The Rumpus Interview with McSweeney’s Publisher Oscar Villalon


I don’t understand why that happened here. There are theories for this sort of, I guess, this brotherhood, or this monastic-ness towards writing. Maybe it has to do with academia, with everyone having to take college jobs, and kind of losing focus with where they stand with the rest of the country.

Rumpus: Could it also simply be a comforting lie we tell ourselves about this accelerated pace of life? That there is an exit strategy, and it is becoming a novelist?

Villalon: Well, I think for some people, for some artists, for some writers, it’s probably a lie. Like, you know, “This job sucks, I’ll ditch it, I’ll write that book and I’ll be set. I won’t ever have to deal with these jerks again.” But substitute writing with something like, “Yeah, one of these days I’ll just buy my RV and I’ll move to the desert and I won’t have to deal with it.” Everyone has an escape plan, it just seems to be that for some writers, they seem to be oblivious to everyone wants out somewhere, or to call the shot on their own destiny or how they spend their time.

We’re all under pressure, we’re all being pulled in different directions, and writers are certainly not exclusive to that sort of stress. If, as a reader, when I start, when I’m reading, and I know I’m committing my time, I want a certain degree of excellence from what I’m going to read. And excellence can mean it’s very entertaining, or it’s very well crafted, or it’s just speaks to directly what I want to know right now, whatever the subject is. And I think for a lot of writers, they kind of lose sight of that, in the end, that you’ve gotta provide something. It’s not enough to just say, “This is my life experience, I hope you enjoy,” because they probably won’t.

Rumpus: Is that a class issue? Being a country spoiled then paralyzed by enormous wealth and possibility?

Villalon: Yeah, you used be able to support a family of four on a trade unionist’s salary. Send your kids to a decent school or have them follow you into the trades with decent pay. But imagine today not having a college degree.

Rumpus: Working at the Shoe Pavilion with no benefits.

Villalon: Exactly, it means cold-calling people in the middle of the night, during dinner. It means being a bank teller, all these sort of things that are not well compensated. Again, and you ask yourself, how the hell, if you create the sort of society, how is anyone supposed to read, really? I mean, how is anyone supposed to read? Who has time and what’s the reward?

You still should, I think, just because it might give more meaning to your life, more satisfaction, by understanding the grand scope of things. But it’s, all in all, the NEA talks about their surveys, we talk about this sort of stuff, but frankly it’s monkey see, monkey do. We’re not showing anything in the general culture that shows that education is important. You tell me anything out there that says you need to be well-read, you need to be a sophisticated, modest, sober person. I defy you to find it. Where’s the example of that, saying that this is the way to live?

Rumpus: You live this way?

Villalon: [laughs] We’ve hung out. What do you think?

Rumpus: What was the best thing you’ve taken from working in books?

Villalon: I’ve never, ever forgotten that I’m really, for one thing, how lucky I was to get the job first at the Chronicle but two, you know, it was a job that, it’s not really mine. I mean, I don’t own the Chronicle, I certainly did not own the book review. I come and go with it, and it’s–we were saying before about the idea of staying modest. You should be modest about your importance. Without that job, what’s my status? None. Now, I’m not any different a person than I was before I had it, after I had it –I was to lose my current job tomorrow I’m still me. Nothing has changed.

Again, for the reader, I don’t have to be a Nobel Laureate to appreciate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I certainly didn’t have to be from a well-to-do family to appreciate Ordinary People. It doesn’t mean anything. I mean, as my dad used to say, “You know, you’re lucky?” “What do you mean I’m lucky?” “You’re lucky you’re not a Kennedy.” “How am I lucky I’m not a Kennedy, dad? Besides from all the weirdness and drunkenness and awful assassinations.” He said, “Because if you’re a Kennedy, you can only go down. You, you can only go up. Unless you’re homeless, you pretty much will never do worse than I did.”

Along the same lines, I think the same thing with reading. You’re very lucky you’re the reader. Why? Because these books don’t exist without you. No matter what happens, no matter how successful that writer is, he’s nothing without you. It’s simple as that. You are everything.

And it’s symbiotic. You can’t have one without the other, and I think it’s important for people to understand the importance, if you want to make an argument why it is important for people to read good literature, well it’s not so much that it makes you better; it’s that it’s important for you as a reader to develop your skills as a reader, your appreciation, your sense of taste, so you can enjoy more nuanced work. Work that’s gonna stretch your mind, and that conversely by you enjoying it, giving a little bit of bread to someone who’s able to produce that work, and let them be able, if not quit their day job, at least give them some breathing room so they can produce this sort of literature.

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