It’s Gilbert Sorrentino day at wood s lot; I haven’t read much Sorrentino (Aberration of Starlight and, I think, Mulligan Stew), but I like his style. I very much like this interview by Alexander Laurence (from 1994). Asked about what’s happened since the glory days of Black Mountain, he says:

Hard to answer this question. I was on a panel a little while ago with Robert Creeley, and we were both being asked versions of your question. Apparently, young people are enormously interested in “how things were” in the Fifties. Creeley said something much to the point, to the effect that we all took art very seriously in those days, we were absolutely committed. He’s right, of course, there was a sense then among young artists that we were writing for our lives—but maybe more importantly, there was a really drab “establishment” in place at that time—artistic and social and political—and young artists felt, rightly or wrongly, that they were destroying it, “deforming the ideogram,” as Jakobson says.

And his response to a question about commercial publishing is a wonderful rant:

Joyce, Pound, and Williams commanded the smallest of audiences and were shunned by what we now think of as “major” publishing houses. Publishers have always been craven when the odds are not in their favor, it’s just enhanced nowadays because there is so much money to be made if the publisher can hit the shit machine. What is most surprising to me is the number of—what can I call them?—”absent” books published. These are books that have no literary merit, no spirit of aesthetic adventure, no rough but interesting formal design, and—this is most important—no chance of commercial success! That’s what is so amazing to me—not the number of Judith Krantz-like novels published, nor the Calvin Trillin-Garrison Keillor warm and wise and witty and wonderful malarkey, but the novels that just lie there: life and love in a small town in Northern California, sexual awakening in a Baptist family in Pennsylvania—daughter flees to Greenwich Village, meets bum who makes her pregnant, discovers feminism—and on and on. Were I running these houses, I’d can all these editors in a minute. If they can’t make millions, would be my thinking, I’ll be God damned if they’re going to put out excrement that will only break even, i.e., if we want to break even, I’d say, let’s publish BOOKS. But, of course, the chances are that the people who own these houses would not know a book if it buggered them.

And don’t miss his rave for my man Flann O’Brien.


  1. Hooray for Gilbert Sorrentino! That second paragraph should be banner-headlined and painted on sandwich boards and puffed out by skywriters over Manhattan! But the problem is not going away anytime soon, because this is the pub-world legacy of focus groups and Oprah. Probably reading groups, too. The publishers themselves wouldn’t read these books for fun, but they have no idea what will potentially connect with the great mass of consumers, the people who wouldn’t be interested in contemporary equivalents of Joyce, Pound, or Williams, if there were any. Who knows what kind of dull mimetic fiction might function as a mirror for these unknowns, who apparently yearn for such a thing?

  2. Seriously, I think all you have to do is get Oprah to say your book is good, and you have a best seller. Even if it sucks.

  3. His An Beal Bocht is the definitive macabre comedy about an endangered language. In one chapter he has a half-blind and wholly senile British government inspector make some kind of incentive payment, a shilling per, to families with English-speaking kids, for an entire litter of 12 piglets, and then in the next chapter has a field linguist give a plug of tobacco and a shilling to one of the piglets working as one of his Irish-language informants.

  4. I only discovered Sorrentino recently, and read his satire on art criticism, Lunar Follies.
    The world of art criticism is almost beyond parody already, and it takes a good degree of skill to be able to skewer it so precisely without falling into the trap of easily-won laughter provoked by an sitting duck target.
    Apart from that, the humour is excellent. One chapter is simply a list of titles of a late Baron’s erotic prints collection. I re-read it the other night and the titles’ cumulative effect is joyously funny.

  5. John Emerson says

    I’m working on a theory of the novel which puts Flann O’Brien in the top ten, and Balzac and Zola in the second fifty.

  6. Outcast Manufacturer says

    Apropos of your links to Sorrentino and O’Brien, this is as good a time as any to champion the publisher that helps keeps both of them in print: Dalkey Archive. Dalkey and the Center for Book Culture is a shining example of how a “BOOKS” publishing house should be run. Inspired, industrious, curious, adventurous.
    And its 100 books for $500 special sale (always running) is a small extravagance any good reader should deliver to herself. I partook, and find it pads the future in a way that makes me want to aim for a centennial.

  7. Amen to that. (And I believe, though I speak under correction, that the l in Dalkey is silent: it’s pronunced “Dawkey.”)

  8. I thought it was Coffee House Press. I got Sorrentino’s latest book here in the UK for about 8 pounds. I almost felt guilty at it being so cheap.

  9. (Our host, in this as in many details, has no need of correction.)

  10. Thanks for the plug. I am a big fan of Flann O’Brien too. I think Harry Mathews and Julian Rios are pretty cool too.

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