Before his Belfast appearance, the two-time Booker-shortlisted author offers his take on criticism, the craft of writing, and the childishness of Jeff Koons
Born in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, in 1955, author Colm Tóibín has published almost 20 books including the Booker-shortlisted novels The Blackwater Lightship (1999) and The Master (2004). His short stories appear in Mothers and Sons (2006) and his journalism appears in The Trials of the Generals (1990). His new novel is entitled Brooklyn, and he presently keeps a visual arts column in Esquire. He's surprised that this is where the conversation begins.
Many people admonish the idea of criticism as a worthwhile enterprise, calling it subjective and often uninformed. What do you consider to be the value of good criticism?
For writers, writing about visual art can be an exercise in looking properly at things, and trying to write properly about them. I’m not sure it should mean anything, to the artist, in fact, as it’s written for the reader. It can also be written in the same way that you might play music, as a writer, just to see what it’s like. It also gives you something to do in the city. You can go to all the shows, and take them seriously. I actually like that job. Yeah, I love that job.
Do you pay much attention to reviews of your own work?
Well, if somebody said I should f*ck off or something I’d probably note it. The thing is, I don’t think I’ve ever learnt anything I needed to know from a review, and in that sense good reviews are as bad as bad reviews. The only person that should be excluded in that kind of relationship is the writer, the same way as the artist in visual arts reviews. If all the reviews of a book are good it’s good because somebody might actually buy the book. But it doesn’t mean that reading them does you any good.
In a piece on Jeff Koons you remark that ‘somebody is to blame for establishing the idea that icons from sport or Hollywood or cartoons... are worthy of the same close attention and reverence from artists as Jesus on the cross once was, or his poor mother'. Is religious artwork a high water mark for you? A standard-bearer?
Ha! My friend Jeff Koons. It [religious artwork] is a standard-bearer for anybody, that early and high renaissance work that conducts itself with such dignity that you can’t stop looking at how the figures are used. Even as that makes its way into the secular in, say, the work of someone like Rembrandt, you see the absence of it, the sense of the figure. The problem is that you’re looking at all of that with immense curiosity, humility, satisfaction, and then you walk into a bloody museum of contemporary art such as the one in Glasgow, which is really filled with stuffed toys. You think, ‘well, actually, if you don’t mind...’
It doesn’t mean that artists have to return to painting the mother of God or anything, but you’re faced with a contemporary silliness, and it’s hard to know who to blame. I mean you’ve got to be good-humoured about it, just walk out and say ‘this is not for me, it’s for schoolchildren'. But there are a lot of times you feel that somehow a visit from schoolchildren is what curators have in mind. There are a lot of people educated beyond their intelligence, and often they’re curators. All you have to do is read the introductions in the catalogues.
But I do remain good-humoured in the sense that you just shake your head and go home. On your way you can always go into the National Gallery – in London and Dublin they’re free – and there are the masterpieces, lined up on the wall. It’s not much to complain about, but every so often you think ‘I shall have a swipe at someone'. And I thought Jeff Koons was ripe for it.
When expectations diminish, do possibilities dwindle in turn? Is there a chance that art by Jeff Koons and his contemporaries might somehow be a progressive development?
Not in my opinion. It’s just stupid. I mean it might be progressive but it’s progressing towards inanity. It isn’t rewarding, visually, to me. Some people think it’s worth a first look, but I found that it’s embarrassing on the first look, excruciating on the second, and then you go home. And I’m mild about all this – I was in Milan recently and Robert Hughes gave a lecture, with his views. He’s much stronger on all this. I’m just a pussycat. He’s a tiger.
In a piece on Lucian Freud there are interesting remarks on Mahler’s songs in relation to his symphonies, but also on the short stories of Henry James in relation to his novels. What can James’ short stories tell us about his novels, or formally, what can short stories tell us about the novel?
James is unusual in this respect in that there are a few short stories that almost gave the game away, about his sexuality. It’s as simple as that, really. There’s really no novel where he did that.
It’s true that the opening of a short story has to bring you in, rhythmically, into an atmosphere. It has to give you quite a lot of information. But if it gives you too much of any one thing, it’s destroyed. If you were cooking, a short story would be something like scallops. If you cook them for four minutes instead of three, they’ll be rubber. A novel is where you put the oven on, it has to be hot, and whatever you put in you put in for two hours – or two and a half, it doesn’t really matter. I think that’s the difference.
You really have to concentrate on time, and how you handle time – both the time the reader spends reading, and the time it’s all happening in. If you’re going to go into pluperfect, for example – years earlier he had been – you have to do that so delicately so that the reader doesn’t notice the stitching. It’s a much more delicate operation.
You can almost get the openings of short stories as you do the openings of poems. Suddenly. They come as rhythm. In a way more than a novel does. A novel does open as rhythm, you get a sound for it. But with a short story it’s almost all rhythm.
In your earlier days you wrote poetry. Do you continue? What can poetry achieve that the novel cannot?
I do, but not much. I counted them recently and I have 19. I’ve only published one, I think, but I read a lot of poetry and I’m alert to poetry. I suppose a poem is based on song. It has its roots in song and you hear a rhythm. Areas of repetition or non-repetition. You can convey quite a lot via very little, emotionally. There could be a poem you love and you don’t know why you love it. It could be a lyric poem with only eight lines in it, and it tells you everything you need to know. But that, somehow, would be buried in the rhythm as well as in the actual content. So the content of a poem may be interesting, but it’s not the issue. That can make its way into prose and you can allow a certain space between the words, a certain rhythm within the words, to lure the reader in. That might take its bearings from poetry.
As a way of luring readers in, your latest book Brooklyn, like David Park’s The Truth Commissioner, was chosen as Radio 4’s book at bedtime. How useful are such selections and promotions in terms of sales?
I don’t know. I’m not sure the internet has much to do with it as I understand online sales account for little more than ten or 15 percent. You’re still, oddly enough, talking about people going into a bookstore and buying the book, and basing their purchase on a mixture of browsing or something they’ve heard about the week before. That hasn’t changed, by the way. There are blogs and websites, as further ways of getting information that might tempt the reader to pick the book up but they’re still being bought as books, and held and brought home. It’s curious, given the amount of pressure that’s been under.
I don’t know how long it’ll go on for because the Kindle thing is building up. In America people love the Kindle. It’s a nice idea. People love instant things. It’s one of the reasons lager has taken over in Dublin - we couldn’t be bothered waiting for the pint of Guinness to settle. Similarly, the notion that you think of a book, press a button and it arrives instantly onto your Kindle, that’s sort of lovely. The only problem with the Kindle, it seems to me, is that it takes a bit too long to turn the page. But I think they’ll rectify that very quickly.
How much distance is there between the writer and the book that has been released to the public? How far away are you from Brooklyn, as a completed work?
That’s a really good question. You never get asked, and it’s important. It’s a year between handing over a manuscript and publication. That’s a very long time. Okay, in that year, you get proofs and you get to re-write and things but still, it’s a year. With my first novel it was two years, because they just didn’t have a space for it in a busy publishing programme. And then of course all the translations start. Someone was telling me that the French edition of Brooklyn isn’t coming until Spring 2011. When I was in Germany a month ago I was still talking about Mothers and Sons. I had almost forgotten about it.
The important thing to remember is that once a book is finished and published, it’s over for you. It doesn’t belong to you, it has nothing to do with you. It belongs to whoever might want to read it. The writing may have affected you, but you don’t ever open it or read it again. It isn’t like, even, a dead relationship, where you might meet the person on the street. You wouldn’t even meet it on the street. You also don’t regret it, it’s just something you did, like a carpenter makes a table and sells the f*cking thing. And it’s gone, out of your workshop, into someone’s house. Not your table anymore, just a table you made.
So being asked to tout it round [laughs], to do readings from it, it’s a funny experience, because you pick a bit, you use that bit... it’s odd. It’s strange. You long for it to be over.
In the book, Eilis leaves 1950s Ireland, a time remembered – or in the case of my generation, imagined – as one of stifling self-repression and of resistance to modernity. Despite the economic boom following the Republic’s entry into Europe, Irish emigration continues today. As you see it, is Ireland still a restless nation of wild geese?
It seems to be what distinguishes Ireland from other countries. People will just uproot themselves and go, if there are no opportunities. If there are opportunities, people will tend to stay. In the case of the north of England, say, Huddersfield, or indeed in Spain, people will tend to stay. In Ireland they’ll go, partly because it’s easy to go. Nonetheless I was surprised in the 80s when I saw it beginning again. I thought it was over, this idea that if there was a downturn in the economy people would leave. But yeah... it’s what characterises our society. People say it’s not happening because there aren’t jobs to be had elsewhere, but it is happening.