At some point in 2011, everybody I knew in the international literary community was suddenly talking about the columns Tim Parks was regularly filing at the NYRBlog. At long last, here was a columnist at a major periodical actively engaging with the questions that most mattered to us: What was this new globalized novel genre taking shape right before our eyes? How can we best understand the psyche of that schizophrenic entity known as the Nobel Prize jury? And why in God’s name do the Germans like Jonathan Franzen so much?
“Looks like Parks is working his way toward a book,” one of my friends commented back then, and he was right. This spring NYRB Classics releases Where I’m Reading From, some 240 pages of lightly edited and meticulously arranged postings from Parks’s four plus years as a blogger. I’m as skeptical as anyone of collections of pre-published material—particularly when it’s work that just happens to be sitting around for free online—but the writing in Where I’m Reading From really does take on new dimensions as a printed, choreographed book. Arranged into four linked sections, these pieces deal with what the novel has become in the 21st century, how globalization has impacted it, the authors most relevant to it, and where Parks himself fits into this equation, both as a reader and a writer.
As I remark to Parks during this interview, part of what has made his blog such a success is his ability to home in on the questions we are all asking—I don’t mean tired think-piece mainstays like whether or not the novel is dead, but rather the really interesting issues that are breaking new ground in our discussion of this form in the 21st century. Whether I agree or disagree, his point of view is always fascinating and provocative. To hear a little more about these ideas, the genesis of the project, and his observations on becoming a blogger after decades as a print writer, the author and I corresponded over the course of a few weeks.
Scott Esposito To start, I’d like to talk about what drew you toward the lines of inquiry you follow in Where I’m Reading From. What intrigued you to begin contemplating questions of how we read and write these days?
Tim Parks In a way, this book is an autobiography of someone brought up with a very particular relation to books, in a religious family, in an English literary tradition, who on becoming an adult, for private personal reasons, set himself literary goals that were gradually revealed as spurious. Also, it’s about a person from the literary center—English, London— who has spent more than thirty years in another country, Italy, that is out of the literary mainstream. And a writer who also, by chance, became a translator and went on to teach translation. My life has been a long process of awakening to the reality, the changing reality, of the contemporary book world, which is a million miles from the naïve vision I had when I started writing books at twenty-two. Since it is in the publishers’ interests, and indeed the University’s, to sustain a false picture of what the book world is like and what the contemporary experience of books amounts to, my articles were a response to this, and an attempt to get my own head straight about what I’m really doing and the environment I move in. One is seeking at last to be unblinkered about it all.
SE This journey from being more blinkered to less, is it a necessary one for any writer who will do worthwhile work?
TP I wouldn’t want to be prescriptive. The journey seems natural to me, but it’s clear many fine writers don’t feel the need to worry much about the market conditions in which they are working. “Worthwhile,” by the way, makes me nervous. It has a utilitarian implication. There is no need for literature to be “worthwhile.”
SE What sorts of books would you categorize as “not worthwhile”?
TP I really don’t categorize books so quickly. “Worthwhile” is not a word I often use, either negatively or positively. I’m aware that what may seem empty to me might make sense to someone else. Let’s say one thing that irritates me intensely is when I feel the writer is “doing literature.” They have studied literature; they know, or think they know, that literature does certain things, and they seek to reproduce it. Metaphors, symbols, melodrama. It is wearisome.
SE Subtracting away utilitarian concerns like career and artistic inspiration, why do you read?
TP For the intensity of engagement with someone else’s view of life.
SE To return to Where I’m Reading From, given the book’s vision of contemplating literature from the margins, it’s interesting to note that the form you originally wrote these pieces for—the blog—is one that is feels out of the mainstream, at least insofar as how books of literary essays usually come together. For one thing, I feel like blogs encourage a writer to blur the lines a little more between the personal and the objective. Has the fact of you thinking and writing from the periphery—from Italy, from a translation perspective, and now from the blog format—been significant in your ability to contemplate this mainstream reality perpetuated by conglomerated publishers and academe?
TP For sure, this format allowed me to be more informal than I can be in the paper pages of The New York Review of Books. But many essayists have written in the same tone in the past—Orwell comes to mind. I don’t think it’s the blog or the Internet, as such, that allows this. It’s the way the editors have created a hierarchy of formality that governs the way I work. I don’t think the fact that the piece first appears on the net makes any difference at all to how I craft it. But this may just be me, and the fact that I came to this when already in my mid-fifties.
As for my position, an English novelist who has spent most of his life in Italy, a translator, a teacher, etc., yes, this obviously gives me a privileged and unusual perspective. I see the disparity in the flow of literature from the Anglo-Saxon world into other languages—pretty much one-way traffic. I see the anxiety of European authors to be published in English in order to circulate in the global economy. I see the way English authors are transformed when their work appears in Italian, the changes (often dumbing down) governed not just by the problems of the translation but by a deliberate policy on the part of the publishers to make books more easily readable.
SE How did you come to blog for The New York Review?
TP I was initially hostile to the idea of writing for the blog when The New York Review of Books asked me. I was concerned about inconsequentiality, shooting one’s mouth off, and so on. Also, it was suggested I blog about Italy, something I was reluctant to do. Then I realized that I could use this space to talk about things difficult to talk about in the more formal frame of The New York Review essay, where one is presenting an author and his work. I could talk more personally, but also more generally about the experience of reading today, and the way the world of books is changing. So, that’s what I started to do.
SE What was your experience with blogging like?
TP To be honest, the work put into the pieces was never less and sometimes more than those put into print pieces, and the editing offered by The New York Review of Books was always intense and extremely useful, so it was a pleasure to work together. I enjoyed the flexibility of length a great deal, though it always seemed important to come in at fewer than 2,000 words, and I enjoyed the way you could come back at a subject from different angles. Above all, I could write when I wanted, with no deadline, maybe two pieces in a week, maybe one in two months. This is an important freedom. There is nothing worse than having to grind something out when you don’t really have an idea up and running. I guess another advantage with the blog is that you can correct the mistakes readers notice. Curiously, a well-kept blog is more likely to be correct, after a day or so, than an article in print.
SE Do you have any interest in using the blog as a way to further break down the separation between author and reader?
TP To be honest, no. I like the fact readers can comment and discuss among themselves. I’m glad when mistakes are pointed out. But any direct dialogue with readers I do privately or on my author Facebook page. Otherwise, one would be constantly locked in debate and nothing would get done. I have no problem with a certain distance between writer and reader with text in the middle. When I read a text I like, or perhaps disagree with, I don’t feel I urgently have to be in touch with the author. I’m just interested in reflecting on what I’ve read.
SE I recall reading many of the essays in this book for the first time on the NYRBlog. It’s interesting how different they feel to me now that I see them again in the pages of a printed volume. They work rather well as a book, both because of how you’ve arranged them and because of the inherent overlaps throughout. As you were putting these together for the NYRBlog, how much were you thinking about these as items that would eventually be collected and printed as a single volume?
TP It’s true they feel different organized together in print, but, to tell the truth, there are very few changes from the originals. From about the third or fourth post, I realized I had a whole area of experience with reading and writing that I wanted to write about, and I was immediately thinking of a book. In fact, I was pestering The New York Review to think about it that way from very early on. I’m a book person.
SE What was the process of turning these blog posts into a book?
TP In this case, I avoided anything that would bind them absolutely to a particular moment. The only problems were choosing which pieces to use and how to organize them. The organization was particularly difficult in that the pieces were deliberately set up to call to each other in many ways, and there seemed all kinds of different ways of arranging them. In the end, we just laid down a few big subject areas and split the pieces like that.
Both NYRB Classics and the British publishers offered editing suggestions, which I generally took on board. Usually cuts, or small explanations. There was some overlap with the pieces that had to go, and it was invaluable getting editors who hadn’t read the pieces online to go through the book. Aside from that, very little. I wrote an introduction, because it seemed to need a strong statement to set the ball rolling.
Let me say, though, that I hardly think of these pieces as, in any way, different from my other writing. It was always the same process. I just had more freedom than I’m used to when working for a paper.
SE Do you expect to continue blogging, now that the book is done?
TP Sure, there are already more than a dozen pieces since we closed the book. One or two of them among the best, I think. The rhythm has slowed down a little, but that’s because, having got a lot of stuff down that I’d been thinking about for years, the new material is really new.
SE One of the sections I found most interesting—and that, I would guess, has generated a lot of reaction—are your thoughts on the internationalization of literature. One of the things you focus on in your critique is the tendency of the international novel (and those who read it) to focus on its universal aspects, to the detriment of what is most local about it. So, for instance, the Nobel Prize committee recognizing Orhan Pamuk because they like how his books allegorize the East/West dichotomy in Turkish society, versus someone like Henry Green, whose eccentric style and overwhelming Englishness, you say, seems to preclude him from ever becoming international in a Pamuk sort of way. Do you feel like in your lifetime you’ve witnessed a change in reading habits, away from the Henry Green school and more toward the Orhan Pamuk school?
TP It’s evident that habits have changed a great deal over the fifty or so years of my reading lifetime. Essentially, the relationship between the author and his community of readers is changing. Once he could assume that at least initial readers would be those of his immediate national community who shared a rich cultural and linguistic context with him. I think that is still largely true in the States, where there is a large book market and writers can survive without becoming international figures. But this is not the case elsewhere. More and more the writer is aware of an international community of readers for whom dense language use and frequent local references are a hindrance. This seems obvious. I don’t decry it or criticize it—it’s just a fact.
SE What you say about the audience’s desire to read as part of a community takes me back to the essay where you discuss an idea of the Italian psychologist Valeria Ugazio: the way we exist in our families—and the way we relate to books—comes out of the place we find for ourselves in certain dominant conversations. You follow this essay with another that continues this theme, where you talk about how your own desires to read toward or against a community originated with the place you found as a reader within your family as a child. What do you see as the dominant axes of the conversations that the major international novels these days are engaging with?
TP That’s a fascinating question. What is the globe actually talking about, now that it’s globalized? Superficially, we’re talking about good and evil, about the brave little good people who fight the cowardly powerful bad people, who resist conspiracies of authority, particularly at international level. Infinite numbers of books and documentaries can be boiled down to this. But I suspect this essential polarity hides another one that is more brutally about winning and losing. This is what really matters. Only that to win in a way one can feel happy with, one also has to feel that one was supporting the right principles and on the side of the small guy, and profound values, etc.
SE Are these conversations you want to engage with?
TP They don’t interest me at all.
SE In one of your essays you argue that many of the forces pushing literature in this international direction have also homogenized it, not only in terms of what sells but also in writers’ aspirations. That, in effect, the “international literary novel” is a genre that writers can be trained to produce. At various points, you offer some ideas as to why publishers would prefer to sell novels like these (they’re safe, they’re better commodities) and why prize juries would reward them. I’m curious as to why you think readers are so eager to experience these books.
TP Let’s start with homogenization. Any time one seeks to produce for a larger public one inevitably has to drop material that would only be understood by a particular group. If you want to appeal to people of different languages and cultures, you have to move toward tropes that are universally recognized. Games, references, subtleties that only work in your language are hardly useful. As for training, I’m not sure I said writers could be trained to produce novels that appeal universally. You still have to have a fine imagination and an ability to engage to write work that will appeal. It’s actually a huge achievement to write novels that will have universal appeal. On the other hand, it’s evident that certain genres are particularly amenable to internationalization—the detective novel, the conspiracy novel (many think of globalization itself as a form of conspiracy), and so on. As to why readers would like to read them, I mention our understandable desire to read what everyone else is reading, to be part of a community, possibly an international community. This is a strong feeling in smaller countries, perhaps less so in the States, which is such a huge and globally dominant culture. Young people in particular have said to me: “When I travel, I want to be able to talk books to people and to have read what they have read.” I also think the translated novel and the global novel may often be somewhat anaesthetized and escapist. In Italy, 70% of novels read are translated novels. And the manner of translation here tends to make the whole feel of the text more orthodox in the translation than the original. Less threatening. But for the most part, I think people are simply drawn to participate in what is perceived to be the experience of the moment. And why not? We live in our times. The problem is when this is exploited by publishers as flavor of the day.
SE What about international prizes, which of course have their role in this global economy of literary value? In terms of the good or the bad they can do, do you feel like they have certain nontrivial benefits, either to the writer or the audience, above and beyond their utility to the literary economy?
TP Let me say, right away, that I’d love to win a major literary prize. Why not? Money and prestige. The knowledge that people noticed and appreciated what you are doing, etc. However, in general I’ve long been convinced that prizes as they are functioning now are, for the most part, damaging. Books are not about winning and losing. There is no best book or best writer, though there are better books and worse books. Prizes like the Booker and the Pulitzer create the wrong kind of hype. Perhaps they increase sales here, but reduce them there. They encourage a certain public to constantly buy the kinds of books that win prizes, and I believe it is truly difficult for a genuinely innovative and controversial book to win a major prize. The only prizes I think have serious value are those for unpublished manuscripts. They give a chance to writers who otherwise might not have their work read. But I would say that. The first novel I published, the seventh I had written, won such a prize after rejection from more than twenty publishers, including the publisher who took it on through the prize. It went on to win other prizes and to be published in a dozen countries. It is still in print. But the prize that got it there has been ditched, because there is not sufficient glamour (winning/losing polarity) for prizes for first-time authors.
SE Beyond prizes, what sorts of institutions would be helpful to the world community of literature?
TP It’s highly unlikely that any institutions will be “helpful.” Certainly, some basic market conditions can be important. The Germans, for example, keep a system of fixed book prices that doesn’t allow discounting, and this has doubtless helped them to avoid the free-for-all of the English market, which sees a large percentage of books sold under price as loss leaders in supermarkets, etc. What writers and readers need are enthusiastic publishers who care, above all, about the quality of the books they publish. Once our publishers are all taken over by corporations whose only concern is the relation between investment and profit, then it’s unlikely literature will flourish.
SE Given some of the subjects we’ve been discussing, I’m curious to know your feelings on the canon. Is a canon relevant to how we read these days?
TP The canon is finished. Anyone who believes that one can construct a canon from the tidal wave of narrative produced today is guilty of wishful thinking. All we will have is a record of who won the prizes and achieved celebrity status. But, perhaps, the canon was always a fairly heavy-handed tool and little more than a convenience. The only thing is to follow one’s nose and listen carefully to the way others talk about books, learn who’s opinion takes you to interesting places.
SE What about projects like the one Harold Bloom undertook in The Western Canon, which may have been better titled “Harold Bloom’s Canon”? I suppose Bloom’s claim for his canon rests on his argument that writers like Shakespeare and Freud authored the modern Western consciousness. Do you feel like the literary canon once held that sort of power?
TP As you say, it’s Harold Bloom’s canon, and it’s an attempt to impose a certain vision. Brilliant as it is, the project now seems a little old fashioned and naïve.
SE Throughout your discussions of the international novel, you mention Peter Stamm a lot. You admire his work, even in spite of his prose having a very “international” tone to it. Why does this style produce valid literature in his hands, whereas in many others it does not?
TP There is no contradiction here. Again, let me stress, I don’t think you have to write badly to write for an international public. It’s just that the economic advantages of international distribution create a kind of selection process that will lead these texts to be more successful than texts more closely bound to their own languages. Stamm is a curious figure. He is Swiss and lives speaking the Swiss dialect of German, but he writes in correct high German. This is an old tradition and already creates a break between local community and literary language. He is also, by character, someone who uses a spare, lean style for spare, lean, laconic stories. This is what he does and has nothing to do with any choice of large audiences. Also, they are not easy stories for a mass public. However, his style of writing and the almost complete absence of the local lends itself to fluent translation, so here you have a fine author who is, indeed, internationally available. But not, it has to be said, with big sales. There you go.
SE With the international comes translation, and with translation comes mistranslation. Among a number of errors you discuss here, maybe the most egregious is the Italian translator who changed the famous first sentence of 1984 from “the clocks were striking thirteen” to “striking one.” At a different point, you mention a much more subtle error in an Italian translation of Mrs. Dalloway, where Septimus Smith’s final words as he leaps to his death—“I’ll give it to you!”—are translated to remove the idea of gifting from that statement, which runs counter to the broader themes of the work. Do you feel like changes in meaning like this are perhaps inherent to the act of translation?
TP Well, the two changes you mention here are easily avoidable. The problem is not really linguistic at all but simply the translator’s flawed understanding of the original. Translators are underpaid, they receive a book and are told to produce a translation in a couple of months. They may not be aware of the particular stylistic habits of this or that author. Although there is some in-house editing, there is rarely an attempt to put together a literary team who actually think about what the text meant and why certain things were said as they were. So, I think much of what is lost in translation could be recovered. But that said, there is a profound transformation that occurs when a piece of writing is moved into another language, as if a landscape appeared under a different light. This is a more interesting and exciting question.
SE This profound transformation, does it point to things that are, to use a pat phrase, “found in translation”?
TP The whole story of “found in translation” is, I fear, largely wishful thinking. I’ve spent my life looking at translations and originals, and only where the originals are poor and the translator talented are you likely to get much real gain. No, what I mean is that each language is its own world, its own enchantment, its own sound. Meaning is segmented a little differently—things feel different. Anyone who has learned and lived in a second language will be aware how different life feels in different languages. Kafka in German is not Kafka in English or French. But still, of course, Kafka.
SE How do you feel about the Italian translations of your novels?
TP I work closely with my translators. Essentially, I leave the style alone and just correct any semantic errors, though sometimes I will suggest changes when I think the tone is shifted. The book is always completely different in a different language. It feels different. Like a play with different actors and a different director. It is pointless getting anxious about that. Reading translations of my books generates a sort of amazement, that the same book can seem so different, that cultures are so utterly different.
SE As an essayist, translator, and novelist, do these other forms give you ways to redress things you feel unable to accomplish in the novel form?
TP I think that’s a generous view of the way I work, as if there were a range of things that Tim Parks had to say and, feeling frustrated in one area, he explored the possibilities of the other. It’s rather a more banal question of opportunity, of supply and demand. My main focus is always my fiction, even if it seems to get less fictional. But invitations to work in other areas have led me to understand that essay writing, translation, and non-fiction all feed into and enrich my fiction in the end.
SE Regarding your fiction, in one of your essays you liken your attempts to break free from the Western sense of narrating one’s story to a ship that wants to sail into the open sea but is kept close to shore by strong winds. Try as you might, you just can’t sail away from the shore. You also mention your interest in Buddhism as a way of finding an alternative to the Western form of narration and self. Given that the novel is a form that comes out of the West—and that came to be at a time when the West was forming its sense of a modern self—do you feel like it’s capable of sustaining such alien narrative forms?
TP Probably not, to be honest. I suppose all one can do is draw attention to the predicament one is in. The promises of narrative and it’s limitations and disappointments. But these themselves then become a kind of narrative.
SE I would agree. And this is something pursued by a number of authors you discuss here, among them Dostoevsky, Beckett, and Bernhard. The latter two in particular moved toward silence. What do you think of this as a response?
TP Things change as one gets older. And this is as it should be. Ambition and career will come to seem less important as one acknowledges the simple facts of ageing and mortality. I suppose this might spur some to say more, but differently, and others to silence. There is no one “proper” response to the human predicament.
SE I’d like to ask you about a writer who had a rather particular response to his condition: two of the essays in this book deal with your experiences translating Giacomo Leopardi’s Zibaldone, a notebook kept over fifteen years by the great poet that runs well over 2,000 pages in Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s English-language edition. This was a massive and unlikely undertaking. Can you shed some light on the circumstances that allowed for a full English translation of it, well over one hundred years after its first full publication in Italian?
TP It was simply a question of funding and enthusiasm. There were scholars who wanted to do it, an enlightened publisher, and curiously enough some funding from, of all people, Berlusconi. To be honest, though, many of the notebook’s etymological obsessions make little sense to today’s readers, and my feeling is that to put the notebook in front of people they should have followed the project Leopardi himself was working on: to split the work into a series of themed volumes. He had already selected related passages with a view to such volumes, and my translation, Passions, for Yale University Press was such a selection.
SE As a reader, what do you find most valuable about the Zibaldone?
TP The Zibaldone is an infinite treasure chest of reflection from a guy who was a very remarkable observer of emotions and behavior, of literature and society. He is also absolutely free of any of the pieties that taint the work of so many people who write about, say, literature. He simply wants to get at the truth. He has no axes to grind. So, if you’re ever thinking about something, you can pick up the Zibaldone, look in the index, and see what Leopardi thought about it. You won’t always agree, but it’s always fresh and to the point.
SE To close, I’d like to touch on one subject that comes up repeatedly in your book and does indeed have the power to taint a writer’s work. Namely, money. You pose the question, “Does money make us write better?” which I think few essayists would bother contemplating. But it’s a worthy question. As you point out, as perverse an influence as money can be, it can also enable a level of ambition and stability that can be very beneficial. Is a writer’s relationship to money more fraught than artists who work in other disciplines?
TP I’ve no idea. I have no intimate knowledge of the commercial aspect of other arts. I see my brother, a painter, who has just had, what, his sixth or seventh show in New York, struggling to make ends meet. A painting needs to find one buyer with a lot of money, not crowds of buyers with a few dollars each. Yet, I never feel my brother adjusts his vision to the market. Certainly he paints seductive paintings, but it is not a kind of seduction in vogue. The way money effects the artist will have much to do with the artist’s background and attitude. I do not mean that the artist who is thinking of money and the market is a lesser artist, but simply that he approaches the process in a different way. Dickens was always very focused on money, so was Simenon. In general, though, one should never forget the role money plays in shaping the writer’s life, and the life inevitably informs the work. My own position is that I always want to convince a publisher to give me adequate money for what I want to do. At the same time, what I want to do is to arrive at full expression in a way that seduces, that pleases people in a way they didn’t expect to be pleased, or even want to be pleased.