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Tom Bissell: Solitude at the Fault Line of Literary Culture

April 23, 2012

Tom Bissell talks about the blurred line between fiction and non-fiction, ridding the world of mediocre writing, and Tommy Wiseau of The Room.


Photograph via Flickr by liquidnight

By Katie Ryder

In the final essay of his new collection, Tom Bissell finds a still life upon novelist Jim Harrison’s desk: “…some shotgun shells, a few feathers, a copy of Nabokov’s Ada (‘a completely deranged book,’ Harrison said approvingly); two Ziploc bags, one filled with bark from a Michigan birch tree, and the other filled with sand from the shores of lake Superior; three separate pairs of eyeglasses; and a Pompeian amount of cigarette ash.”

These are Harrison’s ingredients: they are specific and universal; they are local, current, and they are scraps of elsewhere, elsewhen; they are representative and they are literal.

Throughout Magic Hours, Bissell examines the intangible and alchemical by way of the specific and material. Or, maybe it’s the other way around. He writes on the act of creation, the idea and identity of “the establishment” and cultural power, the brutal luck of success and failure, what honesty is, what a disciplined creative life is made of, and our ability to escape the limits of our own perspective—what David Foster Wallace called our “tiny skull-sized kingdoms.” Bissell is drawn again and again to questions of generosity—or breadth of view—and precision—the enemy of obfuscation and therefore, probably, a friend of the truth.

Though the whole collection has the feel of an immediate and trust-worthy writer-to-reader, thinker-to-thinker conversation, from front to back the book is increasingly engaging—increasingly generous and precise itself—and, in the end, elating.

—Katie Ryder for Guernica

Guernica: In the author’s note to Magic Hours, you write: “To create anything—whether a short story or a magazine profile or a film or a sitcom—is to believe, if only momentarily, you are capable of magic.” Do you think the non-fiction writer’s “magic”—the alchemy that brings a work together—has any essential difference from the fiction writer’s magic, or that of the filmmaker?

Tom Bissell: Well, on one hand, when I teach fiction writing and non-fiction writing, I often heretically stress the idea that the two are not as different as people claim they are. They’re both about creating a literary experience for the reader—one that happens on the page, one that’s about arrangement of detail, emotional generosity, and creating some kind of tension between the voice on the page and the mind of the reader. Anything that’s written and literary has more in common with itself than it has in common with other work.

[A] lot of the world’s mediocre fiction would be dispatched with if people only wrote fiction when they thought to themselves, “I’m probably going to spend a lot of time on it, to no immediate financial gain.”

That said, as a non-fiction writer, you always have a type of way out—of being able to look at your notes, of being able to go back over the material you’re writing about. So, when writing non-fiction, when I was stuck on something, I could watch another Werner Herzog film or read another Jim Harrison novel. But as a fiction writer, if you get stuck, that kind of brings the entire show to a halt. And I think that the solitary work of being a short-story writer or a fiction writer is also a lot more existentially worrying than other creative work that’s collaborative and where the creators rely on a community of people working together, like being a filmmaker. That’s not to say that actors and directors are people of cloudless emotional well-being. But I do think that being a fiction writer is a lot scarier than other types of art.

Guernica: The book is of course non-fiction and essays, but are you still spending a portion of your time on fiction?

Tom Bissell: I’m still a fiction writer; I write a couple short stories a year. And I really only write stories when I feel like I have to. I think a lot of the world’s mediocre fiction would be dispatched with if people only wrote fiction when they thought to themselves, “I have to write this. It wont let go of me. I’m going to just write this thing even though I’m probably not going to get much money for it, and I’m probably going to spend a lot of time on it, to no immediate financial gain.” And that’s the tricky thing when you can make a living as a non-fiction writer: writing fiction seems to get more and more distant, because you’re probably struggling to make ends meet, you’re chasing down assignments. And so this idea of spending a month or two months, or even six months, on a piece that has no promise of financial recompense is a little bit scarier. And I wish I wrote more fiction, but I also know that my stories tend to only be good when they grab me and don’t let go.

In non-fiction you can afford to get interested in subjects that maybe you didn’t think you were going to, like doing a piece about a writer that you hadn’t read before. It’s actually fun to get an assignment and think ‘God, do I even have the stuff to write this?’ and then to sort of gradually realize that you’re interested and that you can make it interesting to someone else. That’s the real pleasure of non-fiction. It’s kind of like being a perpetual grad student, except that you get paid rather than pay some institution. It’s one of the most pleasant things. And that’s why I always told my fiction-writing students that if you can write a literary short story, you have a potential career as a literary journalist. I think the skills are very transferable. It’s also a good strategy for making a living.

Guernica: You write that you have a “high tolerance for people who regard things that offend them as injustice,” and that’s one of the ways—there are a few—that you set yourself up as giving people a fair shot when you intend to criticize them. You’re interested in letting people’s own side of the story be a story, even when it’s wrong.

Tom Bissell: Yes. It’s not a mistake that the kinds of people that I write about in the book—almost all of them, are fiercely confident. In Tommy Wiseau’s case (the director of The Room) so confident that he seems to be another life form altogether. I find people who are very certain about their beliefs fascinating and really compelling, and also somewhat repulsive. With the Underground Literary Alliance—the group that I was writing about when I noted that “high tolerance”—I tried to give their arguments as fair a shake as I could, and ultimately, find them to be, kind of frustratingly vulnerable to the temptation of authoritarian thought and rage and an inclination to think the worst of anyone that disagrees with them. I thought that the kinds of things that they were worried about were worth worrying about, and it was a shame that they couldn’t worry about them in a more productive way.

In the case of someone like Robert Kaplan, who I did my best to intellectually assassinate in the essay on him in the book, his confidence about his beliefs, and what he called “the essential goodness of American Nationalism,” had turned a writer who is obviously a smart guy, and a brave guy, into something that veered dangerously close to a literary fascist. Not a political fascist, but a literary fascist. And I think Kaplan’s not all that different from a lot of the people that I write about in the book. When your confidence in in your own views as an artist, or in your own politics, becomes so high that you seem to forget that there’s another side, that’s where my interest turns to opposition.

Guernica: In the first essay in the collection, your focus is on all the myriad, mundane reasons that works of art might not become classics or might not even become known. Your last essay, it seems to me, shifts the focus to intentionality—to discipline. There is a consideration of what an artist is up against—brute luck—and eventually you arrive at the idea that a writer can at least attempt to control the type of life they choose to lead. Your final essay, on Jim Harrison, describes a beauty that can come from living in a way that is true to your intentions and making art for the right reasons.

Tom Bissell: Well, even though I’m writing about myself pretty seldom in the book, I do hope that it presents a kind of 12-year arc of someone who was standing at the fault line when literary culture began to change. And I think you can almost watch my mental processes change right along with it. Not change in a way where I know what’s going on, but just changing as a reflection to it. The first essay was written by someone who discovered how the sausage was made, and didn’t like it, and the last one was written by someone who no longer really cares how the sausage is made, but is just happy to get the chance to keep eating it and to keep making it themselves.

I still find that first essay kind of hard to read cause I was such a serious young man, capital S, capital Y, capital M. And at the end, I hope I’m more pleasant company on the page. Jim Harrison is such a wonderful person to write about because he really doesn’t care what other people think and he really has dedicated his life to this work. He was willing to ride that tidal wave to wherever it took him, and I found him so inspiring I really did decide I was going to quit my job after spending that weekend with him. That’s not a lie for effect, I really did decide to do it.

Guernica: You give the written work of other people great close readings, which is also what you’re doing when you describe scenes in the real, living world. The close reading you give your subjects is a kind of model for the awareness you wish writers and critics would bring to their own work. And, being attentive seems to become a dominant philosophy for you.

You say that the best books about how to write are really books about how to live, and in a sense your book is on how to read—whether it is prose or people and experiences. The answers all seem to have to do with awareness.

Tom Bissell: I think the book is kind of an extended close reading of all sorts of things. I think that is one of my primary interests—what happens to a creative work or what happens to another person, when you just really pay close attention. I never would have imagined that, but in a way that is kind of what every essay is—just an attempt to pay as close attention as possible. When I’m teaching non-fiction, the thing that I’m always, always, always, writing in the margin, more often than anything else, is “pay attention.”
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Katie Ryder is a freelance writer and a graduate student at NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program.

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2 comments for Tom Bissell: Solitude at the Fault Line of Literary Culture

  1. Comment by King Wenclas on May 26, 2012 at 9:05 am

    Tom Bissell says here, “When your confidence in your own views as an artist . . . becomes so high that you seem to forget there’s another side–”
    What Bissell seems to forget is that the Underground Literary Alliance was attempting to present another side.
    Bissell talks of giving our views “a fair shake.” But of course he didn’t give them a fair shake. The trick is for a society or a culture or a literary scene to be open enough to allow different writers to present their own views someplace. It’s the only way to get a fair shake.

  2. Comment by King Wenclas on May 26, 2012 at 9:31 am

    As my first comment awaits approval, please allow me to expand on my points. If this goes only to the Guernica gatekeeper, that’s fine. Editors are my actual target, because they hold the keys to opening up and broadening today’s literary scene, and by extension, the culture. And by extension, the entire society. George Saunders is a fine writer and a very prestigious name, but sometimes a culture needs to present alternative voices.
    Tom Bissell’s essay on the Underground Literary Alliance was a sensitive and subtle hatchet job. It was effective at branding us, especially since it’s remained at the top of the Google page on us since 2003. So effective was the essay that the good people at places like Guernica, who should’ve been sympathetic to us, won’t even consider whether our message was true and right.
    Much has been discussed about the Citizens United political speech case. A Citizens United situation has prevailed in the American literary scene for some time. Which means, those with money and power or access to money and power have the most speech. This means writers backed, as Tom Bissell is backed, by money and power. This means his words appear in prominent organs of publicity like Vanity Fair, and it means that glowing reviews of his book of possibly biased essays appear in prominent newspapers like the New York Times. A writer like myself, by contrast, whose words occasionally disturb good people, isn’t allowed access to those places. But I am allowed to post a comment at Guernica!, and for that I’m grateful.
    In his essay Bissell makes his points against the dangerous literary radicals in the now defunct Underground Literary Alliance. Yes, we occasionally raised our voices. We did this to be heard in a society which refused to hear us. We were trying to equalize a distinctly unequal playing field. We didn’t have credentials, connections or resources– we were truly underground; fully at the heart of the mass of the 99%. More important, we were unwilling to kowtow to our assumed betters. To those like Mr. Bissell who wanted to analyze and assess us, as he does in this interview, as one would an object in a jar, from a position or pose of superiority, and pronounce judgement.
    We refused to doff our caps and bow our heads. We believed in, and insisted upon, the first principle of democracy: that every citizen have, as a natural right, an equal voice.
    We believed most of all in the power and relevance of the written word– that the best way to awaken a sleepy populace was to follow the path of giants like Frank Norris and Jack London and Theodore Dreiser and John Steinbeck and put our activism, through strong and clear prose, into literature.
    Thanks. Have a great weekend.

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