An Interview with David Lazar
I'm starting an interview series entitled "Constructive Nonfiction," which will focus on individuals expanding present conceptions of creative nonfiction. As writers, these interviewees have introduced a variety of hybrid forms most often associated with the lyric essay and documentary poetics. As publishers/translators/impresarios/teachers, these figures have created space for new modes of interdisciplinary inquiry -- incorporating developments from visual art, philosophy, history, political activism and digital technology.
David Lazar is the perfect interviewee to launch such a series. At a time when creative nonfiction was largely understood as the exclusive domain of self-satisfied memoir or suspect journalism, Lazar created one of the first PhD programs in Nonfiction Writing, at Ohio University. Subsequently, he directed the creation of the innovative MFA program in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. He is the founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its eleventh year. Lazar's books include The Body of Brooklyn, Truth in Nonfiction, and Powder Town. He is the editor of Michael Powell: Interviews and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. His Essaying the Essay is forthcoming from Welcome Table Press.
Lazar and I talked by Skype recently.
Amid the ongoing economic crisis, one neglected tragedy has been the postponement (?) cancellation (?) of your "Transgenre" series with University of Iowa Press. Can we start with you describing the types of work you'd hoped to include in this series, the creative-critical-hybrid discourses in which you'd hoped to make an intervention?
That experience was terribly disappointing for me. I had worked with editors at the press to create a series that would publish projects difficult to publish, works that didn't have any obvious generic category, that perhaps included elements of clearly defined genres (prose-poem, essay), but also combined elements from other genres: fiction, poetry, any kind of nonfiction. Writers I'd talk to, whose work I'm especially interested in, were frustrated that, with manuscripts that weren't easily identifiable, publishers, even small publishers, were loath to take a chance. So I put together a board of writers who represented the full scope of what I was interested in doing: Claudia Rankine, Maggie Nelson, Phillip Lopate, John D'Agata, Wayne Koestenbaum, and set out to identify works that I thought might be an amenable first group in the series. I also was interested in re-publishing work by women, especially essays that had disappeared or were absurdly out of print. Then it all fell through. It fell through certainly because Iowa's budget hit some bumps, and I'm not quite sure why else. The press was in a kind of transition. And this was terribly disappointing for me. I had been working, in the magazine I created and edit, Hotel Amerika, to publish works I call transgeneric. I'd hoped that the Iowa series would help such works see the light of day. I've always promoted as well work that I thought represented exquisite displays of writing from clearly defined genres, especially prose-poetry and essays. In any case, it didn't happen. I'd be happy to relocate.
When you talk about "transgenre" writing, is it all creative nonfiction? Could scholarship have fit, or some hybrid nonfiction-scholarly approach?
Of course. There's a clear connection between what we might call "literary criticism" and the essay. If you read Lukács on the essay, and the German tradition of the essay, that is very closely aligned to scholarship. If you take a look at the work of someone like Joe Harrington at Kansas, Joe certainly brings in all kinds of research and scholarship. Or Nancy K. Miller. Look at Mary Cappello's work. There are great veins of the scholarly running through work by many essayists. But "scholarly" is a scary word is the United States. It sounds scholastic, monastic, too intellectual. Writers, especially in the academy, prefer "literary" criticism because it sounds lighter, less intellectual. I've always been intrigued by the Benjaminian essay. My idea of the transgeneric takes very little off the table.
Writers like Lukács and Benjamin, in the U.S. at least, do they get read too much as theorists, or critics? Do they not get the attention they deserve as essayists, as nonfiction writers?
The short answer's yes. When I started teaching as a professor twenty years ago, the boundaries between what we call creative writing and theory were strictly demarked. This annoyed me to no end. In fact, I spent more of my time with theory types than with creative writing types, because that's where I felt most comfortable. I was reading more art and Benjamin and Sontag than contemporary literature. I found that stuff a lot more exciting. I simply don't understand why Benjamin and Sontag aren't taught more in creative writing programs, why their connections to the tradition of the essay aren't made abundantly clear in nonfiction classes.
I talked to Catherine Taylor recently, who discussed what she considers the halting progress of innovative or experimental nonfiction. There was a promise she'd sensed in the '90s and early 2000s, with developments like the popularity of, as she put it, the so-called lyric essay. But here I'm back to economic metaphors. It seems that since then there's been something like stagnation, some epistemic or institutional or publishing plateau. And you were a pioneer (founding the Ohio program in 1990), and are an ongoing practitioner and publisher of innovative nonfiction, so I'll be curious if you share this sense of a stifled, still-to-be-tapped potential. But first: if you can recall your perspective as a precocious, ambitious professor, what types of literary experiments, publishing venues, writing programs would you have expected to see emerge, expand, become popular by now?
First let me respond to Catherine's take on things (and, I might add, Catherine herself has played a wonderful role -- she's a terrific writer, and Essay Press itself, which Catherine founded, has been a great venue for new nonfiction). Though I think in some ways I agree with Catherine, and in some ways my take is more sanguine. The trade presses aren't doing anything particularly interesting, in terms of new nonfiction. Anything interesting in nonfiction now happens in what I call the subtrade world. I don't even read trade nonfiction, for the most part. Really, I don't think anything interesting is happening in trade nonfiction.
Can you describe the subtrade world? Who's included?
What I call the subtrade world consists of university presses and independent presses. That's where anything interesting gets published. There's a radically bifurcated world of literature out there. If you look at the New York Times Book Review on Sundays, you won't see a single interesting work of literary nonfiction reviewed, ever. How's that for a piece of hyperbole? It's interesting when I talk to smart friends of mine, who never get access to the kinds of works you and I talk about, teach, deal with. It's just not out there. At the same time, there is a fairly vibrant world budding, in the small presses and some university presses.
Is there nothing wrong with this staying a small world? Or, for its development to continue, would it need a broader audience?
Well I'd like to see a broader audience, I suppose, simply because the aesthetic ideology represented by this work deserves a wider audience. And one always wants more readers for good work. On the other hand, part of me thinks, who cares? Work finds an audience and one hopes it's read well. I'm not wringing my hands over that. Book fairs bring in slightly larger audiences. And stuff the trades are publishing just seems tired to me. Everything's breaking down. Everything's going to the net. There's this general democratization of publishing. We're in this period of enormous transition. I've got my eyes open, and I'm waiting to see what happens next. The oceans are rising -- that's a larger concern. Larger audiences, smaller audiences... we put work out and see what happens. I suppose this has never been my strong suit: the public relations side of writing.
And with your early entry into the field, can you give some comparative sense of what, when starting off in the early '90s, you would have expected to have happened by now, what bumps were encountered along the way?
When I started at Ohio, I encountered enormous resistance.
At the university itself?
Uh-huh. I brought in this array of people who represented different kinds of voices in nonfiction. One thing I've always been pleased about was that, in addition to exceptional essayists like Philip Lopate and Richard Selzer, I brought people like Andrea Dworkin and Mary Daly and Alphonso Lingis, and Joanna Frueh, and there was just enormous resistance to that. The dead white men in the department weren't terribly pleased. That wore me down a bit over time. But I was very fortunate to have a few colleagues who always gave sufficient support so I could more or less keep doing what I wanted to be doing -- wonderful people like Joan Connor and Darrell Spencer, who didn't always completely understand what I was doing, but nevertheless kept saying, "Do it anyhow." My vision of nonfiction was: anybody who's writing something interesting in prose is worth exploring and worth exposing to my students. My sense of the essay always has been a rather generous sense. That's where I started, and I thought the essay, which had begun undergoing a bit of a renaissance twenty or twenty-five years ago, would be... what? Where did I think the essay was going? I suppose I thought the essay would flower in a more intellectually vibrant way than it has.
Along the lines of European models you brought up, Benjamin and Lukács?
Exactly. I hope this doesn't sound like intellectual snobbery but, instead, I've found at times over the last twenty years that people teaching nonfiction and teaching the essay have not always wanted to do their homework, and have had a narrower view of nonfiction than I like to play with. That sounds stiff: homework. Let me rephrase a bit. If the essay is a tradition that is built on thought, on individual consciousness, even the most radical, the most experimental essays should be rigorous enough to be aware of the tradition of the form, the catholicity of its history and tradition, and those writing it should try to articulate what it is even as they expand or violate their sense of what it has been. And perhaps keep in mind Gertrude Stein: "Remarks are not literature."
If we use the comparative model of experimental poetry (which again provides a world in which people can publish and be recognized for what they're doing, but it's a marginalized world), one difference I note between the reception of experimental poetry and the reception of experimental nonfiction is that I rarely see an interesting contemporary scholar focus on nonfiction texts. Could the field benefit from a sharper critical focus? And would contemporary criticism also benefit from having a broader range of reference in nonfiction?
Absolutely. The fact that this mostly doesn't happen is telling. It suggests nonfiction still exists in this intellectually liminal place, where the academy isn't sure what to do with it. There's a wonderful journal called Prose Studies that comes out of Cambridge. It would be lovely to have an American equivalent to that.
Again on this comparison to poets: many leading experimental poets also have done substantial work as critics, or scholars, and in doing so have offered a bridge to more traditional academic scholarship. I see less of this among nonfiction writers. Is there a reason that poets do double duty and nonfiction writers don't? Are we to blame at all for our critical marginalization?
There are of course people who do interesting critical work. Writers like Nancy Mairs and Philip Lopate and Carl Klaus and Rachel Blau DuPlessis and John D'Agata, and there have been interesting critical books by Ned Stuckey-French and Douglas Atkins. But quite frankly Andy, it always has flummoxed me that a lot of nonfiction writers just haven't bothered reading extensively in the canon of nonfiction literature. I'm not sure why.
Do you want to talk a bit about a distinction you've made several places (I know you make it in your Truth in Nonfiction anthology) between autobiographical narrative and the essay, how those two terms can come to define two different strains in creative nonfiction?
Sure. It's essentially the difference between memoir proper and the essay, a generic difference in what a work does. There are a lot of short autobiographies or memoirs out there that don't quite do what an essay does. An essay performs in a certain way. It's a digressive form, an exploratory form, an open form. An autobiography tends to be a piece of narrative. It tends to tell a story. Many short autobiographies present themselves as essays, and I think that's caused confusion.
Along these lines, could you describe the relationship between essayistic practice and citational practice? I'm asking because I reread The Body of Brooklyn while preparing for this talk, and was especially impressed by your ability to combine intimate, charming, playful personal experiences with an expansive, almost anthological mode of literary-historical reference -- to figures like Montaigne, Charles Lamb, Hazlitt, and then to their own citational practice, to the fact that you're taking part in a tradition in which citationality always has been present.
That's true starting with Montaigne himself. I think, for many essayists (this goes back to your question about literary criticism), that reading oneself and reading others were combined practices. It's almost impossible for me to refer to myself without referring to other writers in the genre. It's an automatic combination. The essay, as the self-reflexive form par excellence, calls on the writer to remember what's been said about the form, to consider the permutations of self-consideration that preceded her or him.
So to be a contemporary essayist you need to have a sense of the complexities of selfhood that predecessors presented?
Yes. But I'm not suggesting this as a kind of moral necessity. This always has functioned for me as aesthetically natural. When I'm writing and considering my own place in the world, naturally I consider the way that Charles Lamb did this, and the way Virginia Woolf did, and Burton did. I consider how other writers have performed their same tricks, and crafted their same personae.
I've always appreciated Montaigne's conception of the essay as an attempt, based on the word's etymology. But if the history of the essay is a history of attempts, then it seems a history of at least partial failures. I'm interested in what role failure plays in the classical essay and in the production of new essays. Does the essay, more than other forms, leave space for future writers, and future attempts? Does your own emphasis on citation suggest a need to look beyond the solitary, self-realized, self-satisfied author?
I'm always discovering space for future essays in the failure to find... that elusive moment of self-realization I'm searching for while writing. One gets close to it, or one may feel one does. Frequently what I find is just another series of doors waiting to be opened, each with some version of myself standing there waiting to be challenged as ruthlessly, or even perhaps, at times, sympathetically, as possible. It depends on the occasion. When writing an essay I'm usually trying to understand something. There's some idea of the self I try to chase down, or challenge, but it isn't for an individual purpose. And I never quite get there. The self always will remain elusive. The concept of "the self" itself already is so incomplete. It's the Heraclitian idea, of shifting. The point is, ultimately, that I'm using myself. I'm a prism. Writing may be therapeutic. But it isn't therapy. My goal is to write an essay.
If you were to "get there," to those elusive parts of the self you pursue, would that effectively end the trajectory of the essay? If you were to "get there," then is there nothing for the reader to do but stand by and passively watch this spectacle of self-fulfillment?
No, I think when one reads an essay, when a writer tries to find some aspect of the self, perhaps in concert with some element of the past that's difficult to understand, the reader, one hopes, engages with some element of herself or himself that has experienced something similar. The reader embarks on a kind of sympathetic journey.
Is this a Barthesian sense of the reader we're addressing -- which is creative and like a form of writing?
Barthes is one of my household gods. So yes, it's far from passive. It's completely active. I would hope my reader writes my text in a way that is significant and ever changing.
Craig Dworkin recently intrigued me talking about the capacious nature of twentieth and twenty-first century poetry, the variety of discourses, methods, subjects, modes of production, modes of dissemination and reception that it's been able to assimilate and make its own. With what we've discussed in terms of intertextuality and citationality, should creative nonfiction have a more capacious breadth? Or does it already? Are their particular authors or literary forms (we've mentioned some) that get classified as poetry or as philosophy, but which you consider exemplary for the field of creative nonfiction?
Actually, there's enormous variety in the twentieth century essay. You've got Anne Carson and Benjamin and James Baldwin. Or start with the early twentieth century: you've got Beerbohm, Chesterton. And prose poetry underwent this lovely revival over the last forty years in the United States. You've got the continental memoir. You've got the Polish essay. We don't explore essays from other cultures enough. I mean there's the Italian essay. Twentieth century nonfiction is wonderful. Our approach to teaching nonfiction in the United States is intellectually thin.
With Hotel Amerika, and its special transgenre issue, I was struck by the versatility of prose. What about prose lends itself to transgenre inquiry?
Well, in terms of crossing genre, prose has the ability to combine the fictive and nonfictive, which is a radical combination. It raises the question of what we mean when we talk about nonfiction to begin with. We're fairly clear with what we mean when we refer to fiction, when we refer to invented literature, when we refer to narrative and story, even if story has some element of the autobiographical. But nonfiction has this fraught quality in relation to what we might call truth value. Merging elements of the fictive and the nonfictive, elements of story connected to actual experience, is something transgeneric literature can do in interesting and potentially wild ways. It's not that the essay or existing forms haven't always done this, haven't always included the imaginary, but certain kinds of transgeneric work can bring together fiction and nonfiction in hybrids we haven't seen before.
I'm curious in your own work, let's say Powder Town, on this topic of the relationship between fiction and nonfiction: if a narrative subject (real or unreal) has been haunted all its life by noir film, noir aesthetic, and then writes something like the confessions of a hitman, is there a reason this ought to be included in the realm of nonfiction inquiry? The realm of desire -- where does desire fit in any fictive or nonfictive distinction? Is desire itself a hybrid?
The prose poems in Powder Town perform some combination of fiction and nonfiction. Clearly a lot are a form of flash fiction, which is to say they're mini-narratives, although some are just straight lyric forms, not particularly narrative. On the other hand, all are me speaking my desire on some level. I'm speaking my desire from some part of me, often very dark parts of me, sometimes a kind of imaginary persona that is still very much me, kind of an internalized, fantasized version of myself I project onto a created persona.
I notice in Powder Town's use of pronouns, for example the "you," that when "you" is the subject of a poem, that can be a hitman giving testimony about what he has done; that can be a reader implicated in the participatory thrill; that can be some generic witness or bystander. Pronominal shifters seem to be a place where the fictive and nonfictive can commingle.
Absolutely. Implicating the reader is terribly important to me, as is the idea of transgression -- both formally and in terms of subject. Going someplace dangerous is terribly important to my work. How to get the reader to go there with me is essential. Not just having the reader watch me do it, but to have the reader perhaps go there too. Because for me what's most compelling (I'd intuited this years ago and it's become more explicit) is going to scary places that violate certain kinds of norms. Those places might be very different based on working in the essay or the prose-poem, but that concept is essential to my work.
How does the distillation of a particular idiom factor into this? What I mean is that, when I read your new manuscript Odyssey Poems, it's hard for me not to think of Powder Town, because both offer a virtuoso performance in a particular idiom. It's noir for Powder Town. It seems perhaps rococo for Odyssey Poems. But do you deliberately structure these projects around a particular tonal quality or idiom, and is that saturation in a specific mode of language part of what sweeps the reader along?
Yeah. I want the reader to be in this place, this separate place with me, this little world. The work that's always attracted me is when I've entered a writer's world in a way so absorbing that I feel boundaries are permeable between the writer and me. When I read Sebald, half the time I forget whether I'm reading Sebald or reading myself.
Or walking the beach.
Exactly. I should say too that this new project was conceived in collaboration with the writer Michelle Auerbach, and actually began as prose-poems responding to each other.
One other question I had involves the opposite of saturation in a singular tone or idiom. It's your interest in the aphoristic collection. In Hotel Amerika's current aphorism issue, the journal's overall design becomes foregrounded for me. Even more than is normally the case, a particular aphorism's placement (beside others, or on its own on a page, or in what seems an author-determined cluster) has a palpable impact on its meaning. Can you describe the curatorial process here and, more generally, the place of the curatorial in creative nonfiction?
Adam McOmber, my managing associate editor, and I had to figure out how to do this. I don't think something quite like this had been done before, just an issue on aphorisms. On the one hand, we didn't want a crowded page, because we thought the whole idea of the aphorism -- the line or couple lines that stood out -- really should be given space. We decided to present an issue that had a radical use of white space.
Since this space is a component of the meaning of the aphorism.
Right. That's how we wanted to shape the issue. We wanted aphorisms to stand on their own. On the other hand, we wanted to do some grouping and have them speak to each other, even though that's not how many were presented to us. This is where the curatorial comes in. We were very clear in how we advertised the issue. I said I wanted to choose from any of the aphorisms that were submitted, and to have complete control over presentation. So, quite frankly, we cut and pasted. Adam came to my house, and we placed several hundred aphorisms on a table, and we said, "How do we want the pages to look?" We wanted several to have this pristine page with a single aphorism standing on its own, which is in some ways the classic, perfect presentation. At the same time, we wanted many aphorisms to have a kinetic conversation with each other. The aphorism finds its ways in many forms -- certainly in the essay. So we wanted to preserve the essence of the aphorism, and also to have the issue use the aphorism to build little essays out of individual aphorisms. We also used several pieces, works by David Baker, Sharon Dolin, and other writers, that we thought cast the aphorism in formally interesting ways: suggested different ways of considering the aphorism.
Sure, that's your authorial-curatorial role. That's great. Are there other journals and presses taking analogous risks, redefining what creative nonfiction can be?
University of Nebraska Press does some good stuff. Ugly Duckling does some good stuff. Drunken Boat. I've always been a great fan of Dalkey Archive. Coach House has books I love. Though there's one thing I want to be sure to say.
One thing that sometimes confuses people about me (although my students seem to get it at some point) is I'm sort of an odd combination of radical and conservative elements, in literary terms. I believe that the canon of your genre is terribly important. It's terribly important to know, and it's terribly important to teach and understand.
And to redefine?
Well, it's going to be redefined whether you like it or not. And I've enjoyed I hope playing a very minor role in redefining it. But these two elements always have played a part in me. The essay has been the central focus of my career, paying attention to the essay, what the essay has been, and who its central writers have been, and how some of the wonderful authors in the genre perhaps have not received adequate attention (for example, some women writers of the form). Nonetheless, the essay is terribly difficult to contain. It's a wonderfully plastic form, and has included all kinds of disparate elements, some of which are being written now as though for the first time. I don't think we want to say that everything is an essay. Because then nothing is an essay. To be really radical, you have to be willing to learn a little, and dedicate yourself. Then, let it rip.