Thomas Disch interview

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Phil Goetz

Oct 11, 1993, 10:12:15 AM10/11/93

The following is excerpted from an interview of Thomas M. Disch by
Larry McCaffery, p. 105-129 of {\it Across the Wounded Galaxies}:
Interviews with contemporary American science fiction writers, Urbana and
Chicago, U of Illinois Press, 1990.


[p. 118]

LM: The last time we met, in the summer of 1986, you were just finishing
work on your computer-interactive text, Amnesia, and you were obviously
exhilarated by the experience of working in one of the new forms. What
has happened with Amnesia to this point? Have you created a novel in
computer's clothing?

TD: I'm still not certain what {\it Amnesia} is, but it's certainly {\it not}
a novel. By way of trying to peddle my wares, about a year ago I wrote a
piece that was taken by the {\it New York Times Book Review} but hasn't
appeared yet. In it I invented a name for books like Amnesia: "Youdunits"
- there hasn't been a name for something like this except "Computer
Interactive Fiction," and that's a mouthful. But the problem extends
beyond what it is to what you {\it do} with it. Do you read it or do you
play it? While I was working on Amnesia, I realized it was an art form
unto itself; I saw visions of sugarplums dancing in my head. Now, all that
is but a handful of ashes (along with some other handfuls), and I'm no
longer hyping Youdunits. Quite simply, Amnesia has been one of the quickest
disillusionments of my life.

LM: Why?

TD: Amnesia died even as it was appearing. It died for wont of advertising,
though it probably received as much attention as something like that can
get -- there was something about it in {\it Newsweek}, for God's sake --
and the reviews in the computer magazines were what amounted to four-star
raves. The real problem is that there's simply no audience for this
material, no one you would respond enthusiastically to what I do well.
Those who buy it, who are aficionados of the form, are basically those who
want trivial pursuits; and to offer them something, however entertaining,
that involved reading and imaginative skills they did not care to exercise
while playing with their computers was foolish. I feel like de Soto, who
journeyed to Tennessee looking for the Fountain of Youth -- an interesting
enough trip, but neither of us found what we were looking for.

LM: When you say that no audience is specifically interested in what
you do well, are you referring to the subtleties (and complexities) of
your overall conception of the work -- which are pretty daunting, as I recall?

TD: Basically, although I don't feel Amnesia is {\it too} complex or ultra-
sophisticated. I've had no negative feedback from anyone who's been
enticed to enter into the game of tennis that's involved -- it's just that
the people who want to play this sort of game are looking, I suppose,
for something like Douglas Adams's {\it Hitchhiker}, where they can have
their familiar experiences replayed. The computer-interactive games that
have done well -- like the Hitchhiker or Star Trek series -- have been
tied in with copyrighted materials that have already had success with
the target audience in prior literary forms. I don't think the quality of
those scripts compares to what I did in Amnesia -- [Douglas] Adams's
scripts, for example, are actually very good {\it of a kind}, but it's a
matter of one little joke after another. The notion of trying to
superimpose over this structure a {\it dramatic conception} other than a
puzzle was apparently too much for the audience. In the end, I just
produced another literary curiosity.

LM: What did you find to be the most intriguing aspect of working with this
new form?

TD: One of the most fascinating things was recognizing that I was
in a sense "mathematizing" literature. Every intellectual probably has
a respect in which he enjoys being able to analyze what he's doing and
to let that analysis somehow be reflected in the work. Chip Delany's
vein in this regard is all the semiology you find in his work. I don't
have much truck with that, but I do have a predilection toward being self-reflective, not of myself but of the work at hand -- that is, I like
my work to have its own story and yet to have its own commentary
built in. The postmodern bias. Working with Amnesia was an opportunity
to explore this brand of self-reflection in spades, and to do it with
an entirely new aesthetic apparatus. This is not to say that Amnesia
has to be read like some Borgesian text but to point out that when
you're working on this kind of text, you're operating in an entirely
different mode from when you're writing other forms of literature.
You're not writing in that trance state of entering a daydream and
describing what's to the left or right, marching forward, which is how
most novels get written. Rather, you have to be always conscious of
the ways the text can be deconstructed. In a very literal sense, any
computer-interactive text deconstructs itself as you write because it's
always stopping and starting and branching off this way and that. You
are constantly and overtly manifesting those decisions usually hidden
in fiction because, of course, you don't normally show the choices that
were ruled out -- though in every novel the choices that are {\it not made}
are really half of the work, an invisible presence. With Amnesia, I found
myself working with a form that allowed me to display these erasures,
these unfollowed paths. It's like a Diebenkorn painting, where you can
see the lines that haven't quite been covered over by a new layer of
paint. There are elements of this same kind of structural candor in a
good Youdunit.

LM: One way Amnesia differs from earlier computer-interactive texts
is not only in its greater formal complexity but in terms of the elegance,
self-referentiality, and sophistication of the language, of the text itself.

TD: I had hoped that readers who ordinarily skim past such graces
wouldn't be allowed to do that because they'd have to examine the text
for clues as to how to respond; they'd have to read slowly and carefully.
I thought that was theoretically appealing [appalling! - Phil]; a text whose
form allowed me a measure of control over the readerly response in ways
unavailable to a novelist or short story writer. I've always been
frustrated that genre readers are very often addictive readers who will go
through a novel in one night. I can't read at that speed -- and I don't
like to be read at that speed, either.

...[stuff about names and themes in Disch]...

LM: While you were working on Amnesia, you must have had an
exhilarating sense that you were solving formal problems in this new
genre that were intriguingly different from formal problems in literature.

TD: Absolutely. The nature of the inner activity involved generates
{\it fascinating} formal problems, analogous in some ways to what D. W.
Griffith or Sergei Eisenstein were grappling with when the cinema was
in its infancy. You have to keep the hypothetical reader in mind to an
unusual degree, which makes the inventive process more difficult in
many ways. Most writers have the same deluded relationship to their
stories that they believe their ideal reader will have. I'm sure Flaubert
wept tears for Madame Bovary, reviled her for her follies and failures,
and dealt with her {\it in his mind} as though she were quite real. The
glory of fiction is that we have this capacity to create affectively [sic
- this must be Larry's word, since this was an interview, and "affectively"
sounds the same as "effectively"] real phantasms. But in writing
interactive fiction, you're aware of the fictional and mechanical nature
of what you're manipulating into the illusion of life. It's the
difference between being an actor and being a puppeteer.

LM: But that difference is only a matter of degree, as authors like
Thackeray and Nabokov take pains to remind us.

[p. 120]


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