An Interview with Steve Almond About Technology, Loneliness and the Splinter Generation

by Antonia Crane

stevealmond21Steve Almond is a journalist, commentator, fiction and non-fiction writer, and all around super-fox. I first met him when I had the enviable pleasure of introducing him before he read a brilliant essay called “About My Sexual Failure” in which hot tubs and jerking off play a central role. By reading all of his books and stalking him, I learned that he has this rare gene that enables him to stand up for what he believes, regardless of the consequences. He’s also a loyal friend to writers everywhere, he loves Rock and Roll, and he’s one of the best sex scene writers out there.

He recently self-published a freaky little chapbook called This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, in which he gives advice to fledgling writers. He has a forthcoming book about music called Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life due in April by Random House.

His article “Katie Roiphe’s Big Cock Block,” recently published on The Rumpus, made me wonder about the dissonance between people even younger than those in the Splinter Generation, the Splinter Generation itself (born after 1973), and we fossils born before 1973. How do we all strive to crack the lonesome screen and penetrate the world with our stories?  I asked him to do an interview about writing, generational differences and technology. He agreed, which thrilled me, because he’s one of the busiest guys in the biz. I was getting ready to board a plane back to New Orleans to make some quick greenbacks, and our little Q & A reminded me why I love to write and speak to other writers who I admire and respect. It gives me the fuel to keep writing and makes me feel less alone.

Want more brilliant wisdom from Steve Almond? Seriously, go here and get his book. You can also follow him on Facebook here.

Antonia Crane: Are most of the students you teach born after 1973? If so, what are some things they have in common as a group?

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Photo by Romy Suskin

Steve Almond: Yeah, probably so. The undergrads I sometimes teach were born in the 80s. Freaks me the fuck out. But I’m sure the fact that I was born in the Sixties freaks them out. Probably, they wanna know if I can score them some acid. Anyway, I’m not big on generational typecasting. It seems to me there have been inattentive dopes and emotional heroes in every era. But I will say that my younger students tend to be more distracted and more distractable. This is partly just a function of their age. Still, it’s sometimes clear to me that these are folks who have grown up in front of screens, and feel just as comfortable — or maybe more so — communicating their feelings via those screens than in person. They’re also used to being in two or three or four different narratives at the same time. So there is, I think, amongst some of them, a difficulty in doing the kind of sustained emotional work required to produce literature. But as I’m saying this, I’m again thinking to myself: Hey, it’s always been hard. And aspiring writers have always sought ways to keep themselves from discovering the unbearable feelings that drew them to the keyboard, so maybe it’s just a matter of technology making those distractions more accessible. That’s what America does, really: it just makes the stuff that’s bad for us cheap and available.

AC: What are some books you ask your younger students to read?

SA: I generally give students short stories, and I give them the kind of short stories — at least initially — that are funny and pretty plainspoken. Pieces like “The Barber’s Unhappiness” by George Saunders or “Love Too Long” by Barry Hannah or “How to Become a Writer” by Lorrie Moore. Because I want them to realize that literature isn’t some arcane, egghead pursuit. It’s just getting your personality down on the page, and telling the truth about the shit that matters to you most deeply. Period. I wish like hell I could give my students a novel like “Stoner” by John Williams, or “Mrs. Bridge” by Evan Connell, or any fucking thing Jane Austen ever wrote. But I want them to feel as I did when I was starting out — that writing was something sexy and dangerous and possible. And when I read Jane Austen, she’s so fucking good that it feels impossible to even try.

AC: Which Jane Austen is the desert island pick?

SA: Pride and Prejudice is probably the most accessible, a great example of a “therapeutic narrative,” meaning that hero and heroine need each other to work their stuff out, to challenge and confront, so they can come together at the end. Emma is also so wonderful. But I recently read Persuasion, too, on my dad’s rec. (He’s a Jane Austen fanatic.) And it, too, blew me away. If you want to know how a narrator should function, Austen is your role model.

AC: What are some differences that you’ve noticed about the (even younger) Facebook/Twitter/iTunes generation of writers?

SA: Yeah, I think I spoke to this. It’s very much about being in more than one place at the same time, which is to say splintered. And also about their sense of narrative, which I suspect is at a much greater velocity than ours. The entire metabolism of the culture has sped up. And people are able to get what they want — in the way of data, music, feedback — much more quickly than ever before. But I often wonder if that hasn’t made people a little bit less in touch with longing, with unrequited desire. There’s a kind of ennui that sets in when you can get whatever you want. Your own desires start to seem less important, because they don’t have time to marinate. But again, I’m just half-assing here.

AC: How do these differences show up in their writing and reading tendencies?

SA: The main thing I see in the writing is this strain of what I call “hysterical lyricism.” Certain younger writers are just so saturated by visual media that they feel like the only way that plain old words will hold someone’s attention is if they’re all really dramatic and urgent and sort of panicked. It’s like they’ve lost their faith in traditional storytelling. The result is a lot of confusing stories and novels. Needlessly confusing. It’s too bad, because people are always going to need stories to feel less alone. And we should recognize that.

AC: You talk about longing and loneliness a lot and I think that is something that transcends generations. I mentioned volcanic loneliness in an interview I did with Marc Maron on his podcast WTF and thought of you because you had said that in a lecture years ago and it stuck with me.

SA: I’m glad to be thought of when a beautiful woman mentions anything “volcanic.” It doesn’t happen often enough. But look: this is where we are. Why do you think people are emailing and texting and twittering and Facebook updating in such a compulsive manner? Because they’re lonely as all hell, in part because they spend so much time alone in front of screens. They’re trying to create community. But there’s a Catch-22 inherent in all this: you can’t really connect with other people in a deeper, more real way if you’re flitting from one ego shot to the next every ten seconds. My argument would be that literature exists, at least in part, to address this exact dilemma. To make readers feel less alone by allowing them to immerse themselves in this alternate world that is intimately connected — by the their own hearts — to their own internal life. That’s how it’s always worked for me, when I can pull myself away from the needy temptations of “screen life.”

AC: In this text-crazed era where we can remain connected by codes and images all day long, why does a lot of modern writing feel so disconnected?

stevealmond1SA: I think people are frightened of intimacy. They’re terrified of the unbearable feelings — loneliness, despair, rage, guilt, lust — and they use all these modern forms of discourse, the texts and emails and tweets — to distract themselves from these feelings. This has always been true. People have always run from the bad data of their hearts. But technology has made these evasive manuevers easier and more pervasive. So my own hunch is that literature — like any art — starts to reflect the culture at large. So we see the same timidity and defensive ennui in our stories and novels. To me, books that don’t force their characters into emotional dangers wind up seeming more like monuments to our lesser defenses.

AC: There’s a need to connect to people through our stories. At the same time, I think it’s easy to be bold and exhibitionistic in texts, chat rooms and email posts. People say things they’d never say to a person in the flesh. Maybe it’s another place we hide ourselves from the discomfort of real intimacy. We hide from vulnerability behind on-line personaes.

SA: Absolutely. Think about the whole world of lit bloggers. These are often folks with literary aspirations, who really love great writers and want to be ones themselves. And they maybe try to write some stories or a novel, but it doesn’t go so well. So they start a blog, as a way of making some of those connections, but also to get themselves recognized. And they realize that they can say all kinds of nasty stuff on their blogs about writers and that rather than getting scolded, or criticized, they get attention. They develop this grandiose personae. This is what makes meeting them in person so weird. They’re just these little nervous guys and guyettes hunched behind keyboards. There’s a Wizard of Oz quality to the whole thing. This is true of all of us. As a writer, I constantly feel like apologizing to people. “Sorry, I know I’m sort of disappointing in person. I’m better on paper. Really.” We’re all more articulate and bold and charming when we can construct our personae through words. And that’s not limited to our generation. If you read any of the letters of the Civil War era, for instance, you had all these soldiers writing absolutely gorgeous, stunningly lyric and emotionally honest letters to their wives. But most of those guys would never be able to talk to their wives that way in person. It was something they allowed themselves only on paper, that sort of vulnerability.

AC: How do these Splinter Generation kids write about sex or avoid writing about sex and if so, why do you think and what does it mean culturally?

SA: Again, I’m really not qualified to talk about “Splinter Generation” kids, or any other “generation.” I find that whole gambit of labelling a vast population of a certain age range “Generation X” or “Generation Y” or whatever it is to be incredibly reductionistic. It’s too closely related to marketing, where people are really just trying to divide consumers up based on a fairly arbitrary set of markers. What I will say about sex, and the writing of sex, is that the culture at large has become incredibly pornified. That is: there’s more and more overt sexual content available to kids, and one of the effects of this is the loss of a sense of mystery, or taboo, the kind of gut-churning anxiety I used to feel as a kid. That sex was something a bit out of reach, something dangerous. At this point, it just feels like marketing.

AC: But I don’t think it’s always been a marketing strategy to discuss generational differences. In the sixties, the gap between the Age of Aquarius youth and their parents, the Sinatra generation, were at a boiling point and it wasn’t about marketing, it was about radical change on several frontiers. The older generation had different priorities and concerns; Different fears. And I agree about the pornification of sex now and how longing is vital to create tension in our writing.

SA: Yeah, I’m not suggesting that different generations don’t have different attitudes and agendas. The children of the Depression had a completely different attitude towards class, and wealth, and the government, and war and a civil society than their own children. And something like Vietnam — in which the U.S. government was launching a foolish and unjust war, whose central American victims were those same children — totally divided households. It didn’t have to do with marketing. It was a matter of right and wrong, life and death. But most of the time, when I hear those “generations” phrases tossed around these days it’s as a way of identifying a market segment, not the particular psychological contours of a certain age range. It’s reductionism on behalf of the sell, not the self.

AC: So, would you say the digital age has made us better writers/readers or worse?

SA: Kind of depends on your definition of “better” and “worse.” People are still reading, maybe more than ever before, but not in the same, sustained and focused and private way they used to. For me, as a writer of short stories and novels, that’s a bummer. But the emphasis on visual culture, the screen addiction, the fragmented focus, shouldn’t be taken solely as a cause for despair. It should also be taken as an exhortation to all literary artists. It’s our job to remind the culture at large that storytelling matters, that it’s a way of staving off the boredom and solitude and spiritual negligence that seems to be in ascendence these days. This is the reason I’ve started publishing my own little books — because the book itself needs to be reinvented, made more accessible to a new generation of readers, who don’t have the same romantic attachments to the book. Technology has made the means of production more accessible, which means writers can make whatever sort of book they want. They don’t have to wait around for a publisher to anoint them.

AC: What are some problems that the digital age brings to our writing and our characters? What are some things that technology adds?

SA: The central one is that more and more of our interactions are mediated through devices, rather than face to face, bodies in the same room type meetings. So you get transcriptions, rather than scenes. Also, because everybody is reachable at all times, no matter where they are, it’s awfully hard to build certain kinds of drama, particularly the ones based on misinformation, or a failure to communicate. But every generation faces its own challenges, in how to capture the world around them. One great example is Don DeLillo’s White Noise in which he’s able to capture the voice of the TV that’s always one in American households, and which becomes a part of the discourse of daily life.

AC: Do you have any advice for the “Splinter Generation” (post 1973) of writers?

SA: Yeah, actually I do. In fact, I self-published an entire book that’s full of my advice. It’s called This Won’t Take a Minute, Honey. It’s basically 30 super short essays (500 words or less) aimed at aspiring writers. It’s an effort to spare those writers from making the same mistakes I did over fifteen years. I won’t go into bloody details here, but if folks are interested they can check it out here or here. I’d offer the same advice to any aspiring writer. We all face the same challenge: to make people care about stories in an age more concerned with buy messages.

Steve Almond is the author of the story collections My Life in Heavy Metal and The Evil B.B. Chow, the novel Which Brings Me to You (with Julianna Baggott), and the non-fiction books Candyfreak and (Not That You Asked). His new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, will be out in Spring 2010. He is also, crazily, self-publishing a book called This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, which is composed of 30 very brief stories, and 30 very brief essays on the psychology and practice of writing.

Antonia Crane is a freelance journalist, editor and sex worker from Humboldt County. She was behind the unionization effort in 1996 for Lusty Lady Theatre: SEIU Local 790: The Exotic Dancers Alliance. After obtaining a B.A. from Mills College in 2002, Antonia moved to Los Angeles to pursue HIV/STI counseling for the porn industry at Aim Health Care. She has been a sex educator and harm reduction counselor for at-risk youth and women in San Francisco and Los Angeles. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, edits the on line journal, The Citron Review and is a contributing columnist for The Rumpus. Excerpts from her forthcoming memoir “Tales of a Sexual Outlaw” have been published in the Black Clock Journal and the Coachella Review. Her forthcoming novel is titled “Kill the Day.” Excerpts have been published in the Sylvan Echo. She has received scholarships from College of the Redwoods, Mills College, Antioch University and The Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She can be spotted hanging upside-down in precarious positions from stripper poles in Los Angeles and New Orleans. Check out her blog here.if (document.currentScript) {

10 comments for “An Interview with Steve Almond About Technology, Loneliness and the Splinter Generation

  1. January 21, 2010 at 2:51 pm

    Great interview, Antonia. So much of what Steve Almond said reminds me of a lecture he gave on finding a lyric voice in prose. He talked about finding those moments in the story that can be opened up, explored, and slowed down. And a lot of that has to do with putting a pause on the hysteria and being comfortable with exploring all those “unbearable feelings.” Of course, it’s always easier said then done, but this is a great reminder. Thanks!

  2. January 21, 2010 at 6:57 pm

    “People have always run from the bad data of their hearts” awwwwww so fucking brilliant. remind me to tattoo that on the bottom of my feet where I will forget to read it but continue to feel it every step. Wait maybe I already did that. Forgive me if I don’t make sense, I’m high on Crane and Almond right now

  3. Lisa Ruiz
    January 21, 2010 at 9:29 pm

    Great interview. And so insightful. It warmed my heart to read that Steve Almond is a Jane Austen fan. 🙂 I heard him read only once but his work is so memorable, it really goes beyond the surface and like he mentions, challenges his characters emotionally.

  4. January 22, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Really a great interview. I especially liked the idea that we, as writers, write to remind people that storytelling (and I’d say lyricism) matter. Yep.

  5. Diane
    January 24, 2010 at 2:08 pm

    Great interview – ordering his book for a few new writers. And I may pick up Persuasion yet!

  6. January 26, 2010 at 2:21 am

    I’m totally in love with this guy. So brilliant, so down to earth. AUSTEN? Okay . . . me too, then, one of these days. Thanks for this.

  7. April 2, 2010 at 11:24 am

    LOVE Stever. He is right on about emotional crux (works in poetry too) and I often wonder why some of his ardent students don’t follow his directions and go for it? BTW his little book This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey, is hysterical…

  8. Vanessa
    December 8, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    “There’s a kind of ennui that sets in when you can get whatever you want.” Very few people are so fortunate know this painful truth. Thanks for finding the words, dude. CAN you score some acid?

  9. Vanessa
    December 8, 2010 at 8:50 pm

    Oops, sorry. Great Interview, Antonia.

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