an interview with Emmett Stinson

Posted on February 19, 2011 by in The Melbourne Review Interviews


An American living in Australia (for me at least) always provokes the question, why? If I wonder at this question, perhaps it’s because the United States of America projects such an all-pervasive world mythology. Which is to say that the centre of the world is somewhere between Hollywood and Wall Street and everyone is moving, or wants to move, towards that axis mundi. It’s such a powerful projection that Australia’s sense of self is often drawn from American-made myths. We’re usually more familiar with the Boston Tea Party than the Eureka Stockade. What was it like for you as a writer growing up within that mythology and has living in Australia given you a different perspective? I’m also interested in the differences you might have noticed between Australian and American literature.


Well, having grown up in the U.S., I have a very different and fairly complicated set of feelings about the place. On a personal note, I’d also say that the Australian sense of humour and the more relaxed and informal approach to everyday living are both things that make Australia a far better place to be; Australia simply feels like home to me. But as to the question, ‘Why Australia?’, I’d say this: my belief is that the margins are always a lot more interesting than the centre. The U.S. praises its own literature to no end, but most of my favourite authors are from elsewhere, and those living U.S. Authors I do love, like Evan Dara and Sergio De La Pava, are basically unknown. Moreover, U.S. culture is so dominated by wealth and privilege (built on the back of serious exploitation of the lower classes), that it’s pretty hard for me to stomach their elite cultural institutions. Sure, Australia has many of the same problems (though certainly not all of them), but it seems to me that it’s small enough here that there’s more room for movement—for doing something different.

Australian literature, though, is a strange thing—for one, mainstream AusLit, in my opinion, is very conservative (in a formal sense, and very probably in a socio-political sense, as well), but the history of Australian literature isn’t: the best Australian writing—like work by Gerald Murnane, Joseph Furphy (how good is Such Is Life?), Christina Stead (although she can be claimed by the social realist tradition), Patrick White, Ern Malley (a better author than his authors, Stewart and McAuley), Ned Kelly (the ‘Jerilderei Letter’), and even Henry Lawson—are all pretty experimental, but most contemporary Australian authors write as if literature began with Helen Garner. There are great contemporary writers here—Wayne Macauley, Ryan O’Neill, and David Musgrave all spring to mind—but they seem to be on the margins of AusLit, probably because they aren’t as obviously ‘marketable’; in this sense, I guess they are a margin of a margin. My interests are in this ‘other’ Australian literature—the literature of the margins.


I don’t think it matters where your home is. A man living in that archetypal metropolis, New York City, might feel a keener sense of marginalised existence than a bloke on a ranch in the Northern Territory. We might look at a vast cultural centre and catalogue its galleries or publishing houses, but our sense of connection/disconnection depends on our sense of self and society. A schism might open up for political reasons, though there are many others — religion, race, class, sexual preferences or, who knows, not getting picked for the high school football team. Some writers choose to not only investigate that schism, but to magnify it, and make a virtue of it. Experimental fiction is often the result. I was wondering what your thoughts were in this regard. Why do some writers devote themselves to the fringes and to the perspectives found within a social schism? What’s the value of experimental fiction? What are Australia’s conservative publishers and readers missing out on and how vital is it?


Very simply, I think modernism is an incomplete project. By this I mean that, for a very long time now—at least since Jena Romanticism around 1800, and again in Paris in the 1850s, and pretty much all across Europe by the early 20th Century—some writers and artists have had the sense that the world is very different than it used to be. This difference is usually what we call modernity (we could, of course, define modernity along any number of lines: the rise of capital and global exchange, the decreasing relevance of traditional institutions like the church, a disposition towards scepticism or nihilism, the rise of science, the rise of the nation state, etc.). The theory that some Modernists held is that modernity requires a new art adequate to the task of representing this change, this rupture with the past. I prefer the more radical version of the thesis: that representing the world isn’t possible, or at least not along the lines that most people think it is, and therefore standard modes of storytelling in our culture represent little more than received norms about what a story should be. In this sense, most novels are ‘just so’ stories.

I’m not interested in reading books that tell me what I already know. I don’t want to read a novel that makes me ‘care about’ a fictional character; I want to read a novel that teaches me a new way to think or a new way to read, or else intentionally frustrates my desires for those things, or does something else entirely unexpected—frankly, a formula of rising action, climax, falling action and denouement seems to me to be the thing that’s in need of defending. How boring! Why would anyone want to read that?

I’m always mystified by why people like what they like, but I’m never surprised by it. Let’s not forget that Michael Bolton and Kenny G got rich somehow or other. A lot of somebodies bought their records. That being said, I’ve also learned that people can be a lot more open to new experiences than you might think. What puts many people off of experimental literature is that they are confused by it, and they think, therefore, that the book or the author is mocking them—but of course, this isn’t true. Those people who claim they understood every word of Ulysses the first time they read it are lying. Everyone’s confused (at first, at least). That’s the point! I think once you explain that to people, they can relax a little more and give themselves over to the book—and even to the confusion the book might cause. Confusion is good, and one of the best by-products of confusion is that it often makes you think.

This, of course, is anathema if you think that literature is all about ‘feelings’, about identifying with characters or situations or just wanting to be entertained or whatever. I ultimately feel sorry for people who think like this, because those people have never really read a book. I mean, they may have read the words, but . . .


I’m wondering what you think about the idea that Ulysses kills the novel. There’s an interesting comparison to be made between James Joyce and his contemporary Ernest Hemingway, who had the opposite effect on his generation of writers. After Hemingway, there is a sense that prose can be revivified, it can still be vigorous and challenging, even within the traditional forms. I’m not so much interested in reappraising the artefacts of their work but this sense of death and rebirth, of literature imploding and literature exploding.


Well, some people certainly see Joyce’s work as exhausting a certain set of possibilities for literature—that’s why Beckett chose to write in French after all—but it’s a position that’s been used to a variety of ends. Dale Peck—whose criticism I am not fond of—famously blamed the ruin of all contemporary literary on Joyce in an excoriating review of Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, which is an asinine proposition that, if anything, weirdly overvalues Joyce’s importance. Donald Barthelme’s essay ‘After Joyce’ (published in Not-Knowing) is a more interesting variation, which sees Ulysses as the exhaustion of a certain kind of literature on the one hand, but the opening of a new set of possibilities on the other.

For my part, I’d argue that Ulysses and Finnegans Wake marked the exhaustion of a very specific form—the comic, encyclopaedic, Joycean novel—in the same way that Milton’s epics exhausted the encyclopaedic, Miltonic epic poem. There’s no more point in writing a ‘Joycean’ novel than there is in writing a ‘Miltonic’ poem, but that doesn’t mark the end of literature in any broader sense, even if it is a testament to the importance of those writers.

And, in point of fact, even the genre of the encyclopaedic novel has done pretty well after Joyce: in the U.S., William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955) and Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook (1996) are both long, encyclopaedic novels that, formally speaking, do something very different to what Joyce did and are as vital and important as any book that’s ever been written. Or consider Roberto Bolaño’s 2666—in my opinion, the best book of the 21st Century so far—which does something that was meant to be impossible: it neatly combines the tradition of the ‘high art’ experimental novel of the 20th Century with the tradition of the 19th Century social novel. 2666 is a great book because it decides to have it both ways, and I think it’s a game-changer because it reminds us that this divide between the ‘experimental novel’ and the ‘realist novel’ is false in an important way.

But the falsity of this distinction is already imminent in Joyce, who is as important to ‘realism’ as he is to experimentalism. Dubliners pretty much invents the modern ‘realist’ short story (and was written before Hemmingway’s stories), and let’s not forget that Joyce created the modern conception of the epiphany, which is now a creative writing workshop cliche. Hemmingway’s minimalism, for that matter, can still be used to experimental ends—Tao Lin’s Richard Yates is a good example of this. All Lin really does is push minimalism to its logical end, but the result is strange and confronting. In Australia, Josephine Rowe has done something similar by compressing the minimalist story into 500 words or less. There’s nothing wrong with minimalism or ‘realism’ as a form necessarily—it is just a form. The problem occurs when writers and readers mis-recognise ‘literary realism’ for reality—when people forget that realism is just one possible form among many with no greater claim to truth, universality, etc. etc.


Many writers find literary theory counterproductive but you don’t. Clearly, it stimulates you both as a reader and as a writer. How do you negotiate the threat of divorce, between this specialised perspective, and a reader who simply wants a good book?


Well, as an academic who researches in literary studies, it’s inevitable that I have a more specialised interest in those things, although I’d also note that I’m not really a ‘theory’ guy; many of my friends are true experts on continental philosophy and theory, whereas my interests are much directed towards issues of how literary cultures are shaped and close-readings of literary texts—i.e. pretty straightforward literary analysis with a dose of cultural studies. A lot of people really hate literary theory—or think they do—and many academics bear a good deal of the blame for this, since we haven’t always done a great job of communicating our ideas to a broader public, or even really been all that interested in doing so (with notable exceptions!). And writers of fiction often see critical and creative work as incompatible, which is absolutely untrue; what’s more accurate is to say that being either a great writer or a great critic is rare, and it’s rarer still to be both, although there are many counterexamples (Coleridge, Dryden, T.S. Eliot, Maurice Blanchot, Susan Sontag, Wyndham Lewis and Virginia Woolf all spring immediately to mind).

As to readers, I think we’re now long past the idea of having an ‘average’ or ‘normal’ reader; reading a lot of books is already not an ‘average’ activity. And literary fiction is an even more specialised area of the market, which accounts for only a tiny fraction of overall sales, and is bordering on being a niche category. So I guess I don’t think in terms of the ‘average’ reader but of those kinds of readers I’d like to have, and my ideal reader needn’t be the kind of person who knows everything about literary history. When I envision ‘ideal’ readers, I think of people who are open to new experiences, who might encounter a bit of prose they find strange or confusing and—instead of putting the book down or getting upset—try to give themselves over to the text, to inhabit an alien space for a little bit of time. Recently, I read a reviewer complaining about being ‘condescended to’ by some books, and this disposition basically represents the kind of close-mindedness that perplexes me; personally, I want to read books that are much smarter than I am, that challenge me, that confuse me, and even that make me feel uncomfortable—all of which, of course, can be quite pleasurable. It’s not that I don’t want to be entertained—I do—but I don’t just want to be entertained, and I’m interested in readers who share these desires (not that I’m saying my work actually does this). The reality is that there probably aren’t too many readers like this, and, for this reason, I’ve always known that my chances of making a living from my fiction were considerably more unlikely than winning the lottery, but I’m certainly not complaining—just knowing those readers are out there is enough.