The first I heard of duncan b. barlow was Of Flesh and Fur, which I received thanks to the Cupboard (to which you should definitely subscribe, if you don’t). It was a gripping, funny, terrifying story that, so I believed, brought horror and magical realism to fatherhood anxiety. Then I bought his most recent novel, The City, Awake, which reminded me strongly of the films Dark City and Fallen, but which had a voice and character all its own.
Eventually, I found out that duncan runs Astrophil Press, which recently released Erika T. Wurth’s Buckskin Cocaine as well as books by Joanna Ruocco and Brian Evenson. He’s also a teacher, a musician, and an all-around good dude. He gave me so much interesting material for this interview—some controversial, some funny, some inarguable—that I had a hard time trimming it down to what you’re reading.
Tell me about books you hate.
This is a particularly interesting question for me. I am dyslexic and didn’t learn to read or write fluidly until sixth grade, when a family therapist intervened and requested that my parents remove me from a rather abusive Catholic school to attend a school for dyslexic children. Language seemed the enemy to me, and thus I wanted to understand it. Even now, having earned three degrees meant to somehow evidence my reading and writing skills, I look at every book with a great sense of anxiety, some deep-seated fear inserted at a young age. What this amounts to is that I’m very intolerant when it comes to my relationship with a book. Typically, I grant the author 40-60 pages, but some push me away within a couple of pages.
Depending on length, I tend to give a book 50 pages before I give up. Life is too short to read a book you don’t enjoy pretty quickly.
Exactly. Who has time to waste on half-baked books when there are so many excellent books out there?
Are there particular authors who’ve earned your dislike, beyond the anxiety?
Though I don’t think I hate authors, there are certainly some that wear me thin (as a reader, not as a person).
There are books, too, that make me think, “you couldn’t have done this in 300 pages? This really took 1,000 pages?” It seems rather arrogant to me. How many pages does an author really need to tell us that there’s a creepy clown in the sewer and maybe it’s best not to go down there?
Gosh, what book could you possibly be talking about?
I really admire Stephen King for all of his dedication to the writing community and I feel like he and I would probably hit it off as people. IT is a novel that has the potential to be perfect, but it has so many issues that it’s difficult to know where to begin criticizing it. Genre horror is very difficult to write successfully because the end game can ruin everything that came before it. King has always struggled with his endings, and this book is an excellent example of why his endings fizzle instead of pop. When you have a creepy clown, you can’t follow it up with a Lovecraftian sewer creature, it’s never going to carry weight.
What pisses me off especially about the ending is Beverly having sex with all the boys. Even though it makes sense metaphorically, it’s horrible if you think of these kids as real people instead of paper dolls to move around.
I know. In this regard, I think the film adaptations sometimes correct these issues. Not always, though. I would say that a good many horror writers suffer from this problem. I recently did a lecture regarding the trouble with Victor Salva, a film director who is a convicted pedophile, and a person in the audience asked me if I saw a difference between the way in which King objectifies Beverly and the boys in that sex scene and the way in which Salva does in his films. Clearly, Salva’s objectification is more symbolic than is King’s, but it led to a great discussion regarding author intention and an author’s personal history. And let’s face it, there is something off about a grown man writing about children having sex in that way.
However, the endgame isn’t the biggest problem I have with the novel. It’s that it’s simply too long. I always joke that King was reading Ulysses while writing IT. He pretty much maps out the entire town as if we could walk through it. And I can’t say that I take issue with this, but we don’t need so much backstory for all the characters.
Part of the reason I love IT so much is the level of detail. It’s like Dickens but evil.
I agree with you with Dickens, but I think my reading of Dickens as a serial writer colors that somewhat. My colleague and I were going to reread IT in anticipation of the new movie and we got to talking about the length of the book and some of the unnecessary chapters. Did we need a chapter on each character that details the reasons they didn’t have children? There’s a difference between character-building and padding the book. It seems to me that the editor didn’t rein King in enough. However, I see this so often in publishing. It’s this sort of overwriting that drove me, at a young age, to Clive Barker. His early books have a kind of kinetic immediacy, but by the time he was famous, he fell into the same Big Novel trap as King. Imajica is a drag.
Any other particular examples of books you hate?
I tend to have a thing against books that appeal to a particular demographic of men who want to approach me at a bar and talk to me about how spectacular Bukowski is, and I have to politely shut them down because he simply isn’t.
Although I’m sorry, I find it a relief that this conversation happens to men, too.
Bro lit is so boring to me. American Psycho is like “Can a book be too obvious? Actually, yes.” On the Road is mandatory pre-spring break reading on senior year. Fight Club is like hearing “come at me, bro” on repeat in the early morning hours after St. Patrick’s Day.
(To be fair to him, I like the idea of Chuck Palahniuk in the world in the same way I like the idea of Lady Gaga. I don’t want to read or listen to their work, but they’re engaging people in a way that I think is interesting. Moreover, Palahniuk champions many young and new writers and I think that’s an excellent use of his fame.)
I know a lot of my Louisville friends will hate me for saying this, but I can’t stand Hunter S. Thompson. He’s the exact kind of person I avoid at clubs and parties. A smug, creepy guy who has no respect for anyone besides people who are useful to him. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is tedious. Certainly, I can appreciate his immersion into his subjects, but the writing does nothing for me. In many ways, his writing diminishes the subject, turning the eye always upon himself.
Thompson was a couple years below my father in high school. When I asked about him, my father’s reply was, “he was a loud-mouthed punk who was always keen on approval.” In some ways, I think this is a fair description of Thompson’s writing. The over-the-top nature of the guy who wants everyone to know he doesn’t care seems to point to the fact that he does want people to notice him. He plagiarized a friend of mine once for an article he wrote for ESPN. I always found that humorous.
I always liked Copte’s comment regarding On the Road: That’s not writing, that’s typing. It is to me a very shallow book and doesn’t do much with language that ever impressed me. I think it’s a fine cultural moment for a book. It has value in the context of American letters, but it’s simply not a very good book.
Moreover, I imagine someone who lives in a suburb and hasn’t seen much outside of their small town would very much enjoy this book, but it came into my life after I had done some pretty extensive travelling around the world with a punk band, so Kerouac’s hijinks seemed rather pale in comparison. Perhaps it’s a great book, but I’m just not able to fully appreciate the rhetorical context, but that’s not what this interview is about. It’s about books I hate.
Speaking of which, have you got a non-bro book for me?
Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. A book vendor recommended it to me when it came out. She told me it was “terrifying” and gave her nightmares. So, perhaps my relationship with this book will always be tainted by that terrible misrepresentation. Yes, the book attempts to capture a darkness, but it’s not remotely scary, unless it’s for people who really got into Goosebumps.
What I appreciate about the book is the protagonist. Tartt does an excellent job of building her characters in the book and capturing a kind of Fitzgeraldian separation of classes. However, the last third of the book falls apart a bit. It transforms into a kind of cult conspiracy novel and that somewhat takes away from all the previous world-building.
Her development of the protagonist really did stick with me and I often think about his cold bedroom when I’m writing. She really nails those descriptions. I didn’t read her follow-up book or anything after, but now that I’m thinking about it, I might give them a try simply because I think they may hold together a little better.
Do you think this hatred has altered your reading of other works?
I don’t think so. However, I did realize something about myself through this back and forth: I apparently don’t like books that rely heavily upon popular culture references. So, maybe I might shy away from books like this naturally. I think George Saunders uses popular culture references in his work sometimes, but he’s so good at making it work—not putting the full weight of his story on it, and using it lightly while turning the world on its ear in a darkly comical way.
Sure, but George Saunders is a literal wizard.
He’s fantastic. Reading about his writing and editing process is always interesting because it’s so very different from my own.
Do you think your reading preferences have altered anything about your writing?
I learn from everything I read. This is one of best parts of reading: even the most problematic texts teach us something. For example, when we read something with a two-dimensional character and we can spot this, it reminds us to develop characters with complexity.
What was the last book you read that you recommend?
Do you keep books or give them away?
This depends entirely on the book and where I live. When I was living in Jacksonville, I had access to one of the best used bookstores I’ve ever been to. It’s this quirky, cavernous place where it seems as if they build rooms on as they go. The books are listed by the author’s name, but only insofar as you might find Woolf in the W section. But, for example, in some kind of beautiful mix-up, they have all of Oliver Saks’s books in the anthropology section, which infinitely pleases me. I would take books there to trade for other books. I come into a good many books (purchased, sent for review, or gifted) and I hold onto most of them. However, there are always some that I am willing to part with to find something new. I also lose books to students—I probably should have a chart of where they go so I can track them down later.
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room? Which one, and why?
In 1997 I was on a rather difficult tour with one of my old punk bands. We were knee to knee in the world’s smallest van, a Fiat, which was a total death trap, and I was reading Ulysses for the first time. I was a pretty linear reader at that point in my life. I’d hit the part of the book where the narrative switches and was doing my best not to be annoyed by it; however, one day, as we crossed a bridge into Prague, I stood and tossed the book out of the sunroof and watched with a smug sense of satisfaction as the book, flipping end over end, its pages just parting as if wishing to fly, cleared the edge of the bridge and fell, I believe, into the river.
Who’s to say if it was the claustrophobia, exhaustion from the shows and lack of sleep, or simply just that I wasn’t ready for that book. But I came back to it in the fall of that year and found it much more enjoyable.
That is, so far, my favorite Ulysses story, and every writer seems to have one.
Thanks. I take great pride in being a dummy.
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
Right now, I’m reading student work, a forthcoming book of poetry on Astrophil Press, and some manuscripts from friends looking for my opinion, as well as rereading books for my fall semester. All of this is pleasure reading because I love what I do; however, I finished Jac Jemc’s book The Grip of It over the summer, which I very much enjoyed. She writes a near-perfect literary haunted house story. I’ve recently been reading some books on Deleuze and horror for a critical project I have been planning to write but don’t know if I will ever do it. There’s a stack of maybe thirty books I have staring at me and I can’t wait to get to them.