It’s a weird path that led me to Morris Collins, and to his exceptionally accomplished debut novel, Horse Latitudes. But how I found him stopped mattering around page 100 of his novel. It was clear I was reading the work of an unusually intelligent writer, someone capable of setting up moral dilemmas viscerally rather than drily, in prose somehow at once intricate and clear. And it turned out, later, that he was also someone kind enough to accommodate this interview despite a series of personal mishaps. Which makes the result all the more impressive: he gives great advice and makes good jokes despite pressured circumstances.
Collins and your humble interviewer are publication mates in the Collagist and the Los Angeles Review. However, Collins’s work has also appeared in Passages North, Gulf Coast, Michigan Quarterly Review, and other outlets that wouldn’t touch your humble interviewer with a ten-foot pole. He is too kind to really hate books, but he’s still a great interview. Here is the proof.
So, you told me when I asked about this interview that you weren’t sure you could come up with any books to hate.
I’m sure there are plenty of books that if I read them, I would hate—but I don’t read books I hate, so I don’t hate books. This condition is either a tautology or just a product of careful curation.
But since we’re talking pet peeves, I do distrust when an author tries to tie a character’s strangeness too absolutely to one discernible root cause—so I won’t investigate.
There are other types of books that generally frustrate me—like those fantasy novels where every line of dialogue is followed or preceded by the character striking a pose, or making some fidgety motion (usually with an adverb) that’s supposed to telegraph for the reader how they’re saying the line and what they’re feeling as they say it, instead of just trusting a good old-fashioned dialogue tag. As in: Mysander glared angrily at the Paladin’s cat. “Why don’t you let me sleep?”
This frustrates me because when I suggest to my students that, rather than clarifying a character’s motivations, this technique limits or reduces it to an emotion that can be expressed without complexity, I end up saying something like “For instance, how would you telegraph wistful nostalgia?” And they look at me with some mix of youth and pity and think, pretty clearly, “what the fuck is wistful nostalgia?” (And then: Their professor, feeling something a little redundant, stared glumly out the window. “Talk to me in ten years.”)
The interviewer, fighting back laughter, tapped her chin thoughtfully.
More often, though, the only things I really dislike are very bad sentences. Or anyway, they’re the only species of my own dislike that I trust. Sometimes I won’t appreciate a book, but if the sentences are good, I might feel differently on a different day, or month, or year. This has always been my experience with Hemingway. In high school I thought he was “good” but also affected and flat and ridiculous; then when I reread him in grad school I was immensely moved, at both an aesthetic and emotional level. When I came back to him after school, often to teach, I was impressed by the skill, but the work that had so moved me left me cold. What does any of this prove? Nothing about Hemingway. The texts are always the same, but the reader isn’t.
Interesting. I find there’s a distinction between the emotional/personal growth that renders a work of art different in different eyes, and the way that writing education and practice renders a book or a story different. That is, I have respect for what a lot of popular fiction is doing, even if I don’t enjoy it—whereas before I took too many writing classes, I would’ve just disliked it and shut it down.
That makes sense. Though, conversely, I’m way more attuned to narrative machinery now, and if I see a writer painting entirely by numbers without any glimmer of their own obsessions leaking through, I become frustrated. But yeah, for the most part I agree with you. An awareness of craft helps me enjoy most of what I read. I can usually find something to be interested in, I can find some element that I think is good, or different, or I can find some territory of available surprise—which is often what I’m looking for in art.
Beyond that, catch me another day and I might feel differently. I believe we have to be in the right place emotionally and maybe even physically, often, to appreciate something. Sometimes I read Mary Gaitskill and think, yes, this is really good and sometimes I read her and think, this is really good, but please don’t make me read any more. The first time I tried Patrick Modiano’s Missing Person I couldn’t stand it. Then he won the Nobel Prize, so I went back to it—with the same result. But my friend, the writer Angela Woodward, kept insisting how good he was, as did Patti Smith in all sort of interviews, so when I went to Paris last year I read Paris Nocturne, After the Circus, and Suspended Sentences all in about three days and I was just overcome by how beautiful and mysterious and haunted they were. Missing Person still hasn’t clicked with me, but maybe it will.
That seems like a single-book problem. Everybody writes a dud now and then. Hell, I love Gaitskill’s stories, but I haven’t liked either of the novels of hers I’ve read.
You’re probably right. As for Gaitskill, I haven’t read her novels, but should. I love her stories and I frequently teach “A Romantic Weekend” and Bad Behavior is such a great book. But the worlds of these stories are so claustrophobic with disappointment and failed attempts to take some actions that will protect the characters from the ways their lives have gone till then, and I sometimes need time to decompress before diving back in. It’s a sign of the stories’ power, I think. People always talk about how cold her work is—and I don’t find it that way at all.
Give me three examples of books you hate.
I am viscerally triggered by Kathryn Hume’s Surviving Your Academic Job Hunt: Advice for Humanities PhDs, though this is no fault of the book’s.
James Fenimore Cooper’s seafaring novels (in which characters rebuff each other with shouts of “Pshaw” as they must have all the time in the heat of maritime distress) are deeply, unintentionally silly. And despite the almost constant situational peril the heroes are in, they are very, very chatty. Here’s an example, opened to at random, from The Pilot: “Here are but two leaders, Mr. Barnstable,” interrupted the haughty Griffith; “the one of the enemy, and the other, of the arms of America. Capt. Borroughcliffe, to you, as the former, I address myself.” Etc.
You are not the first writer to be annoyed by seafaring.
Wait! I love seafaring! Moby Dick is one of my favorite novels! In fact, I love all of Melville. And I love Robert Louis Stevenson! And The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the Old Norse sagas. I especially love drinking rum, and I like shanties and maritime vocabulary even if I use it incorrectly, but still—“lee shore”, “fo’c’sle”, “widdershins”: yes, please. In grad school I wrote a story about an old pirate going to a dinner party! It was an abundantly stupid story and I loved writing it. No, no, I am singularly critical of James Fenimore Cooper’s dull and ridiculous gropings at such a beautiful genre.
I respect and admire Samuel Delaney’s work and career, and I used to want to be able to appreciate his novel Hogg, but I’ve never been able to finish it. This, of course, makes a critique invalid, but 250+ pages of rape scenes just feels to me like 250+ pages of rape scenes and I’m pretty quickly not interested in the ideas attached to this textual performance. And anyway, how often does rape get eroticized in art in service, supposedly, to an intellectual argument?
Thank you for saying that.
To be fair, I feel like the book tries to expose how our normal popular narratives of sexual violence rationalize or contextualize or explain what is essentially meaningless, ubiquitous, and horrific, and this is maybe a legitimate point, but it’s not an aesthetic or emotional experience I want to live in. This isn’t so much a doctrine on my part about what art should do, but there’s a lot of art out there, and Hogg isn’t doing my soul any good.
Do you think your preferences have altered anything about your writing?
Not really. When I write I try to think in terms of what I’m trying to do, rather than what I’m trying not to do. I have my own bad habits or tics or failures of vision that I continually have to protect against, though.
When I was in grad school I had all sorts of rules for myself about things like exposition and adverbs and overuse of interiority (instead of event) and I imagined that I was adhering to some aesthetic law that was necessary for good, vibrant fiction, but really, though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was just giving myself constraints. These helped me make decisions about voice and POV and determined what kind of sentences could appear in any given work, all of which were really helpful. Though I realize now that these choices were based less on what I thought was good than what I thought I could do well. Or, to put it another way, I had managed to make myself believe that the type of writing I liked was the type of writing I did.
But I abandoned all those rules pretty soon after I graduated. Now I try to let each piece make its own rules and hopefully they are specific to the work, not to some general law. This has made my work better, but also means that I write much slower than I used to and make way more mistakes along the way.
I want to point a flashy sign labeled EXCELLENT WRITING ADVICE at these two paragraphs. Constraints nearly always make writing better, I think. But also, following arbitrary writing rules gives you practice at making good work by the rules, until you can break those rules and still do good work. For me there’s no other explanation for how Elena Ferrante’s pages on pages of interiority is so compelling, for example.
Right? I remember thinking the same thing as I read the Neapolitan Quartet! I guess because the characters are so fascinating and real, and the situations are so compelling, we are perfectly happy to be told all these things. It’s a sign of such confidence, I think. Like: Ferrante knows that we’re on the hook and that because we are emotionally invested in these people, we want to know what happens next. I try to remind myself of this particular reading experience when I write, because I really struggle with exposition where the goal is literally just to give the reader some information. I think I never quite trust my story enough to just tell it straight. I get immediately bored when I’m doing writing like that.
What book do you recommend most, or most often?
I frequently recommend and give away copies of Cynthia Ozick’s The Puttermesser Papers. It’s just so beautiful and surprising, intermittently hilarious and heartbreaking. The novel manages to be so many things: it’s a magic realist fantasy (the main character becomes mayor of New York with the help of a golem), and wry, and emotionally realistic. People always talk about the great Jewish novelists of the 20th century and, though lists like this are silly—they make writers sound like baseball players, which incidentally most great Jewish writers would be totally fine with—but anyway, for my money if there is going to be a team, Cynthia Ozick should be on it. As should Jerome Charyn.
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
I have not. But I’ve seen it done. My roommate in college was so horrified by Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird that he winged it into the wall, picked it up, walked outside and tossed it in a trash can. I like Painted Bird, but his response also made sense. It’s a pretty horrifying book.
This is a good one. I held Steps as far away from my body as possible when I was reading, even though I think it’s a brilliant, essential book.
Yes, I love Steps as well! It’s one of those books that feels utterly unique. Though I guess that’s the case with all of Kosinski’s novels. Jerome Charyn (again) has written a fascinating novel about Kosinski, Jerzy, which is fun because it’s a novel about Jerzy Kosinski that reads like a Charyn novel (as all Charyn’s novels do). It’s like Charyn is wearing a Kosinski mask while writing a novel about all the masks Kosinski wore.
I think Kosinski would have liked Jerzy—if he would have liked anything.
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
I’m currently reading a bunch of stuff:
A book of plays by the Norwegian writer Jon Fosse and the journals of the Romanian Jewish writer Mihail Sebastian from the fascist years 1935-1944. I just finished his novel For Two Thousand Years, which was a little stiff and careful in the middle—but was astounding in terms of its geo-political perspective, and really vulnerable depiction of emotional conflict. It takes place in the 1920s, was published in 1934, and is just amazingly prescient and clear-eyed about the political/cultural zeitgeist of fascist Europe. I also just started Trieste by the Croatian novelist Dasa Drndic, at my dad’s suggestion, and it’s really interesting so far.
And the semester is gearing up so I’m starting to reread some of the books I’ll be teaching: Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother, Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure. They are, all three, stunning. The Kincaid is one of my favorite books to teach.
Do you keep books or give them away?
I keep them. It’s a problem. Over the summer I finally caved and donated or sold about a hundred books, but that didn’t make much of a dent. I have a friend—the same one who tossed The Painted Bird—who, as a gag, sends me really ornate, fussy collector’s editions of James Fenimore Cooper novels. My wife, wisely, said the other day, “can we just get rid of all the fucking Cooper already?” Absolutely not. Even though they are unreadable, they bring me joy.
Since you used that phrase, any thoughts on the Kondo kerfuffle?
Not really, because I haven’t watched her show or read her book—though, like everyone else, I’ve taken to her mantra. And her method of folding clothes is really helpful, especially for someone like me who is terrible at folding things. (Yes, “folding” is something you can be terrible at). My understanding, though, was that she doesn’t actually tell people to throw things away? So if you don’t want to toss your books—don’t. Though I also totally understand people’s feelings of guilt and shame attached to not being able to maintain the type of order in their lives they want to or have been told they require. Anyway, my life might also be better if I just had a bigger room to put books in, and in the meantime, in this case, I choose not to disentangle my pathology from my joy. It’s possible I didn’t answer the question.