What do you hold up as a literary ideal?
Ideals are for greeting cards. I am trying to change consciousness, change language in such a way that the modes of behavior I am opposed to become unpopular, absurd, unlikely. You try to work toward a culture that takes time and conscience seriously in a real way and not as part of a tidal flow of hype.
Is that really your belief?
Yes. Be patient with me. Most of the furniture in my house comes from a period in American history called The Era of Good Feeling....
Writing that is meant solely for the public forum is often less interesting than writing where the writer has invented the public space inside the text, in the tone of the address, in the tone of the language. Public language is never new. But in good writing there is something absolutely new in the tone of what I think of as the public space in which the narrator addresses the reader. In a piece of writing the language runs along on the page and in the mind of a reader; in that language there is no actual physical space, but the language should carry the implication of a physical-social location. If you've been to a large Edwardian house you may have seen a small room with a fireplace and a couch, and perhaps two chairs-not a formal, large room, but one where you can sit and talk, where you gossip. Henry James has a tone of address as if he's arrived at such a house, not his own, and he is seated by the fire; an invisible interlocutor or audience listens closely. Walt Whitman speaks outdoors, it seems to me. The space Whitman suggests is complex and American and I think beautiful and a completely new invention. One thing that is unique about it is that there's no tinge of social class in it whatsoever. Jane Austen's writing suggests a drawing-room sort of space; Hemingway's, on a barstool or in a club car; it changes: he's complicated. Emily Dickinson creates a marvelous public space, too, and one of the marvelous things about it is that it is so clearly an invention since it isn't based on being public; it is without a sense of the public. D. H. Lawrence is an absolutely amazing writer, with a fantastic sense of the language, but his sense of public space wavers, and sometimes a whole book or long story of his will collapse when he shifts the public space too drastically and becomes churchly-fascistic, or starts yelling as if in a corral, then muttering in a hallway—no order in it at all.
—from my interview with Harold Brodkey in the Winter 1991 Paris Review (Issue 121), The Art of Fiction, No. 126
Hat tip to Peter Mclachlin, on whose blog I re-encountered a portion of the interview I conducted. Mclachlin also posts HERE.