Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Stop Smiling interview, Paul Auster (2009): "In America, writers have no power"

The bad news first: Chicago-based Stop Smiling ceased publishing its quarterly magazine last year after 38 issues. In its print form Stop Smiling was an always-interesting cultural mix that covered the familiar and the new, in a sleek and modern graphic style. Its annual 20-interviews issue featured conversations with writers, artists, musicians, and actors in thoughtful dialogues, interviews that achieved the increasingly-difficult trick of being both entertaining and intelligent.

There is a silver lining: Stop Smiling has since become a book publishing venture in cooperation with Melville House (NY), and now has a growing list of titles reflecting the wide range of topics covered in the magazine: How to Wreck a Nice Beach is Dave Tompkins' high-voltage, high-wire history of the vocoder; just released is Listen to the Echoes, ten years of interviews with Ray Bradbury by Sam Weller.

Writer and film-maker José Teodoro interviewed Paul Auster for Stop Smiling in 2009. Auster's 2008 Man In the Dark was a novel of political extremes inspired by the Presidential election of 2000; in it, Auster imagined a second southern secession and civil war. As the 2010 political election cycle becomes more heated and divisive, the points Auster raises in the interview (excerpted below) seem increasingly relevant -- the dichotomy between political perception and reality, and a current wave of anti-intellectual feeling in America that leaves writers increasingly marginalized.

With recent wins by the Tea Party that are rocking the G.O.P. boat (and leaving Democrats uncertain whether the Tea Party represents a real threat or a tempest in a teacup) Auster's secessionist story seems less and less a fiction, more forecast of a coming political season.

JT: How conscious were you of readers sniffing around for political subtexts while writing this book?

PA: I think there is a strong political component to this book. And I think it was generated by the 2000 election, which for me was one of the great scandals of American history. We watched Al Gore get elected president and then we watched it get taken away from him through legal and political maneuvering in an outrageous Supreme Court decision, which was in some sense a legal coup. And I’ve lived these past seven and a half years with this eerie sense that we’re not in the real world anymore, but a parallel one. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Bush wasn’t supposed to be president, there wasn’t supposed to be a war in Iraq — there might not have even been a 9/11 if Gore had been elected. So I think this sense of disconnect is what inspired the story within the story, the one that Brill invents for himself.

JT: Don DeLillo once said that it is the writer’s job to be against the establishment, to take a stand against the government.
PA: I agree with Don. If you remember the epigraph from Ralph Waldo Emerson that appears in my novel Leviathan: “Every actual state is corrupt.” I believe this. Some states are worse than others, but the fact that there’s always room for improvement should keep us on our toes. We have to be alert to the hypocrisies and contradictions and corruptions in our society. Everyone should. But I think a writer has the duty to do that.

JT: Do you feel that writers and poets still have an influence on public discourse?

PA: In America, writers have no power at all. It’s a moment in which we are in abeyance, perhaps forgotten forever as the great tide of history sweeps us away. We have a culture of such deep anti-intellectualism that the majority of people mistrust intellectuals.

The ridiculous arguments that have been proposed during the presidential campaign about Obama being an elitist because he’s articulate and has read books and even written books, and went to good colleges and universities, is absurd and frightening. George Bush went to Yale, after all. He comes from a family of immense privilege and wealth. Why does he get to be the good ol’ boy? And poor Obama, who grew up broke, struggling, with a broken family, is labeled an elitist. The world is upside down when you get to this point. ...

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