Geoff Dyer

The essayist on not having a career

James Surowiecki

Over the past thirty-five years, Geoff Dyer has written an extraordinary number of books and essays on a dizzying array of topics, including D. H. Lawrence, jazz, photography, the Battle of the Somme, the Soviet film Stalker, and life aboard an American aircraft carrier. In all of his work, Dyer integrates personal experience with critical analysis, constructing a distinctive authorial voice that is casual, yet commanding. One is drawn to Dyer’s books not necessarily because of what he is writing about, but because his relentless curiosity and inquisitive mind can turn any subject into an occasion for perceptive, stylish, and often very funny prose.

Dyer’s most recent book, The Last Days of Roger Federer, is no exception, as he weaves together reflections on Federer, Nietzsche, Beethoven, Burning Man, John Coltrane, and much else into a clever and illuminating meditation on last works and on endings more generally. In October, Dyer and I corresponded about his writing, and why it is a mistake to say he has had a career.

James Surowiecki, consulting editor

James Surowiecki Near the end of The Last Days of Roger Federer, you write that the theme running through your all work is “giving up.” The book that brought you to real attention in the United States was Out of Sheer Rage, which is about procrastination and indolence and about not writing the critical study of D. H. Lawrence you were trying to write. You once said, “As soon as I get fed up, bored, tired, or weary of anything, I abandon it. Books, films, writing assignments, relationships—I just give up on them.” Yet over the course of your life you’ve finished a dizzying array of projects, and written a tremendous amount. The Last Days is your nineteenth book. How should we make sense of this? Is the obsession with giving up a kind of pose? Or is it something you think about doing but usually don’t?

Geoff Dyer I have no doubt that the desire to give up and quit has been the fuel that’s not just kept me going but also somehow obliged me to keep slogging away. The two go hand-in-hand in various ways, most obviously in my not having the patience to do a lot of the donkey work of conveying facts and information in my nonfiction. By keeping that to a minimum—by not including what readers can get in other books on a given subject—I free myself to do the stuff that I enjoy, the stuff that, to paraphrase Walker Evans, only I can do, the stuff that makes a book uniquely mine. Many nonfiction books could be written by anybody possessed of a certain level of expertise about a given topic.

JS Do you abandon things less often than you did when you were younger?

GD Only because I start fewer and fewer things. I’ve actually completed a very high percentage of the books that I wanted to write. The only conspicuous failure was a book on tennis that I was supposed to write; I ended up writing the book on director Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker instead. Other than that, I abandoned a few essays—one on The Clock by Christian Marclay for Harper’sand a small number of other pieces. I’ve actually always had a highly developed sense of self-discipline and obligation.

I don’t do book proposals or have a contract with a publisher when I start. I just write the book and hope someone somewhere will want to publish it.

JS Can you say something about how you write? In The Last Days, for instance, you talk about the difficulty you had getting the book started and the difficulty of finishing it. How do you finally get started on a project? And more generally, when you’re working on a book, are you writing all the time, or do you procrastinate and then write it all in one rush?

GD As you get older you come to dread starting a book because you know all the effort that will be involved. So I find it more and more difficult to get started. One thing to emphasize is that I don’t do book proposals or have a contract with a publisher when I start. I just write the book and hope someone somewhere will want to publish it. Same with articles: I don’t pitch them, I just write them and send them off on spec, as you're obliged to do when you are starting out as a writer. So at some level I'm still starting out. Doing a proposal would be crushingly boring for me, and I never really know how a book will turn out. Curiosity in that regard is part of the motivation.

So at some point I privately commit to doing a book, and let a certain amount of material accumulate. After a number of words have been amassed I can begin to relax—there will be a book—and from that point on, my need for discipline diminishes because there’s no need for it. Writing the book becomes all I want to do. The quantity of words increases and, simultaneously, some sense of form emerges, a form uniquely appropriate to the subject matter and growing directly out of the material. Great happiness ensues. It’s worth adding—because it’s something I'm grappling with at the moment, with a new book—that I failed to complete the tennis book partly because I let too much material accumulate without organizing it, and it became this swampy mess I could not find a way of navigating through.

It’s a source of torment that even now, at sixty-four, I have still not been able to proceed like a career writer. I have never been able to keep up the momentum of working for long hours on one book, and transferring that momentum over to starting another one and continuing with the same dedication and intensity as someone like Larry McMurtry, say, was able to do. There is always an interval of doing nothing, being bored, becoming depressed, and thinking that I'm finished. I'm always worried that this phase won’t be a phase at all but a terminal condition. And it gets worse because as you get older time passes so quickly that a day or week spent doing nothing can pass pleasantly and rapidly, even though that’s a recipe for depression, despair, and god knows what else.

JS You write in The Last Days, “Writers need to strike a balance between exercising a degree of critical vigilance over their work in progress and not allowing that editorial surveillance to cauterize the flow of words.” How do you strike that balance? Do you reread and rewrite as you go? Do you find yourself wrestling with what you call “is-it-worth-it-ness” as you write?

GD Up to the point I’ve described above. It’s certainly worth it, irrespective of the quality. Of course I'm conscious that some of the reviews of The Last Days were hostile, to put it mildly. They were in stark contrast to my own sense of the book’s worth, both while I was writing it, very happily, and when I reread it. Now this could mean that I am blind to my own failings, but I see it the other way: that the book exposed the inadequacy of some of the readings of it.

JS The Last Days, which is described on its back cover as literary criticism/memoir, is the kind of hybrid work you’ve been doing for decades now. When you first started, it was an unusual form, but over the past decade it’s become a common genre. How did you hit on the form? And how do you feel about its rise to prominence?

GD This book is certainly not a memoir! Anyway, when I was doing my early books, like The Missing of the Somme, they were highly unusual (though there were precedents, such as And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos by John Berger). And because those books were often judged by a system of ranking pre-calibrated with certain established genres in mind, they could be deemed inadequate, even though on their own terms they were fine. Nowadays, as you say, there’s an awful lot of this stuff about, much of it thoroughly conventional; the software is now available for free download. I think the key ingredient, always, is the quality of the author’s consciousness, which is inseparable from his or her style. In my case, the interest of the books derives from a combination of subject matter saturated with authorial consciousness, style, and form.

One of the books that I had in mind before setting out on The Last Days, for instance, was Adam Zagajewski’s Slight Exaggeration, a book that was not about anything in particular, though it was about a great many things. The key thing is that it was held together purely by his consciousness and style.

JS In some of your work, you range widely across art forms and disciplines. For instance, in The Last Days, you put Nietzsche, Beethoven, Coltrane, Dylan, Jean Rhys, Roger Federer, and other figures in relationship to each other. But you have also written other books that, while still wide-ranging, are centered on one artist, like Garry Winogrand, or one piece of art, like Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Does the process of writing one type of book or the other feel different and require different sets of skills? Do you always know when you begin which type of book it’s going to be?

GD Good question! Feels the same, I think, in that there is always a topic I'm addressing, and however tight the focus I tend to bring in a lot of other stuff so that the subject, big or small, becomes a container for the full expression of authorial consciousness.

JS The subject of The Last Days is last works, and, perhaps, endings more generally. What’s the difference between last works and late works? Why did you want to write a book about the last things that people do?

GD Late style has become almost a cliché. There’s been so much work done on it, the usual starting point being Theodor Adorno’s great essay “Late Style in Beethoven.” In Beethoven’s case his late works were also his last works: the two were synonymous. But we can think of plenty of examples of last works that come in what should have been the artist’s middle period, but then that person got suddenly and fatally ill, as was the case for Coltrane and Winogrand. And then we can think of people whose early phase was also their last phase: writers who published just one book and then threw in the towel. So yes, my interest was in last things, whenever they occur—and we never know when that is going to happen. When my first novel came out in Britain, I'd get asked questions about it as my “first novel,” and I’d say that as far as I was concerned it was not a prelude to a second or third book; this book was it, was all there was ever going to be. Well, I was proved wrong, obviously.

JS The Last Days is haunted by Nietzsche and Beethoven. That’s interesting in part because they were so different from you. You write in the book, “I’ve never had any big goals, ambitions, or dreams,” while Nietzsche and Beethoven were trying to write for eternity and remake the world with their work. Why were you so interested in them, and what’s their connection to Roger Federer?

GD Yes, Nietzsche and Beethoven are the key figures in the book. And you're right about Nietzsche’s grand ambitions, though increasingly he just nibbled his way toward the planned revaluation of all values in increasingly hasty increments and bulletins as his marbles started rolling. And in his case and Beethoven’s any grandness of ambition coexisted with a marked pettiness, along with, for Nietzsche, astonishment that no one took any notice of these earth-shattering books of his. The sheer scale of Nietzsche’s lack of success was stunning. And Beethoven was famously prey to little grievances and irritations to go alongside the cruel blow of deafness. The connection with Roger is that even if ultimately you end up winning more Grand Slams than anyone else—even if you are changing the world forever with your music or writing—you have to do so incrementally: one point at a time in Roger’s case, a sentence at a time in Nietzsche’s.

JS The Last Days has this quite intricate structure built around loops, and sections of 60 units, which collectively add up to exactly 86,400 words. If the reader doesn’t notice the structure, do you think they’re missing something important? Have you done similar things with other books?

GD Yes, yes, absolutely! A number of my previous books—The Missing of the Somme, The Ongoing Moment—were seen as unstructured because they didn’t have chapters, but actually structure has always been one of my strengths. I think the new book has a lovely structure: a kind of associative narrative whereby it advances and loops back and one thing leads to another so that it advances even while it seems to be winding back. I think that generates a degree of suspense. As you say, there are three loops of sixty sections each. The word count—the book has the same number of words as there are seconds in a day—tightened things up, bringing us back to Nietzsche’s idea of the Eternal Recurrence via Marclay’s film The Clock, which lasts exactly twenty-four hours and then begins again, without pause, over and over.

But even without knowing all of that, I think attentive readers would respond to the structure—surrender to the tug of invisible arrangement as opposed to deciding it was just randomly assembled jottings.

JS Many of the writers you bring up as influences are political writers: John Berger—you wrote a book about him—Perry Anderson, Camus, and Orwell. But your work is rarely political, and sometimes seems almost deliberately apolitical. The Last Days is no exception in this regard. Has that been a conscious choice, or has it been simply the product of you following your nose, or your heart?

GD You're right, and it’s been a source of surprise to me that things have turned out as they have. It’s an illustration of the way that quite a big part of the writing life is outside of one’s conscious control; I would have liked to become a certain kind of writer but I’ve end up becoming this kind instead. Perhaps it’s tied up with the fact that, although it took me a while to realize it, I could only fully become myself as a writer if I was funny. In political writing that means satire, which I enjoy reading but have no interest in writing.

The main effect of reading reviews is to remind myself of what a good and fair critic I am.

JS You have opinions on many different subjects, and you are a stylish and often aphoristic writer. It seems as though you would be a natural for Twitter. But you don’t tweet. Why not?

GD Ah, I'm very glad to answer this question because it’s been troubling me recently. First up, I don’t have as many opinions as I used to back when I wrote a lot in the cultural and literary pages of the newspapers, especially in Britain. That was at a time when papers like The Guardian were at their peak, and I felt considerable pride in dispensing opinions in prominent places. Anyway, I was very slow to get a smart phone and by the time I did it seemed (a) too late to build up a Twitter following and (b) by then people were saying how toxic Twitter was. So that was that, except occasionally my wife would say something like “You see, it’s not just me who thinks you're a jerk. Look what this person has said on Twitter . . .” And she’d read out something from someone saying what a twat I was. So I thought I was well out of it. But I have become aware that if you're not on social media you sort of don’t exist. I feel I've become a nonperson by virtue of not being on social media.

JS Do you read reviews assiduously, or try to avoid them, or neither? Has a reviewer ever said anything about one of your books that made you see it in a meaningfully different light, whether positive or negative?

GD I read reviews in the most pathetic of ways, impatiently scanning for praise! To be honest, the main effect of reading reviews is to remind myself of what a good and fair critic I am—or was, since I hardly ever write reviews any more. Obviously the fact that I have dished out plenty of scorn in my time rather compromises any objections or cries of pain—“Ow, that’s my sore arm!”—that a negative review of my own work might elicit from me.

JS From the negative to the positive: Do you have a favorite among all your books?

GD Not a favorite but the Winogrand book means a lot to me. I'd had this desire to do a version of John Szarkowski’s book on the French photographer Eugène Atget—a hundred pictures, each with an accompanying essay of about three hundred words on the facing page—and I was thinking that I wouldn’t get around to it because I couldn't think of anyone suitable I might do such a book about.

Then I had lunch with someone from University of Texas Press who remembered my saying in an interview that I wanted to do this kind of a book. Well, he said, the time has come. He’d secured permission to reprint a hundred Winogrand pictures. I could choose the pictures from the archive in Tucson and write the accompanying text: How did that sound? It sounded like being offered the key to Tutankhamun’s tomb. It was perfect. And the finished book, when it arrived, was so beautiful, with such high production values. It was bliss to see and hold that for the first time!

More generally, I have a fondness for the more recent books because I've become funnier as a writer as I've gotten older. “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy,” my book on the film Where Eagles Dare, has the highest—possibly unimprovable—ratio of gag to non-gag.

JS You write in The Last Days that after you got out of university, you “drifted into the life of unsupervised and unfocused study to which I was perfectly suited: signing on the dole, reading a lot, listening to music, going to the cinema, and drinking beer,” and that essentially your life “has continued on the same trajectory—a trajectory, if such a thing is possible, without direction or purpose—ever since.” To me this sounds like a dream life, right down to living in California. Do you know how you pulled it off? Do you think, paradoxically, the lack of direction might have helped?

GD Like almost everything in my life, it was passive. You know, I passed exams, went to Oxford, liked the life I led there and continued it by living on the dole in London. So yep, I've just kept on that track ever since, though even that is to misstate things since tracks have a direction and goal, and my life has been entirely directionless. The lack of desire to have kids—more precisely, a radical aversion to having kids or, indeed, having any contact with them at all—has been a part of this way of proceeding.

JS One of the most striking lines in The Last Days comes when you say you “scarcely give [death] a second thought.” Has that always been true? Do you have any thoughts about whether, and how, your lack of concern about death may have shaped your writing or the choices you’ve made in your career?

GD Yes, I'm very different from the death-haunted Philip Larkin in that regard, though I think my relation to mortality changed, as everyone’s does, when my parents died. I think my main anxiety, like that of most healthy people, has to do with Alzheimer’s and fear of dementia, rather than dying. But the mistaken assumption in your question is that I've had a career or made choices. I’ve just drifted along, written books and articles, lived a life, but I've never had a career, not for a moment.

James Surowiecki is a consulting editor at The Yale Review.
Originally published:
December 6, 2022


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