Busting Genre, in Style: Geoff Dyer on the Joy of Writing “Unpublishable” Books

George Makari, director of the DeWitt Wallace Institute of Psychiatry: History, Policy and the Arts at Weill Cornell, and author of Of Fear and Strangers: A History of Xenophobia hosts an ongoing series of podcasts “on the imagination.” Here, he speaks with the innovative, award-winning writer Geoff Dyer on opportunities and perils of non-genre writing. Dyer is the author of twenty books, including But Beautiful and most recently, The Last Days of Roger Federer: And Other Endings.

This conversation was edited for readability, but can be found in full here.


George Makari: I heard you say in an interview that as you’re starting to think about writing a book, you write a note to yourself, saying, “Write a book that no one else could write.”

Geoff Dyer: Yeah, it’s a little piece of self-encouragement. Because, you know, sometimes I’m sort of worried about my take on a given subject. Do I know enough about it? Take for example, my history of photography called The Ongoing Moment. I wrote that book because I wanted to find out about the history of photography. I wrote the book for the same reason that readers might later go to it.

I think one of the features of nonfiction today is that, to a degree, a book could be written by anyone possessed of a certain level of knowledge. The area of expertise might change, but quite often, there’s nothing particularly distinct about the writing or the thought. With my books, for good or ill, they could only be written by me. And that’s what they have going for them. And I just need to remind myself of that, whenever I set off.

GM: What’s the trick? Did you not hear that the author is dead?! How do you manage to not be invaded by all the stories that we’re inundated with, the ones that become part of a kind of collective narrative?

GD: It’s manifested in my identity as a writer, it’s manifest at all sorts of levels. First of all, there would be my particular take on things….That’s the first thing: to have faith in the contingencies of my own experience, and the vagaries of my own nature, as a way of accessing some sort of universal truth.

It’s important to remember that style is not some kind of glaze or varnish that one applies late in the day to the writing of a book, just to give it a nice shine, to throw in a few more interesting adjectives.

Then the next thing is having a certain style. It’s important to remember that style is not some kind of glaze or varnish that one applies late in the day to the writing of a book, just to give it a nice shine, to throw in a few more interesting adjectives. Style is, to quote Martin Amis, intrinsic to perception. So, the distinction between point one and point two, the ideas and the way they’re written about, now starts to dissolve.

And that’s appropriate, because the third element, I think, is that typically we go to nonfiction for the content. Why do you read Antony Beevor’s history of Stalingrad? You want to learn about Stalingrad. So, it is nonfiction defined by the subject matter. And that’s all fine, I read lots of books like that.

But there’s another sub-genre of nonfiction where, yes, you’re reading Annie Dillard because it’s about something, but you’re also going to it for Annie Dillard. It’s her consciousness that defines the book.

I think this is where my stuff comes into play. So, what you’re getting is a subject: jazz, First World War, D.H. Lawrence. But also, you’re getting, at many levels, an immersion in my consciousness. And I’m very aware that some people find being in that consciousness rather irritating, but other people like it. So that’s, I think, the kind of package of ingredients that go into these highly individualized, not so easily categorized books of mine.

GM: That’s so beautifully put, and obviously a mature kind of aesthetic. But I wonder how you came to it. I was thinking of Out of Sheer Rage (Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence), from 1997, which I read as a kind of artist’s coming of age. This younger man, who’s so filled with contradiction and ambivalence, is supposed to be immersing himself in writing a book about D.H. Lawrence, but in the end overthrows that demand to write on himself. Is it kind of a “declaration of independence?” Does that sound fair?

GD: It’s fair, but that does make it seem that that book was some kind of an announcement, or it suggests that there was something sudden about it, or that it was a departure. In this latest book of mine, about Roger Federer, I oppose the idea of the sudden or the dramatic with this notion of the gradual.

When I left university, there was a straightforward sort of binary option. If you wanted to be a writer, you either wrote novels, or you wrote about other people’s novels. I was always hampered as a novelist; I could never think of plots. Then in my early twenties, I discovered the work of John Berger. Here was somebody who was combining criticism with creative writing. He’d be offering commentary on works of art, but also creating something that had great imaginative value. He offered this kind of middle way for me.

About this thing of writing the book only you could write, before I set off on my jazz book, I’d be lying in the bath, and I’d be thinking, “I’m going to write a great book about jazz.” Then I’d get out of the bath, and I’d wake up the next day with the equivalent of a sort of ego hangover thinking, “What was I thinking? Of course, I don’t know enough about jazz to make that possible.”

Anyway, I did write that book, and it was a very, very unusual book. That was followed, I think, by another novel, and then this book about the First World War, which was also formerly quite inventive with a quite distinctive voice.

But yeah, Out of Sheer Rage was the next step forward, I think, and I’d say one other thing in connection with this: that book was actually commissioned, in that I set out a proposal. I’m not very good at writing proposals, but the publisher who took it on, when I delivered the book, he said, “Well, it’s not what I was hoping for, but so much more so.” He was rather alarmed by it.

Anyway, since then, I’ve realized that it really doesn’t suit me to write proposals. For one thing, I’m hopeless at it, and part of the reason is because I find it so boring. Since then, typically what I’ve done is I just write the book, and then offer it to a publisher and hope somebody will take pity on me and publish it.

GM: Well, yes, the proposal is a heinous form, and you’re one of the few that manages to not have to do it, I suppose. I can’t imagine the elevator pitch for some of your books.

GD: Exactly. That’s the key to publishing “unpublishable” books, is to just write it. Often you can read a book, and when you’re reading it, you can trace it back to the proposal. You feel, “Oh, yeah, I see. This is what these two hundred pages have done: they’ve kind of set out the proposal, they fulfilled the terms of the contract.”

And you’re absolutely right, that, if you think about the book, I wrote about Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, I mean, that is completely unviable. It was a completely unpitchable idea. But then when you read the book, it turns out, it’s something.

GM: You’ve managed, in the best sense, to be an amateur who then brings extraordinary narrative and formal skill to what he loves, what he’s interested in. And you do this wonderful thing that is disarming. You say, “I’m going to write a book about photography,” but “I don’t even own a camera.” Then here is a book about jazz, but this gentleman who wrote it confesses that he can’t read music and doesn’t play an instrument. And yet, in some way, that’s freeing so that you create these masterpieces of collage, in a kind of free form, that come together so powerfully.

GD: If it doesn’t sound too egotistical, I’m tempted to say I agree with you, and I’m very happy that you that you bring up this idea of the amateur. Roland Barthes draws out the etymological link between the amateur and the lover.

I think there’s also another dimension: the amateur is in some ways the opposite of the professional, insofar as the professional tends to have a particular area of expertise. John Berger was so important, because he’d written so many books on so many different kinds of subjects. I think it was through my encounter with him, that I was able to become convinced that maybe it’s not what you know, that’s not as important as what your passion gives you the potential to discover.

John Berger was so important, because he’d written so many books on so many different kinds of subjects. I think it was through my encounter with him, that I was able to become convinced that maybe it’s not what you know, that’s not as important as what your passion gives you the potential to discover.

GM: You have been important in resurrecting D.H. Lawrence’s nonfiction. How did you come to Lawrence?

GD: One of the first writers I felt passionate about was D. H. Lawrence, and his book, Sons and Lovers, which I read when I was sixteen or seventeen. It seemed to dramatize the process I was going through. Fast forward. I thought writing about D.H. Lawrence I would address two issues: one, Englishness, which was a big theme of his, and also notions of class.

Anyway, in the process of writing, I became conscious that Lawrence remained, a very fresh and original and great writer and the bits I found freshest and most immediate, well I quite like some of the stories, but I really liked the essays. I really liked the travel books and his letters.

I realized what was happening was an almost exact inversion of the traditional hierarchy of form. So many of his novels are actually barely worth reading. So, the idea was that these “minor” works were actually where his genius was most manifest after Sons and Lovers. And they were where I felt his contemporaneity was manifest.

GM: I think of his Studies in Classic American Literature and remember reading that, and thinking, “Wait, how do you get away with saying this stuff?” You know, this kind of almost prophetic voice that was utterly captivating.

GD: It’s a work of genius, and it’s completely demented. It’s so wide of the mark sometimes, and other times it’s spot on. In the case of Lawrence, his criticism is so full of originality and wild insight, there’s nothing boring about it at all. He collapses that distinction—to go back to what I was saying about Berger—between the imaginative writing, which occasions the writing itself, and original stuff.

GM: That’s a good segue to But Beautiful, one of the strangest books that I’ve ever read. For the first hundred and eighty pages it’s a lyrical, group biography of the lives of the founders of jazz. It’s filled with sentences that are extraordinarily moving.

When you get to page 180 or so, weirdly, the book ends with a forty-page critical essay, which happens to quite astute, about where jazz is and where it’s going. It’s called “Tradition, Influence, and Innovation” which of course are three central concerns for any genre. As I read this, I kept thinking, “What editor let him keep that? How could this be? And, boy, isn’t it satisfying?”

GD: Oh, good. I thought you were turning on me at one point.

GM: That’s called envy. How does a writer get away with doing that? The novelty of that kind of genre mixing is jarring and heady.

GD: So it happened that when I published my first novel called The Color of Memory, I read this essay by George Steiner, which has proved so influential for me. In this essay, Steiner says, let’s imagine a world—”a republic,” he calls it—in which there is no commentary on art, literature, or music. There is only the original stuff. Wouldn’t this be a terrible loss? Surely, we need criticism.

Then he says, well, just consider for a moment, for example, the best critical essay ever written about Middlemarch is by Henry James. Not James’s famously critical essay about Middlemarch, but The Portrait of a Lady, which is his creative commentary on Middlemarch. Then, Steiner added, the critical literature on Flaubert is immense, but for a great, enacted essay on Madame Bovary, we have to turn to Anna Karenina.

It’s such a wonderful summing up: Steiner says that the tradition of any art form adds up to a syllabus of enacted criticism. When it came to jazz, on the one hand, nearly all the criticism about jazz was meaningless to me, because I have an absolute lack of understanding of musical terms.

But that situation that Steiner described; it was so built into the history of jazz, because so often, as you all know, a jazz musician will play a version of somebody else’s tune. And their version of it will have built into it a kind of commentary, it’ll be a form of criticism. It will be a sort of loving essay on it. Okay, so that’s what was going on in those first hundred and eighty pages, But at the end, I still felt there was some other stuff I wanted to say, and so I said it.

GM: Your latest book is The Last Days of Roger Federer and Other Endings. It’s a wonderful title.

GD: I’ve become interested in this thing of careers coming to an end. Obviously, quite a lot of work has been done on “late style.” But the difference between that and last style is this. Late style, in the classic essay by Theodor Adorno called “Late Style in Beethoven,” is on a style arrived quite late in life. Beethoven’s last works and his late works were the same.

But we can think of all sorts of examples, where for example, John Coltrane became ill and died so suddenly, so that his last works, they’re really not his late works. He was in a transitional phase, but he died. So, as with many artists, his last works come at the middle stage of their career. That’s what interested me: the last stages of an artist or an athlete’s life.

GM: So last style is not late style. It’s maybe just tragic; it’s creators whose imaginative productions end, and we don’t know where they would have gone. But doesn’t late style have something to do with the midlife crisis, with trying to maintain creative generativity in the face of mortality?

GD: Yeah, late style is sort of post-midlife crisis. It’s coming to terms with the body decaying quite often and maybe the sense of one’s abilities declining. I was writing this in my early sixties and I was talking about the way that some writers have this great longevity.

But it struck me that quite often a condition of somebody continuing to write into advanced age, is that they are necessarily oblivious to something that is obvious to the reader, which is the dramatic decline in quality. And I was very aware, it might seem I was holding up a mirror to my own decline, which I was oblivious to.

GM: Let’s talk about the formal invention of the book, which I don’t know that reviewers spent enough attention on. There really is no beginning, middle, and end to this book. It’s all end. It starts with The Doors’ last gig playing “The End.” Then there are three sections, each of which have sixty fragments. Finally, at the very end, after three sections of sixty sections, we are told that this work contains exactly 86,400 words. By consulting Google, we discover that 86,400 is the number of seconds in a day. So, it seems that our author has created a clock made of words.

GD: I was really outraged by some of the reviews of the book, which said that it was formless, and I was just chucking all these sorts of notes into a bucket. It was so disappointing to me, because I’ve always invested so much intellectual energy into trying to arrive at a form which was uniquely appropriate to the subject matter. I really thought that this was my most ambitious work yet. So I’m very glad to have this chance to explain the structure to you. The central figure of the book is Friedrich Nietzsche and his key idea of the eternal recurrence.

GM: Could you explain your interpretation of that?

GD: In his attempt to come up with an alternative to Christianity, which so valorizes the afterlife, Nietzsche has this idea: what if someone came to you and said this life, as you’ve lived it, you will live over and over again, throughout eternity? Without any change. And he says, this life is it. No change. No redemption. Weirdly, by stressing that you’re going to live this life over and over, what he’s really doing is saying there is only this life. So, you’d really better make the most of it.

Now, you don’t want to live your life over and over with things like your thumping headache from COVID or a break up. But then Nietzsche says, have you actually ever known a moment in your life that is so great, so wonderful, that you would say, yes, I want to live this life over and over again, with all its COVID, heartbreak, and baggage delays. Because this is so wonderful.

That’s Nietzsche’s philosophy of affirmation, the eternal recurrence. And then I talk about what may be the best filmic representation of it, Christian Marclay’s twenty-four-hour film, The Clock, where he just takes you through the day. Then at midnight, it just starts again, one minute past one second past midnight. And I thought that twenty-four-hour thing is it embodied in the eternal recurrence.

So, I really wanted to embody this idea of the eternal recurrence in the structure of the book. I thought it’s quite nice if we could have these sixty sections, three sections of sixty. And of course, you think sixty seconds or sixty minutes, so it’s got a temporal thing going on there. And I thought as a way of really binding it closely, wouldn’t it be nice if I had a word for every second of the day? Binding of form and content.

GM: The other theme along with the eternal recurrence is revealed near the end. You wrote, “My theme, I have no doubt is giving up. That’s what keeps me going.”

GD: It’s traceable back to Nietzsche again. Towards the end of his life, one of the last things he did was go through all his old books to compile an anthology of passages…so I thought it would be good to add a postscript to my book in a Nietzschean style. And if I went through all of my books, I would discover all these passages about quitting. My books are just littered with this desire to give up. It’s just this strange thing really, whereby this conviction, this desire to give up and quit has kept me going.

GM: It’s fitting at the end of a book on endings to say, I keep thinking about the end, and that’s why I don’t end. But that brings me to my final question. How does one conclude a book on endings? You chose a rather chilling photo of a dead man, that had been highlighted in one of your books a decade ago. So, you end the book with death staring at us, and it is a quote from your prior self, your prior imagined creation, which made it seem a bit like speaking from the grave.

My books are just littered with this desire to give up. It’s just this strange thing really, whereby this conviction, this desire to give up and quit has kept me going.

GD: Again, I liked the idea of just sort of quoting from an earlier book, because it seemed to me that was in keeping with this project. It’s an incredible picture.

Edward Weston and his wife came across this man who fell down dead in the desert. And it seems to me that he could have taken one more step, probably. And probably, a hundred steps before, he sort of thought, shall I lie down and just give up and he didn’t. And then there came a point where he just thought, you know what, that’s it. And that kind of thing, that’s the question, can I take one more step, or shall I just lie down? And yeah, there we see it in that amazing picture simply called Dead Man.

I thought that was a good way of ending it. But then I throw in a quotation from Louise Glück. It’s common to have epigraphs at the beginning of a book, but I really like quotations at the end. Are they still epigraphs or is there another term for them? I don’t know.

GM: Maybe you’ll have to coin one.

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