That Joke isn’t Funny Anymore: An Interview with Steve AlmondBy Art Edwards
June 07, 2010
Steve Almond’s latest book of non-fiction, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, is written for “Drooling Fanatics,” people, like Almond himself, whose fixations with music take on an almost religious fervor. Almond’s past works include story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the novel Which Brings Me to You (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction books Candyfreak and (Not That You Asked). He is also a TNB contributor, and his submissions have ranged from a self-interview to a criticism of fellow contributor Joe Daley’s “Five Bands I Should Like, but I Don’t. At All.” The latter ruffled some feathers at TNB, and Steve accepted my offer to talk about the dust-up, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, and the larger concerns of his work.
AE: From a fledgling writer’s perspective, you’re a hard guy to root against (even though I managed it for about a decade). Whether it’s an agent who conveniently forgets his guild’s raison d’etre, or a blogger who clearly just has it in for you, you’re not afraid to publicly take down someone for unfairness or pettiness. Maybe that’s why it was so frustrating for some—even some of your loyal readers—when you commented so robustly against Joe Daly’s piece, a fledgling writer himself. (For the record, some TNB readers hailed you for calling it as you see it.) In light of this backlash, would you care to clear anything up?
SA: TNB readers tend to be supportive, probably because the internet is beset by aggrieved trolls. So to the extent my post fed into that same negative shit, I apologize.
But even if I’d toned down my language, my point would have been the same: Joe Daly wrote an intellectually and emotionally lazy piece. I didn’t observe this to be mean. I was genuinely disappointed. I’ve spent my entire life in the thrall of music and the past two years puzzling over why it matters so much to me, what it makes me desire and remember and regret. Joe is obviously the same kind of dude. He’s capable of more than running smack on bands he hates.
If people want to hate me for saying this, I can’t stop them. But that’s not the same as engaging in a serious discussion about the piece in question – or what music means, or how to write about it. Which is what I was hoping would ensue, rather than the typical internet rubbernecking. (Fight! Fight!)
I realize I’m now in for a whole new round of abuse. But whatever. The folks who contribute to TNB can make this space whatever they want. It can become the literary equivalent of Facebook – a place to hang out, feel validated, score some attention and good communal vibes. Or it can become a forum that inspires them to get more serious about their work, which sometimes means other writers holding them to a higher standard. In its best incarnation, it will be both.
AE: I’m reading and enjoying Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, which I’ll review at TNB in a week or two. In an email to me, you commented that the book is “more jokey” early on and “gets more serious” as the book progresses. What made you make that choice?
SA: It’s mostly a function of the material. My adolescent worship of Styx, or my career as a wretched music critic – those are tragedies best treated as comedy. But as I’ve gotten older, my relationship to music has become deeper and darker and more self-indicting. Plus, I did all these interviews with my guitar heroes, who are (like most genuine artists) complicated and often troubled people. If Bob Schneider had been a happy, hilarious dude, the section on him would have reflected that. But he was a very isolated, unhappy guy – at least during my visit. So that goes in the book, too. My only goal is to write truthfully about the shit that matters to me most deeply. The rest is marketing.
AE: When I read your work, I find myself thinking of Kurt Vonnegut and what an important bridge he was for me from the world of Lemmy to the world of Hemingway. Like yours, his work is laugh-out-loud funny, but also like yours it’s obsessed with the struggles of the human heart, which are at the center of all great literature. I know you’re a Vonnegut fan from way back, but are you consciously trying to be that kind of “bridge writer,” escorting people from the world of pop culture to the world of literature?
SA: Totally. Our situation is perfectly clear. People are turning away from the sustained attention literature requires. Our intellectual and emotional metabolisms have accelerated and fragmented. People spend most of their lives in front of screens, trying to face down their loneliness without facing their internal lives. So part of what I do – not all, but part – is to write about the stuff that lots of people are obsessed with (such as candy and sports and rock stars and dumb television shows) and to burrow down through all the neurotically defensive bullshit about people “just wanting an escape,” so as to discover why this stuff matters to us. What spiritual function it’s serving.
I’m sorry as hell I have to do this, by the way. I wish people were less frightened and distracted. I wish short story writers were granted the same respect as movie stars. But that’s not where we’re at as a culture. Some of my friends have dealt with this by heading for Hollywood. Others write zombie novels. My approach is to directly address what I see as the central pathologies of our historical circumstance. Vonnegut says it best: we’re doomed as a species if we lose our capacity to engage with acts of imagination.
AE: Finally, I’m thinking of getting in touch with Paul Harding, rock drummer and 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner for his novel Tinkers, and seeing if he’d like to form an all-lit rock band. Do you think you’re finally ready to embrace your true calling as a rock singer?
SA: I’m enough of a wannabe as it is. But you can always check with Phillip Roth. He’s a monster on the Moog.
“In its best incarnation, it will be both.”
Wasn’t it? The initial reaction was fairly one-sided, but in the end Almond’s piece inspired thoughtful and varied commentary in Greg’s Something Nice and Justin’s Puckered Up, the latter of which was promoted on the home page as a featured piece.
It’s true the ensuing discussions were about TNB, rather than Almond’s critique of Joe’s essay, but I think the effect was good for the site. For sure, all the writers here could benefit from being held to the highest possible standard. I think if Almond had expressed the exact same sentiment in comments directly on Joe’s piece, he might have found the conversation he sought. There are healthy debates here all the time. Is Almond at fault, being a relatively new poster, for not understanding the culture of the site? If I were new to a particular community, I would have chosen a different way to express myself. But then again, maybe Almond is a marketing genius and I am not.
Ultimately, if nothing else, I now have license to call Joe a pundit anytime I feel like it. And that makes me happy.
I think if Almond had expressed the exact same sentiment in comments directly on Joe’s piece, he might have found the conversation he sought.
Exactly. It seemed like a bit of an attention-whore move instead of a desire to actually dig deeper into what Joe thought. There is a clever way to do it, and then there’s what Steve did.
Can’t believe this thing’s still getting mileage, honestly.
I’ve seen this whole thing come up a few times now, and the only impression I ever get is a bad one of Steve— always going on about TNB being, or possibly being, a ”literary equivalent of Facebook” and how it could be this grand institution for writers to get criticism and for us to ”get serious about [our] work.”
I get the impression that the bastard is only here to stir up a little bit of attention for himself on a site which is getting bigger every day. I’m sure his book is a fine one that doesn’t need any sort of attention. I mean after all, how many books on rock and roll are have there been? It can’t be more than twenty in the last thirty years.
Fuck him. ”Get serious about [our] work.” What a fucking insult to every contributor on this site.
“I mean after all, how many books on rock and roll are have there been? It can’t be more than twenty in the last thirty years.”
I guess I’m greedy. I’d like there to be 20 as good as Steve’s every year. Few can write about music well, and Steve is one of them. As someone who writes in a similar genre, I think we need him.
But I’ll get into that with the review next week.
Sounds like your review is going to be just as balanced and critical as your piece on his book reading.
It’s a shame— lately it seems that this site is just becoming a place for writers to feel validated, score some attention and good communal vibes…
but seriously, Ive read this before that our “attention spans” are getting shorter, but Ive also read the reverse. This guy makes the argument it makes us smarter. I havent read it, because my attention span is too short…http://www.amazon.com/Here-Comes-Everybody-Organizing-Organizations/dp/1594201536
I’ve been working with Steve now and again for probably 13 years–I published a few of his stories in Other Voices magazine, and have also included his work in an anthology I edited and in the inaugural issue of TriQuarterly Online. I believe Steve has a rare talent, and while he is indeed better at networking and marketing than many writers are, I do not believe that has been the reason for his success, and I really want to say that on the record here at TNB, because I feel like there’s been perhaps some implication that Steve’s talent for putting himself out there is why he is “famous” or acclaimed. I just don’t think that’s true. There are a shitload of writers in the world who make a lot of efforts to schmooze and network, and who get nowhere with that, and who have nothing to network ABOUT because they don’t produce the work, or the work they produce isn’t good and can’t find audience. There are also writers (Dan Chaon) comes to mind, who have never to my knowledge made any effort to engage in much self-promotion at all other than what is required of them by their publishers, who still end up being widely recognized by the literary public as immensely talented and deserving of acclaim. The issue of marketing and self-promotion is a personality difference and surely it can have some results. But I can say that the first time I published Steve–a brilliant story called “Valentino” that ended up in his first book–I had no fucking idea who he was (I’m not sure anyone did, but if they did I wasn’t aware of it) and the story just grabbed me by the throat and kicked my ass in a way I still remember more than a decade later. I said at that time that this writer was going to go places, and he did. I said that about Dan Chaon too, when I first published him (though he was already more on his way somewhere than Almond was at that time.) Sometimes you can just tell. You can tell because the talent there surpasses the usual amount, even among publishing writers, and the writer seems to be offering something genuinely unique in voice or perspective or style.
I’m not sure that continuing to give this Daly/Almond thing more mileage at TNB is a great plan either, but I do think that Steve would have a boatload of ideas and relevant perspectives (and human connection and personality) to contribute to TNB if people would stop being pissed off at him and give him a chance to do that. For his part, he should do it by starting a new thread of discussion that isn’t about Daly’s piece, and really strutting his stuff and what he’s capable of, and I hope he’ll do that soon and that people will be receptive to it and get to know him a little better.
Right now, I’m at the U-C-Riverside low residency program in Palm Springs, where Steve appeared a couple of days before I arrived, and I’ll tell you guys, the students are still buzzing about him, and the faculty is sitting around the pool reading his self-published book and agreeing that these stories are some of his best work. The talk is not about what a self-marketing genius he is. Last night, someone on the core faculty described Steve as “the most ethical person I’ve ever met,” talking about both what he puts into his work and also his own personal decisions, such as leaving a secure teaching gig on principle even though he didn’t have a back-up plan and he and his wife have a family to support. People are still talking about him here because of how passionately he tries to help younger writers and how much of himself he puts in to everything he does–and because (whether or not you care about candy or rock music, which I frankly do not) he is just scary talented.
I said before on TNB (one of the comment boards) that Steve does indeed have an ability to inflame some people. This thing on TNB is not the first or by any means the most inflamed. I guess if this happens to someone a lot (though in some cases, the more extreme cases, it has certainly just been due to complete insanity or even evil will on the part of those who have attacked Steve’s family, etc.) that “inflamer” must be doing something to provoke it, and can be accused of being “fair game.” But I think if TNB (and Steve too) continues to just focus on this dynamic, we’ll all be missing out on what else he can contribute here. I think his self-interview on the Fiction Section, for example, is one of the very best we’ve run and that people should go back and look at it to see a bit more of what else Steve is about. And I hope that Steve, who is not skittish about a little controversy, will also not let this whole thing uniformly dictate to him what he thinks TNB is, which is a site of 260+ writers, not just the few who have been most ruffled here and most vocal about it. Letting those who are rankled by him have their say but yet not “defining” our entire TNB enterprise is part of the free debate I believe Steve encourages and advocates, so I think he does get that and predict we’ve not seen the last of him here.
Thank you, Gina! I couldn’t agree more.
For the record, I brought up the idea of addressing the controversy, and your sentiments were echoed by folks within TNB and otherwise about it. (Why make the kerfuffle any more of an issue than it already is?) Still, I wanted to review Steve’s latest book here–because it’s relevant and deserves to be reviewed here–and that seemed impossible given the current climate. Together, we decided to address the feather-ruffling briefly with the hope of moving beyond it to get to the book as quickly as possible, because that’s where the focus should be.
So, maybe we’ll get beyond it. The review’s coming next week either way.
I can confirm that despite Steve’s seeming ability to piss people off, he’s a nice guy. When I worked at a bookstore he read at years ago and didn’t have a place to stay, he crashed at my house. He was swell and wowed everyone at the store. Thanks for this interview. Steve is one of the more interesting and funny and, most importantly, honest writers around. And a hoarder of some of the greatest candies every known to man.
Thanks, Mark. He sure comes across as you describe.
This was a complicated issue around here a few months ago, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I sympathize with any fledgling writer who gets taken to task by someone with Almond’s clout, and I sympathize with any writer who is trying to tell an uncomfortable truth. Both made chatting with Steve a provocative experience.
P.S. You and I know each other. We were both in Paul Cook’s creative writing course in (I’m guessing) 1992, and I used to buy a book or two from you at Changing Hands. I also had a reading at Changing Hands in 2003.
You’ll have to beg my pardon on the common ground. I do remember Cook’s class vaguely, mostly because I was in such a funk at the time.
I’m glad we bumped into each other again, however, and hope time doesn’t play the same tricks on me again.
I think I was so buried in trying to earn my keep at CH that I rarely looked up from the trade counter.
Gotcha, No worries.
Glad to see you at TNB.
“ever known to man”. Self editor prowling.
How can you be a good writer and NOT be an arrogant son-of-a-bitch? The one unifying characteristic of writers that I’ve met is “my shit don’t stink, and I KNOW my shit don’t stink.”
One of the reasons that “star” writers are in some kind of upper echelon is because they first imagine themselves to be in that echelon.
What, when you send something off or publish it here, do you say gee, I hope this doesn’t suck more than some of the other submissions suck? And when you get that published author who is all “I can’t understand why I’m successful, I just write but it sucks and I don’t know”…I call bullshit. It is on some level a schtick. An affectation of self-deprecation.
So to call someone out for being an arrogant son-of-a-bitch is like calling out water for being wet.
Now….tact. That’s maybe a topic where there’s some wiggle room. But that’s where marketing comes into play. Today is all about getting your head up above the level of the noise, and taking a gulp of clean air. Maybe raising enough ruckus to get a fleeting blurb on huffpost. Maybe get 6 people blogging you or get that imbecile Lefsetz talking about you. The fuel for that engine is spectacle, not erudition.
So true. Almond’s “tact” gets him attention, and attention wins. There are ten writers as good as Almond whom I’ve never heard of because they have a different kind of tact.
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