DS: This seventh DSI is the first with a writer primarily known for essays and criticism, rather than non-fiction, fiction and poetry—although he has written both forms of writing. Most readers, in fact, will likely know Phillip Lopate less from his words found in book form and more from his essays distributed with many of the DVD releases by The Criterion Collection. While we will certainly focus of those essays, and cinema, I also want to focus on one of the better books to be released in recent years, his 2003 collection of Selected Writings called Getting Personal. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed, and while we will cover much ground, please introduce yourself to potential readers who have not heard of your work: what you do, what your aims in your career are, and your general philosophy.
PL: I’ll be glad to. Although I’m known primarily as a personal essayist, all my work is informed by a reflective, analytical spirit, and aims for a sense of humor and honesty. There is at times a sardonic, ironic, curmudgeonly tone to it, but I am really going after wisdom and compassion. Beyond that, I’m very identified with cities and an urban perspective. As a reader and a writer, I prefer worldliness and disenchantment (in the positive sense of paying for experience) to innocence and naïve-te.
DS: Before I take off into your career and film criticism, I note that on both your professional website and your personal website you post addresses and phone numbers. Given this age of cyberthreats, stalkers and just plain old nuts who may want to kill you because of something you might write about a film, the President, the war, a political opinion, I have to ask, a) why do you do so?, and b) are you crazy?
PL: Probably the latter. Also, I guess I’m too modest, in the end, to believe than anyone would want to kill me or stalk me. (Maybe maim me a little.) So I make my address available to those sane people who are trying to establish contact with me.
DS: I mentioned that you have written fiction and poetry, but these are not your claims to fame. You have written two novels: Confessions of Summer (1979) and The Rug Merchant (1987). I’ve not read them. What were they about, and were they well received? Did you simply see them as being written to get an “in” to the publishing world, and once done, you left the form behind?
PL: I can never leave fiction behind; I love it too much. My next book, in fact, is a set of novellas called Two Marriages, to be published by Other Press in September 2008. As for writing novels in order to get an “in” to the publishing world, that’s a laugh, considering what hard work it takes to do them. Fortunately, both were well received, and I have high hopes that the novellas will be as well.
DS: You wrote two poetry collections, The Eyes Don’t Always Want to Stay Open (1972) and The Daily Round (1976). Yet, nothing more in three decades plus. As with fiction, was this a form you simply did not master, so dropped it? I could find only one poem of yours online and it was not a good one.
PL: You seem to be mastering the callowly insulting question. Come back after you’ve read more than one poem of mine and we’ll talk seriously about my poetry.
DS: You have also edited books, including The Art of the Personal Essay (1994) and Writing New York (1998). Define a “personal essay” vs. other forms of essays, or memoir or biography? Who are some of the premier essayists around, and what form of essay do they specialize in? And, which traffic in the sciences, the arts, politics, philosophy?
PL: A tall order. I would characterize an essay as a circling around a subject, which tracks the deepening thoughts of the essayist about that subject. It can deal with a past experience (a memoiristic personal essay) or be a rumination on a topic, philosophical or everyday. A memoir is a book-length account of a slice of the author’s experience. A biography is a researched, usually book-length story about someone else’s life. I would consider some of the premier essayists today to be: Edward Hoagland, Scott Russell Sanders, Mary Oliver (naturalist writers), Vivian Gornick, Emily Fox Gordon, Daniel Harris and myself (personal essayists), Gore Vidal, Garry Wills (politics), Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, Kent Jones, Gilberto Perez, James Harvey (film criticism), Arlene Croce (dance), James Wood, Cynthia Ozick (literature)…and on and on.
DS: How about New York writers? I interviewed Pete Hamill, a well known New Yorker writer. Who else is in the Gotham pantheon?
PL: Washington Irving, Walt Whitman, Edgar Poe, Herman Melville, William Dean Howells, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, James Baldwin, E.B. White, A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, John O’Hara, Frank O’Hara, Jane Jacobs, Charles Reznikoff, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, E.L. Doctorow, Cynthia Ozick, Vijay Seshadri, Don DeLillo, Jonathan Lethem….
DS: Now, let’s get serious. Why is editing so bad these days? Aside from the obvious, that so many horribly written books are published- which manifests the utter lack of critical ability by editors, why are so many books by known, and competent, authors not given the once over? I think of two authors particularly. The first is Frank McCourt. I read first two memoirs, and Angela’s Ashes is just very poorly structured and repetitive to a fault, while the second book, ‘Tis, peters out two-thirds of the way through, although it’s a better book. You seem to agree that Angela’s Ashes is overrated, writing: ‘I confess that I was in the tiny minority who thought Angela’s Ashes over-rated. Yes, young Frankie’s childhood travails in Limerick, Ireland were engaging and charming, but to me they had an over-rehearsed quality of anecdotes told too often; and their author had taken such pains to recreate the myopia of youthful confusion that the book read more like fiction than autobiography. I missed the double perspective of reflection on prior experience that classic memoirs supply. I had one other qualm: because children are presumed innocent, Angela’s Ashes’ boy-protagonist tended to be bathed in a victimized, self-approving aura.’
PL: My objections to Angela’s Ashes stand; that said, I think there’s nothing wrong with it structurally, it fulfills its own intentions quite cunningly and effectively. If ‘Tis was better in some ways, it may be because McCourt’s protagonist was older, and able to think better. The third in the series, Teacher Man, I found wonderfully reflective and satisfying: as McCourt’s protagonist grew up and reached reflective middle age, his books became more interesting to me. As for the reasons why editors do not advocate drastic changes to competent, well-known authors: 1) they are intimidated by reputation, as we all are; 2) they respect the traditional view that in the end it is the author’s book, not the publisher, and if the author is set on having it a certain way—very well. The second reason seems to me not a bad practice, and preferable to star editors who think they know everything and try to rewrite every book under their sway.
DS: Then there is Toni Morrison. She’s a writer with talent, but her novels become unstructured messes, and her winning the Nobel Prize was just PC. Are editors simply unwilling or unable to do their jobs these days? And what of the outsourcing of their responsibilities to agents who are even more ineffectual when it comes to discerning quality in writing?
PL: This is your hobbyhorse, not mine. Toni Morrison is after an experimental structure, not a traditional one, and succeeds on her own terms. As for publishing as a whole, I have the sense that quality writing today still finds a home eventually, whether it’s discerned by editors or agents or both.
DS: In an essay titled Reflection And Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story, you write: ‘In writing memoir, the trick, it seems to me, is to establish a double perspective, that will allow the reader to participate vicariously in the experience as it was lived (the confusions and misapprehensions of the child one was, say), while conveying the sophisticated wisdom of one’s current self. This second perspective, the author’s retrospective employment of a more mature intelligence to interpret the past, is not merely an obligation but a privilege, an opportunity. In any autobiographical narrative, whether memoir or personal essay, the heart of the matter often shines through those passages where the writer analyzes the meaning of his or her experience. The quality of thinking, the depth of insight and the willingness to wrest as much understanding as the writer is humanly capable of arriving at—these are guarantees to the reader that a particular author’s sensibility is trustworthy and simpatico.’ Why do you mention honesty in the end? I ask, because, returning to the James Frey mess of a year or so ago, the very subgenre of memoir exists so that one can distort names and places so that the rich, powerful and immature will not sue. I find this ironical in that since so many in the arts claim art is about truth, that such a genre needs to exist. Yet it does. So, again, why honesty, if the very memoir form disdains the concept vs. the embrace of it in biography?
PL: By “honesty,” I mean trying to pierce through the layers of rationalization and self-justification to find the meaning of an experience, and its lessons for you in retrospect. I don’t mean whether the address of your trysting place was 1403 Park Avenue, not 2506 Madison Avenue. It seems to me that the tolerance the memoir form extends to the memoirist to change names or combine certain details is fairly limited, and does not extend to making up whole episodes in your life, as Frey did.
DS: Let’s get ontological re: truth, truthiness, and memoir- or any writing. Even if a book is 99.9% truthful it’s still 100% untrue. As an example, if I write, ‘I am interviewing the essayist Phillip Lopate via email for an online publication,’ I am 100% true, yet if I change one word, it’s 100% untrue. ‘I am interviewing the politician Phillip Lopate via email for an online publication,’ is 100% untrue, even if it is also mostly true. The claim, of course, is that Frey willfully made up whole incidents. If Frey wants to exaggerate his prison stay from 8 hours to three months, or whatever, so what? Especially if it makes it a very good read. Unfortunately, that’s the sticking point for me—the book is VERY badly written, yet those who damned its verity said nothing of its horrible composition and third grade writing level. Why? Memoir exists because it is different from biography in that it allows truthiness. In a full-fledged biography one cannot state that, say, President Eisenhower had a mistress, but if the mistress writes a memoir, she can get away with her claims.
PL: You are raising some very interesting questions, but also conflating many issues. I cannot comment on the literary merits of the Frey book because I’ve never read it. I can only point out that, as we now know, he wanted to submit it as a novel and was talked out of that by his editor—which says a lot about how the memoir form seems to be morphing in the direction of novel writing, with scenes and dialogue and hooks between chapters. I have the feeling that, if, as you say, the Frey book was badly written, it may have been connected to the fact that Frey was making up stuff, and the falseness of that imagined material shone through. Memoir does allow for more subjective telling than biography; but even someone who claimed to have been Eisenhower’s mistress could not get away with publishing a memoir stating that until the publishing company’s lawyers had put the manuscript through a rigorous checking procedure.
DS: Later in your essay, you write: ‘I also gave the example of the student writer who is erroneously criticized in workshop for using words that his 7 or 9-year-old protagonist wouldn’t have known. This common, if primitive, misunderstanding would have it that stories or memoirs from inside a child’s head must adhere to the age-appropriate developmental vocabulary and syntax. The truth is that readers easily accept the convention of a child-narrator using adult vocabulary; even semi-colons. It would be tedious indeed were we forced to read a long story told in the 500-word vocabulary and subject-verb-object sentence structure possessed by a seven-year-old. What is important, in writing about childhood, is to convey the psychological outlook you had as a child, not your limited verbal range.’ I agree, but why is that the case? Do you think it’s because so many in the arts have such a perverse stance on the silly claim that “art is truth”?
PL: I think it’s self-evident that in reading memoirs we want to be in the hands of a complex, sophisticated narrator, whatever the age of the memoir’s protagonist may be. That sophistication is more “truthful” about the mind of the memoirist at the time of composition than would be a painstaking recreation of a seven-year-old’s vocabulary.
DS: I know when I wrote my memoirs, True Life, I played around not just with the idea of truth, but the very form of the books, making it a picaresque that blends poetry and prose, in recapitulative and comparative instances of events, similar to Dante’s oft-overlooked La Vita Nuova. It seems odd to me, that since memoir has such a flexibility that biography does not, it should not have a far greater range stylistically—yet most of the big name memoirs of the last decade or so are simply rote retellings of bad wannabe writers like Frey, Dave Eggers, and Elizabeth Wurtzel. Why do you think there has been so little creativity, both substantively and formally, with the genre?
PL: I think we continue to get beautiful, complex memoirs. Going back to V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival, which is a very strange, patient digging in the hard earth of memory and the present, to Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, which mixes poetry and prose, straightforward and elliptical narrative, to Philip Roth’s Patrimony, an amazing double portrait of father and son, to Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, which alternates flashbacks and walks with her mother to bring her subjects sharply into double focus, to Patricia Hampl’s just-published The Florist’s Daugther, as elegant and honest memoir as any I know. The Eggers memoir you mention actually exhibits a large stylistic ambition, and is almost too mannerist for my taste.
DS: Let me review some of your online personal and professional information. Since you were born on November 16, 1943, you must have come of age right when the first televisions were appearing in people’s homes. Did that new medium affect you in any way that would be important later as a writer? Was television a first love, as opposed to films? What were some of the television shows that affected you, and were you influenced by any of the great tv writers of that age, like Paddy Chayefsky or Rod Serling?
PL: My parents, being poor, actually took awhile buying our first TV set; I used to go over to friends’ houses and watch Captain Video, but so rarely that it made little impression on me. By the time they bought a TV I was about eleven. We watched Sid Caesar and the Show of Shows religiously, also Ernie Kovacs, the Western “Action in the Afternoon” and some of the Golden Age of Television drama, like “Requiem for a Heavyweight” or “Patterns.” But the real influence TV had on me was teaching me some of the classics of film. I would watch “Citizen Kane,” or “Suspicion,” for instance, five times as the feature repeated through the week on Million Dollar Movie. TV was my cinematheque, cementing my love affair with movies. I also watched a lot of baseball on TV, and still do.
DS: You are Jewish—are you a secular Jew? What do you think, both as a Jew and a writer, of the recent years’ brouhahas over replacing the words ‘Merry Christmas’ with ‘Happy Holidays’?
PL: I regard myself as basically a secular Jew, though I, and my family, belong to the local synagogue, and my daughter is getting bat mitzvah this year. The older I get, the more interested I become in the Biblical stories, the textual tradition, the midrashim. I grew up knowing I was and would always be a minority in a Christian-dominated culture, and so it’s no big deal for me to say or hear “Merry Christmas” as opposed to “Happy Holidays.”
DS: You’ve written of architecture- on its history or its craft? Any opinions of Robert Moses? How about thoughts on the design of the new Freedom Tower?
PL: I’ve written on architecture, its history and craft, yes. I used to alternate a column on architecture with Herbert Muschamp for the magazine 7 Days. It continues to be an interest. In my book Waterfront I have a whole chapter on Robert Moses, which takes the (now familiar) revisionist tack of saying he did a lot of good for the city, as well as some bad, and was a great public figure, overall. The Freedom Tower looks ugly to me, and I have no investment in seeing it built in any of its design incarnations.
DS: You hold a BA from Columbia University (1964) and a Ph.D from Union Graduate School (1979). What were you majoring in? Have they been a help or a hindrance in your day career? What of your writing- and by that I mean the actual craft of wordsmithing? Do you have any habits or peeves? Do you write every day, etc?
PL: I got a very good education at Columbia College, from teachers such as Lionel Trilling, Eric Bentley and Meyer Schapiro, and got to study Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Freud, Diderot, Sterne, Fielding, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Ibsen, Yeats, etc. etc., all of whom continue to hover around me. I did a double-minor in English and in art history. My quickie PhD was sort of an after-thought, and it was in English Education. I got “life-credits” for my work teaching children and did a dissertation on the writers-in-the-schools movement. The PhD was not a hindrance but had little effect on my life. Since I earn much of my living as a university professor I don’t write every day, but when I get a block of time I do. I’m fairly disciplined, get down to it right away, usually right after breakfast, and for three or four hours at a stretch, then a break for lunch, then a few more hours, if I’m lucky. I used to write longhand and then go to the typewriter, but now I start on the computer right away. I still take preliminary notes in longhand.
DS: You’ve won numerous grants and fellowships, and have taught in the dread MFA and Creative Writing mills. Yet, one does not think of you as being part of ‘The System,’ the way many other published writers- especially poets, are regarded. This is certainly a good thing, but I have to ask, do you not feel the vast majority of people who take these courses should be told, ‘Sorry, you’re wasting your time and money. You have no real talent.’ I’ve met, literally, thousands of talentless people who are wannabe writers, but not only do they lack talent, but they regard themselves in low esteem because they were suckered into programs they thought could turn them into Emily Dickinson or Norman Mailer. Have you ever felt like you were part of a corrupt system?
PL: Yes and no. First of all, my students were not so naïve as to think all they had to do was enter an MFA program and they would be turned into Dickinson or Mailer. They had a dream of the literary life, and wanted to improve their writing skills, and in the main, did so. Most of them had enough talent at least to make a future living as a free-lance journalist or hack writer of some kind. It takes all kinds to make a literary culture. Moreover, I am unable to presume to judge from on high the fate of this or that person, and say, “You’ll never be a writer,” because, with a million hours of effort they might indeed make it. For me, students’ lacking talent is less the issue than their wanting to become writers without reading a whole lot. The ones who read copiously have a better chance of making it. I tell them this.
DS: Let me make a claim, and see if you agree: the failure of ‘published’ literature today lies more with the failings of publishers, editors, and critics to do their jobs well, more so than with the bad and generic writers who are published. My point is that bad writers have always been with us, but the cronyism, favoritism, and grants-giving NEA cash cow has led to a system of writers and editors who dare not say negative things about another writer’s work lest they find their own publication chances minimized, if not extirpated. Do you agree, and if so, what observations can you add? And, is not the MFA workshop archipelago merely a vast networking tool for the bad writers who are gulled out of their money? Is it not far too politicized to the Left?
PL: I don’t agree that published literature today has necessarily “failed.” Superior writing keeps seeing the light of day, and as you say, bad writers have always been with us. I certainly agree that there is a lot of cronyism, promoted in part by the MFA system, and that writers who review other writers tend to be gingerly in their criticism. This is not the golden age of American literary criticism. I don’t agree that MFA candidates are being gulled out of their money (see previous answer), and since I consider myself a man of the Left, it would be hard for me to agree that the publishing world is too leftist. The Federal Government has been under the control of the Republican right for the past eight years, and the results have been egregious, in my view.
DS: On the critical side, one can merely look at the devolution of book reviewing. Major newspapers are getting out of the biz, which leaves the craft to the hacks online, or to print magalogs (i.e.-catalogs of books masquerading as magazines) like Rain Taxi. Their approbation is meaningless since they do not disapprove, nor objectively look at writing. Emotion tends to surpass intellect as the dominant paradigm in such writings. It’s what I call the “criticism of intent.” This is where what a writer or artist claims to want to have done supplants what they have actually achieved. This leads to bad art being championed—such as the horrid poetry of a Charles Bukowski or even Pulitzer Prize winners like James Tate, or Poet Laureate Donald Hall being alibied for. It also leads to the monochrome or drip paintings of Abstract Expressionists being hailed as comparable to the works of a Goya or Rembrandt. Ultimately, this leads to young wannabe artists saying, ‘I can do crap like that in my sleep, so I must have real talent, too,’ and a downward spiral of art being created. Do you see this trend, as well?
PL: No. I regard the main Abstract Expressionists, such as Pollock, De Kooning, Kline, or Rothko, as great artists, comparable in their way to the Old Masters. I also like Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt, who are “monochromatic” in your view. Bukowski, Tate, and Hall, while not my favorite writers, all have a certain knack, which puts them above their imitators. Bukowski has passages or riffs where he really hits a main nerve, Tate can be very clever, and I was deeply moved by Hall’s poems about the passing of his wife Jane Kenyon.
DS: Yet, I argue the criticism of intent kills real art, for intent in art is utterly meaningless—only accomplishment matters. Yet, it is far and away dominant. Is this the influence of Political Correctness, Postmodernism, both, or other forces? And what remedy can you foresee, other than the natural swing of the pendulum back to critical sanity?
PL: You are beginning to sound paranoid, with the dark forces of mediocrity arrayed in a plot against quality. Or perhaps you simply have higher standards than I do. Rothko is good for me. Certainly, intent is not the same thing as accomplishment; but the Abstract Expressionists did accomplish much, for instance—enough, in my book, to give pleasure
DS: When I read reviews or criticism on any art, I always cringe when I see words like ‘like’ or ‘dislike.’ They simply have no place in critical thought nor writing. It is a wholly different axis for which to judge art than good/bad. One cannot argue with one’s liking of something, but one can disagree with its excellence. Why do almost all critics and wannabe artists today find it impossible to distance themselves from emotion-based subjectivity and towards intellectual objectivity? Is it merely self-interest because of the fellatric way the publication world is set up?
PL: I think “intellectual objectivity” took a hit around the Sixties, when it was seen by the counter-culture as propping up the status quo, and has never quite regained its legitimacy, although if you read publications such as The New York Review Of Books and Bookforum, you see reviewers struggling to work in that vein.
DS: On a related score, another noxious claim is that ‘all art is political.’ Aside from its logical absurdity, one can substitute the words ‘about poodles’ for ‘political,’ and the statement is just as true, or absurd. If one does not deal with politics in one’s story, poem or painting, then one is actually making a statement about the condition of poodles in the cosmos by ignoring their plight. No? Of course, this is silly, yet it dominates the art that the ‘system’ buoys up today. Anything can be defined in relation to another thing in a simplistic manner. Similarly, the ‘all art is truth” claim is likewise BS, for ‘art’ has the same root as ‘artifice.’ It can NEVER be truth. Comments?
PL: The line “All art is political” is another hangover from the Sixties, when objectivity was held in high suspicion. It presumes that you can link certain aesthetic styles to certain classes or power interests, regardless of the explicit politics in a piece. So, then,
Abstract Expressionism might be seen as propping up postwar consumerist America, etc. All this is very debatable. Interestingly, Marx astutely found the politically conservative novelist Balzac much more useful to Communists, because his descriptions of materialist society were so rich, than the hack novels of many socialist comrades.
DS: This leads into another pet peeve of mine—the writers and critics who always speak nebulously of other writers, especially when they admit the overwhelming amount of published material is garbage. You see it in phrases like ‘unlike other writers…’ yet no names were named. Even when one is named, as in bad ficitionist Dale Peck’s New Republic review of a few years ago, when he wrote ‘Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation…’ he ended the piece basically stoop-kneed and retracting that provocative claim. Who are some of the worst published writers, as well as the worst filmmakers, around today?
PL: Such name-calling doesn’t interest me. Besides, I don’t want to repeat the sort of error Dale Peck made, since he so off base in his Moody assertion.
DS: You spent many years teaching in the public school system of New York—which many of your essays document. Was that a sort of penance for the writing mills? Or did you feel that the earlier you could reach potential artists the easier it would be to encourage the truly talented, and weed out the kids who would waste their lives and become the embittered drifters that I’ve seen at too many cafes and bars that host open mics?
PL: I taught in the public school system for twelve years, before I took my first job in a university, or “writing mill,” as you call them, so it could hardly have been a “penance.” It was glorious work, the happiest and most heroic teaching I’ve ever done. I worked with kids from kindergarten to high school, taught them poetry and fiction-writing, filmmaking, comic books, radio production, theater. The aim was to enrich their lives and unleash their creative talents, not to weed out anyone from anything. As it happens, I now frequently run into ex-students from P.S. 75 who have published their first novels or directed their first feature films, and it pleases me to learn that they regard their exposure to my teaching as having had a lasting impact on them.
DS: In that same vein, about the dumbing down of America, in general, and literarily, in specific, I coined a neologism—deliterate, in opposition to illiterate. By deliterate I mean the willful choice to not read great nor compelling writing. To avoid the classics in favor of reading blogs. To write emailese rather than proper grammar. Basically, I claim that deliteracy is far more a problem than illiteracy is. Do you think such a distinction is merited? Have you seen such in your years as a teacher?
PL: Yes, I’ve certainly seen an increasing reluctance on the part of students to read the classics or any writing that does not go down smoothly like soft ice cream, without effort.
DS: You are married, and have a child, according to online information. Are either of them writers or artists?
PL: My wife Cheryl is a graphic designer and former painter. My daughter Lily is only thirteen, but shows lots of writing and artistic talent so far.
DS: You are currently employed at Hofstra University, in the English Department, but retirement is beckoning. What are your plans after that? Will you return to novelry, or poetry? I’ve read that you are working on a cinematic opus; sort of an omnibus of world cinema of world cinema. Is this so?
PL: Retirement is beckoning? That’s news to me. I have a thirteen-year-old who will be going to college in a few years, so I expect to be in harness for a long time. Not sure what you mean by that “cinematic opus:” I did edit a 700-page anthology, American Movie Critics, for the Library of America, which is about to come out in paperback.
DS: Let me now turn to some of your best known essays, and those recounted in Getting Personal. But, before I touch on specific essays, let me comment on your essay style. You seem to strike a middle ground between essayists who lard their works with epigraphs and quotations to show off their knowledge and those essayists whose prose is almost poetic- such as the naturalist Loren Eiseley. Too often, lesser writers who try to be poetic are merely pseudo-poetic, and those who rely on quotation tend to reveal their utter inanition. Your essays are smooth, workmanlike, and read more conversationally. They remind me a bit of the journalistic prose work of a past interviewee, Pete Hamill. Have you ever been a reporter, and do you write with a particular sort of reader in mind? Have you ever read Eiseley? If so, any thoughts?
PL: I love Loren Eiseley, and once wrote a tribute to him in Conjunctions. His essays are brilliant, and his memoir All The Strange Hours is amazing. I suppose I do aim for the middle ground, neither too academic nor too glibly pop. I try to write clearly and conversationally; I’ve done some work for newspapers and magazines, even a bit of reporting. My father was a reporter, and drilled into me the need for clarity and concision. Pete Hamill is about my age and grew up also in Brooklyn, so I’m not surprised that our mind-sets would resemble each other.
DS: Returning to your style of writing, in the introduction to Getting Personal you write: ‘My prose style drifts in and out of beauty. I am not one of those to break myself on the wheel of the sentence. I do not try, as Isaac Babel did, to unleash a period with the force of a bullet; I simply end a sentence and start another. I sometimes listen in amazement to the advice other writing teachers give their students, such as: ‘You should purge your work of passive verbs or adjectives.’ I would never think of doing such a thing to my own prose.’ So I take it that you argue with most creative writing associates? What is there that drives such people to genericize writing? Are they simply lacking any understanding that the greatest writing, like the greatest art, is that where the artist’s work indelibly reflects them? In other words, one does not mistake the poetry of Walt Whitman for that of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, nor the clipped prose of Ernest Hemingway for the languor of Marcel Proust.
PL: These narrowly prescriptive bits of advice, like Don’t use adverbs or gerunds or passive verbs, reflect fashions in prose and they get passed down from workshop to workshop and harden into rigid rules. I think they come out of the horror vacuo of workshops, the need for the instructor to say something. They’re all valid up to a point, but why restrict your use of language? Sometimes only a passive verb will do.
DS: Philip Lopate, many thanks for doing this interview. I hope this interview will lead its readers to seek out more of your well-wrought and insightful essays, for there are too few of them, and writers like you, in print. Hopefully there may be some seeds you can use here for your next project. Let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like.
PL: I am glad to put in a good word for essays. It seems to me that many of the best American writers of the past fifty years--James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag--all preferred to think of themselves as fiction writers first, and only reluctantly, as essayists, whereas a case could be made that their strongest work was in the essay and memoiristic nonfiction. I understand the magic and prestige of novels, having written a few, but I am drawn back again and again to essay writing (be it personal or critical, be it on books, films, architecture, politics, religion), because I love the openness and clarity of the form.
(originally posted 12/1/07)