your best weapon is vertigo

Paris Review: Do literary prizes mean anything to you—say, winning a Pulitzer Prize?

Jim Harrison: No, not really. Any kind of prize is pleasant — especially to your mom, your wife, and kids — but I never got one. After you've written novels or books of poetry for a long time, your concerns become very different. That's just what you do, you've given your entire life over to it, and luckily it's panned out to the point that they're printing your books. So as far as reputation goes, I'm not interested in any reputation that has to be sought. If there's anything more gruesome than Republican politics, it's literary politics.

PR: So you don't feel any pressure at this stage in your career to write the Big Book?

JH: I feel absolutely no pressure of any kind. People don't realize how irrational and decadent an act of literature is in the first place, and to feel pressure in a literary sense is hopeless. I always think of an artist in terms of his best work, which I think is what he deserves. If he can do this, if he's taken the trouble, then this is what I think of him. The before and after is always there, but so what?...


PR: Do you feel any sense of competition with other writers?

JH: I don't know what that would be for. I can't see the art processes as being a sack race. I've thought that over as part of the idea that when people whom you love very much die, why would you get in a sack race over the novel? And I think sometimes that bitterness of competition leads people to write the wrong kind of novel, the kind of novel they wouldn't otherwise write. I think Keats is still right in that the most valuable thing for a writer to have is a negative capability.

PR: In what sense?

JH: Just to be able to hold at bay hundreds of conflicting emotions and ideas. That's what makes good literature, whereas opinions don't, and the urge to be right is hopeless. Think of the kind of material Rilke dealt with all his life. It's stupefying. Did you read Stephen Mitchell's new translation of The Sonnets to Orpheus? You see that the depth of his art is so dissociated from what we think of as literary existence. Your best weapon is your vertigo.

- Jim Harrison, from his Paris Review interview. You can read the whole thing here.

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