Sven Birkerts: serious writing as a “rear-guard mission”

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"Concentration is no longer a given"

Ted Gioia alerted us to this interview with Sven Birkerts in The Morning News, and it’s too good to miss.

My acquaintance with Sven is born of our common ancestry: We are both former students of Joseph Brodsky, which seems to be an enduring bond with a number of his former students the world over (James Marcus is another one, so is Gwyneth Lewis).

Sven was one of the contributors to Joseph Brodsky: Conversations a decade ago – back in the days before he even had his own email account. According to this interview, there’s been progress: “I started writing on a computer maybe 10 years ago. It was not a direct move—I would still do everything longhand, but then instead of typing I would put it in a computer. Now I actually write on a computer.”

Now he’s a changed man. When interviewer Robert Birnbaum asks him about his future writing, if he planning to do something “wild,” he responds that he wants to write something that “makes sense of this utterly transformed world that we are moving around in. That gives it a kind of identifiable voice.”

He wears three hats: editor of AGNI, head of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and author. He says that “in each of those three areas I am feeling seriously embattled. With the journal, for example, I feel we are fighting an action in the face of diminished attention, and that wasn’t the feel of it when there was more action on that front. With the teaching I really feel like, ‘Boy we have to keep this enterprise alive,’ to keep communicating a buzz around serious writing. Who knows what’s going to happen? So it becomes a rear-guard mission there, too. And with my own writing: definitely.”

I’ve often been criticized (usually by those who live with me) for the size of my library.  Sven managed to formulate the explanation I could never quite manage:

RB: [Umberto] Eco reportedly has a library of 50,000 volumes. I asked him if they are catalogued—which they are not. Nonetheless, he knows where they all are. I asked if he read all of them. He hadn’t but said he had gotten something from all of them.

SB: Yeah, I would sign off on that. I have an unorganized library, but it’s much smaller. Same thing. I find that with me it’s not whether I have read something as much as it has survived my repeated attempts to get rid of it.

RB: (laughs)

SB: And if it has… Things that survive hold such a charge of your own sense of promise about yourself—which is valuable. Or it’s that they hold information that you know according to some obscure scheme is going to become important to you. I think the books that go unread are so important. If I got up and looked at my library and everything was a book I’d read, to me that would be like reading tombstones. I love the agitation, left and right—“Oh yeah, oh yeah.”

RB: I got rid of my vinyl albums. I should do that with books—what an albatross.

SB: Oh yeah. You need your ruins around you.

RB: That would require an enlarged sense of history.

SB: Right, and you have a visibly presented record both of your hopes and your failures. (laughs) It’s all there, kind of mapping you.

Sven is concerned about the role of the book review today, and the disappearance of book review sections … well, aren’t we all? Birnbaum doesn’t appear to “get it” – it’s not so much about the “middlebrow” reader, as it is about supporting a general culture where every educated person participates in literature, if only as a reader. As I’ve often said, as a writer for the Washington Post Book World or the erstwhile Los Angeles Times Book Review, my ideal reader was someone thumbing their way to the stock market page, becoming intrigued by my review, and buying a volume of poetry or essays. Maybe even forgetting the Dow Jones altogether.

RB: It’s not a contradiction but there is a kind of conflict that faces people who create—much of your world is not real. The real world is when you go to the grocery store or gas station. And then you deal with people who are attuned to scrambling to pay their bills and not the wonders of the creative enterprise. And I feel artists and writers have given up on those people, and there is something self-fulfilling about that attitude. Why did newspapers cut their book sections?

SB: It was largely economics.

RB: To cut features that a loyal core of the circulation read? Why would I go to the newspaper if they didn’t write about what I care about?

SB: That’s true, too.  …

RB: Anyway, what is the reviewing engine about today? I joined the NBCC just to see what critics in the aggregate think their mission is.

SB: My sense is what has fallen out in a big way is the great middle that used to be occupied by the dozens and dozens of critics and reviewers you could have named some years ago. They were writing for a host of papers that paid a certain kind of attention to books. And those are the places that have disappeared or are shrinking. … And now, because of this shrinkage, the reviews editors of those places are desperately playing catch up, saying “We have to do something with this because it’s such a highly-touted book.” What doesn’t get attention is the spectrum—not even the B-list, all those quirky books that are not even going to sell 5,000 copies.

RB: Doesn’t it strike you that as a consequence the [book] awards are looking at books from tiny publishers …

SB: Sure. This situation is probably giving them extra permission to look harder there. They are picking books that in a different order of things should have gotten enough attention so that they wouldn’t seem strange when they were put forward. But because of this great void in the middle no one’s ever heard of them, or they’ve been reviewed once or twice.

His mission, as he sees it:

SB: Sure. The question is whether we live in a culture and psychological climate that is made up of people who feel there is a reason to play the game or else made up of a lot of people who have given up. I’d prefer the former.

RB: Conscious people are more affected than unconscious people.

SB: Absolutely.

If this post looks long, the whole tamale weighs in at over 7,200 words. You can read it here.

I only had one middling disagreement with him, when he defends the writer’s craft and the life-of-the-mind thusly: “People don’t think that sitting utterly inert in front of a screen is as hard as laying bricks. They think, ‘Well he’s doing nothing. But that guy over there is sweating.’”

Some coal-miner working 12-hour days underground would love to exchange his lot for “sweating” in front of a computer screen. We should never forget it.

By the by, the interview alludes to being “part 3” of an interview – but I didn’t find parts 1 and 2 online.  But I did find this from Sven, and it’s absolutely priceless in the era of the tweet:  “Concentration is no longer a given; it has to be strategized, fought for. But when it is achieved it can yield experiences that are more rewarding for being singular and hard-won. To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one’s essential position.”

Postscript on 1/8:  Another part of Birnbaum’s interview has been found:  Dave Lull sent us this Part 1, from way back in 2003, here.  Thanks, Dave!

 


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