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From “Should Writers Talk?,” a discussion that was held in January at the University of Chicago.

agnes callard: One of the reasons you give for why writers shouldn’t talk is that you see writing as being more malleable, because conversation does not allow for revision or retraction. I found that surprising.

becca rothfeld: In writing, you have more time to think about what you actually believe. I think the mistake people make is taking things that people say to be expressive of their beliefs. I only know what I think after I’ve reflected on it for long periods of time. When an immediate response is demanded of me I just blurt out whatever off the top of my head, as I’m currently doing.

callard: That’s what I was thinking—that conversation allows you to figure out what you think.

rothfeld: As a means of figuring out what you think, conversation is pretty good, but as a means of expressing your considered opinions, it’s not very good, and the problem is that it’s often mistaken to be a means of expressing your considered opinions. You’ll see people quoting writers’ interviews as if they have any idea what the fuck they’re saying. And they don’t; they’re just making it up as they go along. I mean, I speak for myself.

callard: What if what you want to do is sort of hear somebody’s thinking? Maybe people are interested in being spectators of the process of thinking.

rothfeld: If your interest is just in seeing people flail around figuring out what they believe, then you could watch people talk. But I think a lot of people want to hear writers talk because they think that it’s the same skill set as writing. They think, “I like this person’s writing so I’ll like their talking because the two things are correlated.” And I just think that’s not true. That’s a mistake.

Writers are people who are often—at least in my case—unsatisfied with the imprecision and immediacy of talking, and who feel that they’re often called upon to offer their thoughts too quickly. So one thing that drives somebody to become a writer is dissatisfaction with and ineptitude at speaking.

callard: You seem to really like stuff being slow. I like stuff being fast—and that’s why I like reading, because when I talk to people they only say a few ideas at a time, and I’m like, “Come on, say more ideas!” Whereas when I read, I get a lot of ideas in a short time.

rothfeld: I’m also quite a fast person. I speak really quickly and I get really impatient when people speak really slowly, which is actually one of the things that I don’t like about talking to people. So maybe it’s a way of militating against my own crappy tendency to rush through things and to think things too quickly. It’s only by forcing myself to slow down, against my natural tendency, that I can figure out what I actually think.

callard: There’s a weird way in which you might think it just doesn’t matter what you actually believe. Why does that matter?

rothfeld: Because—I don’t know if I think this, but I’m trying it on—a critic is sort of like a character, and as a critic you’re constructing a heteronym for yourself in the way that Pessoa or Kierkegaard did. You’re trying to have a critical sensibility that you are very deliberately aestheticizing, stylizing, and constructing. And that requires you to have some level of consistency, and not just to be a bundle of ad hoc offshoots. And that’s how one often is in conversation.

callard: Kafka’s diaries were just published in a new translation. Another question I had was: Should writers write diaries?

rothfeld: Kafka’s diaries are full of infelicities. His finished writing is so cool and icy and impenetrable that it’s exciting to see him in the process of writing. For someone like me, who writes because they’re impatient with the imprecisions of speaking, a diary is not going to achieve the ends that I want, because I want my thoughts to reach my audience in a perfected form. But part of the appeal of Kafka’s diaries is the sadistic desire to see somebody who appears in such a polished form disintegrating for once.

callard: When I was an undergrad here, Kurt Vonnegut came and gave a talk. And I had been a big fan of his, so of course I went, and he gave this talk about, like, graphing and mapping novels. It struck me as incredibly dumb. And I was extremely disillusioned. I was like, “Well, I thought Kurt Vonnegut was a genius, but turns out he has really dumb views about novels. Not gonna read his novels anymore.”

So this is like your fear of being exposed. But now I’m wondering, maybe I had just elevated Vonnegut too much to start with. Writers create this illusion of genius, and then it’s exposed when they talk. But you might think, instead of the corrective being writers not talking, maybe the corrective should be: we realize that writers don’t actually understand that much.

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