Q&A With Eliot Weinberger (Who Wrote That Great Bush Bio Review)
Tragically, Wonkette World o’ Books hasn’t read any stream-of-consciousness Sarah Palin diaries or Glenn Beck murder mysteries in the last few weeks. This means there will be no book “review” this week. What to do instead? Well, surely you all remember thatfunny and imaginative review of George W. Bush’s Decision Points in the London Review of Books a few weeks ago. By some weird coincidence, your Wonkette reviewer started corresponding with the piece’s author, Eliot Weinberger, just before it was published. At some point, we wondered if Mr. Weinberger would be willing to sit down for a shambolic Wonkette interview. He kindly agreed.
Folks all over the political Internet enjoyed Weinberger’s review, though very few of the enthusiastic blog posts or twitterings mentioned his name (most credited it to an author named “the London Review of Books"). Which is curious, because Eliot Weinberger is one of our best living writers.
Obviously, he writes about politics. If you want to read some of the most cutting and hilarious polemic of the Bush-Cheney years, check out What Happened Here: Bush Chronicles, a collection of essays and columns he wrote for foreign newspapers during the early ‘00s.
But most of his work is about other things. To name a few: T’ang China, lovelorn poetry-writing donkeys, the Hindu concept of “karmic traces,” the dreams of Icelanders and Lacandons, dogs that served as political analysts in medieval India, naked mole rats (“their hearing is acute”), tigers, rhinoceroses, rivers, stars, crocodiles, zócalos, land-mines and the wind. He’s written idiosyncratic versions of renga, and countless memorable essays on all sorts of writers. He’s also translated the likes of Jorge Luis Borges and Octavio Paz and Bel Dao.
Reading about the upcoming sanitization of Huckleberry Finn, your reviewer remembered a sentence of Weinberger’s: “Poetry doesn’t answer questions or close wounds; it opens them.”
He does all of this in a form that blends essay, narrative and prose poem, written in a style unlike anyone else. Being Americans, we tend to import our strange and unclassifiable writers (recent examples: Sebald, Calasso, Bolaño). Those foreigners are great, to be sure, but we also have an excellent unclassifiable writer right here in U.S. America: Eliot Weinberger, who wrote that playful Bush-meets-Foucault review of Decision Points, which you all liked.
Anyway, Wonkette World o’ Books (WWB) and Eliot Weinberger (EW) conducted this interview via email, because our carrier pigeons kept falling out of the sky.
WWB: : You once wrote an essay on the use of dogs as political analysts in medieval India. What, if anything, does America stand to gain if we hand over the business of punditry to our canine friends?
EW: Dogs in medieval India gave very good advice to the maharajahs, but in contemporary America they tend to give instructions to people like Son of Sam. In Bush's case, it's hard to say whether he would have been better off listening to Barney than to Cheney.
But since this is Wonkette, it's worth mentioning that the Internet is paradoxically ephemeral with a long memory. One of its great delights is the legions of bloggers out there researching what the pundits once said, and reminding us that, especially in the Bush years, they were almost unanimously and almost consistently completely wrong.
WWB: In your review you point out that Bush's book, like most "self"-justifying political memoirs, is written in colorless PR/boardroom-speak. First: why do you think PR-speak is the standard style for these things? And second: Can you imagine a style that would give a truer picture of Bush and his presidency?
EW: The USA rests on the myth of the rugged individual, and the transformation to a service economy has created a comical new figure, prominent in TV ads for airlines and communication networks: the hero with a laptop in airport lounge, serving "business" as though it were the American dream, participating in the last great adventure. In this world, real men talk in the clipped jargon of business-speak. No time for dilly-dallying, elegant turns of phrase– -- these are Calvinists with a mission.
Of course, one dreams of more appropriate ghostwriters for Bush’s memoir: Kafka, Malcolm Lowry, García Márquez, Thomas Pynchon ....
WWB: Your Decision Points review went viral in the political blogosphere. Most of the pieces that end up heavily blogged and tweeted about on the political Web aren't written by literary writers/noted translators of Paz, Borges and Bei Dao. This combination (literary writer writing about politics) occurs fairly often in other countries, but not so often here. What is it with the division of labor in American writing? Why do you think America keeps its op-eds written by think tank nerds and its novels and poetry written by people who don't seem terribly interested in the wider world?
EW: The USA is possibly the only country on earth that doesn’t take nationalistic pride in its cultural producers. Everywhere else, literary writers -- as presumably the most articulate among us -- are regularly called upon to comment on the political and social events of our time. They’re on TV all the time; they’re continually being interviewed; poets have columns in the newspapers. My political articles during the Bush years were translated into thirty languages, and were considered "normal" elsewhere. In the USA, they were not published in magazines or newspapers, but circulated on the Internet. Even then, I’d get letters from Americans asking me what my "credentials" were.
The other side of this is that the poets and novelists have retreated into the self and the writing school, increasingly clueless about how to talk about what’s happening in the world. As I’ve written, after 9/11, the New York Times and the New Yorker asked prominent writers to respond. One said it reminded him of the day his father died; another took an herbal bath and called an old boyfriend; and so on. Only Susan Sontag -- and she was reviled for it -- could put it into a larger context, but of course Sontag modeled herself on European public intellectuals.
WWB: People would call your Decision Points review one of your "normal" essays, as opposed to, say, the poetic/dreamlike essays in An Elemental Thing. Nonetheless, you take several stylistic and formal risks in even your more straightforward essays. There are many Weinberger-esque touches in the review, like the catalogue of outrages Team DP left out of the book ("no colour-coded terror alerts; no Freedom Fries...") and the "three revelations" at the end, not to mention the image of Bush branding asses. Do you see any real distinction between your more direct essays and your more (for lack of a better term) "lyrical" essays?
EW: The obvious difference is that some essays are commissioned for specific publications and what you call the "lyrical" essays are written for myself. Nevertheless, I try to stretch the "straightforward" a little. After all, these are all written by the same person. But -- and it’s another topic -- there’s no reason why most magazine articles, especially in so-called "highbrow" magazines, should be thrown in the editorial Cuisnart and come out all sounding the same. I try to put up a little resistance to that, to wander toward the border between subversive and realistically publishable.
WWB: Thank you, sir!