Books In Conversation
TIME, SWEAT, AND IMAGINATION: J.C. HALLMAN in conversation with Matt Bell
B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal
(Simon and Schuster, 2015)
J.C. Hallman grew up in Southern California. He studied creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He is the author of The Chess Artist, The Devil is a Gentleman, The Hospital for Bad Poets, In Utopia, and Wm & H’ry. Hallman has also edited two anthologies, The Story About the Story and The Story About the Story II, which propose a new school of literary response called “creative criticism.” In B & Me, Hallman adds to the body of creative criticism by reading Nicholson Baker’s work end to end, responding to it both personally and critically in a book modeled on Baker’s own U and I, which similarly engaged John Updike. I came to B & Me after mentioning online my own intent to read all of Nicholson Baker’s books this year—a task still in progress—which Hallman responded to by telling me about his project and offering to send me a galley. While reading, I found it endlessly fascinating how different Hallman’s engagement with Baker was than my own, which is not a complaint but rather a recognition of how personal and idiosyncratic Hallman’s book is, how individual his depiction of one writer moving sincerely and curiously through the work of another.
Matt Bell (Rail): Obviously this is all covered in the book, but can we start with some basic background for readers hearing about B & Me for the first time: Why write a book about reading Nicholson Baker? Why Baker, of all the writers you might have chosen?
Hallman: Well, even though the book is ostensibly about reading Nicholson Baker, it’s really a book simply about reading—and more specifically than that, it’s about finding an author’s work, and reading them deeply and exhaustively, as opposed to reading a smattering of authors so as to appear “well-read.” What I’d never seen a writer do before was tell the story of a literary relationship from its moment of conception—the moment when you first hear of a writer’s work and feel a mysterious draw toward them. Baker was that kind of writer for me, but the ultimate message of B & Me is not that other readers should rush out and read Baker (though that would be great too). Rather, what I hope comes through is that we should recognize anew that a real reading life means answering an inner call toward deep-felt relationships conducted through books.
Rail: Then has writing this book changed the way you’re reading now? Are you continuing that deep and exhaustive reading and rereading of someone new? Are there other writers you’re looking forward to “pursuing” in this way, or are you trying to let the process be more organic?
Hallman: What I did with Baker, was, for me, a kind of binging corrective. At the end of the book, I hint that I’m going to do the same with Martin Amis (who served as a kind of punching bag throughout the book, and illustrated, I hope, how our relationships with writers can be as irrational as our relationships with other people, even people we love), and I did read several Amis novels in succession, but he never really grabbed hold of me in the way that Baker did. He is a brilliant writer—so brilliant that he sometimes struck me as bored with his own work: his mind has raced ahead. Since then, I’ve read to try to find those writers who will really sink their hooks into me. I think I’ve found a few, but there’s no reason to take them in all at once. In fact, à la Barthes, there’s something to be said for making yourself wait to revisit a writer’s work, letting them percolate and ferment in your imagination until you simply can’t resist the pull any longer. Nabokov is like that, for me. Virginia Woolf, too. John Barth; Annie Dillard; James Agee. Recently, I’ve felt very pulled to read, again, Zadie Smith, but I haven’t gone back to her yet. She lingers back there, tugging at the back of my mind.
Rail: Before writing B & Me, you also edited two volumes of “creative criticism” (The Story About the Story I and II), a genre you define in B & Me as “writers depicting their minds, their consciousnesses, as they think about literature.” One thing that occurred to me as I read your reading of Baker’s work—and especially the influence of William James and Frank Conroy on certain early works of his—was that for most novelists, the most common place to think about literature isn’t in criticism but in their actual novels. (That’s certainly where I do most of my thinking about other books, despite the occasional foray into the book review or essay.) Of course, it’s a lot less direct, but there’s something exciting about the way a new book engages with the books that came before it. For a prolific novelist like Baker, who obviously doesn’t mind working directly with the ideas of the writers he’s influenced by, what’s the gain in doing it more nakedly, in U and I and elsewhere?
Hallman: I think you’re right that this is true of most novelists, but the names that leap immediately to mind are the ones who had nearly parallel careers as novelists and critics: Wilde, James, Woolf, Lawrence, O’Connor, Kundera, Gass, Ozick, Sontag. That said, you’re right about Baker: his entire critical output—apart from occasional reviews—really comes in U and I. The rest is in novels. So why does he shift to nonfiction for that book? U and I is often thought of as being a cheerful, funny romp of a book, but one line in it really stuck out to me: “This essay is the test of whether I should bother being a writer or not.” It’s easy to look back at The Mezzanine and regard it as a classic, but neither it nor Baker’s second novel, Room Temperature, were huge commercial successes. So it seems likely that he was having something of a crisis of faith, and perhaps the turn to nonfiction—and Baker has spoken of what, for him, is a very strict line between fiction and nonfiction, which puts him at odds with some nonfiction writers these days—enabled him to more directly address, and perhaps exorcise, the ghosts that haunt all literary careers.
Rail: To stay on the topic of “creative criticism” a moment longer: I read from the two excellent volumes of The Story About the Story after the second one came out in 2013, and it seemed that the second volume addressed to some extent one of my few complaints about the first one, which was simply that the makeup of the book was slanted somewhat heavily toward white male writers writing about white male writers. There are exceptions in both volumes, of course—and much more diversity in Volume II—but that slant came to mind again when thinking about U and I and B & Me. I’m not trying to put you in a corner, but I’m sure this is something you noticed too and must have considered as you were working on these projects, which are linked in so many ways. Is this imbalance merely a trickle-down effect of the state of some version of the accepted canon? (Because essays of writers on writers require both writers to be of a certain level of fame to be publishable, perhaps?) Is it a reflection of whose criticism is getting published, or who is choosing to work as a critic, who is being encouraged or mentored to do so? I’m maybe asking too broad of a question, but I find the idea of creative criticism so interesting and I’m curious how new work in the field (or the recognition of the work already being done) can be made ever more inclusive, both in practice and in its representation in anthologies of such work.
Hallman: Yes, I think it’s a problem of the canon, and I think I was both guilty and innocent on this count. I did work harder in the second book to make sure it was diverse, but even in the first book, I made sure to place Virginia Woolf’s wonderful “An Essay in Criticism” very prominently, precisely because it’s about the problem you describe. But it’s also true that in the first book I just wasn’t educated enough. I didn’t yet know about the “autobiographical criticism” movement of the 1980s, which was fueled in large part by a minority rejecting the fact that the language and dispassionate stance of criticism tended to reinforce the position of the majority. So I had some learning to do.
Rail: One thing that surprised me was how much House of Holes figured into your reading of Baker as a whole, both as one of your starting places and as a book you circled back to often in B & Me. I downloaded the eBook of B & Me to confirm some suspicions, but House of Holes gets mentioned far more than any other late career book of Baker’s: His most recent, Traveling Sprinkler, barely comes up, and there are some middle career books like The Everlasting Book of Nory and A Box of Matches that don’t figure much into the bigger movement of the book. Obviously, it’s impossible (and probably a bad idea) for every book to get equal treatment. But what is it about this book that captured so much of your attention? I had a lot of fun reading House of Holes when it came out but perhaps didn’t react as strongly as you did. In some ways, I started to wonder if you just personally preferred the more sex-oriented books of Baker’s, like House of Holes and Vox and The Fermata, to Checkpoint and Traveling Sprinkler and Human Smoke, all of which get fewer mentions—or if this was simply a casualty of the way the personal part of B & Me was intersecting with the critical part.
Hallman: When you read an author deeply—as opposed to reading the single novel or two that might wind up in the “literary canon”—I think you start to recognize how each book plays a larger role in the arc of their entire career. Picking up from your earlier question, if U and I succeeded in renewing Baker’s literary faith, as it were (which is incidentally what I do with Baker in B & Me), then it’s useful to note that his next two books were the sex novels Vox and The Fermata. After that, 18 years pass before House of Holes appears. Baker goes through more faith-shaking crises in the interim, his work on libraries, and the very painful process of reconciling himself to living in a society becoming more and more warlike. You can feel him practically falling apart at times. But then House of Holes appears, which I think is a deceptively light-hearted book. There’s an abiding hopefulness there, and, for me, it came to represent the private, quiet joys of the writing life. It’s about the possibility of happiness in dark times. So, to answer your question, House of Holes did feel to me like a more necessary book than a couple of his others, but not simply for its prurience.
Rail: Were there other movements or progressions in Baker’s work that you couldn’t find a way to talk about in B & Me? Anything that didn’t fit inside the narrative of your book? Because it does have a narrative arc, one that must have imposed itself on the motion of the criticism as well.
Hallman: Yes, I hope it has an arc—if criticism can be a story, then it needs to have an arc. And that arc is going to be a function of what chimes with our sensibilities at the time of our reading. All the clog and hole imagery in my reading of Baker is certainly a result of what was happening during my life as I read—and that, to my mind, illustrates why it’s critical to emphasize the self when we write about books. It’s funny, in “The Death of the Author,” which was taken to be an essay about the preeminence of the text, Barthes said that what he was really trying to suggest was “the birth of the reader,” and I think the importance of the self is what he meant. To return to your question, I was certainly aware that my reading of Baker was not exhaustive, only representative of my experience. As I was writing about each book, it was clear how much I was leaving unaddressed, skipping past. It felt like sacrilege. But if you head too far in that direction, you wind up with a Borges problem: to write about everything in the book, you have to rewrite the book.
Rail: I want to loop back to the previous answer to pick up again your note that as you say U and I renewed Baker’s “literary faith,” so did writing a similar book about Baker renew yours: What was it about reading one author this way that was so renewing? Do you think it could have happened with any writer, if you spent this much time with him or her, or was it just a lucky thing that you decided to embark on this book about Baker, despite not having really read him beforehand?
Hallman: I don’t think it was luck, because I think we crave the writers we need in the same way we’re said to crave foods that have the nutrients we need. Even though I hadn’t read Baker, enough of him had managed to get through to me that I knew I should read him. And yes, Baker restored me—that, to me, is a more profound function for books than simple pleasure or entertainment. Did he restore me forever? No. Like nature, we’re forever caught in a process of crash and reclamation.
Rail: For the last few years, I’ve picked an author to try to read end to end, and like you I’ve found it to be an incredibly powerful experience, although obviously I haven’t produced the kind of formal response you have. What should readers expect to take away from this kind of deep engagement with another writer, if they haven’t read this way before? Or maybe more importantly, what does the reader have to give the writer, in order for the relationship with the books to be as powerful as yours was with Baker, as Baker’s was with Updike?
Hallman: I argue in the book that what reading means, or should mean, is that the reader makes a muscular effort to help a book succeed. That is, we read with dedication and intellect and attention. Really, this isn’t new at all because it’s what Emerson meant when he said—in the same passage that gave us the phrase “creative writing”—that one must be an inventor to read well. What does the reader have to give? Time, sweat, and imagination. What will the reader gain? If you read well, you’ve not simply been distracted from your life—you’ve lived it, you’ve created it.