BAM: This book is not your average work of literary criticism. What inspired it?
AW: The premise was that the great issues of medicine—all kinds of somatic experiences that people have, including depression, anxiety, fear of dying—are richly treated in the arts, while science, which is where the culture goes to learn about these matters, has little to say about how people experience them. Medicine wants to know about the nature of your disease, not the nature of your experience.
BAM: Whom do you imagine reading this book?
AW: People who’ve never heard of the Modern Language Association.… I suppose it’s an extrapolation of Brown students. Just thoughtful young people or thoughtful older people, the huge number of people in their sixties or seventies who’ve retired and now are returning to books they read too early. I had all those audiences—none of them a professional audience—in mind. I took what came from my courses and thought more about what the ramifications might be in somebody’s life, including my own. It’s not that the book is confessional, but it’s self-reflective. The book is an apology for art. It says that art is based on feeling, that art helps us discover who we are and that it is a form of community. It’s a kind of talk academicians don’t like.
BAM: Now that you mention it, why do we so seldom hear about these topics in an academic setting—in a literature class, say?
AW: This is where I’ll put my foot in my mouth. Literature departments have created these ever more complex critical scaffoldings and structures that lean farther and farther away from the material they’re supposed to be about. The creative work itself is full of feelings, it expresses feelings, it’s about compulsions, it’s about love, it’s about sex and fear. I think we corral these feelings and rope them off and domesticate them by putting them in the frames and paradigms that the academy has constructed.
BAM: How has your book been received?
AW: Mixed. I’ve gotten lots of great reactions from people, and the book’s been reviewed in most of the major papers. For the most part the reviews are good, some are mixed. But I got slammed in the New York Times Book Review by Laura Miller, who writes the Last Word column. She put my book along with some others into the box of “apologies for the canon,” basically making the argument that books like this are sort of self-help books celebrating the great authors as an improvement scheme—which is not what my book is about.
BAM: I gather an editor at Random House asked you to write this after hearing your lectures on tape. You have more than 200 lectures on video and audiotape. What makes a great lecture?
AW: Lecturing is almost a prehistoric form. It’s dying around me. Even in educational circles, lectures have a bad reputation: they’re not democratic, they put people to sleep, etc. So good lectures are obviously lectures that don’t put people to sleep. Good lectures have to have some drama in them, they’ve got to have a certain air of the performative, some acting in them. I like to lecture because it gives me the chance to play out other sides of my personality. I think lectures give an opportunity for a remarkable kind of economy and artistry. There’s a possibility for artful arrangement that allows you to maximize what you want to say about what things mean. I think I have a conversational tone in my lectures. People say it feels like I’m talking to them, not talking at them.
BAM: Do you have a next project on tap?
AW: I’m under contract with Random House to do another book, which for now is called Recovering Your Story. It’ll be about five major writers—Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner, and Toni Morrison—who tend to be admired from afar but not read. Basically it’s about recovering your story: how this hermetic art form, modernism, is really about our own consciousness.
–interview by Lori Baker ’86 A.M.