The Rumpus Interview with McSweeney’s Publisher Oscar Villalon


Villalon: I think too many, as Gore Vidal said, too many people writing books, not enough people reading them. Because of that, you have all these people who think that reading should be pursued by people who want to be writers, who want to write a book one day. That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. But that’s the sort of mentality that we would kind of – I think we push, whether we’re conscious of it or not. The sort of weird idea that writing is – writing a novel is some sort of self-fulfilling good thing, like running a marathon or some such thing, something you have to do in your life.

Rumpus: To say “I was here.”

Villalon: Exactly. Something to say you’ve lived your life, you need to write a book, and I think that’s nutty. I find it troubling that there are people who are lawyers, who are doctors, who are engineers, and don’t read. That’s troubling, because you ostensibly are an educated person, so why would you give up this sort of pursuit that helps keep your inner life going, and would keep your mind limber? That’s what I find to be very, very odd.

Rumpus: And then, paradoxically, insisting reading is good for their kids.

Villalon: Right, well it’s not gonna make you a better person. There’s no bearing between reading and the child’s morality. It does not make you a better person. The same way that writing doesn’t help heal your wounds. It’s not therapy. Reading shouldn’t be therapy either. Now, what it might do is put into context your own situation in life. It might give you some sort of consolation as to what your dilemma is, and it might give you some sort of answer as to how you should act. But, if you’re a sociopath, you’re still a sociopath.

It’s kind of like marriage and reading. The personality you go in with is the personality you’re gonna remain with. Nothing’s gonna change. It’s who you are. He can mature and not be as reckless and stuff, but that has nothing to do with reading. It just has to do with life experiences, I think.

Before, I remember before I did this job going to bookstores. I rarely go into bookstores now. Every now and again, just to see how things are, but I used to spend hours in there, and just think and look up. What a bounty. You can pick from any of this. And you live in this country and you’re living in reasonable safety, and have reasonable comfort, and you can enjoy yourself in this way and feel you’re, again, your self, your inner life developing by reading this. I think if anything, that’s the best thing, is that you don’t need approval.

If you read and you read widely and you challenge yourself, reading different books and things you might not necessarily be comfortable with, but just to see what’s going on, you’ll find that sort of comfort in having a rich inner life. Being able to put things in perspective, and being able to see, it’s a comedy. Don’t kill yourself.

Rumpus: I feel like much of the writing about books and literature I read these days lacks that sense of humor, that perspective.

Villalon: There’s futility in complaining about these things and you, as the reader—there’s this theme kind of going on. You see it more in litblogs, where you see people who are ostensibly critics. They have their blogs, and I don’t know if they consider themselves critics, but let’s say they’re ostensibly critics, and they keep railing about the same thing over and over again. “This book does not meet my taste.” And these tastes—although they will try to lay them out as being very open to critical analysis and critically sound—these tastes are completely idiosyncratic. Totally idiosyncratic.

Rumpus: As is taste, by definition.

Villalon: Right, and without realizing that, just because it doesn’t meet your taste doesn’t mean it’s not good. It just means it’s not your thing. So what? And they’re not put here on God’s green earth to accommodate your tastes.

When it comes to literature, I don’t care if I make the customer happy. Not my job. I wrote this work of literature, ostensibly this piece of art, and if you’re a sound writer, you realize, not a lot of people are gonna get it. But the people who do get it, good enough.

Rumpus: But you could look at a William Gaddis, or a Robert Coover, who is sort of opaque by design, or, I’m guessing, on purpose. When I reviewed Robert Coover’s The Adventures of Lucky Pierre, I can say, “This is great, but there seems to be a certain kind of hostility here. There seems to be an ‘I’m going to make this really hard for you, and I don’t give a shit what you think, and too bad.’” And I say, “Well that’s great, well then why not pass it out to ten of your friends? Don’t publish it, don’t put it out on the market. Because that makes part of public conversation.”

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