Story About the Story: An Interview with Dagoberto Gilb

J. C. Hallman

Next in J.C. Hallman’s series of Q&A’s with Story About the Story contributors is writer Dagoberto GilbDagoberto Gilb is the author of a number of books, including The Magic of Blood, Woodcuts of Women, and The Flowers

Gilb’s contribution to The Story About the Story I, “The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy,” first appeared in The Nation and was reprinted in Gritos: Essays.  His most recent book is Before the End, After the Beginning: Stories.

J.C. Hallman:  Do creative writers have an obligation to act as critics, to offer up alternatives to traditional critical methodologies and assumptions?

Dagoberto Gilb:  I cannot say I know what “creative writers” think (a college major or grad degree I didn’t come up on), but intelligence that I’d like to think reaches back got me wanting to be a writer. Reading about this puzzle of human interaction with and awareness of existence, admiring what the brilliant said, fired up by whatever exclusivity the comfortable haughties and snots celebrated—I’d say to a point of aggravation—that made me aspire to respond. I studied philosophy and religion. I chose to write fiction. And I have opinions about the implications and cultural, social, and ultimately power assumptions of certain fiction the same as I do when ideas are asserted in nonfiction.

JCH: As you see it, what happened to criticism?  That is, how did we move from Arnold and Pater and Wilde to the kind of academic criticism produced in Literature departments?

DG: What isn’t for academics but also isn’t that light form of marketing or PR for a book or a writer, what looks at literature as it engages a culture, its time in history, an essay that has its own expectations and demands and wants? Where is that now? It still exists a little in Harper’s and The Nation and the little mag The Threepenny Review. But for all the paradigm shifts of new tech, isn’t lit itself locked in by the stodgy restrictions of an old industry? What if the only music considered “good” were from Julliard? I’m not saying that music or musicians from Julliard aren’t very good, but I am saying that it’s not where we found jazz, blues, rock’n’roll. Not punk. Clearly the very cool music coming out of Mexico is not generated there. I happen to also like French chanson. But if “criticism” is and can be only about that and those from Julliard, it’s not what lots of us are going to be reading.

JCH: What was it that first gave you license to approach criticism more creatively?

DG: Hadn’t thought of this before, but probably in my case, someone without an academic specialty job and its metrics guiding me, my approach has been what I learned is called the personal essay (done by me much the same as I answer here). I read and like them, as I do good poetry or fiction, when they’re at their best. And for me, I find ideas and artistic pre-conceptions personal. Essays I’ve written are driven to fight against colonial-like assumptions that have made my existence—as a stand-in for the many of those just like me—and family history less American than others.

JCH: To your mind, what best characterizes writerly or creative criticism?

DG: Quality writing, that care for sentences to be equally valuable and detailed as the ideas presented. In a word, craft.

JCH: Are books and literature in a state of crisis these days?  If so, does that have anything to do with how we write about literature?

DG: Lots of good answers for this one. Here’s only one of mine: until editors and publishers realize they are not reaching the worlds of those who aren’t reading what they publish, that fast rising population, literature won’t grow. If literature is understood (this to “how we talk about” lit) as stories for and about the privileged and came-up-perfect, the impersonal and faraway boring, like a history of another country and its people, never involving readers who live “nowhere” and have unhip jobs and not A-student lives, we’ll go on waiting for football basketball baseball games on TV, where the players come from our neighborhoods.

JCH: In “The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy” (included in The Story About the Story I), you write the following of Blood Meridian:

“But Blood Meridian, my God, that was a book to study a couple of pages a day.  It felt translated from something, maybe Greek.  Homeric in both historical scope and literary convention, it was an aorta splash of prose, finely elegiac and gaudily ornate, sumptuous, its blood-and-viscera subject chapping the southwestern-desert frontier, riding hard, surviving implausibly from one end of the West to the other.”

The passage keeps going—sumptuously—and what I wonder here, beyond simply enjoying what you’re saying, is whether you’re also trying to convey something about how we ought to praise books.  We really can do more than simply say that books are good, can’t we?

DG: Such good taste, my gentle sir. It’s like love. We can tell her we love her. But it’s when you linger, long before a kiss, on the beautiful shadows of her nose and lips.

JCH: Later, you write of rereading Tolstoy:

“But on the reread, in my thirties, I realized I did not take these trips, and that the characters actually did, because they were rich, that if I’d been around these people, I’d be hanging back at one of their summer or winter homes, picking their cherries.  I’d be a minor character, mentioned for the same purpose as a piano.”

There’s a lot that’s interesting in this part of the essay, but what piques my interest this time around—having reread the essay many times—is that there’s a suggestion that we read for different things as an adult than when we do when we’re young.  Is it that, as children, we read to learn about the world, and then, as adults, we read to learn about ourselves?

DG: For me it was a revelation. When I was younger, I did what an author wanted: I identified with the lead character as if existence were a single experience of life. Then I began to see that I could learn other ways of experiencing that I couldn’t otherwise, through time or circumstance or social strata or means. But, yes, it was while reading some Tolstoy a second time that I became aware that those most like me and my family history appeared briefly, a few lines of a page in a volume of hundreds, either sweetly or with the disinterest (nothing sinister or dismissive) of a carriage that might be the scene’s transportation. In Tolstoy I remember it as cherry pickers his lead character saw as he was leaving for a winter (or summer?) dacha.

In addition to editing The Story About the Story, J.C. Hallman is the author of several books, including The Chess Artist, In Utopia, Wm & H’ry, and B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal.