Story About the Story: An Interview with Fred Setterberg

J. C. Hallman

Up next in J.C. Hallman’s series of Q&A’s with Story About the Story contributors is writer Fred SetterbergFred Setterberg’s contribution to The Story About the Story I, “Into Some Wild Places with Hemingway,” appears in his book, The Roads Taken: Travels Through America’s Literary Landscapes, winner of the 1992 AWP award for Creative Nonfiction.  Setterberg is the author of a number of books, most recently Lunch Bucket Paradise: A True-Life Novel.  

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

Fred Setterberg: Doesn’t it happen naturally?  Writers read.  Reading opens the door to feelings and thoughts that tumble to our feet in a great fat mess.  We can kick them aside with a grunt or try to put them into an order that pleases and surprises us.  Of course, like most creative efforts—like most human endeavors—nobody is holding their breath for us to finish.  You should get a kick out of writing about literature.  Otherwise, weed your garden, bake a cake, take a nap and then spend Saturday afternoon listening to Armstrong or Van Morrison or Verdi.

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 English departments?

FS: It’s easy to blame the French disease—the post-structuralist infection that cut a swath through critical faculties (in both senses).  But today that looks more like a symptom.  I recall talking to an acquaintance a decade or so ago—a very smart guy, steeped in good books—who was treating his dissertation on American lit with punishing doses of Derrida, Lacan, and deMan.  He didn’t like the result.  So don’t do it, I suggested.  “Then what’s left? Appreciation?”  Yes.  Appreciation is a wonderful place to start.  Not a bad place to finish a life of reading.  Why pretend that there’s progress being made in the English department that rivals what’s happening across campus in microbiology and computer engineering?

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

FS: Living outside the academy, I have no fears that my critical license will be revoked.  Or my car towed.

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

FS: I keep reading when the writing is playful, cranky, revelatory, comical, moving, probing, disturbing, idiosyncratic.  When the appreciation or disapprobation feels hotly authentic.

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?

FS: I can’t imagine that criticism has the least impact on the reading public.  Certainly its influence pales next to the time-devouring temptations of Treme and Mad Men.

JCH: In “Into Some Wild Places with Ernest Hemingway” (included in The Story About the Story I), you make the following observation:

“Of course, books should open up all kinds of experience.  They should pry us loose, nudge us into the country, cast us off into the city.  But books cannot contain the whole story.  When we try to preserve what we feel most deeply, most suddenly, between the pages of a book—a slick technique for smoothing out the fearful creases—we also run the risk of pressing flat the experience once the book is finally slapped shut.”

This suggests, I think, that experience of a book is irreducible.  Yet you don’t reject the notion that we might try to preserve what we feel.  Can you expand on what you mean by “risk” here?  A misunderstanding of meaning?  Something else?

FS: I suppose I think that almost all efforts to reflect human existence get lost in translation—boggled by the movement from consciousness and experience to its distillation or allusion in art.  But by scratching our way to the center of things, or trying, we get just a bit closer to the truth of our peculiar state as individuals and as a species. Perhaps music is the exception, a non-narrative art.  Irreducible to me is Verdi’s Requiem, Van Morrison’s Caravan, Louis Armstrong at zenith.

JCH: Is there any particular text you would recommend for The Story About the Story III?

FS: Selections from Camus: A Romance by Elizabeth Hawes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography, Living to Tell The Tale, and Margaret Atwood’s seminal book about Canadian literature, Survival. The opening chapter to Mario Vargas Llosa’s book on Flaubert, The Perpetual Orgy. James Alan McPherson on Twain (“It Is Good to be Shifty in a New Country.”)

Reaching back, there’s so much from George Orwell starting with his startling interest in Henry Miller in “Under the Whale” and his essays on Dickens and P.G. Wodehouse, on to “The Prevention of Literature,” “Confessions of a Book Reviewer” and inevitably, “Why I Write” (far too familiar, but nicely bookended decades later by Joan Didion’s essay of the same name).

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.