Interview: Critic Brian Dillon

Kevin Breathnach
Posted May 13, 2013 in Print

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There are other few critics at work today more consistently interesting on as wide a range of subjects as Brian Dillon. Born in Dublin in 1969, Dillon is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review, the London Review of Books, Art Forum, frieze and Cabinet, the indefinable conceptual quarterly where he works as UK editor. Come of age under the influence of Roland Barthes, Dillon is a writer whose revelatory criticism – often quietly engaged in transcending its own form – wears the weight of its theory lightly. Since leaving academia a decade ago, Dillon’s voice has become steadily more apparent and more authoritative. He is perhaps the closest Ireland has come to producing a Susan Sontag.

Dillon is the author of five books, including In the Dark Room (2005), Nine Hypochondriac Lives (2009) and I Am Sitting in a Room (2011), a Oulipian-style study of writers’ rooms written before an audience in just 24-hours. His work does not necessarily take place within the form of the essay. Yet even his novella, Sanctuary (2009), is notable for its sense of ‘alertness’, ‘attention’ and ‘transcription’, three qualities Dillon says ‘justify the miscellaneous essayist’s way of being and working’. Dillon’s work is always essayistic, in other words, even when it’s not. And so the forthcoming publication of Objects in This Mirror, a selection of essays written over the last ten years, makes for a particularly welcome addition to his growing catalogue. With essays on contemporary art, ruin aesthetics, photography and the essay itself, Objects in This Mirror reflects a core set of Dillon’s interests. At the same time, essays on the Common Cold Unit, the Dewey Decimal System and Victorian gesture manuals work to deflect the idea that a merely core set is ever adequate.

You write that Objects in This Mirror is ‘a book that is also partly (like all such collections) a way of naming and putting an end to a phase in your writing’. Do you mean ‘phase’ in a merely temporal sense, or is there something more substantial to it? Are you about to start writing sports journalism or what?

[Laughs] No, I don’t think so. If it’s a phase, I think it’s in the sense of an education. A decade or so ago, I had finished a PhD in English – I started it in Trinity, then moved to Canterbury and finished up at the University of Kent – when I realised, first of all, that I didn’t really fancy the idea of an academic career, and that, secondly, academia didn’t really fancy giving me that career. I started writing for magazines and papers, doing book reviews for places like the TLS and the Irish Times, and writing about art for magazines like frieze and Art Review. It was an education in art, firstly. I was always interested in contemporary art, but I’d never properly engaged with it in terms of writing. Secondly, it was an education in a different sort of writing, in leaving behind a certain kind of academic style and trying to invent a different voice. I think of it as a phase of discovering what was possible for me. Also, when I started out, people would always say that it was no longer possible to make a living as a reviewer, as a critic, as a freelance writer. They said that era was over. Somewhere in the back of my head, I think I felt like testing that. And it turned out that it was actually possible to make a living – a really meagre living, but still. On several levels, then, I suppose it’s been a phase of figuring out.

Within that phase, can you notice your own style changing – from book to book, say? Do you still recognise the Johnsonian style your father identified in your undergraduate writing?

I think George Orwell is a badly overrated writer. I don’t like George Orwell, and I don’t like his essay on book reviewing much either. But there is something that piece that I think is true: book reviewing is a performance. After a while, it becomes harder to sustain that performance. So I’m really glad that I started writing about contemporary art, a field that I wasn’t particularly familiar with, because I think that the career of a literary reviewer is quite limiting in the end. Looking back at the early stuff, then, I think that if things have changed it’s that I’m a little less… smart-arsed.

I wrote a few books along the way as well. I realise that narrative is something I was once quite afraid of, something that I thought perhaps I couldn’t do. But I wrote the first book, which is a kind of memoir, and the second book, which is a book of essays about hypochondriacs, each one of which is a sort of mini-biography, and then I wrote a novella. I suppose this is the first time I’ve ever thought about it, but if anything has changed, maybe it has something to do with having constructed narratives – even if they weren’t especially substantial narratives. In some way, I think it alters the way you think about pace in other kinds of writing as well – in essays, for example. And so, although I don’t think that my style is easy-going, I think it’s probably a little bit more relaxed than it was when I started, if that makes sense.

You speak of writing ‘first on books and then on photography, increasingly of contemporary art in general’. Did this transition take place because of a perceived lack of conceptual strength in most contemporary literature? Do you think this lack of conceptual strength is perhaps the reason why a career as a literary reviewer can be quite limiting?

My patience for fiction that isn’t very sophisticated is kind of limited. This sounds stupid, but I like really, really, really good fiction. I get bored very easily with what you might call ‘middling’ fiction. Even writing about non-fiction can be kind of limiting, simply because there aren’t the same kind of venues for doing that outside of newspaper reviews and the big literary magazines. I started writing about contemporary art because I started writing for art magazines, which seemed a little different. It seemed like art magazines were interested in all kinds of things. So, for a magazine like frieze, I could write about, say, the history of zoos or the history of notebooks – all sorts of subjects – because the editors were interested in making a publication that reflected a culture not limited to that of contemporary art and the views of contemporary artists, curators and so on. It turned out that the art world and artists were far more interested in the culture around them than it seemed the literary world was. The art world was a place where you could write – where you could be a writer. It seemed more welcoming and much more intellectually curious than the literary world – certainly the mainstream literary world anyway. Other people have said this, of course. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was famously published by a tiny art press in Paris. Over the last decade, which is the span that this book covers, the art world has felt like a very welcoming place to be a writer.

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There aren’t many negative pieces in this collection, I notice. Do you believe in the value of negative reviews? Or do you think, like the critic Lev Grossman, that in an increasingly democratised cultural field, where everyone has their say online, the role of the critic is not to judge, in the sense of thumbs up and thumbs down, but to suggest how a work of art might best be approached?

The Russian art critic Boris Groys said on this topic that the role of the critic is no longer to judge, but simply to point. To say to the reader: this thing exists; it is worth your paying attention to. And I suppose that’s kind of true. A lot of reviews of books and exhibitions are really just deictic – they simply point; they say ‘here is this thing’. I don’t relish writing bad reviews, but nor do I go along with that piece published a few years ago in The Believer called ‘Against Snark’, which was against the idea of a bitchy literary culture. I just think that’s nonsense. That kind of upbeat, inclusive culture sounds terribly dull to me. I’ve written some fairly nasty reviews – mostly of fiction, oddly – but I didn’t put any of them in the book. John Banville says that he’s never published a collection of his essays because he doesn’t think he writes essays; he thinks he writes reviews. I don’t know if that’s true of him, but I think it might be true of some of those book reviews that might have gone in this book. They just seem a little bit too tied to their moment.

Can you read off-topic while researching an essay?

This sounds like I’m being deliberately oblique, but I think I probably only read off-topic. In a lot of these things I call essays, I’m by no means an expert. Each of them is a sort of digression, even if it’s not very clear what they’re a digression from. I’m not a very good researcher. I’m not a diligent researcher. I’m a rather haphazard researcher, in fact. But I think that some of the most successful pieces here are ones where I’d started to research something else in quite reasonable detail and then just got distracted. Somehow I’ll find there’s a relationship between the thing I’m supposed to be doing and the thing I’ve been distracted by. And this is one of the things I like about the idea of the essay: the conjunction between unlikely topics or unlikely narratives; that something can happen in quite a short length of text that sets off something else entirely.

You tried to arrange an interview once with the late film-essayist, Chris Marker. Do you know what you would have asked him?

No! No, I don’t actually. I feel like I’m actually a really bad interviewer. No matter how much I’m interested in somebody’s work, I never quite know what I want to ask. So, for example, there’s an interview in the book with Sophie Calle, which is not presented as an interview because we had a very stilted conversation in which I asked her some really stupid questions. She remained incredibly charming and interesting, but something went wrong between us. Really oddly, at the end, as we were saying goodbye, she said: ‘I will not remember you’. She said: ‘if we meet at the opening of some exhibition, I will not remember you’. That’s a really strange thing to say someone. I find doing interviews quite uncomfortable.

I suppose with Marker, though, I’m really interested in him as a writer and as a reader. Of course, I love the films and have written about the films. I actually wrote a long essay on Marker that is not in the book because I’m not quite sure what I want to do with it. There’s something I still want to do with regard to him; I feel like that essay might have another life somewhere. But I’m really interested in Marker as a writer. He published a novel called Le Coeur Net around 1950, which was translated and then published by John Calder. I guess I’d like to have asked him why that novel just languishes now as this super expensive anomaly of his work. One of the things Marker is – and this is a banal thing to say on one level – is an essayist. And not only a film essayist: he seems to have been really immersed in literary culture and history, as well. I guess I’d have asked him what he was reading.

The piece on Calle is probably the most formally adventurous in the collection. Did you receive any response from her? In your essay on the essay, you call for more adventure within the form. You say of Franzen, Lethem and John Jeremiah Sullivan that: ‘they fail in the end to trouble the form as form.’ When working on your own essays, is form something that you consider in tandem with content – or is it only when you sit down to write the thing that you consider its form?

I think I got an email from one of Calle’s assistants saying that she’d liked it. But if you get an email from an assistant of a famous artist who says ‘the artist has liked your piece’, who knows whether the artist gave a shit? As for form, I think I probably think about it at the same time as content. You’re right, though: not many of the essays really play around with form to a huge extent.

There’s the one on aphorisms.

True. So, some of them are fragments, some of them are lists. I quite like that as a form, but I’m also a little wary of it. It’s too popular in a way; and sometimes it just feels like a very easy thing to do. The thing for me, I think, is always my struggle with language, to find exactly what the voice of the piece should be. Even if the voice is not particularly idiosyncratic or forceful, it’s always about trying to find the style that this thing should be written in – to be able to hear that.

So style as a primary formal concern?

In a way, yes; but when you put it in those terms, it sounds awfully aesthete-like. And maybe it is. But I think what I mean has more to do with trying to hear a kind of rhythm for the piece, which in turn tends to determine all its sentences, its particular vocabulary. The voice determines not just how I say something, but what I actually think.

Another one of the essays that seems to challenge the form is the one you wrote for frieze on the subject of charlatanry. Its epigraph, which you attribute to Robert Burton, is a fake. Did the open letter you wrote to the *frieze* editors, in which you admit the forgery, come from a genuine concern for ‘a diligent graduate student’? Or did it come instead from some frustration that nobody had heard your joke? A way of saying, to go back to Sophie Calle, ‘did you see me?’

[Laughs] It was really a response to the brief of that Cabinet issue, the theme of which was ‘Deceit’. But, I don’t know, maybe it was kind of an egotistical thing to do; to say, look how I pulled the rug over the otherwise erudite eyes of the editors of frieze. Really I just quite liked the idea of writing a public letter. I hoped that the editors in question wouldn’t take it too badly. I don’t think they were very happy, but they were perfectly charming about it.

You got a letter from their assistant saying: ‘the editors have liked your joke’.

Pretty much.

That particular Burton epigraph was faked, but he’s one of quite a few literary historical figures whose work you regularly ground your own in. Essays you write on very contemporary artistic ideas are full of quotations by Thomas De Quincey, Thomas Browne, Robert Burton, Michel de Montaigne, etc. Does your familiarity with these authors precede your interest in those more contemporary ideas? Or do you come to these older authors by way of their relation to contemporary ideas?

It’s something of both, I think, because the names you’ve just mentioned are all of writers I’ve loved for a very long time. Partly what I love about them is a certain kind of excess in style. This is certainly the case with De Quincey and Browne, anyway. I really love their excess, even if what I write doesn’t have the same kind of scrawl. It’s something I really admire about certain periods, I suppose. One is the 17th century; the other is the Romantic period, although I guess De Quincey is kind of an anomaly. The other thing I like is how these writers treat the essay as a form. Going all the way back from the 19th century, through to the 17th century, right back to Montaigne, what you see is a sort of curiosity, a kind of variety, a sense that in the essay you can write about absolutely anything.

So, if they were around today, it’d be a tiny art press in Paris publishing these guys?

Totally. They’d be writing in Cabinet. They’d be publishing Cabinet.

 

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