At the 2010 Adelaide Writers’ Week, Englishman Geoff Dyer joked that he was six writers for the price of one. His non-fiction books have covered areas as disparate as the memorialisation of World War I, D.H. Lawrence (or, more precisely, failing to write a book about D.H. Lawrence), jazz and photography. Dyer is also an acclaimed fiction writer; his most recent novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi describes, in its first half, journalist Jeff Atman’s Bellini-and-cocaine ridden visit to the Venice Biennale and, in its second, an unnamed man’s – possibly Jeff ’s – trip to the storied city of Varanasi. Despite marked differences in point of view, character and exotic locale, the two parts speak to each other with subtlety, vim and humour. Dyer is also a prolific critic – writing regularly for the Guardian, the Independent and the New York Times – and contributing to editions of literary classics like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned and D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers.
Divided into ‘Verbals’, ‘Variables’ and ‘Personals’, Dyer’s latest book, Working the Room, is a selection of his non-fiction since 1999, from his responses to the work of obscure photographers and writers, to thoughts on human habit and doughnuts from Donut Plant. An observant critic who blends insight with enthusiasm, Dyer not only reveals his multifarious interests, but also forges unique and lateral valences between them.
– Estelle Tang
KYD: Congratulations on Working the Room, your twelfth book. Here, you are contemptuous of the idea of a ‘career’, but at this point in time it seems like you have accidentally forged one.
GD: Yeah. Or rather, I’ve always been rather contemptuous of the ‘career’ because I’ve always wanted something bigger; I’ve always wanted a life. So yeah, I think you could say, aged 52 and with all these books, I do have a life now. But I’ve never had some sort of scheme in mind of what I wanted from my work. I have always wanted to have an interest in life.
KYD: That distinction between books and life is an interesting one, and one you explore in this book.
GD: In some ways – and I think a lot of writers would say this – the distinction between work and holiday dissolves completely when you’re a writer. Obviously you’re not writing 24 hours a day, but the stuff that feeds into what you eventually write, that can happen anywhere and under any circumstances. All sorts of people have incredibly fulfilling jobs where the distinction between work and life is less hazy, I guess, than in the writing life.
KYD: The title of the collection comes from your piece on Susan Sontag, in which you say, ‘Critics are always working the room.’ The title Working the Room has an unmistakably social association. I wonder if you think criticism is a dynamic genre in terms of dialogue between critics, and between critics and their subjects?
GD: Ideally, it would be. Just to say something else about the title – you’re absolutely right about where it comes from – but as I mention in the introduction, my pal Jonathan Lethem told me one time that he had this exact title laid away for one of his own collections, and initially I was going to call it something else. Anyway, I offered him a dollar for world rights for the title and he thought actually that in the face of such a huge offer, he might as well give it to me for free [laughs].
But yes, I’m really interested in this relationship between original creative work and criticism. In the straightforward analysis you’ve got the novels and stuff, which are really important, and then you’ve got the writing about them, which is less important. But I’m interested in where the criticism itself becomes creative. It takes on some of the qualities we associate with creative or imaginative writing. One of the biggest influences on my writing is this essay by George Steiner, the first essay in his book Real Presences, where he says, ‘Let’s imagine a republic in which all writing about the arts, all writing about writing or music, is banned’ – in other words, where there would be no criticism. And he says, ‘Does this mean that there wouldn’t be any criticism?’ And he said, no, of course not, because the tradition of any art is – I think the phrase he uses is ‘a syllabus of enacted criticism’ – such that it is always commenting, often only implicitly, on what’s gone before. And this seemed to me very nakedly the case in the history of jazz, where, you know, everybody who comes subsequently is commenting in one way or another on what’s gone before. I think one of his lines is ‘The best criticsm of art is art’. I’m very taken with that idea. I’m also very taken with writers who raise the level of criticism to a higher perch than the secondary one to which it is usually assigned.
KYD: It’s clear that you’ve been a passionate reader for most of your life. Yet there’s a piece – ‘Reader’s Block’ – about not being able to read the same way you used to when you were younger. When did you realise this, and why do you think that happened?
GD: That’s probably one of the earliest pieces in the collection. I think it originally came out nine or 10 years ago, and that was certainly when I was getting the first rumbles of this. I guess it started when I was 40. The good news is that it’s something that comes and goes in phases, it’s not a terminal condition, but it does keep coming back. I think there are all kinds of reasons, and the main one is that when you first get into reading serious books – in my case it was the years between 17 and 22 – each book you read gives you such a massive amplification of your understanding of the world.
You know, when you’re reading George Eliot or Tolstoy or something, then your understanding of gestures, of psychology, of how to behave, of how people’s behaviour betrays what they’re really thinking, of morality, of sexual attraction, all this kind of stuff, you know, that literature has been about – each book represents a colossal increase in your understanding, especially if like me you come from a rather limited social world. I remember at about that age, there was such a discrepancy between the amount of stuff I was getting to know from books, and what I’d learned from my social interaction in the world. So each book at that point is hugely important.
Then you fast-forward to the point where you’ve read 500 novels, and of course, each book you’re reading is only adding a little increment to your understanding, even the very best ones. And there are two reactions to that. One is the rather foolish one, where you become a kind of antiquarian and you decide actually, really, Tolstoy, Balzac, Dickens, George Eliot, Dostoevsky, they’re so great that actually the fault is the quality of modern writing. But that seems to me sort of daft really. It’s more to do with where you came in as a reader.
When you’re first reading novels you don’t have a finely developed sense of discernment or discrimination, and one of the effects of reading novels is that you acquire that sense. And so you become impatient with books that aren’t very good. The perverse thing that happened in my case was that I really wanted to keep up the standard of what I was reading, and the opportunity cost of reading any given book [over another] seemed so great that I could never commit to anything.
I think of David Shields’s Reality Hunger, where he’s very much an anti-novel jihadist, saying, ‘I don’t really read novels anymore’. This does happen. You tend to read less novels from your forties onwards and, as I often joke, I can see a point from when I’m 55 – God, that’s not long now, let’s make it 60 – onwards where I only read military history. That’s the destiny awaiting many men, I think.
KYD: David Shields and Reality Hunger … your ‘Reader’s Block’ essay was written about 10 years ago and I wanted to ask you whether the internet and its adjunct devices have cannibalised your will to read, or your time to read.
GD: I’m unusual in that I have plenty of time, because I don’t have kids or a job. But in a weird way, I quite often won’t get any successful reading done until I’m on the Tube or something. One of the reasons for that is the internet, and as you say, all its attendant things, the whole – to use the Raymond Williams’s phrase, which I’m always overusing – the whole ‘structure of feeling’ that goes with the internet, which contends with anything that requires patience. It nibbles away at our ability to deal with slow things in all sorts of ways.
KYD: I’m not a big fan of the ‘internet gives us short attention spans’ argument, but I read recently, as everybody else did, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and I thought it’s been such a long time since I engaged with such a sustained narrative in such a short block of time. As opposed to something like a TV series, which can take weeks and weeks. It was an interesting reflection on my cultural consumption.
GD: You’re absolutely right to mention Franzen, because when I read those two Franzen novels, particularly The Corrections, like you I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I remember this feeling, this is exactly how I used to feel when I was gobbling novels down all the time.’ It’s a tribute to him, in a way. It’s not stupid to compare him with Tolstoy, because he’s got that ability to make you focus on the narrative in that way with a huge canvas. Reading Franzen reminds me of exactly the pleasures that routinely used to come my way but now rarely do.
KYD: You write some strong things about fiction in Working the Room. There’s one comment I’d like to hear you elaborate upon – that ‘most quality fiction that is story-driven seems a waste of time’. Why do you think that is the case, and could you furnish some examples?
GD: God, now that you quote it back at me, I can think of all sorts of exceptions. Partly because we’ve been talking about Franzen, I guess. What I am very impatient with is novels just going through the motions, when somebody has a – let’s take a step back, sort of that Martin Amis phrase we’re all familiar with, ‘the war against cliché’ (and for him a cliché is very much a verbal thing, you know: ‘raining cats and dogs’, or more sophisticated versions of the same). But it seems to me that novels can be conceived at the level of cliché, a complete enslavement to convention. Like David Shields, I’m kind of increasingly impatient to get to the bits I want. What do I want from reading generally? Well, I love this phrase of his, ‘the deep plumbing of consciousness’, and a lot of the stuff in novels seems to me just a sort of obstacle to get to that … or just, sort of, stuffing.
But then on the other hand, to come back to a novelist that I really love, Alan Hollinghurst. He’s a very, very traditional novelist. You could argue that the material is very new, because it’s gay and often sexually very explicit, but he’s a very traditional novelist. But his ability to notice stuff going on in the world, and the prose – I don’t feel any impatience with that. I guess you would say with someone like Hollinghurst or Updike, the plot is working at a quite minimal level. But when people sometimes say, ‘Oh, it’s just a great story’ or they’ll try to persuade me to read a book by telling me the story, that never does anything for me, that’s not what I’m reading it for.
KYD: You’ve already gone some way to answering my next question, which has to do with what fiction can do. In ‘The Moral Art of War’, you write about several non-fiction books that were written about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and discuss the relative strengths of non-fiction over fiction, including its ability to harness detail, style, characters and story. What, then, is there left for fiction to do?
GD: In that particular instance, it seems to me quite unusual in that the quality of the non-fiction writing that the wars engendered is so mind-blowingly high. So that was the starting point. In a way I’d prefer to put a positive spin on that; you know, three cheers for all these non-fiction writers. But then it seemed to me that so many of them had taken on a lot of the things that we associate with fiction. Novelists – we don’t need to take this as discouragement. What does it leave for the novel, you ask. Well, what it leaves, I think, is that whole sort of Hollinghurst realm of dealing with these worlds of non-historically important things. I’m happy for the novel to be a Jane Austen-y type thing, to be about men meeting women … I just really couldn’t see what the novelist could bring to the table that these great non-fiction books had not. And I am really very bored by the kind of novel that often does very well here in the UK, with huge historical sweep and cast of characters; where you use the novel just to delineate a historical thing, you know, typically a war zone or something like that – a lot of that stuff really does feel like a waste of time. I should also say that, typically, the ones that are applauded here tend to be about wars or incidents set firmly in the past. The other things that really blew my mind about these books about Iraq and Afghanistan was the speed with which works of such quality appeared, and the obvious contrast there is with World War I and the long gap before the great books started appearing.
KYD: There’s quite obviously a core of writers and artists whose work has affected you – John Berger, Nietzsche, Lawrence. Which contemporary writers do you find intriguing? In the collection, you review Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs.
GD: This is great, you see, because we’re doing this interview on the phone and I’m in my study and can look at my shelves. The other day I was doing a radio interview in the studio and they asked me about contemporary writers and my mind went so blank.
Yes, Lorrie Moore I just love and love and love, and it’s no accident that Lorrie Moore is not a conventional novelist at all. The thing that I love is the tone of a writer, and I just love the Lorrie Moore tone. I mentioned Alan Hollinghurst already. I guess Denis Johnson I really like a lot, and then there’s a few people who died not long ago – there’s Thomas Bernhard, who’s a person I had a major … I went through a phase. And, you know, of course, Coetzee, still going, still writing. DeLillo is a huge thing for me. I’m aware that I’m naming people who are a bit older. Roberto Calasso has been a huge influence on me, though I think it doesn’t quite fully do him justice to call his books novels … Nicholson Baker.
But if you were asking me what I was reading, it would be mainly non-fiction. So there’s this complete prejudice.
Can I just mention one other person I love: Mary Gaitskill. She is just absolutely fantastic. So there’s a whole range of stuff. The number of novelists that you’re actively tracking, you keep reading their new books, it does tend to shrink as you get older, I think.
KYD: I wanted to ask you about how you read, particularly whether the way you read changes when writing a review, as opposed to, say, how you read when writing fiction or a non-fiction book – or not writing a book at all?
GD: In terms of the distinction between reviewing or not reviewing, there’s no difference at all, because I’m incapable of reading anything without a pencil in my hand, which is George Steiner’s definition of an intellectual. Hey, I’m an intellectual! The only difference is that if after reading a book I was meeting friends for dinner or somewhere in a cafe, then I would say, ‘That book was crap’ or ‘That book was great’, and I’d articulate my responses in a very casual way. The reviewing thing – the fact that you’ve got to write something – obliges you to refine your responses and articulate them more clearly. But I’m always reading very, very actively, or interactively.
In terms of when I’m writing a book, let’s say when I was writing my book on photography, then I would read a lot of quite boring books, read them quite quickly and ruthlessly. Partly just to siphon off the knowledge from their tank into mine, but also, very specifically, to see if there was some little detail I could use. Otherwise, the nature of my reading is pretty constant, I think.
As you get older you also give up on more books more quickly, and when I was younger I’d be reviewing more books, and I would quite like it when I read a book that I detected early on was crap, because then you think, ‘Now I can really have a go at this person.’ But now, you know, I would just give up, which is one of the reasons, and I think this is not uncharacteristic, you tend to write less reviews as you get older.
KYD: Many of the pieces about photography in Working the Room are dated around the mid 2000s, which is also around the time The Ongoing Moment, your book on photography, was published. You’ve said elsewhere that photography is a relatively new interest for you – how did you become interested in it?
GD: That’s one I can answer very easily. I became interested in photography through writing about photography … through reading about people like Sontag, Berger, Roland Barthes. Up until that point, I knew there were photographs, but I wasn’t really aware that they were by certain people. So I guess the key moment for this was a great picture of D.H. Lawrence, who, as you know, has been a great figure for me. There was this picture of Lawrence and it turned out it was taken by Edward Weston, who in the history of photography is every bit as important as Lawrence is in the history of the novel. So that picture then changed, it became doubly interesting, and this is where we get to one of the key things about photography: the extent to which it’s defined by what it’s of or who it’s by.
So I wrote a few little things about photography, and one of the peculiarities of photography is that everyone thinks they can write about it or comment on it, irrespective of how much they know about the history of photography. And as I wrote more of these pieces, I became increasingly aware of the history and the tradition. One thing I’m absolutely convinced of is that the best way to learn about anything is to write a book about it, and so, some time in the early 2000s, I thought, I really want to get to grips with photography and I decided to write a book about it. And now, as a result of writing that book, I’ve become, in some small way, part of the photography scene, I guess. Still as a kind of amateur, but as an amateur people are happy to invite along to things.
KYD: As I understand, something similar happened with your jazz book. There’s a great bit in Working the Room where you describe entering a library, having decided to write a book about jazz and being watched like a vulture by the librarian. Is that the spot in the Venn diagram between professional and amateur where you enjoy being?
GD: I guess when I was younger, I more enjoyed my outlaw status: of riding into town and riding out again. And I guess a difference between jazz and photography would be that after I finished the book on jazz, which came out in 1991, jazz then entered a relatively uninteresting phase. Certainly I lost interest in it. Whereas photography is so ‘happening’ now … Also I should say that my book on photography was very, very bound to the canon, so it wasn’t very up-to-date. The last person I dealt with in any detail at all was Francesca Woodman, who was born the same year as me, so after writing the book and being someone people ask to write about photography, I’ve been able to bring my knowledge more up-to-date. So I stuck around more with the world of photography than I did in the world of jazz.
KYD: How do you view the role of a critic? Who is their allegiance to, and what are their tasks?
GD: That I wouldn’t be so aware of. I’d only be able to define what I’m up to, which is when I read or see something, articulate my responses to it and then say why it is that I had those responses. Although criticism goes through various cycles where one thing or another is important, that sort of brief would always satisfy me. In terms of the larger picture, I’m not sufficiently in the loop to have anything useful to say about that.
KYD: When we interviewed DBC Pierre last year, he said, on the subject of critics, that ‘I don’t take tips for swimming from those who have never been in the water’. Do you think being someone who has wrestled with both the novel and the non-fiction book gives you a better claim to credibility or insight as a critic?
GD: That’s a really difficult question, because instinctively, I would side with Pierre on that. But then, here’s the weird thing: the fact that you’ve written heaps of novels… You can still be a good novelist and be pretty stupid in some ways, and it’s absolutely possible to be a novelist and be absolutely hopeless as a critic. So who’s the most important critic writing in English at the moment about fiction? It would be James Wood. I know he’s written a novel, but he would define himself as a critic. And he’s worth listening to as a critic more than any number of novelists who are also critics.
KYD: Working the Room ends with some essays that deal with the personal – for example, your growing up as an only child and how you met your wife, Rebecca. How do you approach writing about yourself and your own experiences?
GD: Oh, what I always end up saying is that it’s all just writing. I don’t make any great distinction between different kinds of writing, really. I’ve written a lot about myself, I think, one way or another, and it’s not because I’m particularly solipsistic or narcissistic. In the case of the only child piece, I thought there was something interesting to say about that. My circumstances are not interesting in and of themselves, but this phenomenon of being an only child is perhaps interesting.
KYD: You cover the Goncourt journals and John Cheever’s journals, and in one of the personal essays, you unearth some of your own old journals. Do you still keep them? Are they an important part of how you observe and remember experiences?
GD: I do need to clarify that – they weren’t journals, they were just old diaries where I would say something like, you know, ‘met X for dinner’ or ‘went to see a particular film’, so there’s never more than eight words per day. I’ve really never kept a journal after the age of 23 or something, and it’s really now one of my huger regrets because I actually think that’s what I’d be really good at. When the Guardian was asking a bunch of writers to give advice on writing, I managed to turn that around. I said, ‘Make sure you keep a journal. One of my great regrets is that I don’t keep a journal.’ Then I turned that around and said, ‘Have regrets, because on the page they become fuel.’
KYD: You seem to have a quick pen for quotes, and you revisit some of your childhood in the collection. Do you have a good memory? Do you revisit things often?
GD: Increasingly, I feel I’m going to be one of those war veterans who can remember so clearly all the stuff that happened to them – or just like an old person generally, who can remember everything really clearly up until they were about 25. I do have a good memory for quotes, certainly for stuff I read when I was young. This old-fashioned thing of learning poetry by heart. But that kind of stuff isn’t really a memory, it feels like it’s not in my head – whole chunks of Shakespeare – it’s just in my bloodstream.
And then at some level I do have a good memory, even though I don’t notice stuff in other ways, like if I’ve been writing a travel piece, just because the flux of things is so great. Like everybody now, what I’ve taken to doing is – I’ve got this little camera. I use that in the way of taking notes, instead of having to write stuff out – a scene, a particular room – I’ll just take a picture of it and refer to that later.
KYD: There’s a man, I can’t remember where, attempting to record everything that happens to him in his life.
GD: Oh, well, that’s a very Borgesian endeavour. It struck me as interesting because once you have all that data, you still have to look through it, and it seems to me that the brain does that for you – hopefully remembering the things that are useful and forgetting the things that are not.
That’s the thing, isn’t it? The way things lodge in the brain even though they might seem relatively unimportant. I’m on my way to being someone who doesn’t write fiction anymore, and I think that’s not so much to do with my memory packing up, as that I don’t bother noticing stuff. That’s one of the incredible things about Updike, I think, quite apart from the fact that he was able to sit at his desk so long and crank out so many words, but what an incredible noticer he was. It seems to me that to sustain that level of consistent noticing requires its own kind of self-discipline, which I think I’m losing as I become increasingly oblivious to my everyday surroundings.
KYD: You’ve said that you are – like Susan Sontag – a writer who is interested in everything. What makes something lodge in your imagination – such as jazz or D.H. Lawrence?
GD: It’s difficult to say. I’ve just finished this book, actually, so I’m very conscious of this.
When I was about 24 or 25, I saw the Tarkovsky film Stalker. Then I saw it a bunch of times. It really always just stayed with me. Then, recently, I was contracted to write a book about tennis, which I thought I was really interested in. And I was really interested in it – I was obsessed with tennis. And in fact, at the beginning of writing that novel Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, I was always going on to my wife about tennis, and she said, ‘If you spent as much time thinking about your novel as you did about tennis, you’d have written the book by now.’ And the penny dropped, and I thought, ‘Shit, I should be writing a book about tennis.’ It’s always good to write about whatever you’re interested in at any given moment. But I didn’t, because I persisted in writing the Venice/Varanasi book.
Anyway, when that finished – and because I moved to a new publisher and they said ‘what might you do next’ – I said without any thought at all, ‘Oh, I’ll write a book about tennis.’ But I realised that the window for writing a particular book is actually quite small in terms of time, and I realised that by the time I’d finished the Jeff in Venice book, the tennis book was a possibility that had just passed. And then I just started writing a few little things about this film that I’d seen all those years ago and found that I was having really, really good fun, whereas trying to write the book on tennis was making me really unhappy. I ended up writing a whole book about this film. And this, I realise now, is the right time to do that, for all sorts of reasons that I address in the book. So often what you think you’re most interested in at a given moment isn’t the thing that you’re actually interested enough in to be able to write a book about, with all the peculiar processes that unleashes.
KYD: I’m intrigued that the collection includes pieces about a few writers whose fiction is often entwined in a muddy relationship with their biographies – F. Scott Fitzgerald, particularly, and Tobias Wolff. And what I found myself doing while reading Working the Room was cross-referencing it with Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. You know, there’s Lorrie Moore. There’s Burning Man. There’s the croissant and the coffee. What do you find interesting about this relationship between the author and the narrator?
GD: Well, it depends. With Jeff in Venice, really the difference is between Geoff with a G – me – and Jeff with a J. I like reading books where you don’t know what kind of books they are. And since that book doesn’t behave like a straightforward novel – I mean, the main love interest disappears halfway through. (Though actually, I think she’s in the second half, tacitly.)
There was a lot of that going on, giving him the same name as me but different, making him like me, but different. This was all playing with and addressing the issue of form, I guess, of what form you expect certain kinds of writing to take. You know, he’s like me in some ways, and not like me in others. Actually, a key way in which he’s not like me is that he hasn’t written books, so that’s one reason why you get that incredible, cynical sense of pissed-offness and frustration from him. His life has lacked that deeper purpose.
I felt it was useful in all sorts of ways, and also I had been to the Venice Biennale three times, and that was the only way I was ever going to write about that experience, because I wasn’t going to imagine I was an artist or something like that.
KYD: In Working the Room, you say that you are ‘actively hostile to the idea of writers lashing themselves to their desks’ and that you write when you feel like it. How often do you feel like writing? And do you enjoy it once you have started?
GD: It depends, really. My answer to that question depends completely on when it’s being asked. So if you’d called me three months ago, I’d have said ‘Yeah, this is great, the writing life, really happy, I could do it six hours a day.’ Because back then, I was writing my Stalker book and I’d done most of it. And as you know, the finishing stages of writing a book are much easier than the beginning stages. So then I’d have been all upbeat and great, like ‘Really looking forward to finishing this book and getting on with the new thing.’
Three months down the line, I’ve finished that book and I’m aware that I’m sinking into idleness, which is a prelude to then sinking into some kind of depression of not doing stuff. But I’d love to be one of these writers where you finish your book on the Friday, have a few drinks, go shopping on the Saturday, Monday morning comes around, you roll up your sleeves and start a new one. I’m older, you know, I like being home in the day. But that’s not how it works for me. So the reason I got into that pickle with the tennis book was because I was so happy writing my Jeff in Venice book. When they asked what I wanted to do next, I thought I wanted to become more like a career-type writer instead of doing my normal thing of sinking into idleness and depression and not doing anything – I’d just immediately start writing a tennis book. So I signed a contract to do that, hoping to break that cycle.
But, of course, it wasn’t as easy to break as I’d thought: the momentum I’d built up with that book was not transferable to the next one, which involved a very different way of working. In a way, it was like you’ve just come back from a foreign country with some really crappy currency, and I couldn’t convert it back to Stirling.
So then I found I was sinking into my normal thing of not doing anything, but worse than ever, because I had this awful crushing obligation of a contract. So really, it wasn’t until I decided just to ignore the fact that I was expected to write a book about tennis and started writing one about Tarkovsky that I was back into things again. At this point, unfortunately, I’m in that rather sort of flopping around, when-will-I-write-another-book stage. And my wife is very sanguine on this. She says: ‘You’ve been saying you’re finished as a writer since I’ve known you. You’re always crying wolf.’ And I always say, ‘One day I will have the last word on this, I will be finished.’
KYD: There’s certainly no arguing with that. Thank you for speaking with us, Geoff. It’s been delightful.
GD: Thank you. It really has been a pleasure for me.