A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: Too Fond, Perhaps does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out JC's most recent book, B & Me.
Release no. V:
Too Fond, Perhaps by JC Hallman
I met JC at a strip club in the middle of Times Square. He recommended we meet at 3 pm, when the establishment opens, before any of the customers come in. At his request, we sat at the bar, eating grilled chicken sandwiches he had ordered while I was late. They were served on Kaiser rolls. The choice of venue proved worthy of the tone and tenor of the book, and the conversation. Though our interview soon turned combative, I am very grateful for JC’s time, and his thoughts.
JC. Thank you for your time and, of course, your words. To my mind, all new nonfiction books can be divided into two camps. Though the actual parsing might be up for debate, it is clear which one serves the public consciousness, and which one encumbers it. The first: books that surf trends, that ride momentum and contribute to it. The second: books that take momentarily unpopular stances, that shout against the zeitgeist’s current. In Too Fond, Perhaps you have, undoubtedly, produced the latter.
To quote something I may have heard once, “You can only win tomorrow’s critics if you divide today’s”. Judging by the wildly mixed reviews Too Fond, Perhaps has garnered, you’ve got a great shot at tomorrow’s critics. Cleo Funderbunk at The New York Review of Books said, “By making the case of obsession, no easy case to make, Hallman has given us a catalyst for new thought.” Tobie Sparrow over at Salon was less enthused: “A thunderous cloud of nothing. All boom, all bust. A lot of sound and flash but not a single drop of rain.”
I have to know: did you anticipate this sort of conflicting response?
Yes, of course. If I might quote something myself, or come close to quoting something, then it would be Wilde, I think, who said something like, “When critics are in conflict with one another, the artist is in harmony with himself.” But you can hardly blame these reviewers, can you? Everyone knows – or they will now – that Mr. Funderbunk has been in and out of institutions for years, and that the New York Review of Books throws him the occasional bone only because his ex-wife (they have three children) used to be the editor there. And Mr. Sparrow, bless his soul, can turn a phrase (at least to the extent of echoing Shakespeare), but he spends most of his days creating those horrid list articles, like his last: “Eight Reasons I Haven’t Managed to Write a Book of My Own.” Pity his twenty-two year-old heart.
As well, what else were they going to do? I mean, I conducted probing, penetrating interviews with more than a dozen call girls for Too Fond, Perhaps, eating up most of my advance, and, I admit, at first glance, it’s not clear what this has to do with the true subject of the book. I am confident that eagle-eyed critics of the future will spot the subtle connections that I took great pains to include, but which have thus far eluded print reviewers.
Well of course any true artist doesn't know what they'll find when they begin exploring. To, again, quote a sort of hand-wavy epigram of literary generations past: I believe it was Willa Cather who said "Search for a pot of gold, shame on you. Mosey about and happen upon a pot of gold, lucky winnings bless us all."
Let's dive into those 'penetrating' interviews (your word, not mine). You look at those dozen call girls, and you first notice how diverse the group is: in age, race, height, specialty, socioeconomic status, music preferences, literary preferences, etc. I've got an itch that this was planned, in order to lay claim to a true judgment of call girls, and not just twelve individuals? True? False?
Well, originally it was a project designed around twelves: months, disciples, the zodiac, etc. But when I got to twelve I found I wanted to keep going, and the advance was generous and I could augment it with some fellowship money, which I’d won for a project I decided not to do, in the end. And yes, by all means – diversity! My project, I told myself, would be nothing if it did not probe into as many Others as humanly possible. Otherwise (pun intended), it would be just another straight, white man unknowingly indulging his prejudices. Some writers can live with that. Not me.
Well I'm glad you brought up the idea of the straight, white man writing about Others. On one hand, it's anthropological. On the other smaller, less appealing and disfigured hand, it's superiority, or a flavor of it. The difference, I think, is empathy. You make a point of showing empathy, so much so an allusion of it has made its way to the title of the book. You're like the modern day Studs Terkel if Studs Terkel was literally in love with all of this interviewees. Can you talk about breaking through the writer/subject wall? What did that feel like? Can you give us some examples of how it didn't turn out as planned?
Well, I can tell you – it feels good. I mean, ask William Vollmann, he did all this before me, and I really wouldn’t have known how to proceed without his brave, trailblazing example. This book is all about process, bringing a literary spirit to bear on established ethnographic techniques, but willfully ignoring the ethical constraints that neuter ethnography such that it has no real impact on, well, anything. Sure, of course, a writer can conflate empathy with his subjects with a deep, abiding love of his process, and in Too Fond, Perhaps that “perhaps” went “too” far when I set out to invert the formula and allow myself to be penetratingly examined. As you know, I chronicle the experience, but if you don’t mind I’d prefer to leave the details in the book. I would hate to upend the innocent reader’s experience.
That's fair JC—of course we'll leave the more arousing details left unsaid (we have to make sure people buy the damn thing!). I love you bringing up the neutering of ethnography and, implicitly, your attempt to de-neuter it, or, um, reattach, or...
Anyway, it's impossible to pretend any ethnography is truly objective—language itself is the most biased artistic medium there is! Despite the empathy you imbue on your subjects, you take great pains to invoke as many objective measurements as possible, literally. We get an almost anatomical description of each interviewee (including yourself). What was this driving towards?
Well, I must have been thinking of Thoreau, mustn’t I? That careful documentation of building his shack in the woods. Empathy as inventory, loving the whole by carefully attending to all the parts in turn, etc. It’s part of the cultural imprint, isn’t it? I suppose I was trying to suggest that it would be wise to avoid artificially separating an obsessive, practically pathological preoccupation with measurements (think of the Victorians, all that phrenology) from holistic love. Dramatized metonymy. Incidentally, this is what those early reviewers missed – they kept looking for the forest, but the whole point was the trees, as it were.
Truly. What in obsessive detail isn't really about love, and what in love isn't just about obsessive detail? This book can be found in the nonfiction section (as can most of your others). Recently, we've seen a wave of metafiction in the fiction section (thinking of Ben Lerner and Rachel Cusk, but there's a bucket of others). Genre isn't going anywhere anytime soon, but you’re making a case against it here.
This could all be a justification for you taking liberties with the facts—that I know. I've done some research myself into your subjects. The second interview with 'Lucy Sparx', for example, a call girl based out of Toronto suburbs. You note she was a strawberry blonde with a wide smile. It turns out she was a brunette with a notably small mouth. How does this obstruction of the truth fold into your thesis?
I take umbrage, sir, at the suggestion that my work has taken “liberties” with facts! Never! The charming Ms. Sparx, at least during our exchange, was strawberry blonde, though I will allow that the light was low, and colors change, and so forth. As to her wide smile, I would politely suggest that, Julia Roberts’ daunting maw aside, most mouths are roughly the same size, and when we say that someone has a “wide” smile, what we really mean is wide for them – that, in short, they are happy, which Ms. Sparx most certainly was during each of our multiple interview sessions. Perhaps you left her with more of a frown?
I've never heard such hogwash! All mouths are the same size? Perhaps we should sit Mick Jagger next to Anna Kendrick and see if your theory holds water. I didn't mean for this to be a full-on investigation, but I was too curious: when I talked to interviewee #7, they said they played softball at Kent State, whereas you reported they played basketball at Berkeley (for one year, nonetheless). Show yourself JC—what is the meaning of this!?
Okay – fine. The very talented and flexible young lady Valera Vix, whom you rudely refer to as “interviewee #7,” was, in fact, a Kent State softball pitcher who ended her career as the school strikeout leader, though of course her abilities left her with few practical skills and no definite career path, and this, in turn, became the subtext of many of my transactions with the formidable Ms. Vix. I described her as a Berkeley basketballer because I wanted to toy with the phrase “power forward,” and the nature of our activities let me make creative use of the phrases “buzzer beater” and “flagrant foul,” among others, and I hardly think truth was done an injustice by these minor substitutions. And I would suggest again that focusing our interview on these “minor quibbles” is a way for you to deflect from the fact – I wasn’t going to say this publicly – that both Ms. Sparx and Ms. Vix have since emailed me detailed reports of their activities with you, and, sorry to say, no creative adjustments to these accounts could possibly throw them into a flattering light. As it happens, the same is true of Mr. Funderbunk and Mr. Sparrow, and it is only my integrity as an author – I’m above slinging mud at my critics – that prevents me from publishing these pathetic and rather distressing narratives in full.
Well! I am so sorry to say that this interview is as good as over. To sacrifice truth-telling for puns is bad enough, but to embarrass me in a public forum is overstepping your artistic privilege. You are an expert at crossing lines JC, and it appears your talents have overgrown their use. I'll now ask for parting words.
Fair enough – and thank you for the forum to set a crooked record straight. In conclusion, let me offer praise for the book’s jacket designer, who I think elegantly managed to approximate the entirety of what I attempted to achieve in a single image. I can only imagine the harrowing pause must have preceded that ultimately triumphant process. Of course, one shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but in this case I think it’s safe to say that the cover of Too Fond, Perhaps says it all.
That we can agree on. Thanks for your words JC.
Cover by Jamie Keenan. Jamie is based in London and works for a mixture of UK and US publishers.
Are you a graphic designer who wants to contribute a cover to A Bit Contrived? Get in touch: editor [at] 0s-1s [dot] com.