Happy birthday, Robert Coover! 89, today, and still kicking fiction’s keister!
Here are some quotes from a writer whose densely lyrical, thoroughly irreverent, oft-bawdy, and imaginatively outrageous engagements with history, politics, pop culture, etc., is constant inspiration:
“The narrative impulse is always with us; we couldn’t imagine ourselves through a day without it….We need myths to get by. We need story; otherwise the tremendous randomness of experience overwhelms us. Story is what penetrates.”
“Yes, but fiction, myth, these are necessary things. I’m not against them. I doubt we could function at all without fictionalizing in some way, without making up something about the world, falsifying it with a name, or names, that allow us to operate in it. But the world changes, or our perceptions of it or our needs in it change, and new fictions come from it. Fiction then, self-conscious fiction, has, as I see it, a double purpose. On the one hand it draws into itself what seem to be the truths of the world at any given moment, and on the other it struggles against the falsehoods, dogmas, confusions, all the old debris of the dead fictions—and this struggle itself is self-revealing in ways that remain important across the ages.”
“What’s so dull about most conventional fiction is that the narrative is essentially dead matter, and what you get interested in is the style, the craft, the development of character, some of the delicate or sensational imagery, a brilliant smile or two…What I wanted to do was call attention again to narrative itself, the movement of story.”
“Because art blows life into the lifeless, death into the deathless. Because art’s life is preferable, in truth, to life’s beautiful terror. Because, as time does not pass (nothing, as Beckett tells us, passes), it passes the time. Because death, our mythless master, is somehow amused by epitaphs. Because epitaphs, well-struck, give death, our voracious master, heartburn. Because fiction imitates life’s beauty, thereby inventing the beauty life lacks. Because fiction is the best position, at once exotic and familiar, for fucking the world. Because fiction, mediating paradox, celebrates it. Because fiction, mothered by love, loves love as a mother might her unloving child. Because fiction speaks, hopelessly, beautifully, as the world speaks. Because God, created in the storyteller’s image, can be destroyed only by His maker. Because, in its perversity, art harmonizes the disharmonious. Because, in its profanity, fiction sanctifies life. Because, in its terrible isolation, writing is a path to brotherhood. Because in the beginning was the gesture, and in the end to come as well: in between what we have are words. Because, of all the arts, only fiction can unmake the myths that unman men. Because of its endearing futility, its outrageous pretensions. Because the pen, though short, casts a long shadow (upon, it must be said, no surface). Because the world is re-invented every day and this is how it is done. Because there is nothing new under the sun except its expression. Because truth, that elusive joker, hides himself in fictions and must therefore be sought there. Because writing, in all space’s unimaginable vastness, is still the greatest adventure of all. And because, alas, what else?”
“People, fearing their own extinction, are willing to accept and perpetuate hand-me-down answers to the meaning of life and death; and, fearing a weakening of the tribal structures that sustain them, reinforce with their tales the conventional notions of justice, freedom, law and order, nature, family, etc. The writer, lone rider, has the power, if not always the skills, wisdom, or desire, to disturb this false contentment.”
“Writing students are notoriously conservative creatures. They write stubbornly and hopefully within the tradition of what they have read. Getting them to try out alternative or innovative forms is harder than talking them into chastity as a life style.”
“I spoke of the tragic illusion of perpetuity, but, no, my friends, it is a comic one. The ludicrous plot in which we are all trapped. The ancient Greeks referred to plot as mythos, attributing the random drift of human affairs to some sort of unknowable but glimpsable divine motion, attempting to attach a certain grandeur to it, the delusion of meaning. But we are characters who do not exist, in a story composed by no one from nothing. Can anything be more pitiable? No wonder we all are grieving.”
“Black holes are the seductive dragons of the universe, outwardly quiescent yet violent at the heart, uncanny, hostile, primeval, emitting a negative radiance that draws all toward them, gobbling up all who come too close. Once having entered the tumultuous orbit of a black hole, nothing can break away from its passionate but fatal embrace. Though cons of teasing play may be granted the doomed, ultimately play turns to prey and all are sucked haplessly―brilliantly aglow, true, but oh so briefly so―into the fire-breathing maw of oblivion. Black holes, which have no memory, are said to contain the earliest memories of the universe, and the most recent, too, while at the same time obliterating all memory by obliterating all its embodiments. Such paradoxes characterize these strange galactic monsters, for whom creation is destruction, death life, chaos order. And darkness illumination: for, as dragons are also called worms, so black hole are known as wormholes, offering a mystical and intimate pathway to the farthest reaches of the cosmos, thus bring light as they consume it.”
—from A Child Again
“Language is the square hole we keep trying to jam the round peg of life into. It’s the most insane thing we do.”
—from Gerald’s Party
“History my god. An incurable diarrhea of dead immortals.”
“Strange, the impact of History, the grip it had on us, yet it was nothing but words. Accidental accretions for the most part, leaving most of the story out. We have not yet begun to explore the true power of the Word, I thought. What if we broke all the rules, played games with the evidence, manipulated language itself, made History a partisan ally? Of course, the Phantom was already onto this, wasn’t he? Ahead of us again. What were his dialectical machinations if not the dissolution of the natural limits of language, the conscious invention of a space, a spooky artificial no-man’s land, between logical alternatives. I loved to debate both sides of any issue, but thinking about that strange space in between made me sweat.”
—from The Public Burning
“Of course, you have the internet phenomenon, where people are constantly posting pictures of themselves and relating anecdotes about themselves. That can be satisfying, perhaps. I mean, that stuff, even when it’s fascinating now, is going to die. It has no long-range future, that’s all, because there’ll be others like it. It will be followed by a vast array of more and more and more and they will simply… the old ones will fade into the background as the new ones take over. So that particular format is—I wouldn’t, as a writer, want to risk my longevity on that kind of writing.” Of course, you have the internet phenomenon, where people are constantly posting pictures of themselves and relating anecdotes about themselves. That can be satisfying, perhaps. I mean, that stuff, even when it’s fascinating now, is going to die. It has no long-range future, that’s all, because there’ll be others like it. It will be followed by a vast array of more and more and more and they will simply… the old ones will fade into the background as the new ones take over. So that particular format is—I wouldn’t, as a writer, want to risk my longevity on that kind of writing.”
“If you start thinking about the kids being born now, for them the computer is ancient history. So one imagines that when children think of it as the only place to be, because there isn’t anywhere else, then the geniuses of those generations will find their way into doing something that is impressive and as good as a Shakespeare or a Cervantes. Right now, we can’t see that. We’re not close enough to it yet. But I anticipate it, and I would say, yes, I’m disappointed in what’s happened so far. A lot of it is too banal, too quickly accomplished, and lacks a kind of thoroughness of approach that might speak of the intransigent pursuit of the metaphor that would include the metaphor hidden in the technology. To be able to understand that at its fullest—still not many people can. And so they take a quick route and they may learn how to do links, may learn how to stick a movie in, but they don’t really know how to integrate all this, because of the way they think.”
“But the answer is that creative-writing workshops have absolutely nothing to do with our nation’s literature, though writers sometimes, more or less by chance, turn up in them, looking for an agent or romance or someone to start a new magazine with them. Creative-writing workshops mostly have to do with creating other creative-writing workshops. And this is all right, I suppose, because writing is good for people, or at least not seriously harmful. It teaches them to read, for one thing. We don’t need more writers, but we do need more readers. We need creative-reading workshops. Students would still have to write in them, but for nobler ends. And the self-proliferation of creative-reading workshops would be a less onerous thing. You asked me if teaching has enhanced my writing in any way, and I’d say mainly it has got in the way of it; might have made me a better reader, though.”
“Kid lit. Fairy tales, religious stories, national and family legends, games and sports, TV cartoons and movies, now video and computer games—it’s a metaphoric toy box we all share. Sometimes all this story stuff feels like the very essence of our mother tongue, embedded there before we’ve even learned it, so much a part of us that we forget it didn’t come with the language, but that someone made it up and put it there. The best way to expose that and free ourselves up is to get inside it and play with it and make it do new things.”
“A large part of the world’s population, alas, is reality-proof. Our lives are mostly too short and troubled. We don’t have time to stop and think about such things, and if we don’t read, as most don’t, we never even get the opportunity. Most people, frankly, don’t want the bother. It’s easier to go with the flow, even if it takes you up shit creek. The problem is that they try to take you up shit creek with them. And the Bible’s not the blueprint for anything. It’s a hodgepodge of folktales, bogus history, priestly fantasies and sophistries, repressive laws, and vengeful bellyaching which passes for prophecy. The only funny bits are in the first chapter. The rest, as Sam Beckett would say, is mortal tedium. Its only literary value is its antiquity and its status as a heavily promoted bestseller. It’s been in the toy box a long time and it takes up a lot of room and sometimes you can’t even get to the other toys without playing with it first.”
“What makes tales endure? For one thing, they respond to raw human needs and appetites—the desire for happy endings in an unhappy world, for justice where there is none, for fairness, love, comedy, for the playful exercising of the imagination. But of course the tale also plays to the baser instincts, to racism, sexism, greed, fear, to the appetite for revenge, for bringing down, as cruelly as possible, not only the high and mighty, but also misfits and fools. The very earliest tales we have, creation stories, religious fantasies, nation-building myths—the ancient Sumerian tales, for example, from which the Akkadian Gilgamesh epic was stitched—all tend to exhibit these same characteristics, emerging as if irresistibly from the pooled mess we call human nature. Their parts are interchangeable and can be constructed and reconstructed to tell a vast range of stories that can migrate through diverse cultures, the morals changing from one telling to the next. They provide a universal commonality of language, of discourse, of narrative. The opportunity for a ceaseless remythologization. And they enjoy a kind of immortality that we, the tellers, lack. They may disappear for a long time—we don’t hear the tales of Little Black Sambo anymore, or some of the more gross misogynist tales; Sut Lovingood has largely dropped out of the curriculum—but they linger under the surface and return in new guises from generation to generation, century to century. We are, for example, an allegedly democratic society that has thrown off royalty and the naive awe of bloodlines, yet we flock to see something as blatantly royalist as The Lion King and grovel before political and commercial dynasties, as though somehow their seed might be magical, able to save us all only if we give them what they want. These grand patriotic, religious, and cultural myths and tales have been a personal target all my writing life. They are not truths, though they may contain truths, and they need to be told and retold, over and over, played with, reinvented, moved into strange places, so that what’s valuable in them for our own times can be celebrated, what’s wicked or stifling mocked.”
“Every effort to form a view of the world, every effort to speak of the world, involves a kind of fiction-making process. Memory is a kind of narrative, as is our perception of what the future is apt to bring us, our understanding of anything going on out in the world—even our scientific understanding of the world has to be reduced to a narrative of sorts in order to grasp it. What’s a formula but a kind of sentence, a story among other possible stories? Men live by fictions. They have to. Life’s too complicated, we just can’t handle all the input, we have to isolate little bits and make reasonable stories out of them. Of course, that’s an artificial act and therefore, you might say, ‘artistic.’ But I would say the impulse was from necessity, and only some of the resulting stories are ‘artistic.’ All of them, though, are merely artifices—that is, they are always in some ways false, or at best incomplete. There are always other plots, other settings, other interpretations. So if some stories start throwing their weight around, I like to undermine their authority a bit, work variations, call attention to their fictional natures.”
“The central thing for me is story. I like poems, paintings, music, even buildings, that tell stories. I believe, to be good, you have to master the materials of the form you’re working in, whether it’s language, form and color, meter, stone, cameras, lights, or inks, but all that’s secondary to me. Necessary but secondary. I know there’s a way of looking at fiction as being made up of words and that therefore what you do with words becomes the central concern, but I’m much more interested in the way that fiction, for all its weaknesses, reflects something else—gesture, connections, paradox, story. I work with language because paper is cheaper than film stock. And because it’s easier to work with a committee of one. But storytelling doesn’t have to be done with words on a printed page, or even with spoken words: we all learned that as kids at our Saturday morning religious experience in the local ten-cent cinemas. Probably, if I had absolute freedom to do what I want, I’d prefer film.”
“Stories tend to appear to me, not as formal ideas, but as metaphors, and these metaphors seem to demand structures of their own: they seem to have an internal need for a certain form. Nevertheless we’ve all been affected by film technology, the information bombardment of television, and so on, and certainly I’ve had a conscious desire to explore the ways all this makes our minds work.”
“When life has no ontological meaning, it becomes a kind of game itself. Thus it’s a kind of metaphor for a perception of the way the world works, and also something that almost everybody’s doing. If not on the playing fields, then in politics or business or education. If you’re cynical about it, you learn the rules and strategies, shut up about them, and get what you can out of it. If you’re not inclined to be a manipulator, you might want to expose the game-plan for your own protection and ask how it can be a better game than it is at present. And formal games reflect on the hidden games, more so in an age without a Final Arbiter. So it’s an important metaphor to be explored.”
“A lot of what I do engages with the American myth. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with myths: we tend to need some sort of sustaining mythic notion or pattern or vision in order to get through each day. We need a little bit of structure to get out of bed, to keep going. But most of it is stifling, in some way corrupting. So, the challenge I always have in my work is to unmake the myth.”
“So in a way, the stories and novels are sort of the same thing to me. They are an expansion of a metaphor, letting it take me where it must, and then stop. And that’s the same thing for a one-pager as for a thousand-pager.”
“A writer needs isolation, a cell of his own, that’s obvious, but distance can also help. It has a way of freeing the imagination, stirring memory. Fewer localisms creep in, less passing trivia, transient concerns…It can work both ways of course. If you’re not careful you can stay away too long and lose touch. No easy answer.”
“A writer may or may not be discouraged by isolation and alienation. If he goes on, he may even benefit from it. Highly communalized groups of intellectuals like you have in Europe probably put more pressure on their members to conform to certain standards, discouraging too much eccentricity or adventurism. The standards are probably higher, though, letting less shit through. It’s like going to a very good school: you must learn what’s being taught at that school rather than striking out on your own. You gain discipline, knowledge, historical perspective, and so on, but you may lose a little confidence in your own imaginative potential.”
“If the sixties’ [literary] revolution made all forms viable, then the realistic and naturalistic conventions also remain viable, but most writing in these forms I find imitative and tediously predictable—fiction reduced to stylistic display or therapy. Publishers have increasingly turned toward it because it is easier and sells better, but that has meant a serious diminishment to the wealth of our national literature.
The kind of hype that’s gone with creating the notion of ‘the writer’ has contributed heavily to the idea that young people want to join this magical business. Writing also gives you a sense that you are in control. Writing is seen to be a kind of therapy, which is an attitude I tend to run into in workshop stories. Basically that’s what minimalism is, frankly—a kind of therapy. There are things you have to work your way through. There are issues that have to be confronted, personal issues that affect you, how to come out of the closet, how to get rid of your first wife and find a second, that sort of thing. So you work that out in fictional forms, and you do feel that Freudian answer, that kind of power over what would otherwise be your impotent life. So there is a drawing away from this vast collective—all of us watching the same TV screens, and so on—in order to be this individual who has his own imagination and can live his own life in the world and then have all of the magic that apparently follows when you become this so-called famous writer.”
“I have an iconoclastic streak, I know that. I have always had the feeling that we are born into a world dreamt up by other people, that we find ourselves living in other people’s dreams, and only by challenging those dreams do we have a chance to wake up for a moment. I have spoken often about this confrontation with the stories that govern our lives. I am not out to wreck everything. If a story still has validity and vitality, fine. But many of the most powerful stories, or the stories that keep some people in power at the expense of others, are dead if not dangerous, and need to be deflated, revised, destroyed. What’s more, it’s fun.”
“The fiction-making process is itself in part a groping for some communicable truth, a group truth, as it were. The tools are poor and the truth itself may be metamorphosing on us all the time, such that the process is endless and riven with inevitable dispute, but it’s not simply relativistic. We’re all, as the saying goes, a product of our time and place. We might want to escape this, and indeed a lot of what art does is to show this dark desire to break away from the oppression of community, to rebel against it, but even rebellion is a kind of adherence.”
“The very arbitrariness of bringing a story to a clean ending—this happened and then that happened and here’s the inevitable result—can be reassuring and momentarily delightful, but it’s too unlike life itself to be ultimately satisfying. Being left, instead, with a larger vision of the whole, with all its paradoxes and potential, is or can be more fulfilling.”
“I see no reason to stop. But the reason isn’t always one of your own. The mind is not invulnerable, and it can lose some of its powers. Right now, I still feel I can do everything, and I was past seventy when I decided to take on this huge book that I knew was going to take me a decade. So that was a terrible challenge to take on at that age, knowing I might not be around to finish it. But I still would do it again if I hit a book that I really liked and it was another ten-year book and I was ninety-five. I’d still assume I’d get to it somehow.
But I’ve had many friends who are going on trying to write, and it’s very clear that their abilities are weakening. And I hope I can see that well enough when it happens, and I can stop, because there’s no need to inundate the world with books and language. It’s just too full already. There’s so much rubbish hiding in the world. But as long as I think I can do something inventive and insightful, then I’ll keep doing it.”
“An author’s books are in part conversations with the self and sometimes the conversations are extended over several books. This one continues several such, beginning with my earliest thoughts about writing. I felt myself imbedded then in a lot of mythic debris from the past, stories dreamt up by others and in whose dreams—often infantile dreams—we were now living, and I wanted to engage with all that, invade it, confront it on its own turf, disrupt it at the core. Which I’ve mostly done, am doing.”
“Most fictions are in some manner political, even if only through acquiescence to traditional forms, helping thereby to preserve the status quo. And a great many fictions and films do engage at some level with history, which is always a political act. Narrative art, unlike historical analysis, achieves its aims through the exploration of metaphors, and such metaphors rarely lead the artist into everyday contemporary political issues—like health reform, for example, or economic recovery programs—but instead draw the artist toward the more universal love-and-death themes, making the political nature of their work less obvious on the surface. There is also probably an inherent distance between writers, who are rarely politicians except as dissidents, and politicians, who rarely read fiction or poetry. The absurdity of politics is not new. Satire is always possible. The execution of satirists by enraged politicians is also always possible.”
Note: This feature is part of Big Other Folio: Robert Coover.
John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.