Interview with Nicholson Baker

I came across this Nicholson Baker interview today and thought I’d pass it along:

“When an interviewer asks you what was important to you when you were learning how to write, what were the texts, you’re tempted to come up with people like Henry de Montherlant or the Brothers Goncourt. You don’t want to say John Updike because he’s commonplace and familiar and it’s not exciting.”

I’m the same way. I don’t even want to listen to Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin because they belong to everybody. I want my influences to myself so I’m always seeking out the lesser-known, the obscure.

“I do seem to be attracted to things I think are unsung. Or, if I’m writing about literary figures, I prefer to write about the guy Alexander Pope copied from, rather than celebrating Pope, since he has plenty of people making a fuss over him. I’m still by nature a contrarian.”

I’m a musical contrarian. Or as Douglas Coupland would say, I often engage in “underdogging,” the tendency to almost invariably side with the underdog in a given situation. Seeking out the unsung and siding with the underdog….what is the root of this condition? A desire for originality in the face of popular things being automatically less valid? We’re living in artistically confusing times because, as the middle class has ascended over the last 60 years, middle class tastes dominate the culture, and so often what is popular is crap. Then popularity gets equated with crap, so it’s not cool to like what’s popular because if it’s popular it has to be crap. Which is a lie of course, but it’s easier to cling to that dogma than to decide for oneself what is artistically valid.

“The unpleasant, distracting feeling of wanting to protect your ideas is dumb and contemptible. Still, it’s one of the unfortunate emotions that comes with any attempt to say something new.”

This is another thing that I think about in music. Ask any truly great musical artist and they will tell you that music comes through them. It does not start with them. The best musicians are instruments themselves of music, which comes from somewhere else. Being a creative musician means getting out of your own way and letting the music flow through you. So, the ideas are not yours to protect. The ideas belong to Music and Music was nice enough to let you transmit them. So how can you claim that any idea was truly yours? Unfortunately you have to in order to make a living in any economic society. It’s just a compromise you have to make between art and commerce.

Anyway, as I pressed on in search of more Baker interviews to digest I found that the man was apparently following my musical train of thought:

“I got interested in time in the 4th grade. I had the discovery that you could split up the present moment infinitely. There’s no present…As a musician, I used to love the fermata. I loved the chords that you could sustain it with. It’s a nice looking symbol with a nice name. It sits on top of a chord and just looks at you.”

And then he goes and wraps up with another thread that has been running through my head lately: Frank Zappa used to say that the most important thing in art was the frame, which took me by surprise. Then it became even more apparent to me when I found this Art or Crap Quiz, which rather elegantly states “For the purposes of this quiz, ‘art’ is something that has been exhibited as such by an artist.” It seemed a pretty good definition of art, regardless of the quiz’s context. Anyway, here’s what Baker said:

“I want the books to be about things that you don’t notice when you’re noticing them. You kind of notice things in passing, and never put a frame around them — and then somebody like me comes along and writes a book about them. And then that book itself becomes the frame.”