Muse, the debut novel by Jonathan Galassi—the sixty-five year old poet, translator, and president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux—is an homage to the classic era of New York literary publishing. It is also a novel of gossip and rumor. Who’s who, who slept with whom, who got what deal, who pays what, who insulted whom—it sometimes feels as if eavesdropping on conversations at a literary party. Being at once an editor, publisher, and writer, Galassi’s take on the world he represents is at times satirical and ironic, and at others sincere and sentimental. The protagonist of Muse is Paul Dukach, an editor at Purcell & Stern, an independent publishing house with shabby offices on Union Square and reputation for stinginess. Their rival house is Impetus, even stingier but known for publishing the most avant-garde writers of the century, most importantly America’s most famous poet, and Paul’s literary hero, Ida Perkins. As Paul works his way up the editorial ladder, he becomes closely involved with the vibrant yet antagonistic personalities running each house, and also finds himself the chosen receiver of Ida Perkin’s greatest secret.
I asked Galassi some tough questions about the themes brought up in his novel, and he was kind enough to answer.
Tweed’s: You open Muse with a paradox: in the preface you write that the novel is a love story, but you then say that “love is a terrible pain” and “being in love is arguably the least productive of human states.” Yet it is also one of the most fulfilling, and the most desirable. Can you offer some insight into this paradox of love, how we desire something that “turns us into bovine creatures when we find it”?
Jonathan Galassi: It’s an excellent question. The truth is that love is a fundamental paradox and a problem. We posit it as the ultimate good and it does involve man at his most sentient, most feeling. But it can also bring out some of our worst traits. And we have no real control over it. So a love story is a story of human beings at their most extreme in any number of ways. Which is why love stories are so often comic—to everyone but those who are involved in them.
Tweed’s: Something else that we have no control over, and which matters heavily in Muse, is sexual orientation. The protagonist, Paul Dukach, is gay, and the book hinges on the secret lesbianism (for lack of a better word) of Paul’s literary hero, the legendary poet Ida Perkins. Why is sexual orientation so important to your characters’ identity, when it seems independent of their personalities?
Jonathan Galassi: Another interesting question—but how is it independent of their personalities? Paul’s sexuality seems intrinsic to his nature—he is diffident, self-doubting, not terribly comfortable in his skin: is that an implausible sense of self for an unliberated young gay guy? And—without giving away too much—let’s just say that the range of Ida’s erotic experience is broad. Which I think is very much in character for her.
Tweed’s: Another paradox of the novel is the representation of writers. One publisher exclaims that “publishing would be so wonderful without these wretched authors,” while at one point Paul thinks, “Writers! Publishers! They were all intolerable,” and he finally says that “authors were gods, despite their high-handed behavior and egomania and competitiveness.” Now, you’re a publisher and editor, as well as a writer (not to mention poet and translator). So were you playfully venting frustration in dealing with writers? And how do these sentiments relate to yourself as a writer? For example, would your own publisher and editor think of you as intolerable?
Jonathan Galassi: Probably on certain days she would! When she tells me “You’re such an author!” I know it’s not a compliment. Because the editor gets to see the author in his or her most vulnerable, which is not to say, infantile state, when the protective civilizing layer of self-control can wear a little thin. The point is that writers are just like everybody else—only more so. And no one knows this better than an editor.
Tweed’s: Getting into the theme of publishing, when Paul is at the infamous Frankfurt Book Fair, he makes a dismissive comment about the “Big (i.e. irrelevant commercial) Publishers,” referring to “the Random Houses and HarperCollinses and Simon & Schusters and Hachettes.” To Paul, only the independent literary houses—whom he refers to as “the Lords of Culture”—publish “the Authors Who Mattered.”
Why do you think authors who matter are generally not commercially successful? What is this perspective saying about our culture?
Jonathan Galassi: That is not Paul’s opinion—it’s the narrator parroting the self-regarding view of the “Literary Publishers,” a small, snobbish clique who think themselves much more important than they are. But it’s often true, particularly since the modernist period, that a lot of so-called Serious Literature is difficult, on purpose, as if to separate the sheep from the goats. There’s a passage about this in the book, in fact, discussing Sterling and Impetus Editions:
The truth was that many of these names, the makers of modern culture, had sold very little over the course of their long lives in print with Impetus. It was one of the realities of publishing: what was truly new often languished in the warehouse nearly unasked-for. One of the tricks of publishing was catching the wave of public taste at the right moment. If you were too prescient, too far ahead of the swell, literally nothing would happen—until lighting struck, if it did, years, sometimes decades, later.
Tweed’s: Yes, I had underlined this section. And it seems accurate that since the modernist period serious writers were indeed too difficult for most people to enjoy. But I’m interested to hear what you think about the contemporary situation. Do you think the writers who matter are still too difficult to be commercially successful? Who would these writers be?
Jonathan Galassi: I think that the situation is much more fluid today. There are great writers, like Franzen and Eugenides, who are enormously popular. And there are writers like Ferrante, Knausgaard, Bolaño, and Denis Johnson, who have won a large international following. And there are writers like Lydia Davis, for instance, who over time have been broadly recognized and whose work is now being more and more widely read. All these writers are important, and recognized, and sell in different ways, in different patterns. There’s no set formula, no enormous book club that guarantees that all the great writers of today—and there are quite a few of them—are going to be read by all the serious readers. I don’t think readership is broken down along these lines. Readers go to writers for many different reasons. But there are unquestionably lots of significant writers who don’t have large audiences. That has ALWAYS been true. Henry James was never popular the way his friend Edith Wharton was. Take Melville. Take Faulkner.
Tweed’s: Are there any writers who matter who are still relatively unknown? Do you know of any Melvilles or Faulkners of tomorrow?
Jonathan Galassi: New writers are being spawned constantly. Only time will tell who the real writers of today will have been. Not to mention tomorrow.
Tweed’s: Muse has been described as a love letter to the world of publishing, but to me it’s more a love letter to poetry, embodied in the character of Ida Perkins. Can you elaborate on the importance of poetry, and why you love it?
Jonathan Galassi: A very astute friend said after reading the book that Ida is the spirit of literature and I think she was right, though I had no conscious awareness of this when I was writing her. I do think that poetry is literature at its most concentrated and free—free of commercial constraints, free of everything but the pure will to express, to be.
Poetry has no other reason to be than to give voice to human desire, to hope, fear, faith, despair. It’s our most unmediated, uncompromised way of declaring who we are. Ida Perkins is all this, at least I hope she is. That’s what makes her the muse of Muse.