If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
An essay collection that explores place, radical vulnerability, and truth in art.
Matthew Specktor’s introduction to the New York Review of Books reissue of Eve Babitz’s book Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A. begins, “Any writer may be in or out of step with his or her time, but a great one is inextricably bound to place.” The subtitle of his new nonfiction release, Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California (Tin House), points us to his home city and, primarily, the influence of the 1970s, a period of explosive development in film, literature, and music. An era when living recklessly was commonplace and when men were judged differently (or not at all) than women for doing so. I perpend his book as a work indebted to femaleness and its varied incarnations. His subjects span from the reclusive thespian Tuesday Weld, filmmakers Eleanor Perry and Carole Eastman, to his friend the sui generis author Renata Adler, and a neighbor of his who dated Warren Zevon.
Specktor offers moving details of his relationships with the women in his family, reminiscent of sine qua non writers like Babitz, Lidia Yuknavitch, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Rachel Kushner, and Zadie Smith, sprawling nonfictionista wordsmiths who warp personal experience into lyrical-confessional essays, talks, and rhetorical hybrids. Men are also featured, often (mis)aligned with rugged masculinity—authors Thomas McGuane and F. Scott Fitzgerald, directors Hal Ashby and Michael Cimino, or the androgynous one alluded to in the book’s title, David Bowie. In terms of comparisons, I alighted finally on Anaïs Nin. Her most enduring works are 1964’s Collages and the seven volume Diary of Anaïs Nin (1931–1974).
While such collage and diaries continue to be seen as stereotypically feminine, Specktor interrogates masculinity and himself, coming across as honest but never earnest, cool but never cold, and emerges from beleaguered artisthood as a loving house dad in stirring scenes about parenthood. A radical vulnerability emerges, and an inversion of gender norms is embedded in this text, which Geoff Dyer has described as “nestling in the fruitful terrain between memoir and criticism,” transmitted via a controlled, elegiac, and lacerating prose.
Sean Hooks What is the best way to describe Always Crashing in the Same Car? Is my framing of it as a mashup of diary and collage on point?
Matthew SpecktorWell, I’m bound to balk a little at “diary”—there’s nothing in this book that hasn’t been mediated six ways to Sunday—but in the sense you just described the term, as something indebted to energies that aren’t specifically masculine? Yes. I consider the book to be novel, one that transits a bunch of different modes (criticism, memoir, travel writing, collage) to arrive at something invented. “What is it?” is a question I’d like the reader to ask but not get swept away by: it’s a book, a narrative, a story, one that lays its own source codes rather bare. Besides the writers you mention above—all of whom I admire enormously, though I haven’t read Nin since I was a teen—the ones I found myself in conversation with, both literally and figuratively, as I wrote this were all women: Rachel Cusk, Olivia Laing, Heidi Julavits, Sarah Manguso, Renata Adler, Emily Segal, Dana Spiotta. Wonderful writers. I was aware as I was writing this that I was working in a form—however you’d care to describe it—that not so many male writers have exploited. That seemed fair to me. The world has had enough of dudes being dudes, at least for now.
SH Speaking of that, in Always Crashing in the Same Car you wrestle with the entanglement of the biographies of artists and writers (yourself included) and their works. The art vs artist debate plays out in a number of ways, particularly in the section on Warren Zevon, my favorite, wherein you aver how deeply you love the man and his records “without apology” despite viewing Warren as a classic example of “the whole great-artist-lousy-person thing” that “went out with the twentieth century.” And to go back to an earlier work of yours, an essay about your former teacher James Baldwin, you wrote in 2012, “no writer is the spiritual equal of their best literary performance.” Has your perspective altered at all since the composition of that piece?
MS Not much. I would say Mr. Baldwin came about as close to being the equal of his best literary performance as anyone possibly could. He wasn’t always fully present, and he skipped some classes altogether, but this was toward the very end of his life, and the idea that he was ever even bothered to teach a class of privileged undergraduates feels somewhat appalling. The job was beneath his station. But the man was unfailingly generous and kind (and also, very funny). The point of that piece was that he really didn’t need to be. There were more than enough of those qualities in his work anyway. By the same token, why should we ask Warren Zevon—or anyone—to be better than their art? Or rather, why should we require the art to descend to the level of the person? The decision not to support the art of awful people while they’re alive (even as the debate about degrees of awfulness rages on) is legible to me, but the fact remains, great art is often made by flawed or even monstrous people. Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby are masterpieces. You can decide for yourself whether to attend to those masterpieces, and I respect those who opt not to, but great works of art they remain.
SH An honest response. So, too, I value the honesty in Always Crashing in the Same Car, but I don’t think artists should be applauded just because they “put themselves out there,” so to speak. Firstly, because plenty of it is categorically false. (I’m thinking of manipulators like Dan Mallory/A. J. Finn, James Frey, hoaxers like Laura Albert/JT LeRoy, but also of artful and inventive personae jugglers like Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and Orson Welles.) And secondly, because I think—as you seem to—the art is actually separable from the artist. A quote I can’t stop pondering from Jennifer Egan: “I think there are ways in which we censor ourselves; that’s the most dangerous kind of censorship—that’s how hegemony works.” How the hell do you manage to be honest these days, both in this book and in the decade of the 2020s in general?
MSHonesty isn’t really a value I hold dear in art, though I’m glad you experienced my book that way. A more useful metric for me is “accuracy,” a sense of fidelity to a project’s aims and intentions. I think “honesty,” which is a subjective value, lies behind a lot of lousy art. Those masters you mention—Welles, Dylan, etc.—are rarely honest, yet their work remains scrupulously true. But if you’re asking if or how one should speak one’s mind on social media (my first thought is “Don’t! God, no!”), I’m not sure. A lot gets said these days about “unpopular opinions” and the risks of holding them, and I think that’s nonsense. An unpopular opinion is that the Eagles were a great band. Nobody’s getting cancelled for that (I hope). An abhorrent belief—a trans-exclusionary statement, say—isn’t an “unpopular opinion,” it’s hate speech, and that’s something that should be pushed back against. The problem is in the question of proportion, the ways in which social media encourages misreading, strips context, and makes reparative work even harder. That’s a separate and real question, but I don’t think it’s dishonest for an artist to be responsive to changing currents in the world or to think twice about saying or doing things that one might discover (contra one’s earlier life programming) to be harmful. That’s not censorship, or self-censorship, it’s being an adult. It is being honest.
SHIn a pre-publication excerpt of your last novel, you wrote that “people blame Los Angeles for so many things, but my own view is tender […] This city, with its unfortunate rap. It deserves warmer witness than Joan fucking Didion.” In the book that went to press, you opted to rephrase it as “dear old Joan Didion” because you found it unkind, or at least awfully aggressive for the first ten pages of a novel, to drop the F-bomb on a Los Angeles eminence. I’m a huge admirer of Didion’s prose and teach her works often, and I feel the same about Patti Smith as an avatar of working-class New Jersey and bohemian New York City. Didion and Smith are very important artists, but I can think that and simultaneously think they are, on the whole, overrated, or, perhaps more accurately, overloved, and that your sentiments about irreproachable lit royalty were right the first time. Is this a fair, perhaps even downright necessary, thing to say?
MSWell, cults around writers are silly. They tend to obscure rather than enhance the work’s actual value (see also: Wallace, David Foster), and so I’d reckon that is a pretty fair thing to say, even as I’d note that Smith and Didion came up as female artists in a world that didn’t offer a plethora of role models in that regard. The tote-bag frenzy that has sprung up around those two is thus a lot more plausible than, say, the Hemingway mystique, and I’d hesitate to call either one “overloved” in that light. But I changed that line for two reasons: one, because I realized, late, that people weren’t reading it with the drastic wink intended (I, too, love Didion, and the remark was intended to signify the narrator’s own bumptiousness as much as anything else), and also because I realized there are often markers for me in the early going of a work that are permission granters for the writer, which can later be extracted without harm. American Dream Machine describes a Los Angeles that holds some overlap, in terms of history, geography, and class, with Didion’s version, and I needed to be sure her presence didn’t intrude upon the book. It was an anxiety of influence thing, really.
SH Your relationship to Los Angeles is surely a complicated one, as Always Crashing in the Same Car consistently displays, but it appears to contain components of the curatorial, the no-longer-young docent, the unironic and even sincere dispenser of hard-earned wisdom. Is this an apropos take?
MS Yeah. I mean, not that I consider myself wise, or really the curator of anything besides my own sensibility, but the late critic Scott Timberg once edited a book about LA called The Misread City, and I think that title still applies. People misunderstand this place—particularly the quadrant I write about often, the entertainment complex—and I’m trying to both deepen and correct that understanding. Writers are often tied to place, but they are also often tethered to some kind of mistake, to a disjunct between the world as it is and as other people see it. Lucky me, I seem to be tied both ways.
SH On the subject of place, I ought to point out that I was first introduced to you in the very early days of an enterprise of yours called the Los Angeles Review of Books. You were cofounder, with Tom Lutz, of what was then a fledgling website. It’s since become a major publication with over half a million visitors each month, a reliable home for substantive literary criticism. I know you’ve stepped away from the day-to-day and left the keys in good hands, but care to offer a thought on this unexpected accomplishment, now celebrating its tenth anniversary?
MS I was a cofounder. There were others (Evan Kindley, Lisa Jane Persky, Julie Cline), but yeah, Tom Lutz, the true father of the project, was onto something. Book criticism was—and still is—in crisis, as venues for it continue to disappear. What’s left appears to be lists, blurbs, “Most Anticipated,” “Best of the Summer.” That’s mostly a function of late capitalism—why sell a complex review when you can boil an endorsement down to tweet length? But, of course, it’s a fucking disaster. Books exist to be read, ruminated on, and circulated between readers—they’re complex objects worthy of complex responses, not just things to be stickered and listed. LARB is an answer to that. That as many people visit it, and that the people who work there continue to do it, as we did at the beginning—as a labor of love—tells you how necessary it is. Like good writing itself, it’s an instrument of resistance to those capitalist forces. And as with all such instruments, my fervent hope is that it can outlast those forces altogether.
Always Crashing in the Same Car: On Art, Crisis, and Los Angeles, California is available for purchase here.
Sean Hooks was born and raised in working class New Jersey about ten miles west of New York City. He holds a BA from Drew University, an MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an MA from Loyola Marymount University. His writing can be found in various venues, including most recently The Morning News, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Southeast Review, Full Stop, and Quarterly West. Presently, he resides in Los Angeles. He enjoys the writing of Dennis Cooper, the filmmaking of David Lynch, the music of Bob Dylan, and the art of Donald Judd. He does not enjoy deep dish pizza. He is not entirely sure why he’s fixated on the letter “D” as he writes this author bio. Just that kind of day. His website is www.seanhooks.com.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.