To describe with intense clarity

ARTS, Books, EDITORS’ PICKS, Features, Interviews,
The Auckland Writers Festival refracted through a dialogue with Haruki Murakami interviewer John Freeman. Illustration by Hikalu Clarke.

Following his sold-out session with Haruki Murakami, the distinguished ex-Granta editor and I discussed Murakami’s metaphysics, David Mitchell and Jonathan Franzen, journalism as creative writing, and the future.

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img_johnfreemanALEXANDER BISLEY: I thought you did well getting some fresh insights out from Murakami. For instance, his answer that he believes in evil was fascinating. Was there anything you were particularly proud of?

JOHN FREEMAN: I wanted to get him to talk about metaphysics, because I feel like his books operate in a world that feels like chance but it’s something else. Like this sense of a greater, bigger design that’s never spelled out and when he said towards the end, “I feel like someone’s watching out for me, I don’t know who he is.” That’s so perfect, I thought that’s exactly what his books feel like; that there’s a reach towards a sense of a greater order in life, and yet somehow don’t ever make the mistake of explaining what that order is. They explain the search for the order, the feeling and the need for it, but they don’t ever come firmly down on a cosmology, if you will.

AB: Has he influenced you as a writer?

JF: His style is so inimitable that I think it would be careless to try and write like Murakami. But I did realise in reading his books that clarity is a very powerful theme. So I suppose in a sense that people who you admire eventually filter into how you think and how you think shows up in how you write, and I suppose in some way I’ve definitely come away from his books feeling that the braver thing to do sometimes is not to obfuscate or to make things pretty but to just try to describe them with intense clarity.

AB: During this fine festival, Daniel Mendelsohn eloquently reemphasised something that I’ve always appreciated him saying: “good journalism is creative writing.”

JF: I complete agree. The best critics and non-fiction writers write as if writing matters. And it’s not any less creative than coming up with a fictional world like Murakami does. It’s just a different kind of way of engaging with the world. I think as critics you can fall into this self-loathing, which I’m sure travels all the way up and down levels of prestige and book sales, that you’re somehow not a real writer if you’re writing criticism, or writing about books, or not writing poetry or fiction or whatever. It’s just hogwash, but the feeling does remain, that you’re a fake or somehow carrying the water for the real athletes of literature.

I think some of that boils down to the ways that poets and novelists, because of what they do, have to, to some degree, develop a protective ego. And that’s nothing thing against novelists or poets. It’s perilous what they can do; they can pour so much imaginative energy into the book and have it completely ignored. Whereas with a critic, you can write something on Monday, it runs in a newspaper or magazine on Sunday, and you get responses from readers so that we’re in the wilderness a little less than the other forms of writing. So for that reason, I don’t think you quite have to have the ego-super structure that novelists do.

AB: This weekend, David Mitchell spoke of the importance of endings.

JF: Endings are hard. I teach a class on writing at the New School in New York and the classic way to fix an ending comes from Raymond Carver. Whenever Carver was struggling with an ending, he just cut off the last two paragraphs. I think endings have to have a sense of finality but without a summation, and to me that always mean a kind of circling back to the original questions but with a deepening of them. And that can be done in a scene, and through a series of notes that are hit, rather than points.

I always feel like, if you watch South Park for example, they always make a lot of fun at the end of their episodes of those ‘after-school special’ TV series that would be on an issue “what did we learn today?” You don’t, in creative writing, want your story or essay or report to ever hit that note, to ever feel like it’s explaining what it’s told to. You want it to leave you breathless.

You sometimes realise that you’re kind of circling, and people do that in conversation all the time. Comedians are great to watch for this, because comedians are so efficient and fast they can’t bore the audience. The really good ones know how to get out of a set and then move on to the next thing. So if only more comedians did creative writing, maybe.

The best piece I ever read on endings was in 1990. The Richard Ford edited The Best American Short Stories and his introduction to that is a clinic on style. He talks at the end about endings and how he wants them to feel. I can’t call up his words, but it’s a beautiful description of what an ending, at least in fiction, should do. It’s very hard to do. I think the best books have very good endings.

AB: As with Richard Ford, I appreciated your and Murakami’s enthusiasm for sport, particularly baseball, last night. I had a delightful time in Tokyo seeing Murakami’s Swallows get hammered. David Foster Wallace loved tennis. Irvine Welsh said, on tour last year, he doesn’t get this dichotomy between sport and art, it’s good to be in to both.

JF: Yeah, of course. The body is not disconnected from the mind. It’s not like you’re this floating head, that’s sort of data processing and looking for patterns and dreaming up scenarios. Writing’s a physical act, that’s what Murakami was talking about.

A lot of the best writers I know of are [sports fans]. Ones I’ve interviewed: Don DeLillo is a huge baseball fan, Alexander Hemon is a huge Liverpool fan. Hemon’s favourite panel he ever went to was where he was watching Premier Cup football and said, “my panel is during the game, can you set up a TV at the side of the stage?” He conducted this entire panel, answering the questions thoroughly and gracefully while looking at the TV[1] and watching the football game.[2]

AB: One of your many excellent author interviews, collected in How To Read a Novelist, is Jonathan Franzen. He made some reasonable, cogent criticisms of technology which lots of people hated on. Then when Louis CK made essentially the same criticisms everyone thought it was great.

JF: Yeah, I think the problem with Franzen is that he didn’t use humour while making them. Franzen was dead on about what technology’s doing, he sees it very smartly so as a continued extension of the consumer society and state that we live in the Western world. And this idea that we’re distracted to death practically, or we’re being distracted from serious issues, that it’s an infantilising thing, it’s a narcissistic thing. These are all true, but Louis CK can do it in far fewer words because he uses humour. Franzen is very funny when he wants to be. I hope that when he has something in his sights like that next time that he takes the slippery humour route rather than the scold.

AB: A theme during the festival, during sessions with writers such as Ken Auletta and Nick Davies, is how do we fund the future of good journalism? Is it something you’re optimistic about?

JF: No, I’m very worried. There are some interesting new models, not-profits, that investigative journalism wire service that they’ve developed in New York, and those models are great but nothing will replace the strength and reach of former organisms known as newspapers. Having all those people in an office with nothing to do but report what people should know. And I think will be interesting to see what will happen as those newspapers gradually shut down and go to smaller circulations. I think there will just be more corruption and crime and forms of abuse of power.

AB: I’ve appreciated the advocacy you’ve done for cultural reviewers and freelancers to make a living. In terms of books and cultural criticism, and cultural interviews, what are your thoughts about that realm?

JF: I live in the U.S. now, and my motto is to observe what’s happening there; book sales have gone down in the last ten years, and they have gone down in some degree as the e-book sales have gone up. But there’s a gap in that churn: I don’t have any proof of this, but my hunch is that it comes from the fact that there aren’t nearly as many book reviews in newspapers, and the ‘accidental reader’, the person who stumbles upon that section … a newspaper, the physical thing can present itself to you.

I think that that change means that fewer people are learning about books, and then simultaneously there being fewer bookstores and books being displayed. The end result is that fewer books are being displayed and yet simultaneously lots and lots of people still want to be writers, more every day. So we have this strange situation—the numbers of writers and readers at some point are going to meet, and there will be more writers than readers.

AB: During our stolen interview at The Lincoln Center, one of the wise points you made was all these people doing these expensive creative writing courses, if all of them just subscribed to one literary magazine, the situation would be a lot better.

JF: For those journals, yeah. My guess is that there are tens of thousands of people in those programmes in the U.S., and more people coming every day, because they make money, they’re expensive. And also it becomes a kind of super structure for the system of writing that is in the U.S., because people can’t make a living publishing their books, fewer people are making a living as reviewers so they teach, and simultaneously lots of people want to be writers so it all meets in this cluster-fuck.

It’s very hard to get students at those programmes to subscribe to a journal. I tried when I edited Granta. I know some of them come in broke or they don’t have a lot of money, they come from challenging backgrounds. But all those people will buy a beer once a week. A beer in most cities is halfway to the price of a journal. I don’t know how you can get them to think that way, because it’s in their own best interest. These journals—not just things like McSweeney’s and Granta that will be there for a long time—but the smaller ones, they [students] want to be published in those things. First of all read them, and second of all subscribe to them.

AB: “The truth may in fact not be retrievable,” you concluded your illuminating Gunter Grass profile. Twitter can be great, but it can also be frivolous, Manichean, decontextualising, and unempathetic?

JF: There are two sides to this. Obviously in Tahrir Square, Twitter was essential to getting that protest movement launched and started, and was almost like a recording device for people who didn’t have agency and a voice in that society. But obviously technology cuts different ways when it’s in Western society and we were talking earlier about books and creative writing courses, just people reading less and writing more, and I think it’s fair to say without being disrespectful or ungrateful, that Western society is decadent.

These tools that we have that could really inform us. We’re actually using them to distract ourselves—you know just basically sit there and post a picture of a cat or drinking a beer or something. Obviously those things have their place. On the other hand, it opens up a very big ontological question as citizens, which is we have the best tools to inform ourselves ever in the history of the world, and what are we using it to learn about? I’m on Twitter, I get this news from Libya, or Egypt, or earthquakes in Nepal, what do I do with this information?[3]

AB: I had the pleasure of interviewing Gary Shteyngart last year. He’s good at Twitter. He’s pessimistic about the future of books and thinks they’re going to become like poetry—something that has a very small audience, very passionate and knowledgeable, but siloed off.

JF: Gary’s hilarious. He’s had the misfortune of going to far Asia and seeing people read on their phones and doing everything there, and I think he’s probably right. Obviously the world of books is shrinking, but my hope comes from the fact that people always need stories, everything is a story and narrative—religion’s a narrative, the news cycle is a kind of narrative in itself, a meta-narrative, nationality’s a narrative, families are a narrative. But then people need, not just within those narratives, they need the specific stories and they want to tell stories. And I still think there’s nothing like a book to deliver those things. So the market place and the structural parts of the world might be fighting us on that, but in reality I think ultimately people will choose stories.

AB: Following on from the acclaimed job you did editing Granta, Freeman’s is coming out in October?

JF: It’s going to come out twice a year with a theme, the first is ‘Arrival’. Shaped like a paperback book, like Granta was, photo essay, fiction, non-fiction, poetry. The first part of the book will be a series of riffs. In the first one I’ve got David Mitchell telling a ghost story, and Colum McCann thinking about the airport he used to drive to in Ireland, and Louise Erdrich going home to a cemetery in a part of North Dakota that she’s from.

There’s a Brazilian writer named Daniel Galera who had an accident on a train, he describes that. And there are much longer pieces, a Murakami story, a wonderful story about garment workers in Bangladesh who are all married to the same man. A long piece by Lydia Davis about learning Norwegian without a dictionary which is amazing; it’s like base jumping without a net. Alex Hemon has an essay about how his family made the home they bought in Canada their own after being exiled from Bosnia due to the Balkan Wars, how they exercised their agency by making things.

There’s a photo essay on a road in Alaska that goes nowhere by this young photographer named Ben Huff, introduced by Barry Lopez, the great essayist about nature. So I’m really pleased with the first issue. There’s one piece that’s outstanding: I had a reporter in Yemen who’s been there on and off for the last couple of years, speaks Arabic, who’s been following developments long before the fall of the government. I think he has a very good piece. I’m just hoping he can finish it in time. Text is publishing Freeman’s here in New Zealand.

ILLUSTRATION © Hikalu Clarke 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The 2015 Auckland Writers Festival ran from May 13-17 at the Aotea Centre. This conversation has been edited. Thanks to Kimaya McIntosh for transcription assistance.

[1] And there’s something about that loyalty which I think is a big part of watching sport. It’s one of the most important things in life, sticking with something or someone regardless of the outcome. And as a true sports fan, you develop loyalties that are irrational but in the best cases unbending. I grew up in Sacramento and I never switched my loyalty to another basketball team even though the Kings there were terrible … we kept getting these horrible castoff players, like the 7’4” centre with a bad knee, the draft pick with a drug problem who overdosed. Just on and on and on, this plague of locusts that were sent on to the Kings, and then finally, miraculously, they got good.

And the ecstasy of that turn around, those of us who were fans in that period. Chris Webber and Mike Bibby was the point guard and Vlade Divac as this Yugoslav centre who chained smoked in the off-season so he always breathed heavily through his mouth. He looked like someone who was rolling up at a coffee bar with a hangover. Instead he was playing basketball. It was glorious to watch. When they lost it was heart breaking; it was like being broken up with. There’s a mini drama that I think is mirrored to the world, but it’s also it’s own separate thing. You can’t be reading and writing books all the time. I think people who do that disconnect from life. And sport is part of life.

[2] AB: You’re a baseball fan, like Murakami?

JF: I have a few [sports], because I ran track and cross country in college, so around this time of year I start following the track and field season. I’m far away enough from it now to simply look at the time people run and the chance, occasionally, that it’s televised. The 1,500, it’s truly miraculous that someone can run that fast for that long without their heart exploding. I love watching track and field, and then baseball is something I played growing up. I don’t have any stake in it now, but I enjoy it.

[3] Obviously there is a moral responsibility to be intelligent, as Lionel Trilling said, but what do you do with the knowledge and intelligence? Do you go become an activist? Do you go give your money to earthquake relief? Do you vote differently?

One of the things I think is slipping, in at least U.S. society, is that people have the information but don’t vote. And if only 50% of the country votes—Princeton University has done studies about this—the government becomes more like an oligarchy than a representative democracy. And that’s why we’re in the situation that we’re in. Hopefully people can still trade jokes and high-fives on Twitter, but if people did even a fraction of a per cent more with it to inform themselves, the world would be better.