Sex and Death: an interview with Neal Pollack
Earlier this year, I was victimized by Tristan Devin, editor of Slipshod Magazine, a fine Internet humor site. And when I say victimized, I mean interviewed via email. I now reprint the interview in its entirety, except that I've changed some of the answers to make me seem smarter.
SLIPSHOD. I'll open with a few fun icebreaker questions. Tell me, Neal Pollack, author of The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature, have you ever been indicted?
Neal Pollack. Not on the federal level.
SLIPSHOD. Interesting. Well then, answer me this--who is your favorite country/western entertainer?
NP. There are so many from which to choose, but I am awfully partial to George Jones, who has lived the life, in all its ups and downs. It's not country if there's not tragedy.
SLIPSHOD. What made you want to become a writer?
NP. I'm not really good at anything else.
SLIPSHOD. Yes, I've heard that. But back to these great questions--my readers seem to enjoy it when authors relate comical anecdotes from their youths. Have you such an anecdote?
NP. When I was 12, I sat in gum, and I had gum all over my ass, and then a bunch of guys teased me because I had gum all over my ass, and then I told them to fuck off, and then they beat me up. My youth was pretty much like that.
SLIPSHOD. Hey, I just thought of this question: In the New York Times Book Review, which is included in the Anthology, Jack Shafer writes, "Like Dave Eggers and the other literary monkey-wrenchers at McSweeney's Quarterly Pollack longs to make literary noise of his own." Shafer seems to be of the school of thinking that maintains that the less funny a piece of writing is, the more literary it is. How do you respond to this? And how do you feel about the term "literary monkey-wrenchers"?
NP. Literature does not have to be serious to be literature. To be fair to Jack Shafer, I don't think he was saying that I had to be serious to be a good writer. He was saying that I had to write narrative, with character, and that being just a parodist would reduce me to one-trick pony status very quickly. It was constructive criticism. As for the term "literary monkey-wrenchers," well, that's journalism for you.
SLIPSHOD. How do you see yourself in regards to this question? In other words, do you think of yourself as a "writer" or a "humorist"?
NP. I definitely consider myself a writer first. Humorists write funny little novels about the quirks of regional life, or tender observations about fatherhood. I am a WRITER, in all caps. Or at least I want to be. I like to think my stuff has a harder edge. There's not much of it they can play on NPR, and I consider that a badge of honor. A little annoying, perhaps, because NPR would expand my audience, but it's still a badge.
SLIPSHOD. Do you have your own theory of humor?
NP. Yes. Do not revert to making fun of Carrot Top or Gallagher when you have no other material. And nothing Jay Leno says is funny. Also, when all else fails, bring in a dancing animal.
SLIPSHOD. Who are some of your favorite humorists?
NP. I really don't like the term humorist. But two of my favorite writers who use humor are Terry Southern and Hunter Thompson, in the latter case up until about 1972 or so. I like to see humor deployed in service of a larger cause, not just for quick laughs or to point out contemporary foibles. Those date very quickly, and so does the humor about them.
SLIPSHOD. To a certain extent I agree with you [about the term humorist]. I think it's unfortunate that if a writer can make the reader laugh out loud, he is immediately dispatched to the "humor" isle of the bookstore, forever doomed, as Woody Allen says, to sit at the kids' table. I'm also somewhat insulted when Thomas Pynchon is referred to as "hilarious" by his dust jackets (who are they to decide, damn jackets)--the same goes for JF Powers. Both of these men are great writers (whatever that means), but neither of them have done more in their funniest moments than raise the corners of my mouth. I think it is very difficult to make a person laugh, and I think that a writer who can make their reader laugh takes control of his reader in a way that other writers do not. I only wish that, in the world of books, the comic could be reconciled with the dramatic and the tragic as it occasionally is in the theater.
NP. I totally agree with you. People always tell me how "hilarious" Nabokov is, but I never laugh when I read Nabokov. I always feel as though I'm being force-fed medicine when I read him, though I recognize the beauty of the sentences and the intricate construction of the whole. All in all, I'd rather watch my DVD of Airplane! Humor is tough, though. I mean, Mark Twain is, objectively, funny, yet I have a hard time laughing at Twain because some of his work dates poorly. Most literature does, though at least with Twain the humor is often in service of narrative so you at least have the narrative to speed you along.
The reconcilation of humor with the dramatic and the tragic is something I've been struggling with in the novel I'm working on Well, "struggling" might be too strong a word. More like "praying for." I think I've probably failed. It takes a very special writer to achieve the balance. I don't know how special I am.
SLIPSHOD. An essay in the upcoming issue of SLIPSHOD claims that the key to being funny is a mixture of equal parts self-loathing and rampant narcissism. Do you agree with this? If not, why do you hate me?
NP. I don't hate you. I have no time to hate my acolytes. Why? Do you hate me?
SLIPSHOD. The "Why do you hate me?" remark was my feeble attempt at whimsy. I am more interested in your opinions on the comic mind. The writers and humorists whom I've met have all seemed to carry a Yeti-sized ego around with them (myself included). Perhaps this is necessarily so, since these people maintain the expectation that others want to read what they have to write. But while the most serious and literary minded writers have tended to lack a sense of irony about themselves and their profession, the humorist (or the funny-writer, as it were) has tended to be self-aware and self-deprecating in the extreme, sometimes to a debilitating extent. Do you find this to be so? If not, do you have any opinions on what brings the funny-writer to his funny?
NP. I think funny writers bound all over the map. Sometimes "serious" writers are so serious that they end up having little to say about their craft, or they all say the same bullshit about erasing the boundaries between high and low art, writing in a soundproof room, blah blah. Humor writers often bring more insight to the table, because I think they are required to be more honest. The funniest writers are funny because they tell the truth, and the truth is funny.
SLIPSHOD. Which is funnier, soup or pizza?
NP. Nothing in the world is funnier than soup. Or more delicious.