Number One: Caleb J. Ross and Pablo D’Stair:
Three dialogues on literature
This dialogue is presented over the next four weeks in a style of
“progressive fragments.” The exact order of inquiry and response as
presented is not the order of inquiry and response as it happened
between the two dialogue partners. Therefore, ‘Statements’ and
‘Responses’ from one week may not be directly addressed by both parties
until subsequent week. It is the hope of both parties that the spaces
between these responses allow readers the time and opportunity to more
fully and experientially engage with the propositions, for themselves,
rather than looking at the dialogue as a closed circuit.
CALEB J. ROSS: My work, like all work, falls into a genre, but I
wouldn’t consider it genre in conventional terms. Those conventional
terms are what I don’t agree with…
In common use “genre” equates fiction created to entertain while
“literary” refers to fiction created to enlighten. Here’s where the
dispute originates, in that the differences are with intent rather than
the end product. When something cannot be judged 100 objectively,
there’s going to be disagreement. Hell, that’s why conceptual art, you
know, Duchamp’s R. Mutt urinal and such, is so polarising. Some people
would call The Fountain trash. Others would call it Art. Actually, it’s
both. Like Trash and Art, Genre and Literary are not mutually exclusive.
Rather, they are designations for different metrics entirely.
Genre refers to tangible measures such as content, setting and plot.
Literary refers to the way in which those tangibles are executed. For
example, a novel that people of the first distinction might call
literary, ‘Freedom’ by Jonathan Franzen, is most definitely literary.
But, like everything, it has a genre as well: ‘domestic fiction’ or
‘environmental fiction’ (or any number of other categories). Following
that logic, two books could share genre, but not necessarily both be
literary. Stephen King’s ‘It’ is horror and so is Mark Z. Danielwski’s
‘House of Leaves,’ but only the latter could be called literary.
PABLO D’STAIR:As you know, I feel there is an unavoidable and
irreconcilable difference between terms ‘as seen by a writer’ and terms
‘as seen by a reader’. Indeed, I think literature (read: the written
work) is a wholly different experience from each side, the two do not
touch. It strikes me interestingly, because of this, that your writer
self thinks at all in terms of genre distinction—primarily because mine
The ‘thing about reading’ is that one comes at the stimuli and works
to define it as a kind of proxy for ordering one’s own thoughts: ‘What
do I think of this? Well, I think it’s ‘domestic fiction.’ I think it
‘comical.’ I think it is… ‘character driven’ ’. The investigation (read:
act of reading) is not so much about defining the wholly subjective
‘book’ but about trying to make less subjective (more personal) one’s
ideas, one’s personal aesthetic, even one’s sense of self.
The ‘thing about writing’ is that one (from whatever starting point)
experiences a full and actualised event without the need for
interpretation or evaluation. That is, one has ‘written a book’ without
someone else ever reading it, without even reading it back oneself, and
so one can speak of ‘writing a book’ with some authority.
And so (follow me) if one takes the written product and investigates
it. either in terms of plot or in terms of style, it is the artifact
(the residue) of the writing experience which is being investigated,
nothing to do with the act.
From this, I personally always find it striking to hear a Writer say
they ‘write genre,’ simply because the end product can be labeled
thusly. Taking your Stephen King/Mark Danielwski example, the act of
writing the books could be believed to be largely the same, but as you
say, the act of reading them is wholly different.
CJR:I’m never one to simply express myself. Rather, I use writing to
mull over my own philosophies, to textualise them so that I may have a
physical referent for any future questions regarding those philosophies,
an artefact of sorts to say, “This is what I believe about this
subject.” Also, I love to hear the way great word-combinations sound,
especially when used to describe grotesque situations. It’s a mix of
giving permanence to my own philosophies and seeing beautiful words.
Oddly enough, though, I don’t care for poetry, which would logically
seem to satisfy both of those goals.
PD:Very interesting. You mean, of course, to mull things over in the
rhetorical, though, and in an impermanent way, yes?
After ten years, your novel written today is more a record of ‘what
you thought’ than ‘what you think’, and I would go so far as to say the
novel, in the moment it is set down, is only a record of ‘what you think
given a constructed situation built for the sake of moot exploration.’
By this I don’t mean that I fail to understand the representative
nature of the actions of fictional characters, but that, no matter how
it is sliced, you are not fully exploring a circumstance’s reality (and
therefore ‘what you think about it’) because you are sole arbiter of
presentation, content, and happenstance, which you can never be “in
Do you think you can really investigate ‘what you think’ without a
third-party influence, so to speak, rearing in to ‘define it’? The old
‘Well, it works great on paper (that’s what you “think”) but if in
reality X happens and you act not according to your idea as set down on
paper, does not the actual action (what you “did”) more define the
actual contents of your ideas and identity?” As in: What good is what
you think about something you haven’t done?
CJR:The way I see it, there are three components of success—what most
people would define as success—when it comes to being an author:
readership, sales, and prolificacy. I think the lure of the publisher is
the potential to grow all three areas with perceived ease. But what a
new generation of writers is beginning to understand is that the writers
themselves can, with equal ease (though not to imply that either way is
truly easy) accomplish the readership and prolificacy aims without the
aid of a publisher.
Sales, too, but that one is still difficult, at least to the level
that it takes to be a full-time author. I think it’s up to the publisher
to adapt. A publisher needs to understand that authors can gain
readership and can write plenty. A publisher needs to then reallocate
resources away from these two areas and bring more attention to sales.
Meaning, promotion, PR, events.
Ultimately, the tendency for an author to favour legacy publishers
over self-publishing implies a certain degree of ego. Readers, for the
most part, don’t care how a book gets published. In fact, most readers
probably don’t know the publishers of even their favorite books.
Among writers, for one to claim one of the Big Six legacy publishers
as their own means that the writer had navigated a difficult series of
desks and wallets to have the book published. The end physical product
is the same as a self-published author, but the implied journey is much
different. And I think the perception is valid. It’s about winning
something more than readers.
Getting a book published with a legacy publisher is more difficult
than self-publishing or publishing with a small independent publisher.
It’s that simple. But again, as far as the general reader is concerned,
the publisher is irrelevant. Though, I would love to live in time when
readers were passionate about publishers the way, say, music lovers tend
to be about independent record labels.
PD:“More difficult” I agree, but I have to say I sense from you an
implicit “and therefore more deserving of something” attitude. Not
negatively, but I think you gloss past it. Because, even as you say, it
is only more difficult based on multifold things entirely outside of the
work itself, the author him/herself, etc. Certainly, you don’t mean it
is more difficult to get in with a big house because it requires
“writing a better book” in any quantitatively or qualitatively
Building from this, a bit—I agree that, in general, as you say a
reader does not care about the publisher. But, form your personal
standpoint, don’t you? If you read a book out through Penguin do you
think you read it the same way as you read something out through (insert
indie press name)?
To the general reader, no difference. But to someone who is aware of
a difference (you or I), someone versed in such things, isn’t there
something more than “it’s more difficult” going on in your brain?
Because, truthfully, people like you and I, we are “in the scene” and
so see things a bit differently. I will tell you that I know many a
writer (of all qualities) who are not ‘in the scene’ who would likely
find it “impossible” to get published through an indie. And impossible,
truly, it would be.
No Indie that I have ever heard of publishes books solely on the
merit of the words in the manuscript. It doesn’t happen. Just like with
a large house it doesn’t happen.
And specifically, how do you feel that there is a requirement to
‘participate in a lifestyle’ to really be considered by either sort of
press? Isn’t that where the real prejudice against self-publishing
(publishing, theoretically, without being involved in the day-to-day
scene) comes from?
CJR:Only recently did I sit down to consciously write a crime story
(for a forthcoming collection of novellas). I think the allure of crime
for me—whether as a defined genre, or as a mashup of thematically
similar tropes—is its inherent proximity to morality, which in turn
speaks to the importance of characters. For me, writing is all about
exploring my own philosophies through the lens of grotesque characters
and situations. Crime lets me do that without compromise.
I’m not against trying to “force” myself into a genre, though. I like
the artificial construct of hard genre. I like a challenge. Hell, that’s
what my writing philosophy is built around; challenging myself to
confront personal philosophies.
PD:How much do you investigate your own morality through the writing
of crime? Gonna get “philosophical here” so…deal with it.
As it is said of mathematics that “knowing mathematics is doing
mathematics” is not the same true for morality? To be moral you have to
“do moral”? But, being moral through inactivity is not an action,
nothing that requires staunchness or ‘moral fibre,’ it just means, to
take a fun example “I never murdered someone because I never wanted to.”
But what of this? Do you approach the moral predicaments of
characters from a personal start point (read ‘investigate your own
thoughts) building them from situations where you feel you have perhaps
transgressed morality, personally? (fictionalised, of course,
fictionalised—you could “write about a murderer” but be investigating,
really, your own feelings of transgression and guilt about cheating on a
girlfriend, lying and shoplifting) Or do you build from a generalised
notion of “people say this is wrong, let me tinker around with it, not
brining myself into it at all?”
What is it that you feel immoral about, Caleb? Because as the
philosophers of old would tell us and the psychologists of today back
them up, no one things about morality without the prompt of feeling they
have violated it—there’s no blood to it otherwise, it would be same as
thinking about why clouds are pretty or why it feels good to sleep in.
CJR:I don’t buy the risky things. Or, said better, I don’t care if a
writer is taking risks—whether consciously or sub-consciously. To me, a
risk is when a writer does something that could potentially cripple
something they’ve, until the moment of the risk, spent their writing
lives building. For Stephen King to write a bodice ripper would be
risky. For Pynchon to do a reality TV show would be risky. Neither of
these would impress me. I love that Stephen King writes horror (though,
for the record, I’m not a fan). I love that Pynchon is a recluse.
These traits are important to the general perception of these authors
and their work. A risk would be compromising those things.I think
authors themselves don’t generally see themselves as risk-takers. They
write what interests them. However, talking about being a risk taker
adds to the sexiness of being an author that readers want (in the way
that any public persona tends to dramatise their role for the sake of
success). Those writers who say they are “getting in touch with their
dark side” or “going to places where they are uncomfortable” aren’t
describing truth; they are describing fiction. And isn’t fiction what
they do best? Or, perhaps, they are simply using grandiose terminology
for the act of mulling over personal philosophies, as a familiar author
PD:Now, it’s interesting that you focus, more or less, on “career
risk” or “perception within a career” risk. More so, it is interesting
that you focus on “persona” and “sexiness” and “public perception.” Are
these ideas so central to the idea of “writer” to you? You, earlier,
wrote of using your work to investigate or have record of your personal
philosophies, but is this only within an attempt toward having a career
as a writer?
A little bit of an expansion: don’t you think that an author’s
ambitions, really, could be wholly satisfied, in a grand scale even,
without ever having to enter the commercial marketplace, and more
importantly, without having to enter on to the radar of “readers at
large” and so therefore without ever having to worry about public
Follow my rhetorical—if one, with no thought of publishing one’s
self, or certainly not commercially, wrote and made efforts to expose
their work and thoughts. to other artists, commercial and scholarly, of
their age, would not these efforts, if they put them in the esteem of
men and women of letters (or other pursuits) be equally as influential
and lasting as someone who commercially or “within the existing
framework of success” reached a certain plateau?
I mean, in the sense of influencing contemporaries, if I had one
hundred readers and they all seriously considered my work, and these
hundred readers were other authors, filmmakers, thinkers, painters etc.
of some regard, would this not be as “successful” and sure a way to
assert my work as having ten million people read it?
In a short form—other than “getting” and “momentarily” (because, come
on, that’s what it usually is) having some influence on this or that
random person, what is it that you Caleb, as a writer, want from your
(To be continued)