April 28, 2015
Three for Tuesday: An Interview with Tim Parks
by Mark Krotov & Alex Shephard
Topics discussed: mozzarella sticks, Nick During, incompetence, silliness, fear, Martin Amis, Facebook comments, George Orwell, the New York Review of Books, Charlie Hebdo, Henry Green, the Nobel Prize, John Banville, Tomas Tranströmer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Narratives, events, translation, 70%, J.K. Rowling, Elena Ferrante, criticism, Zadie Smith, C. K. Stead, Haruki Murakami, Dave Eggers, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Christina Stead, D.H. Lawrence, close reading, Ezra Pound, Charles Dickens
Mark: Hi Alex! I know that your short-term memory is awful, but can you remember what happened on Friday?
Alex: No, a squirrel just ran by my desk and that’s all I can think about right now. How did a squirrel get in our new office! Anyway, what happened on Friday?
Mark: On Friday, you and I ate perhaps the best mozzarella sticks I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve eaten many, many mozzarella sticks). While we ate said mozzarella sticks, we spoke to the novelist, essayist, and critic Tim Parks. In addition to writing many fine books about Italy and not about Italy, Parks writes a column on the New York Review of Books blog about books and the book world. His columns are erudite, historically aware, and sophisticated. They are, in other words, everything this column is not.
Parks has a terrific book coming out in a few weeks called Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books. The book, which is published by New York Review, collects Parks’s columns and offers a wide-ranging and, I think, deeply personal look at . . . well, I was going to say “the way we read now,” but that’s not quite right. The book mostly offers a look at the way Tim Parks reads now, but because Parks is so engaging and persuasive, his experiences are worth taking seriously.
Alex, did you enjoy eating mozzarella sticks in front of Tim Parks?
Alex: I loved it! Tim is someone I’ve loved reading for a very long time and I very much enjoyed speaking with him, especially when he told you that you were apologizing too much for how dumb we were. I don’t think that’s going to make it into the final transcript, as it was more of a preamble, but I want to bring it up because it’s important that it enter the historical record one way or another. But yes, getting to spend an hour talking with Tim Parks was a great pleasure, because Tim Parks is brilliant. Mozzarella sticks are also pretty great.
Mark: Now that we’ve gotten our mozzarella stick adventure in the historical record, let’s proceed to the interview, which has been edited and condensed, and which took place on Friday, April 24th at Cody’s, on Court Street in Brooklyn, before Parks’reading at BookCourt, where the following photo was taken, to confirm that Alex and I are not, in fact, making this whole thing up.
Tim Parks: So. What you guys want is . . . what, exactly?
Mark: I think Nick [During, New York Review Books’ outstanding publicist] might have sent you this sort of absurd column that Alex and I write—
Tim: He might have sent me a link, but in the last ten days we’ve been travelling to talks, and so I haven’t really—
Alex: It’s a good thing you haven’t.
Mark: It’s for the best.
At a certain point a few months ago we said to ourselves: well, what if we start writing a crass, bowdlerized, poorly researched, historically illiterate version of Tim Parks’s columns, which are so good?
Tim: Oh. It sounds like the British newspapers. Except they say the opposite.
Mark: No, we make no pretense toward professionalism.
Alex: No. Part of the idea is people in the publishing industry don’t say anything about anything. We try to say things other people don’t.
Tim: Well, very much I’m the same way, but yeah, there’s a huge sort of balloon out there of supposedly good intentions and actual commercial interests that’s terribly easy to prick. Because most readers want to feel that they’re involved in some kind of project of enriching themselves and being good, they don’t ask many questions when maybe they might. That’s more or less the story.
Mark: We read all your columns, and we were excited about the book. And if our blog has a kind of inspiration—but again, refracted through any number of layers of incompetence—
Tim: I think you should stop stressing that.
Mark: Well, no, it’s just in case you see it. It’s a fun column, it’s just very silly.
Tim: Well, silliness can be a kind of indication of fear. It’s like the guy is gonna try it on with a girl, and does it in such a way that she can take it as a joke. Do you see what I mean? But you should be careful not to be too silly, because it can be a form of—“we’re actually scared about telling you that we really do think this.”
Martin Amis does this, for example. He’ll have some really unpleasant figure up front, who’s clearly an alter ego. But he doesn’t really allow you to take him seriously because he makes him too grotesque and over the top. So in a sense, that’s the whole point of saying, “well, actually this guy has every kind of reason for behaving like this. It’s lost, because you just consider it a joke.”
Mark: So this actually is a nice way to lead to a question.
Tim: Ask me a question.
2. Reading the Comments
Mark: Until this book, these columns have existed online, and they’re very much a product of the Internet, insofar as they’re fairly quick reads and they have comments attached to them and people share them—
Tim: They don’t have comments attached anymore. We cut them. They now have to comment on the Facebook page.
Mark: Do you look at the comments?
Tim: No. I’ve looked a couple of times. But really no. I mean . . . are they a product of the Internet age? Well, they may be in the sense that the New York Review would have never allowed me to write this stuff any other way. But my feeling is that the kind of thing I’m doing in the blogs has really got nothing to do with the traditional blog. I wasn’t asked to do these. I was asked to write the blog, and I was asked to write about Italy, and I didn’t want to. Because I don’t want to become a journalist about Italy. And there was a lot of back and forth, and I said, “Well, why don’t you let me write what I want to write about?” And these are the kinds of things that constantly come to mind when you’re writing for the New York Review, but you have a very clear brief to take on board this certain writer. So you can’t start shooting your mouth off about the publishing world in general.
So I’ve been getting to write them exactly the way I’d have written them for the paper, if people would let me write like that. And in fact, there’s quite a lot of editing. I will receive an e-mail, and I’ll say, “Fuck, they want to completely rewrite the blog.” And often they do move things around. There’s a lot of discussion. Basically it’s just putting the pieces online. You say they’re short, but actually the range between the minimum is one thousand—most of them are running at about 1,600, a couple of them go over two. So these are the same length as the articles George Orwell was writing. And actually it’s pretty much in that tradition.
The point is that there’s no longer really a space in most newspapers for this kind of thing. And also in the newspapers, you really are trapped. For example, when I write for the Review, the article can’t be longer than four thousand words. And I send it in at, like 3,998. I mean I really do. And you know, I never thought when I was writing this stuff that it should be written less well than [in print]. You’ve just got the pleasure of being able to be a little bit more informal, but that’s simply because the New York Review—they let certain people be a lot more informal in the paper, as well. And maybe they would let me if I tried to take that opportunity, but I actually quite like the format that I use.
What the Internet age has really changed is this: I write pieces for the New York Review on paper, and they’re really a lot of work; sometimes I’m reading seven or eight books, right? And I’ll put a link up on Facebook, and not really a lot of people will go there, because they know they have to subscribe to the New York Review. And so it’ll be read around, but it’s pretty limited really, compared with what will happen with one of the blogs. Sometimes one of the blogs—you’ll start hearing that really a lot of people have read it all over the world, and immediately. Well, that’s pretty exciting.
Alex: One of the things I like in the introduction is that you’re talking about the Internet as basically just a machine for constant feedback. You said you don’t read the comments, but is that something that you’re wary of?
Tim: Well, I get feedback on my own Facebook page, and I do reply to that. So if people want to engage me directly, they can. I won’t carry on a conversation to long—I mean, life is short. How did it turn out that I did all this stuff? Not by reading all the comments, you know? But sometimes people send me reflections that are pretty damn smart. Sometimes they point out some serious holes in my argument. So that’s fine, too. I have no worries about that.
I think it is a problem with some readers who obviously feel that you owe them your time. I don’t. But I am happy to engage if they’re generous, or if they send some interesting reflection. You do get some pretty unpleasant—I got some death threats after the Charlie Hebdo thing. Also a couple of years ago, I wrote something for Newsweek about Pope Benedict, and I got a lot of death threats. That was interesting. They’re clearly not very serious about that.
Mark: I’d hope nobody sent you death threats after the Henry Green column.
Tim: No, no. Somebody did object to that, though, in the most serious terms. Somebody wrote me the most offensive email about that, saying that I was an elitist shit and that I was basically just attacking people that wanted to read popular fiction. I didn’t think it was meant like that. He clearly wasn’t that careful in his reading.
I think one of the things that’s happening with online reading—but it was already happening with paper reading, with the sheer amount of stuff—is that people don’t read very carefully. They don’t read very carefully, and they especially don’t read carefully stuff online. I think that’s why you do have to keep it brief. I’m gonna try to make them a little bit shorter, actually. I think 1,500 is really enough, because people lose it after that. It’s not a criticism.
People often don’t realize you can’t say everything even in 1,500 words. Imagine that we had a copy of the New York Review of Books. You can read half an article, have dinner, and go back and read the rest. But when you read it online, you’re not going to go back to the site again, or it’s unlikely.
Mark: It’s the perpetual torment of the open tab.
Tim: You have to read it in one sitting, basically. So that means it has to be significantly shorter. And in fact, it’s really interesting—with a newspaper like the Guardian, everybody likes their online site, and it has obvious merits. But they have these comment columns where they just let people go on as long as they want. I mean, obviously it’s good online—I can write a thousand words, or 1,600, and I don’t have to worry like I do with the paper that it’s going to be too high. But they sometimes run to three, four, five thousand words, these guys, shooting their mouths off. And you just think, they could surely have said this a bit quicker. It’s not like heavily researched or anything.
3. “Lies that are clearly stupid lies”
Mark: One of the striking things about these pieces is—it’s shocking in a way that there aren’t more people writing these kinds of essays.
Tim: I’ve always been shocked. Actually I’m rather glad they’re not.
Mark: For your sake.
Tim: Listen, nobody wants to hear what I’m saying. Absolutely nobody wants to hear it, except a few kind of smart-thinking people about books. Even people like John Banville responded to one thing that I just wrote about the difficulty reading in an electronic age and man’s constant engagement with online communications. And Banville says, no, no we read the same way we’ve always read, technology hasn’t changed anything. Well, come on. Anyone that travels on the subway, how many people are not holding their mobile phones?
It’s the same question as: why do people take the Nobel Prize seriously when it’s obviously stupid? It’s obviously stupid. An idiot could demonstrate it. The question that’s not interesting is why is it stupid. The question is, why do people continue to take it? And it’s exactly the same conundrum that you have when Tranströmer says “we have to believe in the translation of poetry if we want to believe in world literature.” The point is we’ve all decided to believe that literature is important; that we need stories; that translation is completely possible; that the whole commercial interest around fiction is merely a necessary evil, but doesn’t really change the nobility of what’s going on at all. So everyone has a vested interest in believing stuff that’s clearly nonsense, right? And that’s the interesting thing.
Somebody like me is saying, you know, I don’t mind what’s happening, it’s all a part of the game. But isn’t it funny that none of us want to admit what the situation is? So really that’s where I am with all this. You just look at all the time where you’re reading the papers and realize that people are selling lies that are clearly stupid lies—that one I quoted in the last thing where the Guardian reviewer said that Knausgaard may be among the greatest writers of the twenty-first century. May be? Who cares? Why does he want to write that? Because people want to establish a canon, because people want to imagine that there are great writers and lesser writers and they want the mythology, they want the narrative for themselves. And it’s embarrassing.
Alex: Well it seems like a conflation, too, as I well know from working in publishing, of the narratives you try to build for authors or for prizes, and the work itself. This is one of the things I love the most about your columns— the kind of unraveling of this false distinction—
Tim: I’m probably like the opposite of the publishing world.
Mark: Well in a way, what you’re describing is—well, it’s not our dream, but . . . what you’re describing is our dream, right? All of the narratives that we all try to spin about significant, unheard-of writers who’ve finally written their masterpieces are essentially being reiterated and repeated and sort of mangled—but maybe even for the better.
Tim: I mean, that’s a rags-to-riches narrative, etc. I think one thing is, on a slightly more personal level—as a very young person, you get engaged in the literary business. It was very different in the 1970s when I began to hazard a few words on paper. One was drawn in to this idea that there would be something noble about this profession, and that one might achieve a certain dignity. The more that goes on, the more life goes on, the more you feel how sick that project was. The whole publishing industry doesn’t really work in that way, and that kind of aim—which is just at the end a thirst for celebrity—is pretty depressing as an aim to pursue. But it’s very hard not to pursue it. It’s very hard not to pursue a desire for the limelight, and so on and so forth.
So there’s a sort of conflictedness behind the blogs. Which I hope I make very clear. In the last blog I seem to remember there comes a point in history where a writer can actually dream of world domination. And I’ve dreamed that dream as much as anybody else—you imagine that your book can win the Nobel and sell to everybody all over the world.
4. Looking Outward
Mark: I want to ask a little bit about—I guess about the character of world domination. One of the things that’s really striking to us about your columns is the historical richness. In this most recent column about overproduction, you could come away from it with a real sense of the smallness—or at least the repetitiveness—of the debates we’re having now, that every era has them. For younger people who are interested in publishing, like ourselves, there is this limit to our knowledge insofar as we don’t really have an experience of the kind of international literature—
Tim: It’s just a question of age and experience. I mean a lot of the reflections in that piece came out of reading a book about the history of paper, which I’ve reviewed for the New York Review of Books. It provoked me to think more about the relationship between the volume of the paper and the seriousness of what’s written on it.
I’m sixty, you know? And I’ve lived in Italy, which has exposed me to a whole new—I do think it’s very evident to us, coming over here, looking at the American situation, the sort of healthy blindness of the American literary world. It’s a big enough, commercially healthy enough world for people not to really know very much about the rest of the world and not really think about it.
Mark: My question is basically: do you think that—in the context of Anglo-American reception—international literature is becoming more of a phenomenological thing? Is the only way for an international writer to really make a larger-than-fractional impact have to be in this kind of Knausgaard way? Not just the novel but the event?
Tim: Knausgaard’s kind of a one-off. Let’s try to think about it. First, Americans don’t need to think of reading international novels because the rest of the world is so interested in America anyway, and translates so many American novels. I mean most novels translated in the world are American, right? About 70% of novels in Italian are translated, and about 70% of those are translated from America. So half what people are reading is American. They’re not reading from Czechoslovakia or Albania or Russia. They’re just reading from America.
So an American author actually doesn’t have to think about anything. He can just write and think for years for Americans—and in fact, everybody’s becoming Americans. So it’s not a problem for him. But if you’re in Holland, Norway, Sweden, even Italy, to a degree, then apart from the fact that you’ve grown up with the idea that lots of books came from other places and so there’s no reason my book shouldn’t go to other places— and apart from the fact that the number of people buying books in your country is much smaller—your chances of surviving on a book that’s totally in Italy is very small. There’s just a tendency to look outward more.
Now, the whole business about becoming an event: I don’t think Knausgaard was actually writing toward an international space. I was actually asked to review Knausgaard’s book by the New York Review way back, and I read fifty pages and said, “No thanks.” Not because I didn’t think it was—I just thought, I’m not very interested. It was very, very long. It’s 600 pages, and I thought, I don’t want to read 600 pages of this. This is for somebody else. But it’s really critics here who made the event that is Knausgaard. Would Knausgaard really go ahead with all his books without the critics feeding that going on? Would J.K. Rowling have written seven Harry Potters if they hadn’t sold very well?
The point is, the publishing industry is looking for great events. And there are certain critics who—I’m not saying they do it on purpose—but they’re integrated in the idea that their job is to find the next great literary event—be it Knausgaard or Elena Ferrante or something—and to elevate these people way, way above a million other writers. I don’t see either of these two writers as really in a league of their own at all. And of course, the funny thing about Knausgaard is he doesn’t actually sell very well. Which is sort of hilarious, with all the effort they’ve made to sell it. I mean, I’m happy for him that he must be making a fair bit of money.
5. “It is perfectly possible that you are right”
Mark: To ask maybe a too granular question: what do you think is motivating critics like the ones you describe? Is it anxiety? An anxiety about the fact that we don’t have these contemporary heroes?
Tim: Everybody’s different, but it’s quite clear that to become a sort of celebrity critic, you have to be a critic who creates events. It’s no good being a critic who just gives a very sensible account of what he reads. Who’s interested in that? So it just means that you’re mentally integrated with the business that you’re working for, that’s all. And that’s a very subtle thing. You don’t need to willfully decide, “I’m going to do this thing.” You’re just drawn to doing that.
And anyway, certain critics, they’ll say a few lines, and then their words will be beaconed and echoed around the world. If Zadie Smith says something, you know everybody will then say, “Well, Zadie Smith said it.” And it’s extraordinary. There are very excellent critics—what about C. K. Stead? He is an absolutely brilliant guy. But no one says, “Oh, C. K. Stead said . . .” He’s way beyond—I mean, he’s a much smarter critic than I am. But, you know, who reads him? Nobody.
What it means is that the publishing industry and the people around it, these people are becoming part of the buzz of creating literary success and, from there, generating money. And I think the real comedy about Knausgaard—which is not a criticism of the book; I read fifty pages in a bad moment; maybe the book’s fantastic, but that’s not what interests me—the point is, they invested an enormous amount of mental energy promoting this guy, and he actually sold less than I sold of my railway book, from one of the books. It’s just—this is fantastic! And mine didn’t sell very well either.
So there’s a sort of humor in that. Instead, somebody like Murakami, even that miserable last novel he wrote, which really was a joke, you know, that single novel has sold more than all of Knausgaard’s books put together and got all over the world. So there you go.
Alex: Yeah, that was one of those moments where you realize that you may be too self-involved or something. I read it in galley and I was like, “Yeah, this is shit.” And I walked into my local bookstore, and it’s all over the counter, behind it. It’s like, why is it here?
Tim: Yeah, and then you get anxious. That’s the thing: age really changes the way you feel about your own opinion. And you have to be careful. You always have to think, “Well, maybe I’m wrong.” If somebody said to me now, “would you read Knausgaard?” I’d probably make more serious an effort to see. You have to be careful, but as you get older you begin to realize that it is perfectly possible that you are right and not them. It’s possible. It’s not going to happen all the time, but it’s possible. But when you’re younger you think, “No, I must be out of it.”
6. Difficult Writers
Mark: One of the columns I really liked in the book was where you talk about the genealogy of your own critical opinion and the roots that it has in your family. Not just the opinions, but these kind of polar dimensions to your criticism—why you may be attracted to Dave Eggers for this good-versus-evil thing. Do you think your columns are making you a more self-conscious critic, or are these just long-lingering thoughts that have always been there?
Tim: When you start writing, it gets organized a bit better. That’s all. When you write, then you get a chance to organize your thoughts. But these were all thoughts that I’d had and would’ve loved to put in other pieces before. It’s just not appropriate, when you’re reviewing, shooting your mouth off about global literature. But there is a lot of crossover between the pieces if you read between the lines.
There are different kinds of writers. There are writers who are absolutely convinced that their work is in no way influenced by readership, by the market, as if they would write novels even if they lived in a society where people didn’t write novels. They don’t reflect on the integration of what they do with the market for what they do. And in a way, that’s fine. Why should they? And then there are other writers—and maybe it doesn’t help you to write better, but it certainly helps you to live with the thought of what your career is becoming. And you start reflecting much more on it.
I think the last six novels I’ve written, if you start reading between the lines, have really been written against this obsession with narrative fiction. Even going right back to a book like Destiny, or even Europa, I was already thinking, “This whole process of praising novels is really silly.”
I shouldn’t be saying that. A lot of novelists would never say that.
Mark: Are you finding yourself drawn to more difficult or counter-canonical or antagonistic novels as a result of this diagnosis of world literature?
Tim: I don’t think so. I’ve always liked novelists like Beckett or like Bernhard, or even difficult novelists like Christina Stead or D.H. Lawrence. I don’t think my tastes have changed, no.
Mark: Because I think your diagnosis is fairly damning.
Tim: I mean, I don’t mind that it all goes on; it’s the rhetoric that bothers me. The rest is, if people really enjoy reading Murakami, it’s fine. The cards are absolutely stacked against honesty in reviewing. They are stacked against honesty—especially if you are a novelist yourself, or if you have wishes to be one, or if you just want to be kind of cozy with people. I remember my agent—I’m now without an agent, but I remember my agent saying, I sent him one of the blogs, and he said, “Yet another two or three enemies.”
Mark: Obviously, we think about this all the time. As people in this industry, all we want is authors who are congenial and never say a bad word against anyone—okay, maybe not, but it makes life much easier. But I wonder—is this a function of the Internet that this is policed a lot more closely and is reacted to a lot more quickly, or is this also on a historical continuum?
Tim: Again, one doesn’t want to appear vitriolic and grumpy; I actually love reading and love thinking about this stuff. On the other hand, there are some kinds of rhetoric that are simply embarrassing to listen to. I remember one of my favorites quotes that I saw—one of the pieces with this book said, “If this book is good, it will reach out universally, across the world.” Well, sorry, but actually, that’s very convenient for you to say that, but it’s a silly idea.
You asked whether it was becoming policed more. It’s an interesting question. I do think that with the publishers all joining together—for example, there are certain authors that I’ve never written about, because they’re published by my publisher. I don’t even know if I would write positively or negatively about them, but I know that I wouldn’t feel free to really say what I wanted to say. And now my publisher more or less owns like sixty or seventy percent of British publishing. So it’s a large bunch of guys I won’t be able to talk about. I wouldn’t extend it to all the group, but there are certain people that you feel that if I wrote something really, really strong, it would actually be sort of unkind to people who’ve worked closely with me for many years. So you don’t do that.
And obviously, if a reviewer is a more anxious person who doesn’t have a career established, you’ve got to think very carefully about who you want to go knocking heads with. And some people don’t really seem eager to decide whether they really like something or not until they know whether everybody else liked it.
On the other hand, I think one should be anxious before saying a book is not very good. You should think, I have a certain responsibility. Particularly if it’s a young author, who has not made a name. I mean with a bigger author—actually I was really quite polite about Murakami. But you only need to quote certain passages and invite people to read them detached from the general, and they’re so embarrassing.
Mark: That’s the permanent trump card.
7. Close Reading
Tim: One of the things the New York Review taught me about reviewing was that you really don’t need to say anything very unpleasant to expose the author. You just need to quietly, maybe with just a touch of irony, suggest.
Alex: Reading through these columns again, it’s clear you’re an exceptional close reader. And that’s one of the things that reviewing, especially commercial reviewing, has been distancing itself from.
Tim: I know in the case of my own books, I’ve seen reviews where it was quite clear they’d assumed what the plot was from the early pages without actually checking if it went that way at all. With A Season with Verona, way back, the guy clearly thought the whole book was like the first chapter.
Mark: I imagine that writing all this from Italy and sort of being once removed from the world you’re describing must make all of this much more acute.
Tim: I mean, I’m in Milan, which is the center of Italian publishing. There are people who just naturally move in groups—people like Dave Eggers, who clearly has a vocation for gathering groups around him. Going back to the past, like Ezra Pound, like Dickens, who were just naturally the center of a club and they had to form a club around themselves. There are few people I admire more than Dickens as a writer, so I’ve got nothing against that. And there are other people who just have this sort of visceral sense that they can’t buy into the club. And I don’t think there’s anything heroic or boasting about that; it’s just the way you learn to relate to situation. So I’m outside—I probably would be even if I lived in Queens.
But I hadn’t noticed, talking to you guys, the New York publishing scene: how much people here do tend to be aware of the history of each of the magazines and the relationships. There’s a very strong sense of a community, and who’s in and who’s out and so on and so forth. People here will talk to me about that, and I just don’t even have the context to understand what they’re talking about. It doesn’t really interest me.
Tim Parks’s Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books is out May 12 from New York Review Books.