Okla Elliott Interviews Christopher Higgs (and Marvin K. Mooney)

I first met Christopher Higgs at Ohio State University’s MFA program, where we both studied, and where we became friends. I often say that the history of literature is a history of friendships but friendships are as much about debating each other and testing each other’s theories as they are about support. Over the years, Chris and I have certainly debated many issues and have found as many differences as we have agreements, but I can say that I have rarely met a more capable or more intelligent artist.

It was therefore with something like brotherly pride that I asked Chris for an interview to help promote his debut novel, The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney. As it turns out, he was also able to provide me with an interview with the novel’s titular character. Both interviews are included below.

I won’t waste a lot of time here talking about The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney, except to say that it is a romp in the sand, a scream in the dark, and an upthrust middle finger with a Cap’n Crunch decoder ring on it—and that it is a wonderful and strange creation.


Okla Elliott: Your complete works have recently been released under the unsurprising title The Complete Works of Marvin K. Mooney. How complete is the book in terms of your body of work? And in what capacity did you collaborate with Chris Higgs on the project? There seems to be some confusion over what role he played, if any, in the effort. Could you elaborate please?

Marvin K. Mooney: Ain’t nobody collaborating. Chris Higgs or Christopher Higgs or Chrissy Higgs, whatever that character wants to call himself, had no hand in creating my masterpiece. He merely came along and slapped his big fat name across the otherwise beautiful cover, figuring I needed a bump of ethos or some such, which, incidentally, I did not need. But to answer your other question re: the comprehensiveness of the book vis-à-vis my oeuvre, I’d be remiss to omit the way Higgs treated me like Lish treated Carver, axing maybe 200 pages from my original manuscript, give or take. All for the good of marketability, whatever that means.  Now if you call that collaboration, then you and I are working from a different definition of the word.

OE: Chapter 5 of your book uses the number 5 as an organizing principle for the universe, at times quite arbitrarily and playfully. I am reminded of Witold Gombrowicz’s Cosmos, which has at its center the argument that quote traditional unquote narratives arbitrarily select certain events in order to create the illusion of order or purpose in the world (or at least in human life). Are you picking an obviously arbitrary organizational principle in Chapter 5 as an example of how all narratives do this? Or do you just like the number 5? Or both?

MKM: The number five was mother’s favorite number.  When I was a little boy she wouldn’t read me stories at nighttime. Instead, she would wake me up every morning and read to me from page five of various books from her huge secret library. I was never allowed to touch her books or look through her collection.  I never knew the titles of the books, and she never gave me any context, so I could never understand what she was reading to me. Those are some of my favorite memories.

OE: Your book includes many references to cultural theorists, philosophers, painters, and so forth. This tactic is largely seen as a no-no in contemporary fiction. Two questions then: 1) Why is there this turf war among the humanities in the US? 2) Why is it that something authors as wide-ranging as Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Bertolt Brecht, Laurence Stern, James Joyce, Umberto Eco, etceteraetcetera have done is currently considered bad form in US fiction writing?

MKM: For the most part, contemporary American fiction is mediocre, conservative, backward thinking, and yawn-inducing.  You go to the bookshop and you see two kinds of books: the mega-blockbusters and the midlist crap. Neither of those categories are gonna embrace polyglot creativity because neither of them are Art. The former is entertainment and the latter is a particular kind of garbage: products of what I call the midlist feedback loop. Entertainment don’t need creativity because entertainment exists to reinforce prejudice. Art requires creativity because Art exists to challenge prejudice. The midlist feedback loop exists to secure academic positions in midlist production factories, i.e. MFA programs.

OE: Do you have plans to write another book any time soon?

MKM: No. Literature is now an exhausted medium.


Okla Elliott: Okay, you have pointed out elsewhere that Kant teaches us that form is where aesthetic appreciation comes from, and therefore, you argue, content doesn’t matter. If this is the case, then why not use “traditional” content? If it truly doesn’t matter, then why do you insist on both nontraditional form and content? Could you write an avant-garde soap opera?

Christopher Higgs: These are very good questions. Very tricky. They’ve forced me to write and rewrite my response three or four times now. To address your second question first: sure, I could write an avant-garde soap opera. Ryan Trecartin has made a career of it, and to some degree David Lynch accomplished it with Twin Peaks. Like the experimental novel, the experimental soap opera would need to pose a question, such as: how far can we push the legible boundaries of this form. You see, it is a matter of intensities: I dare not say dialectic – goddamn Hegel and his ruinous ways! – wherein what constitutes the category of soap opera must retain enough integrity for it to be legible as a soap opera. You can’t just go all nutscape and expect the result to be identifiable. If your intention is to remain within the prescribed category of soap opera, you must think Derrida not Heidegger. In other words, you must think deconstruction not destruction.

With regard to your first question, I have to call your term “nontraditional content” into question. I think it’s problematic because it assumes that the novel form has traditional content, which doesn’t seem accurate to me. (Not to mention my inclination to challenge the notion of a singular tradition from which the individual talent engages, a la T.S. Eliot or whatever.) That’s why I always put the focus on form: the content in my book is the same content as is in the work of Johnny Updike, Phil Roth, Stephen King, Dan Brown, you name it. Plot, character, setting, theme, all those elements of content, are always already the same. What changes is the form, the arrangement, the way that redundant content is presented.  All writers are using the same content because all writers are using a common language.  In English, for example, we all have the same databank of words at our disposable.  What differentiates writers is the level of their ability or inability to organize that databank of words in different ways.  If you experience my arrangement of our common content as “nontraditional” then I would take that as an enormous compliment because what you are in effect saying is that my arrangement has excited the free play of your imagination and understanding, therefore bringing it back to Kant.

OE: Your book includes many references to cultural theorists, philosophers, painters, and so forth. This tactic is largely seen as a no-no in contemporary fiction. Two questions then: 1) Why is there this turf war among the humanities in the US? 2) Why is it that something authors as wide-ranging as Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Bertolt Brecht, Laurence Stern, James Joyce, Umberto Eco, etceteraetcetera have done is currently considered bad form in US fiction writing?

CH: I think the kind of assemblage I’m doing is antithetical to mainstream contemporary American fiction because it rejects the prevailing wisdom: the myth of mimesis, the falsity of verisimilitude, the idea that truth is containable; instead, what I’m doing exposes the vast interconnectivity of various artistic and intellectual endeavors, which is especially threatening to those groups who pride themselves on specialization, consolidation, and exclusion. In this way, it takes power away from central authority (i.e. those false arbiters of what makes “good fiction”), which will inevitably lead to big frowning from those goons. Look at that list of venerable writers you’ve offered, Brecht, Sterne, Joyce, they have in common not only an inclination for interdisciplinary cross-pollination, but also an affinity for exploring the connectivity of proliferating difference. That’s dangerous shit. Power likes homogeny, not heterogeneity. Power likes clear distinctions. You start making connections outside of your designated field, breaking down borders, challenging signifiers, and all of a sudden you’re an outlaw. All of a sudden you’re banished from the tribe. Most people value their membership in the tribe too much to go challenging the conventions. Me? Not so much.

OE: The number five was mother’s favorite number. When I was a little boy she wouldn’t read me stories at nighttime. Instead, she would wake me up every morning and read to me from page five of various books from her huge secret library. I was never allowed to touch her books or look through her collection. I never knew the titles of the books, and she never gave me any context, so I could never understand what she was reading to me. Those are some of my favorite memories.

CH: Chapter Five was written for our mutual friend, Sara McKinnon, who had the idea to start an online journal dedicated to creative nonfiction, which she was gonna call FIVE. She asked me to give her something for it, but I didn’t really have anything appropriate so basically I Googled the word “five” and started seeing all these crazy associations, which I began jotting down.  Next thing you know, I had all these various factoids. So I did a little arranging and voila.

OE: What should young writers today study or do in order to improve their craft?

CH: Become intellectually polyamorous, cultivate an insatiable curiosity for knowledge and experience in as many different guises as you possibly can, question everything, always challenge, learn that failure and rejection are positive things, subscribe to at least three non-literary magazines in three completely different fields (for me, right now, it’s National Geographic, Juxtapose, and Wine Enthusiast – last year it was Seed, Esquire, and Art in America), forget politics: it has nothing to do with you and any time or energy you invest in it is wasted time and energy you could be using productively to learn and experience and create, do not choose sides, do not agree or disagree, embrace contradiction, watch cinema from as many different countries and time periods as you possibly can, seek out unclassifiable music, spend time in unfamiliar locations, expose yourself to new activities, go to the opera, go to the ballet, go to the planetarium, travel a lot, observe as much as you can, pay attention to the way people talk and the way people listen, eat strange food, watch at least one sporting event but instead of thinking about it as entertainment think about it as narrative, ABR = Always Be Researching, carry a notebook and pen at all times, remember it is more important to ask questions than give or receive answers, seek to open up and never close down, seek to seek, do not seek to find, fall in love with language, think obsessively about language, about words, about sentences, about paragraphs, about the sound of words, the weight of words, the shape of words, the look of words, the feel of words, the placement of words, and most importantly be your biggest advocate, think of yourself as a genius, think of yourself as an artist, think of yourself as a creator, do not despair, do not listen to criticism, do not believe naysayers, they are wrong, you are right, they are death and you are life, they destroy and you create, the world needs what you have to say.

OE: What new projects are you working on? How is the scholarly work you’re pursuing informing your creative work, or vice versa? In short, what can fans expect from Chris Higgs in the coming years?

CH: There’s certainly a reciprocal relationship, a kind of feedback loop, between my scholarly and creative work, where each plays off and builds upon the other. In terms of the scholarly stuff, I’m writing and thinking a lot about new ways to discuss and understand experimental writing, mapping locations of experimental intensities, ‘pataphysics, the posthuman, etcetera. In terms of creative stuff, I’m working on a top-secret experimental collaboration with two of the most significant contemporary American writers living today, which will be groundbreaking and will blow heads clean off. Individually, I’m slowly working on a nonfiction book about the history of American experimental literature, and I’m also in the beginning stages of a new novel, which I plan to work on heavily this summer.

About Okla Elliott

I am currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. I hold a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a legal studies certificate from Purdue University. My work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, as well as being listed as a "notable essay" in Best American Essays 2015. My books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction).
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5 Responses to Okla Elliott Interviews Christopher Higgs (and Marvin K. Mooney)

  1. sivanpoetry says:

    While I thoroughly enjoyed his list of what young writers today should do and study, I stumbled over the idea of ignoring politics. Politics and writing have gone hand in hand for centuries. And as creators with the ability to manipulate language and with an audience whose ears are tuned to us, are we not shirking a responsibility by staying out of politics? Or rather, if a writer is inclined to have a strong political opinion, are they not an idea candidate to express their point of view?

  2. oklaelliott says:

    Sivan, I actually agree with you. This is one of the issues Chris and I have disagreed on for years. He even warned me before he sent the answer to that question that there would be a part of it I wouldn’t like (referring to the injunction to ignore politics). But so be it…

  3. Ken Baumann says:

    Excellent interview. How’d you find Marvin, Okla? My calls have gone unreturned for centuries, millennia.

    • oklaelliott says:

      I lured him into a bar with a first edition of Foucault’s L’Histoire de la folie en l’age classique and then got him drunk. Works every time!

  4. agreed. I respect chris. I think he’s a brilliant writer/thinker and astonishingly well read. and I get where he’s coming from w/ the “ignore politics” bit. but it’s a cynical, myopic, self-defeating viewpoint that bolsters the paradigm I’m guessing he has a problem with; power doesn’t want us to participate.

    if we ignore politics entirely, then we choose to be unaware, and this contradicts the idea of being intellectually polyamorous. in fact, it’s a conscious choice to be ignorant.

    not speaking truth to power — or at minimum, not paying attention to the many ways power shapes the culture we can’t live outside of (no matter how many art books or films we consume) — is passive participation in (and support for) the status quo. it’s like the germans who didn’t speak out against early naziism or the americans who didn’t stand up for civil rights b/c they didn’t believe they had a voice. thing is, we ensure our no-voice if we choose to be ignorant and/or stay mute, and doing this is a political move.

    we don’t have to write about politics necessarily, but we live politics whether we want to or not. politics = power. power is ubiquitous. it’s present in all relationships and central to the makeup of culture. the personal is political in almost every in/action. to believe — and to act as if it’s — otherwise makes no sense in my experience and misses the point of the artist’s role in society.

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