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Eric Olsen Answers My Vexing Literary Questions

October 10, 2012

At night I lie in bed and wonder about stuff. Why are their so many vampires in books? What’s up with dystopian lit? Is the process of writing different now than it was 30 years ago? How does an author get over a bad review? And lots more. I’ve been writing down my questions hoping that eventually I would run into just the right person to pose said questions. I needed someone who reads, writes and cogitates about such matters.

I found my victim expert in Eric Olsen. Eric has a lifetime of experience in both editing and writing. Most recently, he was lead author of We Wanted to be Writers, a collection of reflections on the creative process and the writing life by TC Boyle, Jane Smiley, Sandra Cisneros, John Irving, Joy Harjo, Allan Gurganus and other classmates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the seventies. It’s a trip down memory lane combined with interviews, gossip, and writerly advice that was one of my favorite books last year. (Read my review of WWTBW here.)

Eric doesn’t hold back or mince words, so I think you’ll find him entertaining but thoughtfully astute. He was definitely the man for the job. Enjoy!

Why are there so many books about vampires? Where did that trend come from and will it ever go away?

I think all trends have a finite shelf life, but the vampire trend seems to have a remarkably long shelf life. Maybe like a Twinkie or Krispy Kreme donut, the vampire novel will never get stale.

Still, the current vampire mania may be cooling off. Not long ago I was in a small indie bookstore where the staff actually read books and can talk about them and I got into a discussion of vampire novels with the guy working behind the counter. I allowed as how I wished I could have found a way to work some vampires into We Wanted to be Writers, and the chap I was talking with said maybe it was just as well, as it was his sense, as a book seller, that the market was saturated and we were due for some new trend, unicorns, maybe, he suggested.

Still, as I say, I don’t think we’ll ever see a complete end to novels with vampires. I think the popularity of vampire novels derives from the fact that they’re a way of writing about politics without being overtly political, which usually leads to boring, unless, of course you happen to be Leo Tolstoy. Vampires are a code. What was Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula but a member of his era’s one percenters? And today? Same thing, the one percenters who have been and still are sucking the life blood out of our economy and our culture. What puzzles me is that no one has written a vampire novel yet that features Mitt Romney as a bloodsucker. Bain Capital, anyone? Hmm….

Or how about a “historical” vampire novel that looks at the disastrous Dubya administration as a coven of vampires? (Do vampires have covens? A horde of vampires? How about a fraternity? Like Yale’s Skull and Bones? There’s a thought….) But I don’t mean to suggest that Dubya himself was a vampire; he was too clueless, surely; don’t vampires always seem to be smarter than mortals? Rather, I’m talking about Dick Cheney. Clearly a vampire. Dubya was merely the bug-eating, mortal vampire-wannabe Renfield to Cheney’s Dracula. But Dubya lacked Renfield’s rudimentary conscience.

Why is dystopian literature so popular among young adults?

I don’t know, other than as a sort of “preparation” for adulthood in the world my generation has left them. I’m a “literary Darwinist.” I believe that we evolved to tell stories and listen to stories because this has a certain survival value for a community, beyond the simple pleasure a well-wrought story provides. For one thing, stories are a way of passing along information, and they were especially so before the invention of writing. And the exercise of the imagination helps us prepare for a future that is not always going to be to our liking, allowing us to “rehearse” possibilities and our responses, at low risk, in advance. One might well wonder why dystopian literature isn’t even more popular, given what a mess we’ve made of things….

Has anything changed with regard to writing and writing careers since you graduated from the Workshop?

I don’t think the basic creative process itself has changed at all in the past, oh, 5,000 years or so, since the Sumerians invented writing. Or maybe not even in the past — what — 200,000 years since humans started grunting out stories to one another? I think writers now do pretty much what writers have always done. I think the process may be hardwired into our brains. I’m sure the blank cave wall or blank papyrus or blank wet clay slab were just as intimidating to writers and other creative types thousands of years ago as the blank page—or blank canvas—is to us today. So writers write, or try; they worry that their writing sucks; they send their writing out to agents or editors who don’t return their calls; they despair, get drunk, sober up, and then they go back to work.

But the environment writers work in is always changing, and maybe these days changing more rapidly than ever before, and so the strategies that writers find to survive and pay the rent while they write may be changing as well. I think when I got out of the Workshop 30-plus years ago, most of us figured we’d get jobs teaching creative writing while we wrote the Great American Novel. At the time, creative writing programs were poised for a growth spurt. I think we were rather careerist 30 years ago, and I think the generation that followed was at least as much or perhaps more so. But now? I’m not so sure.

For one thing, I think the growth in creative writing programs is slowing. There are fewer jobs now and more and more MFAs chasing them. And besides, those of my generation who landed all those sweet tenured gigs teaching writing refuse to retire or die and make room for the next generation.

But I think now the Internet is opening up new opportunities for writers. Maybe not necessarily opportunities to make big bucks off writing, but opportunities to be read, and read in a variety of formats and venues, which can be good for the writerly ego. Thus, I think writers now may be doing more different types of writing and taking more chances and maybe not thinking so much about a career path, which I think is overall probably a good thing for our literary culture.

Do you think that different political environments inhibit or encourage literary productivity?

When I started at Iowa in the mid-70s, the Vietnam War was just over and all the anti-war, countercultural brouhaha was quieting down as we started to concentrate on having careers and living the good life, which seemed somewhat possible back then. But a little turmoil is not necessarily a bad thing for an artist. I recently read something about this, a quote by Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles in The Third Man: Lime says: “In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Factual issues aside, I think Lime makes a good point. And now I think we’re into another period of turmoil, what with the collapse in the economy, the apparent inability of our politicians to fix the mess they’ve made, the takeover of our public forums by the one-percenters, the triumph of evil bankers, the collapse of civility in public discourse, the decline of our schools… I could go on and on. So, I think young writers may be getting more political, and politically involved. Who knows, maybe we’ll see a new Michelangelo or da Vinci.

What are the good and bad ways the lit business has changed in the last 30 years?

Well, one bad change, as far as I’m concerned, is the coagulation of the old independent publishing houses into a few gigantic conglomerations, such as Bertelsmann (Random House, Doubleday, Knopf, etc.) and Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp (HarperCollins, Zondervan, etc.), where the bottom line is all and the “blockbuster-or-die” economic model seems to prevail. If your novel doesn’t have vampires and/or zombies (more on vampires below) and it doesn’t sell a gazillion copies in the first two weeks of release, forget it. And forgive the digression, but I really can’t keep myself from also mentioning that Bertelsmann made huge profits under the Nazis publishing anti-Semitic screeds using Jewish slave labor, and Rupert’s NewsCorp has, as we all know so well, completely perverted the British justice system and made a mockery of notions such as privacy in England and perhaps also here. So it’s people who run companies such as these that have for years been making the decisions about what gets read. That can’t be good.

One good change is the Internet, e-books, and the development of self-publishing as a viable way for a young writer to get published and maybe even find readers, without putting oneself at the mercy of some bean counter in an office in Berlin or London or NYC. I like to think the Internet is weakening the hold of these big conglomerates on our culture. Of course, Amazon and the big conglomerates are busy colluding to strengthen their control of the marketplace, and at the moment it seems as if they might be succeeding, but I have hope that the Internet is just anarchic enough that absolute control is impossible. Consider what’s going on in China today, for example. The Party bosses there are having fits trying to maintain their accustomed total control over public discourse, what with two or three hundred million young Chinese all connected and tweeting like hell.
Is the notion that authors are solitary a myth?

I’m not sure that authors were ever solitary. A writer has to have a tolerance or even a certain fondness for solitude, of course, since a writer has to spend a lot of time alone writing, or at least trying to write. But a writer also needs to be part of a community. A writer needs readers, readers who can read drafts and comment intelligently and maybe spare the author some embarrassment, and still more readers later, of course, if the book gets published, readers, that is, who’ll buy the thing.

We talk about the need for community in We Wanted to Be Writers at some length. As Sandra Cisneros put it: “As writers, we’re required to write alone. But I like to use the metaphor of writing being like cutting your own hair; there’s only so much you can do yourself, then you need someone to help you with the back. That’s what we do at the workshop; we cover each other’s back. So you don’t walk out with a bad haircut, so someone doesn’t say, Damn, where’d you get that bad haircut?”

So one value of a writers’ workshop is that it provides an instant community of like-minded souls engaged in the same tough enterprise. This can give heart to a writer struggling with self-doubt, and what writer isn’t? One of the problems a lot of us faced on leaving Iowa was suddenly we were no longer part of a community. This was a tough time for many of us. Back then, there was no social media. You might send a story or chunk of story to a friend for a sympathetic but, one likes to think, truthful read, but back then, that was by snail mail. Days or weeks might go by before you’d get a reply, during which you might well sink into another funk.

Throughout history, successful writers have been those who seem to find a way to be part of a community of like-minded souls—before email and the Internet, it was such things as the literary salons of Paris, the cafes and writers’ groups of New York City, or the writers’ workshops in the Midwest and then everywhere else.

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the niceness of critics. When a reviewer does write a negative review, it seems to create a huge backlash for them. Can you talk about the role of a reviewer.

I think a good critic educates. He or she points out fine distinctions. Subtleties in a work, the sort of stuff I’d probably never have noticed myself. Plus maybe some stuff about context, background, and about the author himself or herself. Stuff I would never have known otherwise and that might enhance my enjoyment of the book, if, based on the review, I decide I want to read it. And sometimes a good critic sends up a red flag of warning, whether meaning to or not, so I might decide to save my money and time. If Michiko Kakutani loves a novel, for instance, I generally steer clear of it. Not always, but usually.

I rather prefer nasty critics who educate, but there aren’t many of them these days, as your question suggests. A truly nasty review also entertains. I loved Dale Peck’s collection of often nasty reviews, Hatchet Jobs. He got a lot of grief for that collection, and in fact I hear he’s gone nice, which is rather sad, if true.

Which brings me back to Kakutani, and in particular her recent review (The New York Times, 10/4/12) of Mark Helprin’s latest, in which she calls the novel a “laughably awful book.” Now I’m thinking this might be a book I’ll want to read. I think a good reviewer ought to tell the truth. As he or she sees it, anyway. I think a lot of novels getting published and even praised are, to my way of thinking, laughably awful, so a reviewer who musters the gumption to point out a work’s flaws is really doing a service to literature. On the other hand, anyone reading a review needs to understand that the reviewer might be full of crap. But a review, good or bad, can be the starting point for a sort of dialogue between the reader and writer, which I think is good for both. What is a close reading but dialogue? So now I think I’m going to have to give Helprin’s novel a try, only because Kakutani hated it. Yeah? Sez you, Michiko.

Does a writer ever get over a bad review?

I think if the writer wants to keep writing, he or she must simply learn to say of the reviewer, “Screw the bastard,” and move on. There’s another question that follows: Should a writer respond to a bad review? I used to be of the opinion that a writer shouldn’t: Just ignore the schmuck and he’ll go away. But then when Rita Dove replied to Helen Vendler’s bad review of the anthology Rita had edited (The New York Review of Books, 12/22/11), I started rooting for Rita (an Iowa classmate, by the way, but I was a lowly fiction writer and poets didn’t consort with the likes of us). I think she did the right thing. Why shouldn’t a writer respond? I think the more conversations we have among writers, readers, and, yes, even reviewers, the better for us all. It gets us thinking in new ways about the whole lit-biz.

Eric Olsen earned a BA in Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction in 1977. With Glenn Schaeffer, he co-founded and then directed the International Institute of Modern Letters, a literary think tank that helped writers who were victims of censorship and persecution. Eric helped establish the first American City of Asylum, in Las Vegas, an Institute program. The Institute also ran programs to support emerging writers in this country and abroad. Before that, Eric was executive editor of custom publishing at Time Inc Health, a TimeWarner company. As a freelance journalist he has published hundreds of magazine articles, a few short stories, and six nonfiction books.

Check out the We Wanted to Be Writers website for all your literary needs.

Photo of Eric Olsen by Dennis Mathis

  1. Great interview Diane! Thank you.

  2. Eric Olsen makes so many good points I can’t comment on all of them. So just a couple of quick thoughts.

    First, I think genre fiction involving vampires, zombies, werewolves, etc. is a staple that never goes out of fashion…and sometimes enjoys a burst of popularity in the wake of a really successful book. One handy feature of creature-populated stories is that the writer can unleash all kinds of mayhem with a clear conscience. Nobody gets upset if you kill a zombie…cuz, you know, a zombie is already dead.

    Second, I think you see a lot of positive book reviews because a lot of reviewers are themselves authors and understand how devastating a negative review can be. Some books and certain authors deserve to be taken down–for any number of reasons. But absent that kind of justification I think when a critic dislikes a book it would be better to simply ignore it. Writers invest so much in a book over such a long time that it seems wrong to me that a single reviewer whose judgment maybe isn’t so good or who fails to understand the book or who is simply having a bad day can take a couple of hours and destroy something an earnest author worked on maybe for years. And one more thing with respect to the print world: With so many book sections dead or dying, why waste space telling readers what NOT to read? Better to write about the books that deserve an audience. Believe me, there are plenty of them.

    I always remember Hemingway’s admonition when he was asked by the Paris Review to name some overrated writers. “No serious writer is overrated,” Hemingway answered.

    • William, thanks for your observations, especially concerning mayhem with a clear conscience. This reminds me that Western lit begins with mayhem and monsters: Odysseus versus the Cyclops, and the English tradition with Beowulf versus Grendel (in truth, I rooted for Grendel). And you (and Hemingway) are quite right about bad reviews. Still, I do rather enjoy the occasional nasty one, speaking of mayhem with a (somewhat) clear conscience.

  3. All good interviewers, and Diane is one of the best, are able to coax/persuade/hoodwink even reluctant subjects into talking about themselves, not just their work, and offering seldom heard opinions about one of fiction’s memorable characters: Dracula is part of the one per centers. Who knew?
    In her review Diane made a point of noting a puzzle about writers, what they do and how they do it: A writer spends much/most of his/her time alone…But…A writer has to be part of a community. Are both statements true? One false and one not? Is a person who edits a work–as only a “friend” a community? Good reviewers like Diane always elicit as many questions as answers.
    One part of her review suggests that writers, even poets, should be cautious when offering their opinions about politics– which is a demanding and arcane skill, as difficult to learn as writing a well written book, or poem.
    From the writing of long deceased Will Rogers we can learn a still timely word of caution: “We are all ignorant. We are just ignorant about different things.” Another one of his one liners that seems a worrisome prediction: “America is the only nation in the history of the world that traveled to the poor house in an automobile.”
    Eric Olsen is a writer with many opinions about many subjects. When Diane interviewed him, their brief encounter produced both light and heat and a stimulating review.
    Jim Dunne

    • Jim, I agree. Diane asks terrific questions, the sort of questions that give a guy who loves to hold forth the opportunity to hold forth, and then some….

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