I cannot claim either to have formulated the questions below, or to have asked them of the seminal postmodernist writer Robert Coover. I never sat down with Coover face-to-face; he was unavailable following a busy tour in support of his recent novel, John’s Wife. Fortunately for my inquiry, an alternative mode of encounter suggested itself, an alternative which cut through the contingency of any particular interview, in a form perhaps better suited to the age of the hive-minded, Internetted collective consciousness, of appropriation as oeuvre, of cut-and-paste postmodernity which Coover’s work illuminates.
In the encounter which follows, the questioner is neither a contentious graduate student, pedantic academic, ambitious literary critic, ignorant journalist, nor ardent esthete; s/he is all of these. And the Robert Coover below is not one Coover but many: the emergent young author, heralded by the William Faulkner Award for best first novel, establishing his presence with The Origins of the Brunists ; the pioneering metafictionist staking out fertile, untrammeled terrain in Pricksongs and Descants, The Universal Baseball Association, A Theological Position, and The Water Pourer ; the social conscience brought to bear on political life in his National Book Award nominated The Public Burning; and the mature master of form, progressively enlarging his (and our) imaginative universes in Spanking the Maid, Gerald’s Party, A Night at the Movies, Pinocchio in Venice, John’s Wife, and most recently, Briar Rose.
The parenthetical reference numbers refer to interviews cited in endnotes; the passages cited begin from preceding reference numbers.This encounter transpired in London (2); in a classroom in Superior, Wisconsin (9); in Northern Iowa (6); in Whitehorses, Deal, Kent, Great Britain (1); on a dais with Donald Barthelme, Stanley Elkin, William Gaddis, William Gass, and John Hawkes (4)—Coover’s peers; through the mails (3, 5); and in Horace Mann Hall at Brown University (7). At the time of the encounter, Robert Coover was found to be a “slightly built man with thick brown hair and a quick, boyish smile that makes him look fifteen years younger than his forty-eight years,” (7) as well as his thirty-six (9), forty (10), forty-one (5), forty-seven (2), fifty (1), fifty-three (8), fifty-six (4), fifty-seven (3), and sixty (6) years.
On Expatriation and the Writing Business:
MCCAFFERY: You’ve done most of your writing during the past ten or fifteen years while living in England and Spain. Are there any advantages to being an expatriate writer?
COOVER: Detachment mainly. A writer needs isolation, a cell of his own, that’s obvious, but distance can also help. It has a way of freeing the imagination, stirring memory. Fewer localisms creep in, less passing trivia, transient concerns. Personally, I don’t seem to be able to cut myself off very well here in the States. I get too engaged in things around me and end up having less time to write, less energy for it. It can work both ways of course. If you’re not careful you can stay away too long and lose touch. No easy answer. (7)
I realized long ago that the process of asserting and creating your life is made much more difficult where the familiar vibrations are strong. I’ve felt a need to get away not just from my family and Iowa but from the country itself. Almost everything I’ve written has been done out of the country—and after midnight. I’ve been at Princeton this year and the writing has been going well, but this is because Princeton is virtually a foreign country. (5)
A writer may or may not be discouraged by isolation and alienation. If he goes on, he may even benefit from it. Highly communalized groups of intellectuals like you have in Europe probably put more pressure on their members to conform to certain standards, discouraging too much eccentricity or adventurism. The standards are probably higher, though, letting less shit through. It’s like going to a very good school: you must learn what’s being taught at that school rather than striking out on your own. You gain discipline, knowledge, historical perspective, and so on, but you may lose a little confidence in your own imaginative potential. (7)
BASS: Coover has managed to keep himself expatriated and pretty much out of the academic writing business. I ask him for his secret.
COOVER: It’s a trap. It’s too easy. You always somehow, whether you think so or not, are writing for that audience. The rewards come too easily, even for relatively mediocre work.
I’ve avoided having to teach by being careful. Never spending as much as was coming in, always putting something aside, taking two jobs at once, like the positions at Princeton and Columbia, where neither knew about the other, and by doing a lot of other odd work, such as a year with Playboy in Chicago and three months at the headquarters of Rotary International. (1)
On Conventional Fiction:
COOVER: … If the sixties’ [literary] revolution made all forms viable, then the realistic and naturalistic conventions also remain viable, but most writing in these forms I find imitative and tediously predictable—fiction reduced to stylistic display or therapy. Publishers have increasingly turned toward it because it is easier and sells better, but that has meant a serious diminishment to the wealth of our national literature. (6)
The kind of hype that’s gone with creating the notion of “the writer” has contributed heavily to the idea that young people want to join this magical business. Writing also gives you a sense that you are in control. Writing is seen to be a kind of therapy, which is an attitude I tend to run into in workshop stories. Basically that’s what minimalism is, frankly—a kind of therapy. There are things you have to work your way through. There are issues that have to be confronted, personal issues that affect you, how to come out of the closet, how to get rid of your first wife and find a second, that sort of thing. So you work that out in fictional forms, and you do feel that Freudian answer, that kind of power over what would otherwise be your impotent life. So there is a drawing away from this vast collective—all of us watching the same TV screens, and so on—in order to be this individual who has his own imagination and can live his own life in the world and then have all of the magic that apparently follows when you become this so-called famous writer. (4)
On Dogma and Iconoclasm:
IFTEKHARUDDIN: Are you an iconoclast? Since you continuously deconstruct familiar myths, fairy tales, biblical stories, and political systems.
COOVER: I have an iconoclastic streak, I know that. I have always had the feeling that we are born into a world dreamt up by other people, that we find ourselves living in other people’s dreams, and only by challenging those dreams do we have a chance to wake up for a moment. I have spoken often about this confrontation with the stories that govern our lives. I am not out to wreck everything. If a story still has validity and vitality, fine. But many of the most powerful stories, or the stories that keep some people in power at the expense of others, are dead if not dangerous, and need to be deflated, revised, destroyed. What’s more, it’s fun. (6)
The fiction-making process is itself in part a groping for some communicable truth, a group truth, as it were. The tools are poor and the truth itself may be metamorphosing on us all the time, such that the process is endless and riven with inevitable dispute, but it’s not simply relativistic. We’re all, as the saying goes, a product of our time and place. We might want to escape this, and indeed a lot of what art does is to show this dark desire to break away from the oppression of community, to rebel against it, but even rebellion is a kind of adherence. (2)
MCCAFFERY: But you wouldn’t insist that good fiction must be moral … that is, by creating heroic models, proposing solutions to issues rather than simply raising them, or whatever?
COOVER: I would not, myself, say that fiction must anything. Ever. (7)
BIGSBY: You’re producing new myths …
COOVER: Yes, but fiction, myth, these are necessary things. I’m not against them. I doubt we could function at all without fictionalizing in some way, without making up something about the world, falsifying it with a name, or names, that allow us to operate in it. But the world changes, or our perceptions of it or our needs in it change, and new fictions come from it. Fiction then, self-conscious fiction, has, as I see it, a double purpose. On the one hand it draws into itself what seem to be the truths of the world at any given moment, and on the other it struggles against the falsehoods, dogmas, confusions, all the old debris of the dead fictions—and this struggle itself is self-revealing in ways that remain important across the ages.
BIGSBY: Is that what The Universal Baseball Association is doing? Setting up an old myth and destroying it?
COOVER: Perhaps. But I confess it’s hard to talk about it like this. These thoughts are far from my mind when I’m actually writing. It’s more innocent than that. I find something that interests me and I set off to explore it. I expect to make some discoveries and get some pleasure out of that. (2)
In writing you have to sense how the characters would act; it’s not a systematic or reasoned working out of a scheme. (1)
BIGSBY: You said, talking about story, that you wanted to restore the love of story; in other words, narrative mattered. And yet at the same time, of course, another of your techniques in that book is to disrupt narrative, constantly disrupt narrative …
COOVER: Yes, but this is to give a new life to narrative. What’s so dull about most conventional fiction is that the narrative is essentially dead matter, and what you get interested in is the style, the craft, the development of character, some of the delicate or sensational imagery, a brilliant smile or two … What I wanted to do was call attention again to narrative itself, the movement of story. (2)
Every effort to form a view of the world, every effort to speak of the world, involves a kind of fiction-making process. Memory is a kind of narrative, as is our perception of what the future is apt to bring us, our understanding of anything going on out in the world—even our scientific understanding of the world has to be reduced to a narrative of sorts in order to grasp it. What’s a formula but a kind of sentence, a story among other possible stories? Men live by fictions. They have to. Life’s too complicated, we just can’t handle all the input, we have to isolate little bits and make reasonable stories out of them. Of course, that’s an artificial act and therefore, you might say, “artistic.” But I would say the impulse was from necessity, and only some of the resulting stories are “artistic.” All of them, though, are merely artifices—that is, they are always in some ways false, or at best incomplete. There are always other plots, other settings, other interpretations. So if some stories start throwing their weight around, I like to undermine their authority a bit, work variations, call attention to their fictional natures.
MCCAFFERY: Is this your explanation as to why we have had this outburst of self-reflective fictions during the sixties and seventies?
COOVER: Yes. If story-telling is central to the human experience, stories about story-telling, or stories which talk about themselves as stories, become central too. For awhile anyway. I think, as a fashion, it’s passing, though more self-reflective fictions will be written.
The central thing for me is story. I like poems, paintings, music, even buildings, that tell stories. I believe, to be good, you have to master the materials of the form you’re working in, whether it’s language, form and color, meter, stone, cameras, lights, or inks, but all that’s secondary to me. Necessary but secondary. I know there’s a way of looking at fiction as being made up of words and that therefore what you do with words becomes the central concern, but I’m much more interested in the way that fiction, for all its weaknesses, reflects something else—gesture, connections, paradox, story. I work with language because paper is cheaper than film stock. And because it’s easier to work with a committee of one. But storytelling doesn’t have to be done with words on a printed page, or even with spoken words: we all learned that as kids at our Saturday morning religious experience in the local ten-cent cinemas. Probably, if I had absolute freedom to do what I want, I’d prefer film. (7)
MCCAFFERY: Obviously your fiction has been influenced by television, cinema and theater. Were you consciously aiming at integrating elements from these other media?
COOVER: I think in part it was unconscious. Stories tend to appear to me, not as formal ideas, but as metaphors, and these metaphors seem to demand structures of their own: they seem to have an internal need for a certain form. Nevertheless we’ve all been affected by film technology, the information bombardment of television, and so on, and certainly I’ve had a conscious desire to explore the ways all this makes our minds work.
MCCAFFERY: Can you say something more about these metaphors that your fiction grows out of?
COOVER: They’re the germ, the thought, the image, the idea, out of which all the rest grows. They’re always a bit elusive, involving thoughts, feelings, abstractions, visual material, all at once. I suppose they’re a little like dream fragments, in that such fragments always contain, if you analyze them, so much more than at first you suspect. But they’re not literally that—I never write from dreams. All these ideas come to me in the full light of day. Some, when you pry them open, have too little inside to work with. Others are unexpectedly fat and rich. Novels typically begin for me as very tiny stories or little one-act play ideas which I think at the time aren’t going to fill three pages. Then slowly the hidden complexities reveal themselves. (7)
I’ve found that about everything I’ve written has had this quality—an early conception, the gathering of a few notes, a few images, around a central metaphor or idea, then years of mulling it over, gathering bits and pieces of material, maybe doing some specific research, putting a scene or two together, playing with various structural devices, all before the actual writing begins. Then the writing itself introduces new problems, new areas to research or experiment with—a bit laborious maybe, but it’s the way I feel I’m getting the most out of the material. I like to completely exhaust an image—the white whale syndrome, as you might call it. As a consequence, each book is supported by tons of debris—and the computer is giving me a way of keeping it all sorted and available, as it never was before. (8)
The who and the why and all that moves me to write involves finding a metaphor that makes sense to me; it’s a tiny kernel of something that somehow contains a seed of something that is valuable to me. It may be something funny or something erotic; it may be something with significance in some way in terms of the world and the way the world works. I see that thing, and I begin to work with it, and very shortly this metaphor becomes who I’m writing for. I become its servant. I like that my friend Bill Gass (who is perhaps our real living biographer of the human mind) brought up that metaphor because the pleasure I get is that feeling of communion with that human mind. When I’ve entered that space of the metaphor, and the metaphor begins to reveal itself to me as I begin to become involved with it, its truth becomes manifest, and I’m able to reveal it or at least participate in its revelation as its servant. There is an excitement and a pleasure I get out of that process that has nothing to do with what reader or no-reader may pick that book up and likes it or dislikes it. (4)
All I’ve written so far—the novels, stories, plays—have all emerged from a small kernel of an idea, something that in each case could be put in just a few words. But once examined more closely, they all hinted at a lot more packed away inside, and my task then was to unpack them, unwrap them, make them reveal themselves. This is an artistic problem and it’s what I’m always most interested in: this intransigent penetration of a metaphor. It’s a little like chasing a vision. Most of the time, I might say, you end up in the dark. (2)
IFTEKHARUDDIN: What do you feel more comfortable writing, the short story or the novel?
COOVER: I felt at home in the story form and for a long time supposed that I would write nothing else. I came late to the novel, and even now, whenever I start up a new piece, I tend to see it at first as a short fiction, and hopefully a one-pager. I like the rush of the ending coming at you, and hate to wait years for that, though I’ve often had to. Depends on the central structuring metaphor, how complex it is, whether or not it will work in a short space or needs a few years of my life and reams of paper to show itself fully.
There is satisfaction in the long form, too, of course, in surrendering to a large and difficult metaphor and seeing it through to the end, even if sometimes you begin to doubt that end will ever appear. I had been inGerald’s Party, which I’d also thought of originally as a short story, for several years with no exit in sight, when finally it began to appear that the party would at last soon be over. My narrator was standing, wounded and exhausted, in the dining-room doorway, staring in at the wreck his guests had made of his living room in order to recreate theatrically the murder that begins the book, and both of us had the feeling this could not go on much longer. But then suddenly the doorbell rang and new gatecrashers swarmed in, people he didn’t even know, and along with me, Gerald began to wonder if this party would ever end. Whereupon his wife, solving everything, said: “I’ll go put the coffee on.” Her line, not mine. Another hundred pages to go, as it turned out, but we were on our way. Great pleasure in that, something a short fiction cannot provide. (6)
On Dogma, Story, and Metaphor:
MCCAFFERY: I find your fiction repeatedly returning to a central situation: we observe a character or characters engaged in this subjective, fiction-making process we have just been talking about; in their desire for stability and order, however, they lose sight of what they have been doing and begin to insert these fictions into the world as dogma; this winds up entrapping or even destroying them. Is this a fair reading?
COOVER: Yes, why not?
MCCAFFERY: Why do you return so often to this idea?
COOVER: To the scene of the crime, you mean? A weakness no doubt, a lack of moral fiber. Maybe the struggle I had as a young writer against the old forms made me overly aware of their restrictive nature, such that I found myself burdened with a vast number of metaphoric possibilities, all of which were touched by this sense of dogma invading the world and turning it to stone. But I have literally hundreds of ideas, virtually every day I think of another one, so maybe I’ll get lucky next time, choose one with a different bloom. It’s the choice that scares me.
I mean, we only have so many lives to lead. The Brunists took me four years, The Public Burning longer. If I could work through all the ideas I have now without thinking up any more (and as I said that, damn it, I’ve just thought of another one), I’d need a couple of hundred years more at least. Like human seed: a billion kids eager to be born every minute, but you only get a few at best, and probably not the ones you thought you wanted. (7)
On Particular Metaphors:
IFTEKHARUDDIN: Sex, almost erotic, permeates your works. Are you using eroticism as a technical device?
COOVER: I hope not. What kind of lover would I be then? As a widely shared communicative experience, of course, sex can be used fictionally in a variety of ways as an exploratory mechanism: any concern can be deflected into it, ideas, as it were, fleshed out. But at heart I believe, along with Hesiod and Ovid, that Eros powers the universe and you ignore it at your own peril and at the peril of the truth of the piece you are writing. It is not necessarily something humane and rational or even attractive, but it is a force not to be denied. My policy is skeptical surrender. (6)
MCCAFFERY: Those Western materials you used in “The Kid” you’ve also used in other stories, and you return repeatedly to fairy tales, sports, and other elements that are usually seen as pop-cultural material. What’s the source of your fascination with this kind of stuff?
COOVER: It’s all material that’s close to the mythic content of our lives, and is therefore an important part of our day-to-day fiction-making process. The pop-culture we absorb in childhood—and I’d include all the pop-religions as well—goes on affecting the way we respond to the world or talk about it for the rest of our lives.
MCCAFFERY: What about your apparent interest in puns and word-play?
COOVER: I like the pun for its intense condensation, but for me it’s only a second-rate version of the more exciting idea of the juxtaposition of two unexpected elements—structural puns, you might call them. A lot of my stories begin this way. Again the use of seeming paradox, the vibrant space between the poles.
MCCAFFERY: Why do you return so often to concept of game in you fiction?
COOVER: We live in a skeptical age in which games are increasingly important. When life has no ontological meaning, it becomes a kind of game itself. Thus it’s a kind of metaphor for a perception of the way the world works, and also something that almost everybody’s doing. If not on the playing fields, then in politics or business or education. If you’re cynical about it, you learn the rules and strategies, shut up about them, and get what you can out of it. If you’re not inclined to be a manipulator, you might want to expose the game-plan for your own protection and ask how it can be a better game than it is at present. And formal games reflect on the hidden games, more so in an age without a Final Arbiter. So it’s an important metaphor to be explored. (7)
It’s no good for an author to explain his own metaphors, and when he does, he’s often wrong. (1)
On the Question: “Why do you write?”
COOVER: In answer to the question: “Why do you write?”
Because art blows life into the lifeless, death into the deathless.
Because art’s life is preferable, in truth, to life’s beautiful terror.
Because, as time does not pass (nothing, as Beckett tells us, passes), it passes the time.
Because death, our mythless master, is somehow amused by epitaphs.
Because epitaphs, well-struck, give death, our voracious master, heartburn.
Because fiction imitates life’s beauty, thereby inventing the beauty life lacks.
Because fiction is the best position, at once exotic and familiar, for fucking the world.
Because fiction, mediating paradox, celebrates it.
Because fiction, mothered by love, loves love as a mother might her unloving child.
Because fiction speaks, hopelessly, beautifully, as the world speaks.
Because God, created in the storyteller’s image, can be destroyed only by His maker.
Because, in its perversity, art harmonizes the disharmonious.
Because, in its profanity, fiction sanctifies life.
Because, in its terrible isolation, writing is a path to brotherhood.
Because in the beginning was the gesture, and in the end to come as well: in between what we have are words.
Because, of all the arts, only fiction can unmake the myths that unman men.
Because of its endearing futility, its outrageous pretensions.
Because the pen, though short, casts a long shadow (upon, it must be said, no surface).
Because the world is re-invented every day and this is how it is done.
Because there is nothing new under the sun except its expression.
Because truth, that elusive joker, hides himself in fictions and must therefore be sought there.
Because writing, in all space’s unimaginable vastness, is still the greatest adventure of all.
And because, alas, what else? (3)
The Intransigent Penetration of a Metaphor: A Post-Interview Encounter with Robert Coover
(1) Bass, Thomas Alden. “An Encounter with Coover.” Antioch Review 40 (1982): 287–304.
(2) Bigsby, C.W.E. “Interview with Robert Coover.” In The Radical Imagination and the Liberal Tradition: Interviews with English and American Novelists , by Bigsby, C.W.E., and Ziegler, Heidi. London: Junction Books, 1982.
(3) Coover, Robert. “In Answer to the Question: ’Why Do You Write?’” Delta 28 (June 1989): 17–19.
(4) Coover, Robert, Leslie Fiedler, John Hawkes, Robert Scholes, Stanley Elkin, William Gass, Donald Barthelme, William Gaddis , Geoffrey Green and Maurice Couturier. “’Nothing but Darkness and Talk?’: Writer’s Symposium on Traditional Values and Iconoclastic Fiction.” Critique 31, no. 4 (1991): 17–33.
(5) Gado, Frank. “Robert Coover.” In First Person: Conversations on Writers and Writing.Schenectady: Union College Press, 1973.
(6) Iftekharuddin, Farhat. “Interview with Robert Coover.” Short Story 1, no. 2 (1993): 89–94.
(7) McCaffery, Larry. “Robert Coover on His Own and Other Fictions.” In Novel vs. Fiction: The Contemporary Reformation, edited by Jackson I. Cope and Geoffrey Green. Norman: Pilgrim Books, 1981. Also appeared in Genre 14, no. 1 (1981): 45–63.
(8) Nelson, Peter. “An Interview with Robert Coover.” Telescope 4, no. 1 (1985): 23–28.
INTERVIEWS NOT CITED
Hertzel, Leo J. “An Interview with Robert Coover” Critique 11, no. 3 (1969): 25–29.
Kadragic, Alma. “An Interview with Robert Coover.” Shantih 2 (Summer 1972): 57–60.