Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Felicity LuHill, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Mark Greif about his book Against Everything (Pantheon), which is among the final five selections in the category of Criticism for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
I. The Collection
Felicity LuHill: A lot of people talk about Against Everything as being pessimistic, but I actually found the book to be really optimistic. For me, “Against Exercise,” “On Food,” and even “Sex Children in the Afternoon” seem to be advocating people who don’t feel the need to follow food trends, exercise all the time, or be obsessed with sex. Would you agree that this is actually an optimistic collection of essays? How was the decision made that the collection is against everything?
Mark Greif: I’m very gratified that you found it an optimistic book, and I do feel the same way about it. At a reading, one of the members of the audience said, “No offence, but I read your essays and I get really depressed. Do you find it depressing to write them?” [laughs] Well at first I said, “I’m sorry for what I’ve done to you. But I find the experience of writing them entirely the opposite.” The whole purpose of writing them is that, if the essays are about constraints and things that might leave you feeling trapped in conformity or expectation, that, at the very least, understanding what the forces are that hammer us all in and what kinds of corrupt or tawdry demands or invitations come along with things we really would like, like, living longer or living well, then I think you’re less at their mercy—the more you’re able to figure what those kinds of traps and walls are. That’s the part that belongs to optimism. And the business of being “against everything,” which I do believe in, is the practice of taking “no” as the starting point simply because we’re offered so many bad deals and foolish commercial blandishments, but really in order to figure out what things you can say “yes” to and really mean it and live with it.
FLH: So, you’re saying we shouldn’t settle?
MG: Yeah, I think so. I mean one of the most revelatory things to me—which I learned from a teacher, Stanley Cavell—was that maybe the world is not yet good enough for us, not yet good enough for the way we could be, or the things that are best in us as people, and citizens, and neighbors. And that it’s ok and justifiable to point that out.
FLH: “Learning to Rap” seemed to be a very positive essay. I thought it was really brave of you to discuss rap and hip hop culture from the perspective of somebody who is white, and being open about the complications of that, “checking your privilege” as you do so. People who are not white often find this really strong calling to write about race and culture. Do you think that it’s also important for white writers to write about these topics? When do you think it’s necessary to “check your privilege?”
MG: I think it’s definitely important for writers who are not people of color to write about race and racial division and just the existence, in the midst of categories that dominate whatever America is and has been, a racial diet of “black” and “white”—two words which I wish always came to us in quotation marks, but obviously have very un-quotation mark consequences. It really is the central story of the United States and the central cry to have produced that diet. At the same time, I remember actually having conflicts with friends and teachers and fellow writers because I do think there is something to be said for white writers not taking over the space of writing about black music or black art, which again is the most fundamental to American arts as we have them. So, I guess it’s a bit of a back and forth process. You want to participate in trying to figure out and trying to acknowledge these forms of divisions and cruelty and racism that are so fundamental to everyday of any American life. At the same time, you want to make sure that you’re not taking over space or consciousness or airtime or indeed anticipating the consciousness of the people who live black life or life of color everyday. That’s the back and forth.
That essay is one that I would have been reluctant to publish not in the midst of all the other essays, or as if it were standing alone, as, you know, “Listen readers! My truth you must hear!” But in the midst of a collection that was meant to be about things that environ us and hem us in, it was great. I felt like I had the room to be quite honest about this real thing, and found myself saying, “Why can’t I rap along to my favorite songs when I can sing along?” And what is that? Is that good enough for an era in which we finally have a black president? Is the whole question racist? Is this something, a kind of corruption, I haven’t been able to see or understand in myself? And, for me, it was a meaningful essay to try to figure out what I needed to learn in order even to understand these predicaments that have been a part of my life since I was a kid.
FLH: You seem to be really invested in Reality TV, which is interesting, because you have this very academic background. You talk about how one of the merits of Reality TV is its ability to judge either explicitly in the TV Show itself or implicitly from the viewer. It has more of a self-awareness than, say, a sitcom does. I think of judgment as something that comes from a bad place, something that has a negative motivation in some way. And I think some people might call this essay collection judgmental, but from reading it, I think it’s much more discerning than it is judgmental. You try to understand these things, and you really empathize with people, and then from an open and objective stand point you make observations and critique them. And it’s not in this place of negativity or in this place of trying to hurt, which I think Reality TV can do, and often does do. Do you think that there’s a distinction between judgment and discernment? Do you think Reality TV is capable of discerning without being judgmental?
MG: That’s a great question. I do think there’s a difference between discernment and judgment. I like this word that you’ve introduced. I will use it again, and I’ll have to credit you when I do. But I think the thing that makes people weary is the kind of judgment we associate with being “judgmental” or being “judgy,” a neologism I’ve sometimes heard [laughs], where the suspicion is you know in advance what the result is going to be. It’s as if you already know who’s going to be guilty, and whatever their lives or whatever the reality of the case as it were, you’re just going to find fault, and that does kind of seem like madness. It has to do with a very different word just like “repression” or “domination,” where your job is to go around censuring people for what they do anyway or what they do ordinarily. What right do you have to do that?
I guess the kind of judgment that interests me in Reality Television, if it exists, and it is a little different from what a sitcom could ever offer you, is a judgment that belongs freely to a viewer but not really to the show. In sitcoms, the laugh track will indicate for you whether or not the thing is actually meant to be funny. And in Reality TV, the way it’s cut and the plotting, it often does offer to you the judgment that you’re supposed to make. Maybe it’s from my own watching or from watching the People’s Court with my grandmother when she was alive. I actually get the sense that what’s good about watching Reality TV is that people find in it situations where they’re not meant to or else they refuse to know in advance what good conduct is. I like the incompetence, and the cheapness of Reality TV, because I think it lets you see through the conventions of TV in ways that let you see parts of our day-to-day experience you just can’t see elsewhere so unvarnished.
II. About Process
FLH: “Sex Children in the Afternoon,” and all of your essays have great titles. A lot of writers, myself included, pretend titling work doesn’t exist, but it’s actually so important. If people don’t care about the title, they’re not going to read it. Do you come up with the title before you write or do you think about it for awhile after you’ve written it?
MG: It’s funny, because—and I’m sure you’ve had exactly the same experience—sometimes you just don’t have one and other times, the title is there for you very early in the process, and it almost feels suspicious, you know, “Why am I so committed to this silly title? What does it have to do with this thing I’m working so hard on?” And the way I think about titles when they do come early is that they’re a manifestation or an icon of desire, your desire to write this essay. And it often is the case that when the right title comes early, it’s because you need some kind of bright light to follow or move towards. And it’s true, because some of those titles, I was like, “God, if I could ever write an essay worthy of this set of words,” even though I don’t really know yet what they mean, but they’re the incarnation of my desire to find out.
FLH: You do a lot of observational writing in these essays, where I wondered how you related to your subject matter personally. When and why do you decide to exclude yourself from the essay or from the conversation the essay is surrounding and when do you decide to include yourself?
MG: That’s a great question, and there’s no easy answer. I think that I push leave myself out and to leave details out, but, by the same token, to try to be as true as possible to my own experience, or to an immediate experience. In the essays, I like to read, and the essayists and philosophers who I’ve felt like most changed my life reading them, the question I like them to ask is, “Is this true for you, too? Do you feel the same confusion? Are you in the same perplexity?” There’s a quotation from one of Emerson’s essays, where he chides the reader, who is also an imagined speaker, for keeping silent ideas or just questions that matter, and that finding that he or she has not spoken, someone else speaks the words that he or she could have uttered. He says something like, “you find your own unacknowledged thoughts, coming back from you to another with a sort of alienated majesty.” There are times when you have to be upfront with your reader, imagining your reader as yourself but also like a total stranger. You have to say, “This is what I do. This is the show that I like. I like dating shows better than voted off the island shows,” and that’s true because it determines the questions I ask. It shapes the kind of answers I’ll give, which might be right or might be wrong. But, for me, it’s because of a desire to engage in some kind of confrontational or provocative effort of communion.
FLH: In your prose, you use the terms, “we,” “you,” and “one” to talk about society, as in “we” as a collective society, “you” or “one” as an example of society. This comes to a head in the clever title of the essay, “WeTube.” I’m curious to know when you decide to use one term versus another, if that is a decision or if it’s a fluid collective that you go back and forth among.
MG: That’s a great question. The “we” or the “you” or the “one,” or the “I,” or the “he or she”—these are the most important decisions, actually, for writing this kind of prose, and often the hardest ones. One of the nicest comments I got from a friend when the book first came out was “I read your book. It’s really all about the pronouns, isn’t it—writing?” And it’s true. We live in an era of the justified critique of the “we.” I’ve always known that the “we,” particularly, annoys people, friends, beloved readers.
What I like about those generalizing pronouns is that they really do push the questions of “What’s true? What’s true for you? Or false?” And what kinds of fake inclusions we are often asked to give into. And what kinds of true self-communities or solidarities we really want to belong to or could ratify. I find that process of figuring out in which register to approach each new fact, each new observation, each new question, and whether I think it could belong to a wider circle of readers or whether it’s peculiar in the sense it’s really weird and no one will understand it. Those questions are at the root of the whole enterprise. I’m glad you identified it as a key part.
FLH: I can see how, making that decision, you want to relate to the reader, but you also don’t want to impose something on the reader.
MG: Sometimes, you want to piss them off, though. Sometimes, I find that when I read the stuff out loud, I wind up doing a kind of satirical preacher’s voice, “We all know….” Part of the benefit of prose is that it’s flat on the page. I think I assume that if these essays are working, the reader will often be frustrated with me, or against me, or saying to him or herself, “I’m not part of that ‘we,’” clapping along. I think that’s essential, and trying to manage that without making a person just close the book or throw it across the room is the most artful of this kind of prose.
III. About the Essays, Pertaining to the World Post-Publishing
FLH: So, you have three essays that critique music in a way that’s similar to literature. In the Radiohead essay you say, “On the page, these lyrics aren’t impressive… one has to distinguish between poetry and pop.” But in your “Learning to Rap” essay, you point out that rap “speaks in whole sentences, indeed in stanzas with extended metaphors, quotations, puns… Hip-hop is complexly articulate in a way that separates it from the rest of popular music.” There seems to be a tug and pull where music lies in comparison to literature. So, of course, my question is what are your thoughts on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize? [We both laugh] Isn’t that a great lead-in?
MG: That was a brilliant lead-in! I, personally, was just completely horrified. In fact, I did not see it initially in the news. A friend told me at lunch. And it was peculiar, because it meant I could just deny the possibility of this having happened much longer. It actually went on for fifteen minutes where I was just like, “No… there is absolutely no way. You are either lying to me or you’re the victim of some hoax.” I just thought it was the dumbest thing imaginable. Although, I then came to feel it much more intelligible as an act of pity on the part of the Swedes. They looked at our politics and, just as I felt they were so proud of us when Obama was elected that they gave him the Nobel Peace Prize, I felt like they were just so sorry for us, that they said, “Well, something good must have happened in your country. Oh, yes, the sixties. Well, here’s an award to Bob Dylan.”
MG: I love Bob Dylan. I just thought the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to him was just a total folly, unjustifiable in any terms. It’s funny because people who are not super connected to literature said to me, “Oh, you must think he was a bad recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature because you’re committed to poetry, and prose and to outdated categories.” And I said, “Well, I am committed to outdated categories, but in a somewhat different way,” in that I guess the problem with rewarding Bob Dylan a prize in literature is that it undervalues pop music as pop music, a kind of art form in which the music is not really separable from the words. And also because there are always live and dead arts at any given moment in history, and literature which I truly love, that is to say written fiction and written poetry don’t have the cultural status of movies and pop music for us now, and yet they’re still incredibly important in my life and in everybody’s life who reads. So another thing that bothered me about the Nobel is that when there are historical autonomous places or forms that continue to pay attention to what are not the most living arts, where there is still a ballet theater that continues to stage ballet or where there’s still a prize for literature, there’s a usefulness to keeping it in existence for that purpose without just assimilating it to the parts of our culture that are most vibrant, alive, well-funded, all the rest, and that would include pop music.
FLH: So, you talk about the distinction between defiance and revolution. And I feel like I’m always talking to people who say, “there’s not point in going to protests or signing petitions” or things like that. Do you think that right now it’s as important to perform acts of defiance, as well as spark a revolution? And what do you think is the best way to go about doing what you can?
MG: Incredibly difficult question. Incredibly important question. That’s the kind of question that makes me want to run away, too, because I’m like, what do I know?
Except that there’s the kernel in what you say that gives me a kind of lifeline. To try to “figure out what you can” seems to me to be like the kernel of the thought about defiance or resistance that is really meaningful because I get frustrated in language and rhetoric of “defiance,” “resistance,” and “revolution” for its own sake. I think the moment of Trump in the presidency and monsters in government does change things, because it does feel even the smallest and most useless public actions or public displays of refusal or dissatisfaction actually do have a real value in the face of such enormous evil. Even if it’s just the value of signaling to other people around you and your neighbors that you believe in a different kind of America. That said, I have over time gotten to be around really heroic people, occasionally, fearless people, and very, very political people, and I think, “Wow, I admire them.” But I’m not a fearless hero of that kind.
In a political moment like this one, when there are calls to go out and do everything, the essential thing is to ask yourself, “what’s true to you?” and “what’s the meaningful signal or appearance with other people that keeps up real ties?” Other citizens, friends, whatever the population is of the world you want to live in. To figure out that kind of level of being, that’s a good project for a lifetime too. In a way that I never expected when the book first came out, it does feel as if, a lot of the issues of being honest with yourself, but then of turning around and trying to say something to the larger culture that lost its way, have become very urgent.
Mark Greif received a BA summa cum laude from Harvard in history and literature and an MPhil from Oxford in English as a British Marshall Scholar. In 2004, he co-founded the literary and intellectual journal n+1 in New York and has been a principal at the magazine since then. He earned a PhD in American studies from Yale in 2007. Since 2008, he has been on the faculty of the New School in New York, where he is currently an associate professor. His previous book, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973, was published in 2015. Greif has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and, for 2016–17, is a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.Felicity LuHill is a first year Creative Writing MFA Candidate at The New School, concentrating in Fiction. She writes articles and curates social media for Barbershop Books. She has written personal essay and edited for Enchantress Magazine. She is currently working on her first novel, Distance. You can find her on Twitter, @charmingfelic