Brian Evenson is the author of over a dozen books of fiction, most recently the story collections The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell (Coffee House Press 2021), A Song for the Unraveling of the World (Coffee House Press 2019), A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press 2016) and the novella The Warren (Tor.com 2016). He has also recently published Windeye (Coffee House Press 2012) and Immobility (Tor 2012), both of which were finalists for a Shirley Jackson Award. His novel Last Days won the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel of 2009. His novel The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press) was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an International Horror Guild Award. Other books include The Wavering Knife (which won the IHG Award for best story collection), Dark Property, and Altmann’s Tongue. He has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, Manuela Draeger, and David B. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship. His work has been translated into Czech, French, Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Persian, Russia, Spanish, Slovenian, and Turkish. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the Critical Studies Program at CalArts.
Brian and I sat down in an office room at Washington University in St. Louis to discuss his career, his influences, the power (and limits) of fiction, and his upcoming projects.
Michael J. Sanders: Perhaps we should begin with your work as a very generous writer of introductions and forewords. You’ve spoken about the ways some story ideas come for you from places other things you’ve read could have gone. In your foreword to Thomas Bernhard’s Three Novellas, you write: “These novellas provide many of the satisfactions of Bernhard’s later prose while at the same time suggesting other directions that Bernhard might have traveled, other likewise unique stylistic paths he might have pursued” (Three Novellas viii). I think of your harrowing early story, “The Munich Window: A Persecution,” as a place, literally and linguistically, Bernhard might have travelled. Other writers you’ve written introductions for include Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Barbara Comyns, Mathias Énard, and Christian Gailly. When it comes to promoting other writers, which you do so generously, or just conceiving of your own writing, how do you navigate influence and admiration? If all artists steal, how do you steal and not get caught—or not get caught up—in the influence of another?
Brian K. Evenson: I have a lot of friends who don’t read very much when they’re working on a project and it’s partly as a way of keeping influence away. For me, I’ve taken a very different tactic. I have decided that if I just read enough different kinds of things then no one thing is going to be that influentially dominant. So at least that’s the strategy. There are pieces and writers that have been really influential on me. Thomas Bernhard, his work in general has been, and one of my stories “The Munich Window,” as you mentioned, uses his non-paragraphing technique but tries to take it and move it to a different sort of character and do something else with it. Or Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was very influential on another book I wrote called Dark Property. So, I think part of influence for me is working through a writer’s work and processing it. I find a lot of work I read inspiring in terms of pushing me in different directions and allowing me to try new things. And I’d say that comes not only from work I read but it’s from work I translate as well. Translation teaches me new ways of organizing sentences.
MJS: “There is that blessed combination of poet and scholar, the translator,” W.H. Auden wrote (Dyer’s 43). You’ve done over a dozen translations of very interesting French writers. I recently began Electric Flesh and was blown away by that prose style. A follow up question: what pushes your sense of the strength of a work past wanting to introduce it and into doing the work of translation?
BKE: It’s funny, I translate a range of stuff for a range of reasons. Generally, I translate work that I wish more American writers knew about. And I feel like one of the reasons for translating is to make work available to those writers in such a way that it starts to change the way in which the literary landscape looks. So for me it’s a little bit selfish because I feel like I translate work that’s going to make my own reception in the landscape a little better just because people see, “Oh, there’s these other sorts of things writers are doing in other countries, different risks they’re taking.” I only translate from French and a little bit from Spanish, so I’m limited in terms of what I can do in terms of translation. But I’ve chosen works that I really like. I did these Manuela Draeger pieces that Dorothy, a publishing project put out that I’m really happy with because they claim to be works for children but they’re very, very strange and I liked that as an idea.
If you’re translating something you’re going to live very close to it and very intensely with it in a way that you don’t in any other circumstance unless you’re writing it. If I’m going to translate a book I have to like it well enough to be committed to really becoming very intimate with the writer’s language and trying to figure out how it can be transliterated into English. There have been things I have turned down translating; usually I only translate something if I feel a connection to it.
Claro’s book Electric Flesh is a good example. It has that maximalist use of language that you get with Vollmann’s or Pynchon’s large tomes, but it’s also very compact as a book. That combination seemed really interesting to me, partly because so many people at the time were talking about these maximalist books that were gigantic. So I thought, all right, this is a book that is incredibly conscious of language, it’s doing a lot, it’s maximal, but it’s also very compact as a book. I wanted to translate it because of that.
MJS: I love that compactness in your own writing too. Talk to me about the novella or the novelette or the short story form, the miniature. To me it draws together something since, say, the Kafkaesque or the Lovecraftian, that you are often employing in your writing. What is it about that shorter form that makes you gravitate towards it? Do you see it as your predominate form in some way?
BKE: I really like the shorter form, partly because I feel like you can do a lot with a little. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m one of those people who’ve been lucky enough to have more ideas than I could possibly write. For whatever reason, ideas come very quickly to me and I think that the short form allows me to investigate an idea relatively quickly and explore it in a way that I find really productive, whereas a novel has different kinds of concerns. It’s a much deeper dive into something. I do think that I’m more of a short story writer and a writer of novellas than I am a novelist. I’m more naturally drawn to those shorter forms and more naturally drawn as a reader to writers who do a lot very elegantly in a more confined space. I think for me the novella is probably my favorite form since it has a lot of the strengths of the novel even at the same time as you can ask the reader to pay a lot of attention to the language. Something like the Claro book I translated that you mentioned, you can read that in a sitting if you want to.
MJS: A lot of your translations seem that way.
BKE: I think so. I’m trying to think if there’s anything I’ve done that’s all that long? And…uh, no. I think I gravitate toward books that are 200 pages or less, and usually 150 or something.
MJS: You often speak of having a wide range of literary interests and influences, with people like Muriel Spark being somewhat of outliers, but it strikes me that what unites Spark to a Poe or a Beckett is a clear entanglement of philosophy and fiction. I wonder if you could talk a bit about your philosophical influences as a writer and then also your philosophical interests as a reader.
BKE: I feel like my philosophical interests as a writer and my philosophical interests as a reader are intertwined. I did a joint Ph.D. in English and Critical Theory at University of Washington. I thought a lot about Critical Theory and thought a lot about Phenomenology. One of my major areas for the Ph.D. was Anti-Hegelian and Post-Hegelian French thought, and so I really thought about these different strands of French thought that were involved in Poststructuralism and alternatives to Poststructuralism. That was really important to me. Deleuze was very important to me in a way that was crucial, and he’s someone who I think about a lot when I’m writing. I share that with other writers of strange or weird fiction. Michael Cisco is someone else who is really influenced by Deleuze. But for me there’s also Merleau-Ponty and a number of others. I think early on Sartre was very important to me. But generally, it’s more of the French strand than any of the other strands. Nietzsche to some degree. Kierkegaard, they were all important to me as a younger writer, especially. But I feel like it is Deleuze and phenomenology, which are obviously very different things, who have been the most important to me.
MJS: I’d be curious to hear how you complete the following sentence: For me, of the six branches of philosophy (aesthetics, epistemology, ethics, logic, ontology, phenomenology), fiction at its best is most often a form of _____.
BKE: I feel like my fiction—I don’t know what fiction is at its best—my fiction is most often concerned with epistemology and the impossibility of knowing. It’s like anti-epistemology, I suppose, because it’s so much about our inability to ever know anything for certain.
MJS: That’s a really interesting tension that I think is very contemporary. Where are phenomenological horizons of knowing and where do they intersect and where do they divide?
BKE: I think that’s an interesting question. In Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction, he talks about science fiction as being ontological and detective fiction as being epistemological, and he definitely favors science fiction. I don’t think it is necessarily as easy as that, because I do think that one form of knowledge or one form of inquiry fades into the others at some point. I think a lot of science fiction is not necessarily ontological, primarily. But I do think a lot of my work is interested in epistemological questions and in the difficulty of answering them.
MJS: Sticking with philosophy, fatalism and pessimism are something you have spoken of in conjunction with your writing. I sometimes think of someone like Cormac McCarthy as being a sort of post-Naturalist, and I think that a large swath of gritty or horror literature comes as much from Stephen Crane as from Stephen King, especially that idea that fate—fate as the inevitable collapse of our essential concepts of selfhood (agency, rights, free will, etc.)—is far more potent than we think. I believe you’ve mentioned thinkers on the illusion of consciousness like Thomas Metzinger (I’m thinking of the title story here in The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell), and I wonder to what extent you see your style of horror as being akin to other post-Lovecraftian writers like Thomas Ligotti, whose pessimism a la Peter Wessel Zapffe implies very heavily a moral nihilism, or instead to that sort of Beckettian pessimism, closer to Schopenhauer, for whom moral realism is still an active question and impulse, however much one kicks oneself for acting on it. To one group, pessimism is the only just relation to the truth; to the other, it is a necessary first step to genuine happiness or commitment. I wonder what you think of that divorce.
BKE: I don’t know. I do like Ligotti’s work. I do feel like there are things I’ve written that are at least in conversation with him. But Beckett is someone who has been hugely influential to me the whole way along. His is a more nuanced, more complex pessimism. I think I’m probably more interested in that, ultimately. I don’t know if that fits into what you thought I would say or not.
MJS: I had noticed times where something very similar to Metzinger or Ligotti is going on in your work, like in your story “Click.” That story absolutely amazed me. And it reminded me of Metzinger’s argument that consciousness, to paraphrase, is just this tape recording we fool ourselves into thinking is live. But then I also think that most of the time you are willing to say that that is too far in some way?
BKE: It is more a continuum. I feel connected to both in different ways, but probably the one I feel more connected to is Beckett. I do think, even in moments where it is nihilistic, that there is a kind of empathy in my work.
MJS: Yes, absolutely.
BKE: The other thing I see, I think Beckett has a sense of humor which is pretty intense, and I don’t really think that Ligotti does.
MJS: To me your work is philosophical fiction in the sense that, as the adage goes, philosophy begins with doubt. But do you take your work to end somewhere that, if not in a place without doubt, is not overwhelmed by it? Or, to paraphrase something Don DeLillo said, is there any sense of consolation anywhere in your art? That people go to art for a certain consolation. You have spoken about the ways fiction opens up new avenues to empathy and shared pain, in spite of recent academic critiques of the tradition of empathy in fiction. I’m wondering about the extent that there is comfort or empathy in your writing.
BKE: It’s a tricky question. I think there is something about fiction in general, especially difficult fiction, where you’re asking people to undergo something, but you’re asking them to undergo it in a controlled way and in a way that’s not the first order of experience. And in that sense it ends up having a kind of sublimity to it. Kant’s notion of the sublime is that you have to be in a position of safety to be able to experience the sublime and I think fiction can to some degree provide you with that. But I think that there’s something else that fiction can do, which is that it can create this world for you and then it can destabilize the world or pull it out from under your feet. And that can be a really interesting experience for a reader, the moments where you have this kind of certainty and then you are relieved of it. It can be very vertiginous but it can also be almost ecstatic in some ways. But frightening at the same time. I don’t think fiction is the answer to all possible questions. I do think there are limits to what empathy can do and what empathy in fiction can do, but I also think that those limits are maybe not exactly the same as a lot of critics are currently suggesting, if that makes sense.
MJS: On a similar note, and thinking of something like Bataille’s system of “atheology,” is there even something speculatively ecstatic in your writing? Which even gets close to the spiritual, though that’s an interesting place for you, given your history, to think about that sense, the spiritual, obviously with some huge caveats, if at all.
BKE: I was put in a position where I had to choose between my religion and my writing and I chose my writing. I’m very glad for the choice I made, but that also means that in some senses it’s hard for me not, at least on some subconscious level, to think of my writing as what stands in the place of my religion. Bataille is someone I find really interesting in terms of the way he thinks about the ecstatic, and the way he thinks about L’érotisme, etc. There is a story I wrote called “Younger,” which is about two girls playing and they go through an almost ecstatic experience. It is very intense for them and that sudden intensity is something that I think that everybody can kind of relate to on some degree or another. But then they have something happen and they try to replicate the experience and it just falls flat. I guess that what I would say is that so often for me in my work that kind of ecstatic experience ends up being a step on the way to failure. Or it ends up being, like in a more recent story I wrote, like this game that these two girls are playing that just gets stranger and stranger and that’s essentially very terrifying in the end, and ends up taking one of them out of the world.
I’m at once very interested in that kind of notion of the transcendent and the ecstatic and also very suspicious of it. I think it often gets used as a kind of release valve so that people can be controlled, or it ends up having a certain falseness to it.
MJS: In The Concept of Anxiety, Kierkegaard writes “This is the profound secret of innocence, that it is at the same time anxiety. Dreamily the spirit projects its own actuality, but this actuality is nothing, and innocence always sees this nothing outside itself. Anxiety is a qualification of the dreaming spirit, and as such it has its place in psychology. Awake, the difference between myself and the other is posited; sleeping, it is suspended; dreaming, it is an intimated nothing. […] Therefore, I must point out that [the concept of anxiety] is altogether different from fear and similar concepts that refer to something definite, whereas anxiety is freedom’s actuality as the possibility of possibility” (The Essential Kierkegaard 139). The distinction between fear, with a definite object, and anxiety or dread, with no definite object, is one I think of often when reading your stories, especially in the sense of indefiniteness being the possibility of possibility, as I love how much surprise there is in your narratives. Do you see horror in your writing as existing somewhere between fear and dread or leaning toward one or the other or both? The stories from these last two collections that I keep returning to—”The Second Door,” “Wanderlust,” “Glasses,” “Myling Kommer,” “Elo Havel,” “Haver,” “Leg”—keep oscillating between fear and anxiety for me as I reread them. The direction between fear and anxiety is always shifting.
BKE: I do think a lot of those stories have a kind of slow burn where you start to feel that something’s wrong and slowly it seems more and more wrong, and there are these moments that erupt into fear on the part of the characters, which hopefully translates into an experience for the reader. I don’t know if I have a good answer to that question. I think that you’re probably right, that the oscillation itself is kind of part of it. That it is moving back and forth between those two things. It does seem to me that there is a big difference between fear and anxiety. Part of it is that fear seems like it has a definite object and anxiety is much more free floating. Any time you are working with a certain amount of abstraction in fiction I think anxiety has a tendency to creep in, in hopefully a productive way.
MJS: I would love if you could talk here too about what might be a kind of career arc with respect to your sentences, from the lush-meets-Lish sentence style of Altmann’s Tongue to the taut-meets-tense shorter form in The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell, both of which I love but think of as quite different. I think of certain writers as being on clear career-long style arcs, for instance Joyce’s maximalist asymptote at infinity and Beckett’s minimalist one at zero. Or Henry James, who you’ve mentioned in another interview—
BKE: A sentence style that gets more intense as you go along.
MJS: Exactly. Do you have a similar sense of how your style of sentence has changed, if at all?
BKE: That’s a good question. I think that my style has changed over time. I think that one of the ways it has changed is that, with those first books especially, I was very, very taut and very, very, I don’t know quite how to say it, impatient with having to say anything more than I wanted to say. As time has gone by, I feel like my style has become a little more generous to the reader. I don’t know if generous is the right word for it or not. But it feels to me like I allow things to develop a little differently. I’ve learned that things that initially felt like digressions to me often lead into more interesting directions or eddies. It’s not that I can’t still do a very precise line. I think that that’s very much the backbone of my work and has been there throughout. But even in Altmann’s Tongue, “The Munich Window” has a very different style than some of the other stories. I feel like there’s been an aesthetic opening up a little bit. It’s partly that it sets readers at ease a little bit. It’s partly that it allows me to do slightly different things. I’m not disavowing my earlier style or anything like that, but I do feel like I couldn’t have done the things that I wanted to do in my last few books using that early style.
I just sold my back catalog to Audible for audiobooks and they had me record two early books, Dark Property and Contagion. It was really interesting for me to go through those again and realize how spare they are. There are places where now I would give a little bit more in terms of narrative transition—in Dark Property in particular I just don’t. It works in its own way, I’m very happy with those books, but that’s not what I want to write currently.
MJS: What happened to you over Altmann’s Tongue, where an anonymous reader basically said that this isn’t the kind of thing a teacher should be writing, and which ultimately led to your excommunication from Mormonism, seems to be analogous, perhaps, in some ways to a lot of what is happening lately with various States banning teachings of Critical Race Theory and challenging or otherwise institutionally objecting to books like George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, or even Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Samuel R. Delany, a transgressive writer of whom I’m a huge fan, penned an introduction to your Father of Lies, which I also think of as transgressive fiction in some ways. You have a story in Song for the Unraveling of the World called “Trigger Warnings.” Can you talk about the role of transgressive fiction, whether it’s a useful term for you, especially in our current readerly climate?
BKE: Transgressive fiction is an interesting term and I’m not opposed to it as a term though I don’t know that that’s the first thing I think of myself as doing. But I also think that there is something about fiction where if you start setting limits on what is or is not appropriate for fiction you very quickly end up with stories that are really not interesting. There is something about being willing to cross boundaries that can be really interesting and useful.
Coover’s The Public Burning, which I’ve written about, fits in there too. That’s a book in which a character is sodomized by Uncle Sam. And symbolically, I can totally understand that.
When I was at Brown University we as a creative writing faculty decided we were opposed to the idea of trigger warnings. And it was partly that we felt that if there was something that was upsetting you about fiction then that was something you needed to talk to a therapist about rather than bury or avoid. Over the course of my career there have been people who really object strongly to what I’m doing, which is fine by me. I don’t need to be loved by everyone. But I also think that the people who like what I do really like it.
MJS: I think that the content of transgressive works often has a formally transgressive aspect as well, often a sense of paradox. I often see paradoxes in many of your stories. E.g. “my mind that was not my mind” (Glassy 212). I wonder if you think of the crisis point in your stories as coming to a moment of logical impossibility in this way.
BKE: It does resonate with me. I like those moments in which thought breaks. It goes back to what you can know and what you can’t know. I think that the more you look at something the more you realize you can’t know anything about it. That the more and more precise granularity with which you approach something, the more it is impossible, so it seems, to actually know it. I think that is part of what is going on in my work. There’s a lot of these characters who are thinking multiple things at the same time, things which are self-contradictory—which seems like the human condition in some ways. Which thought is primary?
MJS: I’ll preface this final series of questions by saying that plenty of crucial changes in fiction over the last twenty years involve writers and topics often less associated with your writing—new immigrant narratives; new ideas and experiences of sex, gender, race, class, and ability; multi-ethnic American literature; neo-campus novels; autofiction; to name a few. “Great changes in artistic style always reflect some alteration in the frontier between the sacred and profane in the imagination of a society” (The Dyer’s Hand 59). I want to ask a few final questions about a large topic, Fiction in the 21st Century. Part I: Myth. Kate Bernheimer and Carmen Giménez Smith’s 2010 My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me feels like some kind of breakthrough here. Within and without that collection, people like Kate Bernheimer herself, Kelly Link, Carmen Maria Machado, and Akwaeke Emezi’s fiction and YA fiction, are doing something that strikes me as returning to myth, maybe even using myths to, as you write of Robert Coover, “bring about an awareness of the assumptions found behind interpretations and myths” (Understanding Robert Coover 10). You write of your fairytale in Bernheimer and Smith’s collection, “Dapplegrim,” that you hope it brings a certain contemporary “attitude, mood, and thrust” (148), which I think it does. Can you talk about what myth can do in fiction and as fiction in our contemporary moment?
BKE: One of the things I’ve done was to write a book on Robert Coover, who is obviously someone who is very tied to myth and thinking about myth. He has the idea that we have these myths that are socially common to us and that we kind of rely on, but that are no longer efficacious. And so he saw his job to be someone who was there to destroy myths or break them down. I feel like that was a really interesting project, it was something that was very important to me at a certain point. But it does strike me that it’s not a project that is necessarily something that needs to be continued. I mean, I think it is a worthwhile project, but the question becomes: once you shatter those myths what stands in their place? And so now I feel like there is this—and some of Coover’s work approaches this as well—notion of a revisionary myth. Or thinking about what is it about these stories that can be drawn into a way that makes them more reflective of a particular contemporary moment. That is something, with certain pieces in particular, that my work is involved in.
I teach a class on fairy tales, and I do it by starting with early fairy tales and going to more contemporary manifestations and thinking about those and how they work and how they are talking to one another. I look at things like the ways in which Little Red Riding Hood has exploded in various directions—there are dozens and dozens of contemporary versions of it. One of the arguments I make is that the same thing that happened with that explosion with Little Red Riding Hood seems to be happening now with Hansel and Gretel, for reasons I don’t quite understand. When I teach that class we go back and look at early versions of fairy tales. There was a book that was published recently, The Turnip Princess, which consists of uncollected fairy tales that had been archived in the nineteenth century. We look at these, and see just how strange the narrative is, and think about the way the narrative works. There are these huge connections between what is going on in postmodern literature and contemporary literature that were already there, maybe even by accident, in fairy tales. I feel like with Coover and a lot of the postmodern writers there was a need to draw a line and break things a little bit. And I feel like for writers like myself and Carmen Maria Machado and others, who have a kind of connection to genre fiction, there is a different way of approaching fairy tales and myth. Coover has a very clear sense of literature on one side and genre fiction on another side, and I don’t have that. I think that that interest in myth, or the way in which I’m approaching myth, probably goes hand in hand with that.
MJS: 21st Century Fiction Part II: the New Weird. What I love about the New Weird is that it rejects a certain kind of what might be called “genre-slumming” in postmodern and contemporary literary fiction, where so-and-so does their mock-western or tongue-in-cheek noir or other genre parody. This is sort of something you just described in Coover. Where “genre” can’t be “high fiction.”
BKE: Yes, or you are recuperating genre or whatever. And I like those writers, but I also think there’s limits to that approach.
MJS: I like those writers too, but I think that approach has collapsed in a lot of ways. In really interesting ways too.
BKE: I think so too.
MJS: In part because the investments to fantasy, the weird, slipstream, horror, mystery, science fiction and other genres feel total in most of the New Weird. Jeff VanderMeer, China Mieville, Stephen Graham Jones, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and many others are doing interesting things in the New Weird that also seem to resonate with Auden’s sense of this shifting of the boundary between sacred and profane, whether within the academy or publishing or elsewhere. Do you have a similar sense of this commitment to genre-from-within that many younger writers have?
BKE: There was a particular moment, probably in the early 2000s, when things felt to me like they were starting to change. On the one hand, there were writers like George Saunders who were being published in The New Yorker but doing more fantastical stories. On the other hand there were writers like Kelly Link who were coming from genre but often being considered as literary. Both those movements seemed really interesting to me. The more radical one seems to me to be Kelly’s. Even though I like George’s work quite a bit, it still feels very grounded in a particular literary tradition. And so I was someone who started in a more literary space and has increasingly felt like I’m straddling the line between literature and genre in a way that feels productive to me. And yeah, part of that is the notion of the shifting boundary between the sacred and the profane. I just feel like, for a generation above me, the line between high and low literature was very, very definite. And it’s not for me. I think for the people who are younger than me it’s even less so. I think part of that has to do just with the way narrative has been received, in terms of how much narrative we get through visual media, and the fact that you can now with streaming services watch a horror movie one night and a Disney movie the next night and an art film the next night, or all three in the same evening if you want, and get satisfaction out of all of them. I think it’s that as much as anything. That skepticism is there.
There were a couple of other moments which I’ve talked about in other places that were important to me. One was when I published a book called The Open Curtain, Peter Straub blurbed it. He wrote to me beforehand and said “I’m going to refer to you as a horror writer. I just wanted to make sure if you’re OK with that.” And I thought about it, and it seemed more interesting for me to see what would happen if he did that than it did for me to say “No, no, I’m not a horror writer.” So he did that and suddenly I was someone who was known as the literary horror writer or the Mormon horror writer or whatever. And that was fine.
The other thing was when Conjunctions magazine published an issue called “The New Wave Fabulists” in 2002. In that issue, also co-edited by Peter Straub, they took genre writers and published them in this high art literary magazine. That seemed to me like a really interesting thing as well, because you started to notice different things about these writers. For me, those things, along with a few other things, were what helped me feel like that line that I thought was there was just not there in the way I thought it was.
MJS: Part III: Text to Image to Feed. Many writers have expressed a kind of longing or lament over a shift in their culture’s choice of preeminent art form. I know you teach in a program on Aesthetics and Politics. When I think about, say, the ways a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk influenced the evil magnanimity of the Third Reich’s totalitarianism, I become very dour about something like the The Avengers films and all that they might imply about American empire. I’m reminded of Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus, who laments that the change from an oral to a written culture will bring a blow to the power of memory and in-person discourse (think zoom learning), unfairly imbue the page with a kind of certainty, and, as Derrida expounds, sever the meaning of speech from the exitlessness of writing. However, in his story “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling,” contemporary science fiction writer Ted Chiang provides a more positive take, both of the past change from oral to written culture and the current changeover between written to image-based, or I’d say stream- or feed-based culture (think of livestreams, stock price feeds, and scrolling social media feeds). Sussing out the meaning of mass culture, of course, Theodor Adorno aligns with Plato on the grumpy side, and Walter Benjamin aligns with Chiang on the positive side, where one might even find something interesting to say about the fact that the world’s most heavily accessed art/media platform is probably something like TikTok. To the point, your writing as Brian Evenson (literary fiction auteur) and B.K. Evenson (genuine genre-fiction writer and pay-to-play novelization author-for-hire) I think straddles this line in an interesting way. Could B.K. Evenson win us over on the possibilities for even a great TikTok horror story? Or even a bingeable show? Do you consume TV and movies as much as literature? And how would Brian Evenson counter B.K.’s positivity toward a feed-based culture (think of M.T. Anderson’s Feed)?
BKE: That’s a good question. As B.K. Evenson I’ve written video game novels, I wrote a Halo novella, I wrote some Dead Space novels for video games. I also co-wrote a book with Rob Zombie, I co-wrote a book with James DeMonaco, the director of The Purge, and have done other little projects here and there. Initially, I started using B. K. Evenson partly because Iain M. Banks used to publish his science fiction novels as Iain M. Banks and his literary novels as Iain Banks. That was the thing that made me think, Oh I could just do Brian Evenson and B.K. Evenson so people immediately have an idea of what they are getting into. But recently I’ve moved away from that. I just did a Diablo video game-based short story for Blizzard. And we talked about, should we do this as B.K. Evenson or Brian Evenson? And we decided to do it as Brian Evenson. And then I did a couple of Magic: The Gathering stories too under Brian Evenson. And so that line, Brian Evenson and B.K. Evenson, it’s not clear who’s who at this point in some ways. I feel like that was maybe my way of figuring out my relationship to the project I was working on as much as anything else, because I wrote those B.K. Evenson pieces very quickly, and am still proud of them, but it’s just a very different process for me.
As you’ve said, I’ve written for TV. There’s a show I wrote for, a limited series for Peacock called A Friend of the Family, with Anna Paquin, Jake Lacy, and Colin Hanks, which is coming out and is filming now. It was really interesting to work on that project and to work on it with a bunch of other writers and to go through that experience of writing this bingeable show. On one level, I feel that people consume more narrative now than they ever did before and that’s interesting to me, even if they mostly consume it visually. I really like that there’s a number of readers who have come to my work through my video game novels and that’s led them to other things I’ve done. Narrative is a way of sorting out and processing the world and so neither B.K. Evenson nor Brian Evenson are opposed to these other ways of doing narrative or thinking about narrative.
MJS: So the Adornos just have to get over it.
BKE: I feel like, probably…I like Adorno’s work, I think he’s very interesting, but it is kind of like being out to dinner with your grumpy uncle. And he’s partly interesting because he is so grumpy. He’s very smart, Adorno is. I think he’s right about some things and that he misses the point on other things. He probably would feel the same way about me. Maybe he’d feel I just missed the point on everything.
MJS: Adorno thought Beckett was the last thing to hold up against mass culture and now he’s the stuff of “fail better” self-help mottos.
BKE: And I love Beckett. Beckett is incredibly important for me.
MJS: Perhaps Adorno would have to get over it with B.K. Evenson and even Beckett now too.
BKE: I think that’s probably true.
MJS: And finally, please tell us about your upcoming projects, whether as B.K. or Brian Evenson.
BKE: I’m close to having a new collection done. I need to decide the order of the stories and send it to my publisher. I’m working on essays for a book for a Japanese publisher that will be for students learning English. And I’m always working on stories…
Michael J. Sanders is a writer, educator, and Fiction Editor at The Spectacle.