A Cry in the Dark: Dinah Lenney Interviews David L. Ulin
By Dinah LenneySeptember 19, 2018
Ulin, who was the longtime book editor and critic at the Los Angeles Times, was temporarily blindsided. Consider: He has himself published 10 books; and writes across genre; and has won all manner of prizes for his work, among them a California Book Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation, and the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada.
What I’m saying is that the author evidently loves reading and writing, and readers and writers. In response to his son’s pronouncement, he writes, “I almost asked for a towel to clean up the blood.” Instead, he went to work on the book, just reissued with a new introduction and afterward.
It’s interesting, though, what people mostly didn’t get around to asking about during a lively Q-and-A a week or so ago, was reading, itself. Or writing. Maybe we can take for granted that a crowd assembled at Skylight Books to celebrate a title like The Lost Art of Reading doesn’t need to be convinced that it isn’t an art we can afford to lose — or maybe it’s that we’re obsessed with the national-narrative-of-the-moment to the point that we can’t think of anything else. "Do you think we can change anything?" asked a woman in second row. "We have to get out the vote," Ulin answered. But is he actually hopeful for the future of our country? Not exactly, he’d probably say. By his own admission, Ulin takes a bleak view. (“It’s probably the end of the empire,” he’d quipped earlier on.) And yet, I think he is. Hopeful, I mean. Otherwise, why would he decide to give 20 percent of his earnings to Sea Change, a PAC started by Karen Bass, a California Democrat who represents his district in the House? On tour in other states, he’ll use readings to raise money for specific races and particular candidates, not only from book sales, but also by passing the hat.
In any case, Ulin mostly — and reassuringly — fielded questions about the mess we’re in; about the current unraveling of our American story (or myth, if that’s what it is), until, toward the end of the hour a well-known novelist asked: "But then, what can we do? How are we supposed to take care of each other?" Perhaps it would have been too easy, too neat, to point to his own book — cris de coeur that it is — by way of an answer. Ulin didn’t do that. Instead he emphasized the need to be attentive and kind.
Afterward I noted that the conversation hadn’t been much about reading. “I know,” he said. “I was really glad about that.”
In an email exchange, I asked him to say more.
DINAH LENNEY: It’s amazing how well this book holds up. The world has changed so much since you wrote it. Tell me how you feel about that. How did it feel to read the work again after all this time?
DAVID L. ULIN: I didn’t read the work again. That was part of my approach, my arrangement. I was willing — eager, even — to revisit the material, as long as I didn’t have to … revisit the material. What I mean is this: when we first began to discuss reissuing The Lost Art of Reading, the conversation grew out of the notion of reading as a kind of resistance work. It’s an idea that gets raised at the end of the original version of the book and has taken on a more loaded resonance since November 2016.
Did you think of yourself as a political writer back then? Are you one now?
I’ve always been a political writer to an extent, or at least a writer informed by political concerns. I’ve written op-eds, tried to be politically outspoken. I wrote a series on political nonfiction for the Los Angeles Times in the run-up to the 2012 election. Even the original version of Lost Art took on the politics of the moment: Obama and the ACA, Sarah Palin, the dueling narratives of left and right. A lot of readers didn’t like that in 2010. They thought the book should stick to literature. But literature is political, everything is political. What does Orwell say? “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.” Although it is true that I’ve become a much more overtly political writer during the current catastrophe. I think it is necessary for those of us who can stand up to stand up. Anything else, I think, is an abdication of responsibility. In a country where rights are being stripped, where discrimination is in the process of being (re-)institutionalized, those who have a platform, or the privilege of privilege, are required to speak out.
Revisiting the book, though, was strange. As I say, I didn’t read the old material; I didn’t want to fall down that rabbit hole. The original version was going out of print, and I didn’t want to change anything in that text because I wanted it to continue to exist. Books for me are snapshots. They reflect not just their content but also the moment in which they were written. I wanted to honor that. If I started to read the old material, I would start to fix the old material. Like all authors, I suspect, I am very aware of the problems in my books. (“Every book,” Annie Dillard writes, “has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem […] is insoluble […] [a] prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes in spite of that.”) And yet, even setting that aside, I was drawn back into a discussion I thought I had settled for myself, the question of reading and its relevance. I don’t tend to look back, as either a writer or a human. I’m not interested, generally, in revisiting landscapes I’ve already traversed. But this process was inherently backward-looking, even though it was not. The key for me was focusing on the present moment, and everything we’re facing. That these concerns are not so different — only heightened — than what we were facing a decade ago only made it feel more urgent.
A decade ago. When your kids were still kids. Do you know if your son (your muse, in this case) has ever read The Lost Art of Reading? And how about your daughter, what does she think?
My son hasn’t read the book as far as I know. He’s read very little of my work. The same is true of my daughter. That’s fine with me — my kids are their own people, and I don’t define their worth (or mine) by how much they do or do not read. In fact, this gives me a lot of space, a lot of freedom. I can say whatever I want. There’s some relief in that, because much of what I write involves — to an extent — the people who are closest to me. I am an essayist first, and that perspective, that personal lens, bleeds over even when I work in other genres. My fiction, my criticism, my non-personal essays: Much of it grows out of anecdote. I am enmeshed with my kids, my family; they are my center, so they often end up in the work. It can be hard for that to happen if one feels watched. This is not to say that I share, or publish, everything — although, of course, I might. A few years ago, I wrote a book of short essays — one a week for 53 weeks. The idea was to document, in some kind of loosely formalized way, the daily life of my 53rd year. As it turned out, this was a tumultuous period for our family, and although I’ve completed a draft of the project, I go back and forth about what to do with it now. I have published several of the essays, but as for the book as a whole, some of the essays cut very close to the bone — and not only in regard to myself. I have no particular qualms about self-exposure; my reticence has more to do with everyone else. A few of the essays, I almost feel as if I should ask permission. But I don’t believe that artists should ever ask permission. So this, like all my choices, is entirely up to me.
It’s true, asking permission is a can of worms. Say you’re willing to tweak here, but not there, then what? But you tell me your reasons — why should artists never ask permission?
Because to be an artist is a matter of responsibility, and asking permission is, or can be, a dodge. You have to decide for yourself. Stories are unpredictable: even with permission, you run the risk of alienating or exposing someone else. “Writers are always selling someone out.” Right? I think of that Didion line. I learned this many times as a journalist. It’s astonishing the ways in which people feel as if they have been revealed. If I ask my son, for argument’s sake, or my mother, if it’s all right to tell a certain story and they say yes, then what happens if they are upset about it anyway? Do I just shrug it off, say, “You gave me permission,” and walk away? No, my commitment to those relationships, as well as to my writing, requires I stare down the ethics of my decision, regardless of who did or didn’t say it was all right. What I mean is that permission is often an excuse, a way to feel better about something that doesn’t necessarily exist to make us feel better, at least not in that clean and non-complicit way. You have to decide, knowing all the while that you might be making the wrong decision — or even more, that your decision is likely right and wrong for all sorts of reasons you can’t even calculate, and that you can’t predetermine what the reaction will be. Art provokes response — or it does, at least, when it is doing its job. It is, or should be, about stirring people up, beginning with the creator of the piece. That’s complicated, but the consequences of expression are real and the artist needs to face them. That’s part of the job.
Right. You’re right, art should stir us up, of course it should. But these days we’re already stirred up so much of the time. Given the nature of the noise out there — the current political and cultural distractions, I mean — would you say that it's easier or harder to turn to a book (to art) and away from the world?
I don’t know, really. There’s no question I’m on the computer a lot, reading (obsessively) about the current crisis — or crises. At the same time, I think it’s an abdication of our responsibility as citizens not to stay informed, and outraged. (Or maybe that’s how I justify it to myself.) No question we live in dangerous, chaotic times, made more so by all the noise and cross-talk, the memes and points-of-view. I don’t have a solution to that problem. And I am as susceptible to it as anyone. Yet I don’t think turning to books or art is a way of turning away from the world but rather of turning to it, more deeply than the fleeting glance at the last moment’s news. We need to keep an eye on the present, yes — to remain engaged and energized. But we also need to keep an eye on the long view, the line of history and art and conversation of which we are also a part. This won’t last forever; it will become something else. That something else might be worse or it might be better. It might be the end of everything. Either way, the more widely we are able to look and read and think, the more ideas and continuity we confront, the more fully we can live while we are here. One issue with the current moment is lack of context; in a very real sense, we don’t know where we are. Literature can help with that — and even more in regard to who we are, the humanity that, for better and for worse, we share.
Agreed. But, right now, in this moment, which kind of literature should we turn to — the kind that reminds us that it/we/the world was ever thus? Is that the sort of context you’re talking about? I guess I’m asking whether it’s content or craft, itself, that gives you comfort.
It’s both, and neither, or all that and something more. It’s the inquiry that comforts me, although comfort is a loaded term. I often find comfort in discomfort, in the way something disturbs me, gets under my skin. I don’t look to art for anything in particular, except maybe to be surprised. Sometimes that has to do with turn or phrase or an oddity of structure, a way of seeing that I haven’t experienced before. Currently, I’m obsessed with the stories of Lucia Berlin because they are so slippery — in the most interesting and best of ways, She often starts almost anecdotally, riffing for a page or two before zeroing in, almost like Montaigne. She blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction, tells and retells anecdotes, builds one story upon another, and then takes it all apart. I read her with a pen in my hand to take notes on what she’s doing, then get so drawn in that I forget to write anything down. This is a kind of comfort, perhaps the most important kind of comfort, the kind that lets me observe, or participate in, the world in a way I haven’t done before. That’s what I’m looking for, that engagement with perspective … the experience of another consciousness, different and yet, in so many essential ways, the same.
So who else are you reading? Besides Berlin? How much of an appetite do you have for contemporary fiction and nonfiction?
I read the way I always have — lots of books at once, variety of forms and genres and voices and points-of-view. Now that I no longer have to write several book pieces a week, I can range around a bit more broadly. I’ve been revisiting James Baldwin — talk about making art out of the political, more necessary and relevant than ever, and oh, those sentences. I’m interested in writers who push the edge, the boundaries, in terms of content and form. These include: Karl Ove Knausgaard, Maggie Nelson, Hari Kunzru, Sarah Manguso, Marilynne Robinson, Jenny Diski, Claudia Rankine, Bernardo Atxaga, Leslie Jamison, Deborah Eisenberg, Zadie Smith, Dorthe Nors, Lynell George. I also read in territories where I’m writing, to see how others cover the ground. Since I’m working on a memoir, I’ve been reading, or rereading, in that area: Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, Annie Ernaux’s savagely brilliant The Years (which doesn’t use first person singular — so good), Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum. Others: George Saunders’s magnificent Lincoln in the Bardo, Tom McGuane’s amazing short stories, Helen Weinzweig’s Basic Black with Pearls, which features one of the most beguilingly unreliable narrators I’ve ever come across. When I was in Marfa this past spring, I discovered a Texas poet, Joshua Edwards, and devoured all his books. One of them collects 200-plus photographs, taken, one an hour, over the course of a 40-day walk across the state, from Galveston to Marfa. There is also a companion volume of text. I love work like this — odd, idiosyncratic, defined in its way by landscape, by the interplay of what let’s call external weather on interior concerns.
Sounds like fun, you know? But in the book you say that literature is “a cry in the dark. Its futility is what makes it noble.” Do you really believe that? About art across the board?
Absolutely. How could it be anything else? What is the meaning of life, of humanity, of existence? There is none. The universe is indifferent. Everything dies, or goes extinct. What this suggests is that all meaning, we invent it, and it disappears with us. We decide what is important, what we care about, even as we understand that our care, our love, our longing, won’t do one fucking thing to save us — or anyone. No one will remember, there will be no one here to remember. Posterity is a mug’s game. All we can do is send up our little messages to one another, connect (if we are lucky) for a second, then go our separate ways again. The paradox is that this can be liberating if we look at it through the right sort of eyes. If there is no external reward, no reason on the other side, then the only reason is the thing itself. That’s the source of its nobility — not the reception, nor the longevity, but the expression. It is a declaration of identity, a way of saying we were here. Art to me is not about consolation; it is about staking out a position against the abyss. There can be no consolation in that, really (the abyss always wins) — or at least no consolation that prevails. And yet, there is, isn’t there? Even if it’s fleeting? Yes, because art is talking to one another about what matters, in the time we have. Here’s Studs Terkel, something he wrote after seeing Billie Holiday perform toward the end of her life:
There were perhaps fifteen, twenty patrons in the house. At most. Awful sad. Still, when Lady sang “Fine and Mellow,” you felt that way. And when she went into “Willow, Weep for Me,” you wept. Something was still there, that something that distinguished an artist from a performer: the revealing of self. Here I be. Not for long, but here I be. In sensing her mortality, we sensed our own.
I love that. Where’d you find it, what’s it from?
It’s from his 1984 book Talking to Myself, although I first came across it in Terkel’s afterword to a reprint of Nelson Algren’s magnificent The Neon Wilderness, where it is … repurposed, let’s say. Terkel and Algren were together at that performance and went backstage to visit Holiday after the show. I heard it quoted in Chicago in 2009 at a celebration of Algren’s centennial at the Steppenwolf Theatre, and it resonated for me all over again. I think it’s an almost perfect statement of why we need art and artists, of the way that we connect. I talk to you out of my vulnerability, my mortality, and hopefully connect to you on the level of your own.
So art is a cry in the dark, to say we were here — but it’s more than that, right? It’s to say we were here and it mattered.
Yes, exactly. That’s what Terkel is saying — not just about Holiday but also everyone.
Do you know this quote from Tolstoy’s What Is Art? “Every work of art causes the receiver to enter into a certain kind of relationship both with him who produced, or is producing, the art, and with all those who, simultaneously, previously, or subsequently, receive the same artistic impression.” Every time I read that I feel … consoled.
And yet. The consolation is only temporary, isn’t it? Holiday died, Terkel and Algren (and Tolstoy) died. Holiday’s death provoked that astonishing Frank O’Hara poem, which is another gasp or laugh or cry moment — I’ve read it a thousand times and it always makes my heart stop just for a moment, especially that closing stanza:
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
Just look at that final line, what the lack of punctuation does. Did she whisper the song to Mal Waldron, and then everyone, including O’Hara, stopped breathing? Or did she whisper it to Waldron and everyone, and O’Hara alone stopped breathing? The connection is in the ambiguity. The line, and by connection the entire poem, exists in that suspension, in the space between those two interpretations, blurring the boundary between the individual narrator’s consciousness and the collective experience of “everyone.” I love that. It is why I return again and again to the poem. But seven years later, O’Hara too was dead — at 40. None of this matters, except that it does. Sand paintings, a howl against the void that will reclaim us — this is the conundrum, and the necessity, of art.
Right. The whole enterprise (art, I mean) is in protest. It’s because we know we’re going to die. If we didn’t, if we weren’t, we wouldn’t have art. (The mind reels…)
It wouldn’t matter. Our evanescence is, paradoxically, the most sustaining thing about us. We are here to go.
Speaking of which, I love the story in the book about Alexander Trocchi (who had died unbeknownst to you) — how relieved you were not to have to meet him. Although by now you have met a whole lot of your heroes. It’s pretty hard to be anonymous these days: actually, it’s pretty hard to find anyone who wants to be anonymous. Is this a problem, do you think? For readers and writers? Is it a problem for you? Does your accessibility — your presence on social media, say — change the nature of your work?
The Trocchi thing was very interesting. I was scared to meet him, although I didn’t realize this until I learned that he was dead. He seemed to me so … forbidding, which of course was part of his appeal. As if he were somehow more than human, more authentic than the rest of us. I was a lot younger then and hadn’t met any writers, or very few. It was easier, I realized, if he continued to exist for me as a concept rather than a human being. Now, as you say, I have met a lot of writers — partly from being a writer myself and partly as a result of various jobs, especially journalism. In that role, I’ve interviewed hundreds, including many who have been very influential for me. Some (Philip Roth, Maxine Hong Kingston, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, Kurt Vonnegut) were fascinating and engaging. Others (William Burroughs, David Foster Wallace, Yoko Ono) … well, let’s just say they were a little difficult and leave it at that. But here’s the thing: I don’t think any writer wants to be anonymous. If so, then why write? Literature is an act of communication. It represents one part of a conversation, which means it requires an audience, a reader, to come to life. What I am doing when I write and publish is, essentially, to say: Hey, pay attention to this. That’s not the act of someone seeking anonymity. Even the great recluses — Ferrante, Salinger, Pynchon — still want our attention. They just don’t want us in their face. I can relate to that. I don’t want you in my face either. Social media aside, I am a very private person. I like to keep to myself. The problem with social media, for me, is that it lowers the standard for friendship … or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it flattens the dialogue. People I don’t know write, or respond to me, as if we were intimates. But I may not be using the platform for that.
Don’t get me wrong: I am quite active on Facebook and Twitter. But I use, or hope to use, them for my own ends. Twitter is a valve: bursts of reaction. Facebook can be (but isn’t always) more reflective, or at least slower paced. Lately, I’ve gotten interested in its potential as a publishing platform — not an original idea, I know, but new for me. Not long ago, I wrote a poem, slice-of-life stuff, glimpse-of-a-moment kind of thing. I like poems like that, both writing and reading them, their immediacy, their ephemerality, like the exhalation of a breath. I decided to put it on Facebook, to see what would happen. This seemed in keeping with the impulse that had driven me to write it. The poem had something of the informality of a post. The whole thing was an experiment to see if I could push the boundaries of the platform (or my boundaries around the platform) and do something that felt more exposed. One of the issues for me with social media is that it’s so curated. We are always choosing our confessions, turning our best face to the lens. I wanted to see what it would be like to reveal myself in a more vulnerable way.
That’s interesting. I can’t help but wonder if you got any sort of negative (or even lukewarm) response. If you had, would that have bothered you? The thing about Facebook: Unless the posts are political — which is mostly a waste of time, because we’re mostly preaching to the choir, but precisely because we are — it’s about “likes” and “liking,” right? So — when you posted your poem — did you feel vulnerable, really? And when a gazillion “friends” weighed in, was that gratifying? Did it occur to you to try to get the poem published in a literary journal? Or maybe it was more noble, in a way (and more generous), to have simply posted it yourself.
Negative, or even lukewarm, response always bothers me. To quote the Smiths: “I am human and I need to be loved.” But I can’t worry about that (even though on some level I always do). Whatever the platform — Facebook, a literary journal, a book, a reading, an interview such as this one — you go with what you’ve got. As I say, the poem in question was a kind of toss-off, a snapshot. The point was the immediacy. So it seemed to fit the platform. There’s other work I would never post there. I like the idea of having multiple venues, or sorts of venues, and thinking of different ways to present the work. I haven’t posted another poem to Facebook, but that doesn’t mean I won’t again. Or that I will. It was really just an impulse, like the impulse to write the poem itself.
Okay, but going back to this idea of false intimacy. These people — relative strangers — who think they know you. How to disabuse them? How to disabuse ourselves? It’s difficult these days to unknow what we know about artists and writers. Are you able to separate the work from the person who made it? Do you expect people to separate your work from you?
I don’t know. I’m not sure we can separate the work from the person who made it, and I don’t know what I think about that. When I teach, I give context on the writers we are discussing, but not too much — or not too much right away. I don’t want external impressions, external information, to get in the way of that first flush of interaction with the work. My favorite experience as a reader or viewer is to open a book or walk into a gallery or a theater knowing as little as possible about what I’m about to read or see. This is how I prefer to write also: know as little as you can before you start so that the act of drafting becomes a process of discovery. I’ve never written an outline, and the further along I go, the less that sort of mechanical approach interests me. I used to want to know where something ended. Now I look for a good first line and see where it leads.
This is not to say it’s entirely serendipitous. The book I’m writing now — I began it half a dozen times, maybe more. None of them worked. For a while, I joked about taking all of those failed first chapters and putting them together in a book called A Series of Unworkable Beginnings. When I’m writing, I need to know where I’m beginning. I need to have a sense of voice. I probably also need to have a general notion of where I think I’m going, perhaps a few specific scenes or moments or ideas that I want to get to. But I also don’t want to dissect my process that much.
As for unknowing, it’s difficult. What do we do with J. D. Salinger or Sherman Alexie or Junot Díaz? I don’t know. I can’t unknow their behavior. But I also can’t unknow their art. Claire Dederer addressed this issue with great nuance last year in an essay for the Paris Review. Here’s how she frames the question:
Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, William Burroughs, Richard Wagner, Sid Vicious, V. S. Naipaul, John Galliano, Norman Mailer, Ezra Pound, Caravaggio, Floyd Mayweather, though if we start listing athletes we’ll never stop. And what about the women? The list immediately becomes much more difficult and tentative: Anne Sexton? Joan Crawford? Sylvia Plath? Does self-harm count? Okay, well, it’s back to the men I guess: Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Lead Belly, Miles Davis, Phil Spector.
They did or said something awful, and made something great. The awful thing disrupts the great work; we can’t watch or listen to or read the great work without remembering the awful thing. Flooded with knowledge of the maker’s monstrousness, we turn away, overcome by disgust. Or … we don’t. We continue watching, separating or trying to separate the artist from the art. Either way: disruption. They are monster geniuses, and I don’t know what to do about them.
Whenever possible, I think — although it is not always possible — I want to give the work the benefit of the doubt. So yes, I guess: I want my work to be read on its own terms, although that has everything to do (how could it not?) with my experience and aesthetics, my expression and my point-of-view, and, of course, the way I carry myself in the world.
Dinah Lenney is the author of The Object Parade and an editor-at-large at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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