My father once told me that movies like Blazing Saddles or The Producers just simply could not be made anymore. Try pitching something like “Springtime for Hitler” for the first time to a movie exec and see how well it goes, even if they are willing to do a remake of The Producers. Might as well call your pitch “The Aristocrats” while you’re at it.
Lightning Rods, Helen DeWitt’s first novel to come out in eleven years, is a satire of the business and marketing world that hits many of the same comedic notes as the old Mel Brooks films. With its humor, absurd premise, and direct treatment of political (in)correctness, it is not surprising that the agent Lois Wallace suggested that DeWitt “publish under another name.” We are living in a world where someone might say no to “Springtime for Hitler.” Well, I for one am grateful that New Directions said yes to a novel where having sex with a woman on the other side of a wall is treated as a viable solution to sexual harassment in the workplace.
While DeWitt’s sense of irony and playfulness are present in The Last Samurai and her currently unpublished novel Your Name Here, Lightning Rods’ tongue is practically boring through its cheek. The novel begins with an Encyclopedia-turned-Electrolux salesman, Joe, having (incredibly) elaborate sexual fantasies in his trailer. With a stroke (ahem) of genius, Joe then tries to market a particular fantasy—the solution to sexual harassment—to various corporations and, with a bit of absurd and blind luck, gets his foot in the door, so to speak. I read the novel in one sitting; I laughed until I cried twice while doing so.
I emailed Ms. DeWitt some questions in October and she took the time to discuss the publishing industry, some of the conceptual foundations of her work, translation, webcomics, her writing process, and the benefits of sending a copy machine back through time.
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S. P. MacIntyre: The roundabout publication history of Lightning Rods has been one of the things you’ve discussed many times. One thing that interested me is the fact that you wrote it before The Last Samurai was finished as a way to make it easier to sell that book, though this ended up being unnecessary, which is bizarre and somewhat boggling to me, as I’m sure it must have been for you. How do you feel about the book now that it’s coming out after more than ten years? Are you excited that your work is finally seeing publication?
Helen DeWitt: LR was not written before The Last Samurai was finished; it was written after it was finished but before it had found a publisher.
I think I always assumed LR would be published sooner or later; in some ways it would have been easier to leave it on my hard drive until I had finished some of the other books I was trying to finish. The Last Samurai was technically difficult to produce (what with the Greek, Old Norse, Japanese . . .), too difficult for the publisher who bought it in 1999, so I wanted to find a publisher who could cope with other books that presented technical challenges. My first editor did in fact make an offer for LR in 2001 (after passing twice), but I couldn’t see how that would get me closer to working with people who were right for books more like Samurai.
I kept talking to agents about this problem—conventional wisdom in the business is that authors don’t talk directly to editors, the agent is the repository of information on editors’ interests, strengths—and they would either wave the problem airily aside or tell me I would need to publish such books myself. In 2009-2010 I finally managed to talk to a few editors who knew and loved the work of Edward Tufte (the intelligence of whose work is inseparable from the quality of design and production) and felt reasonably hopeful.
So, er, it was a bit frustrating to get an offer of publication for LR just when I thought I could now bring my technically challenging books to the point where they could be sent out. (My motto: Never publish a book.) But it’s encouraging that the response to LR has been not only generally enthusiastic but extremely acute.
SM: I’m particularly interested in speaking to you about the pitfalls of the publishing industry because of your, if I may say so, uniquely miserable experience with it. You’ve once mentioned in an interview (with Joey Comeau, of whom I am a fan as well) that one of the reasons to avoid releasing with small presses, according to people in the publishing business, is because the limited sales might affect the chances of other books. Do you feel, now that you’ve released Lightning Rods with New Directions, that you’ll have an opportunity to release some of the books you’ve written in the eleven years after The Last Samurai, like Your Name Here or the project for which you won the Guggenheim Fellowship? What can we expect to see from you in the near future?
HD: Well, YNH is under contract for publication by Noemi Press (who publish Jenny Boully, among others); they generously postponed release of the book to give LR a clear field. New Directions has an option on a second book; more generally if LR does well I expect that will create a more favorable climate for others.
In the short term its publication took precedence over finishing other books, so I don’t know that anything new is likely to come out in the near future. Books I might hope to publish in due course include Stolen Luck (a book about poker), Sexual Codes of the Europeans (inspired by Invisible Cities); Hypno (about a rogue hypnotist, inspired by Zweig’s Schachnovelle); Recovery (about addiction); The Syndicate (about a suicide syndicate); The Manga Artist (self-explanatory). There is a book for younger readers about a boy caught up in an online poker fraud ring . . .
(At this point, people tend to say impatiently: Why don’t you pick just one and finish that? For me, at least, if I am dealing with some sort of problem on the business side, things go disastrously wrong if the mind has been taken over by the voices of a book—it’s safer to look for something productive to do that does not involve suspension of the social self. So it is better to do research, or work out the capabilities of a programming language that might be needed, this sort of thing. There have been rather a lot of business problems.)
SM: In Lightning Rods, I noticed a few metaphors that I thought might be references to John Christopher Jones’ The Internet and Everyone, which I discovered through your blog. Do you feel that Jones’ work has influenced your own? If so, in what way?
HD: I don’t know—I suppose the form of i+e (as it is known to its fans) is an influence, because it’s irresistible as an object. I described it once in an e-mail to Jonathan Safran Foer, and I think he quite liked the sound of it, but when we met I showed him the actual book and he was entranced and asked if he could keep it. (Since I had a couple of hundred back at the ranch this was not much of a sacrifice.) And this is a very common response to the book.
SM: This question is the exact same as the above, but replace every reference to Jones’ work with “game theory,” “meta-fiction,” “statistics,” and “Tufte.”
HD: Game theory.
No one had ever stayed in the cottage this late in the year; you have to turn off the water before the pipes freeze. Cody thinks of leaving and getting a job. He thinks: Maybe I could write for the Vermonter? Or the Yankee?
The Newfane Store has racks of obscure New England magazines. Who knows whether or what they pay.
There are questions you just don’t ask Five and Ten.
Cody takes a last bath, empties it, fills the tub to the brim.
Five and Ten wants 100 pages to feed the machine.
Dodo rents a room in Prenzlauerberg up 5 flights of stairs. She brings coal up each morning from the cellar, stokes the tiled oven. She wears 2 layers of long johns, t-shirt, sweatshirt, sweater, puffer.
She could go back to the States and get a job. Could she write for Parkett? But who knows what they pay.
There are things you can’t ask Five and Ten.
Five and Ten wants 100 pages to feed the machine.
It’s very cold.
James has a sleeping bag in a tent in Gaza. Chet has a room sous les toiles in the Marais. Loopy Margaux has a whole house, a whole house, mind you, in Hoxton that was condemned, unfit for human habitation, in 1982. There are circumstances which cannot be brought to the attention of Five and Ten.
Five and Ten has a loft in Tribeca. Five and Ten has a place in the Hamptons. Go online: Calvin and Sarah and Reuben refer to the handsome, charming, brilliant Five and Ten. If you subscribe to Google Alerts, which I would advise you to do, scarcely a day goes by without news of the sunkissed New York life of Five and Ten. Don’t rain on the man’s parade. Is the conclusion reached, independently, with zero grounding in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, by the 43 children on whom winter closes in. Who know a dominant strategy when they see one.
The cold does the most shocking things to prose. It may be the cold. It may be the caution.
YNH was influenced by Tristram Shandy, Diderot’s Jacques le fataliste et son maître, Hoffmann’s Life and Times of the Tomcat Murr, Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, Fellini’s 8 1/2, Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, Kaufman’s Adaptation and Being John Malkovich.
Statistics is a supposedly unfun thing that turns out to be terrifyingly addictive; I started reading Jim Pitman’s book Probability several years ago, for example, and was completely transfixed. There were wonderful sections on the binomial distribution, on the Poisson distribution, on the hypergeometric distribution—I wanted to run amok. (What I mean is, I instantly had ideas for five or six novels making use of this material, novels which I was convinced would be of startling originality and brilliance.) And the more I read around in the subject the more susceptible I become to this conviction. (I read Michael Lewis’s Moneyball this year and thought this had profound implications for fiction.)
I first came across Tufte’s work a long time ago, in the late 90s—in fact, at the time when I was working on LR and some others, having failed to publish The Last Samurai. He publishes the books himself and was taking out advertisements in the LRB; the books cost £48 or some such heartstopping amount. I ordered one and then felt compelled to order the others. I had been reading Gerd Gigerenzer’s Reckoning with Risk, which discusses the way our cognitive faculties make it easier to judge probability expressed in frequencies (1 out of 1000 people have disease X, as it might be) than in percentages (.1% have the disease). [I hope it’s obvious that this has implications for the reliability of narrators.] Tufte’s work looked like a way to make this visible on the page. Among other things.
Tufte’s work also seemed to have implications for the issues raised by James Wood in his discussion of hysterical realism—a kind of fiction obsessed, Wood thought, with information, characterized by relentless vivacity. Tufte is ruthless in his condemnation of what he calls chart junk, an approach to the presentation of data which substitutes vivacity for clarity, genuine elucidation. (Tufte: Chaos and clutter are features of design, not information.) I wondered what a novel would look like which valued information but approached it from a Tuftean standpoint.
SM: In another interview, you’ve spoken about challenges you’ve had seeing your work translated into other languages. How much say do you have in this process, especially now with Lightning Rods and New Directions?
HD: The foreign rights to LR are controlled by my agency, McCormick & Williams, rather than by New Directions. It’s too early to tell whether I will have any control over translations; we are still waiting to see whether there is any interest in translating the book. I did set up a wiki for translators, in the hope that answers to any questions could be made available to all; I think that might help.
SM: You’ve often advocated that people should read works in their original language. What value would you place, then, on works in translation, or the act of translating?
HD: Translations are obviously invaluable in giving us an idea of what is available in other languages, in enabling us to read books in languages we don’t know, in offering help with languages we don’t know very well. All of these are invaluable, but this doesn’t do justice to the real importance of such work, which is that it transforms what is possible in the language into which the translation is made. Alane Mason’s translation of Vittorini’s Conversazioni Siciliani, for instance, does something with English which no writer of English, I think, would do without the impulse to produce, somehow, in English the distinctive qualities of the Italian.
SM: Because of the nature of The Last Samurai and Your Name Here, you’ve had to do much typographical manipulation and incorporate numerous orthographies. Could you speak to the reasons you might choose to incorporate these into a narrative, since this seems to be a growing trend with the advent of digital publishing technologies? What sorts of technology do you use to help you do this? How would you describe the composing process when integrating other languages and various visual elements?
HD: In those particular books I think I was trying to enable the reader to get to grips with unfamiliar scripts (Greek, Japanese, Arabic . . .). So it was a fairly simple form of information design. That seems to me quite different from much of what is done with digital publishing technologies, where the object is often to produce something that looks exciting. (Not that this is necessarily a bad object, but it’s different.) I take it this impulse boils down to a way of following the familiar maxim, Show don’t tell. If I say spelling English words in Greek letters makes it easy to start reading Greek, even a small child could do it, you might or might not believe it but you will not share a character’s exasperation when people are dazzled by a small child with this skill; if I write ατ εατ εατς βατ βατς βεατ βεατς ιτ βιτ βιτς βιτε βιτες κιτ κιτς κιτε κιτες you will wonder why nobody bothered to teach YOU in first grade (and you will then think, OK, maybe first grade is a bit young, but surely by FOURTH GRADE . . . !!!!)
The technology I used for Samurai was very primitive—I had WordPerfect for Windows with a plug-in, Twinbridge Japanese, to input Japanese, and something similar for Greek. For YNH, I used Mellel, a terrific multilingual word processing program. If I were doing Samurai today I would try to get my hands on Quark 8+. For statistical graphics I’ve been trying various things—Excel from very early on; Bissantz Sparkmaker; R (open source statistical graphics package).
The composing process—well, often seeing how narrative can be carried forward using some kind of graphic element gives it energy, one can be very economical. I find myself writing along, perhaps, writing so many thousand words a day, and feeling vaguely dissatisfied; then I see how some block of narrative can be replaced by a graphic element and feel that this is more powerful, gives us a better chance of seeing the world through the eyes of the character.
SM: Your books are certainly a departure, I think, from the typical American novel operating in the realm of psychological realism. The Mel Brooks-like absurdity of Lightning Rods’ premise and the thought processes of the characters Joe and Renée are an example of this departure, as are your attempts to play with typography or deal with numerous languages in your works. You studied the Classics at Oxford, but your works like The Last Samurai and Your Name Here seem to be on the vanguard of emerging trends in experimental, interstitial, and hybrid narratives—all things that have existed in non-American literature but have had a hard time emerging on the American market. Could you speak to the ways the Classics and non-American literature inform some of the ideas in your work? Do you think that there’s a gradual change occurring in the American market that will make it more open to these less-conventional forms of narrative?
HD: I think maybe we should start with the question about changes in the market. The thing to understand is that when a work of fiction is acquired for publication, there is strong resistance to discussion of the market: you’re told “The editor has to fall in love with the book.” Because look. Suppose we look at webcomics, where it’s possible to get data on the number of followers. Questionable Content does have something like what counts as psychological realism in fiction, and it is very popular (720K-1m visits/day). We get stick figured from xkcd; A Softer World offers three panels of photos with black, deadpan captions (draws on the noir of Simenon), no recurring characters; Dinosaur Comics deploys a fixed 6-panel format (the same 6 panels used every time), with a T-Rex, Dromiceiomimus and Utaraptor based (I believe) on some dinosaur clip-art. xkcd gets about 1.6 million visitors a day, ASW about 112K-160K a day, DC 46K-90K a day; ASW and DC are both part of Project Wonderful, which means you can actually take out an ad on either comic, monitor your click-through rate . . . If you write a work of fiction that you think is closer to one of the non-QC webcomics, it’s not unreasonable to think, going by the data, that there is a market.
To take another example, YNH was inspired by Kaufman’s Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. If you check out the box office data, you find that the DVD for Adaptation sold a million copies the first week it was on release. So a market clearly exists for this kind of meta-fictional jeu d’esprit; a cover that alluded to its Kaufmanesque roots might reasonably be expected to appeal to the sort of reader who liked the films. The problem is not with the market, it’s with an acquisition process that ignores analytics. Or, perhaps, ignores analytics that relate to media other than the novel. (But this in itself seems short-sighted: if you concentrate on the pool of existing readers of literary fiction you are confining yourself to a market everyone knows is relatively small—small, that is, relative to the audience of a successful webcomic or even an “unsuccessful” but adventurous film. Publishers do, of course, cross their fingers and hope a book will be made into a film, but that’s such a long shot—it would be so much easier, one might think, to look at a film that already exists, or the following of a webcomic that already exists, and try to reach the audience known to have liked it.)
If we now go back to the handful of books by HDW which have escaped my hard drive, “departure” seems unpromising as a way to capture their relationship to the kind of novel that is seen as offering psychological realism. These are books that were influenced by films: The Last Samurai by Seven Samurai (and perhaps the work of Mizoguchi); YNH by Kaufman and others; Lightning Rods by The Producers—and more distantly, maybe, by the sitcom Get Smart.
Suppose we stick to LR. Most people have no difficulty responding to sitcoms on their own terms—that is, to characters who are types rather than fully rounded characters. But this kind of character has a long history—in both the Old Comedy of Aristophanes and the New Comedy of Menander, in the Characters of Theophrastus; in the plays of Ben Jonson, Congreve, Sheridan; in the Spectator of Addison & Steele; in Candide, Rasselas, Gulliver’s Travels; in Meredith’s The Egoist; in P.G Wodehouse. Given that the form of the sitcom shows that this way of using character is not just a historical curiosity, it seemed to me uncontroversial to use it in a novel. If it looks strange in the context of the contemporary American novel, I’m not sure what to make of that—but I’m not sure writing this sort of book can be explained in terms of my classical background or European reading habits.
I think similar arguments could be put forward for The Last Samurai and YNH, but I’m feeling a bit threadbare after six weeks of publicity, so . . .
SM: Was the transition from scholar to novelist an easy one for you to make?
HD: It was a relief to give up on the enforced specialization of scholarship; it was hard, after a while, to have an endless succession of what one might call mechanical jobs in the years before The Last Samurai was published. It’s hard in a different way to be a professional novelist after being a classical scholar; it may not actually be possible. If you study classics seriously, one of the first things you have to recognize is that you can’t be sure of the accuracy of your texts: a text of Plato or Sophocles was copied by hand for millennia before Aldus Manutius printed the first edition in the early 1500s. A good edition of the text always offers an aparatus criticus—an account of the manuscript tradition, with significant variants printed at the bottom of the page. The desire is always to have something as close as possible to what the author wrote; a text with many scribal errors is seen as corrupt. It’s hard to come from that tradition to the traditions of modern publishing: a book which simply replicates what the author wrote is seen as suspect. Editors are uncomfortable with this—you’ll hear people say indignantly “We’re not photocopiers.” If we could send a photocopier back to 5th-century Athens by time machine, we could have all 100 of Sophocles’ plays instead of 7; if we sent it along with the sociological structures in which the machine is now embedded, we would be lucky to get 7. I get into arguments about this with agents and editors and they don’t understand what I’m talking about.
SM: I’ve heard you described as an 18th century novelist writing for the 20th century, and I recall reading on a blog many years ago that your work—particularly The Last Samurai—is didactic in the sense that it is intended to educate and inform a reader (I believe this was originally written as a compliment). Do you feel that this sensibility carries over into Lightning Rods? What do you feel the farcical and satirical elements of this novel have to teach a reader? Do you feel that it is the responsibility of fiction in the 21st century to inform rather than merely entertain?
HD: I suppose it could be said The Last Samurai has a didactic element; I wouldn’t say the purpose of the book was to educate and inform. I don’t think Lightning Rods has anything comparable, though, no; I can’t see that it has anything to teach at all. I wanted to write a funny book.