August 3, 1962 |
Akron, Ohio, United States
|Residence||Livingston, Montana, U.S.
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
|Alma mater||Princeton University, Oxford University|
|Occupation||Novelist, literary critic, essayist|
|Notable work||Up in the Air|
|Spouse(s)||Penelope Locke (divorced)
Maggie McGuane (divorced)
People can be so neglectful of each other and of their own heritage – then death intrudes. Conversations we wish that we'd had earlier are had too late.
It's been a concern of mine for years that the mainstream media coverage of culture and politics takes place in two nodes, Washington and New York, and yet all the voting goes on somewhere else.
The reason that last-ditch political maneuvering has become business as usual in Washington is that the actors involved are drunk on blame and are convinced that the voting public is, too. They count on outrage, thereby spreading numbness. They cherish the prospect of partisan fury, thereby inspiring nonpartisan disgust.
Good short-story collections, like good record albums, are almost always hit-and-miss affairs – successful if they include three or four great tracks, wildly successful if they have five. And that's as it should be.
The strange anthropological lesson of social media is that human beings, if given a choice, often prefer to socialize alone.
The future of time, of how it's won or lost, endured or enjoyed, expanded or compressed, will depend on how it's valued, not how it's measured.
No matter how you cut them, paste them, rotate them, or distort them, lip syncing and air-guitar playing are fundamentally foolish activities, and anyone seen to be engaging in them with anything approaching a straight face is, by definition, taking herself or himself much too seriously.
We're on Twitter with one side of our personality, and Facebook with another, and LinkedIn with another side of our personality, and we're toggling between them. That's just a version of what an impostor does: shifting from one side of their personality to another with lightning speed.
In fourth grade, I learned that reading was serious business, not just a pleasant way to pass the time, and that like medicine or engineering, it had a definite, valuable purpose: to foster 'comprehension.'
I'm a novelist, a critic, an essayist – I tend to see politics as a subset of cultures rather than the other way around. It's a human enterprise, a tool or a technology revealing our collective inner self.
You're able to do things in novels: introduce subplots, other characters, thematic layers and so on, in a way that you simply can't in a movie. A movie really has to choose its battles.
Guns can turn you into an insider even if you're an outsider by nature, recruiting you into a loose fraternity of people who feel embattled and defensive and are primally eager to win allies.
There are two sides to me. One is the writer. That's a savage person who looks at everything as a story and, you know, wants to use real life in his books. The other part is the Midwesterner, who, you know, wants to say nice things about people and be polite.
Remember daydreams? No, of course you don't. How could you? Three new text messages have just arrived, and another three, in a moment, will go out.
In America, to be ID'd – sorted, tagged, and permanently filed – is to lose a bit of one's soul. To die a little. This sounds like a subtle, poetic notion. It's not. In American legal and cultural tradition, one essential privilege of citizenship is not having to prove it on demand.
Every generation looks at literature through the lens of their own experience, but with the Bible, everyone gets apprehensive and thinks it'll be too stuffy.
I'd assumed that a deal was a deal when Princeton admitted me, but I was wrong. The price of getting in – to the university itself, and to the great world it promised to open up – was an endless dunning for nebulous services that weren't included in the initial quote.
You have plausible deniability, as they say in politics, as an author with movies. Because if the movie is terrible, you simply say they failed to catch the genius of the book.
I review books as a day job, and through the years I've come to view the contemporary memoir as, almost always, a saga of victimization, sometimes by others, sometimes by the self, and sometimes by illness or misfortune, leading, like clockwork, to healing and redemption.
If the future, as imagined in literature, is really the present taken to extremes, then the past is also the present, but boiled down.
Stopping to think is fine for characters, but not for their creators. They have to work.
I've been around – having gone to Princeton, and I went to Oxford after that – some pretty fancy characters in my life. And they're just as nutty as the rest of us – sometimes worse.
Uncertainty doesn't make life worth living, quite, but it does make striving and gambling worth attempting.
The room-service Caesar salads with soggy croutons, the distant relatives who show up at readings pitching weird, far-fetched investment schemes, the fans who have you sign a book to 'Cathy' and then tell you, 'No, it's Kathy with a K' – it gets challenging after a while. It tests your stamina.
However old-fashioned and right-wing this may sound, the American genius for language lies in understatement, in saying things simply, pointedly and quickly, and in making new and clean and swift what otherwise might be ponderous, round and slow.
I've come to learn that the determined and gifted and genuine sociopath has far more power to deceive than we realize.
I'm a magpie in my fiction, taking whatever looks shiny and curious to line the nest of my story.
To young people born under the weird planet of the SAT, intelligence was equated with agility, with raw acuity. It produced a certain sort of person of which I was a typical specimen: the mental contortionist, able to rise to almost every challenge placed before him, except the challenge of real self-knowledge.
When I was writing about the Republican primaries, it was as though the Bible was a black box that people reached into to pull out edicts and prejudices and rules and opinions, and I wish they had fact-checked it! Especially Rick Santorum.
What is it in people, or just in people like me, that would rather let a lie go by, would rather wish it away or minimize it, than point it out and cause the liar embarrassment?
In a world that's smarter than it used to be and, in some ways, smarter than it ought to be, stupidity has a way of making us seem all the more human.
One of the saddest things about publishing is how quickly it ages what it touches. The frenzy involved in getting books on shelves, and in putting the word out that they're there, moves at a speed that is not the speed of writing, let alone of reading.
My primary ambition is to be a fiction writer… Being a critic wasn't an aspiration of mine.
A true nature is a gloomy monolith, sort of like that old black rotary phone that I had to sing 'Happy Birthday' to Grandpa on. But novelists, damn us, still need true natures – so we can give them to our protagonists. And so readers can vaguely predict how they'll behave when we trap them in 'situations' that they can't IM their way out of.
Since the founding of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other mainstays of what technology writers have come to call 'the social Web' or 'Web 2.0,' a sizable portion of humanity has learned to be together while apart, sacrificing intimacy for control and spontaneity for predictability.
I had the impression from reading English literature that British women were great beauties, and I only had seen Julie Christie, and she was gorgeous and sexy. I don't know whether it was just my taste, but when I got to London, I went two years without seeing a truly attractive woman. A lot of near misses.
I think of myself as writing realist American fiction. 'Cynical but hopeful' wouldn't be the worst thing I've ever been called.
I say 'here's the thing' a lot, both to alert people that I'm about to say something important and to give myself a moment to figure out what that important thing might be, because my head is so often completely empty.
Writing about the future and the past is less a way of dramatizing change than of showing, by way of contrast, what abides.
I grew up in a little town in Minnesota, 500 people. I went out to Princeton, and I wasn't very well-accepted out there by the fancy folks of Princeton University, I felt. I came away bruised and feeling rejected.
Horror and panic themselves are forms of violence, and diminishing them, restricting their dimensions, is itself a civilizing act.
The Bible has been through millions of rounds of exegesis and interpretation, but it hasn't been until quite recently that it's been taken as the absolute truth, to the point where people expect it to inform ideas about biology and life on this planet.
The fictionally correct have all the answers, and that's what's wrong with them. They're artistic technocrats. There's no dilemma so knotty, no question so baffling, that it can't be smoothly neutralized by dialing up the right attitude adjustment. Poor old Hemingway. If only he'd known.
When we have a favorite writer, it's always the places where they grew up, lived, worked, and that they recreated on the page that we most want to visit and commune with. Faulkner's Mississippi, Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles, etc. The mind of the reader longs to be somewhere, not just anywhere, and certainly not nowhere.
God is a freaking character, with enough foibles, tantrums, and paradoxical behaviors to supply a thousand screenplays. But who do you cast?
I have very specific advice for aspiring writers: go to New York. And if you can't go to New York, go to the place that represents New York to you, where the standards for writing are high, there are other people who share your dreams, and where you can talk, talk, talk about your interests.
A president, like a college freshman, can't know in advance which questions he'll have to answer or what topics he'll have to master. He has to be flexible, supple, and responsive. He has to be comfortable with multiple-choice.
We want to believe that we're invulnerable, and that people who get tricked deserve it. Well, they don't. And someday the arrogant types who mock the gullible are likely to get their turn to wear the dunce cap.
The reason con artists get away with what they get away with is, their victims are ashamed of their own blindness and their own gullibility, and they tend to just quietly go away.
E-mails, phone calls, Web sites, videos. They're still all letters, basically, and they've come to outnumber old-fashioned conversations. They are the conversation now.
Nothing is less suspenseful than a threat that threatens the maker of the threat at least as much as the subject of the threat. Congress hasn't learned this yet, but America has learned it over and over.
I love reference books, especially collections of memorable quotations, world almanacs, and atlases. Facts to me are like candy or popcorn, small, tasty delights, and I like to gorge on them now and then.
My mother used to push 'Wuthering Heights' on me as a boy, and I sensed from her breathy description of the story that it would make me laugh. I have no plans to find out if this is true.
Literary dementia seems dated now, but there was a time when a month in the funny farm was as de rigueur for budding writers as an M.F.A. is now. To be sent away was a badge of honor; to undergo electroshock, a glorious martyrdom.
At college, I wanted to be a poet. I liked the extremely concentrated language, the atmosphere of otherworldliness.
A loving mother-son relationship is always a plot or outwitting of some kind. 'Don't tell anyone, but…' my mother was always saying to me – when I wasn't saying it to her.
Statistics on the dangers guns pose to the health of their owners and those who live with them suggest that I'd be safer selling my guns than reserving them for 'Tombstone II.'
The least sexy city is Los Angeles. And it poses as the most sexy. As you grow up, L.A. is being sold to you as home of the bikini-clad party girls. And then you get there, and it's full of very goal-oriented, yoga-obsessed careerists.
A writer is someone who tells you one thing so someday he can tell his readers another thing: what he was thinking but declined to say, or what he would have thought had he been wiser. A writer turns his life into material, and if you're in his life, he uses yours, too.
When I shoot at the range, I don't feel personally powerful but like the custodian of something powerful. I feel like a successful disciplinarian of something radically alien and potent. Analyze this sensation all you want; you still can't make it go away.
There are two different forms of storytelling: Novels tend to come from the inside of a character, and movies tend to look at them from the outside in relation to others in their world.
Here's how adaptation works – almost everything in the movie is in the book in some form. But it's as though the deck has been completely reshuffled and some of the cards have been assigned different values, some of the fours have been made into jacks, and some of the jacks have been made into twos.
Truth is stranger than nonfiction. And life is too interesting to be left to journalists. People have stories, but journalists have 'takes,' and it's their takes that usually win out when the stories are too complicated or, as happens, not complicated enough.
In the age of networked everything, life moves sideways and covers lots of ground while barely touching the earth.
Realize that the game of life is the game of, to some extent, being taken advantage of by people who make a science of it. Whether they are in government or personal life or in business, they're everywhere.
The success that Americans are said to worship is success of a specific sort: accomplished not through hard work, primarily, but through the ingenious angle, the big break. Sit down at a lunch counter, stand back up a star. Invest in a new issue and watch it soar. Split a single atom, win a war.
Once you realize just the sort of glut of books that exists out there, it does become incumbent on you not to add to it unless you have a damn good reason.
I like to think that I could praise the good book of someone I personally dislike. I try not to comment on the person, to be insulting, but I have no trouble being insulting to the work.
Size matters in fiction, but so does lack of size. Everything else being equal, fat novels tend to be perceived as serious, very thin ones as more honest, more real. Writers address these age-old expectations by filling their big books with philosophy and cramming their little ones with feeling.
If writers, like comedians or singers, could only hear themselves bombing as they worked, it's likely that certain books would be cut short after the first few leaden sentences.
The idea that Americans favor politicians who either remind them of themselves or can imagine what their selves are like because they too have struggled and sung the blues, is, like very best theories of human behavior, immune to falsification by mere evidence.
I think people get a sense of possibility when they're on a plane, even romantic possibility, wondering if the perfect person is going to sit down next to them or something.
I studied English at Princeton in the early eighties in what I consider a period of high obscurity. Professors and students ran around discussing the work of critics and philosophers that I doubt they'd read or understood.
According to the perverse aesthetics of artistic guilty pleasure, certain books and movies are so bad – so crudely conceived, despicably motivated and atrociously executed – that they're actually rather good.
Novelists who pretend to understand what keeps them scribbling are really just guessing. A profound, unmet childish need to be acknowledged? Maybe. It hardly matters, though. The termite that asks itself why it keeps chewing risks becoming sluggish and inefficient, as does the writer who grows self-conscious in the middle of chapter five.
Yes, in the commercial world there's room for both McDonald's and Whole Foods, but in the realm of politics, we're told, it's either Filet-o-Fish or line-caught salmon: only one can prevail – and which is up to you.
I've noticed that the few times I've traveled first class myself, you've already got your drink, and your coat has been taken by the time the rest of the passengers file on, and it's hard not to feel sorry for them. They're sort of trooping past you like cows to slaughter and you're sitting there in your, you know, wide-body seat.
Cross the wrong state border with your gun, or wake up one morning to new legislation or a new presidential executive order, and suddenly you're the bad guy, not the good guy. No wonder some gun owners seem so touchy; they feel, at some level, like criminals in waiting.
On the Web, we can be whoever we wish to be, editing the face we show to others in ways that aren't possible in physical space. We can also fine-tune the complexity and depth of our interactions and relationships.
I remember the first time I went to Italy when I was eighteen, I was in Florence and there were all these eighteen, nineteen, twenty-year-olds gliding past on Vespas with crinkly, long, hair, and I thought I was on the set of a movie. I couldn't believe that this was going on and I hadn't known about it before. I was flabbergasted.
Size has nothing to do with literature. All legs are long enough to touch the ground, and all books are big enough to fill their covers.
It's no accident that most self-help groups use 'anonymous' in their names; to Americans, the first step toward redemption is a ritual wiping out of the self, followed by the construction of a new one.
Ask Jeeves! Who ever used that thing? College freshmen to find out who Goethe was – that's it.
Short stories are fiction's R & D department, and failed or less-than-conclusive experiments are not just to be expected but to be hoped for.
A sociopath doesn't warm up their environment, doesn't make it cozy. They don't have to; when they're not performing, when they're not manipulating, when they're all alone, there's nothing.
Let the novelists fret about consistency – story writers should feel free to jam; to get things right in new, surprising ways by allowing themselves, now and then, to get things wrong.
Thanks to Twitter, iPads, BlackBerrys, voice-activated in-dash navigation systems, and a hundred other technologies that offer distraction anywhere, anytime, boredom has loosened its grip on us at last – that once-crushing 'weight' has become, for the most part, a memory.
Everyone his own cinematographer. His own stream-of-consciousness e-mail poet. His own nightclub DJ. His own political columnist. His own biographer of his top-10 friends!
I read somewhere once that in the 1960s, fiction writers were troubled by the notion that life was becoming stranger and more sensational than made-up stories could ever hope to be. Our new problem – more profound, I think – is that life no longer resembles a story. Events intersect but don't progress. People interact but don't make contact.