Saturday, February 13, 2010

Stephen R. Donaldson's "gradual interview"

It's not often that a fan can interact with an author he admires, but Stephen R. Donaldson, who gained fame in the 1970s and 80s for his first and second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever trilogies, has a website wherein he regularly responds to fan questions. Most authors wouldn't bother, but Donaldson, despite being in the middle of writing a Thomas Covenant tetralogy, budgets enough time to address many of the inquiries he receives through his website. One section of the site is, in fact, devoted to what he has termed a "gradual interview," i.e., a written give-and-take with fans that has been slowly unfolding over the course of time. It begins in 2004 and continues to the present. Donaldson, who is in his sixties, averages about two to four questions per day.

I began reading the gradual interview during the latter stages of Mom's cancer, and found strange comfort in reading the thoughts of one of my favorite authors. Donaldson is, predictably, a private individual, so he shies away from questions that are overly personal. He also evinces understandable irritation when different people ask the same question, but he never allows his irritation to boil over. Far from doing anything that might alienate his fans, he does his best to remain civil and patient, and will even revisit certain "repeat" questions if he feels they deserve more nuanced answers than the ones he has originally given.

Donaldson is quite frank about his limits as an author. He says, for example, that writing "dialect" and "doing humor" are nearly impossible for him, and that he's not at all a visual person. He's also not afraid to address readers' confusion about this or that concept or plot point (though he discourages unsolicited criticism-- an attitude I appreciate*). The fans have, over the several years' worth of questions that I've read, asked many of the story-related questions that I had wanted to ask. Donaldson's replies to these questions have ranged from prickly to humorous to evasive, but the fact that he answers them at all is remarkable. Thanks to the interview, fans have learned that Donaldson considers his Gap series (a science fiction pentalogy) his best literary achievement, despite its failure to sell. He chafes at the way publishers pigeonhole their authors in much the same way that actors resent being typecast. He has also offered aspiring writers plenty of writerly advice throughout the interview, but one of the questions that irritates him is "How/Where do you get your inspiration?"-- a question that can only be answered in a subjective way, which both makes the answer useless to anyone else, and requires Donaldson to explain a process that is fundamentally unexplainable for him.

Thus far, I've read a little more than halfway through the gradual interview, which puts me in the early months of 2007. For those of you who know Donaldson's work, I highly recommend the interview; I'd also recommend the interview to others who, despite not knowing Donaldson or his oeuvre, might nevertheless desire some small glimpse of a writer's inner life. Donaldson has done his best to guard his privacy, but his answers still reveal much about the man.

*On April 19, 2006, Donaldson wrote:

There is no such thing as "valid" or "constructive" criticism--unless the person on the receiving end asks for it. If the recipient doesn't ask, he/she isn't, well, receptive; and the criticism is wasted. So it follows that what people choose to call "valid" or "constructive" criticism exists for the benefit of the critic, not for the good of the person being criticized. It serves the ego of the critic.

A little context: Donaldson is here referring primarily to criticisms of a work that are directed at the author after a work has been published. I don't think he's seriously contending that there's simply no such thing as valid or constructive criticism. The validity and constructiveness of any given criticism has, at least in my opinion, as much to do with the tenderness of the authorial ego as it does with the critic's personality and motivation.

That said, I side with Donaldson's general claim: I, too, often resent unsolicited criticism. And unsolicited advice. As someone who prefers to keep his own counsel when it comes to the things that matter in life, I've often had to swallow my ego and practice patience while listening to somebody tell me something I already know.


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