To show how a novel is made while you’re writing a novel isn’t an uninteresting idea. And there are one or two masterpieces of postmodern fiction, like Philip Roth’s The Counterlife—a really very impressively intricate book.
But, like you, he kind of moved past metafiction.
Well, it didn’t lead anywhere. Postmodernism had, I think, tremendous predictive power—it predicted how the world was going to be. Now even a politician will talk about, how am I going to spin this. It’s all knowing, and wised up, and confessedly wised up, in a way that it didn’t used to be, before. But as a genre it was naturally kind of disappearing up its own ass.
And now we’re back. We’re not post-postmodern, we’re just later modern. All that experimentation in fiction is dead, for another set of reasons. Like p.c. ideology, experimentation is a sort of luxury item. When times get hard, you won’t hear anything about that kind of supersensitivity to people taking offense. And I think what has happened in fiction is that fiction has responded to the fact that the rate of history has accelerated in this last generation, and will continue to accelerate, with more sort of light-speed kind of communications. Those huge, leisurely, digressive, essayistic, meditative novels of the postwar era—some of which were on the best-seller lists for months—don’t have an audience anymore.
Those are some of the novels that you’ve always cited as the most important to you.
But you don’t think there’s a future for them.
No. I think they’re extinct. No one is writing that kind of novel now. Well, your near-namesake David Foster Wallace—that posthumous one looks sort of Joycean and huge and very left-field. But most novelists I think are much more aware than they used to be of the need for forward motion, for propulsion in a novel. Novelists are people too, and they’re responding to this just as the reader is.
There’s a very good poem by Auden called “The Novelist,” a sonnet in fact. It begins by talking about the poet—“Encased in talent like a uniform … They can dash forward like hussars.” And it comes to the novelist. Your talent is very different. You must submit yourself to all human boredom. With the just, be just, with the filthy, filthy, too. It’s a much more promiscuous and Everyman-ish form. And those novels we’ve just talked about, the long-headed, wise, sort of Babel novels, where you’re just sort of sounding off about this and that—I like those novels, but that is too much like the voice of a poem, not the novelist.
I’m not interested in making a diagnostic novel. I’m 100 percent committed in fiction to the pleasure principle—that’s what fiction is, and should be. English interviewers have said, about Lionel Asbo, it’s written with great disgust. Absolutely not—affection and admiration. You couldn’t write a novel out of disgust.
It sounds schmaltzy to say, but fiction is much more to do with love than people admit or acknowledge. The novelist has to not only love his characters—which you do, without even thinking about it, just as you love your children. But also to love the reader, and that’s what I mean by the pleasure principle. The difference between a Nabokov, who in almost all his novels, nineteen novels, gives you his best chair and his best wine and his best conversation. Compare that to Joyce, who, when you arrive at his house, is nowhere to be found, and then you stumble upon him, making some disgusting drink of peat and dandelion in the kitchen. He doesn’t really care about you. Henry James ended up that way. They fall out of love with the reader. And the writing becomes a little distant.
You’re still interested in pleasing the reader.
You can’t be up the reader’s ass, as many a writer I think is—cute as hell, ingratiating as hell. But that’s not loving the reader in the right way. That’s toadying to the reader. When I talk about the pleasure principle, I don’t say there is only one kind of pleasure, there are many kinds of pleasure. Some pleasure is difficult. It should be for the reader as well as the writer. But it has to be pleasure. This story appeared in the July, 30, 2012 issue of New York Magazine.