:: Article

Winnowing the Field

Chad Harbach interviewed by Max Liu.

After spending a decade writing his first book, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding has received acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. A campus novel about a baseball team, it shows a sympathetic cast of characters negotiating acute questions of life, love and literature in resonant ways. Chad is also a founding editor of n+1, the Brooklyn-based journal which Mary Karr describes as “the best goddamn literary magazine in America.” I asked him about the struggle to complete his novel, the rise of n+1 and the idea of “experiment” in fiction.

3:AM: In The Art of Fielding, Henry Skrimshander’s problems on the baseball field begin when he starts thinking about what he does, rather than just doing it. Is there a parallel with fiction writing?
Chad Harbach: Yes, I think there’s a deep parallel there – or at least, when I was working my way through Henry’s crisis as a ballplayer, I relied almost exclusively on my own experience as a writer. Profound self-doubt; a too-keen awareness of the difficulty of what you’re trying to achieve; an inability to block out noise and negativity – practitioners of any art struggle with these things.
3:AM: In an early issue of n+1 the editors wrote, “It’s time to say what you mean…” The way you write strikes me as very direct but in The Making of the Art of Fielding, Keith Gessen tells us that the language of earlier drafts was more “fancy”. So is directness something you had to learn? And do we, as a culture, need to be more direct in our discourses and actions?
CH: I think every writer struggles to learn directness, although this can mean very different things in different cases. The point of writing is to convey as clearly as possible the thoughts, ideas, and feeling-tones that you consider important. Usually those things are wordless in their original form – even most thoughts (I think) happen without words, and then you go looking for words to describe them. And always you want to do that as directly as possible, without sacrificing the subtlety or complexity of the thoughts. To me that’s the tension: between directness in communication and complexity in thought. Managing that balance is what writing’s about.

3:AM: Jonathan Franzen has been a champion of both your novel and n+1. In Freedom he questions our obsession with competition but to what extent does your book celebrate competitiveness?
CH: One of the many things I admired about Freedom was Jonathan Franzen’s rather skeptical critique of competitive athletics – both because it’s intelligently done, and because it’s so far from being a critique I could level myself. I’ve always been too close to that world.
More broadly, we could talk about “competition” for a long time, because it’s such a fundamental concept in a variety of realms, and you have to define your terms very carefully when you move from realm to realm. Are we talking about competition in a real Darwinian sense? A politicized pseudo-Darwinian sense? A purely economic sense? Does sport nurture a vicious competitiveness that then infects economic and social life? Or does it provide a salubrious output for our natural competitiveness, so that it doesn’t infect those things? Or is sport great, until it’s corrupted by the vicious competitiveness of economic life? And so on. There are a lot of false analogies to be made, a lot of influences to trace, and you have to be pretty careful.
3:AM: I enjoyed the camaraderie of the Harpooners baseball team and when I read n+1, in print and online, I get a strong sense of you and your fellow editors as a team with a shared spirit and values. I also imagine a wider, intellectual New York community forming around the magazine. Is this, in reality, true?  
CH: I think so, yes. One of the reasons n+1 caught on was that we weren’t just a curatorial magazine – our goal wasn’t to “publish good stuff that people sent us.” We shared a broad understanding of the contemporary world, we were angry about certain things, and we wanted to intervene. We took, as a group, a point of view. And we threw good parties. People were eager for both those things.


3:AM: I’ve heard you say that you gave up sports in college because you weren’t big enough. Did you ever, during the decade you spent writing The Art of Fielding, consider giving up?
CH: Not really. I certainly gave up in smaller ways, all the time – threw up my hands and lay the manuscript aside for the day, or the week, or the month. But I always believed in the book, or at least the version of the book that existed in my head. Whether I’d ever manage to get that version onto paper was another question.
3:AM: The bidding war, described in The Making of the Art of Fielding, reminded me of the baseball draft when Henry is receiving calls from agents and scouts. Was life, for a moment, imitating art?
CH: I suppose so. Luckily, I had the luxury of having already written the book; I didn’t have to, say, write the ending in Central Park while every editor in Manhattan glared at me. But there were similarities. Henry worked by himself for years, and then recognition came (or almost came) very suddenly; something like that happened to me, too.
3:AM: You admire David Foster Wallace, William Faulkner and Herman Melville – authors of, broadly speaking, bold, dense, formally experimental fiction. So how come The Art of Fielding isn’t more experimental? Is that something you might explore in the future – or have in the past – and what does literary “experiment” and “ambition” mean to you?
CH: Well, this may sound lame, but I do believe it to be true: every novel that strives sentence by sentence to be true to itself is a new and very uncertain experiment. Novels that are ornate and tricky, but also formulaic and lazy, often get called “experimental” – but in fact they’re just replicating experiments that have already been done, and botching or degrading them in the process.
If the writer is working with total engagement, questioning her own views, and willing to go into the unknown – i.e., isn’t writing the same book she’s written six times before – then that’s an “experiment” I want to read. I might not like it, but it’s an honest, earnest compact that won’t make me feel icky.
3:AM: There’s a lovely moment when a character drops “the latest Murakami” in the mud and doesn’t go back for it. Do you think, as Helen DeWitt said in her n+1 interview, that we read too many new books?
CH: Ah, I wouldn’t hold up new-book-reading as a major cultural problem. The advantage of old books is that time helps to winnow the field, so you’re more likely to stick to what’s good. But there’s plenty of nourishing stuff being published now – it’s just a question of whom to trust and how to find it.
3:AM: On issues of race and sexuality, The Art of Fielding feels optimistic but there are some suggestions that class remains as immovable an obstacle as ever. Can you comment on this please and perhaps tell me a bit about n+1’s work with the Occupy movement? 
CH: I do think that class (along with ecological devastation) is the gargantuan, intractable problem. Our economic system doesn’t mind promoting certain kinds of equality, as long as the prevailing economic logic isn’t threatened or altered in any way. And as soon as it, is, bam, the hammer comes down.
I was a bit sad to be traveling so much last fall, when the Occupy movement was in full voice. It’s the most promising, heartening political development of my lifetime. The energy in New York was tremendous, and many of my colleagues at n+1 were deeply involved. We produced three issues of a gazette, which we distributed for free at occupations around the US, and some of the best essays therefrom were compiled in a (quite good) book, published in conjunction with Verso. I recommend it.​


Max Liu is a writer and journalist. He lives in North London where he is at work on a novel and a collection of autobiographical essays.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, March 1st, 2012.