An Essential Literary Collection: On “Bookworm: Conversations With Michael Silverblatt”

"Bookworm" cover

Michael Silverblatt has been interviewing, analyzing and deconstructing important writers and their books for decades. He does this on Bookworm, a weekly talk show out of KCRW, Los Angeles. 

His approach to his guests is variably devilish, insouciant, quite often brilliant. During one of these, David Foster Wallace actually said: “I feel like I wanna ask you [Michael] to adopt me.” 

No surprise. Who among writers would not welcome a guiding interpretative hand, a voice from above, sitting in judgment perhaps, but a voice recognizing the writer’s work not only for what it is but for what in the land of the imagination it might be!

But wait. First some back story. 

It’s 1969 – that pivotal year, not just for moon landings, the Rolling Stones, and illegitimate wars in southeast Asia, but for contemporary American fiction. Contemporary American fiction in Buffalo, New York.

Come again? The University of Buffalo (which, incidentally, recently captured a sizable grant for its James Joyce archive) – was at the time an epicenter of creative ferment, the magnitude and impact of which can only be appreciated in retrospect. Actors ( = writers!) in that 1969 U. of Buffalo scenario included John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Leslie  Fiedler, Michael Silverblatt, and a cast of characters alternately dodging police teargas canisters, distributing Marxist pamphlets at the local steel mill, or tripping out on LSD. 

For a time, and for then for some time afterwards, Michael Silverblatt and I were good friends. Our circle included a very zany troupe of student actors who quoted liberally and ad nauseam from Wilde, Artaud, and Genet. Michael, all six feet plus of him, looking out at the world from his Emil Jannings spectacles, continually halting the downward progress of these down the slope of  his nose as he talks. Talks, expostulates, inveighs. Who is this person? Silverblatt’s knowledge of books is uncanny – he and it literally command a room. He spouts fervid enthusiasms, infectious excitements, eyerolls pregnant with excitements; his passion for books, for what these books and authors are trying to do, might be trying to do, is contagious. Back in the day, Michael was not only ambassador but outspoken man at the door when it came to who could and who could not gain admittance to the gilded embassy. Silverblatt’s preferences in books ranged from arcane to eccentric to fringe mainstream – but always with an eye to the brightest aned the best. Even then, Michael Silverblatt was broadcasting the good news: great writing matters.

His ‘performances’ at college were a scream. Silverblatt would recite at length, verbatim, his very favorite excerpts. Or he would extemporize. Silverblatt’s whims, reactions, explanations, and rants took us delightfully far afield. Silverblatt had and still has an inimitable talent for abstracting all the theoretical and potential meanings of a narrative work of fiction… 

…even if they are not there to begin with! (Is this some new form of supratentorial highbrow high-lit bullying?) 

Point: Bookworm: Conversations with Michael Silverblatt is a writerly,  onsciousness-expanding read.  Though it will look great on a coffee table, it will look even better once nested in your mind.

John Berger’s repeated puzzlement and requests for clarification from interviewer M.S. may be illustrative. Silverblatt, emphasizing Berger’s simultaneous evocation of past, present, and future, actually dominates the conversation at points,  insisting (or imposing) his exegesis on a doubting Thomas (or John, in this case.) Silverblatt at times is head over heels akimbo in these dialogues, sometimes to the point of lionizing them and  making them his own. Which is perfectly fine of course since the idea – which these interviews absolutely succeed at – is to be as flippin’ bright and book-aware and (mostly related) as possible.

Silverblatt is amazingly generous time and again.  With his time and his most Voltairean scope of mind. Point: he seems to know everything about books. In these Conversations, Silverblatt drops  names – Kleist, von Hoffmanstahl, Sterne – like wedding garlands from a panier. 


More back story: Time passed. Silverblatt went his way, I went mine.  One day we ran into each other on the street. Breathlessly, or mock breathlessly, we tried to catch each other up. Where in Creation we’d been these intervening years…An unmistakable look of horror lit his features as I told him about Payne Whitney. 

“I was a doctor, not patient,” I said. 

He did a double take. 

“You’re a psychiatrist?” he said. “That’s REALLY horrible!” 

“Psychiatry is the opposite of  writing. It’s like anti-writing,” he attempted to explain. It seemed he despised the linearity and drop-dead logic of the alienist discipline  – precious little room for spontaneity, imagination, vision… Believe me I wrestled with that POV – Michael’s, and as it turned out, many others as well – for a good long time. 


Silverblatt’s interview style, brilliant and raffiné as it is, can also be heavy-handed. Consider the following exchange with John Berger: 

MS: Yes, but I think that for you it does begin with loss. Loss and ghosts both. Lost ways of life, lost ways of thinking about survivors…loss is one of your main subjects in fiction. 

JB: Well, you can see better than I what are my subjects. As I say, the writer is never quite sure. 

The book, transcripts of brilliantly engaged interviews with world-class authors, is basic for anyone interested in important writing.  Readers less familiar with the recondite peloton of Ashbery, Berger, Didion, Fuentes, Paley and Sontag (among other notables featured in the volume) will welcome this addition to their literary armamentarium.

Michael Silverblatt is brilliant: that’s why these authors are happy to come out and  play. More than occasionally, Silverblatt’s verbal eloquence exceeds that of his writers. Consider the following exchange – Susan Sontag echoing what has become a familiar refrain in some of these conversations: 

MS: I took it as being a book about the death of culture and passion.        

SS: You’re right. You know I’m probably not the best person to talk about this book even though I wrote it and didn’t finish it so long ago. 

The interviews in Bookworm – culled from several decades of very classy high lit encounters — cover a wide range of book genres. Silverblatt enunciates and duly apostrophizes the work of a poet (John Ashbery), a science fiction writer (Octavia Butler), an essayist (Joan Didion), and a Broadway balladeer (Stephen Sondheim), to name a few. The conversations here are ultimately fluent, ultramondaine, and of deep and lasting interest to readers and writers alike. 


Bookworm: Conversations with Michael Silverblatt
edited by Alan Felsenthal.
The Song Cave, 417 p.

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