As a riposte to the doom and gloom about writing these days, the End of Times sentiment let loose by the marketing people of the world who sense, yes, alas, that the current spasmodic writhings of capitalism bode ill for the bottom line, here’s an interview with Tom McCarthy in the magazine The Days of Yore. McCarthy is ever cheerful, smart, well-read and positive–for someone who makes a living dwelling on failure. You might say he has made a success of failure–read the McCarthy interview in the context this Zadie Smith essay in The New York Review of Books in which she contrasts the “successful” well-made middle-brow novel with McCarthy’s novel Remainder, which, as Smith says, rather “gleefully” tears apart everything we’ve come to expect from a good novel.
These aren’t particularly healthy times. A breed of lyrical Realism has had the freedom of the highway for some time now, with most other exits blocked. For Netherland, our receptive pathways are so solidly established that to read this novel is to feel a powerful, somewhat dispiriting sense of recognition. It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem. It’s so precisely the image of what we have been taught to value in fiction that it throws that image into a kind of existential crisis, as the photograph gifts a nervous breakdown to the painted portrait.
That’s some good advice. Any other advice for young writers?
I remember seeing an interview where William Burroughs was asked this question and he said, “Learn to type.” Anything I could say would be totally bland. Read a lot. See? That’s totally bland. But that would be the best.
Go smoke hashish on a bed?
[Laughs.] Go smoke hashish on a bed in Paris! No, I don’t know. Read. Read, read, read. That would be the thing. Because, ultimately, it’s not about having something to say. It’s what Kafka said, “I write in order to affirm and re-affirm that I have nothing to say.” Writing is not about having something to say. It’s about an intense relationship with the symbolic. Which means being completely immersed in literature, which means in other literature, but also in the world and all its mediations. So, maybe that would be the advice: Go and get immersed.
Everyone is grumbling about the end of the book. What do you have to say about that?
People who proclaim the end of the book just haven’t read their literary history. I mean, the first novel, Don Quixote, is about the end of the book. That is the premise of literature.