The Art of the Review VI: Belinda McKeon

Parul Sehgal — PWxyz, July 13th, 2011

The malingering Art of the Review is back and delighted to present Belinda McKeon, the Irish critic, curator, playwright, and novelist–her first book Solace is out now from Scribner. She’s also (full disclosure) a good friend of mine–but I’m her fan first and foremost, so I’m especially thrilled that she joined us for this long and candid chat on criticism, her debut novel, the differences between Irish and American literary culture, and the view from her window.

What drew you to criticism? How did you get your start?

I’d loved writing essays in university – really, really loved it, more than any nineteen-year-old should, and I wanted to keep doing it. Like most of my classmates, I came from a high school background where opinion meant regurgitation of something already written by somebody else, where teachers expected us to memorize the answers in the Spark Notes. And at first, my subjects – English and Philosophy – seemed so alien, the ideas being rattled out by the lecturers seemed so complicated, that I felt as though I’d wandered into a course in atomic physics instead. But somewhere along the line, everything clicked for me, and I realized the pleasure of thinking about a piece of writing, of reading it closely, of looking for the undercurrents, of finding an argument and going in deep into the work to make it hold. I started reviewing books, and interviewing authors, for the college newspaper, and when I graduated, I sent my resume to the Irish Times, and asked if I could do the same for them. I got lucky; it was a summer at the height of the boom, and opportunities were there for graduates. They sent me to plays, and they let me rummage in the books cupboard, and they sent me to interview authors, several of whom were personal heroes, so that was a tad on the intimidating side. But they also told me to get on with it, so I did.

What, if any, are the critic’s responsibilities?

To give the work the time it deserves. To put aside preconceptions, and not just preconceptions, but the stubborn initial impressions which can sometimes set in too firmly, too soon. To read carefully. To somehow bracket out other distractions. It’s not an author’s fault if you’ve been too busy checking email or twitter all day to give their book your attention. It’s not their fault if doing so has made you ratty and scattered. So don’t take it out on them, and – I know this isn’t easy – don’t take on more assignments than you can reasonably manage in a given space of time. It’s also not an author’s fault if you have three other books breathing down your neck as you try to read or review theirs.

Have you ever been wrong about a book?

I certainly hope so. In fact, I would hope I’m at least a tiny bit wrong every time. It’s not very interesting if it’s possible to get this stuff 100% right. Or are we talking about atomic physics again?

What critics – past or present – are important to you? Which contemporary reviewers do you read regularly?

James Wood is not just a critic I admire hugely, he was a teacher who made a real difference to my writing when I had him for a master class at Columbia. That was just a four-week thing, and I took it two years in a row, gatecrashing the first year, if I remember correctly. His approach is considered, intelligent, and born out of a deep love of writing and what it can do. I’m a complete fangirl, I admit it. As for critics from the past: I want to meet H.L Mencken when I die.

Tell me, how different are the American and Irish literary cultures? Or are we more similar than we’d like to believe?

Well, the choice here is mind-boggling. That was what I noticed when I first moved here. The bookstores, the readings, the events. The reviews, places likePWBookforum, blogs like The Millions or Maud Newton’s blog; the Paris Review and its blog, the New Yorker and Book Bench, the Times – there’s such a sense of deep, diligent, richly enthusiastic engagement. That is the case on a much smaller and/or narrower scale in Ireland. Which is probably a stupid point to make, because of matters of scale. But I also think Ireland is just beginning to develop the younger, more enthusiastic (if also, of course, deeply cynical and carefully ironic) incarnation of literary culture that exists, certainly, in New York; when I was in college or in the years afterwards, that didn’t really exist; you’d be rubbing shoulders with people in their 50s at any given reading, and then off to the pub afterwards. It was definitely more Power’s Gold Label than Powerhouse Arena. I know from interacting with a younger generation of poets, novelists, playwrights, etc. in Dublin and elsewhere in the country that this is changing. But I wouldn’t like to see it go down the road of of this painfully hip sort of trendifying of literary culture. I’m getting a little sick of reading New York Times style pieces about writers. Who gives a shit whether Tao Lin eats his dinner in Williamsburg or Winnetka? Just write the books, or the essays, or the screenplay, and let’s talk about them.

I’m curious about the relationship between your critical and creative work. Does your background in reviewing make you more self-conscious as a novelist? Does being a writer yourself make you more empathetic to the writer whose work you’re reviewing?

The latter, I think definitely, especially when it comes to novels: it wasn’t until I finished one myself, obviously, that I fully realized what goes into the process. Though maybe that’s a dangerous kind of empathy, and I certainly don’t think that every critic should have it. But I do remember the shock, after six or seven years of reviewing theater professionally, of taking part in a play as an actor for the first time, going through three months of rehearsal and going in front of an audience (I played Jean in a production of Mike Leigh’s ECSTASY up at Columbia while I was a graduate student there, a role that required me to be onstage, gabbling a mile a minute, for almost every minute of the two-hour production). I realized, I have reviewed theatre without knowing anything about how it’s made. Without understanding anything, really, about the work that goes into acting, into creating a character and working with other characters. I actually didn’t write another theater review after that. I was done. (Incidentally, I started writing – or rather, I started finishing, plays instead. So I’m not complaining about that.) And yes, if I’m honest, my background in reviewing probably did add an edge of self-consciousness when I was writing Solace. I’d like to think it was as simple as not letting myself away with certain things, but I’m sure it had its negative aspects as well. Self-consciousness, of varying sorts, has actually been the thing that’s held me back – and continues, I think, to hold me back, as a writer. So anything that adds to that can’t be a such a good thing. All the same, as long as it doesn’t actually stop me writing, I’m not so bothered.

You write of Deborah Eisenberg: “Eisenberg’s is a fiction, ultimately, of consciousness – of the burden, rather, of consciousness…Her eye misses nothing – least of all the bats clattering around in her characters’ particular belfries. Her narratives are populated by endless tiny moments of insight, of observation, of realization and reaction. Through their veins, free indirect speech flows like an electrifying narcotic. And yet, for all this hectic energy, Eisenberg’s fiction leans easily into wells of immense compassion.”

This is a beautiful bit of writing that reminds me of nothing so much as how you handle your characters, your attention that is both scrutiny and sympathy. Tell me a bit about Solace – what provided the germ for the novel?

Thank you. Eisenberg’s eye leaves me reeling every time I read her stories. That review was of her Collected Stories last year, and the experience of immersing myself in that book, and writing that review, left such a deep impression on me that every single time I look out the window of my home office – which was the view I had while I worked on the review – which is to say every single day, several times a day, I’m brought instantly back to one moment or other in her stories, over a year later.

As for Solace, which I worked on for over five years, beginning it in Ireland and taking it with me to New York: it emerged out of a moment, too, out of a glimpse of something probably quite ordinary, but it lodged in my mind and grew into something much larger; one night before Christmas 2004, I had taken the train from Dublin to my homeplace of Longford, to spend the holidays with my parents. My mother had collected me at the train station, and we were driving up the  town’s main street, gabbing away, when outside one of the restaurants, I think the town’s Chinese restaurant, I saw a young man, wearing a paper party hat, holding a tiny baby in his arms and pressing his lips to its forehead. I think he must have been coatless, and the baby was not in a sling or a wrap or whatever you call those things parents use to lash their children to themselves; there was a sense that they were caught in an unexpected moment, pulled out of somewhere warm and safe, and very much alone with one another. That they only had each other, and that something had happened to make it that way.

As you can see, I tend towards melodrama; this was a corker of a reaction to have to what was probably something very innocent and mundane. But I think it must have tapped into the energy of something I’d been getting ready to write, because the next time I sat down to write, to work on a short story, that young man and his baby reappeared with very powerful force. And neither would they let me away with a short story; it became clear, very soon, that they expected me to give them a novel. As did the whole landscape of characters who came with them. Solace is a novel about family, about responsibility, and about the difficulty of dealing with sudden change, and it’s also, almost accidentally, about the changes that have taken place in Ireland over the last few years. I didn’t intend it to be about that latter thing. But, again, that latter thing presented itself with pretty powerful force, and there was no way of leaving it behind.

Follow Belinda on Twitter, visit her website, and catch her reading from Solace tonight–July 13 at 6:30 pm  at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Lincoln Center.

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