Thomas M. Disch is one of the more talented and controversial figures in the science fiction field. His body of work encompasses short stories, novels, poems, opera libretti, essays, book reviews, and now even an interactive novel. In every instance he has chosen to work at a level of ambition of which only a handful of other genre writers share in the attempt. He has created works of a remarkably high quality, and at the same time enraged many for his failure to fall into the lockstep of genre requirements. The following interview took place on August 11, 1984 in Tom Disch's Manhattan apartment.
Last Wave: I think of you as being a joyful writer, as opposed to being the depressing writer which many other people seem to paint you. In your early novel Camp Concentration, for instance, which is one often given as an example of a depressing work because the benign, indifferent aliens win, I find triumphal joy, for the protagonists in it do triumph with dignity against great odds over the human evil around them. In your recent On Wings of Song, which I've read one reviewer claim to be a cynical book, I see a happy ending: David Weinreb does get free and fly. For some reason many people prefer to see him as dying. In rereading these two works and all else inbetween, I just don't see the cynicism which the overwhelming majority of readers chooses to focus on. Why do you think there is this myth of your work being such a downer?
Disch: I have to agree with you on the first part of your contention that the predominant drift is towards, if not outright joy, good feelings of one sort or another. I think that is the case often in spite of the tragic or comic denouement of a particular story. It procedes from the high spirits that a good writer feels when he's writing at the top of his bent. It feels good to write well, and to hit a streak of writing well feels so good that it's almost impossible not to come away yourself as a writer without a sense of bouyant accomplishment and with a certain love. That's not to say that every ending of every story has to be construed as somehow a triumph of the spirit. The ending of On Wings of Song is positive for me but only if you interpret Daniel's end as a moral triumph according to a certain secularist view of Christianity that the book sets forward in its own pages. Daniel has a conversation with Mrs. Schiff after he's been singing a Bach cantata at Marble Collegiate Church, and that was where I planted my rationale for Daniel to be a kind of exemplary figure of the artist as a kind of secularized figure of Christ. And in so far as he fulfills the Christian paradigm with his last great stage show and his redeeming lie, he's become a figure of the particular ironical Christ that the book has been talking about. That's not to say that I had all of these thoughts in my head as I wrote the thing. I had a long time to live with it, and also a long time as I wrote it to be thinking about what this or that meant. As to what a particular passage in the book means, you have to return to that passage and see what the words are and how they balance against other words and that means that what you're doing is taking-in a book as long as a novel, and a novel that is worked at not at the high tempo of other pulp work, where a novel might be accomplished in two or three weeks of total adrenalin output, the Simenon way of writing a book, but if a novel is written over a long period, as mine necessarily are-they work out as in effect taking the average of the best energies of that many months of my life, and if I give my best creative energies to the work for such a long period, the result is liable in most cases to be an upper, to convey high spirits, because art compresses time. It compresses hours of a writer's thought into minutes of a reader's reading. The result of that high compression should be a sense of richness, just as it is when you're making jam or jelly. When the best thoughts of twelve hours boil down to twelve minutes, the effect on the reader is either a very rich dessert, or a very flavorful meat; those cases, again, are examples of compression.
Last Wave: But if this is your intention, then you'd agree that there has been a lot of misinterpretation as to both your intention and the result?
Disch: The second part of your question as to why do other people...? Well, I think a lot of people can't tolerate rich food. Literally. I mean, sometimes their digestion just won't assimilate it. One man's meat is another man's poison, right? I long ago came to certain feelings about life, certain postures of defense or aggression with respect to this or that kind of person, this or that kind of social dilemma, which would probably be interpreted by many other people as wrong, or threatening. Sometimes it would be as simple as being intellectually threatening, as when a textbook takes for granted Darwin's theory of evolution. Well, there's many theories about how things work besides the official one, evolution, etc. A very good joke about something you hold sacred counts with some people as blasphemy, and that can be called in turn nihilism. Nihilism is the adjective enemy critics most often come up with for me. Or black humor, which is to say, humor which laughs at something they believe in. Well, if I don't believe in it, I'm not obliged to regard it as "black." I laugh at what I consider people's folly, and if the people who are committing those follies don't want to laugh along, they have to call my joke something else. So they call it black humor or nihilism. And it's not just tht1 jokes. Tenderer feelings are just as susceptible to being misnamed by people who don't want to share them, so that liberals are called "soft-hearted liberals." Orson Scott Card once got my goat when he, in a review of a story of mine, "Concepts," said that if he thought people were really like they're described in that story, then he would have to commit suicide. To which my reply has always been, "Yes, Orson, they are like that." I can point out the very people that were being described in that story.
But what he's saying, really, is that if people can be living lives that are fully human and which nevertheless ignore all of his most closely held values, then what good are those values for him? That's almost anyone's self-interested position when they encounter the expression of different values. If I were to see a bushman going about on one of those crosscountry walks where they spend years in the desert having visions, eating insects, and doing all the things that bushmen have to do to survive, I would think, "Oh, my god, what a wasted life, I'd rather kill myself than live like that!" It's the possibility that life could be experienced, lived, and thought about a different way, and if your attitude is sufficiently unlike your audience's there will be a toxic reaction. I think that's happened with most first rate artists, that they usually have a handle on a way of dealing with the world which strikes other people as intolerably flip, Of intolerably earnest, or both, because they actually see the world differently. They take different things for granted.
Last Wave: Are they a different species?
Disch: No, it's training the perceptions. You perceive things differently. Which means that though you can persuade people of a certain attitude if you take them step by step through the process by which you arrived at that view of things, if you just assume that attitude and proceed from there to tell the story based on those assumptions, the result is disconcerting. That disconcertion can be experienced either as strange and wonderful or as strange and threatening, depending, I suppose, on whether the reader, in his own movement, in creating his own frame of perceptions, is heading in the direction you've gone. So the lack of sympathy is basically a way Iof avoiding talking about the issue, the subject matter that the narrative is dealing with. I think it's amazing when I look over the reviews that I get, favorable and unfavorable, how seldom critics or reviewers ever deal with the substantive matter of poetry. It's true of prose, too, but there's a story there people can reprise, and that's what most reviewers do. They just tell the story and offer a few little interpretations of this or that detail. In poetry, all that is left is a bare statement with which one can either agree or disagree-at least if one writes discursive poetry as I do, poetry which presents an argument about certain facts of life, and says what you make of them-well, even reviewers who like what I do, rarely say what it is I'm talking about. And people who don't like it, they'll say, "It's very clever." Well, my point in writing a poem isn't to display my cleverness. The cleverness i , as it were, a tool for getting across a particular idea that I want to ,communicate with maximum punch. It's as though people, instead of registering the punch, heard the sound effect. It's frustrating.
Last Wave: One poem you recently published, "On Science Fiction," resulted in a powerful punch. It caused a great stir. I think, considering its message, you must have expected the response, but did you expect the reaction to be quite what it was?
Disch: As far as I know, that actually was a positive reaction-it won the Rhysling A ward What I said about people not arguing with you, well, I've read that poem on many occasions. People react with laughter first. (There's many parts in it that provoke that response.) Let me say what I think the meaning of the poem is, and where it comes from. It chiefly has to do with my ambivalent feelings about the respect in which the audience in science fiction and their particular emotional demands govern the nature of the fantasies that science 1 fiction writers tell them. Many people have observed that genre fiction is created at least as much by reader expectations as these are interpreted through editors, as by the actual creative needs of the writers themselves. So that people know that there's a certain kind of cuddly fantasy that's called high adventure, high fantasy, the Tolkien }" imitation, for which there is a large and apparently almost insatiable demand, and the emotional needs that that sort of cuddly fantasy is tI intended to satisfy are those that could fairly be characterized as being childlike in nature. The very first critical piece I wrote on science fiction said that it was a brand of children's literature and that caused all sorts of hackles to rise. An enormous amount of science fiction is written for children, and for grownups who have never lost touch with certain of the needs, dilemmas, and pleasures of childhood. And that includes most of the Dungeons and Dragons type of fantasy. The poem deals with the fact that another
emotional characteristic of much of the science fiction audience is the desire for a kind of fantasy the emotional substructure and subtext of which is remarkably akin to the emotional needs of invalids, of people who have been physically crushed by life and who consequently feel different. Because their experiences are different. I characterized this invalidism as being one of clubbishness, a certain "Let's all cuddle together," the ghetto mentality in science fiction, the feeling that you can make a pact against the bad guys out there. It's a very common human feeling, but one that's intensified among invalids as among children because of their consciousness of total dependency vis a vis adult or beneficent authority, and one's resentment towards that outer world, which is usually represented in ill-concealed fantasies of the worm turning, and the cripples being able to beat hell out of the lucky whole people of the world.
Last Wave: The Revenge of the Nerd.
Disch: The revenge of the nerd. John Varley had written this story that so perfectly expressed that syndrome of feelings. It's called "The Persistence of Vision." It was an extremely popular story in science fiction, and I thought its popularity was symptomatic of my diagnosis of what that story means. So that poem is in effect a criticism. Everything that I've said is implicit in that poem, and indeed, the poem says it much better. I've never known anyone to argue with the poem. Indeed, I think -
Last Wave: They never argue that they're not invalids?
Disch: Well, they could try. Or they can say that John Varley's story doesn't really express what I'm saying it .expresses. I did have one reaction from Liz Lynn, which was that she read it and she thought "Oh, that son of a bitch," meaning me, specifically for using V arley's story as grist for my mill, but then read it again and said she couldn't fault it as an account of what that means and then further of what it says about science fiction. She came around to saying that she had to agree with the argument the poem was making.
This may be beside the point or not, but the best piece of criticism I ever had of the poem was when I was in Buffalo and I read it in a reading and in the first row of the audience there was a paraplegic about my own age, a man in a wheelchair, who after the poem had been read and the meeting was over, wheeled forward and insisted that it was the best account of the experience of being handicapped that he'd ever come across. I felt good that I got it right on that side, too. See, the poem starts off and says "We are all cripples." I'm not excluding myself.
Last Wave: I didn't think you were. However, the people who you are talking about when you say "we" are the same people who would say, "No, you're wrong. I'm not a cripple." Wouldn't you say so?
Disch: Yes, and so do many cripples. One of the ways that cripples cope is by organizing olympics, and the poem talks about that, too, the respect in which you can deny the fact that your legs don't work if you have a wheelchair basketball game. So my basic attitude is that I am saying things that people don't want to hear because they're home truths. That's the business of writers, to make those truths not only apparent, but to reconcile people to them, too. Because I do think that that poem is ultimately and properly understood reconciling.
Last Wave: Do you think it will cause the shrouds to fall from people's eyes? Will it change anyone's mind?
Disch: I think the idea will stick in their heads like a thorn. I think that a good story is not forgotten, that the mark of a good story is that you go on remembering the events of a story, reliving them, fretting over them, arguing with the fatal necessity for this or that thing to happen in the story. A good book activates an implicit dialogue with the reader that is like an argument. It's not like a daydream machine. And that, of course, is not the usual expectations of genre literature. Most genre is meant to be experienced as a daydream and is experienced as such, so when you offer in the genre something that, while it offers certain vicarious pleasures as every narrative account does (I'm not so postmodernist that I don't want people to just lose themselves in the page-turning experience of hallucinating that imaginary event with the highest possible degree of imaginative high resolution), at the same time I do expect people as they move back from the involvement with the actual reading on the page that they have that reverberation, or even that they would at certain calculated moments in the text come to a full stop because they've just had a spitball thrown at them. Very often in the engagement with the reader, you're in the position of the pitcher vis a vis the batter: You want to strike the reader out; you want to surprise him. And if narrative fiction is successfully surprising, that means that you're violating the reader's expectations. How far you can go on violating them and still maintain the illusion of the magic theatre in the mind is a recipe that varies with every narrative art.
Last Wave: From what I've read in one of your other interviews, you haven't always held these beliefs. When you started writing the first things you did were psuedo-Asimov robot stories.
Disch: Oh, that's when I was ten years old!
Last Wave: What was it that attracted you to that sort of writing back then?
Disch: When one is ten and writing on nickel tablets... I was just writing rephrasings of synopses of Asimov plots. I've never tried to market those works.
Last Wave: But you could have chosen someone like Robert Louis Stevenson as a model. What is it that attracted you to that specific...
Disch: Oh, there's probably a strong influence of Eugene O'Neill because at the same time period I was reading Strange Interlude, and I loved stories of sexual passion and intrigue, precisely because I had absolutely no notion what it was about. It was just a Wonderland to me, like Alice's. That is to say, O'Neill and Asimov equally were about worlds that I had no knowledge of, and they seemed equally real or unreal to me. They were things that happened in books, totally outside my experience as an eleven-year-old boy in Fairmont, Minnesota. The notion that there's such a thing as realistic fiction, that there is some fiction that is not fantastic, has always seemed to me a very doubtful propositon. All fiction is about something not in your life. Often it's appreciated in proportion as it is unlike anything in your life. I would suppose that there's little difference between a housewife reading a Georgette Heyer romance set in the year 1810 and a boy reading a Heinlein adventure about astronauts; those experiences are equally foreign, strange, and unreal to the reader. Similarly, Anna Karenina - a masterpiece of realism - is for most Americans a book that is much stranger in all of its details and assumptions than a Stephen King novel in which the only strange things are the supernatural elements of the plot and all of the people are just like your neighbors next door.
Last Wave: How do you think it is that you, growing from ten¬ year-old Tommy Disch, also grew out of fixating on one particular strange thing, which is what these "cripples" we were just talking about have done: there's one particular type of strange world that they've chosen to rely on. How do you think it is that you manage to go beyond that?
Disch: I guess I don't have an addictive personality. I don't with regard to other things people become addicted to. Very often my first reaction is "What was that?" or "Why was that supposed to be fun?" Very often with fiction that's supposed to be addictive, I will only be aware of the shoddiness, as when you see a Japanese horror movie that's just silly! right? It's the whole question of sophistication. There isn't a genre that I wouldn't appreciate if I encountered an example of something really well done in it, and my taste is really quite catholic in things. The one thing I can't enjoy is incompetence or-I'm trying to think if there's a non-elitist way to put the matter...
Last Wave: Laziness?
Disch: Shoddiness. It's easy to see in visual art. Or rather, most people will look at a very bad, amateurish drawing, such as you see in most science fiction magazines, especially in the fanzines, and none of the formal qualities that are associated with good drawing such as polish, execution, the fineness of the line, all of the formal qualities that an art teacher would tell somebody about in a drawing class-none of that is present. The only thing that is there is what you often see presented in casebook studies of psychotic or disturbed children. There's a certain expressive content in those drawings that can be interesting because you interpret the image as having come from a particular kind of disturbed person, and mirroring, therefore, the condition. So in a way the symptomatic content of bad art can be interesting. When you're adult, when you have adult tastes, you can look at something very quickly and say: "Yes, that has it," or "No, that doesn't have it." And similarly, when you're reading prose, you can just as quickly, practically within a paragraph, say, "Yes, that has it," or "No, that doesn't have it" Sometimes there are grey areas of people who have something, but not enough, as in art, but the clear blacks and whites of the two ends of the spectrum are very easy to recognize in almost all cases.
Last Wave: Algis Budrys wrote an essay titled "Paradise Charted" that was published in TriQuarterly. Writing about the New Wave Group, he stated that "without them, Disch, who went to England a clumsy nihilist, would probably never have become the complex artist and subtle master of style he is now." Do you agree with this claim of there having been an artistic transformation?
Disch: No, I do not I think Ajay is just trying to wiggle around the fact that he trounced my first books when they came out. He had a quite visceral and honest antipathy to my early work, and when he found that he could no longer simply deny the quality of it, he had to find a way by which he could explain the fact that he'd initially given me those bad reviews, which were quite intemperate bad reviews, and an expression of his deep and continuing commitment to a very different world view than mine. But when he couldn't go on saying that I was just a numbskull, he had to find some convenient point in which he could rewrite history. He knows nothing about my inner life in that period, and he has no privileged information about it. He has only the books, several of which I suppose he hasn't read. Does one religiously read all the works of a writer one has dismissed as a piffling upstart? Really, with much of this, I think we're just talking about the generation gap. I'll condescend to him now, as he has so often to me. He was in the unhappy position of being an intellectual in the science fiction field when it was even less acceptable and less noticeable. I mean most people who enjoyed his work didn't enjoy it because of his literary capabilities. At the same time he grew up in a social environment where artists felt called upon to exaggerate certain macho posturings of the Hemingway sort. He was of the generation that really worshipped Hemingway, and Budrys took it on himself to be the Humphrey Bogart of science fiction, you know, a strong, tough, silent guy. He did it pretty well in a few books, but I think that has always proven a dead end. Writers who adopt that posture always seem to find that they have writers' block at the point in their career when they simply can't snarl at themselves convincingly in the mirror anymore.
Last Wave: So then what actually happened during your stay in England? In terms of writer's growth, was there -
Disch: Yes! And my stay in Mexico the year before that, where I was writing Camp Concentration. That was probably a more significant thing. Coming to New York from the Midwest was an earlier still more significant thing. The landmarks in one's intellectual progress from the age of fifteen till the age of thirty come fast and furious. They should. If one isn't constantly growing and assimiliating new experience and awareness and developing a more "mature" philosophy at that time, one would be doing the opposite, one would be decaying. You can only grow or die as an artist. At the same time, it's perfectly possible for any artist once he has the keyboard in his fingers, once he knows his instrument, to make the music of the art form that he's chosen. Talent is real, and it's a horrible and rather unavoidable truth that some people have it and some people don't and there are grey areas inbetween, but I had it. I've never had any doubt about having it. At a certain point sometimes that simply makes you look arrogant; to say: "I got it." But if I hadn't had that confidence in my own early capabilities, if I hadn't been assured of it by a few chosen and helpful spirits, I wouldn't have had the strength to go on writing as I did, in the face of systematic discouragement from all of those people who are in positions of power who don't have it and don't like those who do, for very obvious reasons. The del Reys of the world, shall we say?
Last Wave: Looking back over the body of your work, you seem to rely less and less on experimental tricks of style. Tricks is probably not the right word for it, but in your early works there was more playful typography, there was the convoluted chart for 334, etc. Instead, now you seem to have moved more to a straight controlled narrative that is askew in the way it looks at what's going on.
Disch: I don't think I ever... not tricks of typography...
Last Wave: In "Let Us Quickly Hasten to the Gates of Ivory", you had tombstones...
Disch: Those were grace notes. And if you count the poetry as being a steady attendent task, there's any amount of formal concern, and playfulness.
Last Wave: In your fiction, then.
Disch: Even there there's been tendency to keep away from what I think of as easy surrealism, to a varnished surface, but even that isn't antithetical necessarily. I guess the most experimental stories I ever did would be "The Master of the Milford Altarpiece" and "Quincunx" in '68, '69. But I think of my best early stories as being quite straightforward narratively: "Descending," "The Roaches," "Casablanca" ...
Last Wave: If you look at Camp Concentration, the form of a diary, and later on -
Disch: There's nothing experimental about a diary.
Last Wave: Not experimental then. Perhaps what I'm talking about is a choice of tools. You've chosen a different set of tools in the recent novels.
Disch: There's nothing experimental in a diary. But it allows the possibility of fancy skating because I could indulge in the kind of fancy writing that people do in diaries, which it would be aesthetic bad manners to indulge in if you didn't have the excuse of a first person writing presumably for his own pleasure and in which the vocalises were just a natural outgrowing of the fictional man's own intellectual high spirits. But the last book I've done, which isn't published, called A Troll of Surewould Forest, is possibly the zaniest, most far out science fiction I've ever done. I think each time the experiment is different. In some respects you could also say that A Troll of Surewould Forest is the one that's most like. a comic book. It's crudest in certain ways, and in fact it strenuously tries to be. It strives for vulgarity. It has truly broad comedy and lots of zesty obscenity. Yes, I'm praising myself but readers have had those reactions to it, and editors have been appalled by it for those reasons, so I don't think I'm just imagining that I've done it. I think that I've described the book fairly. So whether I'm being defensive about, "Have I betrayed my early experimentalism...?" I never thought I was being that experimental, honestly. I didn't do anything for which I didn't know what the precedents were, with the one exception of that framework thing in 334. I've never met anybody who understands what that represents without my explaining it. But I did put it there as a footprint in the sand. I didn't think it right to do an essay explaining this brilliant invention of mine, but I wanted to leave proof in the book that the structure of the novella part of 334 was determined by a formal principle unlike any formal principle of ordering fiction that I'd ever heard of before. I'd invented something there. To my mind that's the one genuine experimental thing that I've done, in that I know of no precedent for it, and I think that it was a genuinely good if very difficult thing to do. I've never repeated it, though, so if it had been that good I probably would have gone on to employ that principle again. I'm writing something now called Eternity which I might find lends itself to the same kind of three dimensional construction that I used then.
Last Wave: Experiment also may be the wrong word for what I'm trying to look at. If we can assume that there is a "norm" of literature of the third person narrative where you're the storyteller telling things that happened to other people in a straightforward manner and your beliefs come through only in how you choose to describe what these people are doing, as opposed to first person narrative as in "The Squirrel Cage" or "Come to Venus Melancholy," stories which if not experimental are a different way of telling the story.
Disch: I think the change that's happened (and I think there is one) isn't a formal one, in terms of being relatively more or less inventive. But I think there is necessarily probably a large one with regard to the emotional content or the emotional charge and the direction of that charge, too. I guess the cutoff point would be 334 between the young me and the old, mature me. And it has to do with my own accommodation to getting along in the world. It's the very common accommodation of middle age as against not simply youthful rebellion, but the distress of being young, and poor, and probably unemployable, and a feeling of being excluded from privilege, power, good schools, all of the things that a lower middle class boy, very ambitious, without social resources and without a good map. The distress of that situation is something that a lot of my early stories powerfully conveyed, and people who've reacted to those stories sympathetically have usually been people who've shared that situation, people usually in college, going through their own intellectual awakening as I was then, and feeling both the ambition and the distress and despair. Let us not neglect the sexual component in all this. In those circumstances few young men or women are likely to be leading emotionally fulfilling lives. So there's a complex of distresses. And young people's fiction usually speaks to the condition of that kind of young person. There are other kinds: those who've grown up in privilege, comfortable, in good families where they take their privileges for granted. Those young people usually come into an earlier success-people like Anne Beattie or Mark Halperin-but they will have the disadvantage that they've never left Middle Earth, that they've always grown up comfortable and so they're just wearing the clothes that their parents have bought for them, beginning with the Harvard cap and gown. I think I have an advantage over them ultimately. That's what all selfmade men think.
Last Wave: You once wrote that for writers "to make it their conscious goal to win an award is to confuse literature with bowling." Don't you, though, sometimes write stories you feel so positive about that hope begins to spring in your heart, a story you think is so good that you say, "This is going to win the world over for me"?
Disch: No, because for one thing it would be a mistake to suppose that there is a strong correlation between quality and winning a prize. Prizes go to stories that excite the attention of the readership and fulfill their emotional demands in a particular way-the John Varley story being a case in point of a surefire winner-because of the relationship it creates with its audience. One story I have that's won some awards is "The Brave Little Toaster" and I didn't even write that intending it to be published as a science fiction story. It's meant to be a children's book, and I certainly wasn't thinking of a Newbery A ward. Its success actually confirms what I said about science fiction being a branch of children's literature, because the one thing I've had that's been most popular in science fiction is something I wrote as a children's book. Disney is doing a feature cartoon of it. So I wasn't wrong in supposing that it was children's book, though children's book publishers have turned it down again and again, I suspect because it was published as a science fiction story and that makes them think that therefore it's not a children's book. But I only published it in F&SF once it had been turned down enough places and I figured, let's give it some attention. It brought it to Disney's attention, so I wasn't mistaken. It's a charming story, and it's one that's endeared itself to science fiction readers because the moral that it conveys is one that everybody can sympathize with. It's as simple as The Little Engine That Could: "I think I can, I think I can," but in this case it's: "All we appliances have to get together and cooperate if we're going to solve our problems." Now that's an undeniably positive moral to deduce. The charms of the story are, I think, self-explanatory. But there's nothing in that story that is challenging. The only way people have been able to have a negative view of it is if they suppose I'm being sarcastic in writing it and that somehow I'm doing it cynically because they have decided that I'm such a blackhearted person that if something of mine seems to be light and pleasant, I must be fooling them. But that's the only respect in which people have been able to think of a way to show that it really is a product of the black-hearted Disch that they believe in.
Last Wave: But that's the way you intended "Feathers From the Wing of an Angel," which is not meant to be taken with all the sentimentality that is there.
Disch: It couldn't be, could it? It's transparently a hoot! And it's meant to be seen as a hoot. I had that in the Clarion workshop years and years ago. it dumbfounded everyone who was there, but two or three of the people, including, I think, Keith Laumer, had what I thought was the correct reaction, which is finding that despite yourself, these old mechanical ways of squeezing the emotions will work upon you.
What the story is is a study in our vulnerability toward the manipulations of fiction, and how hard it is to resist the calculated skillful effort to maneuver you to tears. Usually to tears. At least, that's the one that people are most aware of, because it's an overt physiological response. I think that one thing people who habitually read fiction can legitimately be interested in is their own psychology , as readers of fiction, and therefore as willing dupes of the manipulations of skilled writers. The relationship between the willing dupe reader and the manipulative craftsman is often an interesting subject for fiction itself. A good deal of ironical fiction, or fiction about writers, deals with those subjects. I don't think there's any cynicism in paying attention to what is a fact. Look at any soap opera-that's manipulation going on. You can either enjoy the skill or deplore the ineptitude of the individual work that you're looking at, but that's the nature of the event. So to write something that points and says something about this interaction and has fun with it, to my mind that's just a way of having fun. It's a proper subject.
Last Wave: Would you say that the difference between you and the lazier, sloppier writers is that you're both pushing buttons but you are trying to push the ones that are the more difficult to push in terms of getting a reaction out of the reader, that you are working on a subtler level, but still trying to push that emotional response button?
Disch: Well, I don't know. My offhand reaction would be "yes, I think the difference exists," but I don't know if I'd claim to be "subtler". I usually think of myself as being very forthright. I think the advantage of my work is that I usually talk straightforwardly about things that most people push away under the table or hide in a closet-as long ago as the story "The Roaches," which is a story of insect fear, and ends up with the image of the woman who discovers she has this telepathic power over roaches and that this actually represents love between them, summoning all the roaches in Manhattan to her, and there's a final image of her lying back waiting to receive the massive embrace of all the assembled cockroaches of Manhattan crawling allover her. That story came from two or three years of thinking about the nature of horror stories that I read and seeing the obvious Freudian content, and wondering: What is the nature of insect horror? Why do people have this very strong reaction? Why should insects have this relationship to sexuality? It seemed to be that it was the idea of being touched against our will. The story brought up as almost a conscious statement the theory that I just put forward now. In most Lovecraftian horror fiction, the author seems genuinely naive and unaware of the what to me are obvious Freudian implications. I'm not alone in the 20th century or in the year 1984 in finding Lovecraft full of Freudian-not slips-because in some senses he successfully used people's buried fears and desires to create fictions that were powerful in their way. It was simply my intention to lift up the buried content of the Lovecraftian horror to virtually free statement or virtually overt statement and still have the narrative force of Lovecraftian horror. How far could you make the subtext visible and still have the emotional power of the naive art? That remains I think my central interest in writing fiction. How far can you say something about what reality is really like as against the lies we tell ourselves about the lives that we're leading? A story like, "The Man Who Had No Idea," is a story about what our social relationships are really like, and it uses an improbable but droll proposition that you have to have licenses to make conversation as a springboard to the subject of what do we talk about when we talk about anything. What are all these social interactions about? What is the subject of them? In all situation drama on tv, you will hear people talking about something, and you will understand that they are really talking about their relationship. In those Carol Burnett stories of the Family, you'll see them arguing about scrabble scores, whatever subject comes up, they're not talking about that subject. The humorous force is rather the respect in which they invest their emotional needs, desires, and requirements, how these are the real subjects of all conversations on other matters. The comic thing is that always the real social meaning bubbles up through the daily chitchat into a family fight
But that progression, that way of understanding social reality, can be applied to, must be applied to, every detail of life. To me, that's the purpose of art, to find ways to uncover the truth of what we do. Science fiction is wonderfully apt for that task, because you can simply state what your principle is. Instead of saying "We behave in rigid mechanical ways," you can write a story about a robot who illustrates what a rigid mechanical way of behavior is. You can dispense with metaphor and you can make the metaphor plot.
Last Wave: Science fiction is a metaphor itself.
Disch: It's metaphor that has turned into plot. Does that make sense?
Last Wave: Oh, it makes sense. The thing is, though, with stories of that type is that it's difficult to go to representatives of the respected "real" literature, what s.f. people unfortunately call "mundane" literature, and prove to them the fact that this story that you wrote is not about roaches, and it's not about a robot, and it's not about ray blasters, but that you've used this as a metaphor for life and emotions and how people relate. Why do you think that you can't carry this over? How can you convince them that science fiction is just your metaphor?
Disch: This theory can be applied to the worst trash in a science fictional way or to Jorge Louis Borges, and it's true in both cases. There is a respect in which the intellectual interest in science fiction has generally had a vested interest in a naive science fiction that isn't aware of its own interpretable possibilities, because the highbrows who like to come to science fiction and discover it, their purpose in doing so is to be revealers of its meaning, so that somebody like Leslie Fiedler always complains that he likes science fiction to be vulgar and brightcolored and trashy (his words) and for the good reason that that allows Leslie Fiedler, the critic, an opportunity to display his skills, and to justify his occupation as a professional interpreter. When science fiction undertakes to be both the fiction and the metafiction of itself, when it incorporates within its own text the full interpretation of itself as a text, which good, ironic, modernist writing tends to do at least implicitly, by way of overcoming your objection of how do we know that there is an intelligence at work here? One of the ways is simply by leaving footprints in the text by way of not avoiding criticism, but making it redundant. The problem with making criticism redundant is that you won't receive much criticism. The science fiction writers who have been most written about are precisely the ones who have been most naive and whose work begs for interpretations because it was written in a state of childlike innocence as to its own meaning.
Last Wave: The Kilgore Trouts of the field?
Disch: Yeah! The dummies. Nice dummies, many of them, and some of them perfectly talented, but they weren't bright people. A. E. van Vogt, for instance. I've never met him, but in some ways he sounds like a rather kindhearted well-meaning teller of sincere fairy tales. I mean, every one of them had an inventor, and the original tellers of fairy tales must have been people just like A. E. van Vogt, grannies sitting there at the fire, who wanted to make the children frightened of witches or vampires, and who told stories of young princes who would grow up and win young princesses, and there were Hansel and Gretel sitting there listening to those tales and granny knows that Hansel thinks that he's the young prince, and Gretel thinks that she's the young princess. It's a charming grandfatherly feeling, and to be a good fiction writer at the simplest level all you need is that fireside gift of telling people what is they need to hear. It seems to be so symptomatic, for instance, that Marion Zimmer Bradley, before she was a writer of science fiction, was a carnival fortune teller, because if you think about what carnival fortune tellers do, it's so much like what genre fiction writers do. You size people up, you figure out what it is they want to hear, and then you tell them what they want to hear. "You're going to meet a tall, dark, and handsome man, and you're going to have two? Three? Four children by him," and so on. You spin out the tale according to the cues that that person is sending you. Genre writers are mostly flattering their audiences in parallel ways and for similar motives.
Last Wave: Vladimir Nabokov said the lowest form of appreciation of literature is the one in which you're identifying vicariously with the protagonist, living his life and identifying with him. Would. you agree with that? That seems to be what you're saying science fiction does, is provide the reader a way of plugging into the novel as if it were a kind of video game for him.
Disch: Yes, but that lowest of his includes so many grand books and it really only allows of one other highest. He's not describing a situation that's a spectrum, is he? By that light, there are then only works that forbid you to have that vicarious identification, and those would be higher. In fact, he knows and I know that there are many perfectly incapable, incompetent, fusty works of literature that set up a barrier to vicarious identification, but without the magic of art they don't accomplish anything. So I don't think that's much of a touch, though, in that there can be first rate work that does it, and first rate work that doesn't do it, and most work is somewhere inbetween, in that you're encouraged to identify with a protagonist, simply because the focus is there, and you're imagining it, but then you are reminded that that protagonist may be a fool or a dodo or doing wrong things and you resist identifying, or suddenly you're identifying with somebody of the opposite sex because the point of view shifts. It gets much more complicated than his description would allow for, and basically he was just apologizing for the kind of book he wrote and the kind of criticism he generally received for it, which was that, "Well, I can't like Humbert Humbert, so I don't like this book." You get enough dumb reactions like that, and you want to trounce your dumb critics on the head with the equal and opposite statement. But both sides are dumb, when you reduce things to that kind of formula.
Last Wave: You've for the most part managed to resist trouncing back at the critics. How have you done that?
Disch: No, I gave Algis his what for.
Last Wave: That was just now because we're doing an interview and I asked about it.
Disch: Well, indeed, I've done a lot of reviewing and I'm not a particularly gentle reviewer. If something is dreadful, and I've decided for one reason or another it's worth noting that it's dreadful, I'm quite willing to do so. I think there is such a thing as dreadful . work. There are two kinds of dreadful work that would incense me. Shoddy work, where simply you're not receiving the basic execution that a paid writer should be rendering you for the money that you've paid, like when you go to a movie and you see the special effects are bad and unconvincing and the dialogue is out of sync, all the technical fuckups. Well, writers can do that same kind of thing and in genre fiction they're rarely called to task for it. And certain publishers characteristically publish books that are shamefully ill written, and this has nothing to do with whether they're stories about cuddly teddybears in Middle Earth, or adventuring with Bobby Stargun into the outer galaxy. Any kind of book can be well or poorly written, and shoddy goods deserve reprobation, especially when a publisher makes them the standard product, as Del Rey does.
Last Wave: In your Twilight Zone column you were reviewing a novel by Ron Goulart, and you asked the question: "Is it really fair, I wonder, to review such a book as Upside Downside? Surely it wasn't published with that possibility in mind. Rather, it passed into print routinely, a product of its industry, just as illiterate teenagers are finally graduated from high school in the interest solely of sparing the school and the student the embarrassment of overt failure. The author makes a bit of money, the publisher makes a bit of money, and a few copies might even be sold to guileless and unwary readers before this title is displaced on the racks by next month's titles. One might as well complain that jujubes aren't nourishing, or that subways are dirty. A bad review won't deter either Goulart or DA W from continuing to fulfill their roles in the industry, and I suspect the potential audience of Upside Downside doesn't read reviews ever. So why bother?" And you answer your question, that you want to teach the new writers who are at the "crossroads all new genre writers come to, where they must choose between hackwork and hard work." Do you think that it is working? Are you having an effect? Do you think anybody pays attention to that sort of stuff?
Disch: It's really hard to say. I'm sure that there are people out there who read the column and enjoy it, but whether the younger writers do, no, I don't think so. I think most of the people who've decided they're going to be science fiction writers have done so thinking it's going to be an easy way to earn a living. I think most of them are cynical by the time they're twenty, and aspire to be Barry Longyears and hacks of that ilk. I remember I was on a panel with Jack Chalker, and he felt that the only thing that a reviewer should do is to give cheerful, helpful tips about how you could write this novel better, and generally plug the idea of science fiction and behave in a comradely way selling "the product." The SFW A Bulletin is always filled with letters from the more miserable writers in the field saying how that they should club together and promote the idea of science fiction by drumming up interest at libraries and bopkstores and generally colluding to sell "the product" as though once you've gotten to the point where you can publish a book and it exists as a book, then you should be accepted as one of the guild. It's a guild mentality, or the union mentality, and I've never wanted to join a union. I've always thought that that sort of thing is bad for "the product" itself, if you're to be concerned with the product, but simply from the point of view of the reader. Those people are trying to ensure their livelihood by seeing to it that nobody describes what crimes they've committed. It's like the Human Resources Administration trying to cover up that daycare center in the Bronx where they've been raping children. Coverups are always the function of collusion. I'm not saying that Jack Chalker's books are equivalent to raping children, but I think they are rather equivalent to corrupting them. I think that he writes books that are sort of training grounds for nine and ten year olds to move on to Gor novels. They're preliminary S & M fantasies. You go on from reading Jack Chalker to being more thoroughly corrupted by a John Norman and then going on to rape children.
Last Wave: In a recent column, Russell Baker wrote that children will get tired of stealing hubcaps, but once a lout a lout forever. Do you think that reading bad literature is training people to accept bad literature?
Disch: It's training them to accept a poisoned environment, one in which their own emotional requirements are diminished and poor and sometimes vicious. Certainly uncaring towards the 6Ple with whom they have to share the environment. I think-n s part of the system that it requires the profit motive as a sufficient excuse for any crime, whether the crime be depraving the taste of children or poisoning lakes with asbestos. Profit is for a certain kind of person, enough of an excuse for anything they do. If it earns money, they feel justified. Last Wave: To go from the wretched to the sublime, in a list that you put together called "Thirteen Great Works of Fantasy from the Last 13 Years," you cite John Crowley's Little, Big as "the best fantasy novel ever. Period." Can you elaborate on that?
Disch: It's just such a wonderful book, but I have a hard time dealing with it, in that to my mind, Crowley is the one person of my generation whose work has exceded in extent and equaled in quality my own. He's created a larger book than I ever have, a larger and a better book. There was a point when he was entering the field and we met and said "Howdy-do" that I had an instinctive sense that here is someone whose work I must avoid reading. I saw it in his eyes that he had that lean and hungry look that Caesar was wary of in Cassius and to the degree that writers are rivals, it's painful. I mean, who was that German who went down in defeat to Daley Thompson in the decathalon just now? Anyhow, I feel that kind of rivalry towards Crowley and it's a very good thing that I do. He probably feels a reciprocal ambivilance to me.
Last Wave: Explain the difference if you will between that type of rivalry and Hemingway's desire to get in the ring with Doestyevsky.
Disch: There's nothing in my rivalry that would involve me wanting to hit John Crowley, that seems really an inappropriate response. I guess if you think in metaphors of boxing it would make sense. I don’t. Watching boxing matches on television just always make squirm with discomfort. It's not a pleasant activity to me. But on the other hand I certainly can understand rivalry through other metaphors. But that's all just preliminary to saying that Little, Big absolutely defeated any residual reluctance to admit Crowley's accomplishment. It's hard to describe the nature of how it's good because it's unusually good in many ways and it's only by virtue of the multiplicity of its virtues that it is overwhelmingly terrific. To try and account for all the ways in which that book is good: The respect in which it evokes the entire spectrum of large scale emotional experiences available to men and women in a way that is archtypical, representative, and of course powerful; the emotional gamut that the book over its full span represents is larger than the emotional gamut of any other fantasy work that I know. It describes more of the central emotional experiences life offers: Our relationship to our parents, love, sacred and profane, the feeling of being predestined towards love and towards death, our relationship to transcendental experience, towards the sublime, its humor, passages that describe fear and the uncanny. It's got it all, and in each case he's done something sublime with that particular emotional moment. That's one thing the book has. The next thing is that the book is always beautifully written. And yet it's beautifully written without ever seeming to create unnecessary flourishes. It will rise sometimes to a very fireworky sort of thing, but only on occasions when that's strictly called for. I would contrast that to Camp Concentration, in which some of the fireworky writing moments are spectacular for their own sake and not because the situation of the story at that moment seems to require fireworks. Camp Concentration is the work of a much younger writer, which I was, but it registers more as showing off than John's equally good writing at his best moments in his book. The one quarrel that I have with Crowley's is its relationship to history, and especially the character of the emperor Frederick Barberosa and his reawakening, and suspect that John has a similar sense that he hasn't dealt with the span of human time and the respect in which we are all creatures of history, the inheritors, and in which our consciousnesses are functions of all that's gone before us. That's a flaw of the book, but as against its virtues, not one to make the book less great.
The final element that I think is wonderful in it is its use of the, supernatural conceits that provide the fantastic element and his ability to encompass what I would call a Shakespearean tone towards the supernatural e1ement, which is always doubted, but not in the way that James doubts his supernatural elements in The Turn of the Screw. Rather over the whole of the novel Crowley gives you a richer and richer sense of the metaphoric power of the idea of fairies, what they may mean, and by the end of the book he has made them mean so much that he can bring off their triumphant reality after their ambiguous existence through the course of the book in which they have figured as the central element of the story. That to me is a tremendous balancing feat. It resulted in what I felt was the most bravura ending in recent fiction and certainly the greatest ending in a fantasy nove1, which usually tend to taper off at the end, when they strive for th ir grandest fantastic effects and don't cinch the question of the suspension of disbelief. Instead most fantasy novels disintegrate towards the end as their reach exceeds their grasp. Well, John reached and grasped, and the result was a thoroughly successful and to me utterly imposing work of fiction.
Last Wave: Who else would you say is trying to work at that level, is attempting the ambitious work?
Disch: There are many good writers in the field, but I don't think: many of them have aimed for something as large as John's. I haven't set out to produce a novel that is a microcosm of everything that I could say about life, which Little, Big is. Maybe the body of my work could approximate that, but I have tried to create no masterpiece, giant novel. Last Wave: Do you see yourself as working towards that?
Disch: I have hopes for Pressure of Time to be a very largescale work. I have different advantages. I invent more freely. I have more good ideas. John Crowley has an intensity and a tenatiousness of wit and a steadiness of focussed perception over a long term that are commendable. I move faster, I think:. There's advantages in that. At this point I don't intend to compete with that book. I just admire it.
Last Wave: I was wondering how you relate your Prisoner novel, Black Alice, and your gothics to your body of work as a whole. Do you do what Graham Greene does when he divides the body of his work into his serious works and what he calls his "entertainments," or do you think: of it all as a part of the whole?
Disch: I think there's a spectrum. Clearly there are some piffling works in my bibliography. The gothic I wrote with John Sladek, The House That Fear Built, can only be appreciated as camp. It has no other virtue. There are some scenes in it that are a hoot, and a few descriptions that are campy delights, but it was only written as a potboiler, so its only virtues would have to be incidental ones of that sort. The Prisoner was somewhat more seriously intended. I put my own name to it, that's a clue. I thought it was fun. I'd never written a James Bond type of novel and I was offered it and I needed the money. You don't write tie-ins for any other reason. I hadn't seen any of the T.V. programs when I agreed to do it and then I managed to sit in on two or three of them that were being broadcast at the time. I thought the set decorations were lovely and so I used the visual sense of the program, but I made up my own plot for it given the basic paranoid premise of the series. It was just my jeu d'esprit on paranoid themes. And sometimes you can have more fun. You don't feel responsible towards your material. You can play around with it. It's certainly a fast way to write, because you don't feel responsibility for the ultimate product. So I think that there's a lot of graceful invention in the thing, but I think of it as a souffle at best. Next up the line, Black Alice, I suppose, or Camp Concentration, those were both works written to a deliberate conscious formula, and one that I don't have any ultimate allegiance towards. That sort of thing can be done well or ill but I don't feel that either of them would hold much interest for somebody who's going to study my work for what it means, because I think in both cases the stories are dictated by genre requirements rather then by expressive need. Then there's a work that could be called gothic, Clara Reeve, which I think is central to my oeuvre, if I have an ouevre. That was only written under a pseudonym because Bob Gottleib of Knopf said it had to be a pseudonym. And I said, "All right." I didn't have much choice; I wanted to have a book brought out by Knopf, they did a good job with it. But I intend, as soon as ever I can have it reprinted, to restore my name as author, because I was very proud of it and when I set out to write it I wrote it with a conscious sense of ambition, meaning it to be the best of its kind that ever had been done. And I think that in a way it is. It's the gothic novel to end all gothic novels to my mind and a few people agree. It's a formal notion. I mean, I'm a very formalist writer. When I approach a book, I have before me an idea of what kind of book it should be and that idea is based on predecessor books that other people have written. In that sense I've never been experimental. I've always had models in mind for what I mean to do. For instance, for Camp Concentration I think my predecessor novel is probably Anna Karenina or that kind of large scale social fabric focussed on two or three central figures and on one central female protagonist, but seen with as large a span of social detail and reality as you can possibly bring to bear.
Last Wave: Many of your characters seem to be fascinated by Marcel Proust. In rereading your work, I ran across at least seven or eight characters who were in the middle of it and one of them calls his Remembrance of Things Past "the dullest and best of all books." I'm wondering about its fascination for you.
Disch: Proust is no longer the bane of my existence, because I did finally finish it so now I don't have to write about it anymore. I got it out of the way and I have no other huge novel that I'm in the guilty middle of. There's some that I've started and put aside and I think I will never read, but there's none that I'm halfway through and feeling guilty for, as I was for years and years with Proust.
Last Wave: At the end of your story in Dangerous Visions, there was a list of about 75 stories you intended to never, ever write. I don't find any of these titles familiar and I'm wondering if you ever wrote any of them.
Disch: Any of those? No. They are ideas that got scrapped. And since then I've probably generated two hundred more; If I could print the list of aborted fetuses of stories it would be quite imposing by now. Some of them are very nice titles.
Last Wave: Regarding Samuel Delaney's The American Shore, do you feel deserving of a book length exegesis of a single one of your short stories? What is your reaction to that?
Disch: I was tickled. Lord knows it's not a bad book. Chip probably has a feeling towards me like I was expressing about John Crowley's rivalry. His way of dealing with it was to write The American Shore. Which is to say that he would intellectually encompass a work of mine so thoroughly that he would as it were wrap it up entirely in a cocoon of his own spinning. Of course at the same time he himself knows enough that that's only a metaphorical possibility, that the story exists outside of his interpretation, but...it seemed to have been a good thing for him to have done.
Last Wave: Do you think that "Angouleme" is the short story you've written that is the most deserving?
Disch: I think you can do that with any story. His precedent was Roland Barthes' book S/Z. This is a book in which Roland Barthes did exactly the same treatment of a Balzac story called "Sarrazine." He broke that story up into "scenes" as he called them, numbered in the same way, and then he wrote exegeses of every line of the Balzac story, and printed the Balzac story as an accompaniment. Chip's book was formally modelled after the Barthes book, and the difference is that Barthes chose his Balzac story as being one that he knew was almost laughably prolix and unreadable and silly. I don't think Chip had that attitude towards "Angouleme." But as to "Is this story more deserving of that attention than any other?"-Any story that anybody's ever written could be examined that c1o'sely by a critic of sufficient gifts, and the results would be interesting. This case of minute examination is like using the microscope. Things that aren't interesting in real life, are insignificant-the edge of a leaf, the wing of a mosquito-become fascinating and beautiful under a microscope. It's an interesting and valuable critical approach. But the object of the book is almost beside the point. What is important is the opportunity for the critic to demonstrate his toolbox.
Last Wave: You've written opera librettos for "Frankenstein" and "The Fall of the House of Usher." How much attention is paid to them by the opera world?
Disch: Virtually none, because Greg hasn't been able to get a production for "Frankenstein," though we had the one out in Long Island to a piano score. There was to have been a performance in Baltimore, but they cancelled their season. We're talking about small opera houses. And Greg seems to be making his fame as a critic, alas, instead of as a composer. I thought it was a very good opera. I'm naturally partial. I think that a good libretto really constitutes the modem descenda t of the verse play. Verse plays are an extinct creature pretty much, unnatural and unwanted. But opera is a living . art in that it's still performed. And I love opera. It's the only kind of stage performance that I regularly and by preference attend, paying my own money for it. Having been offered the possibility to participate in an art in which I've always been just a spectator I had to say yes. It was a good experience both times. I simply wish there were more opera composers in the world knocking at my door. On the other hand, I haven't done the obvious thing and approached those opera composers whom I admire and say: "Look, these are the librettos I've done," because another pan of me knows that writing opera libretti is a thankless and not very profitable task.
Last Wave: Whose choice was it for the two operas to be adaptations of... ?
Disch: I worked as an agent for hire. Greg wanted to do an opera on both of those themes. I resisted "Frankenstein," in fact, for a couple of years while we discussed it. I was always willing to kibitz with him about it. Finally, after we kibitzed enough, I talked myself into doing it. The final dramatic shape of it is at least as much mine as his. There were certain things that he always wanted-the final dramatic monologue of the creature on the ice was always to have been the last cunain. There were other things that were my specific inventions, such as the long murder of the bridal night scene, in which the creature, entering Elizabeth's room, stabs her and continues stabbing her through the entire length of what amounts to a perverse love duet. That, when it was performed, really worked. It truly had people taken aback. It was dramatically successful. It also got a bit of stage blood on the shin of the person sitting next to me. That's the difficulty of operas in the round.
Last Wave: In The Businessman, you have John Berryman as one of the major characters. What exactly does he represent to you as a poet? Why John Berryman rather than some other suicidia1 poet who might fill some of the same narrative needs?
Disch: It's set in Minneapolis, St. Paul, and he committed suicide right there. So in the sense of having a ghost at hand, he would be there as a ghost That pan of it is just history and fact. But he lends himself perfectly to the tone of the novel and its themes. If he hadn't jumped off the bridge it would have been necessary to invent him. But it wasn't necessary so it was fine to have him there in all his reality. He seemed to fit right into the book without any problem. Everybody's pleased to see him there. He's needed in various ways. The book posits an afterlife in which everybody survives somehow or another, one way or another, which means that there would be the ghosts of real people in the afterlife. Adah Mencken is a real person, but most people wouldn't have known about her. For most people she wouldn't even register as an historically real ghost. But John Berryman is fresh enough in people's minds that people will realize, yes, that's a real person. That also makes Adah's claims for her reality stronger. And partly the advantage of it is just suspending disbelief. Very few of us had a chance to meet Berryman, but we've read things about him and we read his own account of himself. He was his own subject more than any other modem poet. He was self¬obsessed in describing himself as an impossible person. If you can create a portrait of somebody that people know, somebody who's portrayed himself clearly and vividly, and if your portrait extends this known real existence as an "impossible" person, but which is known to be real only through literature, in an appropriate afterlife with Dantean punishments that have poetic justice to them, and him being a lover of Dante, it seemed absolutely perfect person for giving an afterlife to. He was always a delight to have in the book. I always wondered if people who knew him would take offense, but so far... .
Last Wave: Have you had any contact with his relatives?
Disch: Not relatives, but one person who knew him said it was a very good portrait. They were entirely convinced that it was, as it were, drawn from life. The reason for that is that he portrayed himself so well in his own work that you only had to read that and he's there. I suppose part of it was writing Neighboring. Lives., and getting a sense of everybody in the past as being susceptible to portraiture thanks to their own work at portraying themselves. Writers so often do that; they're wonderful subjects. That's why there are so many biographies of writers. It's not that writers are important; they're not. But, one, the people who write biographies are also writers, so they're interested in writers, so they write about writers, and two, writers have written so much about themselves that they make the biographer's task much easier, than say, astronauts, who might have led much more fascinating lives, but they haven't left documents behind them, except in personnel files which aren't interesting. Writers make the task of the biographer so much easier. Last Wave: On the other hand, there's an essay by Harlan Ellison he wrote for the Harlan Ellison issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction called "You Don't Know Me, I Don't Know You" in which he points out the foolishness of thinking you can know anything at all about a writer from his or her work.
Last Wave: Do I know you from this table full of books?
Disch: I should hope so! I should hope anybody who's read that pile of books knows more about me than somebody who's spent a week on vacation with me.
Last Wave: He was making a statement about the sort of person who would say that because he wrote a story with a chauvinist in it that he was a chauvinist, the sort who like to deduce intimate things about him based on his choice of subject-he was commenting on those who mistake the author for the characters he writes about.
Disch: People can do that in real life too. People can spend a week on vacation and come away with an equivalent mixed bag of misconceptions. They can also get it right. Having read a book doesn't guarantee that you've understood me, but having read the book correctly there's a strong supposition that you've taken many of my meanings and know a lot about who I am. When I meet people who have read things of mine I very quickly get a sense of how sympatico we'll be in relationship to whether they seem to have understood my work the way I understand it. If they do understand it the way I understand it, if what they say seems on target rather than off target, there's a good likelihood that we'll understand each other as. people quickly and expeditiously. I think the body of a writer's work is a fair indication, not of everything about who he is, for many writers conceal a lot of themselves in their work or misrepresent themselves. I'm no different. An interesting thing about knowing writers is finding out the ways in which they create a public persona different from the person you meet.
Last Wave: Harlan also wrote about meeting Isaac Asimov for the first time and expecting to see a six foot eight ubermench
Disch: It's a misunderstanding. For one thing, Harlan isn't a close reader of other people's works. He's an enjoyer, and an enthusiast, but if he likes something he loses himself into it directly. I wouldn't expect him to make that kind of assessment. I think you have to be more suspicious of the world in general, in order to start being a psychologist. Harlan misrepresents himself for dramatic purposes, and Harlan is indeed, now\that he's a grownup, a pretty shrewd reader. I've seen him working in writing classes where he's encountering somebody he doesn't know at all, and he instantly begins to interpret on the basis of a botched story personal elements¬of that person's life of which Harlan knows nothing. So of course, he's misrepresenting his own modus operandi. Harlan has this special relationship with his audience where he's the world's worst flirt. He demands adulation and attention more than any other writer. I've been with him when he's been writing something, and every three pages he would summon everyone in the house to hear the latest three pages from the typewriter, needing the reassurance that the audience existed, that it was there, that it would cfap, that it responded, and liked him. His writing in show windows. Who's ever thought of such a thing? Only someone whose relationship to his audience is a primal experience.
Last Wave: There's a Nabokov line to the effect that showing people your rough drafts is like passing around a cup of your saliva.
Disch: That's funny! But I do it. I certainly have the same hunger for attention and applause. Even for rough drafts. I'm constantly calling up friends and saying, "Hey, you've got to hear this one" or "What do you think of this?" You can carry it to an excess and it could become a vice, but people like to communicate. It's a natural thing to do. If you didn't want people to hear it sooner or later, you wouldn't be writing it. Reading the first draft is just sooner.
Last Wave: In your stories you've had many hQmosexual characters, the most recent being Bing Anker in The Businessman, but in your interviews you seem to have skirted around talking about it. In an interview in which you were asked about alienation, your answer towards the interviewer was that "very few married men with children complain about alienation." Since you don't have children and are not likely to, I didn't see that as a complete answer to the interviewer's question. Being gay, do you have a sense of alienation, does it come from your sexual preference, did that sense of being different affect you becoming a writer?
Disch: I would say that alienation is a function more of being young and unconnected with the world in general, professionally, emotionally, and in just having a sure sense of your own identity, than a question of homosexuality or heterosexuality. I came to my own sexual identity rather late in life, I'd say about age 27. It was a bit of a surprise to me, in that I fell in love. Love is always a surprise, and in this case, it was a shortlived happy surprise, because it was as they say a tragic love affair, or rather, it was soon unrequited. But I would have to say that on the whole my sexual experience has been one to mellow me out and reconcile me to the world, rather than to alienate me.
Last Wave: It's just that in answer to that interviewer's question you didn't say, "No, I'm not alienated" or "Yes, I am alienated," you said, "very few married men with children." That was your answer to the question, and knowing you I know that's not a yes or no answer, which made me think...
Disch: I wouldn't associate it to me in my life. It certainly is in lots of other lives one reads about, but I've never had any problems as a homosexual. I haven't been rejected by my family. I haven't lost jobs or even felt jobs being threatened.
Last Wave: In terms of the writing, had it been a hindrance at all, or has no one cared since you're sending in pieces of paper in the mail.
Disch: Homosexuality hadn't been something I've written about a lot. I don't define myself as an angry homosexual, protesting injustices to homosexuals. It would be hypocrisy for me to do so, for that hasn't been a central experience in my life. I'm just not a protester for radical causes. People who make a political career out of complaining about a private injustice are wasting their lives on toothaches. The thing to do is go to the dentist if you've got a toothache. If you've got a problem in your life, solve it. In New York, homosexuals are rather advantaged than otherwise. They can afford the preposterous rents because they don't have families. The homosexuals that I've known, as a statistical group, tend to be rather more fortunate or better positioned socially than men of the same age who would be trying to put together a family. You wouldn't do that in Manhattan, it's a real difficulty. What happens is that you get to know a world that isn't representative of America at large. I'm quite capable of having, I suppose, paranoid feelings about the rest of the country, vis a vis being homosexual. But whenever I've visited people I've had very little static. Maybe it's because I come already as an established writer and some people are already friendly in advance. I mean, I'm seldom even snubbed for it.
Last Wave: I've talked with editors who've spoken about writers who've had sex change operations, for instance, and they'd gag and shiver and say, "I would never, could never purchase anything from that person." The idea of a different orientation just made them ill, and colored their ability to look objectively at a story. I'm wondering if anything like that had ever happened to you?
Disch: I'm sure that there are homophobic editors who've turned my work down automatically on understanding that I'm gay. I understand that that exists in the world. But they are not so much in charge of things that it has been a prevailing force in my life. I'm rather conservative myself I think, as homosexuals go. I don't think I can be said to have lived a promiscuous life. Charlie and I have been together for fifteen years now, and we're homebodies. What is commonly called the gay lifestyle has not been part of my life. I've never been into a disco. That's not quite true, I have been, but I haven't danced there. And the respect in which there's activism among homosexuals, there are certain activist causes that are seeking to correct genuine injustices. But those injustices haven't impinged on me directly. They are in the class of good causes I don't bother with personally, like ERA and Help for the Handicapped. There are hundreds of worthy causes that I don't personally do anything about. What else do you want to know about my relationship to homosexuality?
Last Wave: Just the relationship it has to writing...
Disch: There's probably an advantage in some respects, that of being at a certain distance. Every writer preserves a beneficial distance from other people's lives, from life as it's generally led, and that allows him to look at things cooly, objectively, with a certain perspective, a bunch of adjectives that can lead to the word you started off with, alienation. But not in the sense that one is necessarily out of sympathy with what is going on. Only in that because you don't share certain things that other people take for granted you have to examine them and look at them more closely, an intellectual attention that other people are spared, because the problem never arises as a problem. So for certain homosexual writers, like Gore Vidal, there's a kind of intellectual and analytical approach to the human situation, second nature to an intellectual homosexual. E. M. Forster is another, more easy to see in the past, whose cool view of life was certainly reinforced by his situation as a homosexual.
Last Wave: Do you think that as a generality, writers to begin with have that step removed in which they intellectualize things, and that this is just a compounding of it?
Disch: It's a function of learning to use language as a professional tool. It's built into language, though. There's no difference between thought and using language well. It's all the same.
Last Wave: George Orwell would agree.
Disch: Many linguistic philosophers make the same equation, that thought is only using language well. Physiological psychologists who deal with two brains, would say that there are functions of thought that are not linguistic and are nevertheless highly structured. I think that becoming a professional user of language requires learning to achieve that distance of thoughtfulness.
Last Wave: In "The Asian Shore" you have your protagonist travelling to another country specifically for that purpose, feeling that you must cut yourself from the other aspects of your life, the distractions, and get to a place where you can think.
Disch: That story is about the danger of carrying that process too far. You have to alternate back and forth. Abstract statements always end up, for me, my abstract statements, in ever gooier mud, where distinctions become more and more impalpable. But isn't it very Hegelian and a correct philosophical position to insist that meaningful statements can only be generated out of successive contradictions? That's Godel's proof, that you can't have a system of mathematics that does not incorporate a contradictory element which element allows the system to be generated. Any set of abstractions that I come up with, I always find myself saying, "Yes, but," and finding the necessity of contradicting what I said, as to the advantage of alienation and the necessity for a writer, "Yes, but. " "Yes, but" is what happens in "The Asian Shore" if you carry that too far, so what I said about my middle aged wisdom is the conventional wisdom of the middle way. Nothing to excess, if you swerve to the right you'd better sort of correct with a swerve to the left. It's a dull philosophy, because it suggests only that you're playing it safe. But it even so may be true.
Last Wave: So rather than discussing the philosophical aspects behind the books do we let them all stand for themselves?
Disch: Oh, no, I'm always willing to say what anyone of them may mean. I love to interpret myself. The problem is I'm at such a distance from the work. Chip's advantage, the reason for doing that particular approach of interpreting every line and saying what that line means is that you really are attached to what the writer did, to the text, where at a distance of several years, even the writer himself has only a very abstract precis of the book in his memory. I go back and I read old things of mine and I'm astonished by them, or you read things of mine and I sit chuckling at my own lines, as though they were brand new. God bless forgetfulness.
Last Wave: You've said that you can't look back at your own work and enjoy it except for what it tells you about who you were, that they're so far removed from what you're doing now you can no longer enjoy them as stories. What do you think you'll be able to say in twenty years when you sit down and read your current work. The Businessman, for instance?
Disch: Oh, I'll like that one. What I like about The Businessman right now is that it has an allegorical dimension that is really very simple and nice. Every figure in it, Berryman and Bing and Joy¬Anne, and each one of the characters has a very c1earcut allegorical function. You can say, ah, this one represents this, as a fictional symbolic schema that is at the same time appearing to be just a story without symbolic meanings. It bears pondering, that's what I mean by allegory, that you can look at the plot and say, "What did it mean for this to happen?" "Why did this thing happen to this particular person?" and how much of the details can be brought to bear and illuminated-each character, each element of the allegory. In great allegory, like Dante, every detail, every phrase, is a function of the larger allegorical meaning.
Last Wave: Do you feel you have such control that everything was chosen rather than. . .
Disch: I wouldn't say chosen consciously, because the book was written very much in a state of each little chapter of inspiration. The difficulty in writing the book was always to hold off' plunging full steam ahead, to wait until I had a new bright idea for the next chapter, a new shift of gears, a new change of direction, a new way of speeding thing up. I kept rejecting chapters that I had done and saying, "No, that's not surprising enough." I wanted it to be as fast as it could be; all of my interest was in creating pace and surprise. I wasn't thinking of what it meant at all. In fact, I was constantly thinking of things that contradicted my ideas of what was logical to happen next. When I look back now on the book that resulted from that (and it is full of surprise, narratively) to me, what I like in it now is the feeling that everything is in balance in terms of it being a single statement about-I don't know what it's about. The difficulty with allegory is always to say finally what it attaches to. With Dante you can. Bunyan is so mechanical I don't think he's good allegory.
Last Wave: If the importance of allegory is this total control, I'm wondering about the project you're working on right now, the interactive novel, in which anytime anyone sits down and "reads" it, it will tell a different story. I'm wondering how you can exercise the same degree of control as to the story you tell, what you feel you're doing with it and what you're getting out of it.
Disch: It's a different experience, but the user's freedom is, as in life, largely an illusion. So that in my control over the elements of the interactive game, I don't control the order, but I control what is actually said. That's the chief thing. It's the statement that you make. I'm creating a field in which there's not a linear narrative. It's rather a field of possibilities in which you can move, where all of those possibilities are declarations that I'm making. And if I'm thinking about how to put those together, it's not that different from writing a collection of short poems in which the order in which the poems appear isn't that important.
Last Wave: Going back to what we we're talking about before, where I was quoting Nabokov saying that the lowest form of appreciation of a work is the one in which you're having the vicarious thrill of actually being the character, isn't that what this is, where the user is the character?
Disch: You're saying no, you use the word you instead of I or he, but...
Last Wave: This is taking the steps towards vicarious appreciation one step further. . .
Disch: No, I think actually that the player of one of these games is. more distanced from the daydreaming aspect, because he's constantly having to solve little puzzles about the language that you're going to use to make the computer understand you. You're constantly stopping and starting and interrupting the flow of what would be daydreaming in a novel so I think that the result of this is to create a reader who is more alert to nuances of the text. For one thing he has to read slowly (you can't create a succession of events that is going to make the words on that screen go as fast as most skim readers) and you're always looking for clues to pick up for your own language back to the computer, which again, makes you read more carefully than speedreaders habitually do. So in some respects, this work lends itself more to the kind of writing that I do in terms of the kind of attention I ask to be given to it, which is a close and careful attention.
Last Wave: You would not have been able to write such a novel ten years ago.
Disch: Who would have thought to write such a novel? The machinery didn't exist.
Last Wave: But you could have done it if you'd wanted to by writing at the bottom of each page, "If you choose A turn to page X if you choose B turn to..."
Disch: But it's not a novel. It's something else. It's a genuinely different form.
Last Wave: What should we call it?
Disch: I've called it microfiction.
Last Wave: When it is done and released, how do you hope it will be reviewed? As a game or as a novel in book reviewing columns?
Disch: It truly baffles me.
Last Wave: Will Games write about it? Or will they review it in Fantasy and Science Fiction?
Disch: I doubt it. I would be pleased to have whatever attention, but whoever reviews it, if they're reviewing it in terms of existing expectations, they're coming at it wrong. This is a genuinely new artform. Its possibilities are different. Its pleasures are different. You can fuck up differently doing it. And nobody knows yet what those possibilities or those potential fuck ups are. It's like being D. W. Griffith, and having a camera put in your hands, and being told, "Here, see what you can do with this," and nobody's yet invented the closeup, and nobody knows how to edit film. Everybody's saying, "What you've got here is basically that you want to film a stage play," and D.W. Griffith says, "No, no, this is going to be different" but he doesn't know to call it movies. What doesn't exist yet is the word "movies" for interactive fiction. That word will come. I don't know what it will be. But interactive fiction is at least as different from novels as movies are from stageplays. At least that different, probably more so.
Last Wave: But you are treating this as a serious project?
Disch: Oh, certainly! It's nice to be a pioneer It's a very lightweight piece of work in terms of emotion or the allegorical senses that I was talking about in The Businessman. In that respect it's going to be crude, because the problems simply of dealing with the formal demands of the thing have meant that I have had to reduce the loadbearing capabilities of the structure to very light dimensions.
Last Wave: So you want us to look at the restrictions on this in the same way we'd look at a sonnet and not complain that it only has a certain number of lines or syllables per line.
Disch: I don't suppose I'll have the same audience at all. I don't suppose literary people are going to be interested in interactive fiction except as something that they might be able to dismiss in a quick essay as a sign of how we're all becoming mechanized and alienated. That's the take of the literary establishment.
Last Wave: It's the author who will lend the form weight, though. I'm sure if Norman Mailer sat down and wrote an interactive novel tomorrow it would be reviewed on the cover of the N ew York Times Book Review Section.
Disch: Well, I don't think he could.
Last Wave: We're not talking about talent here. I'm just saying, if he did it would be treated seriously.
Disch: Yes, but I'm not generally dealt with as a serious writer. In fact, I don't like talking about "serious" fiction. Most people who use "serious" in a "serious" way are defending class privilege.
Last Wave: Are you talking about Updike and Cheever when you say "serious"?
Disch: Not them, they're good writers. And they're not promoting themselves as "serious" writers. But the people who teach Updike and Cheever iri classes in modem fiction or review them in the New York Times think of them writing serious fiction, and what they mean is that these books have a canonical status, that they have moral intentions loftier than entertainment literature, that they are art, which also usually excludes the sense of playful or irreverence. Seriousness is a curse. It's a way of saying "sacred turf, people stay away, we own this here in academia."
Last Wave: But you find that more in the interpreters, the Leslie Fiedlers rather than¬
Disch: No, Fiedler would be against "serious." He's made some of the best critical cases for viewing that claim as bullshit. I once gave my usual speech about how I hated "serious" literature and somebody asked me, "Well, what are you going to call it, how will you make the distinction between what we understand as serious and what we understand as not serious?" and I said: "Good and bad." That's the division to make. And that's a valid division. You look at what's there, you see what it intended, and if it's something worth intending and it does it well, that's good, and if it's not worth intending or it doesn't do it well or both, it's bad. You can have beef bourgignon, and it can be good or bad, but one isn't serious beef and the other not.
Last Wave: On rereading Getting Into Death I saw that you organized the stories alphabetically so as a result I was reading "The Master of the Milford Altarpiece" before the stories it referred to, such as "Slaves." I was wondering what your intention was in doing it that way.
Disch: There's a book of poetry that's organized even more willfully that way, called ABCDEFGHIJKLMNPOQRSTUVWXYZ. SO partly there's a deliberate delight in the alphabet itself. I was a library page for many years in high school, and your chief work as a library page is to arrange things alphabetically. With my books it was a way of defying the alternative conventional arrangement, which is chronological. A chronological arrangement implies that the drama of the author's life is somehow the ordering principle' for his oeuvre. An alphabetical arrangement says, "No, each of these works has its autonomous integrity, and any arrangement is arbitrary. These just happen to be together here, and any order will do and so why not an alphabetical one?" Having made that decision I can play with it including or excluding certain poems, but that's what the basic decision and its implications is.
Last Wave: There's then the third method which would be to arrange them in such a way as you'd hang paintings in museums where you'd choose how the mood of one story would flow into another, which is how you've arranged your other anthologies.
Disch: And in effect that's not missing, because what you can do is change titles and include or exclude certain things. I mean, if you want a touch of color between two darks...in the poetry books I wrote a few poems to fill in gaps in the alphabet.
Last Wave: And I'm sure there'll be many critics who will sit down and say that the reason you wrote those particular poems was some great inspiration.
Disch: Well, those shouldn't contradict.
Last Wave: Robert Frost wrote "The Road Not Taken" to chide a laggard friend who could never make up his mind. He wrote it as a nasty thing, mailed it off to his friend, and received a letter back exclaiming that it was a masterpiece. The reason for the inspiration itself in the end doesn't really matter, the work has to stand on its own, and will.
Disch: And I agree, too.
Last Wave: You wrote a novella "White Fang Goes Dingo" which you lengthened into a novel which was published in the U.S. as Mankind Under The Leash and in England as The Puppies of Terra. Were these title changes artistically amenable to you, or was it only for marketing considerations?
Disch: 1 wanted the title The Puppies of Terra. 1 thought that was a charming title. Don Wolheim is into bondage, and he always put men in chains on the covers (I mean, he's the discoverer and publisher of John Norman), so the title Mankind Under the Leash was the result. 1 don't think it represented the book's whimsical or comic thrust. But what could 1 do? 1 had a standard Ace contract. He had the right to make that change. To give him credit, he didn't actually rewrite the novel. He had a benign indifference toward what you actually wrote as long as it didn't exceed the length required. Phil Dick did not have his novels butchered by W olheim so long as they came in at the length that was required. If they were longer, they would just have an arm or a leg chopped off summarily, but there wasn't any fiddling with the prose, so what 1 actually wrote was what was actually published, except for the title.
Last Wave: This is really, as far as I can tell, the only shorter piece which you have expanded to greater length.
Disch: No. Camp Concentration was based upon an unpublished novellette of forty pages which was much too skeletal in its execution. It really amounted to a synopsis. The Businessman' actually started off as a short story that was never published called "Glandier's Wife," and never will be published because it's a terrible story, but it had the germ of the ghost pregnancy and the demonic child. In the original case the child wasn't the little horror that he is in this, nor was the husband. There was just the aspect of the wife's ghost becoming pregnant and the husband having to deal with a child who's half real. That idea haunted me for years and years and years...
Last Wave: Since when?
Disch: Oh, that goes back to '64, I think.
Last Wave: Have you ever been tempted to expand upon any of your other things?
Disch: Not usually, because usually I'm very happy with a story that's written. Sometimes I'm uncertain whether a thing has the growth potential of a novel. So when I was beginning On Wings of Song I wasn't certain that that was going to be a novel for maybe the first fifteen or twenty pages. 'Cause I didn't write that with a whole outline in mind. I had the idea, and I just moved into the story. And I'm doing one right now called Eternity, which I suspect is going to be a short story, but it could be a novel. There's the possibility there. And as I'm writing it, I'm trying to make it as large as I can, because as large as a thing can be is a good idea no matter what length it is. You get that same feeling of fullness in a good short story as in a novel. Fullness isn't a question of size, it's whether you get it to the rim.
Last Wave: You let the things find their own proper length rather than sitting down and saying, "Now I will write a short story or a novel."
Disch: Sometimes. Sometimes I know that what I have isn't a situation, a field of possibilities, but I have a plot idea that's going to have an absolutely certain length, like "Josie and the Elevator." Once I had that story I knew just how long that would go, within minutes of thinking of it. I knew about how long that would be. But other times you have a situation that could be amplified to any length. An example, and one similar to Eternity, is Philip Parmer's Riverworld series, which in its very nature could go to any length, because basically it's a question of how much fun can you have combining and recombining all of your favorite characters in history and literature. That could go on as long as the phantasmagoria of the premise continues to entertain you. .. , Last Wave: I've noticed a love of innocence in your work, a Peter' Pan type attitude. As long ago as "102 H-Bombs" in 1965, you wrote: "that was the definition of being an adult: that you couldn't see the way out." Just a few years ago you wrote in "The Grownup" . of a situation where childhood seems to be the best thing, and then we wake sadly to be grownups, and you do use children a fair . amount .of the time. I was wondering how you see yourself in relationship to that.
Disch: It's lovely to be able to move into that frame of mind. "The Brave Little Toaster" is probably my best sustained adventure in innocence. I think it's something everybody loves. Usually the difficulty for artists in writing about innocence is that it moves into a kind of Shirley Temple type of sentimentality and cute darling falsifications. Getting the tone of children is difficult, because they're not nice necessarily. It's not that children don't have tempers and the capabilities of being perfect little monsters. The latest child is the one in The Businessman, and he's the monster in the book. Part of the ,interest of childhood is that children are amoral. In Bradbury it's the same, his children are divided between the little monsters and the sweethearts. The fun of Bradbury when he's good is that there's the same charm to the children whether they're good children or bad children, like the children in "The Veldt" who have the lions eat their parents? They're just as nice children as the children in his dreadful book Something Wicked This Way Comes, which makes the myth of childhood become mawkish and sentimental. But that's not to say that the only interesting children are wicked children, because of course there are nice ones too. It's just a different way of looking at things, and it's one that writers generally have. I'm certainly not alone in wanting to write about children and feeling happy with Peter Pannish feelings. Although I don't think there's anything in Hemingway that could be compared to that. If you're macho I guess you don't enjoy children. At least I can't think of anything in Hemingway.
Last Wave: Tying this innocence together with the joyfulness I I spoke of earlier, because by innocence I don't just mean childhood here but sort of an outlook, again, I wonder why there's the misinterpretation of your work as being despairing, depressing, saddening, when most of it is in fact the other way around, being a sort of celebration of things, of what people are and what they can do and how they interrelate. Why is it that there is this misinterpretation in readers and critics?
Disch: The simplest reason is envy. Do you know a better?
Last Wave: I don't mean just the way people react badly when you say: "Well, we must have standards here," and they say: "Go away, we just want to write ray blaster science fiction." I'm questioning the misreading of the intention.
Disch: Why do fundamentalist believers in religion dislike rock and roll? Why do they consider it wicked and an agent of devilish ( powers? Because it awakens their bodies to unexpected life. Bright )ideas d the same thing to the mind, and to minds that are frozen into certain self-defensive postures, whether ideological or imaginative. If certain imaginative possibilities are denied to the mind and then they are awakened, it always feels like a vampire awakening. It's always something you're afraid of. Because the experience challenges the equilibrium of the rather icy structure of a settled emotional attitude. Will you buy that? .
Last Wave: To deal with a specific example, why is it I read On Wings of Song, I see a happy ending, I see an apotheosis, I see the character surviving, although on a different plane, and I'll talk to someone else about the book, and they'll see Daniel Weinreb dead at the end, having never flown, and see it as a depressing ending. Why that split?
Disch: It's not the ending. They're taking their unconscious sum of the meaning of the book as they've moved along reading it, as you have in making a happy ending of it. It really is delicately .balanced for the choice to be made. If the negative choice has been made it means that the spectrum of ways of thinking about life that the novel has presented to the reader is inimical to them. As it would be to many people, if you offered them that world for them to live in. Some people maybe are just literalists and they think that if a story ends with an ending that isn't conventionally a happy ending, marriage, riding off into the sunset, whatever... I remember a Spider Robinson review said something about a story of mine that the ending was a great cheat, which seems strange in that the presumption was there that I promised him a rose garden. But basically, what he was saying was that the agreement that was understood to exist between a reader and a writer is one in which the daydream will lead to a certain pleasant exit and you shut the door and you get the closure of forgetfulness. The book stunned, and the ending didn't allow him to forget being stunned. That's how I would explain it. But I don't think in most of those cases that the description of the experience is one that they've thought much about, or that bears much argument. I think it's rather a way of dismissing it, and saying that they'd rather not deal with it at all. Forgotten. Gone. Nihilist.