From “The Review of Contemporary Fiction,” Fall 1997, Vol. 17.3
STEVEN MOORE: You’ve been called an “experimental” writer; while innovation is valued, even insisted on in the other arts (painting, dancing, music), innovation in literature seems to meet with resistance. Is this the way it strikes you? If so, does the resistance come more from book reviewers than readers?
CAROLE MASO: The problem in fiction, I think, is that it’s become a genuine commodity. There is money to be made if you make the right product. It’s got nothing to do with art or aesthetics. So of course experimentation is for the most part not published, not reviewed, not valued in any way, and this, I think, is very difficult and very painful for most writers. And so you’ve got some very good writers, I see it in my students, some very raw, extravagant, interesting tendencies, deliberately avoided, consciously swerved away from, because dear God, what would happen if you actually spoke in your own voice, and you sounded like no one else. Looked like no one else, could not be categorized, could not be “sold.” It’s dangerous. Which it should be, of course. But most American writers are unwilling to take the gamble. The price is too high. And American literature suffers a great deal as a result. For me, the price is too high “not” to speak in my own voice. Writing, for me, is a significant human adventure; it is about exploration and investigation and meditation. It’s about the search for a legitimate language. It’s about the search for beauty and integrity and wholeness. For meaning, where maybe there is none. A work of fiction should be a genuine experience, I think, and not (as it most often is) a record of an experience.
I feel very sorry, actually, for the other kind of writer. There’s something dead in them, something (as Virginia Woolf said of Sackville West’s work) that fails to vibrate. And what is life and writing about if not to “vibrate.” Also there are several writers—I won’t mention any names-whose first books were so audacious, so brave—flawed yes, but that’s OK—whose subsequent work follow the dictates of the marketplace, it seems. Or maybe they just scared themselves. I don’t know. At any rate, it’s very sad. I feel the loss. And they are women, by the way, the two I am thinking of.
Like fiction, film too has become a commodity, so you’ve got all this trash coming out of Hollywood. And in film, as in fiction, there’s a very clear delineation between serious work and commercial work. But they are not. I think of those absurd people in L.A. pitching their ideas; it’s pathetic.
As for book reviewers, the state of book reviewing seems merely to mirror the “marketplace.” Newspapers, magazines, are all in on the commodity bit and so it’s all denigrated into paying most attention to the “Oprah Winfrey fiction,” which rather hilariously is passing for “serious” fiction in this country. Never mind the drama, the adventure of language, or the rules of beauty and integrity—none of this matters—only the drama of the so-called psychological, realistic novel. The goal of these sorts of books is to “explain” the mysterious, whereas I think fiction should enhance the mysteries of life.
And there are very few real book reviewers—that is, women and men of letters who have dedicated their lives to the reading of fiction- probably (because there are plenty of smart, serious people out there) because there is no place to publish serious reviews. Who reviews fiction seriously? Not The New York Times, that’s for sure. The New York Times Book Review should be ashamed of itself.
SM: Innovative male writers like Pynchon, Coover, Barth, even guys like Mark Leyner seem to be accepted easier than innovative female writers like yourself, Kathy Acker, Marguerite Young, and others. Any ideas why? Could it be that female writers are expected to nurture traditional fiction just as right-wingers think women should nurture traditional family values, etc., while men (even right-wingers) are allowed more freedom to try new things?
CM: Innovative male writers like Pynchon, Coover, and Barth came of age in a different time, in a different climate—maybe it was even a different country back then. I don’t know. For whatever reasons, innovation was a little more valued, encouraged, embraced even. But with time, Reagan, Bush, all the greed, the priorities got fucked up; what was important began insidiously to shift. I’m not sure how any of those guys would do if they were publishing their first books now. As for Mark Leyner and the other so-called new male innovators: Leyner is just fashion and marketing, so of course he’s gotten some attention. It’s really very silly. But I think that truly serious male writers writing today are being as neglected as the women. I don’t think women are “expected” to write a mainstream family value type of fiction—though many of them do—but I do think they’ve got a great desire, many of them anyway, to fit in, to succeed in a man’s world, on a man’s terms, to be admired by the male literary establishment (Knopf, The New York Times, etc.). It’s a little whorish, actually, and a place like Knopf, in my opinion, is basically just a whorehouse at this point. At any rate, this need to fit in—every oppressed group goes through it, it seems, they all need to do the white-male establishment thing. Remember when all the women went to corporate America, “and” they were expected to do “everything else” too, and all those sneakered feet on the subway because the “office shoes” were “too uncomfortable to walk in” to work—god, it was ghastly! It’s still ghastly.
I don’t feel particularly neglected anymore. I feel like I’m being taken seriously by the serious people. What do I want? To be taken seriously by the frivolous people? No. All I want to do is work. There’s a great freedom in being ignored. I enjoyed it for many years.
I can’t think of who we’re talking about when we say innovative American women fiction writers anyway. Kathy Acker strikes me more as a male postmodernist—even more so than some of the men. As the fiction editor of Kenyon Review I’m watching some interesting young, unpublished writers coming up. Who else? There’s Janet Kauffman. One of the very best writers in this country is a woman and she is being lauded and awarded and taken seriously and she is Jorie Graham—there’s nothing frilly or homespun about her work. I think it’s the women themselves who need to be encouraged to not be afraid, who need to give themselves permission to get lost, to jump off burning buildings, to really dream and insist on their dreams, their bodies, everything. Men feel the right to do anything. Women need to give themselves those freedoms. If they do serious work, sooner or later they will be taken seriously. Too many just want to be in Vogue or Mirabella, or some such place. The desires and ambitions are off.
What we need are more serious publishers to accommodate the serious work. Small houses, I would imagine. It seems hopeless in the larger house. Farrar, Strauss & Giroux is the best mainstream house and they do next to nothing. OK, there’s Denis Johnson and Susan Sontag and now and then someone new, but not much.
SM: Do lesbian writers have an easier or harder time being taken seriously?
CM: Lesbian writers should be the most out there in a way: they’re already out on a limb for God’s sake, but being doubly or triply or whatever oppressed doesn’t always make you want to spin out further, but rather quite the opposite. They need, want, to get into the fold a little. Also the oppressed tend in the beginning when they’re first allowed to speak as themselves to be extraordinarily doctrinaire—so we get the awful books of women like, say, Rita Mae Brown. Conventional, schlocky, preachy stuff.
Conversely, there are women, lesbians, who are doing, starting to do some really wonderful things. There’s an anthology edited by Lou Robinson called Resurgent filled with interesting stuff, much by lesbian or bisexual women. And my god there’s Monique Wittig. And Stein, Barnes, Woolf; it’s a very rich history.
With lesbianism “chic” this year it will be odd to see how absorbed by the mainstream houses lesbian subject matter becomes. Of course audacious formal experimentation will never be embraced by the mainstream and I’ve got a feeling this is going to really start coming from the lesbian writers and possibly other estranged groups. Let’s hope.
SM: Your new novel, The American Woman in the Chinese Hat, is set in France; most Americans have a stereotyped notion of France based on popular representations (especially movies), and you play on these stereotypes somewhat. What was the thinking behind this? And how much of this was based on your own observations while in France in 1988?
CM: Stereotypes are based on observations of the surface, and in The American Woman, Catherine, the narrator, can never get beyond the surface of things: she can’t allow herself to anymore, she doesn’t want to, it’s part of her resignation and surrender. Catherine can’t get beyond the surface of language either. She can’t make it work anymore. She can’t get at its magical properties. It’s over for her.
It seemed important to let the stereotypes stand: it’s part of the breakdown in communication and understanding I was trying to investigate here. I was interested in investigating the collapse of a belief system and what effect that would have both on subject and language. If you can’t get past the stereotype, there’s certainly no hope, really, of anything genuine. She’s exhausted—it’s beyond ennui really, though it looks like that sometimes. She’s dying: she’s losing depth, but she can’t live on the surface either.
When I myself got to France, I knew I had been there before. It was more than completely familiar to me: it was as if I had been reunited with a part of myself. It was really very strange. I was sure I had been a little girl there (of course I was not) and so I started to wonder what it was that I had forgotten—and as a result have begun a new book The Bay of Angels narrated by an amnesiac in France in 1945.
The French, of course, did not realize I was related—they are a very private, very cynical, very defeated people in some way. I was never really allowed in—so in a way I was forced to stay on the surface. I was always an outsider. They viewed me with curiosity and suspicion. I lived among them for a long time? who was I? and what was I writing in that notebook?
The most dramatic and extraordinary difference for me is that in France as a writer you are treated with great, great respect and seriousness. Everyone—the shopkeepers, the street cleaners, the policemen—admire and respect literature and, even more so, the impulse to write. I guess it’s how Americans view doctors or lawyers. It’s really quite astounding. And so while I seemed to be a perfectly idiotic American with my little girl French and too much drinking and seeming waywardness, they were confused, impressed, and a little in awe of the published books. It was very odd.
The cultures are really so different. They try to emulate America somewhat and they sort of hate themselves for doing it. They find America young and materialistic and full of possibility and greedy and naive and all kinds of things. The sensibilities are really so different. This reminds me of a story I heard recently about “dictée” [dictation] in France. The great Victor Hugo, or someone like that, is read aloud by the teachers and everyone must take the dictation. Points are taken off for spelling, for accents, for agreement, and other things, punctuation, etc. Everyone starts with 20 and invariably every time, everyone ends up with 0 or -20, or -40 or something—which is to say you are all failures, you are nothing, you are small and the great Victor Hugo or Balzac or whoever is large and impossible to ever be. It is heartbreaking, really. You feel this in the young people, but there’s a real strong love of France. They were always drawing me maps or telling me about great places and things to do. They’re very proud, too: chauvinistic even.
Also, I spent most of my time there in the south and that was in itself interesting. The pace, the heat, the provincialism. Le Pen and his Front Nationale is a big thing down there—that France for the French—and of course there are North Africans and all sorts of people these fascists have to worry about. It’s quite right-wing. All fascinating.
SM: The American Woman in the Chinese Hat seems a more conventional, linear book than your past works. Could you talk about that?
CM: The American Woman is about death. It is about the end of possibility: linguistic, narrative, sexual, emotional. I needed a dead form to tell it in; I needed an exhausted, played-out, tired form to mirror and enlarge, really, the kind of shutting down that is going on in the narrator’s psyche. She is telling the story. To have given it a fancy, leaping, audacious form would have been completely dishonest. The narrative, attempting to be a conventional, linear progression of events, goes nowhere. Failure has been incorporated into my method. Oddly enough, if the book fails, if you feel empty and unsatisfied and sort of wasted, then I have succeeded. Writing should never be about showing off. I know the kind of pyrotechnics I’m capable of, but that would have been very wrong here. It’s important to know when to use a limited palette. There’s wisdom in that.
Another thing that interests me in this numb project are the bleak repetitions. Editors who looked at this at mainstream houses (after the fall of North Point) asked, “Can’t you think of another image about home or the older brother” or whatever. “Can’t you think of another story?” But the book is about the impossibility of re-invention. And the best one of all from the so-called intelligent editors: “We know you can write better than this” (! ! !). But the world is reducing, shutting down for Catherine so that there’s a red sign, a white bed, a black book, a film in German—Bruno Ganz was an angel. It’s also about how a handful of images might make sense of experience. This method speaks, I think, about creation and the unconscious. About the forms imposed on us, the images—after having once given their configurations to a sensation, how they become dependent and real and continue irresistibly to articulate the chaotic contents of consciousness. Theo Angelopoulos does this in his masterpiece Voyage to Cythera. The repetitions dissolve, circle and give rise to the illusion of possession. My narrator is clinging to a last few images. It’s a disintegrating shorthand. But it’s hers. It’s a very odd project in that way and I’m grateful that Dalkey is publishing it. Dalkey is known for its wildness and vision and this is a book that refuses that, that steps away from all that. I see experimentation as redemption, and there can be no redemption here. This book frightens me because it is so different from the kind of reckless imagination in my other books; it explores the part of me that says no, no more, there is no language left (a pretty serious problem for a writer), there is no memory, there is no sex, there is no love, there are no possibilities, there is nothing left to say. And even if there were, there is no way to say it. But form is content, of that I am sure. The way one tells the story is the story. Postmodernism, whatever you want to call it, experimentation implies a kind of hope. I made a conscious decision not to exploit the potential of language or narrative. It was not hard to do at the time I wrote it: it was how I felt. What sprung out of me, almost right after I got better, was AVA. The American Woman in the Chinese Hat was a kind of death for me—I guess that’s obvious—it’s a very intimate book in that way, this dying.
SM: Catherine in The American Woman seems quite a bit like yourself in some ways. Is the novel largely autobiographical, or did you invent some elements?
CM: I did not want the book to feel like something invented or imagined because the impulse to invent is simply too hopeful, too much to do, and with some cynicism I tried to give it that desultory, indolent feel, the feeling that what language there is just kind of happened onto the page, as in a notebook, as in the notebook the narrator keeps. Of course the book is made, is constructed: you couldn’t just come up with it casually and yet I wanted it to have that casual, laconic, resigned feel to it. Catherine can’t really make the events of her life yield anything—if this makes sense. In the end it kind of turns into a black song with all the words jumbled up. It’s the end. For me at that time, nothing really mattered. One day I realized that I could no longer believe in any arrangement of words. I put all my notebooks away. It was terrible. I hope I got some of that down.
Also I wanted to see what sticking to actual events of my “real” life might yield. It was an interesting experiment. I wondered what if the actual events of your one small life were enough—and what if they weren’t. And what is enough? And where have we gotten the expectations we have in fiction? And why?
SM: You just received a $50,000 Lannan Foundation Fellowship for Fiction. How do you feel about that?
CM: In the often crass and pitiful world of American publishing it is miraculous that work outside the smug mainstream can be so extravagantly rewarded by the Lannan Foundation. It helps to make a place for serious literature to be created in a world where what passes for serious literature is a certain kind of competence and a mastery of conventions. The prize allows us to continue with all the courage and audacity we can call up in ourselves along our solitary and for the most part unpopular paths. It is extraordinary to know that someone is listening, someone is willing to hold a lantern for a while, offer comfort, safety, shelter. I’m very moved by this.