5 More Questions–Courtesy of Ed Cunard

(Soundtrack: Red Aunts —#1 Chicken)

1. Why Hawthorne? You’ve got strong inclination towards his work, if I recall correctly.

That’s very tactfully put. I guess you could call my almost incessant ranting that The Blithedale Romance is the “greatest novel ever written” evidence of a strong inclination toward Hawthorne’s work! Now, as to why I do it, well, that’s an awfully complicated question to answer! There’s nothing objective about art appreciation, and I’d be a damned liar if I didn’t admit that the Coverdale-Zenobia relationship resonates with me in very personal ways… But that’s not an answer, that’s a support group overture! So, let’s see if I can do better!

When it comes to narrative/fictional structures, what interests me, more than anything, is the fact that every single one of them can be described as “something that comes out of nothing”. They’re like individuals that way. In fact, identity-formation and storytelling are basically the same thing. Both are forms of lying. Necessary (I do not say “noble”) lies, but lies all the same! However, unlike almost any other skill you could name, narration/self-dramatization is not the kind of thing you ever really want to master… Perfect command of the culinary arts produces great meals–an airtight story, on the other hand, sinks back into the oblivion from whence it sprang. So! What I love is a novel/movie/song/painting/”self”/etc. that makes me feel its/her/his presence, precisely by drawing my attention to the absence at its core! We know that we can deconstruct any narrative. Deconstructon is theoretical jujitsu, using a text’s power against itself. The thing is though, that while this is a horribly barren and mechanical exercise when performed upon an unsuspecting bare-knucks thug of a text (say: “Irish girls do it better”…which I mention because I ran into three different people wrapped in that particular absurdity last night–and, by the way, see Aaron Haspel for more on t-shirt slogans), it feels more like a beautiful interpretive dance (oh, who am I kidding? it feels more like sex!) when the text is complicit in the act!

The Blithedale Romance makes us (me!) feel, simultaneously, the necessity and the horrific injustice of “turning affairs into ballads”, and that’s why I love it! I hope to do half as well someday!

2. What books do you find overrated?

Well, I took so long with that first question, that I’m gonna have to speed through the rest of these, unfortunately, ’cause I’ve got a presentation on Abolitionism to write… So, let’s see, overrated books? Let’s just list a few books that left me cold, for whatever reason: Gulliver’s Travels (the purer the satire, the less I will like it–this is a time-tested formula!-which doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate, or even love, “tactical satire”),
Daniel Deronda (which is odd, because I really love Middlemarch!), Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde just isn’t a novelist…which is not to say that he wasn’t witty), Orlando (again, I like some of Woolf’s other work a lot–particularly To The Lighthouse–but this book is truly sophomoric), Dracula (Okay, I know, Bram isn’t particularly well-repsected anyway, but, man, this is the worst novel I ever dedicated a weekend to!), and… anything by Faulkner.

3. What books do you find underrated?

Well, aside from Blithedale, there’s Dickens’ Christmas Carol, which I don’t think anyone treats as seriously as they should–it anticipates so many modernist narrative techniques; there’s Dashiell Hammett (I’m more and more interested in The Glass Key and The Thin Man lately, which are probably the least respected of his books…), Melville’s Pierre (which recently suffered the indignity of being republished with most of the insanity that makes it great excised, on the grounds that Herman made the changes while of particularly unsound mind!), Jean Toomer’s Cane (which isn’t discussed nearly enough, probably because it fits awkwardly into a “cultural studies” narrative–the text is way too unstable to serve–unproblematically–as an “African-American novel”), lots of others: Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom is probably the greatest autobiography ever written, and people skim it, or ignore it in favour of Douglass’ first flimsy go at self-dramatization, The Narrative of the Life of…; Little Women is much more interesting than is commonly supposed; I love Steven Vincent Benet’s tales (both fantastic and modern) and no one cares about them any more!; I’m totally on the Dawn Powell bandwagon, and I highly recommend every one of her books, especially Dance Night; I also love Frank O’Hara’s poetry (he’s well-respected in academic circles, but not exactly a household name) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (who kind of is a household name, but whose critical rep has suffered in the past fifty years)…

4. What would be your absolute dream job?

That’s easy. Writing novels and getting paid for it.

5. How do you feel about reading works in translation?

I hate it! But there’s no choice is there?

Good Night Friends!



  1. Definitely agreed on Dracula: there was no way in hell I could finish that book and I thought what I did manage to read was ineffectual comedy. But I think you’d like Gulliver’s Travels better if you read it with intersubjectivity in mind more than pure satire. That’s kind of how I read it here.


  2. that is an awesome reading John (complete with a Filth reference!) I’m sorry I never saw that before! You can bet that it’ll be uppermost in my mind if I ever get the chance to read Swift’s book again!


    I’ve read four Faulkner novels (Sanctuary, Absalom, Absalom, Sound and the Fury, and As I Lay Dying) and, while I acknowledge the skill and intelligence of the person who created them, I just cannot bring myself to mourn the corpse that is everywhere on display in his books… It’s not that I’ve an aversion to morbid sentiments/situations, you understand! (I’ve got a pretty gothic bent myself) It’s just that I have trouble believing that Faulkner’s rotting matter ever lived at all (Maybe if I were a Southerner?)


  3. Dave:

    I don’t think you need to be a Southerner to get Faulkner (not that you didn’t get it intellectually, I speak here merely of that feeling of catching hold of the work, or having the work catch hold of you) but you need to somewhere have that feeling when you read it that ‘man is in love, and loves what passes’ – there’s a powerful undercurrent of nostalgia that kills in Faulkner’s work, of the ‘human heart in conflict with itself’, that many of the characters and situations exist to illustrate a self-destructive yearning for times and places that were not as they are being presented by those longing to return to them. Willing what never was in the first place to return.

    But that’s just how I felt about them. Faulkner intimidates me: I haven’t reread his work since college.

    –Matt Rossi

  4. makes sense to me Matt–my personal philosophy is that the past (and the present!) was/is always better than the stories we tell ourselves about it (call them memories…), and I take comfort from that, somehow… my favourite stories focus upon the ultimate unknowability/incomprehensibility of the things we desire/come into contact with, not the desire itself, which, as Faulkner’s fiction demonstrates quite clearly, is indistinguishable from death! I think he’s way too fixated upon this aspect of human nature, and it compromises/rots everything he touches. The world is far more mysterious to me than the “self”–and more interesting too!


  5. to put it another way:

    Faulkner is often seen as a literary descendant of Hawthorne (transplanted South)–but, as far as I’m concerned, he participates in the tradition in a (literally!) “half-assed” way… Faulkner gives us Dimmesdales without Hesters, Coverdales without Zenobias, Goodmen Brown without Faiths… And I guess I do ascribe this to the fact that he is a Southerner (or, at least, the fact the he’s not a New Englander)

    What do I mean by that? Well, I think Faulkner adopts a Calvinist cosmology shorn of the passionate love for the unknowable Other that animated folks like Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, Jonathan Edwards, Emerson (in his most honest moods) and Hawthorne–and it is this ecstatic love that made the “New England Way” such a viable path through the dim forest of wordly existence… Where Emerson and Thoreau can wander and wonder, Faulkner just feels lost in the woods! Hawthorne is my favourite, because he understands both of these modes perfectly, and blends them into his chiaroscuro narratives!

    I think that Faulkner’s contemporaries, Sherwood Anderson & Thomas Wolfe (both rather neglected these days!) are much more successful followers of Hawthorne!


  6. my personal philosophy is that the past (and the present!) was/is always better than the stories we tell ourselves about it (call them memories…), and I take comfort from that, somehow

    Yes, and I think a lot of Faulkner’s characters do as well, but they take comfort not in the past but in the stories they tell about it, the sanitized past, a south that never was in the first place shorn of the very real horrible things that happened there, where men who never fought out of the enlisted ranks of the Confederate army call themselves ‘Colonel’ and slavery is glossed over or even defended. Faulkner’s not a Hawthorne at all: what he’s showing (or trying to show) is a group of small-minded people who don’t know they’re small-minded. Faulkner’s rotting matter didn’t ever live, and that’s his point: these are people longing to return to a Frankenstein monster they’ve cobbled together from bits and pieces of how they wish things had been, and trying to reanimate it via the fire of their passionate longing. They’re certainly not transcendental figures: far from wanting to move out of stasis, they want to permanently wed themselves to it, to trap themselves forever in a status quo prebellum of their own imagining. In essence, Faulkner is turning a jaundiced eye to the whole process and saying here is the heart gored upon its wants, here is the misstep. Faulkner’s not trying to move past human existence, he’s just saying ‘if you’re going to be here, don’t confuse what you wish had happened with what did

    I do love Thomas Wolfe, however. “Lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”


  7. That sounds right on Matt!

    And I guess the source of my problem with Faulkner is that I’m not sure I believe in “small people”, and even if I became convinced that such a species existed, I wouldn’t want to read about them… Ultimately, my problem with Faulkner is akin to my problem with satire… It’s a question of perspective… he’s just not operating at “eye-level”!


  8. Well, I’d argue there’s a difference between small people and small-minded people: the latter choose to winnow their viewpoint down, and its that choice that Faulkner focuses on. For me, Faulkner is intimidating and hard to read because it’s such a slog to get through the mudslide of these characters he creates: they’re often just painful to read about.

    But I am a follower of Diogenes (not a cynic in the modern form, but definitely a dog-follower) and so I probably come from a more sympathetic place towards Faulkner than you do: ironically enough, I’m also a New Englander.

    – Matt

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