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An Interview With Dennis Loy Johnson

By Tao Lin.

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Dennis Loy Johnson (pictured, centre, hosting literary bloggers Maud Newton, Ron Hogan, Laila Lalami, George Murray, and Michael Orthofer) and Valerie Merians founded Melville House Publishing in 2002 and have since published over three-dozen books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry including ones by Stephen Dixon, Bernard Henri-Levy, James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, Lewis Lapham, Justine Levy, Kitty Burns Florey, and Celia Farber. Recently Melville House was awarded the 2007 Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing. They published my novel, EEEEE EEE EEEE, and story-collection, BED, this month, and will publish my second poetry book and second novel next year and the year after that. Thank you Dennis and Valerie.

The characters in my books, BED, and EEEEE EEE EEEE, which you published this month, feel a lot of self-doubt, often to the point of stagnation. In real life I feel a lot of self-doubt which causes me to type giant essays defending my existence, my actions, and silly drawings I post on my blog. In another book you published, SERIOUS ADVERSE EVENTS: AN UNCENSORED HISTORY OF AIDS, a non-fiction book, the author Celia Farber feels a lot of self-doubt, which she does not hide, but includes, in her book, which I think is unusual (in a good way) for a non-fiction book. Are you attracted to people who feel self-doubt? Do you ever feel self-doubt?

Well, if you don’t feel a certain amount of self-doubt nagging at you you’re probably not going to make any interesting art, because you won’t be plunging very deeply, nor very genuinely, into whatever it is you’re making art about; the result will only be so much regurgitation. All art is about searching, about spiritual quests, and an ongoing process of self-analysis that is never static. If it is, then we have what scientists call “boringness.”

On the other hand, making art is also about standing by the courage of your convictions. I mean, I hate it when writers speak about taking “risks” with their work. Voltaire took some risks with his writing because it could have gotten him killed. We just published a book called MISSING SOLUCH by an Iranian named Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, who’s not one of those Iranian hyphenAmericans or hyhenBrits who have become rather popular with the big houses of late. He’s actually still in Iran. I call him the Solzhenitsyn who stayed – writing is a truly dangerous business for him. But for American writers, the talk of taking risks is so much self dramatization. Maybe some journalists could have lost their sources in the Bush administration if they’d been a little bit less bovine during the last presidential election, but the only real threat facing most American writers is paper cuts. Well, all that said, it is true in a more profound way that simply putting pen to paper, brush to canvas, finger to keyboard, takes a kind of nerve that’s a mild form of bravery; even more so, strangely, when you’ve been at it a while. Thus, making art itself is an act of having the courage to reveal your insecurities, perhaps.

The point, I suppose, is to fully understand: writers write to be read. Whether you write to persuade someone that you’re a genius or because you want to make friends, the bottom line is that it’s an act of persuasion. And to my mind the most persuasive thing is to examine your convictions fearlessly. The process is simultaneous with the rendering, in other words, and if it provides a resonant experience for the reader, then a kind of art has been achieved. On top of that, it should be noted that dissonance can sometimes achieve the same ends; it’s a question of technique, that’s all.

I like CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER by Ann Beattie. You said that Ann Beattie was really big when that book, her first novel, came out (simultaneously with her first story-collection, DISTORTIONS, a two-book debut). Has there been an equivalent to Ann Beattie’s debut in the last ten years? And what do you like about CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER and DISTORTIONS?

“Really big” is a relative term. She was big in the kind of punk underground art world I lived in at the time. She was big in the sense that she was a New Yorker writer, but that had a lot more artistic clout then than it does now. I don’t recall if she was on any bestseller lists—I paid even less attention to them then than I do even now, which is not much—but I think it’s safe to say she wasn’t “big” in the way that “big” is understood to mean today—i.e., she wasn’t big commercially. Nowadays, you’ll see some poor schmoe on the train looking baffled at a Jonathan Safran Foer book that they’ve been schnookered into buying by the overwhelming meterology of the mainstream, where he is everywhere depicted—projected, more like it—as “really big.” But Beattie’s fame was a lot more underground—we used to swap those two books you mentioned with each other at parties and talk about them. I still have both of them—particularly ugly paperbacks, very little thought or care put into their design, very cheap editions. But she was fresh, different, and genuine, intellectually and emotionally.

No, I can’t think of anyone who has broken out quite the same way. Not that there haven’t been some great writers since Beattie, just that they haven’t galvanized—or in her case, generated—an artistic community the way she did. By the time even Ray Carver came along just a few years later, it was about getting Binky Urban as your agent, getting the Ettlinger author photo (wherein the author is actually made to look dead), getting the Knopf or FSG deal with Gary Fisketjohn… things had been branded, every aspect of the process of writing and publishing had a commercial stamp of approval, and the Beattie moment was over.

The good news is I think that that moment is ending now, too, and we’re on to something new, where there’s a new artist underground—on the web, for the most part—and things can be communicated and appreciated in a non-commercial way, and we may see some interesting things happen. We already have. Most of the interesting stuff that’s happening now that I know about, I heard about first via Internet chatter, whether it’s important journalism such as that of the Italian journalist Carlo Bonini, who broke the whole Niger-gate lie behind Bush’s excuse for war, or the best new fiction, such as he work of Kelly Link or, for that matter, you.

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There is controversy currently about newspapers’ book review sections getting smaller. Do you think the style of the reviews, the focus of the reviews, or the tone of the reviews have anything to do with this, meaning is it in any part a failure of the reviewers themselves, as compared to reviewers in the past, that not as many people “pay attention” to book reviews, at least in newspapers, anymore?

I think we need to take a bigger picture than that. If you do, I suspect it’s likely to seem that this is all a case of the chickens coming home to roost. Look, newspapers have been slowly committing suicide for over a decade now. I was writing about this in my newspaper column in the nineties! And now I’m tired of being asked to give a damn. I mean, take the New York Times: White Water, Wen Ho Lee, Judith Miller and Michael Gordon—and that’s just the stuff they admitted to. Why should I buy the newspaper in the first place?

Beyond that, newspapers eradicate the book section, or diminish it, saying to people who read books that they don’t care about you. Now I ask you, who’s more likely to read a newspaper than someone who reads books? So add the charge of stupidity and condescension to that of lying. Why should readers support this? They shouldn’t, and what you’re seeing isn’t an act of apathy so much as active rejection of the new status quo.

As for the sections people are fussing about lately, well, they only prove my case. Everyone’s upset about the Chicago Tribune’s stand-alone Sunday section getting smaller and moving to Saturday. I don’t hear anyone fussing about the fact that the Tribune’s book section is run by an editor who lives in New York, which would indicate a weakness to me on the local writing scene—i.e., a disservice to the readership. Meanwhile, there’s enormous umbrage about the book editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution being sacked. I once heard her on a panel saying she didn’t believe in bad reviews—she only wanted to promote books. What kind of journalism is that? See, this is still a “beat” that needs to be covered. But nobody’s covering it, or if they are they’re doing such a half-assed job nobody cares about their section. And do I have to add that most of them never, and I mean never, review books published by indys? In short, they’re little more than extensions of the publicity departments of the conglomerate publishers. I’m supposed to care about this?

Let me just add that there are of course some exceptions to the rule—not only the most obvious, which is David Ulin’s section in the Los Angeles Times, but also Mary Ann Gwinn’s in the Seattle Times, Geeta Jensen’s in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Karen Long’s in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Bob Hoover’s in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Arthur Salm’s section in the San Diego paper and Ed Gray’s in the Little Rock, Arkansas newspaper, and a handful of others. Some of these are modest sections, but nonetheless, there’s an intelligent mix of reviews, commentary and features that serves their respective readerships well.

But for the most part, there’s a good reason the readership of daily newspapers is dying, and it’s the same reason a lot of other big media, including network television and big publishing is dying, too: the homogenization that occurs when you’re taken over by a conglomerate.

The good news is that just as in book publishing, so too in print journalism, and there is a very exciting new world of publications picking up the slack. Yes, yes, there’s the internet, especially places such as The Reading Experience and The Complete Review, but don’t forget some of the country’s great alternative newsweeklies—such as the Chicago Reader, the Boston Phoenix, or the Seattle Week or the Stranger—and all the stand-alone book reviews, such as BookForum, RainTaxi, the Bloomsbury Review and on and on. This, in addition to the Internet, is where interest in books and literary criticism has gone.

Literature that many people consider “serious” is written from an existential point of view (a view that does not block out information), meaning it has no message and does not tell you what to do; and has no morals. For example all the existentialists who have won the Nobel Prize. And I would consider CHILLY SCENES OF WINTER to be written from an existential point of view. And books like GOOD MORNING, MIDNIGHT by Jean Rhys, and I would say almost all books that were called “K-Mart Realism.” These books make you feel emotion, but do not tell you what to do with that emotion, just like the universe does not tell us what to do. Political non-fiction tells you what to do, or what not to do. And Melville House publishes both political non-fiction and “serious” literature. How do you reconcile the existential with the political? Why publish fiction that is existential at all? Or do you think that existential literature is somehow political, in that it is life-affirming, or something? (I don’t know the answer to this question, so I thought I would ask you.)

I’m not sure I agree with those distinctions. I think I agree in that my taste for fiction also favors writing that is not overtly telling me what to think, but I’m not sure that something less overt but nonetheless intentionally influential isn’t part of the package sometimes. I mean, I’m sure Kurt Vonnegut wanted to influence people against war when he wrote SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, no? Even more subtly—far more subtly—I’m sure Chekhov wanted to generate greater sympathy for the peasants and Jews of nineteenth century Russia with his writing. One of my favorite writers, Raymond Queneau, certainly seemed to be after some kind of transcendental affect, what with all the language games they played. And yet his books were so moving, and obviously intended to make you laugh. And so on—writers generating emotion with a purpose, and certainly writers I could not accuse of having no “message” or “morals.”

And I suppose you could make an argument that there are writers of political journalism who are more “existential” than not—Orwell, in DOWN AND OUT IN LONDON AND PARIS, for example. I’m not sure, although I do think some books of journalism are written to testify more than to inspire or prosecute. One of our writers—the aforementioned Carlo Bonini—told me he wrote his book COLLUSION to simply show that, in an age when we’ve devalued journalists, reporting can still be vital to a culture. That seems like a fairly existential motivation to me.

On the flip side, our biggest selling novel—THE LITTLE GIRL AND THE CIGARETTE, by Benoit Duteurtre—is rather blatantly mocking pc culture, and demanding more than suggesting that we trash it. And there’s the Iranian novel I mentioned before, MISSING SOLUCH by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi—it’s an open call to remember the primary population of his country, which is poor and rural. Dowlatabadi is making a political statement to his own government, as well as the world.

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Chuang Zhu, Fernando Pessoa, and others (I’m sure) have said that they want to affect the world as little as possible, because they cannot know the effects of their actions. For example Fernando Pessoa said that he did not know if giving money to a beggar would help, or not help, in the long-term, or short-term, and that he himself did not know what “help” even means. Another example is if I killed George W. Bush. What if killing George W. Bush allowed the human race to live longer and populate the rest of the universe, destroying trillions of aliens and eventually the entire universe. Whereas not killing George W. Bush would allow George W. Bush to destroy the human race, and save trillions of aliens and the entire universe? How do you “deal” with what I just typed, making decisions every day, doing things? How do you know if a certain thing you are doing is actually “good,” or just “good” in an extremely limited context, both temporally and physically?

Well, one way I deal with things is by having concerns about writing I never thought I’d have—for example, is it safe to discuss killing George Bush, even theoretically? I now have impulses that say “call the lawyer” and “protect the writer” and “protect the house.” As for the rest of the decision making process of being a publisher—if that’s what you’re asking—you start from a place that admits it’s all arbitrary to your personal taste and go from there. It’s a giant art project that I’m conducting with my wife and a growing number of associates, such as you. I think it’s “good” or it “works” if it’s resonant with those tastes. That’s about the extent of it. In a smaller sense, it’s “good” if we stay in business—that is, if enough people took it seriously enough to buy it.

Melville House, I feel, is very powerful, very professional, has a professional-looking web site, consistently publishes professional, interesting, and good-looking books. And also publishes a lot of books. Like 30 a year, now, I think, including bestsellers and many translations. And Melville House is about 6 years old. Do you think you, Valerie, and the other people at Melville House work harder than other people? Do any of you make to-do lists?

My life is littered with to-do lists. And no, I don’t think we work any harder than most other indy publishers (or most other mom and pop businesses, either), although I do think we work a lot harder than most people in the conglomerate houses. We’re better looking than they are, too.

In your book, THE BIG CHILL: THE GREAT, UNREPORTED STORY OF THE BUSH INAUGURATION PROTEST, you named specific people at The New York Times, and other papers, who neglected to cover the Bush inauguration accurately. Good job. How did it feel to publish that book?

It’s hard to describe. I was basically pleased with it, if you overlook a few really regrettable typos that got by the proofers we didn’t have. But promoting the book itself was kind of like reliving the experience it depicts—that of being marginalized in opposition. For example, when I went on the Charlie Rose Show to talk about it, at one point in the conversation things seemed to be wandering off and I tried to pull it back by saying, “We have to remember that over half the country thinks the election was stolen.” It was a thing I wanted to say on national television. Later, Valerie told me all the movie stars in the green room—the cast of Hotel Rwanda was on after me—stopped chatting about their new shoes and looked at the monitor as if something great had just happened. But my remark was edited out of the broadcast. Another time, on MSNBC, the host was trying to ridicule me. He asked me what all the “supposed” protestors in Washington were protesting. I said it was because they felt the election had been stolen. He got very snide and said “Shouldn’t they have made their protest against Bush by the way they voted?” And I said, “As I said, they felt their votes were stolen.” And with that, the interview was immediately ended. I’d been on for maybe 30 seconds. I guess I’d made him look foolish—he’d made himself look foolish, really—by pointing out that he hadn’t taken in my previous answer, and they cut to commercial. So on the whole, I’m glad I documented what happened—I’m glad I testified for history—but it was dispiriting, too.

But one interesting thing is that these are measurable responses in a way I’ve never experienced after publishing fiction. There’s something differently satisfying about that, I have to say.

How many books do you think I’ll publish by the time I’m 40?

I don’t want to make a guess. You do all kinds of different writing, at different speeds. At first, I thought you wrote fast and were prolific. Now, I know you’re like that rock band that had years of material saved up for the first record or two. Now you’re back to generating a work at a time, so it’s hard to say what your pace will be, and I suspect it will vary anyway. It might be influenced by how we work together, too—if you find the publishing process, and editing, to be inspiring and helpful and satisfying. Who knows? I haven’t been at publishing much longer than you’ve been at writing.

Do you think I’ll win any of these prizes ever: National Book Award, PEN/Faulkner Award, Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize? Why or why not?

Well, if I said what I think of those prizes and how the organizations behind them run things it might screw up your chances of winning. A more interesting question might be to ask you if it would mean anything to you to win one of them? How about, in the end, if I just say that if Melville House can win indy publisher of the year, well, that might just prove that I don’t know much. All bets are off. Go for it.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Tao Lin is the author of a novel, EEEEE EEE EEEE, and a story-collection, BED, that will be published simultaneously in May, 2007 by Melville House. Tao is also the author of a poetry collection, YOU ARE A LITTLE BIT HAPPIER THAN I AM, and has been published in Noon, Nerve, the Mississippi Review, the Cincinnati Review, Other Voices, Fourteen Hills, Punk Planet, Harper’s, and Juked. He is Poetry Editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 30th, 2007.