The Practice of Infinite Humility by Chris Wallace

As host of LA radio station KCRW’s Bookworm, Michael Silverblatt interviews the most well known writers of our time—but it is his empathetic reading of the writers’ work that has made the radio program the premier literary forum in America.

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Photo by Ari Michelson.

As host of LA radio station KCRW’s Bookworm, Michael Silverblatt interviews the most talked-about writers of our time—recent guests include Jonathan Lethem, Nobelist Orhan Pamuk, and Tao Lin —but it is his empathetic reading of the writers’ work rather than the sheer wattage of the visiting literary stars that has made the radio program, now in its 20th year, the premier literary forum in America.

A native son of Queens and graduate of SUNY Buffalo, Silverblatt moved to Los Angeles in the ’80s, like everyone else, to become a screenwriter, and landed at a production company, working in the story department. Over dinner with friends one night he fell into a deep discussion about Russian poetry and after the meal his hostess, dazzled by his insights, offered him the opportunity for a radio show. Two decades on he has become an international treasure of the reading community: Susan Sontag called him her ideal reader; Mary Gaitskill claimed he taught her how to be interviewed; John Berger, after Silverblatt described his work as “parading around an Italian palazzo in constricting circles until, in the center, we look up to gaze at the heavens,” offered him the diary he kept as he transitioned from essays to fiction in the hopes Silverblatt too might take up the quill.

Our first conversation—that to set up a time when we’d really do the interview—lasted nearly two hours and touched on subjects as far afield as Playboy magazine and John Ashbery, Michael Ondaatje and Borges’ improbable burial site in Geneva, artichokes, Mad magazine, John Barth, Junot Díaz, Rene Girard and Silverblatt’s friendship with the late David Foster Wallace. After such a romp in preparation for an interview with a master of the form, I was a bit terrified as to how I might proceed.

Chris Wallace I’m tempted to throw out all my questions and make this the opposite of a Bookworm show.

Michael Silverblatt I say throw them out entirely. I never have questions. Never. I bring as many of the writer’s books as I own to use as sort of visual flash cards or talismans. And that’s it really. Sometimes, but very rarely, I’ll write down two or three words that come up. I’m not really doing an interview—I’m having a conversation, and I find that if I prepare questions it is not a conversation. It doesn’t have a flow. My questions wouldn’t be a response to the author’s answer. From the very beginning I’ve tried to work without a net. The possibilities for real exchange and surprises and emotions become increased if you’re not mapping it in advance.

CW The last time we spoke you said something about wanting Bookworm to be literary criticism in its highest form. Do you feel as though they cross a threshold into something else? Because the interviews are live—in the moment—do they cross over into another genre, another form, something dramatic?

MS Well, I was probably speaking in another context when I said that it was literary criticism because I don’t really regard myself as a literary critic. I think that—yes, what I am trying to do is create a dramatic circumstance and, oddly, if there’s a predetermined script it is not dramatic. The thing that is wonderful about radio is its immediacy. In this regard the only thing we have are the voices and if the voices sound canned, you’ve sold out to a kind of deadness and I want the thing to be as alive as possible.

I also want to be talking to the writer who wrote the book, not the writer who is selling the book. I’m trying to shake them out of the book tour mode, which is one that requires an automaton not a person. And I don’t invite an author on if I don’t like that book or find something admirable about the book we can talk about. I think the culture has a lot of critics who are very snide and complex and I’m trying to get back a readership, to make my listeners feel that the book would be a vibrant and exciting thing to read and hold in their hands. I want people to read. That is the intention.

CW I’m always struck by your generosity as a reader. And I agree that the snark and criticism—in every sense of the word—that dominates our media today is less than informative and less than helpful.

MS Well, I’m telling you I think there should be everything. And it has its place—believe me, I am capable of being the most unpleasantly vicious snark imaginable. But people are doing that, whereas I don’t feel meaning, resonance, and significance are being well-examined, well-expressed in our time. But I think everything has its place, there should be many voices. Saying that there shouldn’t be experimental novels—what is it, eugenics? We want to breed a certain novel and have only it? No, we want as many things as possible! To expect a writer to write a book that doesn’t come naturally to them is foolish. And I think our great American novels tend to be in a strange and original mode. My favorite American novel is Moby-Dick, and I think—if people are being honest—in addition to its extraordinary poetry, its philosophy, its originality of form, there are all sorts of places where the voice in Moby-Dick becomes orotund and kind of howling. The constant intensity of Ahab’s tone—I think that’s probably a mistake, but certainly Melville invented a voice to rival the voice of a hurricane. What I’m trying to say is that everyone has a different ear. Sometimes even the greatest writers invent voices that ring hollow to this or that critic. There is no absolute certainty of tone. In a culture that right now seems not to know what to do with literature except subject it to theory—the deconstructive process or the postcolonial view—I think the critic should help people to read. The extraordinary fineness of ear that critics develop over the years, just by reading constantly, often boils down to personal eccentricity. And that’s the other thing—writers, readers and critics are all eccentrics. Revealing eccentricity, instead of using eccentricity as a weapon, seems to me to be a more valuable way through the woods.

CW Do you have a style of reading?

MS Well, I’m not that interested in content. I am interested in the artistic tools that the writer uses to render emotion or to render the withholding of emotion. For me, I’ve worked by a kind of attrition. The young man I was who thought he knew everything had to be taught how much he didn’t know. When I think back, both my assumptions and achievements were meager. All I had was will and forceful character. And I’ve come to think that those are not really what are necessary to our time. It was a very valuable thing for there to be extraordinarily forceful critical voices—like Pauline Kael’s, like Leslie Fiedler’s, like Susan Sontag’s. But now, when it’s not really to be assumed that anyone has read anything, it can’t be forceful—you don’t know what anyone has read. I think accepting one’s weakness, being powerfully timorous, might be a meaningful strategy to getting back down to basics, to be talking about what literature is for, what a writer writes for.

CW Such as?

MS What is a writer capable of knowing? What is a person, whose greatest ability is to build in their minds enough solitude in order to be able to write? Is the solitary fish of our times capable of writing a great social novel? Proust spent years going to parties before he took to his cork-lined room, so he brought the social world into that room with him. When Jonathan Franzen says, for instance, that he puts on earphones to block out the world in order to write, well, it makes sense that his natural subject is not society but his family. And that the books he wrote before The Corrections are less interesting, because in The Corrections, he truly knew his subject, whereas before he’d been a sort of sociologist. Now, you know, Jonathan became very decisive when he’d say, “I’m unlike most of the members of my generation—I love my family.” Well, it’s really good to start with what you love for a certain kind of writer. Another kind of writer needs to start with what he hates. It can take years for a writer to discover what kind of writer he is. And usually that discovery is marked by an extraordinary change of voice and also a great response—not just from critics but from people too. People responded to The Corrections as if they were hearing a long absent voice of truth about the family, as informed by love, by despair and exile. And that really made that book very interesting—that a writer who had been something of a social satirist found a place where he could join his satiric and fierce impulse with love.

CW How does someone go about teaching themselves a powerful timorousness? Is it humility?

MS To tell you the truth, it is literature. What I would recommend is to read Kafka’s Letters, read Bruno Schulz, read Robert Walser. In our time, for some reason, the literature of those sweet human mice has entered the frame and I must say, in some of the amazing cowardly forthrightness of those three writers, I found something that might be called humility, a comic style of infinite deference (which couldn’t possibly be real—a real life character would not have that kind of infinite solicitude, and empathy, at that level, would only be a detriment to living). Using a similar voice seemed, to me, to be a useful way of talking to a writer because—respectfully, deferentially, comically—it invites someone to explain something they might not have words for when faced with someone being more forceful. So, I would say, to some extent the voice on Bookworm is something of a literary invention.

CW Have you honed that voice over time or did you know going in that would be the approach?

MS Oh, over time, a good deal of time. When I began Bookworm I had no experience speaking to a large, invisible audience. I wanted to come in and interview versions of my mentors—John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Dwight McDonald, Pauline Kael. I wanted to talk to them and talk like them. The show started in the early nineties and the writing that I held dear, because I had personally encountered it during college, was no longer the writing of the time. For better or worse the American writers I most loved were Barth, Barthelme, Hawkes, Gass, Pynchon—what you might call the usual crew. The international writers were Beckett, Borges, Nabokov…you can fill in the list. Liking only _that_—what turned out to be a sliver, and, at that, a constantly diminishing sliver of the whole of literature—that isn’t the job of a critic or a teacher. That’s the job of a fan. In a sense we were educated by these writers and we taught ourselves what they knew. In the course of reading Ulysses so many people became a version of Joyce. That was modernism. But the writers I’m talking about were so much more hectic, more apocalyptic, and more comic even then Joyce. So we became sort of mini-model maniacs on the lines of the writers we adored. Even if you took examples like Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut, that kind of nihilist comedy became a kind of personal style. But when life became darker the personal style became inadequate to facing our times. I found that I had to read new things, to be able to respond to new things and that to be someone like John Hawkes who said his fiction was trying to abolish plot and character, that didn’t make sense anymore.

CW This was in the ’60s?

MS Yeah. That generation—if cliché was like a fire sweeping the country—that writing was like a huge fire extinguisher: “Let’s get rid of the smoking clichés around us.” But when they had been more or less put out we were faced with all sorts of scarred earth and then it was about trying to nurture new people who had come up in the influence of infinite sarcasm. They’d been raised with cynicism. They’d been raised to feel that they earth was imploding on itself. It wasn’t apocalypse, but emptiness. It wasn’t the comedy of futility; it was the desperation of futility.

CW So we went from nihilism to fatalism?

MS Yeah and also, one thing you can say about the ’60s is it was a time of enthusiasm. Much of what was going in fiction was the skewering of mindless enthusiasm. But now, how could you talk to people who were often not left with the appetite to live—not even the appetite to read because they felt reading would just add to the store of infinite weariness. I needed a whole new training. And you know, when I do a job I want to do it well. So, I read a huge number of writers that I’d never read before, that I’d merely objected to on principle because they were not postmodernism.

And during that period of reading things that I hadn’t read, of reading new novels, I was asked to be on stage to do an event with Doris Lessing. I’d never read Doris Lessing, but I’d been told by many of the dominant, dominating critics of the time that The Golden Notebook was a work of madness and incoherence, and what came after was even worse. I felt, to be sure, that there were people in the audience who deserved to be talking to Doris Lessing and I was usurping their place, so I’d better do a creditable job. So I read everything, really to find, to my astonishment, much of it is amazing! Including The Golden Notebook. And when I think of the things that it was permissible for Irving Howe and Alfred Kazin and others to say about writers I understood then what is still true now: that anything can and will be said, that fear and hatred becomes a bulwark against almost anything that’s new, that I don’t have to like, say, Tao Lin, to see that he’s offering a kind of cross between autism and Buddhism that is a new tone of voice. There are people who want to say, oh, he’s on ritalin, or, he’s part of the numb generation—that’s just part of the response, often angry or anguished, to something that people don’t want to acknowledge. Now, he’s a writer in development—he’s still in his twenties—but I found a significant voice there worth hearing and listening to. Much in its ambivalence and neutrality I don’t find attractive, but there’s much about Defoe that I don’t find attractive. Do I want to rule it out of existence? All of these sectors have voices that must be heard, given a certain amount of leeway. How much leeway do you give? I give a lot. Someone else will pick up the whip. I have no fear that anyone is going to escape punishment. This is such a retributive culture that people are punished merely for having had a successful book. So I’m not afraid of that kind of stuff.