Matthew Stadler is an American novelist born in 1959 in Seattle. He is the author of four novels: Landscape: Memory, The Sex Offender, The Dissolution of Nicholas Dee and Allen Stein, his latest, published in 1999 by Grove Press. Considered, by many of his peers and important critics, to be one of the most accomplished American novelists of his generation, Stadler seems nevertheless to fall under the category of “well-kept secret” in contemporary literature: none of his books has been translated so far, and they have become increasingly difficult to find, even in his own country. The fate of Stadler’s literary work until now provides (yet again) undisputable evidence of the noxious effects of the commercialization and commoditization forces at work in the contemporary literary field.
Yet, Stadler is anything but unknown in the art world. His essays and criticism have appeared in numerous art and architecture magazines, such as Artforum, Domus, or Volume, or exhibition catalogues. He has also taken part in a variety of art and cultural projects or events in Europe, America and Asia. But above all, Stadler is maybe recognized as a cultural activist of the North-West region (Portland, Seattle, Vancouver) where he lives, as someone who would do whatever he believes is needed to enhance the civic imagination: founding a publishing house; teaching classes at his kitchen table; operating temporary bookshops; organizing events with artists and writers; or hosting dinners.
The following interview with Stadler was conducted over email between Paris and Mexico, and sees Stadler talk about the inspirations for and practicalities of his different activities. This interview is also an attempt at suggesting what a public intellectual might be today, one that is less driven by institutional or media recognition than by DIY ideas and politics.
Thomas Boutoux: I wanted to make this interview with you in order to understand how you join the dots between all the different things that you have done or that you do, often concurrently. How do you collapse or articulate into one activity the distinctions between your work as a novelist and the other part of your work, which includes writing literary criticism, art criticism and urbanism theory, but also setting up independent structures (communities, micro-institutions, economies), that engage different practices beyond writing: publishing (through your publishing house Clear Cut Press), teaching (through the Using Global Media workshops), organizing community conversations (the Back Room), operating experimental blogs on the Internet, or curating exhibitions. What is the logic of the poly-activity of Matthew Stadler ?
Matthew Stadler: If you want to try to organize the logic of what I’m doing, I think that’s best done by noting that I am a writer. That’s all. I engage what matters to me by writing. I like the politics of writing (the autonomy of writer and of reader; the availability of the text to many contradictory readings). And I think writing endures; the text remains stable while its meanings adapt to social needs over time. Most of what I write I call "fiction" because that label allows me to do whatever I need to. My fiction isn’t "made up;" it’s based on everything I can learn or use. I read, research, travel, talk to people, dream, imagine, tell lies, tell the truth… whatever it takes. I think of fiction as a great epistemological amnesty, a liberated zone in which all sources of knowledge are valid. I also write lectures and essays, in which I cast myself as a narrator and limit myself to agreed-upon "facts," since that’s what is expected of those forms.
And here’s where all the other "not writing" work comes in: I don’t write for myself, I write to be read. It is a social act, shaped and informed by others and meant for others. But after four novels of my own, I began to realize that hardly any of us knows how to read. The times we live in are actively hostile to reading, because text is a powerful political space with profoundly disruptive potentials. We are taught, instead, to consume books; we are taught to identify them with the author; we are taught to clarify their ambiguities and resolve their paradoxes; we are taught to "master" a text by aligning it with what others agree to be true; we are taught to hold our meanings provisionally, as just "my interpretation." But my writing — a lot of writing — doesn’t work that way. Writing is a social space for new relationships and new meanings, unresolved ones full of paradox and flux, and with no room for mastery. It isn’t about me; the text is a site of socially negotiated meanings that change as we change.
That means I need to do a lot to help people know how to read. I publish other writers so this social space will be rich with material that speaks to mine. I am interested in the economy of publishing because I think the signals we send about the book and what it means begin there: a book handed to a friend at dinner is different from one purchased at a chain store. I organize dinners with writers so we can experience reading socially, recklessly, together. We can get carried away. I offer the workshop (at this point, only the Using Global Media workshops) as a forum in which to consider this whole ecology and reflect on it, enact it, use it, together with other people.
So, I am a writer living in a time when passively issuing books into the world is a foolish thing. Someone, everyone, needs to attend to the social space of reading, or the books could die without meaning a thing. All my ancillary work attends to that.
TB: Let’s speak about the economy of publishing first, as this is the focus of this issue of Rosa B. In 2002, with Richard Jensen, you founded Clear Cut Press. It wasn’t only about publishing writings that you liked and thought deserved to find a readership; Clear Cut Press was a project meant to reflect upon, and rethink the "physical business of literature" as Richard Jensen often says . Can you tell me about the experiences and observations that lead you to create CCP and to approach publishing and especially distribution in a radically different way than big publishers (but also most small or mid-size publishers) do? Can you describe the specificities of CCP that have made it into an enduring, sustainable project?
MS: Rich and I both like the way books endure, that they wander and emerge in unexpected times and places. We’ve both found books in dusty used-book stores or libraries, coming across a book that simply had passed from hand to hand and was just sitting there, 50 or 100 years after it was made, which spoke to us. How do you get a book into such a place? We knew that without money (and neither of us had much) publishers need to be savvy. They need to print the right number of books and leak them into the world in such a way that readers shepherd the books into that kind of future. We didn’t want huge piles of books to fill stores for a season and then get pulped. And we didn’t want to make just a handful to sprinkle into a vast world.
The American press, New Directions, founded in 1924 by James McLoughlin, was probably our best model. We aimed for something like what they have accomplished. New Directions generally printed between 1500 and 6000 copies of each book. They could sell their print runs slowly because McLoughlin was rich and could float the debt. But they had good relationships with a handful of important booksellers, including NY’s Gotham Book Mart, and reviewers knew McLoughlin and respected his taste; so, the books were always visible. After 36 years New Directions was able to bring yearly sales into line with print runs, and they became profitable.
They did it by publishing great writing. They published enduring stuff, popular or not, books which spoke to one another. Second, they had great, consistent book design. When Rich and I started, we filled my big table with books we thought were beautiful. At least a dozen were New Directions paperbacks from mid-century. Clear Cut aims for two things: great writing, regardless of market; and great, consistent design, in our case by handing all of Clear Cut’s design work over to Tae Won Yu.
But the details of book selling have changed since mid-century. In the 1980s and ’90s, Ira Silverberg’s excellent High Risk Press was doing just what New Directions had, and they got killed by returns. That is, High Risk ran bigger print runs to fill orders from a huge chain, Borders Books, that was sympathetic to the press and wanted to give the books a chance in this bigger market. But when Borders failed to sell the books, they returned them by the thousands, and High Risk went bankrupt paying Borders back for the "returns." Even small presses that have survived financially accept the fact that half the books they print and ship will just come back to them unsold, and often damaged.
Our goal, we decided, was to print several thousand copies of each book and have no returns. We would only ship them when we were confident the copies would end up in the hands of readers. If we could get our returns close to zero, we could sell slow and still turn a profit. First we pre-sold. We offered the books as a subscription series. Any book shipped to a subscriber was paid for and de facto reached a reader who wanted it. Second was online orders; same story. Third we developed relationships with people at bookstores we admired and shipped our books to them. Only rarely would a book buyer we knew send books back; instead they took an interest in our project and kept the books until they sold. Last, we placed some of our stock with smaller distributors who were familiar with our press and our goals. These were Small Press Distribution and Partners West. We have near zero returns. This is almost unheard of and the key to our ability to go slow and keep going.
Slow is the right pace for books. A smart review in a visible journal feels great, especially for the writer, but we’re aiming these things at some curious kid who isn’t born yet, rummaging in a bookstore 30 or 100 years from now. If we put our efforts into seducing the reviewer, it takes our attention away from the important long-haul work of getting all the books into the hands of readers. That long-haul work starts when we ship and is continued by attending to the conversation around the books.
The whole review-driven bookstore system is not geared to that pace. Reviewers always needed us to specify the "pub date," the exact day when the book was "released" to the world. That way everyone would know how old or new the goods were. The stores wanted to know what we had for "the next season" and when "this season’s" authors would be available to tour. But readers who love books lose track of time. You hear them talking about the same few books, over and over, regardless of the season.
Clear Cut tries to attend to those kind of conversations by hosting public events with writers (regardless of season) and creating a social space of reading that enriched in some of the ways I describe below (on the questions about classes and dinners). We’re building a community of interested readers and trying to irrigate an ongoing conversation that our books will be part of.
TB: Although this should probably be more a question for Richard Jensen, because of his long involvement with music and indie-labels organizations (K records, Up and Sub Pop) prior to founding Clear Cut Press, I’d like to ask you if you believe that publishing remains in the 21st century the most efficient medium or technology in terms of what you call “disruptive potentials”, in terms of making new and unorthodox thinking seep in the culture? More than producing a magazine, or records, or exhibitions, a website, etc.
MS: Books are slow and durable. I like their pace. You could bury one in the ground and 100 years from now whoever digs it up can read it, without special software, electricity, or any equipment. They’re also mass producible. 4000 people (in the case of a Clear Cut book) can all have the original. Most of all, and unique to reading, I enjoy the privacy of writing and reading. No other medium allows the maker and the viewer to each engage the work completely in private. I love watching someone read, smile, and then close the book wordlessly. This is an especially powerful and unique political space. In reading, we arrive at completely subjective meanings in what is ultimately a publicly available space.
As for other media, I can only guess. I’m enchanted by digital media, especially its weird combo of evanescence and permanence. The internet reminds me of zombies. Nothing is more actively dead than a dead website. I know that words in a digital environment are different to me than words on a page, and I’m intrigued by both; but I don’t feel I understand anything about the logic of the digital world. I like zombies, by the way.
I love music. I couldn’t live without it. I love dance. I believe my writing is actually a clumsy translation of kinetic impulses I feel in my body, meanings I am too shy or unskilled to convey with my body, and so instead I sit at my desk, wobbling and weaving in my chair, trying to put words to these essentially kinetic impulses.
TB: What about magazines? What is your relationship to them? You have worked as a literary editor for a journal for some years (Nest) and you are a quite prolific contributor to various magazines and journals (from different fields). What have you learned from your involvement with periodicals? How do you see their function in the ecology of culture? What are the magazines that you really like?
MS: I like periodicals, that is, any series published regularly over time. I like the commitment to keep a conversation going, and I like their evanescence and disposability; I also like the variety of forms they can take. I don’t think I have any insight into how to do it well. I read the London Review of Books, because I love the writing in it. Oh, and Veneer is a great new periodical. I subscribe to Veneer.
I write for a lot of people, basically anyone who I like working with. That means for free for friends who have no money, and for $$ for bigger, commercial concerns. I choose gigs based on mutual interest — does the editor actually want me to write? I can’t work on projects where the editor wants me to write like someone else. I’m not talented enough to do that.
Nest Magazine, was probably my most interesting gig. Nest was a lavishly produced magazine of interiors. It wasn’t ad-driven, or a consumer guide, but more a kind of broad inquiry into the ways people make domestic space; kind of like a National Geographic for the indoors. It was the product of a handful of people, chiefly Joseph Holtzman, who founded it and designed and edited it. I chose and edited all the writing for Nest, for all 6 years of its existence. Joe’s idea was he would handle all the visuals and I would be in charge of all the text. He had money and little care for anything except his own curiosity and sensibility (both of which are remarkable), so Nest never had to answer to commercial pressures. We stopped when we realized that our energies were focused elsewhere (Joe on painting, me on Clear Cut Press) and were worried that Nest would become repetitious, to us at least, if we kept going.
TB: Parallel to your activities within the world of publishing (as a writer, an editor and a publisher) you have been very active since the late 80s in setting up what you call interpersonal small gatherings around focused conversations. Meant to inaugurate communities of interest and news relationships between people, these experiments have taken the form of private classes that you gave in your apartment in Seattle, or the Back Room dinners that you organized in Portland, the Using Global Media workshops that you held in different places around the world, among others. They are all private or semi-private events, based on the idea that semi-privacy or limited groupings are more efficient than the exchanges that can happen in spaces open to everyone or institutionalized. What made you take that path? It all begun with the private classes, which you have described in a recent text ( dont take any jobs - reading notes for dont take-any jobs ) more as an art-form than pedagogy per se?
MS: My experience is that people-together-in-a-room is itself a kind of medium, a really important medium. Like other media, being with other people in a room actually changes the ways we can think. You feel it in the way your body and attentions change as you sit down at a table with others; you find it in the course of talking to others at the table. The physical fact of being together in that room makes our minds move and invent differently than when we are alone. I’m convinced this kind of thinking, together in a room, is essential for reading; it is the social component of reading.
Depending on the physical arrangement and context, I can think with as many as 60 or 70 other people at a time, I’ve found. I bet there are smarter people who can do it with more. The forms I’ve worked with have been determined by the rooms available to me and my love of food and drink. So, I worked with a long table in my one-room apartment in Seattle, which seated 12, where I held a "writing workshop" for a dozen writers. I worked with two long tables in a restaurant in Portland, ripe, where we started "the back room" dinners for 45 – 50 people.
At the back room a big group shares a big meal and lots of drink and then engages one special guest in a conversation, ostensibly about the guest’s work (which has mostly been writing, but also visual art and politics). There’s also live music, usually by musicians interested in or sympathetic to the work of the guest. Often we commission the guest to write something and publish it for the dinner, so copies of that nice, modest artifact are there on the table for everyone. Ripe closed and the back room moved; its best venue now is a Macedonian fellowship hall in North Portland, which seats 60 around a big U-shaped table. In my house in Portland I have another long table, like the one I had in my apartment when I lived in Seattle, and that gave birth to the using Global Media Workshops, which has typically involved 10 people at a time.
I’m happy to work with other rooms and other forms, but these comprise most of what I’ve done. (Plus, I’ve taught and contributed in various academic and conference settings, though I haven’t shaped much of that.) As you can see, these are really simple, common forms. Anyone can do this. The hard part, or the exciting part, is trying to make the space of conversation really rich and open. Eating and drinking help a lot. They put most people in a confident, indulgent state of mind. They establish common ground and conviviality. It’s harder to do this if you have people, say, sitting in small desks in a classroom.
The other essential is listening. We talked about this in Tokyo. We act like its good politics to make sure people get to speak and express themselves, but then no one listens. There’s a surfeit of speaking and a corresponding paucity of listening. People together in a room often just take turns speaking, and wait semi-patiently while others speak. In public political forums, in the US anyway, political leaders do exactly this. If George Bush is exemplary of anything it is the capacity to not listen. Contrarily, to construct a space of listening, a social space in which we are drawn to be present and aware and receptive while not speaking, is like water to a parched soul. Then, when we do speak, we carry the conversation further.
I try to keep the arrangements simple and familiar, because the richness of our time together seems to be helped by the simplicity and clarity of the form and of my expectations. But it’s simple the way calligraphy is simple, which means it also requires tremendous mindfulness and, for lack of a better word, "presence." I think I’m a kind of formalist. In the using Global Media workshops, I’ve made this process one of our subjects, called "interpersonal media." It’s hard to theorize it, and probably not helpful; but I write about my experience of it in the workshop notes, which are online. Notes from the workshop in Berlin (on interpersonal media , on material media (printed material circulation) , on digital media), last May, are probably the best ones to look at on this subject.
The workshop is very simple. We help each other use media to connect to (or work with) others, near and far. I think media can usefully be broken down into three kinds — interpersonal media (in which the fact of being physically together is necessary for connection, like at dinner); material media (in which a material object is made that can travel through the world independently of our bodies and connect us…something like a book or a film); and digital media (in which a disembodied, immaterial space is created where we can connect to others without any physical object in common; for example, a website).
The workshop is a place for us to discuss this sort of ecology of media, but it is also a kind of greenhouse enactment of the same. That is, we gather together to talk over food and drink; but we also make and/or circulate printed matter, and we contribute to a digital forum. Typically the gatherings last for ten sessions (though in Berlin we had six), but the workshop, as such, goes on forever. The digital armature persists and can be used by any workshop member, and the community that makes or circulate objects persists. New members are added every time I have a new session, wherever I find people who are interested. Since I travel a lot, this will eventually make a fairly extensive, global workshop.
Like a lot of organic processes, the results don’t look like much yet. I’ve got 30 new friends…some of them have pursued conversations we started in the workshop. But I don’t mind going slow on this; I think the form is very promising.
TB: Can you tell me more about how the back room was born? How does one become a writer-in-residence in a restaurant? Are live music, good wines and food the essential ingredients for thinking together in a room? What are the other elements that one needs to be attentive to, in order to make the situation particularly eloquent? To what extent are the events scripted beforehand?
MS: This summer, I wrote about the back room at length. So, I’m attaching a copy of that essay, plus a URL for the online version. I think it addresses all your questions here…let’s see…The evenings are not scripted. Most of our well-meaning guests resist this, but I insist that they not prepare and that we not "go over things" ahead of time. The point of the gathering is to think together, as a group, by being together and talking. The vertigo of this kind of free-fall is unnerving, especially for well-known writers or artists who are used to performing themselves in public. But the food and drink help them get there.
The table is the most important thing, that and the seating in the room. It has to be a common table. Everyone should be visible to everyone else. We had a pillar in the middle of the room at ripe. I was glad to see that go. And the host has to welcome everyone, individually as they arrive and then, formally, as a group. We always have a toast.
TB: Moving to the digital media now, I was intrigued by your blog, "Mathew Stadler’s Personal Weblog" when I discovered it. I took me a while to understand what it was about or to make sense of it in the context of the rest of what you do. But then it became clear: it is a real experiment in freeing information and authorship from their proprietary interests – but not in the way that it’s mostly done on the Internet through sharing authorship or using pseudonyms, etc. It’s about trying to invalidate authorship. How does the blog work exactly? Was it successful in inaugurating interesting new relationships with writers and readers?
MS: I’m glad you asked about this. I am a strange and sprawling thing online, very unlike the person I have believed myself to be in the world. Rather than fighting the appearance of this phantasm, I’ve been drawn to contribute to it. I’m not sure why, perhaps because of my helplessness in the face of it. The vertigo I feel when I witness myself happening online lacks any moral dimension. I don’t feel violated, or wronged. This flickering "Matthew Stadler" doesn’t look false to me, so much as foreign and strange. It clearly is not about me. So, rather than rail against the growing primacy of this shadow play, I was drawn to create "Matthew Stadler’s Personal Weblog" as a way to take part in it. Rather than just authoring more texts on line, the site lets me take part in the authorless fecundity the internet offers. Maybe these sites are like the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. I certainly feel giddy and productive whenever I witness them.
In brief, the site is this: every two weeks I post a request on an online board called Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. That site lists menial tasks you can do for money, in real time, online. Anyone can do them. Typically, these are data entry tasks or other simple things, such as looking at photos to identify objects. They pay pennies per task. But I ask for "an entry for my personal weblog." I ask the Turk (which means whoever spots my post first) to read past entries and write a new one. I pay $10 and post the result on "Matthew Stadler’s Personal Weblog." There can be no question of authorship. The posts carry no attribution, and I openly discuss the method, for example in the discussions that ensue on the site. I think it is helpful to note, as you do in your question, that I’m not "pretending" to write the posts, nor am I making a venue for pseudonymous writing or other masquerades. My "personal weblog" is free of authorship, thanks to the Mechanical Turk. The texts are not beholden to anyone’s biography. I pay money to liberate text from such obligations. I swear this is not a cynical act, though it might be a desperate one. On my "personal weblog" I can float the pure product of these new relationships afforded to us by digital media.
TB: What is next? I know that you’ve left the Northwest temporarily and have relocated to Mexico to find more time to work on two new books: your new novel and another one more related to urbanism, on the "Zwischenstadt", which you introduced in Paris last year. Can you tell me a little bit about them?
MS: I’ve put a lot of other work aside to write this year. Among other things, I left Clear Cut Press to Rich Jensen. Having set up the press’s second series (six books to be released over the next two years) and unable to bear the grisly details of business, I granted my half of the press to Rich. His is the business/creative mind that is best equipped to navigate "the physical business of literature;" my best contribution to Clear Cut was as an editor who could identify and work with the writers who matter to us. I had completed all of that, for the next two-years worth of books, and felt it was best to let Rich make the business decisions on his own without having to run a kind of three-legged race attached to me. I think it was a good decision, for me and for the press. We’ll see. I continue working with Clear Cut as the editor of two anthologies they will publish. The first is recently out, The Back Room: an anthology, and the second will be a Zwischenstadt Reader, collecting the important texts of "the zwischenstadt," which is Thomas Sieverts’s word for the new urban landscapes that do not arrange themselves concentrically. Some call it "sprawl."
Zwischenstadt fascinates me because it provides a non-pejorative description of landscapes I have known all my life, ones which seem to be proliferating everywhere on the globe. I was led to this work because I wondered why the cities I grew up in lacked centers, why they aspired to be like European cities, yet always failed, often miserably. The history of those efforts is short but brilliant. What preceded that litany of failures?
Sieverts defines zwischenstadt (which literally means "in-between city") as a landscape that is neither city nor country, but both at once, and is shaped not by global forces or local particularities so much as both at once. In the story of the city (say, where I live, in Portland, Oregon) this condition is read as a tragedy — the dissolution of the old concentric city, the erasure of local "places" by global forces. But I wonder if the zwischenstadt might be a condition with its own history, and not just the tragic absence of some other ideal. Sieverts gives a typology of zwischenstadt that lets us to look at it as something other than a failure. In his words it is any environment "in which place-specific actions of nation-states, cities, and communities are strongly influenced by international actions and the global market, in which the speed of information and travel connections has blurred the notion of space, in which the contrast between city and country has dissolved into a city-country continuum."
These are conditions for which evidence can be found or not found in any period of history. So I have been researching the history of the zwischenstadt, particularly in the area that is now known as Beaverton, Oregon, an exploding "suburb" of Portland. It has a long history here; it predates the imposition of the concentric city. My hunch is that we can better understand and live in this condition if we have better descriptions and representations of its logic and its history. Sieverts actually makes the claim that what people call "the problem of sprawl" will not be solved by better architecture or better urban planning: What we need, he says, is better art. The crisis is not the product of bad design. It is a crisis of the imagination. Nostalgic descriptions of old European centers and harangues against the ugliness of the suburbs do not help us. The zwischenstadt needs its own art and literature to help us live in it fully and well.
The Zwischenstadt Reader collects the literature of these landscapes. Some of it is very old (journals of early fur trappers in British Columbia, for example); some is very new (Sieverts, or the fiction of Lee Williams, whose novel After Nirvana explicates the logic of this radically intermixed landscape). The reader will exist in tandem with an exhibition of visual art of the "zwischenstadt" that is being curated by Stephanie Snyder, of the Colley Gallery at Reed College, in Portland. At the same time, I am writing my own book that I hope will make a contribution to this growing literature.
TB: Is it going to be a work of fiction ?
MS: Yes, for all the reasons I gave at the outset of this interview. It’s a difficult subject to approach within the conventions of essay writing. I even wonder if some of the egocentric conventions of nonfiction are cousin to the ideology of the concentric city. I mean, the need for a clear, self-identified teller and a hierarchical organization of truth and facts. I need to find a better form, and fiction will let me do that.