It's Good To Be Pragmatic: An Interview with Helen DeWitt

Forget about writing. There’s a debate, a conflict, a dilemma, that everyone faces.

By Lee KonstantinouNovember 21, 2011

    It's Good To Be Pragmatic: An Interview with Helen DeWitt

    There is a strange taboo in our society against ending something merely because it is not pleasant — life, love, a conversation, you name it, the etiquette is that you must begin in ignorance & persevere in the face of knowledge, & though I naturally believe that this is profoundly wrong it's not nice to go around constantly offending people.

               — Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai

    When you publish a book you do a lot of interviews. It gets harder each time. You try to work out what you want to say. Finally you think you have said the thing that matters, then people cut it out because it's not right for the publication. So you get new questions by email and it's hard to go through it again.

    It's good to be pragmatic. That is, I say to myself: Be pragmatic! Just write the fucker! Weeks go by. 

    (Meanwhile, just when I think I am going to be pragmatic, the edited version of another interview turns up in my inbox. I go down to the street, I pace up and down smoking, I go back upstairs and do exercises on Khan Academy.)

    For this interview I decided that I could best talk about unfinished books, work in progress, use of Tuftean information design in fiction and even Lightning Rods — the reason we are having this interview in the first place — if I incorporated a selection of charts in Excel. I open the folder, CRAZY, and start opening files. There are 30 or so files, several hundred worksheets, each with a different chart; at some point I sensibly made a list of the best charts, of which this is a sample:

    sheet1(15) dark blue b/g, white panel, spiky wings (horizontal)
    sheet 1(14) DARK BLUE B/G, white panel, spiky wings, vertical
    4(16) fabulous. five sets. 3 minute.
    4(13) dark blue b/g, white panel, crazy spiral
    4(11) stacked area rows, quite nice
    4(10) !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    4(9) Oh god oh god oh god
    4(8) FABULOUS, these stacked colours with wires connecting
    4(7) stacked colours, middle stack a little stump
    4(5) like 7 only vertical
    4(4) like 5 only not stump
    3(13) three stacks, lines crossing - lovely
    1 (11)
    1 (9) one stack with just three bars, the rest multiple, held up
    1 (8) one stack with two bars, the rest multiple, held up
    1 (7) one stack with just one colour
    1(6) just two stacks. fabelhaft.
    1(3)-(5) two stacks below, one above; two above; three above

    Which is, obviously, great (at some point I will find a way to use this), but meanwhile I am bewildered by the wealth of charts in Excel.

    What I would REALLY like to do, I decide, is have a single screenshot of the list of files in Cover Flow mode, giving some idea of the wealth of charts rather than relying on the brilliance of any individual chart. I switch to Cover Flow mode and get this:


    The files, it turns out, are all showing the first page of data tables rather than charts. Which is, obviously, boring. In order to show the wealth of charts I would need to go into 15 or 16 files and move a chart in each to the portion of the file displayed in Cover Flow.

    Which could be well worth the effort! I try out my sketches of Arntzian Bilderstatistik in Cover Flow:


    I try out photos of Sheila Heti in a blue wig, which I was thinking of using in a story called "Kagemusha":


    The questions I am notionally answering, since you ask, are: "Was there a time when you decided to dedicate yourself to writing? Can you describe how you made that decision? If you hadn't become a writer what would you have done instead?"

    But Joey Comeau has come down from Toronto! Yesterday I walked around SoHo with Joey Comeau! A Softer World had come to New York. We sat in a small park and a dogwalker passed with 3 dogs, 1 an amputee: Its front legs were missing, but the dogwalker was having no nonsense and whisked it briskly along. The whole day was like that. I had the best time I'd had all year. If I am pragmatic, if I just write the fucker, I can go out! I can wander the streets of New York with Joey Comeau! Which looks so good. Especially since there is no guarantee that hours of fiddling with Excel, setting it up for that Cover Flow shot, will pay off. There is absolutely no guarantee that the editor of the LARB will not summarily dispatch Excel-in-Cover Flow as a pointless digression.

    The point is.

    Forget about writing. There's a debate, a conflict, a dilemma, that everyone faces. As soon as you start school you are in a credentialed world. In America, especially, everything you do has to be convertible, ultimately, into a credential. Maybe you're a bored but virtuous student at school, getting straight A's; maybe there's something outside school that genuinely excites you. The college application process means that whatever you do outside school is not really outside the system: These are placed in a field of extracurricular activities. And sometimes, of course, the thing that genuinely excites you is the life of the mind — maybe you are in a boring French class but love French and so read Proust independently. You have to find a way to present what you do in a form that is intelligible in the terms of the system. (Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are offered up as proof that you don't need a college degree — the reason they count as proof is precisely that they converted their passions into something intelligible in terms of the system. Being a billionaire tends to be intelligible in terms of the system.) But of course, the process of conversion, of presentation, sometimes interferes with the thing you liked doing in the first place. 

    Everyone faces that conflict. But it does not drive everyone to the brink of suicide. 

    When I started college I thought I would now lead the life of the mind, rather than making good grades. It wasn't like that. I hated the intellectual mediocrity, I did not know how to find something better; I attempted suicide for the first time at 19. Afterwards I asked myself: Is there anything, anything at all, that would make it a good thing that I did not die? And I thought: If I could go to Oxford, where the life of the mind is taken seriously, that would make it a good thing. Years later a psychologist told me it was not necessary to commit suicide when alienated by intellectual mediocrity: He had gone to Cornell, with its frat culture, but he had found one friend and it had been all right. He asked me why dealing with my publishers had led to a suicide attempt, and I said, well, if a book is technically challenging it is hard to get it through the machine, but if you want to write a work of genius it is necessary to take risks. He said: Your sanity is more important than writing a work of genius. I thought: Nobody who thinks that will ever write a work of genius. I thought: We all die sooner or later.

    What I mean is. The Oxford of my imagination was not the Oxford of the actual world. But going to Oxford did transform me intellectually; it was the absolute impossibility of staying where I was, the ability to imagine something better, and the ability to work very hard for it, that took me there. In that sense the Oxford of my imagination was more powerful than the real university: I was trying to live by the standards of something that I had made up in my head, a place where everyone had read Proust in French, every classicist read the whole of Greek tragedy in the original.... 

    If you're a writer people often do ask: How did you decide to be a writer? (Something like that.) Which slightly misses the point. If you're an American, born in America, you don't really understand America: this is something our forefathers made up in their heads, a place millions of people continue to make up in their heads. I went to Oxford and a British Jew introduced me to Kurosawa and Sergio Leone and Dennis Potter, to the power of imaginary Americas....

    (I'm guessing this seems to have drifted a long way from Excel, Cover Flow, etc.; these are attempts to make visible the place of an actual world among possible worlds. Meanwhile Joey Comeau and I have agreed to meet tomorrow, and I have had to call off drinks with Joshua Cohen, so the actual world is too much with me.)


    I once read somewhere that Sean Connery left school at the age of 13 and later went on to read Proust and Finnegans Wake and I keep expecting to meet an enthusiastic school leaver on the train, the type of person who only ever reads something because it is marvellous (and so hated school). Unfortunately the enthusiastic school leavers are all minding their own business.

              — The Last Samurai

    I spent nine years in Oxford (B.A., D.Phil., JRF), then decided I could not face the enforced specialization of academia. Spent seven years working on various novels, trying to combine this with various jobs. In 1995 I decided this must stop. I had 100 novels in fragments, including a 300-page single-spaced MS with terrible structural problems. I quit my job: I would write till money ran out. Had terrible argument with my father, could not deal with this big difficult book. Thought: We don't pick our parents. If we could choose, I would have picked someone better than this. Thought: OK. I can't work on this book. I will write a novel with a simple structure that can be FINISHED. I will set aside a month and write with NO INTERRUPTIONS. (Story: Son of single mother, obsessed with Seven Samurai, goes in search of better father than the one fate provided.) 

    Did a lot of research, started writing in September 1995 with NO INTERRUPTIONS. Wrote very fast. Chapter about a gambler in 2 days, chapter about a painter in 3. Looked at these pieces of paper which had been blank only days before; thought: This is the real thing. But the book was not finished in a month, I was about to run out of money, had to do freelance secretarial work. (Was desperate to finish the book and get back to the 300-page monster.) 

    A lawyer in my office saw two chapters, thought they were brilliant. His wife wanted to option them for a film. Introduced me to an agent, Stephanie Cabot, who said she could get me an advance on 6 chapters so I could finish the book. Showed drafts to editors who disrupted the book for 18 months with unsolicited advice: Each liked a different bit of the book, wanted to help make the rest of the book like the bit he liked. No one thought the book would benefit from the undivided attention of its author. I was insane.

    Thought: I am in too weak a position to publish this book. I will take a year. I will write 10 books, each doing just one thing. I will publish one, or two, or three, or four; some day I will be able to publish The Seventh Samurai on my own terms. 

    Lightning Rods was one of the 10 books, the one that happened to get finished first (Mel Brooksian satire on sexual harassment, inspired by The Producers). Another was Lotteryland (Orwellian satire about a country where everything is distributed by lottery, with motivational broadcasts from a Big Brother who sounds like Blair, inspired by Terry Gilliam's Brazil) — there are some excerpts in Your Name Here, which I wrote a few years ago with Ilya Gridneff. (LL was up to about 65,000 words, so I rather regret including it in YNH — I think that means it can never be published as a book in its own right.) There was Give God a Chance, inspired by A Comedy of Errors, only with three sets of twins separated at birth — I published a brief excerpt in Puerto del Sol a couple of years ago. I compressed parts of a couple of other books into the stories "In Which Nick Buys a Harley for 16K Having Once Been Young" and "The French Style of Mlle Matsumoto." There were others, but if I think about this too much I'll get depressed.

    I got an offer of publication for The Last Samurai in September 1999 — the business partner of the producer who had optioned it showed it to Jonathan Burnham of Talk Miramax Books. He took it to the Frankfurt Bookfair and caused a sensation. He did not want LR, so different from the book that had made me a star, but seeing The Last Samurai into print made it impossible to finish any of the other books. (See above under NO INTERRUPTIONS.) What everyone really wanted was a big, ambitious book like Samurai, a "work of genius." 

    From a practical point of view, if a book has a linear narrative, is written in a single voice, these things improve the odds of completion: You are unlikely to run into structural problems, so if you return to the book after a long gap the only challenge is resuming the well-established voice. If it involves no research the odds are even better: It is not burdened with a mass of notes, once fresh to the mind, which must be gone over again before work can be resumed. The practical is not, of course, the only point of view.

    This kind of book can offer a kind of formal satisfaction: The reader learns the rules of the game. Constraints can give it intensity, momentum, energy. A book with many voices offers more variety; it does offer a view into many possible worlds. It seemed to me, after the success of The Last Samurai, that I would be able to look for a publisher who could handle technically challenging books. I was interested in Edward Tufte's work on information design; I thought this could be used to present mathematical ways of understanding chance in fiction. There was a book about poker, Stolen Luck, that required collaboration with a designer; my publisher agreed to give me this, in a deal for SL and Lightning Rods in 2003, but then changed his mind after the contract was signed. So practical considerations do end up counting for more than they should.


    Most people see what they want to see. But a salesman can't afford to see people the way he might like them to be. He has to see them they way they actually are. And he also has to see them the way they'd like to be. Because no matter how badly people want something, if they don't want to be the kind of people who want that kind of thing you're going to have an uphill battle persuading them to buy it.

              — Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods

    Getting a sense for a sexual obsession seems to me to be like working out how to play with a cat or dog. If you play with a cat you'll notice that it likes toys that mimic whatever it is that a cat spots when it hunts birds, small mammals, snakes. (The toy is usually not a realistic copy of the relevant animal; it abstracts, exaggerates the features to which a feline hunter responds. A good toy may consist of nothing much more than a simulation of a tail.) If you go for a long walk with a Labrador you find that it loves having objects thrown into water to be retrieved; the high point of the game is having an object land a long way off in a pond, so that the dog can leap into the water, swim a long way, seize the object, swim back, and deposit it at your feet so you can throw it again. You get a sense for what makes a good game: Retrieving a ball or stick is in itself fun, but it's better if the object is thrown into water; any water is better than none, but a pond is better than a stream, and a large pond is better than a small one. At the risk of stating the obvious, these are not preferences shared by most humans (you don't find yourself thinking it would be fun to swim across a pond in pursuit of a ball). So you don't sympathize in the sense of sharing the preference, but you enjoy observing it in operation.

    It seemed to me that men often, in fact, see the penis in a way not unlike the way one might see a pet. (There was a popular book in Britain a while back, Man's Best Friend...) So Joe has his favorite fantasy (a woman is fucked from behind through a hole in the wall, for some reason she has to pretend nothing is happening) — he indulges himself the way he indulges his dog with a smelly old tennis ball. And then he also analyzes what is essential to the fantasy ("those cheerleaders in their little short skirts definitely came ass backwards through the wall"), and the reader watches him watching himself, with something like the amused distance one feels watching a dog.


    Most fiction does nothing to make us aware of the gulf between cases where intuition serves us well and those (surely far more common) where it does not. It does nothing to show where we should be wary, or how to think through tough cases. Most fiction is confined to the realm of false intuition; it offers us no viewpoint with a better understanding of chance. Which is simply to say that, because we live in a culture with a profound hostility to mathematics, the type of person who writes fiction is likely to be the type of person who shares that hostility and can rely on a large audience which also shares it.

               — Helen DeWitt, "lies, damn lies and misconceptions," paperpools (

    Description:                   [credit: Mark Getz]

    Let's take 2 people, A and B. A is a heroin addict. B's idea of a narcotic is Earl Grey tea.

    We take a randomly selected infant, toss a coin, and allocate it according to the result of the coin toss: Heads A, Tails B.

    We repeat the procedure.

    In 10 trials, the likeliest number of Heads is 5. If we run sequences of 10 trials, though, we shall sometimes have fewer than 5, sometimes more, and the distribution of Heads will follow the familiar Gaussian curve. In 20 trials, the likeliest number of successes is 10 — that is, the Gaussian curve shifts to the right:  


    If we repeat the procedure on a daily basis, the infant's exposure to misallocation will tend to be rectified with relative frequency — though, on the other hand, the infant will never be guaranteed enjoyment of a good draw for very long. If the procedure is conducted weekly, more hangs on the result; if monthly, quarterly, yearly, more still.

    I read James Wood's review of White Teeth, in which he introduced the term "hysterical realism," a long while back: He complained of novels obsessed with information, novels of relentless vivacity with no real understanding of character. It seemed to me that this way of formulating the objection was only possible in ignorance of Edward Tufte's work on information design. Tufte is a ferocious critic of what he calls "chartjunk" — charts that enliven data for a supposedly nervous reader; chaos and clutter, he argues, are not features of information, they are features of design. To achieve clarity, add detail.

    It seems to me that information design offers one way to make visible an individual's place in a system, and that this might matter for fiction. In Moneyball, Michael Lewis talks about the scout's eye for an athlete: Potential was judged according to notions of what a good athlete looked like. Sabremetrics made possible a different way of assessing baseball players, a way of measuring contribution to a team; this transformed understanding of the value of players previously considered negligible. We may think of the way a good chessplayer sees a chess position, the way a good poker player sees a poker hand, the way a good bridge player sees a good bridge hand — always in the context of large numbers of other possibilities. Information design might enable the reader to see the world through the eyes of persons with different kinds of expertise — which is to say, among other things, to see the possibilities for misunderstanding among persons with radically different frames of reference. The alternative, too often, is fiction which presents characters drawn to precision rather than the expression of feeling as obsessive, alienated, autistic, antisocial. It's hard to believe this impoverished view of the world can lead to great fiction.


    The master swordsman isn't interested in killing people. He only wants to perfect his art.

               — The Last Samurai

    Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death. Erving Goffman, AsylumsThe Presentation of Self in Everyday LifeAsylumsStigma. Marcel Mauss, The Gift. Yardley, Education of a Poker Player. Omar Sharif, Ma vie au bridge. Michel Crozier, Le phénomène bureaucratique. Seligman, Learned Helplessness. Michael Lewis, Moneyball. Zaller, The Nature and Origin of Mass Opinion. Edward Tufte, Envisioning InformationThe Visual Presentation of Quantitative InformationVisual ExplanationsBeautiful Evidence. Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow.

    LARB Contributor

    Lee Konstantinou is associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He wrote the novel Pop Apocalypse (2009) and the literary history Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (2016). With Samuel Cohen, he co-edited The Legacy of David Foster Wallace (2012). He is currently completing a study of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai.


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