|0:33||Intro. [Recording date: July 10, 2014.] Russ: My guest is D. G. Myers. He is a literary critic, author--and he is dying of cancer. That combination makes this episode of EconTalk a little out of the ordinary. David, welcome to EconTalk. Guest: Glad to be here, Mr. Roberts. Russ: Now, I invited you to be a guest after I read your remarkable essay, "The Mercy of Sickness Before Death," which is about what it's like to be a terminal cancer patient. And I believe that that essay and the lessons of that essay tell us something important related to economics. And we're going to get to that. But I want to start with your medical situation. When were you diagnosed and what was the nature of the diagnosis? Guest: As I wrote in my most recent Patheos essay, which was retitled by my editor "Quitting the Cancer Battle,"--my original title as "New Hope for the Dying"--I was first diagnosed around the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which is in the fall, of 2007. I was in the good medical habit of getting a routine physical examination every year, partly on the understanding that a man my age, and I was only 55 in 2007, was protected against prostate cancer by an annual physical. Nevertheless my physician discovered what he called an 'opacity' on my chest x-ray. Doctors are wonderful for avoiding what the cancer memoirist Christina Middlebrook calls the 'stink words'. So he wouldn't commit himself to anything that might make my nose wrinkle. But he found an opacity, he told me, on my chest x-ray. And this happened just before the Chag, the holiday of Sukkot. Like, I couldn't schedule a visit with him to get a biopsy for three days. And those, as you might imagine, were three dreadful days for me and my family. Biopsy showed that I had metastatic prostate cancer that had spread to my right ischium, which is right under the pelvis, a left rib, and some lymph nodes. Russ: What did you do--what's been your medical response to that? We'll talk about your emotional response in a minute. But what was your medical response? Guest: Well, immediately, I was put into the care of a brilliant oncologist at Baylor College of Medicine by the name of Rush Lynch. Rush went to high school with Janis Joplin, a detail I always have to include when I mention Rush. Russ: It's important. Guest: And Rush put me under chemotherapy immediately. And the chemo--and then also he had the theory, though no urologist would go along with this, but fortunately we found a radiation oncologist who would, that if he destroyed my prostate, he might possibly cure me of it. And for 3 years that worked. So for three years, hormone treatments, the irradiation of my prostate, and the chemotherapy seemed as if it had cured me. But then it turned out to just be a remission; the cancer came back full strength, spread from my right ischium throughout my right hip and destroyed it. And by this time I had moved to Columbus, Ohio. We went through the drugs that were available. I have exhausted them now. Now I am on palliative care and it's just a matter of time. Russ: And what's the expected time? Guest: Well, it's an interesting question. Officially my prognosis is 6 months to 2 years. But it was that last fall when I began my current regimen of chemotherapy. And so far I've had 12 cycles on the same drug; when my oncologist was expecting only 4 or 5. So, 9 months later my prognosis is still 6 months to 2 years. You can never tell with a cancer like mine. The drug can fail at any time. And then there's also the question of when life no longer has enough quality to live. Most cancer patients actually make the decision at some point to withdraw care and let the cancer take its course. I obviously haven't reached that. But that's what complicates the question of a prognosis.|
|5:48||Russ: So you write about--it's a 2-part essay; we're going to talk about both parts, but in the first part you write about cancer as merciful. Which is an unusual word that people don't associate with cancer. Explain. Guest: It's a difficult one, because I'm not sure that I have the words for it, partly because my literary instincts are to avoid cliché and sentimentality. But, I'm a religious Jew, and orthodox Jew, who is accustomed to thanking God, or as we orthodox Jews call Him, Hashem, for everything that occurs in my life. One of the miraculous details is that my wife discovered that she was pregnant with our fourth child, our only daughter, Miriam, who we call Mimi, the exact same day I was diagnosed with cancer. And I've always seen Hashem's hand in my cancer, and assumed that--He wanted me to have this, for some reason. So in one sense I've always been grateful because this strikes me as Hashem's plan for--God, I hate that word. I don't think He plotted it out. But the history He wanted for me. And for me as a writer and a teacher, it has been merciful in giving me the matchless opportunity to educate people about what it is like to live with cancer. As you know from my essays, I am hardly sparing in my criticisms of the way our culture treats cancer. And if I can contribute to a rethinking of how we talk about cancer and how we look upon cancer patients--notice I always call them patients and never sufferers, because those who have cancer are not victims--then, I really believe that the cancer will have been merciful. And will have borne out my sense that Hashem gave me this for a reason. Russ: I'm sure that's comforting. What I found inspiring and moving about your essay was the economics in it for me. Which was--I once had a student who told me that economics is the study of how to get the most out of life. She'd heard that from another professor--she couldn't remember who it was. And I've always found that to be a profoundly comforting description of my field, which can be often seen as a rather dreary form of financial planning at its worst level. But I always see economics as a lens for thinking about life and the choices we make. Most of them--many of those choices are illuminated in economic thinking that are related to financial decisions, but many of them are not. And we recently on this program talked about Gary Becker, who extended economics to many areas to many areas that are not traditionally thought of as economic questions--marriage, crime, etc. But the simplest way to think about it is that economics really focuses often on what economists call opportunity costs--what I give up to do something, what's my next best alternative. And sometimes if I buy something, what could I have bought instead? If I take this job, what job did I not take instead? But it also includes who did I marry and thereby, not marry. And it also includes, coming back to your essay, how do I spend my time and what did I not spend my time on as a result of that decision. And your essay reminded me of how easy it is to waste what I think of as our most precious resource. Which is--not oil--but time. Because it's very scarce. Guest: That's exactly true. And I have two examples of that. The first is that I was trained as a literary theorist, and actually pursued the philosophical reputation of many literary theorists. I was also a literary historian. And I was writing a book when I was diagnosed with cancer called Battle Cry of Theory. It was going to be a history of theory's invasion of American English departments. But when I was diagnosed, I put that book aside. Partly because I did not want to spend my last weeks reading Jonathan Culler and Harold Bloom. And I found--what I did instead was an economic decision, though I never would have perceived it at the time. It was economic, clearly economic. I started keeping a book log and started doing what I had done years and years ago, when I'd first become a writer--I'm talking about when I was in my early 20s. I returned to reviewing books. And because I wasn't interested in writing begging letters to editors, I started reviewing books on my blog. Which led to a job at Commentary Magazine as their fiction critic. And all sorts of opportunities to become a public literary critic. Which has proven to be--I'm much more influential now as a writer than I ever was in my days when I was a critic of criticism. And the second is--and it's not unrelated to that--but this is more global and part of my advice to cancer patients. It's the idea of a bucket list. When we realize that we have a limited amount of time, the question arises: What I have I been wanting to do and been unable to do? But when you have cancer, you realize that there are limits placed even on that. So, for example, as a Jew, I've never visited the state of Israel. And of course have longed to for many years. But with my hip, now, I can't travel that far. So I had to make the choice to give up that dream and to focus on smaller dreams. So, as I've said publicly several times now, my bucket list consists of books I haven't read. And I urge cancer patients to reduce the scope of their bucket list. Spending time with their kids. My kids, after I'm dead, are not going to care that they didn't get to go to Israel with me. They are going to care that I didn't spend more time with them. And in that sense--in exactly Becker's sense--I think I've made a determined, a self-conscious economic decision in the light of my cancer.|
|13:15||Russ: And the other part of that--I'm a big fan of Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, and just finished a book on it, actually. And Smith, when you read that book, he forces you to think about--to be mindful. And the idea of mindfulness, the idea that you should pay attention to how you spend your time and how you go through life seems to me one of the most valuable lessons, an incredibly difficult one to learn. And I think one of the virtues of your essay, and a number of other related essays and writings I may mention--certainly we'll put links up to--is that you need to be reminded that your life is finite. You need to be reminded that times with your kids are precious. You'd think you wouldn't need to be. One of the things I read just after, just before--I can't remember--your essay, is a remarkable essay that Helen Keller wrote in 1933 where she writes about what she could do if she could see for 3 days. You and I have been blessed to see for 6 decades almost--in my case, in yours right around there. And how often do we savor it? How often do we appreciate it? And what she writes about what she would want to look--it's a lesson in mindfulness. And that seems to be an incredibly important lesson. Guest: It's one that, however, I think is impossible to impart. Seriously. I was always very active and athletic. I coached Little League, coached football, loved having boys that I could play catch with. And now there are all sorts of things because of my hip I can't do. I can't run. I can't do one of the things that I loved the most, ride a bike. I can't get on a bike any more. I could probably ride it if I could get on. Though how I could ever get off in a panic stop is beyond me. But I look at people running and I don't feel envy so much as I want to say to them, 'Do you realize how lucky you are? Please, please value these moments that you can run.' Because inevitably, whether it's cancer or old age, there's going to come a time when you can't. I just read today that Linda Ronstadt--I didn't know this; did you know this?--has Parkinson's Disease? Russ: I did not. Guest: And she cannot sing any more? Russ: I did not. What a tragedy. Not for me--I mean, I like her; she's done great work, I enjoy her songs. But tragedy for her. Guest: No. Russ, I think it's a tragedy for us. And I'll bet she is not experiencing it as a tragedy. Russ: Interesting. Guest: My wife is encouraging me--my wife has a position, a pediatric cardiologist--my wife encourages me to stop describing what I have as a life-threatening illness. She says that the proper term is 'life-limiting'. Now, what she as a physician means is the expected duration of my life now has a limit. But I love the phrase, because the things I can do have also been limited by my disease. And your point is: We all really have life-limiting conditions and we are just not aware of them. Russ: Oh, yes. Guest: Becoming mindful of those would be merciful. But I'm afraid it may be impossible. Russ: It's a question of focus. Gary Wills wrote a wonderful book, Lincoln at Gettysburg, and in the beginning of that book he talks about the late 19th century habit, custom, of visiting cemeteries as a form of character development. And that's part of what we're talking about. It's not a bad thing to be aware that your gift of time is finite. And yet it strikes me that your attitude toward cancer and 19th century visiting of cemeteries is extremely at odds with the current American culture which celebrates youth. And the word 'cancer' is not a word people like to hear--it's one of the stink words. Guest: Right.|
|17:42||Russ: What kind of reaction have you gotten from your lack of sentimentality and your refusal to indulge in hope? You point out that hope is not what most people with cancer need. They need honesty so that they can savor and enjoy and use their time. Just like all of us; we are all dying. What kind of reaction have you gotten to this attitude? Guest: Except maybe for one comment to my latest essay, which was later partially retracted by the author, I get two reactions. One is--and these are from the people I love most--are expressions of gratitude and admiration. Which of course is wonderful--wonderful flattery for my ego. But by far the widest reaction I get is utter silence. My own sister did not say anything to me--anything at all to me, about cancer, for the first 5 years of my living with the disease. It's amazing the friends who disappear. Russ: Yeah. I understand that. I could imagine. Guest: And the stupid things that people say to you-- Russ: Yeah, I can imagine that, too. Guest: My appearance is so incredibly altered. I've dropped 40 pounds--I weighed about 170; now I weigh about 130. And I've lost all my hair. And of course I can't walk straight. So, people come up, insensitively and say, Well what happened to you? Or, when I'm with my children--I'm an older father anyway; and I look a good years older than I really am--people constantly come up and say, 'How wonderful that your grandkids are with you.' And I want to say to them, 'I'm not their grandfather. I'm dying of cancer. That's why I look this way.' Russ: Which--they would easily swallow and say, 'Oh, I'm so sorry'--they wouldn't know what to say. Guest: Right. But it's pervasive throughout the culture. The example I've been using of the great Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn. Tony Gwynn died recently, just last much, salivary gland cancer. Russ: A magnificent hitter. Guest: He was a great ball player, and a great man. He had salivary gland cancer for 8 years. I don't know about you--I was unaware of that fact. Russ: I did not know it, either. Guest: Every article about Gwynn's death quite rightly celebrated his prowess on the ball field and what a wonderful man he was. The last 4 and a half years of his life disappeared from all of the accounts. The only thing they ever said was that he had a 4-and-a-half year "battle" with cancer. And you know how much I hate that word, "battle." Russ: Talk about that. Guest: Just let me finish this about Gwynn. You know, his experience of it--he continued to coach baseball at San Diego State. How did it affect his coaching? What did it do to his religious faith? How did it alter his relationship with his wife? All of this went unsaid, and it just disappeared into one word--battle. Now, as you know, I hate that word. I think it is one of the lies our culture tells. I hate it for several reasons. One, as I suggest, it's a way of cloaking in invisibility the experience of men and women who must live with the cancer for several years. But I also hate it because it's a lie about the control a patient has over his cancer. There's really nothing that a cancer patient can do to fight his cancer. His oncologist can fight it. The drugs he takes can fight the disease. And I know there's some research that suggests that a good attitude helps. But far more important, I think, is for a cancer patient to fight for the truth about his disease. To fight his doctors to level with him. To fight to assume responsibility for his disease. To make choices--how to spend his time, what treatment options to pursue and which to forego. There are ones that I decided against because the side-effects are just too onerous. That's the way in which a cancer patient can fight. But she's not fighting the disease. She's fighting for people to be honest with her, and to allow her still to be a full functioning, responsible, grown-up. Russ: Yeah, no, it's an infantilizing phenomenon I think. And it's so ubiquitous--the fight, battle, struggle terminology. And I think it's our way of ennobling something, as you say, we really don't want to face, don't want to think about, and don't want to look at. As you say, you talk about friends who disappear--I'm sure people literally look away because they are uncomfortable with the fact that you don't look the way you used to look. Guest: Exactly. It's--when I go to shul, when I go to synagogue, it is--and I can't do that very often because I have to be pushed in a wheelchair now--but it is amazing. There are those of my friends who come over and ask if I'm having a good day or a bad day, if there's anything they can get me; do I need a book? And then there are those who just pretend I'm not there. Russ: We do that with, not just cancer patients. What's interesting to me is that our culture in America is built around this concept of tolerance--which is mainly a good thing, I believe--and yet we have lots of categories that we don't tolerate, we just pretend don't exist. People who are ill, people who are crazy or diagnosed--perceived--as crazy, we just pretend they are not there, don't exist. We don't look at them on the subway; we don't look at them on our streets. We just kind of shut down and hope it goes away. Guest: Right. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is still relevant for our times. I actually think less of tolerance than you do, because I think there's a hair's breadth difference between tolerance and indifference. I just wrote a piece for the Image Journal in which I argued that religious people, literary and religious people, in the 21st century have to abandon tolerance for what I call multi-lingualism. We have to learn to speak one another's theological language. I think we have to start having less indifferent tolerance and more direct caring about those who are different from us. Cancer is, I think, a perfect example of what goes on from top to bottom in our culture. You say that the fight metaphor--and I think you are absolutely right--is a way of trying to ennoble something we really don't want to think about. But of course it can't be ennobling if it's false. Russ: Yeah. Guest: I don't want to be ennobled. I want the reality of me to be acknowledged, the same as any other person does. Russ: I think the tragedy is because of our emphasis on youth and beauty and superficial appearance--I think maybe a better way to describe that linguistic dishonesty is an attempt to dignify the undignified. Guest: Right. Russ: And the fact is, there's nothing undignified about losing your hair because of cancer treatment. It's not normal, it's not what you are used to, it's not what a friend of yours is accustomed to, right? But it's not undignified. It's just a natural reaction to a set of chemicals. But it makes us so uncomfortable. I think for many of us--I'm no different, by the way; I'm making this sound like I'm outraged about it. It's easy for me to conduct this interview over the phone. I've never met you, I don't know you, I've admired your work over the years; and it's just chance that I came across your essay a week ago and you were kind enough to agree to talk about what are very personal issues. But it is the case that to many of us, people who are sick, or troubled-looking, we don't see them as dignified. We don't know them, but we judge the superficial. And as a result, we want to dignify them with the struggle motif. And I think it's silly. Guest: I'd revise what you are saying just slightly. I think that those who use such language are trying to preserve their own dignity. And not concerned at all with the dignity of the sick. Because if they were--and it is hard; we all know this from encounter with anyone who has a physical deformity. I'm sorry, I'm going to call it a physical deformity, even though that's politically incorrect. But we know how hard it is to look at such people. And so we preserve ourselves and our own feelings, at the expense of them. And as you said, I was no different until I got the disease. Now it just makes me angry.|
|27:43||Russ: Speaking of anger: I want to--when I read your essay one of the things I thought of was the Dylan Thomas poem, which is "Do not go gentle into that good night,... Rage, rage against the dying of the light." And I thought of your essay as being pretty rage-free. Dylan Thomas is talking about, working hard, when he says 'rage.' I read that as meaning work really hard at not acting like you are dying and falling into despair or despondency, or worse, apathy or indifference. What do you think of that word? And how would you describe--I saw your essay as more of a savoring and not much rage? But do you feel that? Guest: I agree. I'm not a fan of Thomas's poem. I've never been a fan of Thomas. He's not my style. But particularly that poem gives, I think, the wrong note. Now, of course, it's a son talking to a father. And I think my own sons have some of that attitude toward me. And in many ways I hear Thomas saying, 'Don't go, don't leave me; I need you.' And this is not to fault Thomas in any way. But it's more about Thomas than it is about his father. Because my attitude is--is the Biblical one. I allude to the choice in Deuteronomy, in the last sentences of my essay that mercy of sickness before death, and that is that we have before us the choice between life and death. And even those who are dying can choose life. Russ: Yeah; actually, I put that in my first book, that line, because I think it is--it's one way that I remember to be mindful. Guest: Exactly. Russ: It says: Choose life. It doesn't mean, literally, choose between life and death. It means: Live. Don't live as if you are dead. Guest: That, and for those of us who are dying, the more important thing is life rather than the fact that you are about to die. Now, as I say, this was a lesson that I was lucky enough, the day I was diagnosed, since I learned the same day that I was going to be the father of a fourth child. And I intuited immediately, or at least my sad, deluded interpretation of the coincidence, was that God was saying, 'Here's the choice: Life and death.' Life, a new child; death, you are going to die of cancer. Which is the more important? My daughter.|
|30:34||Russ: Yeah. I'm going to read a quote from the essay now and I'm going to read a poem that it reminded me of. It's the rare poem that seems to suggest an explicit economics point, so bear with me here for a minute. Guest: Absolutely. Russ: You write:|
Cancer may be a death sentence, but there are many ways to read the sentence. Resignation is only one of them, and a particularly arrogant one at that, because it presumes to know, as it cannot, the outcome in every detail.That's absolutely beautiful. And it reminded me--obviously it illustrates the point we've been making about mindfulness and being aware of your choices. But it reminded me of a beautiful poem that for some reason I mistakenly remembered as being Edna St. Vincent Millay--it's actually Sara Teasdale. And it's "Barter", which is a word that Adam Smith liked a lot. And it's not about swapping corn for beef. It's a different kind of barter. But again, that makes it, to me, all the more about economics. And Sara Teasdale writes:
But if you are ignorant of the suffering that awaits you when you are first diagnosed, you are equally ignorant of the changes that cancer will work in your thinking and emotional life, some of which may even be improvements in old habits of thought and feeling.
You may, for instance, become more conscious of time. What once might have seemed like wastes of time--a solitaire game, a television show you would never have admitted to watching, the idle poking around for useless information--may become unexpected sources of joy, the low-key celebrations of being alive. The difference is that when you are conscious of choosing how to spend your time, and when you discover that you enjoy your choices, they take on a meaning they could never have had before.
You no longer waste or mark time. You fill it, because now you can see the brim from where you are lying.
Life has loveliness to sell, It goes on for two more verses; I'm not going to read it. I'll put a link up to it. But the idea that you can acquire pleasure in life and satisfaction and joy by going one thing and not the other is what that poem is about. When you talked about filling time rather than marking it, I thought about that image of holding wonder like a cup. The idea of filling your cup, filling your life with wonder, just struck me as--it's a good guidepost. Guest: It's wonderful. And it seems to me an opportunity that is open to anyone. One of the things that have happened to me is, when you undergo chemotherapy, you have some days that are just horrible. Very hard to describe the side effects of chemotherapy. It feels as if you've been beaten up. It's not just that you can't summon the energy to do something. You can't summon the will to do it. So there are days when I'm unable to read. I can't hold the book. But one thing I can always do is listen to music. I'm not particularly musical. I don't have a good musical sense. So I've been relying on friends. My friend Terry Teachout[?], for instance, urged me to get some Jimmy Ruffin, a blues singer. And as Terry knew he would, listening to him lifted my spirits. I've started to explore the world of music in a way I hadn't since I was an undergraduate. Definitely a low-key celebration of being alive. It's something that I've urged my mother-in-law, who is, I think the technical term is, a treatment resistant depressive, who had been complaining that she can't read fiction because she becomes too emotionally involved. And I said to her, 'Ima, but that's exactly what you want. The fiction is returning you to life. Yes, it's making you uncomfortable, but that's because it's awakening emotions that are dormant.' It's a low-key celebration of being alive. Russ: But to me, those low keys, some of them are the highest moments. Guest: Absolutely. Russ: They are about the savoring.
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.
|35:12||Russ: I want to push us a little bit in a direction of literature. We'll come back to life and cancer in a minute. My segue is the following: In the last few years, knowing your situation, what literature have you been drawn to? Anything outside your regular patterns? You are a big reader; you are a voracious reader. Anything new in the last few years because of where you are? Guest: Well, I don't know if it's because of where I'm at. For professional reasons, since I'm writing a book on living with cancer, I've been doing a lot of reading in cancer memoirs. As I quipped on Twitter today, cancer memoirs I'm afraid are like golf tournaments on TV--only those who already have the disease are interested in them. So I've been reading those. But that's for professional reasons. One of the unexpected swerves that my reading has taken in recent months has been into Catholic fiction. I happened, I think just serendipity, when I was reviewing for Commentary, I happened to pull on two different novels by two young Catholic novelists, Christopher Beha and William Giraldi, both of whom have become email friends. And they both wrote wonderful first novels, and even better second novels, that I just reviewed for Books and Culture. And one of the things that was so impressive about Beha and Giraldi is that they had chosen to go in a new direction. They didn't see Flannery O'Connor as their obvious literary precursor. Russ: Graham Greene. Guest: No. For Beha it was Graham Greene. You'd be surprised how little purchase Greene has on the contemporary literary imagination. Russ: [?] Guest: Yeah, exactly. And he's British. Russ: [?] Guest: Yeah, right. But also Muriel Spark. So, Beha and Giraldi got me to read and re-read Graham Greene and Muriel Spark. Always in my reading, I'm a completist. So, one of the things you can do in life, you can read the complete works of somebody. And I've read all of Muriel Spark now; and except for his entertainments, most of Graham Greene. And that's somebody I never would have predicted, I would have gotten this fascination with Catholic fiction. It's true one of my closest buddies back at Texas A&M is a devout Catholic, and we've always yacked up religion. But I never would have expected to become this public advocate for Catholic fiction. Russ: Do you reread? Guest: Absolutely. Russ: Give me five books or so that you've read once or maybe more than that. Guest: Lolita. In our warmup you said one question you wouldn't as is, what's the greatest novel of the past century. It's Lolita. Russ: I'll take 5. Give me five. Guest: Okay. I like Lionel Trilling's set about Huckleberry Finn. I reread it every year. Other novels--probably my favorite novel--I wouldn't say it's the best novel--is Philip Roth's American Pastoral. Before I got sick, also, I had hoped to write an intellectual biography of Roth. And now Claudia Roth Pierpont has come out with one, so I don't have to do it. But if I had to reread one Roth it would always be American Pastoral. And similarly, since I named a son after him, Saul Bellow. And the Bellow I always reread is Mr. Sammler's Planet, a novel that is not dissimilar from American Pastoral. They are two examples of what I call the Jewish talking novel. Russ: I struggle to like Bellow. I find him disappointing. And I was interested--I saw you rave in print about Mr. Sammler's Planet. I've not read that. I've read a couple others, and didn't love either of them. Just liked 'em. They're okay; they interest me. They don't grab me. Who else do you like? Who else would you put in your top 10? Guest: Well, here I'm going to mention two obscure novels, because part of my goal in life is to get people to read novels that have been forgotten. Richard P. Brickner's novel Tickets, 1982 I want to say--no, that's too late. Maybe 1978. I don't have it in front of me. Tickets is a novel about opera. And adultery. But it's not an adultery novel. It is a wholly persuasive account of a love affair, without any gag factor. Wonderfully and sparingly written, although like anything Brickner wrote, it always has the wonderful maxims and epigrams, too. And the other is a personal favorite that I've been after the New York Review of Books classics series to reprint with, of course, an afterword by me, is Thomas Gallager's Oona O, which is 50 years old this summer. Oona O is a wonderful novel about an Irish-American girl who ends up pregnant from a love affair, delivers her own child in Italy, and carves out an incredibly [?] hence the 'O' in her name--I mean, her name is obviously from Oona O'Neill, but nevertheless, she's Oona O'Hagen. But everyone calls her Oona O because she's entirely self-sufficient. And the most charming heroine I know in literature. Russ: You can briefly mention--I don't want to dwell on it too much--a few over-rated novels. I know you're not a big fan of Beloved. You've written about that. Any others you want to add to the list? You are strikingly honest, for a modern literary critic. It seems to me that most book reviews in America today are raves, [?] than politically incorrect books or people with bad attitudes that don't make the cut at the New York Times Book Review. You have never been shy about being scathing about bad books. You want to throw in a couple? Guest: Oh, yeah. I'd be glad to. Russ: I don't want to spend the rest of the time on it-- Guest: I know, and I'll just rattle off names--Jonathan Franzen--very much overrated. John Irving--no one should ever read another John Irving novel. He's long past his sell-by date. I'm hesitant to include Updike because Updike is rapidly disappearing from the literary culture and there are-- Russ: No one reads him any more-- Guest: Pardon? Russ: Nobody reads him. I loved him as a short-story writer when I was in college. I never could get into his novels; and most people can't either, it seems. Guest: Right. So let me take him off the list. Because I do believe the Rabbit novels are worth reading. I have been on the warpath against the Library of America, recently, which has made the indefensible decision to include popular writers like Elmore Leonard. I'm sorry Elmore Leonard died last year. He died on the same day that J. F. Powers's letters were published. And it was typical for the great J. F. Powers that he should be eclipsed by a writer who was a quarter of his stature. And now I find that the Library of America is doing a two-volume Elmore Leonard. All of Elmore Leonard is in print. There is no reason for a Library of America book. Russ: He's no James Cain. Let's be honest. Guest: And he's no Raymond Chandler. Russ: Obviously not. Guest: Who the Library of America already has. Russ: But I like Elmore Leonard. I bet your wife likes him, too. He's a lovely entertainer. Guest: He is an entertainer. There is no reason that he needs to be permanently preserved-- Russ: Enshrined-- Guest: In a library. Especially when--this is the one I always agitate for, Peter De Vries; this is the great comic novelist of the 1950s and 1960s--is entirely out of print except for 2 volumes.|
|43:38||Russ: Talk about the state of reading in America. In many ways it's the greatest time in human history to be a reader. There's tons of stuff available. Amazon gives everybody the world's greatest bookstore pretty close to their fingertips, if not their eyeballs with the Kindle. And yet you feel like, especially young people--nobody reads any more. They are too busy watching YouTube--a problem I have from time to time myself. Are you pessimistic about the book? Guest: You know, no, because one of my experiences as a book blogger and literary critic is to make contact with people who are desperately hungry not just for books but for book discussion. They are not academics. They are not part of the literary republic. And they are not book addicts, in the sense that they like one from the butt end from another. They are desperately hungry for good books. And I have received so many email messages thanking me for my recommendations of out-of-the-way novels that they have just loved. I think there will always be a minority of people who live to read, rather than read to live. Russ: It feels like it's shrinking, but I guess it's never been terribly large, for that matter. It's certainly true that access is just unparalleled. Libraries don't have as many books as they used to, but Barnes and Noble is like a giant library. People go in and they go take a book out [?] Guest: Public libraries are a scandal. They are now--they operate under the ideology that if a book hasn't been checked out for five years, it's removed from general circulation and sold at one of their great book sales. Russ: For a quarter. Guest: Instead what public libraries have now is the most recent best sellers. So you don't have to go to Barnes and Noble. Russ: And a bunch of Internet terminals to go check your email. Guest: Right. Right. I grew up in Riverside, California and went to the public library; my mother used to take us to the public library once a week. And I can remember the thrill, almost a pornographic thrill, of sneaking into the adult fiction section. I read Moby Dick when I was in the 5th grade because I thought I was getting away with something. I'm not sure that young people can have that experience any more. Russ: I actually read it at 10, also. And I've not read it since. I don't think I got much out of it. There wasn't anything sneaky about it; it just seemed like a good adult book and I liked the woodcut on the cover that they have. Do you recommend I go back to it? Guest: Oh yes. Oh, yes. You have to have your nonsense detector, because--let's say the whale is not the only one with a blowhole. But that's part of the charm of the book. It's capacious. There's room to stretch in that book. And so there are things that you skip. There are things that you skip. I like the formulous grandiosity of that book. Russ: So I have to ask you another reading habit question, which is, when I was younger I felt I had to finish every book I started. It took me a long time to get over that habit. Do you finish every book you start-- Guest: Oh, no. Russ: or do you drop in midstream? And when did that start? Guest: Unless I have the professional responsibility of reviewing it. There are many books, and books I think I will like--I must admit they tend to be more my wife's mysteries, the things she recommends to me that I just can't get through because of bad writing. But absolutely. I think that the choice not to continue reading a book is a critical decision. You are offering your verdict on the book. Russ: And your scarce time. Which you need to use wisely. I should mention by the way that we talked about your wife's reading habits before we started recording, I think, and the presumption that she liked Elmore Leonard was not a form of extrasensory perception.|
|48:06||Russ: Now, you wrote an interesting, very unusual book on the history of the teaching of creative writing in American universities. It's something I'd never thought about before. It's an interesting idea. The title of that book is The Elephants Teach. Talk about the title of that book and your view of creative writing. Guest: The title is from an anecdote, probably apocryphal. When Vladimir Nabokov was being considered for a position in English at Harvard, the linguist Roman Jakobson objected, and said, 'What's next? Shall we hire elephants to teach zoology?' So, the theme of my book is that the hiring of writers is in fact the hiring of the elephants to teach zoology. I do not have a high opinion of creative writing as it exists now. The original idea of creative writing was a brilliant one. Creative writing was actually the marriage of the writing of fiction, poetry, and drama to the writing of literary criticism. It owes its existence to the late 1920s and early 1930s and was pioneered by men and women, like Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon who wrote both fiction and criticism. Creative writing, however, has devolved--and here we're back to economics and perhaps the only original economic argument I have ever made--creative writing is now a bureaucracy which exists to promote its own interests at the expense of the general public. Creative writers only read one another. The lack of a knowledge of literary tradition is striking. I mentioned two young writers--Christopher Beha and William Giraldi. Now, Billy teaches in the creative writing program at Boston U., but Chris works for Harper's. And they both strike me as being outside of the creative writing milieu, partly because they are interested in their predecessors. Creating writing classes--and I studied creative writing with the great Raymond Carver--and Carver's classes were no different: you sit around in a circle and you read one another's work. Russ: And then you talk about it. Guest: Right. Russ: I tweeted yesterday, and I think you retweeted it, the poem "Workshop," which I'll put a link up to, by Billy Collins, which I think is a masterpiece-- Guest: It is wonderful-- Russ: in describing what's wrong with that class at university. Guest: It's just amazing--the thought that an 18, 19 year old--okay, they've graduated, 22 year old--who is not Flannery O'Connor. Now Flannery O'Connor went to the Iowa Writer's Workshop. And I will give creative writing, Flannery O'Connor. But other than she-- Russ: That's a small numerator. Big denominator. Guest: Even her immature stories are, well, immature. To assume that their stories can support a discussion longer than 30 seconds, which is: Don't publish this--is preposterous. Especially when classroom time is so limited and we have so little time to talk about great writing with students. English departments, as you know, are now in the business of junking the literary tradition anyway, and so now we have two wings of the English departments--both the critics and the writers--who are uninterested in literary tradition. I don't know who the writers will be reading them in two generations. Or maybe they just don't care. Russ: It seems to me the blogosphere, much of it, is the natural outcome of the creative writing urge. Which is a beautiful idea, that everybody is a writer, that everybody has something to say. Which is no doubt true. But it's also true that not everybody wants to read it. And some people are better than others. So, there is a certain self-indulgence in the modern creative writing phenomenon, which, really you are saying, it comes at a cost; there are other things that might be more useful. Both students and the world. But my take on it--and I'd like your reaction to this--is that there's very little teaching that goes on in those classes. I took creative writing--I took three creative writing classes, actually. And one, the one that I remember and cherish, was with Doris Betts, at the U. of North Carolina. She's a very nice writer. She has now passed away. I was inspired by that class because of her persona, but I'm not sure she taught me very much about how to be a better writer. But she did have an impact on me--I don't want to minimize that. And yet, in most classes it strikes me that there's very little instruction. And I was given the opportunity at George Mason to teach a class in how to write economics for a general audience, a class for graduate students. Probably the only class like that, maybe in America. And I struggled with it. What do I do besides talk about these things? How do I teach it? And I got a wonderful piece of advice from Orson Scott Card, science fiction writer whose path I crossed. And he said: Don't grade people on how they write; grade them on how they critique each other. And his idea, which is genius--and it helped, and I put it into practice as best I could, and I think if I'd done it longer I would have gotten better at it--but his idea was, if you want to improve your writing, you have to be a better editor. You have to hear the voice inside your head, the reader over your shoulder. And so, what you can do to become a better writer is to become a better editor. So, by editing and responding to other people's flaws, it will help you see your own. I don't know if that's true. I think it could be. And it's by far the best thing I've ever heard about how to teach people to write better. Instead, what we're doing--and it's not just creative writing: it's in English in high school and middle school--you give the kid back an essay with some red marks on it and say, Here, read these and learn. And that doesn't seem to work. Guest: Right. No, it doesn't. I could not agree more with Card. And anyone who is what James called an 'inveterate fingerer of style,' is constantly reading with a mental blue pencil. I can't read anything without thinking if this sentence is clunky and could have been written better. I was really taught to write not by Raymond Carver in my creative writing class, that I also studied with the novelist Stanley Elkin, but by the great poet and critic J. V. Cunningham. And I took one and only one course with Cunningham in graduate school. He was a visiting professor and he taught the History of Literary Criticism. And more than anything, it was, not just Cunningham's persona, like Doris Betts, but--and this was, as I say in my book, the original idea of creative writing--Cunningham embodied his entire literary practice in everything he did. So, he was, he believed furiously in the plain style. And exemplified the plain style even in his conversation. Great epigrammatist. But an even greater scholar. And I once asked Cunningham--I went to his office; he couldn't get rid of me. And I said to him, Why--at some point he more or less stopped writing poetry and he only did scholarship--I asked him Why? And he said, 'It is the more worth doing.' Or perhaps he said the more needed. When I was a kid I wanted to be a fiction writer, and realized that writing criticism was the more needed, the more worth doing. And that, I think--the embodiment of this insistence on getting names[?] exactly right, as plainly as possible, has driven my writing ever since. A friend of mine, the wonderful critic Catherine A. Powers, who just won the Nona Balakian Award from the National Book Critics' Circle, said to me, and I'm speaking for both of us, that what we are after is a style that is preternaturally clear. So if you put those together-- Russ: It's not in fashion. Guest: Right. Orson Card would say that what you need is a perfectly internalized editor who is constantly editing you to be preternaturally clear. With Cunningham's passion for exactitude.|
|57:32||Russ: Well, I love that. But we're not in the mainstream. I'm just going to pick a writer who I love, who I think is underappreciated, and I can get your reaction. And that's Somerset Maugham. I can't read his novels. I read them; I didn't like them much. But I think his short stories are spectacular. And there's nothing, not a single bit of flashiness about him. He is merely a great storyteller. Guest: Unlike you, I actually like his novels. I think Cakes and Ale is the single best thing ever written about the literary life. Russ: Yeah. I don't remember Cakes and Ale. I just remember his two famous--no one reads them any more-- Of Human Bondage and The Razor's Edge. Guest: Right. Go and read Cakes and Ale. It's about a popular writer, based on Hugh Walpole, and an unpopular writer, or a--how should I say--an exacting craftsman, who is obviously modeled on Maugham. And their acquaintanceship with the second Mrs. Thomas Hardy. Mrs. Thomas Hardy is given a different name in the book. But it's wonderful to see one of them trying to cash in on the renown of the second Mrs. Hardy, and the first one, although of course in essence this is a roman à clef, Maugham is, in his own way, cashing in on it. It's also, and much more deeply, a send-up of the literary logroller, the person who is simply trying to trade on fame. Wonderful novel. Not flashy. Russ: But do you agree with my point that he's been discarded because he's merely a great storyteller? Which is no longer valued very highly. Whereas I think it's maybe the single best virtue that--I mean, his stories are so perfectly crafted. His anecdotes. And he has a book that no one reads called The Gentleman in the Parlor that is utterly charming. And it's full of these perfectly crafted set pieces of storytelling that he did better than anybody. Guest: So, you don't know Anthony Daniels' quip about Maugham. Russ: No. Guest: To confess a liking for Maugham is among the literate no different than a loss of caste among the Indians. Russ: There you go. Guest: So, it's long been no different. To confess a liking for Maugham is to tear your pants in polite literary company. Russ: Yeah. Exactly.|
|1:00:20||Russ: Just quickly--we're out of time, but just quickly: You did a lot of teaching. Talk about the transformation in the American university over the 25 years of teaching that you did, and your sense of it. Guest: Well, two main ones. The first, I've already touched on, though, in different terms. But the contemporary university is principally an administrative bureaucracy. Or a bureaucracy of administrators who are primarily interested in protecting their own turf without any interest in the taxpayers who support state universities, the scholars who contribute to the world of learning, or, last of all, students who are there to get an education. I've taught at two football factories--Texas A&M and Ohio State. And although I hate the athletic departments--love the athletes--and think it's tragic what is done to athletes, I'm much more incensed by the neglect of undergraduates. And the complete disdain of anything that would improve teaching. And the second change has been in English departments--I belong to a generation that went into teaching English because--talk about heresy--we love literature. And had been trained--I went to graduate school at the time when it was assumed that, if nothing else, you knew Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. It is now possible to graduate from many universities in this country without ever taking--with a degree in English--without ever taking a course in Shakespeare. Russ: Sure. Guest: It's--astonishing to me. I wrote a piece for InsideHigherEd about not having my contract renewed at Ohio State. And one of the things that I think has escaped the notice of my fellow English professors is that, now that we have made nothing indispensible to the study of English, all of us English professors are dispensable. Because none of us teach an indispensible subject. The Shakespeare scholar can be gotten rid of because studying Shakespeare is no longer indispensible. We have sacrificed any idea that there is a common tradition. When I say that, I am misunderstood to be calling for a reimposition of the 'cannon'. I don't think the 'cannon' ever existed to begin with. But we don't even argue about a common tradition might include. Nor, when we teach something, do we ever make the case that this is indispensible to the learning of a young person. We just 'teach our hobbies.' Whatever interests us this month. Russ: So, I happen to love Shakespeare. And I've taken my kids to many Shakespeare performances. Make the case for it. I think it's indispensible, and it's part of being an educated, civilized human being. But, I'm sure many of our listeners wouldn't agree. Can you make a case for that? How would you make a case for that? Guest: Well, again, in two ways. The first is--borrowing from E. D. Hirsch's idea of cultural literacy. You just can't speak the English language and not be indebted to Shakespeare. Which means that the more Shakespeare you know, the better your speech is. Not just because Shakespeare offers a wealth of illusions. But because he is the perfect example of how to use the English language with mellifluous exactitude. The second is that there is nothing in the picture of man which is not included in Shakespeare. Now I recognize that we no longer study man; and even to use that word is to identify myself as being a dinosaur. Russ: A dinosaur. Shame on you. Guest: But it's true. Russ: But when a man has cancer, he's allowed a certain latitude. Guest: Exactly. It's part of my preternatural honesty. Russ: There you go. Guest: But I'm serious. If you had to restrict your study of man to one author, Shakespeare would be the one you would choose. Russ: Well, I agree with that. I think your first point--I'm not sure it's true in the sense that to know that, to know that, 'neither borrower nor lender be' is--from Hamlet, Polonius's advice to Laertes--is good at cocktail parties. I don't think you have to know where it comes from to learn the lesson. Learning the lesson, which is the way I take your second point about human nature, seems to me to be the value of Shakespeare. But the critic could argue, we get it elsewhere; there are other places to--you get it in the Psychology Department. You want to comment on that? Guest: Well. I again am a dinosaur in believing in human greatness. And learning from those than are greater than we. It's certainly what informed my teaching. I was stupid enough, or behind-hand enough, to believe that the writers I taught had something to say to us. Which is why we should study them. Not to expose the sense of racism and colonialism. But because they are wiser, and by God, smarter, than we are. Which is why I, as much as he's been devalued in the practice of psychology, I would say that every undergraduate needs to study Freud. Because Freud belongs to the human heritage now. Russ: I agree. I agree, though I know virtually nothing about Freud. But I'll take the point. My natural bias against psychology, which came from my father, who had a Master's degree in it, scared me away from studying it for most of my life. I've gotten a little intuitive as I've gotten older. Well, we're out of time. Let's come back where we started. I want to put you on the soapbox and let you close. We've had a lot of interesting advice here about Shakespeare and Melville. But talk more generally, and sum up your advice for people with cancer and without. Guest: That really is putting me on the spot. I place before you today death and life. Therefore, choose life. I don't know a stronger message: that everything that we do, everything we are aware of choosing to do, should contribute to life. It's not a matter of using our time productively. I don't even think that is good economic language. But rather, choosing to do whatever enhances life will end up enhancing life. The best way, perhaps to put it, is, in literary terms, is the way I think of putting it, since I'm a writer--I have a book manuscript out right now that is called, The Moral Obligation to Write Well. A phrase, by the way, which was coined by an economist, I'll have to look up who it was for you. If for a writer, the moral obligation is to write well, then I would say that the moral obligation for all of us is to live well. Russ: Yep. And use our gifts and time as best we can. And not to miss those opportunities which are fleeting. Every second is fleeting. Guest: Absolutely.|