't doing that at the beginning. It all evolved gradually. I was
not a punk rock guy when I started all of this. I was a very straight-laced,
kinda square reporter in Chicago. I went to some rock shows once in a
while, but I was not in tune with the ethos. I'd never written about rock
and roll, I'd never performed it. I knew a few people in the business,
but not many. And in Chicago, you can't go to the bathroom without pissing
on someone who's in the rock and roll business. It's really happened by
accident, every step of the way.
But I started thinking about it as rock and roll when I started researching
this novel that I'm working on… that I've finished, and I'm editing right
now. It's about the history of rock and roll. It sort of became a history
of punk rock, really.
An antidote to Greil Marcus, perhaps?
Pretty much. It's a parody of rock critic pomposity, from Greil Marcus
on down through bad alternative newspaper writing, where his legacy festers.
I hope I don't fall into that category.
No, you fall into the category of enthusiastic zine geek. Which is different,
which is sort of how the profession started. The people who were working
on Creem were not rock critics in the pure sense of the word. Jim DeRogatis
covered all this in his Lester
Which is fantastic.
It's a great book. I borrowed from it from my novel. I mean, I certainly
didn't copy from it, but I used it as an inspiration. But until I started
working on this book, I hadn't even thought about any of this stuff. But
the more I worked on the book, the more I became convinced that it was
the right thing to do.
So in addition to having this novel coming out on Harper Collins, I'm
having Ben Brown publish this 70-page book thing through So
New Media. It isn't about rock and roll at all, but I figure it's
a punk rock publishing model, and I admire that, and I admire the fact
that he's not afraid to call himself a writer even though he's never really
been published anywhere. And he's publishing 25-page books and calling
them books. I think that's great. A lot of shit gets presented and marketed
as books by major publishers that really aren't, so what's the difference?
It's just that these are shorter. I think that if a writer only has 50
pages of material, but wants to publish them as a book, they should. Consider
it an EP. Consider it a place for the majors to scout out young writers,
instead of the way they usually do it, which is depending on agents to
go through the literary magazines or the graduates of creative writing
school. Why not have them come up from a different place?
Back to the Texas Book Festival for a moment. You crashed a panel?
Yeah, but I was friends with some of the people on it. It was crashing
in the mildest way. It wasn't like I walked into it drunk and started
interrupting people. I just went up there like I belonged on the panel,
which I did. It was a better match for me than the panel they had me on
The panel was called "Young, Gifted, And Ironic." Don't you think that's
kind of an ironic label in itself?
There's nothing ironic about the Texas Book Festival. They're very sincere.
But there seems to be no way that people can talk about young writers
without mentioning irony. I'm the only one of those four people on the
panel who even uses irony. Alec Shakar to some extent does. Irony is a
theme of his books. Amy Fusselman and Arthur Bradford aren't ironic at
all. My book is pure irony, in many ways. But irony is a fallback description,
because nobody knows what to make of what's going on in literature. There's
definitely is a generational shift in the works. A new elite is poised
to spend the next 20 or 30 years coasting on its reputation.
The new elite being…
Franzen, Foster Wallace, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers - some of whose writing
I like, and some of whose I like less. But I'm talking about all those
writers lumped together. There's definitely a generational shift underway.
Speaking of irony, I've noticed that on your
blog, I honestly can't tell sometimes whether you're kidding or not.
Or I honestly can't tell what your political opinion is on a subject.
Is that an intentional sort of negation?
Yeah. Right. I mean, who cares what my political opinion is? My politics
don't mean anything. Nobody's politics on the internet do. It's a black
hole of prose and opinion.
I don't know, though. A lot of people read Andrew Sullivan and nod
Yeah, but his politics are completely incomprehensible. He's like a crazy
McCarthyite right-winger, who's gay, which kinda makes him Roy Cohn. He's
not quite that bad, but then sometimes he's worse. I really find him to
be a menace. Because he's a good writer… or not necessarily always a good
writer, but good at rhetoric. He's obviously trained in debate in England
or something. It's not hard to see through him, but you can see why he
drives so many people so crazy, while so many of the other pundits get
In terms of my own politics… hell, I don't even know what they are half
the time. We're living in an extremely morally ambiguous world, and a
politically ambiguous world. I don't care what people say about Bush,
there are no blacks and whites. We live in very strange times. I don't
trust the right, and I don't trust the left. I don't trust Michael Moore
any more than I trust Andrew Sullivan. There's a smugness on the left
and on the right. Basically, when it comes to people who think they're
intellectual, smugness is the common denominator, and that's my goal on
the blog and in my writing, is to try to snuff out intellectual pretension
wherever it manifests itself. It could be a life's task.
So yeah, I deliberately obfuscate my point of view, because I'm playing
a character, and I don't really want people to know anything about me
or my life. It's not really important. And you have to understand, this
is a blog. I pull it out of my ass.
What do you think about the new Dave Eggers book, with its limited
release and the controversy surrounding that?
It's hard for me to talk about Eggers and McSweeney's objectively. Let's
just put it this way: he's earned the right to do whatever he wants.
Yeah, why not? The guy's got his own publishing company. He should be
able to publish his own book if he wants to. You don't have to go to a
corporate publisher. I wish I could afford not to have my book published
corporately, but I can't, and most writers can't. It's his choice. I don't
think you're a dick because you don't want to sell your book in Barnes
and Noble or Borders.
I think the problem is that people worried that he wouldn't meet the
It's hard to say what the demand would be, because not everybody knows
it exists. When you publish a book like that, your ability to publicize
it is limited. Corporate publicity machines, when they work - and they
don't always work - get that name out there, and get those books sold.
For a guy like me, still in the middle of the pack, it's hard, because
I have to make a living.
So the Harper-Collins book, the rock critic novel, is the one that's
paying your bills this year.
Yeah, pretty much. I got a nice advance… that'll pay the bills for a while.
But I'm still doing magazine freelancing.
I know you're writing a piece for GQ about rock and roll. I think they
should photograph you in that jacket, actually.
Very rock and roll, huh?
With the stubble you've got going on there…
You know how to take a sexy
picture already, obviously.
Well… it's going to be hard for me not to look stupid writing about rock
and roll for GQ.
How' s that?
Well, it's not a real rock and roll magazine. But whatever. I think I've
got something to say, and they seem to be letting me say it. If I do a
shitty job, they won't publish it. It's not like they're stupid and they're
gonna be like, "Oh yeah! That's what the kids are into!" They're smarter
than that so… I gotta do a good job.
What's the thrust of it?
It's sort of like a prayer for the return of bad, gimmicky rock and roll.
I feel like what's popular right now in terms of rock and roll is very
stylized and prefabricated. It's good as it goes…
As far as the Strokes go.
Right, and that's what's really popular right now, as opposed to what's
slithering around in the gutter. I want a world where really gimmicky
costume bands are popular. That is the culture in which I wish to live.
One in which Ziggy Stardust still exists?
Yes. Yeah. Because right now, the only gimmick most bands have
is, play thoroughly well, and look cool. And that's not enough for me.
In a way, that's kinda what's going on in literature, too. These young
writers are able to write relatively well, and look fairly cool, in a
writerly way. Jonathon Safran Foer is a perfect example of that. He wrote
a book that's pretty good - it's got some invention in it, and some humor,
and energy, and he looks the part, and he says all the right things. But
something about him just rubs me the wrong way.
He's what the middle-aged reading public thinks a young writer should
behave like. And it's almost like his media consultants - which he does
have - have told him to behave that way. And it's… it's upsetting. That
he's that contrived a figure. A writer shouldn't be that contrived. I
mean, say what you want about Jonathan Franzen, but his contrivances are
all his own. (laughs) He can't control the fact that he's an asshole.
I'm not into his persona, but he's genuine. He can't be anything but.
I know enough about the business to know that Safran Foer is a corporate
contrivance, no matter how he portrays himself. And it's like that's the
model, that's the baseline for young writers, and it shouldn't be that
way. I'm not saying I'm the model - God knows, I'm not the perfect model,
either. But at least I do it myself.
Did your opinion of rock evolve out your opinion of literature? Because
they seem directly related.
I think my approach to culture is the same no matter what the art form.
I went to the Strokes show the other night, someone got me a ticket… I
thought they were terrible. The crowd fucking loved them. They're really
good-looking, they play their instruments reasonably well, their songs
are catchy, but it's so contrived. And not in the right way. I found the
whole experience disheartening. My friend who I was with, who had never
even heard a song of theirs before, looked at me and said, "This is Duran
Duran." And I thought about it, and I was like, goddamnit, he's right.
They're really hot product. It's the same phenomenon as Duran Duran -
rather than them being the Velvet Underground. They're not the Velvet
Underground. What a lie.
Nobody went to see The Velvet Underground, for one thing.
Well, yeah. Well… we're just going over the same old shit that all indie
rock dorks are going over. But I do feel like you need to look at that
approach to literature, too. The audience for literature isn't as large,
and writers aren't as cool, but when you're talking about a guy like Safran
Foer who's getting a million five per book, you need to think about things
other than content. You need to think about culturally what is behind
this. And why is a guy like this getting all this money?
I think so. He played the game well. And I guess more power to him, but
I don't like the uncritical adulation. It really bothers me, because most
writers don't get that privilege. And people in literature pretend like
they're above it, and they're not.
Above what, exactly?
Above the fray, and the baseness of American popular culture. They think,
this is a higher art form, a slightly less sharky business, and it's not.
It just has a different face.
The face being that of one who pretends to be above it.
Yeah, pretends to be an intellectual. Or who pretends to be just telling
I may be wrong, but literature has never really had its punk rock phase.
I guess the Beats were sort of the original punk rockers, but there hasn't
been anything since then. I mean, there's the zines… there's always the
underground. But there's a difference. I don't want to be an underground
writer. I have no interest in that. I want to be popular, the way punk
I don't know. I'm not an angry working class guy, writing naively. I have
a good education. I went to journalism school. I've been reading and writing
since I was a little kid. But the literary culture that I read about,
and that I felt I'd been promised, isn't playing out like I though it
was going to. I don't like it. It's boring, it's elitist, it's pretentious.
And I wanna break shit. I always have.
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