Interview with Robert Coover
"I AM AN INTRANSIGENT REALIST"
by Susana Pajares Tosca
Robert Coover is one of the most respected American contemporary writers. He has written fourteen books – the last one Ghost Town (1998)—and his innovative prose caused a literary revolution in the seventies when Pricksongs and Descants (1969) and his next works came out. Coover´s use of language and his philosophical reinterpretation of familiar myths and stories make him an original and necessary voice in this end of the century´s cultural panorama. He is also well known for his engagement with hypertext –he was the first major author to write about it in The New York Times Review of Books and he has worked with it for many years-- and his work as professor at Brown University.
E- Let´s start outrageously, you wrote in "The end of books", that you were interested "in the subversion of the traditional bourgeois novel and in fictions that challenge linearity". Why is nineteenth century novel not valid anymore? (People still write it)
RC- Perhaps people are still writing nineteenth century novels because that century's enterprise has returned with such a vengeance, our own fin de siecle being more akin to that of a century ago than to more recent decades. Forms--social, artistic, other--echo (and reinforce) each other; if one is an iconoclast in one arena it makes no sense to be an unquestioning camp follower in another. But I'm not dogmatic about that, either. Let a thousand flowers, as they say... I merely opposed the entrenched novelistic dogmas of form at the time, wanting to break them open and make more sorts of fiction possible. I think that has happened, because it chanced that this was a widely shared conviction.
E- You´d like to be Cervantes´ heir (as you state in Pricksongs and Descants), because literature was exhausted back in the sixties and it needed new visions. What is the situation now?
RC- In that little dedication to Cervantes, I suggest that what made our circumstances (if not our talents) comparable was that we were both standing at transitional moments in human intellectual history. In his case, it was a more or less universal move from Platonism to Aristotelianism; in ours, from Aristotelianism to what I've called in the past the New Sophism. If the circle in some manner exemplifies Platonism and the line Aristotelianism, then perhaps the best image of this new shift in thought and discourse is the hypertextual web, for the transition has been accelerated by the computer and the Internet. In any event, the line with its implicit assumption of progress was what seemed stale in the 1960s, but the closed Platonic circle would not do either: our age is more skeptical. So what I called for was more formal innovation everywhere (which was itself a Sophist dictum, I suppose: make it new).
E- When talking about Sophism, do you also share the traditional complain against them: "too many words, too much decoration, too little really said"? (Some would also describe the Internet/Web this way)
RC- For the Sophists, language is power; in an actional ("existential") and relativistic world without fixed or knowable principles, the power routes are via rhetoric and persuasion. There is not a lot of conviction that "what" is said has much substance. Certainly it has no permanence or universality. Sophists doubt Socratean "insight" and do not believe there are singular solutions to alleged, isolated problems (nothing is isolated: the Aristotelian "categories" have all broken down). One makes choices among the myriad of choices (of which the Internet is becoming a kind of field of presentation) and wins arguments. There is so much noise, it is not easy to be heard, so the techniques of persuasion are increasingly looking like hightech advertising. Getting the message out: byword of the day. Even if the message is only "buy me".
E- You have sometimes been misunderstood as an elistist writer too concerned about word-play and fantasy and too little with reality. But there is a strong critical component in your work, from The Public Burning to your last book, Ghost Town, you seem intend on destroying American mythology... What kind of weapons are parody, humour, fantasy or even blasphemy?
RC- They are probably relatively powerless weapons, but--parody, humor, blasphemy, etc.--they are what I have. As for fantasy, I am not the least bit interested except for the ways, in the real world, that it impinges upon my life (religion, jingoism, tribal myths, the managed news, etc.), and then I often hate it. Only reality interests me and it is all that I write about, whether or not it can be said that I understand it. My forms are playful and so may conceal that from the inattentive reader, but it's true. I have said it from earliest days: I am, like Kafka, like Beckett, an intransigent realist.
E- Considering tales, religion and the news under the same category of fantasy would be subversive in itself for some people who like to dismiss literature as "non-serious stuff". Your literature is intransigent realism only read by a (happy) few, what are the mass media that most people consume?
RC- Somewhat answered, I think. Mostly forms of escape. "Light entertainment", as it´s called in the bizz. As reality´s not all that easy to take, it´s not surprising that most of us duck out most of the time. It´s easy to see how mass media (including Internet email and pornography), religion, shopping, drugs, professional sports, etc., serve in this way; only slightly more controversial is the notion that the managed news (TV, magazines, newspapers, radio) is also a kind of escapist entertainment. But any look at decade-old programming or articles will make it transparent that, though some of the data may retain some limited validity (if not itself faked), the stories that held the data together are all outdated fictions.
E- In relation to this, many critics admire your use of language, not merely as a medium to tell things, but as a message in itself. Your cycles, metaphores, double meanings... Why is it worth to add another layer of complexity to the act of reading?
RC- From infancy on, we are entangled in vast webworks of layered meanings in
our language. Fantasists may simplify all that to create a passing entertainment (most movies, for example), but realists cannot. In this, I suppose, I am the child of that great realist James Joyce. I might add, though, that translators admire this use of language less, for it makes their task all but impossible.
E- I suppose you have heard this before, but as your reader, I sometimes have been angry with the particularly "heavy" language of a paragraph, only to be enthusiastic again about the next. You don´t let us readers go to sleep or ever be sure that we know what comes next, how do you think of the reader when you write? (if at all)
RC- As the ideal reader, one who has read everything, knows far more than I do about any subject, is a severe critic of careless thinking or sloppy prose, is bored by anything short of the most testing challenge.
E- José María Guelbenzu describes your use of metafiction as "a transformation of reality". In fact, your phantasies are sometimes epiphanies, moments of revelation. I´m not only thinking about Joyce, but also about writers like García Márquez. Who do you read and why?
RC- Nowadays, mostly the work of students, ex-students, and friends, as their books come tumbling through the door. This had not been my intention and will hopefully not be my permanent fate, though many of them are in fact among the best writers I know. But the two writers you mention are of course favorites to whom I return often, as with a couple of dozen others I could list here, to no useful purpose. I am still restlessly on the lookout for the unusual voice and still do read widely if maybe less exhaustively.
E- Now I´d like to talk about a couple of your novels more specifically. Back to The Public Burning, what shapes history? What kind of terrible game is this? Is the power to shape history an American quality? (It made me think of the Roman Empire)
RC- History is shaped by many things--accidents, cataclysms, even the weather--but mostly by human actions. Which is what I am interested in. Human actions and the mythological and other structures that govern and provoke them. Americans, being footloose and untethered from the outset, may be more aware of the sort of "game" (as you say) that history is, and so more quickly able to adapt to its shapeshifting patterns and rules. (For a variant on this theme, see my essay on "Soccer as an Existential Sacrament.")
E- Can you tell us a bit more about this essay?
RC- It was written on commission 15 years ago for Polaroid´s house magazine, Close-Up (the photographer is mentioned), an issue later produced as a book.
E- The concern with belief systems is also present in your "religious" works, like The Origin of the Brunist and A Theological Position, and even in baseball as religion in The Universal Baseball Association. You seem decidedly postmodern problematizing this kind of discourse, but also imply that human beings need it. What is your position regarding this now?
RC- You mean I imply that human beings need some sort of mythological or story structure to get through life? I think that's probably so, though it needn't be handed-down dogma and it can constantly metamorphose. That is to say, becoming an atheist does not free one from the need for a condensed "story" of how the universe works, though you may have to turn from primitive texts (the Bible, say) to those of geneticists and astrophysicists. Flexible, open, and loving stories are better than closed and hateful ones.
E- Do you think there is a difference between scientific texts and mythological-literary texts considered as explanations of the world? Or rather, what does it mean to choose
one or the other kind of explanation?
RC- In a Sophist world, these texts have blurred boundaries. But science strives for precision, while art focuses more on the ambiguities of the world. Science talks about things that can be defined and described, even if not fully understood or experienced (as when working with particles), art about things like goodness, truth, love, beauty, the human emotions. Art appeals first and foremost to the emotions, science to the intellect. No need to choose between them. Better to understand their respective validity and limitations.
E- The Universal Baseball Association makes imagination triumph over life. Is life really so dull?
RC- Oh no. Life is certainly not dull, though some sad lives may be. All too often it is appallingly fascinating. Imagination is NOT there to displace life: see my replies above.
E- Spanking the maid was part of the curriculum in one of the literature courses I took at the University. I remember the students (including myself) being fascinated with its kafkaesque quality, the way the rituals of life are uncomprehensible and its reflection on freedom. The novel ends when the characters have understood the ritual and want to break it. Is literature´s duty to make us understand?
RC- "Duty" is a heavy burden for a work of art. But if it is truly beautiful, then it will probably also be in some manner true, and grasping that truth can lead to some sort of understanding. A thought that often boils up as I sit and gaze, often somewhat perplexed, upon the great works of the Abstract Expressionists.
E- What kind of "duty" do you recommend your writing students? Can writing be learned?
RC- Attitudes towards writing can be learned or at least experienced, tested out. I am impatient with market-oriented genre writers, even when young. I work closely with prose and style problems, but mostly because I´m paid to do so. I´m much more interested in helping serious young writers develop innovative structures and approaches to the literary enterprise, based on their own peculiar genius. That´s one reason I have become so engaged with hypertext: a great pedagogical tool for young aspiring writers and readers.
E- In Briar Rose, there is this line about the sleeping beauty: "the fairy's spell binding her not to a suspenseful waiting for what might yet be, but to the eternal reenactment of what, other than, she can ever be", is the writer like her in this?
RC- Maybe that does reflect back upon the author's own dilemma, though I hadn't thought of that before. What I think I had in mind when I wrote it, however, was that these eternal reenactments are indeed much like the spells of wicked fairies, and as spells they can be broken.
E- In relationship to Briar Rose and Pricksongs..., what is the role of popular tales (and stories from the Bible) in our post-everything era? What can they teach us and how can we use them?
RC- The stories have invaded us and colonized themselves inside us. We can be a generous and tolerant and unquestioning host, or we can challenge them and refuse to be their mindless servants. Can't easily analyze these things away once they get inside. Have to wrestle with them on their home turf, make them show their true shapes, convert them to something we can live with.
E- Is the good reader a resistant reader?
RC- A good citizen is a resistant reader.
E- Gerald´s Party could be considered a genre fiction, a whodunit, but you trascend the genre and turn it into a carnavalesque farce. This is also cervantine, and it appears in much of your work. What does "genre fiction" mean for you?
RC- Genre fiction is the elaboration of the folktale, often just as entertaining and certainly just as conservative. Useful to me like all other "natural" forms and icons.
E- John´s wife starts and finishes with the word, "once", and like the "once upon a time" it´s the novel of the perfect storyteller. We learn about the interconnected lives of the little town and at the same time about present-time America in a very disturbing way. What is America now?
RC- Actually the last several words echo the first several in reverse, as if a palindrome were closing. But your question is too broad. I'll let John's Wife (and all my other books) stand as the answer to it.
E- Last year, Pricksongs and Descants and Briar Rose were published in Spanish. I also know you lived in Barcelona for some time. How has your work been received here?
RC- Well. When well translated. As with those two books.
E- A Night at the Movies is a book about films, another medium you love. What can films give us that books cannot?
RC- Another question asking for a book in reply. Here I was playing with the syntactical impact of film upon text. Exercises en route what will hopefully be the next large work.
E- And let´s move on to yet a more modern medium. Your two famous articles about hypertext in The New York Times Book Review are always quoted as being the moment where hypertext is "oficially born" for the literary world. Were there any inmediate repercusions? (I ask this because the situation looks pretty much the same now as it did in 1992 in terms of hypertext´s popularity)
RC- I am presently working on a longish essay about all this. The situation right now is actually markedly different, largely because of the proliferation and vast popularity of the Internet. Just held a huge conference on the topic here at Brown, covered by the NYTimes, as you know (http://www.stg.brown.edu/projects/TP21CL/).
E- You are considered "the evangelist of hypertext" in the literary community, but for the hypertext "tribe", you are still a "classic" writer, that is, your books are printed. Do you feel like an outsider in both fields?
RC- Well, not just in those two fields...
E- Why haven´t you written a hypertext? (This is suspicious)
RC- Are you certain that I haven't?
E- Oh! I hadn´t considered your Hypertext Hotel, probably because it´s collaborative writing and I´m after all a child of print. Point taken. Once you asked: "What´s so great about "interactivity" anyway?" Is hypertext incompatible with narrative as we know it?
RC- No. But it's different.
E- (You´ll hate me for this one) How do you see the future of the book?
RC- What´s most important about the moment is the emergent domination of our lives by the electronic media, and above all by the computer and the Web. Writers and artists have been reluctant to jump in, largely because of the new skills required and the numbing ephemerality of the technology: nothing stands still. But either they will do so, or literature will play an increasingly insignificant role in our lives. That´s where the readers will be, if in fact they can still read at all. So far, books show no sign of fading away, and indeed have enjoyed a kind of revival, thanks to Internet sales and pitches and home pages. But all it takes is a paper or fuel (for transporting those ponderous things) shortage. And such shortages will come.
E- What are you working on now?
RC- The next collection of stories and a return to my old pornographic film hero Lucky Pierre, a text first launched in 1969 but, having been picked up and dropped from time to time, still far from finished...
E- Thanks a lot for this interview.
© Susana Pajares Toska 1999
Espéculo. Revista de estudios literarios. Universidad Complutense de Madrid
El URL de este documento es http://www.ucm.es/info/especulo/numero12/cooverinen.html