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Bechard Interview

Maisonneuve speaks with the writer of "Learning to Rage" (Issue 31, Spring 2009).

If you’ve grown tired of reading self-referential fiction from lazy, apolitical authors, D.Y. Béchard understands. His 2005 debut novel Vandal Love walked the line between On the Road’s roaming spirit and One Hundred Years of Solitude’s generational mysticism, and in so doing established Béchard as one of the few young writers today willing to look beyond his own life for inspiration. Now, in our latest issue, Maisonneuve presents “Learning to Rage,” Béchard’s thoughtful anti-manifesto on making fiction relevant once more. Currently at work on a short story collection called The Opera of War and a novel called The Tower, Béchard spoke with Maisonneuve about cynicism, hatred, and other fun stuff.

Drew Nelles: In “Learning to Rage,” you write that contemporary authors shy away from the political because “our culture increasingly privileges fiction that does not deal with imminent political issues.” Why do you think we have a cultural reluctance to engage with the world? 

D.Y. Béchard: There are many reasons that we refuse to engage, whether because we see ourselves through reductive Hollywood narratives or because of our cultural imperialism, etc. Tomes could be written on the subject. One reason, though, is that we perceive the world as more complicated than ever before, and of course there is some truth to this. We live in a more multi-cultural society and are confronted more often with other values and ways of life. But the world has always been complicated, and in many ways, the writers of previous generations had to work harder to find the information necessary to formulate their opinions. Though the scope of the cultural exchange has intensified, there is also greater access to information. So I see no practical argument for why we are more justified in our navel gazing. 

Rather, I think that our reluctance to engage with the world has much more to do with the emphasis that we place on individual importance. The prevalence of the autobiographical novel or the memoir might be seen as yet another manifestation of Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame. Though such genres by no means demand a limited scope, they are often limited to the writer’s immediate preoccupations. Comfort has given us the luxury to agonize over our own lives rather than to engage in larger questions. Of course, many writers do engage in these questions, and they are often those whose lives have been drastically affected by political realities. 

I might present one other way of looking at our reluctance. I often read interpretations of fundamentalism—whether in the American heartland or the Middle East—as responses to the complexity of the world. As a result of the collision of values perceived in modern media, or of the loss of traditional ways of life due to industrialism and capitalism, people are said to cling to their “old fashioned” values. In many ways, our tendency to navel gaze grows from a similar impulse of fear and feeling overwhelmed…. The world seems immense and complicated, and the comfortable stereotypes of the past are being broken down and replaced with new ones that we have yet to understand.  

DN: Some writers might avoid writing with anger because it can sometimes be conflated with hate. What, to you, is the difference between rage and hatred?

DYB: Rage and hate are very different. By rage, I mean not just anger but intensity and passion. Hate can separate a writer from his subject, whereas rage can drive us to do the work necessary to gain greater insight and to write more meaningful narratives. Certainly, there are other places from which to write. However, in many ways, hate can distance us from a source of conflict and result in reductionism and moralism. Rage, as I see it, has more to do with ownership and investigation of the injury. Hate might produce more of the good guy / bad guy narratives that make contemporary media so anemic. Rage, if deeply felt, can lead us to find our enemies in ourselves and confront them there.

DN: I was actually baffled by your anecdote in “Learning to Rage” about the authors at the writers’ retreat, who felt you should not attend an anti-Iraq war demonstration because “writers should be political neither in their writing nor in their actions.” What kind of arrogant jackasses are these, who insist they're so separate from the rest of humanity? Is there something selfish, something smug and solitary, about writing fiction? 

DYB: I was just as shocked. I had only recently published Vandal Love, and writing retreats were new to me, and I was baffled and angered by the responses. Art for art’s sake has become a crutch, as have cynicism and the I-know-better attitude that many affect when faced with optimism or activism or even real concern. 

I do think that many artists want success for its own sake, and that we should dispel the illusion that artists are necessarily different from stockbrokers in this regard. Everyone gets attention somehow. But if anything, I would think that writing would make authors far more humble. Publishing a novel should remind writers of just how fleeting their efforts are, how the book passes from the public eye rapidly or doesn’t ever reach it—and that, if they’re going to go through the hard work of doing this, they had better know what’s driving them.

DN: You seem to hold Orwell up as the sort of political fiction writer that seems a rare breed today. But I wonder if the advent of New Journalism and creative nonfiction simply shifted literary talent away from fiction; maybe, in a previous incarnation, the Hunter S. Thompsons of the world might have been novelists. In fact, I notice strains of Tom Wolfe's 1989 essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” another lament of modern literature's anemia, in “Learning to Rage.” What do you think?

DYB: I do admire Wolfe’s essay, and I would encourage young writers to read it. If anything, it will answer a lot of the questions we are discussing, as well as encourage them to think about not only their subject matter but the form in which they’re choosing to write it. He also addresses the importance of non-fiction, and I agree with him in regards to this. I think that non-fiction writers are doing much good work; however, my love is fiction, and I would like to see novels exhibit the same level of engagement as non-fiction. 

As for Orwell, I don’t particularly admire his fiction and would not seek to emulate it, and I find his non-fiction more compelling. I appreciate his effort to engage, to do the hard work of discerning his own set of values and then to try to live accordingly.

DN: Your first novel, Vandal Love, finds a way to subtly navigate politics and history without becoming overbearing. How can writers “learn to rage” without being preachy? 

DYB: This is something I have struggled with and that I believe should be a source of struggle. Compelling writing tends to come from a place of risk and from going beyond oneself. The only answer I can propose is to learn to see more than that with which we are familiar, to present narratives that reach beyond our daily lives. Every item of packaged food in our cupboards is likely to have a more interesting narrative than those many of our young writers tell about themselves. One has to begin by engaging with the larger questions. For myself, when I write, I try to own my country (or rather, countries) and cultures. As an American, I believe that what the Bush administration did in the world belongs to me no matter how much I resent it, and more and more that belief influences how I write. That’s the source of the rage, that we’re part of this—of what is happening not just in Canada or the United States but in the world.