What to make of Geoff Dyer?
The persona he presents in his work embodies a kind of independence, but not the fierce, fighting kind we’ve been trained to see as heroic. Rather, he contains a lackadaisical independence, a sort of why-bother-even-pretending-to-care independence. To hear him tell it, he’s wasted his life away, smoking pot, listening to jazz and techno, going to raves and generally doing whatever he wanted simply because there was no one there to stop him. And in the midst of all his hanging out, Dyer has produced thirteen books on subjects as disparate yet somehow connected as photography, John Berger (Ways of Telling), jazz music (But Beautiful), tourism and its discontents (Yoga for Those Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It), D.H. Lawrence (Out of Sheer Rage), trance music (Paris Trance), and on and on and on. Sometimes they’re straight up non-fiction, sometimes they’re forthright novels, sometimes they’re a gloss between the two. It doesn’t seem to matter to Dyer. The mode of inquiry doesn’t change his mission. Not one of these books reads like a cynical exercise in career maintenance. Each seems instead to be another step in a deeply personal search for meaning. Beneath the charm of their consistently casual prose style, all of them display the same acute curiosity about the stuff of the world as he finds it and the valuable joys and life-enriching ideas to be found in this stuff. Dyer has a talent for showing his readers why and how the seemingly frivolous things he’s smart about aren’t frivolous at all, but essential, actually, imbued with the potential, if looked at closely enough, to open up new and profound modes by which the individual might take an active role in his or her experience.
Dyer’s new book, Otherwise Known as the Human Condition, recently out on Graywolf Press, gathers together essays and occasional pieces he’s written over the past twenty-one years, and in the process, it touches on many of the subjects he’s concerned himself with over the course of his career. It’s a fun read, a great introduction to Dyer’s work, if you haven’t read him before, a nice overview of his progression as a thinker, an artist, and a responder to art, if you have. For me, it was a great excuse to pick his brain about some of the things that intrigue me about his work. I was able to catch up with him, briefly, via email, as he was about to fly off to Rio.
THE RUMPUS: Otherwise Known as the Human Condition could fairly be called a miscellany. In the introduction to the collection, you discuss your love for reading books of ‘occasional pieces,’ and the ways they give insight into the writer’s life. It seems to me to intimate a kind of ethic, a notion of what writing is and does. What sort of relationship do you hope the book will have with its readers?
GEOFF DYER: The first thing I need to do is express my gratitude to Graywolf for publishing it because such collections are, obviously, not everyone’s cup of tea. The second is to thank my friend Jaime Wolf for spotting that bit of a sentence as a great potential title. Ok, moving on, I hope that readers will find things to stimulate and entertain them even in the pieces about writers they’ve never read or photographers they’ve never heard of. And hopefully even the pieces that are most specifically about someone or something contain observations or insights that have a relevance beyond their ostensible subject. I would also hope that experts in a given field might find stuff of interest to them about their field, though perhaps that’s being over-ambitious. My own interest in collections like this is bound up with the fact that I don’t read periodicals or journals. I don’t know why but there’s something incredibly depressing about having copies of the LRB or the TLS lying around. That’s what they do: they lie around until you eventually put them in the recycling bin, whereas a book you can put on a shelf. I think that’s it: I like things that can go on shelves.
RUMPUS: You consistently invoke and test your opinions against certain writers in these essays―D.H. Lawrence, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and of course John Berger, among others―even when the subject under discussion is not directly related to them. They seem to live in your imagination in a way that implies they’re more than just literary influences. They and their work seem to have affected your sense of self and your approach to being in the world. It reminds me of how I first came to love literature, how particular writers promised to transform my life. This passionate relationship with literature often dissipates with age, yet you seem to have held onto it. What do you look for in the books you love, and do you think contemporary writers can still have the profound effect on their readers that these writers have had on you?
DYER: Oh yes, of course. It’s entirely possible that someone could be newly turned on to literature by reading White Teeth or The Corrections in the same way that happened to me all those years back with whatever it was I was reading then. Of course I still love literature and reading but I am more difficult to please now than I was twenty years ago. And what I want has changed. I want more philosophy and metaphysics more quickly – and less entertainment. As David Shields says somewhere in Reality Hunger the unfortunate thing about most novels is that they’re primarily a form of entertainment. For entertainment I prefer the television, ideally while football is being broadcast.
RUMPUS: Does this mean that, like Shields, you’re drawn more toward memoir and non-fiction now? Or are there contemporary fiction writers whose work attains this level of contemplative honesty (if that’s the right way to put it)?
DYER: I think it’s more that I only want to read fiction of the highest quality. I’m reading the new Alan Hollinghurst novel, A Stranger’s Child: very traditional in a way (in fact, traditionalness is one of the things it’s about) but I am luxuriating in it, in its expansiveness, because of the consistently high quality of everything (gesture, choreography, psychology, etc.) within the overall leisureliness of its construction. It reminds me that I really want pretty much the same thing from many different kinds of writing: to open my eyes, inwardly and outwardly.
RUMPUS: You’ve written at length about John Berger. He’s an interesting writer in so many ways, but the one that fascinates me most is how he squares his explicit political engagement with his aesthetic sense. He never lets the politics overwhelm and drive the work toward propagandistic folly. There are undercurrents of a political sensibility in your work as well. Is political engagement as important to you as it is to him? Does a political motivation seep into your work? How so, and how do you control it?
DYER: It’s surprised me that I’ve ended up being such an apolitical writer when so many of the writers I love―Berger, Camus, Orwell, Raymond Williams, Perry Anderson―are or were deeply political engaged, or are/were actual political commentators. By comparison I’m navel-gazing and solipsistic to the point of idiocy. It’s one of the interesting things about writing: one is not entirely in control of the kind of stuff one ends up writing. But I think your word ‘sensibility’ is well chosen because who I am is defined absolutely by coming from a working class background. And there’s something obviously political bound up with that.
RUMPUS: There’s a notion of what it means to be an individual, and how we might own our individuality, lurking inside your work. A dare of sorts. And the fact that the work itself in generally apolitical makes this dare all the more potent. Instead of being presented in opposition to some enemy, it’s presented as another kind of normal.
British writers often come across as biased against their American counterparts, as though they still think of us as their dumb younger brothers to be laughed at and maybe sometimes condescendingly patted on the head. You, though, seem to have a great interest in and respect for American literature. What is it about American literature that attracts you and why?
DYER: I actually disagree completely with the premise of this question. I think many British readers and writers have found American writing to be way more inspiring than British literature. I think it’s to do with the voice, that lovely demotic richness of American English. And there seems a greater freedom in US fiction to just go with the voice, to roll with it. People tend not to do that in Britain so much unless it’s a very obviously―and often history-driven―kind of ventriloquism. The great exception of course is Martin Amis which is why we are so in thrall to him. But, you know, it’s not just American writing; I love America and, in so far as one can generalize, Americans.
RUMPUS: That’s refreshing to hear. I wonder if this embrace of Americans and American literature is relatively new (by which I mean, something that rose up you’re your generation, with maybe Martin Amis at the vanguard). What kind of effect has it had on British literature?
DYER: I think it began with Amis’s and my generations―i.e. the two generations of readers turned on to Catch-22, On the Road and The Catcher in the Rye. I’m not sure what effect it’s had. I think the post-colonial, Empire-strikes-back kind of stuff has been more significant for non-American English writing generally.
RUMPUS: Over and over in these essays you grapple with society’s expectations and definitions of “success” and how you’ve striven to work around them, to redefine success on your own terms. You state, more than once, that you do what you want when you want for your own reasons and that you set out at an early age to achieve this particular form of freedom. Do you think it’s still possible for a young person to carve an uncompromising individualistic place for him or herself in the world, and what does it take to do this?
DYER: Yes, I’ve employed all manner of sophistry, cunning and ingenuity to come up with a definition of success that was compatible with what, by any normal standards, would seem dismal and serial failure. It was necessary for the survival of the Dyer species of books in the face of flop after flop! But yes, the ultimate success is the freedom to do what you want and I was smart or selfish enough to realize that one didn’t need to wait for commercial success to achieve that. In fact the commercial failure of my books meant that the stakes were quite low. But I need to stress that I was the beneficiary of a particular moment in British history when there were all sorts of provisions in place to help me, the most important of which, after a long and very agreeable stint on the dole, was getting a rent-controlled flat. That kind of provision is now very rare so the obligation to waste time earning a living is more pressing.
RUMPUS: So in the absence of a social safety net that can be abused for personal gain, young people now need to be even more cunning and sophistic to achieve this level of freedom?
DYER: But for a long while―fifteen years or more―big advances were available for young writers fresh out of the UEA creative writing MA or whatever. You could become a career novelist right from the get-go. I’d be lying if I claimed never to have found this galling. That period is apparently over now.
RUMPUS: How did your social class and upbringing contribute to your adamant devotion to leisure? I’d think having come from a family of laborers would have made it harder to break free of the worldly signifiers of success and the notions of work that this particular kind of success requires.
DYER: Work in the sense of a job just seemed like lost time to me. I grew up unaware that there were incredibly fulfilling and rewarding jobs―like being a film director, say―which offer ways of making great use of one’s time and energy. As a student at Oxford I only had to go to one tutorial a week. Then, when I left university, I had to sign on the dole once a week at first and then once a month. So I went from this working class background to being a member of the leisure class and it seemed a very easy transition to make. Freedom to use your time as you wish: that is such an enormous privilege and discipline.
RUMPUS: I’m struck by the way your writing on photography focuses as much on how photos lead the viewer to imagine his or her way into new realities as on how they document the literal real. Your essays on photography in this book veer toward exploring how, by looking at a photographer’s oeuvre, one can detect evolving narratives not just about ways of seeing the world but about ways of seeing the self―ways of understanding one’s internal reality. You read them almost like books. Is there a relationship in your mind between the way photography communicates and the way literature does?
DYER: I think there’s a very close relationship between poetry and photography for obvious reasons: brevity, precision, the implications of a moment…And often in photographs there’s a huge implied or compacted narrative which it’s quite fun and revealing to unpack and write out in longhand. But each medium comes with its particular strengths and shortcomings. At first I was interested in photographs then I became interested in the history of photography and photographers. That’s the overarching narrative in The Ongoing Moment, I think.
RUMPUS: Throughout your career, music has been a driving force in your work―both a subject and an inspiration. What are you listening to now and how is it affecting your current work?
DYER: It’s not in my work at all, but my wife and I are having a great time at present listening quite seriously to the Beethoven piano sonatas, lots of different versions of them. It is intellectually so challenging, just listening to them. On the box set of the Kempff that we’re listening to Beethoven is described as one of the towering figures of Western Civilization. And that’s not an exaggeration. I’m thinking of using that as a self-blurb on the cover of my new book.
RUMPUS: Something like “Geoff Dyer is one of the towering figures of western civilization”? There, it’s been said. Now you can attribute it to The Rumpus, as well.