What’s really interesting…
PM: You mentioned that you hadn’t lived a “terribly interesting life”, but from a lot of people’s perspective, I’m guessing that writing about music since the late ‘60s and being involved with Rolling Stone very early on would be an interesting subject.
GM: My work might be interesting, but I don’t think I am. I’ve lived a very conventional life. It’s not full of adventure or scandal or tremendous risk-taking or disasters. I can’t imagine it would be very interesting to people. And it’s not that interesting to me. (laughs)
Photo (partial) Kara Walker’s show at the Whitney Museum My Compliment, My Enemy, My Opressor, My Love (2007)
PM: I was wondering what you thought of this influx of the memoir in its different forms over the past decade or two, or the blurring of lines between fiction and non-fiction. Have you read David Shield’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto?
GM: Yeah, I thought it was total bullshit. First of all, there’s a long history of people writing books about the death of the novel or the death of fiction and getting attention for doing that. There are a lot of people who would rather be at the funeral than at the birth, and this is one of those cases.
Usually when someone announces the death of the novel, it’s because they’re incapable of writing one and they feel inferior because of that. I tried to read his book, if only because it had so many blurbs on it from people I know or find interesting, and I couldn’t read more than half of it. It wasn’t really writing.
I mean, I’m a great believer in collage writing; I’ve written a couple of pieces that are entirely made up of quotations from other people, and I love the notion that you can absent yourself or that you can speak through other people in that way. You don’t have to add a single word of your own, you can tell a story, you can make an argument, you can dramatize a question. There’s a piece in Dead Elvis about this metaphor, “corpses in your mouth”, that’s all quotations.
But I also believe in attribution. (laughs) I think it’s much more fun and more interesting to say who’s speaking and even stress the absence of the author more that way, and it also lets the reader say “Oh, this is interesting, I want to investigate this more.” But in this book, I think it’s more than anything an attempt to get attention, and I don’t think it’s a serious argument at all.
And as far as blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction in memoirs, it’s a matter of people lying to make themselves seem more interesting or make more money by attributing remarkable adventures to themselves—which will help sell books—that didn’t happen.
There’s an assumption that everybody’s life is interesting, and that you can make it interesting by writing. Every professional writer has had the experience of somebody calling him up, maybe out of the blue, or else it’s somebody you know—usually somebody you don’t know that well—who says to you, “I’ve had an incredible life, I’ve done amazing things, and it would make a great book. A best-seller. So let’s collaborate. I’ll tell you my story, you just write it down.” And that’s what people think: you just have to write it down… whatever that means. And it’ll be of overwhelming interest to millions of people. Of course that isn’t true.
Usually people write memoirs—this is my sense anyway—out of a great sense of self-importance, or because it’s a way of justifying themselves in public for things that really can’t be justified. Most memoirs are exercises in self-congratulation. “Look at all these terrible things. I made all these awful mistakes. I even committed crimes. Nobody knows the terrible things I’ve done. But look what a great person I am now. I’ve faced up to all of this, and now I’m happily married and I have seventeen great kids and everybody loves me.”
PM: That’s the Confessions of Saint Augustine model, right? The redemption story you tell about yourself.
GM: Yeah. The difference is, that’s a great book.
PM: Dylan’s memoir—if I can call it that—Chronicles. What did you think of it?
GM: Well, I loved the book. I wrote about it at one point and decided to check on some of things he said. He talked about his mother seeing Woodrow Wilson during a whistle-stop campaign in 1912, and it became pretty clear with a little research that it couldn’t have happened, that Wilson just wasn’t there at the time. But that doesn’t mean that wasn’t a story told in her family.
Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus, Writings 1968-2010
(PublicAffairs [Actual cover image TBD]; US: Oct 2010)
My father told me family legends that I found out later weren’t true, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t believe them. Stories get passed down. So maybe somebody said, “Your mother saw Woodrow Wilson.” Well, maybe, “She was only one year old, and we held her up in the crowd. She doesn’t remember it.” And his mother may have said, “Well, they told me about this. I don’t remember it, of course.” So it becomes a family legend. That’s something other than a lie.
Some people jumped on the part of the book where he’s living with these people who have this incredible library, and he’s discovering all these books, and people say, “Well, that has to be a composite.” I don’t care.
There’s that scene where he’s at a party in Greenwich Village and every notable is there, and he’s just a fly on the wall watching. It’s a marvelous, marvelous long scene where he’s going from person to person. He’s asking, “Who are these people” and “How did they learn to do what they do?” and “Why did they get such a sense of style?” and “Why do they seem so much larger than life?” And he’s learning. And clearly his memory is cultivated and extraordinary. These are stories he’s told himself and gone back to and reflected on again and again throughout his life.
And it’s also a wonderfully written book with incredible turns of phrase. He talks about early rockabilly singers as “captains on burning ships”, things like that. You can see him making choices between one word and the other. How do I say this? What’s the way to get this across? The way the book is written, it repels any notion of a ghost writer. No ghost writer could come up with this.
PM: In the penultimate essay in A New Literary History of America you and Werner Sollors write about the scene after Hurricane Katrina and John Winthrop’s promise that if America didn’t “make others Condicions our owne” that it “would justly disappear if it did not.”
And immediately after that there’s Kara Walker’s brilliant collage pieces on the occasion of Barack Obama’s election. Are we any closer to fulfilling America’s promise, or does it remain just as unfulfilled as it did after Katrina?
GM: Well, I don’t think it seems as unfulfilled as it did that day. It will never be fulfilled, and that struggle to live up to almost impossible promises is really the motor of our history.
But I’ll tell you a story about that essay and Kara Walker’s collages. The Katrina piece was going to be the last piece in the book. It was Werner’s idea, and his idea that we should write it together, and it was a hunch that this is where the book should end. And we definitely wanted to end it a few years before the publication date. We didn’t want to try to be up-to-the-minute and choose some event that happened last week and say, “Oh, this is so important,” whether it was a new novel or, you know, Avatar.
And so the book was finished. And then Obama is elected, and people are saying we have to have something about it in the book, that this is an event that rewrites our whole history, and I was very against it, for just those reasons I mentioned. But nobody agreed with me, and finally I said okay, but I argued that we couldn’t have a what-does-it-all-mean piece, some sententious essay of somebody pretending to know what this meant.
So we began talking about, well, what do you suppose so-and-so thinks of this? If you could ask anybody about what they think of this, who would it be? And two or three of us said Kara Walker. And so we approached her about doing the last piece; she’d have the last word. She said yes.
I for some reason thought she was going to write an essay, because she does write as well as do visual art, so I was surprised and thrilled when she produced this whole series of collages. I couldn’t believe how lucky we were.
We spent a lot of time discussing what the right order of them was, and we left two or three of them out. I had said to her, “I want nine pages.” I meant nine typed pages, which is what the entries in the book pretty much come out to be. She misheard it, or I misstated it, and so she thought she was supposed to fill nine pages of the book. So she made nine collages.
What I love about her piece is that here is the end of this 1,100-page book about people speaking, trying to find the proper forms of language, to address what the nature of the country is and what it was made of, arguing about America with themselves in every form of address imaginable. In some ways, it’s a big book of noise.
And her piece starts with people talking to each other, this hubbub, people saying ‘WTF’ which she helpfully explains means “What the fuck?” And then as the piece goes on, it becomes silent, and then cemetery-silent. And then at the very end there’s just the intimation of speech beginning again.
In that way, she captures the moment, takes you into the distant past, makes that past present, and then out of the silence you begin to hear the beginnings of another conversation.