December 2002

Kenan Hebert


An Interview with Neal Pollack

Neal 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 world.

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 have adopted.

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 cities.

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 Bangs biography

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 initially.

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 in approval.

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 brushed off.

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.

Has he?

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 demand.

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.

Oh yeah?

Oh yeah.

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.

I've noticed.

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 stories.

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 became popular.

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.