In 1985, after a decade of writing plays, art-house movies, and reviews, Gary Indiana became The Village Voice’s senior art critic. He quit in 1988 and published his first novel, Horse Crazy, a year later. It’s a love story, sort of, between an art critic and a heroin-addicted waiter during the AIDS epidemic. I say “sort of” because, in the novel, “affection is the mortal illness of lonely people,” as the art critic says, and sex is “if one person jerks off at one end of a room, and someone else jerks off at the other, both trying to hit the same spot.”
Since then, Indiana has published ten novels, a memoir, and several dozen more art, book, and film reviews. This week, he releases Fire Season, a collection of 39 essays and reviews spanning 1984 to the present. His subjects range from food writing (Jamie Oliver is a “fey and gigglesome, teen-idolish James Dean simulacrum”) to Barbara Kruger (her “rich raw material is this bizarro world of media that surrounds us and gurgles in our living rooms”), to assisted suicide (“hardly a legal argument but simply a question of taste or, to be more exact, tastelessness”).
Over e-mail, Indiana discusses revisiting his old work, and why he’s turned away from magazine writing.
Jensen Davis: Can you describe your process for picking which essays to include?
Gary Indiana: Originally the book was going to be simply a reissue of an earlier collection, Let It Bleed. Then it felt limiting to only do that, when there were all these later uncollected pieces. So a lot of Let It Bleed got cut out, to make room for more recent writings. The emphasis overall was on essays with contemporary relevance.
J.D.: Did you edit the essays in Fire Season, or do they appear as they originally did?
G.I.: Some very tiny edits were made on a few pieces. Not many. Essays reflect the time when they were written—all writing does that, but with essays, writings with some sort of factual underpinning, you don’t go back and revise what you thought before, to bring it in line with what you thought later. That kind of revision has a kind of unscrupulous narcissism about it. If you were wrong about certain things at the time, or proven wrong by subsequent events, don’t cover that up; just own it.
J.D.: The articles in the collection cover a 40-year span. How has your approach to writing criticism for magazines changed over that period? Small magazines no longer have the budget to send writers and photographers to Disneyland Paris.
G.I.: I’ve become less and less interested in writing for magazines. I turn down almost everything people offer me, and I’ve never solicited writing work. Magazine culture has degenerated in its transfer to the Internet. I don’t like the way most publications are edited now, usually by a politburo of one kind or another, with all that implies of cowardice and mediocrity, uniformity of opinion, et cetera. It’s nothing to do with whether they have budgets or not. Anyway, I prefer to write fiction.
J.D.: Many of your reviews are critical. One of my favorite essays in the collection is on Errol Morris’s oeuvre, which “has consisted of a geek’s-eye view of subjects only slightly geekier than the director himself.” What’s the process of discerning if someone’s art is bad but worth writing about—for whatever reason—or bad to the point it’s not worth writing about?
G.I.: Well, you write about what interests you, basically. I’d much rather like things than not like them. Sometimes the way something is appalling is interesting, though. Or else so ridiculously promoted and approved of, like Blake Gopnik’s Warhol biography, that demonstrating why it’s terrible amounts to a public service. In Errol Morris’s case, letting Robert McNamara exculpate himself for his behavior during the Vietnam War really cried out for ridicule. If Errol Morris just made films about pet cemeteries or whatever, I wouldn’t have bothered about him. But McNamara was the secretary of defense during a war, whose actions killed people. You can’t just run the camera and let him pontificate for three hours, or whatever.
J.D.: In “Munch’s Telephone,” an essay about Tracey Emin, you write, “In a formal essay the writer maintains a certain formal stiffness, an imperious yet servile attitude, writing from slightly above the level of the reader but slightly below that of the subject.” I love your writing, in part, because there’s none of that stiffness. What do you think this stick-up-the-ass style misses?
G.I.: In the essay you mention, what I was getting at was the kind of automatic abjection implicit in certain journalistic practices—“I’m writing about this person because they’re above me on the totem pole, and you, the reader, are below me on it”—something like that. I actually think there’s a much bigger problem today with the inability of younger writers to even write a book review without relating whatever it is to their autobiography. The first-person pronoun has become a rampant disease.
J.D.: There’s an attention to beauty in the collection, I mean physically. In other interviews, people have brought up your penchant for writing about beautiful people. What makes beautiful people so interesting to write about?
G.I.: I’m not conscious of having written a lot about beautiful people because of their beauty. The most interesting thing about beauty, usually, is how much pathology it conceals, and how easily it renders other people helpless. Thank God politicians are so ugly.
Gary Indiana’s Fire Season: Selected Essays 1984–2021 is out now from Seven Stories Press
Jensen Davis is an Associate Editor for AIR MAIL