The Rumpus Interview with McSweeney’s Publisher Oscar Villalon


Villalon: Exactly. I mean, you read because of school assignments and stuff. Now granted, it’s maybe because we were 14 or whatever, and very few of us were precocious enough to go out and read more than you had to, but I think it became clear though as you got older, 15, 16 17, that people in general just saw reading itself as pretentious. They saw reading as an activity that takes a stance that’s against the mainstream culture. And I don’t know how that perception came out, that’s to say, I don’t know if that’s just people who don’t read feeling threatened by those who do, as if they put on airs simply by reading, and I don’t know how much that’s to do with people who read being young and being awkward and thin-skinned and trying to find their niche in life. Also, maybe, fanning that flame and position themselves against everyone else. “I read, and therefore at least I’m not an idiot like you.”

Take Junot Dîaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Everything he’s pouring into that—I mean Oscar, he’s a geek, he’s a nerd. He loves his hardcore sci-fi, but he also loves other things. He partakes of them as much as he can, as much as he’s allowed to. These things shouldn’t be exclusive.

Rumpus: Why are they?

Villalon: This writer, Cristina Nehring, she once wrote a piece, I think for the New York Times, about basically book fetishists. People who fetishize book culture, who fetishize books themselves, without understanding that these things are just merely the trappings. It’s the content that’s important. It’s not important that someone is a New York Times bestseller. The book parties are not important. It does not mean you’re necessarily smarter or a better person than anyone, and the fact that you know these things and pursue them does not bestow upon any sort of nobility.

But because reading and books do carry the importance that they do, they are important. You could easily argue, yes, they’re the most important thing going on in our culture, is fine literature. Is fine non-fiction, and fiction, and poetry, etc., and essays. Because of that, it does carry a disproportional weight. So, I find it disheartening when, for example, when we read a review by someone who’s very critical of a big shot author, and it’s a sound review, and the criticism I get back from our readers is, “Well, this person has never written anything important, so why should I listen to them?” Now, they didn’t bother—you read the review based on what’s presented. Who the person is, what their bona fides are, is meaningless. Who cares? If what they’re saying is true, it’s true. I don’t care if the guy’s a parking lot attendant or if he’s got a doctorate from Harvard, what’s the difference?

Rumpus: It’s a question of informed versus uninformed.

Villalon: Exactly. If this person lays out their case and it’s a very convincing case, you’re gonna resort to the ad hominem and say, “Well, this person teaches at San Jose State, what can they know?” Wow. Well, talk about proving how uneducated you really are.

Rumpus: A caste system of opinion.

Villalon: Exactly. Pulitzers and money and stuff, he clearly must know what he’s doing. Which is – not to say that accreditation doesn’t count for something, but it is to say that that argument by itself is completely invalid and should never be made. But the people making that argument are people who consider themselves cultured, who consider themselves people of learning and of books. I think it’s very disturbing. Because then you have to ask yourself, what exactly are you taking from reading? Is it just a status symbol? Is it just something so you can say, “Here I am carrying this book, I’m hip, I know what’s going on?” I think that’s very troubling, and maybe that’s one of the reasons why some kids don’t read. They can see that for the malarkey that it is. Maybe what the youth are rebelling against isn’t reading. It’s the pretentiousness of reading. I know that when I was 14, and if I had ever met a New York literary type, the stereotypical one, I might have never picked up a book again if I thought that’s the sort of person I’m affiliated with, if that’s the paradigm. My god. Why would I want to be that?

Rumpus: Is there a sense, though, of if we don’t ascribe a certain amount of seriousness to reading and literature, then it’ll simply be thrown into the same frivolous pot with everything else, and everything that makes reading special will be lost?

Villalon: No, I don’t think so, I think – well, first of all, I think about that question, the viewpoint is misinformed. It is assuming that serious thinking and serious literature, if only given a fair shot, will win the day. It has never won the day.

Now I think the difference is this: I think in the past people, for whatever reason, they didn’t want to read Melville, they didn’t want to read whatever, but they at least knew who he was. The funny thing about Norman Mailer is that he was known by everyone, although very few people read him. But at least they respected the idea that this guy had something to say, and what does he have to say, whether you agree with him or not. Because he is a writer and because he seemed to be very well informed and insightful and all this sort of thing, had strong opinions. Okay, let’s hear him out.

I don’t know of very many writers now who exist as that kind of public figure. I don’t see them getting on local TV or whatever to talk about politics or something like this who don’t specialize in that. I don’t see them being asked to comment on football or things just in general, the way Mailer could talk about sports, stuff like that. I don’t see that happening, and I think there’s no longer this sense of deferment to writers in this country as there used to be. I think that’s the part that’s troubling: people used to say stuff like, “Okay, he’s too smart for me, his books, but at least I understand that this is good. Even though I can’t wrap my brain around it, I respect it and this is culturally valuable.”

Rumpus: Was it your parents that got you interested in books and reading?

Kevin Smokler is the CEO of and a writer living in San Francisco. More from this author →