Wednesday, April 02, 2008
William Pierce is senior editor of AGNI, one of the most respected literary magazines in the US. His fiction and essays have appeared in American Literary Review, The Dos Passos Review, The Cream City Review, and The Writer's Chronicle, and he writes a regular column for AGNI entitled “Crucibles.”
What are the ideas behind Agni?
AGNI is predicated on the belief that literature matters. We see ourselves—and writers around the world—as directly, emotionally engaged with central human preoccupations: self, freedom, community, adaptation, meaning, responsibility, love, mortality. That’s an incomplete list, and slightly random, but without a continually renewed literature willing to tilt against silence and assay the unsayable, our public discourse would be limited to perspectives that ignore or devalue the personal. Sociology, psychology, and philosophy, with their generalizing tendency; the pure sciences, with their quantitative focus; politics, with its shifts toward whatever confers a momentary advantage; and even religion, with its bedrock of unquestionable faith—none of these can supply the open-palmed frankness of the best literature, which takes even weakness and uncertainty to be worthy of sustained attention.
Language, of course, can’t fully reveal even the quietest moment of our lives. For that reason, no single approach to writing could possibly represent an end point in literature’s evolution. Put another way: there’s no such thing as “just telling a story.” At AGNI, we’re hungry for writing that aims beyond conventional language and structure, laying fresh siege to the mysteries of, for instance, being Bangladeshi (or American) in the twenty-first century. To achieve this, though, a writer has to stay close to the narrower question of what experience feels like to him or her—which is not to say that writers need to “write what they know” in any narrow or superficial sense, but that we need to recognize that the distinctive texture of the world as we apprehend it is our fingerprint and seal and that we abandon a birthright if we fail to investigate the personal vision that comes to us naturally.
AGNI is a forum for the “cultural conversation” of literature. But it’s up to writers to shape that conversation. We don’t choose work for its subject or setting or themes but for its vibrancy, freshness, and honesty.
While making an editorial decision what do you look for in a write-up?
Aside from what’s implied in my first answer, we look for language that sings in a new key, that doesn’t settle for notes we’ve heard a million times before. Newness in literature is contextual, though, and a move into less-familiar territory may rely on forgotten roots, a recalling of little-heard notes from some earlier song—Cormac McCarthy, in the United States, comes to mind, in his reliance on Biblical cadences and language.
How a subject is handled, how a story is told—these are of paramount importance. We look for obliqueness rather than straight-on journalistic telling, because nobody’s deepest experience of the world, it seems to us, lacks the curve of idiosyncrasy. The Irish novelist Colm Toibin was in Boston this week, and in talking about his own search for a truer way to tell a particular story, he mentioned Walt Whitman’s compulsion—nearly 150 years ago—to write about the U.S. Civil War without depicting the battlefield, to get at the reverse side of things: dilemmas, tragedies, and relationships that conventional war writing had overlooked. In Hamlet, Polonius says, “And thus do we of wisdom and of reach, / With windlasses and with assays of bias, / By indirections find directions out. . . .” All storytelling makes use of rhetoric and indirectness—language itself is indirect—but writers who reach beyond the conventional approaches of the day and excavate for themselves can discover veins of language and meaning inaccessible by safer, less adventurous methods.
When looking at a submission, we ask ourselves if the writing avoids false simplicities, conveys an unspoken acknowledgement that the world in fact doesn’t look the same to all of us, and, with its choices of narrator, tone, and structure, aims to “find directions,” knowing that navigating this world is complex enough to require triangulation.
How important do you think it is for a writer to know her audience/reader?
This may depend on the writer. I can’t presume to say what motivates others, what tricks they use to get the job done. And I don’t think a finished story or poem necessarily reveals much about the author’s idea of readership. One of the writers AGNI published very early in her career, Jhumpa Lahiri, has said she writes for herself. Of course she’s not alone. It seems to me that the pleasure and difficulty—the exploration—of writing have to be largely personal, undertaken with little regard for how the work will be received. The writer’s journey would be a lonely one if the writing itself did not give something back, keeping the writer company, or if the characters and voices and rhythms didn’t take over and become reason enough for traveling. Wouldn’t the process, if it meant nothing, lose magic for the writer? It would exist only as a means to an end, and the end, the finished product, would exist only for the sake of the reader. The reader’s reaction would then mean everything, and the slightest criticism might blow the writer off course for years, as sometimes happens.
Nevertheless, each writer finds her own propulsion, and just as a prose writer can’t rely only on inspiration but has to work through different moods and days, I assume that over a long career a writer’s attitude toward the idea of “audience” might saw between extremes.
For the different genres, too, the question has different implications. An essayist might naturally be more concerned, from sentence to sentence, with context and readership than, for instance, a first novelist, who might have little conception of the readership his book will attract. A reviewer publishing in a daily newspaper can write brilliant literary essays—but those essays need to leave room for the reader who has never heard of the author under review. The same essayist, writing for a literary quarterly, can safely mention Orhan Pamuk or Henrik Ibsen or William Faulkner without a long contextualizing gloss.
Like a parent expecting another child, the novelist publishing her next book is likely to have a good sense of what will happen after the blessed event. But does that make things easier? It depends how well the interests of the audience and writer match up—and not in a general sense, but right now. Late in Mark Twain’s career, when he didn’t want to be funny anymore, he felt pressure from his publisher to keep it up. Concerns about “audience” can prove to be slyly phrased economic demands.
Until a reader sits down to read a book, its “audience” is hypothetical. And when a reader does read, and a hundred others follow, how easily can we generalize about them? Do we have any way of knowing who they are, what they have in common? A bookstore might know its customers’ reading habits from the frequent-reader cards they brandish at the checkout counter. But what about readers who use libraries, or buy the book used? And what do these nitpicky marketing considerations have to do with the genesis of art?
People seek out writing that resonates with them, that’s written in a way they can decipher and enjoy deciphering, that finds them, usually, without much work on their part. If a book is too difficult for “its audience,” or too provincial, or too political, then that group was not, after all, its audience.
The question can be important, though, because writers need to hold to whatever helps them sustain the magic. If that includes an intention about readership, then for a given writer, “audience” might be the carrying notion that allows everything to happen. My motto as a writer and editor is, Whatever works.
Sir VS Naipaul has talked about separation of the man (the person who writes) and the writer. How do you view the issue?
I’m not sure I’m equipped to answer this one, but I’ll try. Writing seems to call for a double- or triple-mindedness. Maybe even triple is not enough; think of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Split-mindedness starts within the process itself, as the writer inhabits characters serially, needing to be able to return at will to any one of them and find its springs and rhythms waiting.
Then the writer puts aside working for the day, and the world rushes back in. How can she return to her imagination the next night or the next morning without keeping part of herself always there? We inhabit similarly parallel tracks when we read several novels simultaneously. In business, people would call this compartmentalizing; in psych wards, maybe schizophrenia. But the writer relies on this separation of the daily mind from the writing mind also to keep people’s questions and criticisms from impeding the flow or damaging the writer’s innermost confidence.
But I wonder. Isn’t that necessary separation also inevitable, just as our waking mind is inevitably distinct from our sleeping mind? On the best days, a writer accesses something that in my limited way I only know to call the unconscious. That alternate space is where the soul of the work resides, and even when the writer slogs through a day’s work, not getting any lift or flight, the seep of groundwater that makes any slight progress possible has been pushed up from the deeper well. If the well isn’t there or is never accessible—that person doesn’t write. I’m not sure that person even exists.
This question can be considered from several other angles, and one of them interests me particularly. The writer, or the idea of the writer, that emerges from our reading of the work—the sensibility, intelligence, sympathies, and so on—is not the same as the writer one meets at readings or on the street. The daily person is a first draft, and appears to us as a physical being with belches and scars that mean nothing. In person, the writer might be brilliant or shy, stuttering or eloquent—she has chosen to write at least in part because writing, not speech, solitude not company, reflection and revising not first-thought-best-thought, are most compatible with her temperament and gifts. The writer can be like the supreme court justice who, arriving at his new post and feeling the gravity of it, rethinks much of what he might have said blusteringly and offhand at parties and in less consequential debates. This is why, to my mind, we need to look beyond (which is not to say overlook!) inflammatory statements that a writer may have made in public or in diaries—I’m thinking of Dostoevsky’s anti-Semitism—and decide for ourselves if the same intolerance infects the work or if, in fact, a different spirit inhabits the page.
Do you think the world has become a dangerous place in which to live?
I think the world has always been a dangerous place to live. Being born is a risk! But I’ve reflected a lot recently on the difference between answering this question in the western suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, and reading my answer in Bangladesh. The risks here and there are vastly different, sometimes in kind, sometimes in degree. Our floods are smaller, our national response to disease more well-funded. But I will give an American answer, partly because that angle is inevitable for me, no matter how much I try to couch and contextualize it, and partly because a focus on peculiarly American risks might give texture to thoughts about the differences between our cultures and situations.
For many people, the United States is a land of very little physical risk. Even deaths from car accidents have dropped further in the last decade—and the risk seems to peak when a person gets to high school or college and for a few years of abandon drives too fast with friends, drinks too much, and occasionally dies against a telephone pole.
But for others, in American communities that can hardly imagine that low-risk America, every day presents a very real physical threat. School children in our town can grow up without knowing a single person who’s gone to jail or died a violent death. But a few miles from here, in the Dorchester section of Boston, nearly every child who reaches the age of ten must surely know people in jail and have lost a friend or relative—at least an acquaintance—to homicide. We live in parallel societies here, rather than one, despite the common hope, touched strongly by the candidacy of Barack Obama, that we will go on striving toward a “more perfect union.” Many children in Dorchester, more intimately aware of our union’s flaws than many well-educated adults, ride to school each morning on a city bus notorious for shootings and fistfights. Their world is a dangerous place to live, by any measure.
For the rest of us, who live in the antiseptic, overprotective America, there are dangers less to our lives than to our humanity. It is easy, as a citizen of such a large country, to be blind to the rest of the world. Our corporate-owned media strongly influences what we learn (though in the internet age its hermetic clamp has loosened), yet many Americans’ ignorance of the wider world—and of the various consequences, good and bad, of American activities overseas—is compounded by their unwillingness to believe that this kind of news manipulation exists, despite overwhelming evidence—and even admissions by those who have been involved. Trust me when I say that huge numbers of Americans are blind to this. Three summers ago, when I traveled to South Africa, I was stunned to watch the “Africa Roundup” on CNN. Here was a good American influence—detailed reporting from all corners of Africa, broadcast to Africans. But I suddenly understood why my South African hosts and I had such a different impression of 24-hour news. This Roundup, and the individual reports that composed it, would not appear on our CNN in the United States. Even these African CNN reporters I had never seen before. If we were to learn this much about microloans in Nigeria, spiraling inflation in Zimbabwe, and failing negotiations in Liberia, how could we be poised, cameras trained and rolling, for the latest news of Britney Spears’s custody woes? What I’d never realized, before that evening in the Eastern Cape, is that CNN has the footage, the reporters—even the finished reports!—to give Americans the most comprehensive world news we’ve ever had access to on television, and when they’re struggling for words to fill the time before some next tiny Texas precinct reports its election results, all they would have to do is press play.
Ignorance makes us easier to manipulate, of course. And complacency kills. In the future, our complacency might even destroy our way of life, by which I mean the parts well worth saving—the freedom and self-determination that have been an inspiration to the world for two centuries now. I’m convinced that many Americans are finally beginning to see the problem, more perhaps than at any time since the Sixties, and that we are on our slow way to rededicating the political process to people, rather than money, and retiring those for whom the Constitution has been an obstacle rather than a touchstone.