Go Forth is a series curated by Nicolle Elizabeth that offers a look into the publishing industry and contemporary small-press literature. See more of the series.
If you ask John Domini three or four open, simple questions, he’ll respond with a profound brashness I respect a lot. In May 2014, Dzanc will release The Sea-God’s Herb—essays, reviews and selected non-fiction. The book spans his career, from work in The New York Times to elsewhere. You’ll probably want to read it.
NICOLLE ELIZABETH: John, you’re a creative writer as well as a literary critic. What moves you to write criticism?
JOHN DOMINI: Y’know, there are days I wish someone would tell me. Days like the one when I found myself sitting on the concrete basement floor, flipping through files of old storage technology, yellowing clips of newsprint, struggling to cull a few for this “Selected Essays & Criticism.” I mean, the question does come to mind: why on earth….? I have only two hands and one brain; I have a kid and a job and stories in mind that, whatever their eventual worth, deserve to be seen through to conclusion. It’s a conundrum, and it leads off the Preface for my Sea-God.
A couple of less-than-noble answers have occurred to me. Naturally, the reviews and the longer meditations added some wee bit to the Glory of Me; they fed the vanity that, let’s be honest, helps drive us to this vocation. Sure, I like seeing my name in print—and I loved it when one of my essays, years back, brought in a complimentary letter from Susan Sontag. But any honest critic also has to admit that reviewing only gets you so far. Even Sontag turned to book-length essays, and to novels, to solidify her reputation. Even a busy critic like Edmund Wilson, like John Leonard, now often requires a footnote on his name. Oh, and speaking of guys like that, they embody the discredited notion that a critic should earn a living. The work, once upon a time, earned a decent dollar, and not just in a few New York places.A handful of this book’s pieces paid enough to make a difference, that month, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that as a motive.
NE: All writers—though we probably are who we are—hope that we’ll continue to evolve. Do you look back at work you have previously published and think, why on earth? What would you say to writers who have a sense they just haven’t found their true voice yet?
JD: The emptiness of such palaver sets a challenge when working with formative talents; it requires the mentor or whatever to strike a balance between the soothing syrup (which we can all use from time to time) and something more specific, more down to brass tacks—and therefore, more critical. That’s the balance I strive for anyway, and generally that requires seeing the student work (“student” for lack of a better word) and addressing its particular strengths and weaknesses. Ideally, the Elder of the Tribe draws out those strengths.
Now, if I’m going to get down to such brass tacks, here, I need to point out that your question raises an issue that my Sea-God calls into question. My book argues that there’s no such place as this Nirvana known as “finding your voice.” Voice, in the writers I celebrate, tends to the malleable. A gifted fictioneer like Carole Maso, say, sounds one way in one story, another in the next. I’d like to think that Sea-God reveals how smaller issues of craft, the way sentence flows into sentence, come together to create something larger and more significant, namely, a vision of the writer’s life and times. The postmodern or experimental has been too often and too long perceived—in our country at least—as merely a question of technique, when in fact non-traditional narrative forms, in exemplary cases like John Barth and Toni Morrison and Jaimy Gordon and Matt Bell and others, attempt honestly to represent larger social visions, new insights into where we live and what we live for (a tip of the hat to Mr. Thoreau)—bigger questions than merely “how to write.”
With such greater purposes in mind, I would also urge a talent still in utero to consider reviewing. Reviewing, by its very nature, forces a reader to consider this object, the book, in relation to the world. You can’t help but ask what sort of world the object supposes, including what sort of audience would respond to its construction, drama, and prose (or poetry). By extension, if that world and audience includes yourself, you can’t help but reconsider yourself, your responsiveness. What chord, in you, resonates with this form of artistry? Come to think, if a reader doesn’t respond—doesn’t the obverse apply? The question is, why not? Are the characters foreign to you, is the situation preposterous? Or is it the level of prose? The format? Why can’t you connect?
Such questions help the younger talent, the talent-in-formation, enhance his or her sense of self, art, and (to some small extent anyway) the world. That’s how it works in Domini’s Seminar in Heaven, at least. Even here on earth, actually, I see lots of benefit in making an novice interrogate his or her preferred forms of storytelling: how they represent "this bitch of an earth,“ as Pozzo has it in Godot, andhow their idiosyncrasies fit against its roughage. I don’t require a snug fit, certainly—who am I to say what the world is?—but I can ask that a writer understand his or her creative angle on it.
NE: What are some essential works, in any realm, that have resonated with you over the years?
JD: I’m making an argument about the postmodern, an argument implied not only by my selection but also by my structure, with its ocean-movements metaphor ("Early Tide,” “Second Tide,” “Other Gravities,“ etc.). Still, along the way, on one page you’ll find a connection back to Mallarme, and on another back to Austen. Indeed, the final essay concerns one of the original avatars of bravura storytelling and artistic excellence, namely, Dante and The Divine Comedy.
But as Gertrude Stein said, snark isn’t literature.
I never tire of recommending Colette, a genius and a natural. Her Cheri (1920) portrays a world almost entirely ignored by the rest of fiction, and she does it with to-the-quick perspicacity, withering honesty, and stinging power. Then six years later—well, gosh, seeing as folks seem to like it—she followed that up with a another masterwork, The Last of Cheri.
NE: For writers who want to work in both non-fiction and fiction, as you do, how do you suggest they start?
JD: David Byrne, in a recent interview, worried over the current expectation, driven by web technology, that young folks in the arts will work for free—for "exposure,” as the saying goes. He raised a serious question: under those circumstances, can we really expect people to go on producing art?
All creative work depends on an economic ecosystem, no question. A lot of contemporary literary culture was seeded back in the 1950s, when Eisenhower poured hundreds of millions into education and the arts; as Kennedy and Johnson continued to do so, we saw the founding of wonderful quarterlies and creative-writing programs. But these days, now that Reagan and others have cut such support to the bone, students in those programs can feel as if they’ve invested in horseshoes and buggy whips during the first decades of the automobile. They graduate to a desiccated humanities market, most of them with crippling debts; see Lena Dunham’s Girls for a more entertaining presentation of the crisis.
Still. “Urge and urge and urge,” we read in Song of Myself, “always the procreant urge of the world.” The truly procreant, I’m saying, find out where the money is and, insofar as conscience and connections allow, they go there. Just now, what’s flourishing is this internet rainforest of critical writing and personal reporting, including of course the Believer blogs but also reaching beyond the arts, on many magazine sites and places like VICE. “Creatives” (sociologist argot; gotta love it) can see how a crafty and insightful string of non-fiction posts can lead to better. In Maud Newton’s case, didn’t it lead to the New York Times? Didn’t HTMLGiant help drive Blake Butler’s success? Butler’s site has been good to some of my criticism, as well – and come to think of it, who’s David Byrne to shake a finger at the DIY ethos? How much did the Talking Heads rake in, their first gig at CBGBs?