Portions of this interview appear in a review essay in Texas Books in Review, published by Texas State University, San Marcos.
Novelist Eric Miles Williamson’s third book and first full length work of literary criticism is at once irreverent, politically incorrect, pugilistic, scathing, confrontational, bold, and, yet, in its daring blue-collar and lyrical prose—beautiful. Williamson, as he writes, “was spawned” in the same East Bay ghettos that produced Jack London a hundred years before. The realities of survival in conditions of abject poverty etched deeply into both authors’ minds, yielding distinctive writing styles that burn brutal and unwavering opinions of right and wrong onto the pages of both men’s works. Williamson writes, "Oakland is a town I understand. It has rules that are clear, and in Oakland you don’t sue people, as is the fashion when offended these sad days; you beat the hell out of them, or, better, you shame them." (Oakland 49)
This type of Darwinian attitude and personalized idea of the Nietzschean Ubermensch is etched deeply into Williamson’s developing psyche. When he was a child, his father dropped him off on a street corner in the Oakland’s inner-city to demonstrate where he would find himself if he “fucked up” in school. To Williamson, he had just two options: become a denizen of what London called The Abyss, or struggle tooth, nail, limb, and mind to climb out of the slums. He chose to fight, and he’s now Professor of English at The University of Texas, Pan American. Williamson has recently been named one of America’s Best 50 Authors by the prestigious French magazine, Transfuge. I interviewed Williamson about Oakland, Jack London, and Me:
Brandon Shuler: Literary criticism is usually presented as being “objective,” even “scientific,” without personal information or attitude on the part of the critic. Your Oakland, Jack London, and Me, as the title suggests, is anything but objective. Why?
Eric Miles Williamson: Objective criticism, right. Since when? Literary critics are often human beings, and human beings have attitudes, political agendas, predispositions, prejudices, sometimes even thoughts. This tenure-grubbing manufactured notion that criticism can be objective is absolutely bogus. Feminists look at texts to root out with their snouts naughty male oppression, Marxists examine the world to display the cruelties of capitalism, Queer Theorists try to turn Hemingway and Jack London and Norman Mailer into repressed homosexuals. If you know a critic’s schtick, you can predict what they’re going to say about any given situation or text, including a Chinese takeout menu or the liner notes to the latest Snoop Dogg CD. Why bother reading them if you already know what they’re going to say? Critics don’t even read each other’s essays.
So I decided to dispense with the Big Lie and just admit it: I’m a biased, judgmental, pompous, self-righteous, howling and bombastic and aesthetically conservative literary critic who thinks he’s right about everything except questions of astrophysics and fashion. To be sure, everything I have to say is based on my own experience as a reader, critic, author, and, not incidentally, person living on this spinning hairball we call earth.
BS: The Atlantic Monthly called Oakland, Jack London, and Me “one of the least politically correct texts of our time.” That’s a pretty tall order for a book of literary criticism. Dr. Williamson, you’ve joined the ranks of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter! Do you have a response to this accusation?
EMW: Well, first of all, I don’t see it as an “accusation” at all. I take it as the highest of compliments. Politically incorrect. What’s politically incorrect is making students read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening over and over again simply because she’s a 19th century American female, even though she’s a dreadful writer. What’s politically incorrect is force feeding The Narrative of Frederick Douglass to students who haven’t read Thoreau, Emerson, Homer, Cervantes, not to mention Shakespeare. If being politically correct means trying to socially engineer the world through teaching inferior books to students, then I’m certainly a very bad man, because I don’t and I’m not going to participate. In Oakland, Jack London, and Me I try to be as honest as I can about how books become that thing we call Literature. The truth in academia is that politics, not aesthetics, dominate literature departments across the country. In Oakland, Jack London, and Me I reckon I say some things that might not delight my more caring, understanding, sympathetic, kind, gentle, egalitarian, sentimental, nurturing, tolerant colleagues and readers. Good. I don’t tolerate mediocrity. I can’t tolerate intellectual trendiness. I won’t tolerate careerist charlatans. It ain’t my job to please people. I leave that to psychiatrists, social workers, and strippers.
BS: You are obviously a champion of the Canon, writing about it reverently. You write that you actually “worship” it.
EMW: Is it possible not to if in one’s writing one aspires to the condition of Art? To be an artist of any variety, one must worship the great dead predecessors. Then one must flog them mercilessly. With a blunt instrument, preferably. There is not enough time in life to read books written by silly or stupid people.
BS: You believe blue-collar authors to be a growing force in the next wave of canonical writers. Will we see London and the rest of the “People of the Abyss” accepted soon, or do you think it will take generations to see the Canon to reflect reality?
EMW: As I write in Oakland, Jack London, and Me, the canon is not formed by English professors, that merry band of poseurs teaching novels, short stories, poems and plays, even though most of them have never written a novel, short story, poem or play. The canon is formed by those who attempt to enter it. So by definition, since the working class in America has had access to higher education for two full generations now, has been producing emulation-worthy books since World War Two’s G.I. Bill, the working class has already begun entering the pantheon. Witness Dagoberto Gilb, Paul Ruffin, Chris Offutt, Barry Hannah, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin. Be on the lookout for Marc Watkins, Steve Davenport, and Larry Fondation.
BS: What do you think your contribution will be?
EMW: As concerns my own writing, I’d not presume to venture an answer to this question. However, as an editor of American Book Review, Boulevard, and Texas Review, I’ll admit I have a bias against Ivy Leaguers and people who drive SUV’s and riding lawnmowers. I do my utmost to sponsor writers from backgrounds that are less than privileged.
BS: What do you have on the table next?
EMW: On the table, meat and potatoes. On the desk, my third novel, which will be published this summer and which I hope will be seen as even more politically incorrect than Oakland, Jack London, and Me. After that my second book of criticism will be published the following year, so I’ve got to clean that up and organize it. On top of that stack of work, I’m currently drafting my fourth novel.
I suppose I got a few more things to say before I shut up.
Irreverent, bold, and abrasive but worthy—Oakland, Jack London, and Me’s demeanor and prose reminds me of an old Duracell commercial—remember, the one with the gruff, burly guy that places the battery on his shoulder and affronts you to “Come on, knock it off. I dare you.”
I crossed the literary tracks and took the dare, survived, and came back with a greater understanding and renewed love for the literature the Ivory Tower told me I should not read. If you read one critical book this year, make it Oakland, Jack London, and Me.
Eric Miles Williamson's first novel, the internationally acclaimed East Bay Grease (Picador USA, 1999), was a PEN/Hemingway Finalist and listed by the Los Angeles Times Book Review as one of the Best Books of 1999. David Brown, producer of such films as Jaws, Driving Miss Daisy, The Player, A Few Good Men, and Chocolat, has recently optioned the film rights and begun project development. Williamson's second novel, Two-Up, was listed by the Kansas City Star and the San Jose Mercury News as one of the best 100 books of 2006, a distinction earned by only 26 novels. His most recent works are Welcome to Oakland (Raw Dog Screaming Press, 2010), a collection of short stories, 14 Fictional Positions (Texas Review Press, 2011), and his second collection of criticism Say It Hot (Texas Review Press, 2013).