Geoff Dyer is an essayist, novelist and critic whose eloquent, yet somewhat haphazard style, has led him to be considered the key practitioner of the contemporary form. His latest collection, 'Working The Room', spans everything from the portrait photography of Richard Avedon and the Omega Point of Don DeLillo’s career, to his personal experiences - the existentialism of a donut, and his young life as an only child growing up in a working-class home. As Dyer prepares to join tomorrow's Book Slam in Notting Hill, Dazed Digital spoke to him about the task of a contemporary essayist, and to garner his views on writing and culture.
Dazed Digital: The title of your new collection is 'Working the Room', what do you mean by that?
Geoff Dyer: Critics are always working the room. The way they do so changes over the course of a career. Young critics like to disparage and tear down. Later, when they write about the real heavyweights, it is not so much the subjects – Tolstoy, Proust etc. - as their own ability to go toe-to-toe with greatness that comes under examination. Once this test has been passed a reversal takes place when an unknown, under-rated or neglected figure is deemed worthy of the attention of a particularly respected critic.
DD: What, would you say are the values in writing essays and criticism these days?
Geoff Dyer: I don’t know or particularly care. For me, it’s a way of articulating my reactions to things and, extrapolating from that, working out why these things had, or did not have, an effect on me, and coming to some kind of conclusion about the merits of the thing in question - thereby, hopefully, keeping my responsiveness honed and remaining alert to stuff.
DD: Does criticism stifle creativity?
Geoff Dyer: It can do, but for me the two things go in tandem. And I’ve always been very interested in what might be called creative or imaginative criticism.
DD: Is criticism subordinate to creativity?
Geoff Dyer: Usually, but not in certain instances and these are the instances that have influenced me - Berger, Barthes, Lawrence, for example.
DD: Like John Berger and Susan Sontag, both of whom you mention in the new collection, you have also written fiction. At what point is a novel a novel, and an essay an essay?
Geoff Dyer: It’s very flexible. Generally speaking (though Franzen is the exception) I am not too interested in novelly novels and I am very interested in the essayistic novel or – Kundera’s term – the novelistic essay. The fulcrum point varies of course.
DD: Writers like Slavoj Zizek seem to favor popular culture over the more obviously niche or cerebral elements of contemporary culture. Would you ever write an essay on Lady Gaga?
Geoff Dyer: I'm so out of touch with contemporary music like that. Of course I vaguely know who she is – the daft costumes? But I've never heard her music. So I guess that’s a no.
DD: The new collection covers Rodin, Turner, D.H. Lawrence, Don DeLillo, Alan Hollinghurst amongst others. Do you prefer you subjects dead or alive?
Geoff Dyer: Either, neither. Though I always remember Christopher Ricks objecting to the criticism ‘dead, white male’ - as in ‘dead, white, male authors’ - on the grounds that it was offensively stupid to use the word ‘dead’ pejoratively.
DD: Eagleton, Kermode, Berger are all examples of unique and brilliant minds, but they are also brilliantly unspectacular chaps. Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Baudrillard et al, on the other hand are veritable headliners in comparison. What is a British critic these days? Do you think that there is a common set of assumptions that makes the British different?
Geoff Dyer: I think Berger is pretty spectacular actually. I love Baudrillard, but I love Raymond Williams who, I think, incarnated that notion of ‘unspectacular brilliance’ more profoundly. In terms of ‘assumptions’ I don’t know, but I think we can take a certain national pride that there is no English equivalent to Bernard-Henri Levy, that such a thing is almost inconceivable, in fact.
Geoff Dyer will be reading at Book Slam on Thursday, November 25, 2010 at 7:30pm. THE TABERNACLE, Powis Square, Notting Hill, London, W11 2AY - Tickets: £8 in advance from bookslam.com/ £10 door, Doors open at 6.00pm, Event starts at 7.30pm sharp
Photo by Jason Oddy