Suspend Your Disbelief

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P&W's Agents and Editors Series: Jonathan Galassi

Jofie Ferrari-Adler continues his must-read Agents and Editors series for Poets and Writers with this great in-depth interview with Jonathan Galassi, the president/publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Here’s a brief excerpt:

[Jofie Ferrari-Adler:] What else are you looking for when you’re evaluating a piece of fiction? Are you looking for a certain kind of sensibility or anything like that?

[Jonathan Galassi:] I think that would fall under voice. I remember when I read [Roberto] Bolaño’s Savage Detectives. I read an Italian version and just thought it had so much verve and humor. It was so sexy. It had a kind of buoyancy and it was so alive. Voice is one way of looking at it but aliveness is another way. And I think voice is kind of being killed in a lot of writing today. When you look at the New Yorker, the voices are much less idiosyncratic than they used to be. It’s being edited in a different way than it used to be.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know. They used to publish a lot of long pieces and it may have something to do with readers’ attention spans being different. We published a very good book last year, the autobiography of the composer John Adams. The New Yorker ran a piece of it and the author told me that they tried to iron out the idiosyncrasies of his style. He gave them a fight. He was very bemused by why they would try to change his little quirks.

One of the books that I was most proud of publishing last year was the Lowell-Bishop correspondence. The thing that makes that book so wonderful is the idiosyncrasy of the way they write.

I have a quote for you: “Most words put down on paper are not interesting, or don’t make sense, or are stilted. You can tell within two pages that something is not going to work.” That’s you, twelve years ago. I completely agree and I’m curious what common problems you notice in the work of beginning writers.

I used to be kind of uptight about writing-school writing—it can be hard to emerge with your own voice—but I’m less aware of that now. I think a lot of people learn to write by imitating and that’s perfectly legitimate. That’s how poets learn to write. I remember that Elizabeth Bishop used to make us write imitations of other writers. But if you want to publish your work, you better have moved beyond that. Only a few people in the world are meant to be writers. And those are people who really can’t say things the way other people would. It’s involuntary. Milosz had this great line that poetry should only be written under unbearable pressure and in the hope that good spirits, not evil, choose us for their instrument. The idea is that the people who should write are the people who can’t not write. I think there are a lot of people who want to write, and who want to say something, but a lot of them don’t have anything to say.

What will make you want to throw a first novel across the room?

Pretentiousness. When the writer is trying to be cool, or ironic, or when the work just isn’t genuine. It’s like what [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Potter Stewart said about pornography: You know it when you see it. You can tell when you’re reading something genuine. You feel it. There are writers whose voices are quite self-conscious and who I think are great. André Aciman, for example. I’m working on his new novel right now. His writing is about self-consciousness. It’s about questioning what you just said, revising what you just said. It’s very Proustian in that way. And I love it. It’s very genuine. That’s just the way his mind works.

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