Ambitions

My first ambition as a writer was to be a critic—initially a literary critic, hopefully a distinguished critic, perhaps on the model of Edmund Wilson, who saw what others missed and explained his intelligence clearly. Though I was in the early 1960s officially a graduate student in American history (thereby sitting out the Vietnam War at Columbia University), I wrote reviews of fiction and literary criticism. My first long essays were devoted to identifying the strongest emerging novelists and playwrights. Before that magical decade had passed I extended my critical range into writing about poetry and the non-literary arts as well as the emerging new arts between old arts that we now call Intermedia. I had moved beyond the model of Edmund Wilson, who rarely ventured beyond printed material.
Too selective (or elitist) in my cultural enthusiasms, I could never become a regular reviewer of one or another art (or consume most of the trash that a regular reviewer must consider), while no editor admired my critical range enough to empower me to write about whatever I wished. I'm also reluctant to write anything inconsequential, no matter how much space an editor wanted me to fill.

Preface, Skeptical Essays (2010)

What distinguishes [this book] is the comprehensiveness of its radicalisms--not just in politics and esthetics but literary politics too.

Twenties in the Sixties, 1979

Much of my critical writing confronts the problem of "the new" at a time when the most interesting culture continues to be avant-garde in more ways than one, for a key theme of Twenties in the Sixties, as well as other works of mine, is change--not only in art but thought, not just in subject or "content" but form.
To an extent that would have been inconceivable before 1960, we chose to sample extremes, just to see what might happen; and this riskiness was founded less upon any self-destructiveness than an optimistic faith that whatever we did would somehow "work out." As children of prosperity, we knew that setbacks were temporary and that even "failure," if anticipated and acknowledged, could represent "success." This preference for energy over measure partially accounts for the great shifts in popular taste--away from slick pop music to heavy rock, away from baseball and basketball to football and hockey, away from above-ground movies to the "underground," away from alcohol to drugs and then to amphetamines over hallucinogens, and these increasingly popular dark pastimes shaped in turn the emerging consciousness of yet younger generations.

Twenties in the Sixties (1979)

The principal reason for writing an ABC of Contemporary reading is that vanguard literature today is considerably different from what Pound had in mind. Thus, criticism of imaginative writing in our time must start again from the ABCs. This is set in a larger typeface than most of my other books because it is meant to be read more slowly. One presupposition that ought to be acknowledged at the beginning is that literary art exists in a universe of other arts; thus, recent painting and music are relevant to recent writing (and vice versa). On no fundamental esthetic level, other than linguistic material, is literature different from painting, say, or music.

An ABC of Contemporary Reading (1995)

Orwell has been my hero because he saw clearly; he wasn't easily deceived. In my recent thinking about a variety of things, I find myself returning to this sentence: “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that; no ordinary man could be such a fool.” What makes the sentence useful is that for “intelligentsia” I can substitute many other categories, and so can you, I suspect. From editors, academics, lawyers, psychologists, football coaches, we so often hear lines that might make sense to people within a closed world, to narrowly focused people who have or pretend to have authority, but sound like nonsense to those outside it. Such fantasizers usually depend upon a barrier that isolates them from reality, whether it be membership in an exclusionary union, a tenured position in an otherwise insecure hierarchy, or power within a communications channel.

“George Orwell” (2003)

As the aim of criticism is providing insight, one recurring theme in my essays is going beyond common understandings, ideally identifying unfamiliar truths missed by superficial commentators. (There is no need for me to write or, worse, recycle what has been said by others.) If fashionable credibility is purportedly perquisite to presence, critical influence comes from transcending fashion. No writer ever became influential from saying what every reader knows or from holding common opinions. To those who weigh trade-offs, it is no surprise that superior insight depends upon skepticism about what appears in the common media.
Though too many political writers and political publications cater to readers wanting confirmation of their own prejudices, others respect the contrary strategy of challenging familiar pieties often with uncommon insights. They want recognition by readers over editors. Whereas writing pandering to editors is easily skimmed, precisely because it “fits,” as editors like to say, original political writing demands to be read carefully and is often reread. Anyone agreeing with a radical political critic 100% of the time is no less nuts than the radical political critic expecting total agreement.

Toward Secession (2008)

Not unlike other essayists preoccupied with the peculiarities of the real world, beginning in my case with the mechanisms of my profession, I have written about my travels, not only to places far away but also to those closer to home, if not, indeed, about my own home. In contrast to too many other travel writers, I have also focused upon what I knew very well, less because I researched it, as a journalist might, but because I experienced it, often for a considerable length of time.

Home & Away (2006)

The best political criticism resembles the best writing not just in distinguished style but also in telling the truth. The last goal, so often neglected, is incidentally a measure of all great essays, whether about politics, art, or life. Don't forget that truth is what “hack” writers are asked to neglect on behalf of someone else's deceit and then that political ideologues can be just as disingenuous as merchandisers. Unfamiliar truths are true nonetheless and no less true for having been unfamiliar. Anarchists and libertarians are likely to tell more truths than either liberals or conservatives precisely because we have fewer cemeteries to defend. Need I add, believing as strongly in the freedom to read as the freedom to write, that I never tried to censor myself or anyone else. I hope that I never withheld a truth.

Toward Secession (2008)

I'd like to think that five qualities characterizing my writing are wit (that is sometimes duplicated by me and missed, alas, by others), an interest in subjects and issues commonly neglected (and a concomitant disinterest in transiently publicized petty debates), an audacity rooted in the avant-garde ethic of doing what no one else will do (or has done), a recurring sympathy for those unfamiliarly disadvantaged (as distinct from fashionably publicized), and a determination not just to say what others do not dare but also to tell truths often contrary to common pieties and fashions. From the great comedians I've learned the truth that a witty truth, even an extravagantly witty ironic truth, can be more memorable than a solemn one. Not unlike my heroes, I'd rather write a strong essay than be politically (in)correct.

Toward Secession (2008)

I read my T.S. Eliot and subscribe to those views in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." It seems to me that your job as an artist is not to exploit your emotional life but to discover in the materials of art something far beyond your own capabilities and your sensibility. Back when I was working very hard on my essay-writing, I used to think something was really, really good when I could look at it and say to myself, "How the hell did I do that? That essay is better than me, better than anything I could ever think or say." That's something I'm always aiming for, especially in re-writing--the realization of quality that exceeds one's intelligence.

Interview with Larry McCaffery (1986)

My [creative] work is so different it challenges almost everyone's ideas about appropriateness in art. Just as my poetry is continually challenging narrowly encapsulating definitions of that art, these audio pieces implicitly pose the question of whether or not they are music. One aspect of my style as an artist is continually challenging conventional categories, less to destroy the categories than to expand them; and my persistence in pursuing this vision, not just in my art but in my anthologies as well, is, of course, what makes my work so difficult and unacceptable to narrow-minded professionals. Indeed, if perchance it were more widely accepted, there would be good reason to question my entire esthetic enterprise. Perhaps one result of this European activity is that I am no longer just a writer but an artist who has done, and continues to do, writing along with other arts, someone who has evolved for himself a plural situation that enables, or encourages, him to work in any one of several areas at any time. This last achievement, which is personal, or professional-personal, is probably what makes me different, profoundly different, from 99% of my colleagues in this country.

Interview (1983)

Reincarnations is based on a favorite photograph of myself, here cut apart and recomposed by various roughly systematic principles; and although the pictures appear in a certain order, I could imagine other combinations beyond the stable cover, which is the original photograph. cut apart, but not recomposed. I find that Reincarnations echoes painterly cubism in its recomposition of extrinsic reality, and yet painterly realism in its evocation of a particular subject and indubitably "photographic" representation of detail. It is also surrealistic in its suggestion of a succession of dream fantasies, and yet constructivist in the impersonal geometric manipulation of its parts. Reincarnations reminds me of Dada in its disruptive treatment of the original photograph, and yet of expressionism in its choices of subject and title. Indeed, it is finally this artistic quality of, encompassing modernist eclecticism that pleases me most about the work.

Reincarnations (1981)