Interview: Dennis Cooper

(Note: this interview was originally published on July 16, 2013 and is reposted here for archival purposes)

Artist, poet, author, publisher, indie icon, etc. Dennis Cooper gave The Esoterrorist some time from his prolific work life after his return to Paris from Japan to discuss his upcoming publication, The Weaklings (XL), due out this year through Sententia Books.  He also gave his two cents on the current state of alt-lit, writing communication in the digital age, the “New Sincerity”, and his European theater works.

Hi Dennis.  How are you?

I’m good.  I’m a little jet-lagged, but I’m good.  I was in Japan, and I’ve been back for a few days now, but there’s still some lingering jet-lag.

Let’s talk about the upcoming collection of poetry, Weaklings (XL).  Is this an expansion of the similarly titled 2008 limited edition book?

Yeah.  It’s, I guess, a third longer than the original.  I just added in some new stuff and some older stuff that I hadn’t put in there.  So it’s an expansion, and that’s why it’s called “XL”, or that’s the idea.

Do they have a date for its release yet?

They just told me November about two days ago.  I don’t know if it’s set in stone, but that’s what they told me.

I view you in this position of an authority on “alt-lit”.  Can you comment on your perception of the current state of alt-lit, and do you feel positively about it?

I feel really, really positively about the writers that are generally making up alt-lit now.  I find it’s in a really interesting point right now.  It’s changing and is about to really change because of the attention that’s going to Tao’s book, and Matt Bell’s, and Scott McClanahan’s, and some of the ones that are sort of making this crossover.  Before, Blake Butler, Justin Taylor, Shane Jones, and some other people had crossed over, but this really adds a lot more people into that.  I’m really curious to see what happens, and I know that a lot of other alt-lit writers are curious about it as well.

It’s hard to tell.  I think there’s probably going to be a kind of subdivision or something that goes on, where there are the writers who are going to want to write books and want to publish books with major publishers or with big indie publishers, and then there’s going to be the people who are interested in working on the net and working with fucked up language and e-books and macros and all that kind of stuff.  So I’m interested to see if it sort of tears alt-lit asunder or whether the whole thing can coagulate and stay really interesting, because alt-lit seems to be at a really interesting point where there’s going to be a lot more attention paid to it right now.  What’s so weird is I get the feeling that a lot of people who are in the establishment haven’t been following it.  I know so many writers who are my age and even younger and are established and aren’t paying any attention to it at all, which surprises me.  So I’m curious to see what happens, because it could so easily be misread and dismissed for reasons that it doesn’t deserve to be.  Because it’s really so massive.  I mean it’s almost a full-time job just to keep up with it.  And the Marie Calloway thing, too.  I mean there are so many things happening right now that are crossing over that it’s a hard time to really assess where they are right now.

Speaking of Tao Lin and Marie Calloway, what’s your take on the idea of the “New Sincerity” as a movement, or even just as a title for that matter?

Oh, I think it’s ridiculous.  I mean, it’s completely wrong.  To say that Tao is sincere is really reductive, for one thing.  And there are people who have been asking me about that, and I tell them, “Don’t do this.  You’re going to be really sorry.”  Because as they develop, they’ll be judged based on whether or not they diverged from the supposed “New Sincerity”.  And to think that it’s just purely sincere is just ridiculous;  it’s got all kinds of tones going on with it.  Alt-lit is a fine label, because it’s so general that it’s not going to saddle them with this huge burden.  It’s just going to be this period that they went through, kind of like with “alternative rock”.  Sure, the bad bands are still characterized as alternative rock, but the interesting bands are just the bands, right?  So I think the New Sincerity thing is ridiculous.  I don’t even think it’s true, and I think it’s a really bad idea if the writers try to adopt that as some kind of flag.

My biggest issue with it is the idea that it’s some sort of response or antithesis to the concepts of irony in the previous generation of artists, as if sincerity and irony are opposites.

Yeah, it’s just not that simple, right?  Steve Roggenbuck’s sincerity is really a complicated sincerity.  You can’t just say it’s sincere.  There’s all kinds of weird ego and stuff going on in there that makes the sincerity not authentic in the way that you think of sincerity.  It’s something else.  And irony has always been this rejection of sincerity in a way that’s very sincere, so I just don’t like when things are reduced like that.  It’s counterproductive.

What are some other up and coming writers that are favorites of yours?

There’s so many right now.  I’m reading so much and like so much of it.  I really like xTx a lot.  I really like Frank Hinton a lot.  I like Sean Kilpatrick.  I’m reading this really interesting book by Darby Larson called Irritant right now.  I really like this guy Jeff Jackson whose book is coming out in the fall from Two Dollar Radio.  I could go on and on and on.  I really do nothing but read these young writers constantly, so there’s a lot.

In your 2005 novel, The Sluts, you explore some concepts of online relationships.  Some of the newer writers who we’ve mentioned take it a step further and have entire dialogs taken from GChats or Facebook.  Do you think the heavy use of technology and social media trends marginalizes the work or inhibits its timelessness?

It’s so impossible to say.  It’s going to become archaic, because the internet and all that is evolving so quickly that some things are going to seem old fashioned just as quickly.  But everybody’s going to know what it is, and essentially that kind of chatting is always going to be in place.  I don’t know.  I guess I don’t really care, because it’s such an incredibly interesting medium.  I’m super supportive of it.  As a writer, it’s completely instructive, amazing, and inspiring to see these people work with that technology.  In The Sluts, I was trying to make writing subservient to the forms and language and spaces of the internet, and that was really important to me.  But at the same time, it’s still a book.  It didn’t totally give up fiction for that.  Whereas with some of these new writers, their writing is actually a new form.  You could say that it was poetry or some sort of flash fiction, but it’s so ingrained in the technology and the immediacy of the internet. And the kind of audience it’s asking for and who it’s speaking to directly and generally and all these different issues arising make it something really new.

Stuff that’s extremely experimental, it often doesn’t age very well.  It’s probably not a good idea for the writers to think about that too much, because what they’re doing is really important.  They’re opening up writing in this way that’s so thrilling and invigorating, which hasn’t happened maybe even in my lifetime to the degree in which writing is currently being reinvented and refreshed.  So I don’t really know about its future, but it’s just incredible, these incredible literary fireworks going off all the time.

In some previous interviews, you’ve been asked about your consideration of your audience.  Whether or not you write to please, is the end result ever in your consciousness?  Is your work’s reception ever a consideration?

I think about the end result, but I don’t think about the end result in relationship to its reception or an audience.  My stuff is really planned out and heavily structured.  I have to make all these really complicated structures and formal ideas to write, because I don’t know how else to do it.  So I’m always thinking about if I can make the end product that I had planned out work or how it needs to be changed to work or if it needs to be thrown out and reinvented.  But I don’t really think about the audience.  I can’t completely forget, because I’ve published so many books that I’m aware of the stigma that my work is saddled with.  There were times that I had more hope about that, but now it’s gotten to the point where I kind of know that I don’t really have much of a chance to break out of this stigma that my work has.  That bothers me, but when I’m writing, I really don’t think about it at all.  It’s really kind of a hypnotic process where I’m just trying to be true to the project.  I don’t think about readership or if the people who like my work will like this or is this going to convince people who don’t like my stuff normally.  I wrote this book, God Jr., that was different from my other stuff, because it didn’t have any sex or gay characters.  It was a project to challenge myself not to include that stuff.  And there were people, like my agent, who were like, “Oh, you need to do this, and this is going to make such a difference,” and it was just all this noise going around it.  Of course it didn’t make any difference at all.  I wasn’t thinking when I was writing it “here’s my chance to reach a large audience.”  I was just trying to make it have energy and force and all the terror that my work usually has without having all those things that usually fuel me to write.

Are there any new releases on the horizon from Little House on the Bowery?

No, it’s been on a hiatus for a while, mostly because I’m really busy with a lot of these theater works in Europe.

I wish I could see those.  They all seem really amazing.

Oh, thanks.  I think we’re bringing some stuff to New York, finally.  I think the new piece is coming to New York and maybe my favorite piece called Kindertotenlieder, where KTL (ed. note: duo of Stephen O’Malley and Peter Rehberg, originally formed to create the music for the theater works of Cooper and Gisèle Vienne) came out of.  And I think we’re finally breaking through, which has been really hard because Gisèle is not really known in the States and because it’s expensive with these big sets and everything.  So I’m working a lot on that, a lot of collaborations, and a new novel.  I haven’t had the mental energy to devote to Little House on the Bowery right now, and I don’t want to put something out unless I can really do it.  I haven’t gotten anything lined up, though I’m always open to it and could easily just schedule a new book.  But there hasn’t been anything since the Lonely Christopher book, just because I don’t want to shortchange the series, basically.

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