Bookforum talks to Tom Bissell

Tom Bissell

We’re fortunate to live in a time where a handful of enormously gifted writers are revitalizing the essay form. One example is Tom Bissell, whose new collection, Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation, adds up to a kind of narrative of contemporary culture, weighing in on video games, underground literary movements, bad movies and the fates of great writers. Before his recent reading with his friend and fellow writer Gideon Lewis-Kraus at KGB Bar in New York, I spent an hour with Tom Bissell at his cousin’s apartment in Manhattan, where he and his girlfriend were staying while they were in town. Looking out on an unseasonably hot midtown afternoon, we drank scotch and chatted about the publishing industry, the resurgence of the essay form, and our mutual love for the Australian writer Clive James.

Bookforum: Do you miss New York?

Tom Bissell: Desperately. When I’ve lived in Portland and California and I wake up, Pacific Time just seems like the wrong time to me. Events in America happen on Eastern Standard Time, and knowing when you wake up at 9 in the morning—or, if you’re a writer, 9:30—that it’s already after lunch in the heartbeat of America—it’s just something I’ve never gotten used to.

BF: How long did you live in New York?

Tom Bissell: I lived here from 1997 to 2006.

BF: I enjoyed reading in Magic Hours about your experience here as an editorial assistant. You called it a “thankless but intensely interesting job.” I was wondering if it influenced your early work as a journalist in any way.

TB: I think what it did for me was make me much less hostile to the editorial apparatus once I became a writer. I’ve always been way more willing to empathize with editors than my other writer friends who didn’t have that experience. Without the editorial experience, I would have never have had so many myths about book publishing shattered before I even wrote a word. And I think the most insidious myth among writers is that publishers just get books lined up before them, pick the ones they want to sell, and then push them out the door. Now, in some sense of course they do that, but the really important thing that writers seem to forget is that just because publishers pick books that they want expend resources on doesn’t guarantee that the books will succeed. Good publishers are the ones who, when something’s not working, are capable of redirecting their focus onto the stuff that is working, and choose to support the stuff they maybe initially thought didn’t have a good shot. Bad publishers are the ones who just double down on a bad choice and throw good money out the window. I’ve been lucky enough to work with good, smart publishers, and though I don’t claim to know how exactly publishing works, I do often get the heebie jeebies when I hear my writer friends talk about book publishers in a needlessly hostile tone.

BF: That was the strength of your essay about the Underground Literary Alliance. You took them to task for that hostility—and not just them, because I think that hostility is actually quite common—and for not understanding that the majority of the people who work in the publishing industry hold literature just as sacred as they do. But that doesn’t automatically give them the resources or the privilege to publish everything.

TB: Right. And the other thing is that the publishing industry is much smaller than it was in, say, 1999, when I was a young editor, so I think the representative spectrum of taste is much smaller. It’s just so much harder to be a young writer right now, especially if you’re a fiction writer. I wouldn’t wish being a fiction writer right now on my worst enemy. I wouldn’t wish that on Osama Bin Laden’s children.

BF: You started out as a young writer of short fiction but claim in the preface to your book that you no longer believe in “genre chauvinism.” I talked with Geoff Dyer earlier this year about this resurgence of non-fiction and the essay form, and the possibilities inherent to them. In seems very fitting that both Dyer and John Jeremiah Sullivan supplied Magic Hours with blurbs.

TB: Yeah, I lucked out with those blurbs. I’ll tell you my John Sullivan story. When I read Pulphead I thought, ‘Wow, this is the worst book that could possibly come out right before my essay collection.’ The book really shook me up. I thought the sentences were so beautiful. My own writing had gotten kind of tight, and reading Pulphead brought me back to a much looser style, as did teaching John and Geoff Dyer to my students last year, and paying closer attention to what they do and so on. And for me personally—I’m not trying to make any big cultural statement—what they’re doing is so much more interesting than any fiction writers I’m stumbling across right now, and both of them are also walking this weird line, saying, in effect, what is nonfiction? I prefer to think of that kind of nonfiction as a voice whispering to you in the night.

BF: Another thing that unites the three of you is the variety and range of subject matters you’ve covered. When I was reading Magic Hours I was just amazed to be stumbling across Matthew Arnold and Lionel Trilling one minute and video games like Gears of War and this cult film The Room. It’s very impressive but it also seems unprecedented.

TB: I wouldn’t presume to say it’s unprecedented. I know too many writers who have copped to a highfalutin love of, you know, ‘70s Italian exploitation films or something. But the difference is that I, for better or for worse, have just decided to just air all the weirdness of my tastes. I think everyone is bizarrely eclectic, especially as a writer/reader type. What’s your hidden eclecticism?

BF: Whenever I’m asked something like that I always bring up movies because I have such impeccably low standards for film. I’m very moral when it comes to literature but I can never really seem to bother being so serious about other art forms. So whenever someone asks me what my favorite films are I’ll say La Dolce Vita and Jurassic Park.

TB: Jurassic Park is a great movie. So here’s my thing: I think you can only be a snob about one thing. And I’m a snob about fiction. Well, maybe snob is the wrong word to use, but you know what I mean. My standards are unwaveringly high when it comes to literature. But I have terrible musical taste, terrible movie taste. I will happily watch the most brain-dead sitcom. People who are uniformly snobby in that way—we call those people friendless. Because what happens to people is they become rageballs. If your standards are that high across every aesthetic field, how can you walk down the street without just being in a state of constant indignation? It would drive you crazy.

BF: You would become someone from The New Criterion.

TB: You would become The New Criterion! You’d become one of those awful people who lament the death of culture because the culture you were interested in is—surprise, surprise—way less interesting to people thirty years younger than you. Some of the stuff I’m seeing coming out of the video game world right now is being done by people I would throw up against any writers, painters, sculptors or musicians in our country right now as being real artists of the highest order. It’s not many people, but they’re there and they’re important.

BF: In Magic Hours you mention a game that has a script almost as long as War and Peace…

TB: Mass Effect. Which is a pretty good action-movie-style game. But if you can get your hands on a PS3 you should play Journey, which isn’t a motor-reflex game but is a game about the experience of playing the game. And it’s amazing how simple that sounds, but it really is very beautiful and transformative. I’ve been recommending it to everyone.

BF: I’d like to go back to the cultural snobbishness thing because when I was reading Magic Hours I kept coming across these little metaphorical splendors, like when you describe the New Critics as a “litter box for post-colonial theorists,” and I was reminded, maybe because you refer to him at one point, of Clive James. He was able to write intellectually rigorous essays as well as reviews of crappy TV shows.

TB: I love Clive James. I adore Clive James. When I say this I hope it will be received in the manner I intend it to be received, but I’ve stolen a lot from him. I’ve watched the way his paragraphs move, the way his mind moves on the page, and I’ve tried to learn from that. He’s criminally under-known in this country.

BF: I think you manage to produce the same effect that he does, the sense that the author is speaking directly to you. It’s a very intimate voice.

TB: Well, that’s about the nicest compliment you can pay. I know exactly what you’re identifying because I’ve certainly felt it. And as I get older I feel it more and more infrequently, sadly. I think that’s just a natural consequence of getting older. You’re what—in your 20s? So you’ve got another five or so years of that feeling before a strange thing happens where that ecstasy of reading withdraws a little a bit. It’s a really scary thing at first. But then you just learn to read a little differently, I guess, or read for a slightly different purpose. But if my essays can have that effect on just one person, then that’s a fantastic thing and that makes it all worthwhile.