Master storyteller and Stanford University mentor Tobias Wolff’s difficult and much traveled childhood and his year of service in Vietnam in Special Forces were the basis for his two well-regarded memoirs, This Boy’s Life (also a film with Robert De Niro, Ellen Barkin, and Leonardo DiCaprio) and In Pharaoh’s Army.
(Wolff’s older brother Geoffrey, also an accomplished author, has written about their father in The Duke of Deception.)
After his army service, Wolff attended Oxford University and seriously dedicated himself to becoming a writer. Upon earning his degree, he briefly worked as a reporter at the Washington Post but found himself heading for Stanford University where he received a prestigious Stegner fellowship and the breathing room to devote to writing. His story collections include Ugly Rumours, In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Back in the World, and On the Night In Question. Additionally, he has published a novella, The Barracks Thief, and a full length novel, Old School. And most recently, Our Story Begins: New and Selected Stories.
In the conversation that follows, recorded in April 2008, a thread of a previous encounter is picked up and Tobias Wolff and I spend some time talking about the relevance and value of short fiction and literature and various and sundry matters. It’s a congenial conversation and an illuminated snapshot of a devoted craftsman very much enthralled by his art.
Robert Birnbaum: When we spoke, shortly after the publication of The Night in Question, I was foolish enough to ask you whether short stories were more for the writers than they were for the readers; whether they were more exercises in craft and self-indulgence than they were delivering something to a readership. You did take umbrage to it in a joking way—
Tobias Wolff: Mmhmm.
RB:—but I’ve changed my mind about that. I would never ask that today.
TW: Do you like to read short stories?
RB: I’ve very much been a reader of novels. But people do say that about short stories, occasionally. Do you have an answer for that, the thing about short stories being more for writers and workshops?
TW: No, I don’t have an answer for that. It seems to me to be self-evidently not true. We still read the short stories of Tolstoy and Chekov and [de] Maupassant and Hemingway and Katherine Anne Porter. Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver. And they enrich our lives.
RB: Alice Munro.
TW: Alice Munro, absolutely. Now most recently this new collection by Jhumpa Lahiri, some of which I’ve read in the New Yorker and really loved. I wish there were more readers for short stories. But you could say the same thing about poetry. Is T.S. Eliot—did he just write for poets? No, he wrote for all of us. But sometimes literary forms wane with their popularity, and you always hope that they revive again, but I wouldn’t work for months on a story if it were just for myself, and I don’t know any writer that would. You always hope that it will be something that will matter to readers as well.
RB: Well there are people—perhaps cynics—who say that there are more people today who write poetry than read poetry, which I think is probably the same kind of snide, sneaky attack on short stories. Publishers say that short stories don’t sell.
TW: Generally speaking, they don’t sell very well.
RB: Why do they publish them?
TW: Well, mine sell well. And over the years…I mean, my last book of short stories went into over 10 printings. Carver’s sell well. Alice Munro’s sell well. But Alice Munro’s early collections didn’t sell well. It takes time to develop a reputation as a short story writer and to develop an audience. It is more difficult, certainly. The appetite for short stories isn’t what it used to be. There used to, oh god, I guess over 300 slick magazines that published short stories; now there are two or three of literary quality that do.
RB: You’re not talking about the little literary journals.
TW: No, I’m not talking about little journals. I’m talking about The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s. Back in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, there were hundreds of magazines. And actually, even when Updike—I’ve heard Updike talk about this—when he started his writing life in the ‘50s, you could make a living writing short stories. Just short stories. John Cheever did as well. Cheever was kicked out of school when he was 16, kicked out of Thayer Academy here in Massachusetts, wrote a story about it called “Expelled” at the age of 16. From that day on he made his living as a writer. You couldn’t do that anymore, clearly. But oddly enough, the short story form has continued to be robust and interesting. There are tremendous writers of short stories around. Young, people my age and younger. So the form prospers as poetry does, but it just doesn’t have the readership the novel does. Maybe it will revive again, who knows?
The great thing that these writing programs do, I think, if they do anything great, is to train readers.RB: You would think somehow that—this being a hyper-accelerated era where time is so precious to people—that short stories would be more popular; they would be more digestible. People would be attracted to them because they have to make less of an investment. Right?
TW: Well you would think so. It would seem to represent less of an investment in time. However, the kinds of stories that people write now, because there are so few outlets…. Actually most of those 300 slick magazines I was talking about were printing detective stories, science fiction, speculative fiction, romance, and so it was genre-work really. And now all that stuff has gone into TV, so the only real people left who write short stories now are people who write literary short stories, if you will. And they are a little more demanding than the average novel; they don’t tend to have neat tied-up endings, which most people tend to gravitate toward. And I think a lot of people, even the ones with those famously shortened attention spans, kind of like the idea of entering a world and staying in it for a week or so, and not having to get used to a new set of characters every time they finish 15 pages. I do. But I also love novels. I just started Richard Price’s Lush Life, and I am loving this novel and I’m really glad that I’m able to stay with him for the 400 or 500 pages of this novel. But at the same time I’m looking forward to this new Jhumpa Lahiri collection. It’ll be a different kind of experience. The short story, I suppose, expects a little more thoughtfulness and engagement on the part of the reader than most readers are willing to give.
RB: So in spite of the demands of time and the possibility that the short story would require less of it, you think that readers would in fact reach for the longer work because it’s easier and more convenient.
Birnbaum and Wolff on perfection in writingTW: Yeah, it’s more convenient. It’s easier. Also, their friends are more apt to be talking about it, really. I mean, you look on the bestseller list and the people probably when you go to the cocktail party don’t ask you if you’ve read this collection of short stories, they want to know if you’ve read Lush Life, or they want to know if you’ve read The Lovely Bones, and so it’s just more socially current, and those sorts of things tend to be self-perpetuating, there’s no question about it.
RB: On the other hand, I don’t know what the case has been in the last few years, but certainly at the turn of the millennium it seemed like writing programs were exploding, not just burgeoning but exploding, and writing programs certainly are one of the elements advancing and continuing the short story. Just the readers—
RB:—just the readers that come out of the writing program would seem to—
TW: Well I do think that those readers are helping to keep the short-story form alive. Obviously you can’t practice an art that nobody cares about or knows about, and most of the people who come out of writing programs understand the difficulties and odds of their ever being really able to support themselves as writers or indeed even get anything published. It’s really hard; they know that. The great thing that these writing programs do, I think, if they do anything great, is to train readers, and excited a sophisticated, passionate reader to go at a real engagement with this form. And it may very well be that a lot of those people go on to teaching at high schools and community colleges, and in turn pass on that love of the story and their ability to read stories to others. I think that probably is happening. The novel doesn’t really need that kind of help. Probably short stories do.
What’s cosmetic to other people is not cosmetic to a short story writer. I mean, the language—you really want it all to be pulling weight.RB: Has the talk of the “dying novel” died down?
TW: Well, even when people were talking about it, there was a perfectly robust market for novels, so I didn’t even understand what they meant by that. I mean, first of all, when have we not had great short stories in this country? I remember when Ray Carver was first published and people were saying, “Hey, this is a short-story renaissance”—well, no it wasn’t. Ray was a great short story writer, but he was in a great continuum of short-story writers. Look who was writing shortly before Ray was publishing his stuff. You had people like Grace Paley, you had John Cheever, you had Updike, Bernard Malamud, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O’Connor—I mean there has never been a shortage, since Washington Irving, of great short story writers in this country. It’s had an incredibly vigorous tradition. And so has the novel! At the time when people like Leslie Fiedler were questioning the vitality of the novel, maybe they were questioning the lack of a certain kind of novel which in fact Americans haven’t taken to much which is the very academic, rather desiccated, say, French novel, a novel like, I don’t know, [Georges] Perec writes, where he deliberately leaves the letter “e” out, where he imposes conditions like that. Americans, you know, we had a little flirtation with stuff like that—
RB: Like some of Robert Coover’s novels?
TW: Yeah, there you go. Exactly. And I think a lot of readers maybe found that stuff a little cute and didn’t take to it, but you know again Updike’s novels have continued to do well. Most of the novels on the bestseller list are indeed hokey. A lot are not of a literary quality, but some are. I notice that Richard Price’s novel had hit the bestseller list. And this is a fine novel, a really literary novel. What I’ve read of it so far, I’m about halfway through.
RB: What is it, his 10th or 11th novel?
TW: Uh, yes. Actually no, it’s his eighth.
RB: Really? It seems like he’s written more.
TW: I know it does.
RB: Well he’s done movies, too.
TW: And The Wire. He was a principle writer on The Wire. So he’s busy.
RB: I love The Wire.
TW: Yeah, fantastic. Good writing, again!
RB: [George] Pelecanos, him, couple other guys.
RB: I liked his last book, the one that took place in the housing projects.
TW: Well there’s Clockers and Samaritan.
TW: Yeah, I like that too.
RB: I didn’t really like Clockers. I didn’t really like Freedomland either.
TW: No, I didn’t like Freedomland, but I liked Clockers and I liked Samaritan. He’s the real thing. And he knows the streets, too. Very few writers do. I don’t. He knows the tough sides of this country.
RB: One could not help but read your, I don’t know what you call that little note [in the new anthology]—
TW: The note from the author, yeah.
RB: Well there’s lots of author notes, but it’s something more. I’d like to give it another title—I haven’t come up with it yet. But it’s interesting to me that you create the problem: should I go back and look at my work before it’s republished again, or not? You of course opt to—what do you call it, tinker, tweak?
TW: Yeah, something like that. I almost didn’t put it in because I was worried that it would raise more questions and make more of an issue of something than it deserves to, but honesty seems to be the best course here.
RB: I don’t know who the editor—
TW: [Gary] Fisketjon, yeah.
RB: Would he have looked at these stories again? Who would initiate the idea of republishing some old stories?
TW: No, he wouldn’t have done that. For one thing, he’s already published most of them in previous volumes, and we’ve gone over them together. No, what I did—I don’t want to overstate what happened—I didn’t change any of the plots, I didn’t change any of the characters, I didn’t change any of their names—all I did was tighten up the prose here and there. It’s cosmetic to other people, but what’s cosmetic to other people is not cosmetic to a short story writer. I mean, the language—you really want it all to be pulling weight. So really it was a question of tightening up the prose.
These stories have been in continual transition since the very first time I thought of them. There is no ur-text for any of these stories.RB: I don’t want to make too much of it either. But it does raise to me the issue of: is it possible to have a perfect text?
TW: Well that’s the illusion. That’s the chimerical ideal.
RB: Are these stories perfect now? To date? At the moment?
TW: They are as perfect as I can make them, at this moment. Somebody once described the novel as a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it. I can think of a few novels that seem to have nothing wrong with them at all, but I can think of a lot more short stories that seem to me to be perfect. Carver’s “Cathedral”; Joyce’s “The Dead”; Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”; any number, frankly, by Hemingway: “Hills Like White Elephants,” “Another Country”; Chekhov’s “Lady with Pet Dog” or his story “Gusef”; I mean I could go on and on. These are stories perfect as snowflakes, it seems to me, where you wouldn’t want anything different. And as a short story writer, one of the challenges of the form is to achieve perfection. When Updike writes a novel, like Memories of the Ford Administration, for example, it’s a sprawling kind of thing, it’s hundreds and hundreds of pages long and I don’t think he had, or even wanted, that kind of perfection. I think he thought that it might be constricting to him as a writer to try to achieve it, and give a sense of claustrophobia to the reader, that kind of a tight structure. But in a short story, I think he does try for that. And I think every short story writer does. And also, the other point I make in this introduction, which is not a frivolous point, is that fact that, you know, I’ve been revising these stories all along. I mean, first of all, before I even sent it out to a journal, I’d revised it probably 20 times. And then the journal editor, whether it’s the New Yorker or TriQuarterly, there were almost certainly three or four suggestions that they made and that influenced a revision. And then when it went into a collection, I go over it again with an editor and maybe that editor would have three or four suggestions. And then when it goes into paperback, no one is editing it at that point, but I’m looking at it and thinking ah, yes, I can do this a little bit better. And then if it got picked up by the O. Henry Prize Stories or The Best American Short Stories, I edit it again. I’m always trying to make it better. So these stories have been in continual transition since the very first time I thought of them. There is no ur-text for any of these stories.
RB: Well I’m interested—when you say, you know, you just listed a group of short stories, saying this is perfect, you wouldn’t think of changing Hemingway, but—
TW: But they might!
RB: I was gonna say, that’s out of your respect.
TW: Yeah, they might want to change something, and I might well agree after the change, “Oh yeah, yeah, I didn’t think of that.”
RB: So we’re talking about a different, odd kind of affection.
TW: It’s my own standard and not someone else’s. Yeah, if I see something in a story that makes it go like that and say, “Oh, that doesn’t really need to be there, let’s see what happens when I take it out, yeah that’s better,” then I’ll do it. Doesn’t matter how many times it’s been published.
RB: Right. But also what matters is how many times you’ve read it? I don’t know if that’s a skill, it’s certainly something—a capability that most people don’t have.
TW: Well they don’t spend their lives the way I spend mine. They shouldn’t either. [Laughs] It’s crazy.
RB: Do you think the life of a writer is a crazy life?
TW: Well, in some ways it is. I mean, when you think of what’s happening in the world—I have a son for example who’s doing a master’s right now in international agriculture, and I really admire the impulse that makes him want to do something to—in his particular case, he’s really interested in soil conservation, because it’s a real problem now. You know, at the end of my life I will not have invented a cure for cystic fibrosis and I will not have invented a fuel-efficient automobile, and so you accept a certain, what feels like a certain marginality as a writer, you know? If you do any good, you can’t see it.
RB: But you’d have a problem with the claim that it’s not valuable.
For better or worse, I’m still stuck in the mentality I began with, that books are the most important things.TW: No, I would not accept that. But it’s from day to day, to feel, as one sometimes does, a little useless—that’s something you have to learn to live with. I have a son who’s also a musician, a jazz musician. He lives in New York, he has a CD out. He’s real musician, he played with the Glenn Miller Orchestra for a while, and he is sometimes plagued by this. And I say to him, I mean Mozart—what legislation did he accomplish in the world? How did he better the lives of others? Well the truth of the matter is, he did. When I listen to his music, he restores my spirit, he helps keep me going in life. So do the great saxophone players that my son loves and who he wants to be in the lineage of. He’s a tenor player, so people like Coleman Hawkins, Dexter Gordon, [John] Coltrane, Sonny Rollins—he wants to belong in that family. And they have given something to our spirit. And similarly, the works that I have read, that I’ve talked about today even in this interview, have been part of what keeps me going in life, and it’s meant something to me and it’s changed me. And I hope maybe somebody will find that kind of companionship in my work. Then it will be of value. But I’ll never know that, I’ll never see that.
RB: Well the problem I think for people who are creators is that you see a world in which many people require physical comforts that they don’t have—food, shelter, other things. And you think, to provide that is more urgent.
TW: More imperative.
RB: So to provide things for the spirit doesn’t seem—it seems like an argument only writers and musicians and painters forward. Peasants don’t say, “We need a mural in our church.” So I understand that it’s probably a tough question. But then you go to some writers conferences and I’m sure people slap themselves on the shoulders.
TW: Well I hope they do! What else are they there for?
TW: Actually I don’t go to writers conferences.
TW: No, I never feel more marginal than when I’m at one of those. No, there’s something about—never mind.
RB: But wouldn’t you say that you’ve had a fruitful career?
TW: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’m not complaining. I’ve been blessed in every way. When I was growing up, if I had known that I would someday publish books and people would actually like reading them and that I would be able to teach such wonderful students all these years, I would have been flabbergasted and incredulous. And to be able to afford to raise a family and travel and do the things that I’ve done—no, I’m the luckiest of men. But where the uncertainty comes in, and I think a lot of writers share it, is that you want to do some good in the world. So sometimes I think writers question their vocation, like, “God, I should have been a doctor.” But I couldn’t have been one anyway because I’m not smart enough. The only thing I’ve ever been any good at is what I do. And so in a sense my nature selected me for this work; I didn’t choose it so much as it was inevitable for me. I love doing this, I’m not complaining by any means. But you asked about this sort of question, and it’s there.
RB: Tell me about the things that have changed in your—should I use the word career?
TW: Mmm hmm. In my writing life?
RB: And as a teacher. What’s changed in the publishing world and the writing world?
TW: You know, for better or worse, I’m still stuck in the mentality I began with, that books are the most important things. And I have been really slow to understand or make use of the new technologies connected with publishing, and I know that I’m very lucky to have a readership for my short stories and I know that’s getting harder and harder to attain for young writers, and that seems to be lamentable. Just since I started writing, the growth of the megastore, the big chain bookstores, has changed publishing tremendously. The consequences of that are to favor the blockbuster. Things like product placement—which writers had never even heard of before—becomes something: where is your book put in the bookstore? It used to be the kinds of people who worked in bookstores were people who loved books, and now they’re people who would otherwise be working at McDonald’s. They’re just selling stuff. Robert Olen Butler told me a really funny story about going to a Borders out in Berkeley—Berkeley of all places. You know, he likes to travel around, goes to lots of bookstores and signs stock for them because it helps them sell and he likes to help them sell his book. So he goes into this Borders—it might have been a Barnes and Noble [there has never been a Borders in Berkeley—ed.], I can’t remember which and I don’t want to badmouth one if I’m wrong—she had never heard of him to begin with, the woman that was waiting on him. Then he said, Well I just had this book come out, and he had a nice big review of it and showed her. And he said, I’d like to sign these books. And she said, Well let me see if I can find them. She did find them; they had about 20 copies of his book. Brought ‘em over, he signed ‘em all. And she said, Well do you want to pay for these with credit card or cash? [Laughs]
RB: [Laughs] I’m told that once the books are signed that the store can’t return them which seems to be one reason writers like to sign stock.
TW: Yeah, well, she just didn’t get it. She didn’t know that writers did this, you know? And that it was a favor to the bookstore because they’re easier to sell. It was really funny. Of course if he had gone into an independent bookstore, the bookseller here in Brookline, they would have greeted him with open arms, “Thank you for coming in, we have some back issues of other books, could you sign those?” It’s a different world. As to the teaching—we don’t have a degree program at Stanford for creative writing, we have a society of fellows there, Stegner fellows, in fiction and poetry. They tend to be in their late 20s or early 30s; almost all of them end up publishing their books when they get done. And they’re very well aware of the rigors of the business they’re going into. They’ve already sorted themselves out before they get to us. So it’s really just a meeting of minds, really. They’re very passionate, very talented. So that’s a lot of fun.
RB: You’re saying by the time they get to you, at least the Stegner fellows, it’s not longer as much of a mentor-student relationship as it is collegial.
TW: Yeah, it’s more collegial. I feel almost like first among equals. I mean, I can help them. I can help then become better editors of their own work, that’s about what I do anyway at best. But they don’t need a shakedown on the state of the industry; they’re smart and they pay attention.
RB: Do your younger students pay a disproportionate amount of attention to the publishing world?
TW: No, they don’t tend to interest themselves much in the question of publication, the undergraduates. They’re much more interested in trying the art out, just trying their hand at it.
RB: But there isn’t a degree program in creative writing. This is—what is it?
TW: They would be English majors taking creative writing electives, basically. No, we don’t have a creative writing major or anything, and I don’t want one. I think they should be thoroughly grounded in literature, and I’m a little skeptical of programs that allow young students to take too many creative writing classes at the expense of taking literature courses. We don’t do that. But, you know, it’s a good program for undergraduates, and they get into it. Sometimes someone will ask me, “Should I go to a writing program?” And I invariably tell them that they should not go into a writing program until they have gone out and worked for at least two years, and probably three or four would be better, and keep writing as they’re working. If they can do that, and their writing is getting better, then they should consider going to a writing program because it could be helpful.
RB: This is an attempt to inject the real world into someone’s life?
There are very few novels, frankly, that I have re-read and re-read. There are some. But I’ve re-read stories again and again and again.TW: And also to educate them about themselves—whether they’re capable of working and writing at the same time. Because if they’re not, there’s no point in going to a writing program. It’d be a waste of time.
RB: That’s practical advice.
TW: I think it is!
RB: You’re not discouraging anyone—
RB: You’re not trotting the numbers out, your chances—
TW: No. That’s the test.
RB: Let’s talk about this collection. Do you happen to know offhand how many stories you’ve published in your career, your writing life?
TW: No, but I think it must be about 50 though, all together.
TW: I think so. Not more than that.
RB: And this book has 31, of which 10 are new.
TW: And all 10 of the new ones have been published in various journals.
RB: What makes them new? They haven’t been published in a collection before? They’ve never been in a book form?
TW: They’ve never been in a book form, and that’s what people mean when they say “new and selected.”
RB: So what is the process of selecting 21 out of 50 stories?
TW: Wel, to begin with, it’s probably more than 50, maybe 60.
RB: Are there other stories that you’ve published?
TW: Yeah, there are stories that I’ve published that I have not included in collections because later on they didn’t seem strong enough, or in some way they were inharmonious with the other stories I used. And I did the same thing in making these selections out of the books that I’ve published, the three previous books. I used, God, maybe only 30 percent of the stories out of my first two collections. Most of the stories in my third collection, which was my strongest collection probably, I think—
RB: The Night in Question.
TW: Yeah; and also I left out some stories that I think are good stories, but that didn’t seem to me to really fit in this book. Something in the subject matter that seemed too close to the subject matter of another story, might seem repetitive, or the story makes a point that I also made in another story, or seemed to. I wanted a variety, within the kind of continuum of these stories, as much variety as possible, and so that governed some of my choices. And then I had a couple of rather experimental stories that I left out because they just didn’t fit with this book. So, you know, it’s very intuitive.
RB: I was going to say, if you had to put this collection together six months from now—
TW: Oh, it’d be different, sure, and the order would probably be different, absolutely. It’s very intuitive. And of course even the ordering is kind of funny, because you spend a lot of time figuring out the right order of the stories, but nobody reads them in that order. People jump around when they buy a book; I do, I mean, and I even know what writers go through when they choose the order, but I pick up, say, the latest collection of William Trevor stories and the first thing I do is—he always writes these funny stories about school, so I always try to find the story in there about school, because he’s still bitter about the way he was treated in school when he was young, so there’s always a nasty story about school, and I always look for that because I get a kick out of those. And you know, if it’s late at night and I’m going to bed, I might pick a shorter story, “What’s the shortest one in here?” I don’t want to konk out while I’m reading him. And so there’s all these little, “Oh I really like the title of that one, I think I’ll read this one.” And all readers do that, I think.
RB: After having read these stories, one of them appealed at this moment to me the most—what was the one, “Waiting to Ship”?
TW: “Awaiting Orders.”
RB: Something about that story made me feel that it was just much bigger. It wasn’t that it was dense, but I felt like it was creating this echo and resonance far greater than the story. But nonetheless I think I have a great temptation to look at this collection and re-read these stories in a way that I can’t do with novels. I always want to get back to a novel and see how I felt about it, or if my appreciation or in some cases my dislike was something about mood. But point in fact that was one of the things that I really enjoyed as I was reading these stories, Hey, maybe I’ll read this one again.
TW: Hmm. Good.
RB: Do you find people re-reading stories?
TW: Yeah. And that’s maybe one of the things where stories actually have a certain advantage over the novel, because if you already really liked a story, it’s not an unusual thing to go back and re-read it. There are very few novels, frankly, that I have re-read and re-read. There are some. But I’ve re-read stories again and again and again.
RB: Some are even sort of iconic. In the world of short stories, clearly some are iconic and people want to go back and pull them apart and see if they can find the mysterious little string that holds them together. So if I remember correctly, you’ve written two novels, a couple of memoirs, three, four short story collections?
RB: Four now. And I’ve edited a collection of Chekhov stories. I am the editor of the Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories. And I edited The Best American Short Stories 1994. So I’ve done a few anthologies as well.
RB: When you edit Best American Stories, is that a case where you read 100 or 200 stories? Or is there someone—
TW: Yeah. No, in those days there was Katrina Kennison. And she would read, oh God, like 6- or 700 short stories.
RB: Is that possible?
TW: Oh yeah, that was her work. Everyday she got up and read short stories.
RB: Wow. That’s like two or three stories a day at least.
TW: At least. Actually I think maybe even more than that, which you can do if you’re faithful. If you let it go for a few days you’re really in trouble, but if you really keep it up you can do it. And she did. And then she had to make a decision and get it down to—how many did she send me? I think she sent me about 100. And I read all those, and I chose 20 or so, I think it was. And I could have put others in. It was tough. I mean there were some that you just knew had to be in. But then the very length of the book had to be controlled, so you found yourself at the borders of this process really arguing with yourself. And I felt bad about some of the ones—I felt like an admissions officer turning away people with perfect SATs.
RB: I always wonder about the methodology. Of course I also always wonder about contests also, when “best” is affixed to it or, in the case of the Pulitzer—
TW: It’s taste. Oh yeah, it’s all taste. It doesn’t mean it’s the best; of course it doesn’t. It means that the person reading it, for some reason or other, responded to it more strongly than to others. That’s all it means.
RB: Well, consider this thing that the New York Times did, I think like two years ago, where they asked a group of literary people—
TW: I was one of them.
RB: You were?
TW: Yeah. “What was the great novel,” right?
RB: Of the last 25 years.
TW: And the reason, well—no, I don’t want to badmouth any writers.
RB: I asked a few people afterward because I was horrified, and since I’m way on the margins of the literary world I know nothing’s going to happen to me. But I think a lot of people were just bullied by the fact that it was the Times; they didn’t want to offend anyone. They didn’t want to reject anything because, you know, they wouldn’t get asked again, or—
TW: Probably so.
RB: But should that happen?
TW: Well the other thing is that most [writers] probably had my reaction, which was: this is bullshit. But if I don’t get my oar in, some book that I don’t like is gonna get picked, because there were people lobbying other writers for votes. Oh, don’t kid yourself. I mean writers lobbying other writers for their favorites, and especially in New York where writers tend to see each other. It’d be done in more or less subtle ways, and nobody really knew who you voted for, but nevertheless people would say things. And I know, I heard a couple. So in the end you vote for something like that because you want to have some control over what is already a preposterous idea. I mean it is, it’s ridiculous. You know, human beings just do this; they’re hierarchy-creating animals. And I don’t like it, but I’ve benefited from it; I’ve won prizes and they’ve no doubt helped my career. But at the same time I know because I’ve been a judge on these things so many times, and I’ve seen the ridiculousness of some of the procedures that I’ve been party to. I’ve never denounced them in public, because I think if you accept the whole thing you can’t.
RB: That’s like Michael Kinsley saying you got 500 books, but you didn’t read all of them.
TW: Didn’t read all of them! I know.
RB: Didn’t read many of them.
TW: OK, Robert, I’m kind of at the end here.
RB: OK, let me ask you one more question.
TW: One more question.
RB: What’s next?
TW: Oh I’m working on a novel, and I’m not sure when I’ll be done with it, and that’s about all I can say now.
RB: Do you have any urgency?
TW: Well, just the usual. I mean, you know, I could get hit by a car tomorrow, or keel over.
RB: So this is an undertaking that, you know, will take three, four, five years?
TW: Yeah, probably, but I started it a little while ago. But yeah, it’s a work of years, not of months.
RB: Thank you.
TW: You bet.