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← Jonathan Safran Foer: Novels can learn from poetry

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Showing Revision 5 created 03/17/2015 by Valentina Buda.

  1. (Louisiana channel)

  2. (Jonathan Safran Foer
    novels have a lot to learn from poetry)
  3. Well, people often talk
    about the death of literature.
  4. I think people have been speaking
    about it since shortly
  5. after the first work of literature
    was ever made
  6. but there's more and more talk about it
  7. and it's been propelled
    by diminishing readership,
  8. by what feels like an increasing apathy,
  9. or even anxiety
    or even mistrust of literature
  10. and the movement towards screens,
    everything being
  11. on a screen and
    what would that mean for books
  12. which aren't very well served on a screen.
  13. It's not that you can't read a book
    on a screen perfectly well
  14. but you can't read a book on a screen
  15. that also has email
    and your calendar and texting.
  16. Books can't compete
    with those kinds of media.
  17. So we wonder will people read books?
  18. And I think that there are still things
    and there will always be things
  19. that only literature can do,
    only literature can communicate.
  20. I don't think that literature
    is necessarily any better,
  21. whatever than means,
    than film or dance or music.
  22. In fact, I'm often drawn personally more
  23. to film and dance than I am to literature
  24. but I know that
    there are moments in my life
  25. when I feel a need for literature
    and only for literature.
  26. So for example,
    the mother of my oldest friend
  27. passed away about week ago.
  28. And I went down to visit her
    in Washington DC - I live in New York.
  29. And I was quite worried
    about what to say and how to fill
  30. what I thought might be very awkward,
    or even painful silences.
  31. And I brought poems, about 20 poems.
  32. And I read them to her
    and we talked about them.
  33. And in that moment when we, together,
  34. mostly just her, of course,
    but together, were confronting
  35. this, the biggest moment of life
    which is death,
  36. we relied on poetry.
  37. And I think that poems
    and stories and novels are very helpful
  38. exactly when we most need language
    in the most, sort of dire,
  39. or urgent or existential moments of life.
  40. Novels are meant to be read
    over the course of many hours or many days
  41. and even a story
    takes half an hour to read.
  42. And I just wasn't sure, in this case,
    what her energy level would be,
  43. so I wanted them to be quite small.
  44. But even though that's the case,
    it's also true
  45. that poetry is
    the most condensed form of literature
  46. and in certain ways,
    it's its most pure form.
  47. I don't think that novels are
    any less good than poetry
  48. but I think that novels
    have a lot to learn from poetry
  49. in terms of what's possible,
    how direct one can be,
  50. how concentrated language can be,
  51. and how evocative and resonant.
  52. You know, sometimes I think
    novels make the mistake
  53. of being too much
    like their own description.
  54. You know, somebody says,
    ''What is this book about?''
  55. My dream is to write a novel
    where somebody would have to say:
  56. "I could tell you, I suppose,
    but that would really miss the point.
  57. You just have to read it."
  58. That, to my mind, is a good novel.
  59. A novel that is its own synopsis,
  60. just an expanded version of its synopsis,
  61. comes awfully close
    to television actually.
  62. I think that novels can still do
    something that poetry does
  63. in terms of being
    kind of ineffable or mysterious
  64. or not quite graspeable,
    just on a much larger scale.
  65. All of my life, I have been more drawn
    to the visual arts than to literature.
  66. And even still, when I'm feeling
  67. like I can't remember
    why I wanted to be a writer,
  68. I don't go to books, I actually go
    to paintings or sculpture.
  69. To me, the distinctions
    have been drawn too sharply,
  70. you know, the difference between
    a musician, a writer, an artist, a dancer.
  71. We've categorized them, segregated them,
  72. so that there's very, very little overlap.
  73. But in fact they're all just people
    who want to make things
  74. that you could say have no use.
  75. You know, everything in life has a use.
  76. The person who made the camera
    that this is being shot with,
  77. made it so that it could record
    something like this.
  78. And a television or a computer
    that someone's watching it on
  79. was made with specific functions in mind.
  80. A bridge is made so that people can get
    from one land mass to another.
  81. But novels and paintings
    and songs really...
  82. They might have effects in the world,
  83. they might be political,
    they might be entertaining,
  84. they might be objects of commerce,
  85. but they're not really,
    really made for any of those reasons,

  86. they're just made for their own sake.
  87. And I think that anyone
    who makes something for its own sake,
  88. whether you try to have it published
  89. or whether you're just, you know,
    rearranging twigs on the ground
  90. because it pleases you,
  91. people who do that are artists.
  92. And, you know, because we live in a world
    in which you have to have a job
  93. and in which it's expected
    that you will grow within your job,
  94. and because we like
    to have an answer to the question
  95. 'What is it that you do?'
  96. You know, you meet someone
    at a party, or...
  97. they say ''What do you do?''
  98. It makes us uncomfortable
    not to have an answer.
  99. But the truth is, you know,
    the different art forms
  100. are much, much more similar
    than they are different.
  101. When I'm not working on a book,
  102. I am somebody who just
    kind of moves through the world
  103. and sees nice things and tries
    to remember them, but usually doesn't,
  104. and hears jokes and tries to remember them
    but usually doesn't
  105. and so on and has ideas that disappear.
  106. But when I'm writing, I save those things
  107. so that I can use them,
    you know, rearrange them.
  108. Nothing comes from nothing.
  109. I think that there's an impression
    that books or art,
  110. making art is a much more romantically
    creative act than it is,
  111. as if inspiration strikes and suddenly
    something appears
  112. but that's not really
    -- that hasn't been my experience at all.
  113. It's much more about being attentive
    to what's around
  114. and starting to get to know
    what you like and what you find useful
  115. and then collecting those things
    instead of everything,
  116. collecting those things
    and then figuring out
  117. what the most pleasing arrangement
    of them is for you.
  118. There's nothing objective about it.
  119. It's not the case that, you know,
    someone else will necessarily like it,
  120. but it really does feel like
    making collage just with, you know,
  121. the whole world as
    your cupboard of things to arrange.
  122. Certainly in art, I think,
    the most important things
  123. happen on a subconscious level.
  124. When I approach a writing project,
    I don't think about it like that.
  125. In fact, and I say this not
    as a joke or to sort of disparage myself,
  126. but I really don't think
    about much at all.
  127. It's very -- I'm just very open, you know,
    to what do I feel like working on,
  128. what's interesting to me right now,
    what am I curious about?
  129. But I never think about what
    the potential use of something would be.
  130. Like I was saying before,
    there's a quality of art
  131. that is useless in the very,
    very best way.
  132. I mean, that is like the very highest
    compliment I could pay.
  133. And if I started thinking about
    what I would achieve
  134. for myself psychologically
    or in search of meaning or catharsis,
  135. that's just another kind of use,
  136. just in almost the same way that
  137. trying to make something
    you could sell for money is a kind of use.
  138. It's not to say
    that those two thing might, you know,
  139. wouldn't be good in your life,
  140. but I don't think that
    they make a good work of art.
  141. They're not a good starting point.
  142. Don DeLillo once said:
  143. "Nobody writes his first book.
    It just happens."
  144. At a certain point,
    you find the printer is, you know,
  145. all these pages are coming out.
  146. You think: "Oh my God,
    I can't believe I did this!"
  147. I believe that.
  148. I mean, maybe it's a little different
    if you start late in life,
  149. and you've been, you know,
    sort of incubating an idea for a long time
  150. but most people when
    they write their first book,
  151. at a certain point, they realize
    they have a book on their hands.
  152. And the second book is different
    because then,
  153. you have something
    that you're responding to,
  154. you have your own expectations.
  155. If you published your first book,
    you have the world' expectations.
  156. So I found the second book
    somewhat more difficult because of that,
  157. but I'd started the second book
    before my first book was published.
  158. So in a way, I was able
    to escape some of those traps.
  159. But then, after I have written two novels,
  160. I wrote a work of non-fiction
    about eating animals,
  161. about animal farming.
  162. And I think it's not a coincidence that
    I decided to move in a different direction
  163. because I was starting to feel
    the weight of momentum.
  164. You know, I didn't want
    to do a third thing
  165. because I've done two previous things.
  166. I didn't want to make a choice
    about tomorrow
  167. just because of what I did yesterday.
  168. So maybe even to a fault, I resisted that
  169. and decided to move off
    and try something else.
  170. I think there are a lot of ways
    of talking about choices in art.
  171. And it's a mistake to think that
  172. the way we talk about it
    retrospectively as critics,
  173. which is very useful and interesting,
  174. but it's a mistake that
    that's the same language of creation.
  175. Somebody once said,
    I can't remember who
  176. - maybe it was Oscar Wilde,
    I can't remember -
  177. said: "There are only two kinds
    of objects in the world:
  178. those that charm us
    and those that don't charm us."
  179. And, you know, something can be charming
    in the most completely simple way
  180. and for whatever reason, it speaks to us.
  181. We like it. It is for us.
  182. If something isn't charming,
    it's mundane and it's not that we hate it,
  183. it's just that it has
    no great effect on us.
  184. And each person, of course, has his own
    or her own sense of what is charming.
  185. And, you know, in a way,
  186. writing just boils down to asking
    that question again and again,
  187. like, this is charming or not.
  188. Something charming can mean
    that it's very painful.
  189. It doesn't mean
    that it's happy and beautiful.
  190. It can mean it's very ugly,
    it can mean that it is funny,
  191. it can mean that it is serious,
    it can be tragic, it can be comic.
  192. I think charming really just means,
    in a certain way,
  193. that it's authentic
    and exceptional to you.
  194. I mean, people often ask me
    why do I write about family so often.
  195. I find that such a weird question.
  196. I don't even know how to answer
  197. because the answer feels so obvious to me.
  198. You know, nobody asks J.K. Rowling
    why she writes about wizards so much.
  199. That, to me, is weird.
  200. That's a weird choice she made
    that requires some explanation
  201. because nobody knows wizards,
    nobody interacts with wizards,
  202. nobody can't fall asleep at night
    because of their relationship to wizards,
  203. but everyone has a family.
  204. Even people whose families are absent.
  205. Maybe even, especially people
    whose families are absent.
  206. You know, these are
    the main themes of life
  207. and they've been the main themes
    of literature since Genesis.
  208. So I assume I'll always write
    about family.
  209. Families is also
    especially important to me
  210. but you know, whether it will take
    the form of fathers and sons-in-laws,
  211. or whether it will take the form
    of a married couple in a comedy,
  212. that I don't know.
  213. (Louisiana Channel)
  214. (Supported by Nordea Fonden)
  215. (louisiana.dk/channel)