Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Critical I: Kevin Prufer Interviews Eric Miles Williamson


In coming days and weeks, we'll be posting interviews with newly elected NBCC board members, so you can get to know them. First, NBCC board member Kevin Prufer interviews returning board member Eric Miles Williamson:

KP: Why did you run for the Board?

EMW: Anyone who runs for an elected position should be considered a suspect person and should not be trusted with the care of the elderly or to answer a question like this honestly, especially if that person responds with the kind of answer you’d expect to hear in a beauty pageant or a PTA election or a race for the US Senate. The only answer that is honest is that the person running for office wants power. The question then, by default, becomes this: “What did you expect to accomplish with the power you hoped to obtain by running for the Board of the National Book Critics Circle?”—

KP: OK, Khrushchev, now that you’re on the Board, what is it you hope to accomplish during the next three years?

EMW: But there’s more to my previous answer. As well as being a suspect person, in all likelihood a power-hungry megalomaniac, someone running for office also makes the narcissistic presumption that he or she can perform the duties of that office somehow better than the other people running for office. Now the office holder becomes more ugly indeed.

KP: So you think you’re a better critic than the rest of us? There might be some kind of recall vote in the works after this is posted on Critical Mass, you know.

EMW: No, no. I haven’t yet finished. I think I’m in many ways a lesser critic than most people on the Board. That’s why I think I have much to bring to the Board. Many book critics, book review editors, and freelancers on the Board of Directors, it seems, are absolutely immersed in contemporary American literature. They read, review, and edit more contemporary books in a week than I do in a month. I’ve been in the editorial offices of many newspapers, and I’ve seen the daily mail brought to the editors in gigantic bins the size of dumpsters. I can’t imagine how I’d make the choices that someone at a major review is compelled to make every day.

Lucky for me, as an editor of American Book Review, I don’t have as many books to choose from. It’s unlikely we’ll be reviewing the next John Grisham novel or the next revolutionary self-help book. We’ll probably pass on the next installment of Harry Potter, and it’s unlikely we’ll be taking a look at current diet books. Hey: we’re literary snobs. ABR’s mission is to cover small presses and books on large presses that are worthy of notice and yet ignored by the newspapers and the slicks. The mountain from which we excavate what we choose to review is much smaller. After I go through my daily stack of small press books—between two and five books a day—I have something many book critics for major reviews and freelancers trying to stitch together a living don’t have: time. It’s my great luxury.

KP: And so, what then? How does “time” give you a perspective on contemporary literature that can be of use to the NBCC?

EMW: It’s what I do with that time. The literature of today has its roots in the literature of the past, as noted in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, a rehashing of his Anxiety of Influence. Of course, Bloom is really rehashing T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and he Individual Talent,” which was a rehashing of what every writer has known, all the way back to Virgil, who struggled to consume, overwhelm and ultimately overcome Homer while at the same time acknowledging his own staggering inferiority: Every writer has a family tree, a genealogy, and every era and epoch has angst-generating precursors. I read contemporary small press books, and I read mega-press books considered to be “important,” but I am with increasing frequency disappointed by the mega-press books. Literature has long been divided into fluff for the masses and serious work for the concerned few—one only has to read Don Quixote for confirmation of this or compare the works of Ben Jonson and Shakespeare to the dreadful plays of their contemporary playwright, John Ford. Today, as a result of the double-edged sword of mass semi-literacy, serious books constitute a much smaller percentage of books published than they have historically. Recognizing them takes, I believe, an immersion in the literature of the past. Cormac McCarthy makes little sense without knowing that his dialogue comes from Hemingway, his high-flown rhetorical tropes from Faulkner (–hell, McCarthy’s Outer Dark is a cheap rip-off of Faulkner’s Light in August). And Hemingway, who is an obvious influence on McCarthy, makes no sense if you haven’t read Henry James, against whom Papa was struggling. Faulkner, on the other hand, apes Conrad—actually steals several lines from Heart of Darkness in Absalom, Absalom! And James and Conrad don’t make sense unless you have (in the case of James) Stendahl, Flaubert, Trollope and Thackeray under your belt and (in the case of Conrad) a healthy dose of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and Milton and the tragedies of Shakespeare and the Book of Job at your disposal—at your disposal not just in the nebulous undergraduate recesses of your mind but glittering and shimmering in your upper consciousness, as contemporary to you as William Vollmann and John Ashbery might be if you’d read them lately. What do I think I bring to the NBCC? I read a hell of a lot of books by dead writers.

KP: And how do you think reading dead writers helps you to assess the worth of living writers?

EMW: We must never judge our contemporaries or ourselves using our own era as the standard. For 2500 years scholars and authors and critics in the western world have been working on sorting out the shit from the Shinola. Chances are the books by the dead that most reasonable people believe to be splendid examples of what we might call Art are probably pretty good.


If we use ourselves and ourselves only as our benchmark, our criteria of excellence, then we’re likely to run into some very embarrassing, no, shameful, problems. After all, we wouldn’t be the first wave of folks to suck, you know. In comparing our writers only to each other, we might just be awed by a gimmick that’s been old hat since Tristram Shandy or Machado de Assis’ Epitaph of a Small Winner. When I read some awed and drooling review of a novel that employs some formal gimmickery that merely (and poorly) mimics Dos Passos or Raymond Federman or Cabrera Infante or Hopscotch or Ulysses, when I read an ecstatic review of poetry that’s just second-rate Tender Buttons or Mallarme or Paterson or Wallace Stevens I’m not embarrassed for the reviewer, I’m dismayed.


I don’t believe books can be truly assessed without a thorough and responsible understanding of the literature of the past. Not that my knowledge is comprehensive—far from it. But I’m damned sure trying.