Felix McNamara

Interviewed by Jack Fairman

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Felix McNamara writes essays and fiction, largely on themes of aesthetics, ideology and history. Recent works include The Quaint (2023), Any But None (2022), and Deep Sea, Other Places (2022). He currently teaches at the University of Sydney. An excerpt from a work-in-progress, Diary from the David Beckham International Airport is available on our website.

I’ve done quite a bit of research reading your two books Deep Sea, Other Places and Any But None and your Microwork project, but I don’t know much about what you’re doing for your PhD research?

At the moment the best stuff online with regards to that directly, well, there are some lectures on Vimeo, if you search ‘Corporate Realism Vimeo’ with my name; there’s a Vimeo channel that has a bunch of teaching lectures and seminars… on that channel there’s one that is called ‘Corporate Realism’, which is a core, central part of the PhD research and writing. In relation to the stuff you’ve read; I think when you write it’s hard to really compartmentalise different writing projects fundamentally, I think they all bleed into one, or there’s a lot of reciprocity across things even when it seems like the genre is quite dissimilar, whether it’s fiction vs non-fiction or say, reviews, or prose vs prose poetry; like whatever the particular genre is I think you still end up thinking of it as just being kind of a part of a broader project in thinking and writing. So, I think all of the stuff you’ve read had a relationship between imagery and language, this sort of visual language vs textual language interplay. In the PhD there’s very much that focus but it’s around aesthetics and politics or the politics of aesthetics or aesthetic politics, so it’s still very much the same kind of writing but it’s in a purely non-fictional, essayistic mode. There’s also a difference in academia between writing essays as a literary genre versus, in the PhD format for instance…you can write essayistically but you have to have a certain amount of proof of research in terms of having a scholarly armature and that sort of thing, which means that you can to a certain degree lose something of the essayistic quality that would come out in a book form versus a research paper form, but yes fundamentally I sort of think of all of these things collectively. I’ll always write about aesthetics, and aesthetics in relation to politics, across all of these things; sometimes that’s more explicit, sometimes it’s less explicit, but I think it’s always there and I think in relation to your film project…film is not my primary focus, but it is something I’m interested in, particularly in relation to thinking about text, imagery and ideology I suppose.

Yeah, I certainly got that from reading your work, that you have a keen interest in politics. I remember going to the Tate Modern in London and there was a painting by Salvador Dali which was called Autumnal Cannabalism, and in the blurb it said something like “All works of art are political”. I’m interested to know if you think of your work as inherently political or not?

I think the writing is always concerned with politics in some way, but I always try to avoid being didactic or instructive in telling the reader what to think or even necessarily telling the reader what the author thinks politically, at least in terms of a clear propositional politics, but it’s definitely always concerned with political analysis or an aesthetic analysis of politics. But I think the Surrealists were interesting in this regard because there was a kind of split in the Surrealists in the late 20s and early 30s where I think some of them became hyper-politicised, as far as I can recall from memory…. Not so much Dali but Andre Breton became very involved with pro-Soviet politics. His more or less institutionalised form of Surrealism became overtly political and potentially, in a sense, elitist…but you don’t really think of Surrealism as being elitist now; I think it probably became that way just by the way of the fact that under Breton it was very explicit in what its political program was, and there were a few famous rejections or outcasts from that scene, like I think Georges Bataille and others were excluded on the grounds that they weren’t doctrinaire enough, and then I think later on, at a later stage in Surrealism, Francis Bacon was also rejected by them as well (though on aesthetic grounds), so there is an interest in that movement historically with regards to politics.

Yeah - just to go back to the politics of aesthetics and discussing aesthetics in general, particularly in your book Any But None, but also your Microwork project, there are passages that are aesthetically very abstract and you play with syntax and rhyme and rhythm, and I want to know… where does this come from, and are there any authors or particular works that inform this style of writing?

Yeah so, I think in that one (Any But None) you were reading, it really does go into a kind of prose poetry form more so than anything else. I mean comparing that to stuff I’m doing right now, at the moment, which are basically non-fictional essays where you can’t play with language in that extreme I suppose because you have to maintain a certain level of informational, argumentative clarity at all times…there’s a limit to how much you can play with language, but at the same time, I think in anything you write there’s a compositional, musical drive that you delve into. In a lot of ways whether you do or don’t like reading something is similar to…in terms of the style of the writing as opposed to the ideas or the arguments…I think whether you do or don’t like something is really quite musical and it’s similar to whether or not you do or don’t like listening to something. Even when writing an email there’s compositional intent. I think the more experimental stuff is, if you think of it in terms of a musical, music-metaphor-analogy, if you learn to improvise, that also will benefit your recitational skills. Like any instrument, you have to test the instrument in different ways, so it’s kind of a dialogue between this musical experimentation of language and then what probably seems like a more ordered but still always compositional way of thinking about writing; Apollo vs Dionysus, etc. I’m interested in that relationship between music and writing where people like James Joyce for example, I believe he, as a child, I think he was more interested in being a musician than a writer, and I think he saw writing as sort of a compromise to some degree, and this all would have been built into his religious education with the Jesuits and upbringing where a big part of participation in the Catholic Church would have been in singing and vocal performance…his writing is highly musical in its syntax and lyricism, even by Irish standards, and I think there is a literal connection between music and writing with Joyce in particular. A friend of mine, a writer called Vanessa Onwuemezi, based in London, she published the book Dark Neighborhood with Fitzcarraldo Editions a few years ago, but she I think also, in an interview, I think she mentioned this kind of music-writing connection in relation to her playing the viola as a teenager or something along these lines. I think there’s a relationship between musical composition and writing quite generally, I think. In terms of those projects that you mentioned there was very much a conception of writing more as musical composition than as argumentation, as opposed to when you’re writing cultural criticism for example, which is the way I think about a lot of the non-fiction that I write, I think of it as cultural criticism, largely because that allows you to play with disciplinary boundaries and not be too specific about the genre or the disciplinary definition of the writing. I think there was something else I was going to say on that…Also writers like Anne Carson I think were relevant in that she is half-known as a poet and half-known as a scholar more or less, and I mean she’s been working for a very long time but she kind of became well known, or at least published non-fiction, before she published poetry, especially poetry that got a lot of recognition. So she’s someone who writes both scholarly non-fiction or essays and poetry and prose poetry and I think she’s a writer where her essays or non-fiction can read quite poetically or with a kind of poetic lyricism or a style that you can tell is informed by an interest or a practice of writing poetry…then at the same time, the poetry has a kind of an intellectual weight to it where certain passages actually read more like non-fiction and so there’s a blurring of modes on both sides. I came to her late as well where I think Any But None was maybe actually even already written probably by the time I got into her truly, but she’s definitely someone I think about now in terms of how you frame your writing as a cohesive whole rather than as completely separate fragments torn up by publishing opportunities (or lacks thereof).

I certainly had that impression after reading your work, that there was this cross-pollination between fiction and non-fiction, this blurring of lines. You said, in chapter 9 of Deep Sea, Other Places, you were describing a new genre of film and you found it difficult to label it as being real or surreal, and I kind of find it difficult to describe your work as purely real or unreal, fiction or non-fiction, and you’ve already spoken about this sort of cross-pollination, this kind of research bleeding into fictional work, fictional work bleeding into research… is this a conscious decision to work between the lines in this sort of in-between space, or is this something that just happens, that is just birthed out of the writing itself?

It’s probably hard to answer directly yes or no because I think it probably is on one hand just a natural impulse…But I think in the PhD non-fiction stuff I’m doing it doesn’t deal literally with a question of fiction vs non-fiction, but it does deal with the way reality is framed aesthetically and how that kind of builds fictions in reality…that frames particular narratives of time in terms of the present and of history, which then also means that it suppresses various past and present narratives of history. It does correspond to a question of fiction vs non-fiction in the writing of someone like the philosopher Jacques Rancière whose most well-known book is actually called The Politics of Aesthetics, so he is the key, more or less the key philosopher, on the area of thinking that relates politics with aesthetics together following on from people like Walter Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer et al. But in that book, which is very short, he covers a huge span of history in short excerpts…but I think he talks about the historical difference between facts and fiction (in terms of how they’ve been distinguished), and I think his line is that Aristotle originally proposed the distinction between the logic of poetry and the logic of history where the logic of poetry corresponds more to fiction and logic of history more so to fact; they’re both forms of storytelling but one can ‘play’ with the facts more so than the other, and Rancière basically argues that modernity led to a kind of blurring of the logic of facts and the logic of fiction, and he goes through a lot of literature to illustrate this point. He speaks about how a lot of 19th century literature, that of Tolstoy and Balzac for example, basically dealt with non-fictional material for the sake of novels, and a lot of modern or modernist novels basically deal with documentary evidence for the sake of fiction…so I think Rancière sets up a spectrum for this fiction versus facts discourse where on one end you have positivism where there’s a framework where people say ‘facts are facts’ and ‘science is science’, and there is a very hard barrier between what is a fact and what is not a fact and you can’t politicise such information, it’s just empirically true, you can’t interpret it politically, and on the other end is the opposite argument, which is basically (at least the caricatured) postmodern or deconstructivist tendency where empirical reality and its facts are open to interpretation, these are their own form of fiction, you can basically contrive anything, there’s no stable absolutely unquestionable facts above a certain level of mediation because science has to pass through language in order to be understood, it has to go through an ideological framework to become societal. From memory I believe he sets up those two opposite ends of the spectrum, and his position is essentially in the middle, where he says there’s a form of storytelling involved in the presentation of facts, and so the presentation of facts can still take on a kind of a fictional quality or a cinematic (fictional) quality, but that doesn’t mean there’s no empirical truth…so it’s an anti-nihilistic position at heart. He basically argues for a nuanced approach to this question, and I think it’s probably more or less the territory I (try to) operate in where I’m neither a ‘positivist’ nor a ‘deconstructivist’. It’s also just the way I guess, both the market but also the way institutions, like academic institutions, both the institutions and the free market, referring to you know private or independent publishers; they are quite keen on categorising everything. Things have to be categorised in order to be sold, and that’s become more and more rigid over time where I think there is a push to categorise everything in terms of strict boundaries of genre.

Really?! I thought it would maybe go the other way?

Well, it’s weird, there’s a push and pull in a way where you get things that are categorised as being ‘interdisciplinary’ and then that has its own connotations I suppose. Experimenting with form can be difficult to do when you’re being judged or categorised against specific or sometimes quite harsh categorical labels, where even when something gets categorised then as ‘experimental’, after a certain amount of time, if things are being marketed as being ‘experimental’ they’ll inevitably end up taking on a quality that’s actually not experimental…or it’ll start to be manufactured in a repetitious way. So yeah, the most interesting…not just the most interesting writing but the most interesting forms of anything are always likely playing with the nature of the(ir) form itself, playing with the boundaries of what the nature of form is.

Is that a strong sort of consideration for you when you’re writing, is playing with the form? and by form do you mean the novel, the novella, the feature film, the short film, that kind of thing?

Yeah, yeah.

So, is that something you consider while writing?

Yeah, I think so. I’m definitely conscious of a kind of formal, I guess, looseness or complexity, but then I think in terms of an actual form of writing then, when I’m writing non-fiction I always think of the form being that of the essay, and I think the essay is actually…it’s a very interesting form…there’s an Irish writer, Brian Dillon who wrote a book called Essayism, and the book is a celebratory essay on the essay as a form. I think he kind of speaks to the fact that the essay is both argumentative and precise; as a particular essay develops an argument, it’s trying to be very precise, but at the same time it’s inherently digressive and free-flowing, so there’s this contradiction between precision and digression, and this is something that within academic contexts, the essay as a form, or the literary form of the essay, can run into problems because you’re not supposed to be overly digressive. I mean you’re allowed to be, to a certain degree, but it can’t push too hard, but I think the essay is interesting as a form because it’s actually very loose, similarly to the novel, historically, with which it shares a far greater interrelation than we likely tend to think of at present. I mean it’s weird now because novels are, in the present day…they tend to be very conservative formally where they follow market-driven formulas that is quite easy to replicate and deconstruct. If you think of a novel like Ulysses which included almost every kind of form of writing within itself, it included novelistic writing, essayistic writing (with the stream of consciousness as a kind of essayistic rather than novelistic device potentially), it included the play as a literary form, it includes poetry, so it’s like this Swiss-army knife of massively varied forms. So, I’m interested in both the limits but also the possibilities of form and taking a form seriously, for the sake of playing with it.

Yeah definitely… I’m curious, it seems like there is this freedom, I guess to play with form, and also the different ways of writing stylistically… just talking about aesthetics and the interplay between fiction and non-fiction, it seems like there’s a lot of freedom, and I wonder: how do you constrain yourself or how do you set rules for yourself when there’s this freedom, if that’s an accurate observation?

I think especially with writing, more so than other art forms, you have infinite possibilities, where if you’re only constrained really by imagination, I think it is kind of daunting, and it is also I guess why so many people find writing unenjoyable or difficult. It might relate to things like the phenomena of writer’s block, which maybe does occur in other kinds of practices and we just don’t refer to it the same way or it doesn’t have the same stigma or notoriety, but I think it is partially related to this question.

Did you discover anything while you were working with images? Do images have a life of their own? Do you illuminate this life or is there something else that you focus on?

One thing is that I started to think about writing as always being a kind of exquisite corpse in the sense that, in non-fiction, you’re referencing what people have done before you, always, there’s no ex nihilo.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have one essay that will soon be published by a Routledge Taylor Francis Journal, it should be online in the next two to three weeks or so. The PhD is made up of three sections that replicate a similar mode of essay just with different subject matter. A less developed version of one of the others was published by a Romanian journal at the beginning of this year. And then I do a lot of little things you can find online recently, like reviews and little essay-articles and things like that. Otherwise, I’ve mostly been doing non-fiction…the stuff that’s coming closest to completion has been basically non-fiction recently. I’m very much thinking through a storytelling mode in these works. I think there’s actually more storytelling in the forthcoming thing than there has been in a lot of stuff that I’ve done that’s technically fiction…fiction in that prose/poetic mode is quite light on storytelling, and I think in some ways you can actually get more of a story from an essay than from experimental fiction much of the time.

In terms of the more abstract works you’ve mentioned, that are less concrete, works by like Samuel Beckett or…I haven’t read it but I’ve flipped through Finnegan’s Wake for example and I’ve read a little bit about it, works like that where you’re not sure if there’s any meaning in it or what the meaning of it is… do you think there is concrete value in these works? Is it more of an experience? Is it more visceral? Is it critical? Is it to stir emotions? Or is it all of these things?

I think if I was to try to convince someone to read Finnegan’s Wake, or probably even Ulysses, not even Finnegan’s Wake these days, I have in practice advocated for people to treat them as musical experiences or like…actually someone else suggested this with regards to Joyce: read it the way you read a Cubist painting, or any work of significant visual abstraction. You’re not trying to read it the same way you would read a realist painting, you have to deal with an aesthetic language of Modernism as opposed to a purely figurative language. I think especially with Finnegan’s Wake, where it’s kind of like Ulysses on acid or something, where it’s extremely difficult to understand discrete meaning even on the level of individual sentences and words a lot of the time…it’s really difficult to parse a really basic meaning without going through the abridged footnotes where you can read it with this huge exoskeleton of interpretive information that allows you to understand what particular words mean and then understand what the whole sentence means in a literal sense. So, I think in that way it is just a kind of an aesthetic experience, it’s like listening to music and I think that’s probably why a lot of people listen to Joyce in an audiobook format. I think the audiobooks are quite popular because you don’t have to… if they’re well performed, which they generally are, you don’t actually have to follow everything word for word, you don’t have to be absolutely dedicated to every minor manoeuvre in the plot. Informationally as well there are arguments about Shakespeare scholarship within the novel, through dialogue; you don’t have to follow those entirely in order to enjoy the composition of language and its performance. The only counterpoint I can think to, on this question, is Deleuze’s The Logic of Sense, where there’s an argument that “nonsense” as in like nonsense language, actually does have a certain linguistic “sense” to it…the basic argument that I remember from it is that he argues against a harsh binary between “sense” and “nonsense”…looking at the speech of young babies or the writing of like Lewis Carrol…where in Alice in Wonderland for instance there actually is a kind of meaning that you can deduce from words and sentences that are technically nonsensical on a certain level, I mean it goes into linguistics and there’s a whole more rigorous scientific dimension to all of this which I’m not particularly interested in. The question of enjoying or engaging with something on a sonic level versus a more informational level is definitely an interesting one. There’s definitely works where if you can’t literally parse the meaning, you wouldn’t bother because the composition of language is not such that you can enjoy it in-and-of-itself. But I think Finnegan’s Wake is one where it is in a lot of ways like listening to another language or to music.

Yeah in your Microwork project, these sort of walls of text of these fragments of words, bracketed words, italicised words, numbers and symbols and things like that, for some reason after reading the text proper and then coming across these sort of more abstract collections of words and symbols and things, it was extremely freeing to me, like it freed me up, it freed my soul in some way, it’s almost like it kind of said that there was absurdity all around us…the absurdity of life, the mystery of life. We can pinpoint something quite specific and comment on it but there’s still this kind of background noise going on, this sort of malaise or I don’t know what to describe it as. I got that impression, and I enjoyed how different each sort of collection of these fragments became and I really enjoyed that aspect of it. Just quickly, what’s your writing process like? Like how many hours do you sit down?

It’s a weird thing for me I guess because…not just for me but I think for a lot of people, there’s not that many hours a day you can actually write for. For me there are only a few hours a day you can actually write for productively. That might correspond to 500 words or it might correspond to 1000 words or it might correspond to more than that, it kind of depends a bit on the genre or the form. That is the place where I think genre does make a big difference, whether you’re writing something that needs to include footnotes, or something that is more sonic and compositional. So basically, it’s only 2-3 hours a day and then like, the weird thing then is if 2 hours is productive, or even if 1 hour is productive, in the kind of world we live in, your mind tells you that that’s not a day’s work, that that’s not right in some way. In terms of working towards a deadline, you might be productive by doing 1-2 hours a day, 5 days straight. Generally, I find writing that little in terms of hours, actually does prove productive. In terms of an externally placed deadlines for publishing, I don’t think I’ve ever missed one, so there’s a difference or a clash between the enforced expectations of the 9 to 5, or now the 9 to 6 or whatever, depending on what field you’re working in…that really doesn’t apply very well to writing at all. It’s not possible for it to be that without it being completely unproductive. And there’s the same thing with teaching, which is the main other thing that I do, which is common for most people writing anything, unless you’re like a full-time journalist or a staff writer or those kinds of roles, and even they, more and more, tend to balance multiple roles. Basically, writing doesn’t really conform at all to those expectations. Teaching doesn’t either, where a few hours of teaching can be really tiring and can constitute a day’s work. These things don’t really correlate to a conventional workday, but yeah, I find it’s best to…just on a practical level I use word counts as a daily or weekly or as day-to-day sort of schedule as opposed to a number of hours because a certain amount of hours can be really productive or unproductive. It’s sort of like fishing, like it’s not a…it’s definitely like fishing or mining or something where it’s not a kind of 1:1 relationship with productivity…it’s like a…you know there are certain flourishes and then a lot of dead periods as well, and you just have to get used to that I suppose.

In terms of the process, you sort of stick at it right? You keep writing even though you go through those dry patches, you still sit down at the desk or wherever and you still just write for that hour no matter what, that kind of thing…

Yeah, I think that part, getting first drafts of anything, I find is always way easier than the editorial process. It should be the opposite way, and I guess it depends on who your editor is and that sort of thing. But basically in the editorial process, you have to go through so many, you know, often fairly mundane or mechanical revisions to the thing that…you know in its first instance, when you produced the first draft, that experience is incredibly creative, but then the editorial process is really not a creative one in a lot of ways, and it does ultimately…it makes the whole thing possible and much better in all sorts of ways, but the process in-itself is more akin to like, engineering or something…cleaning, I suppose. You know I’m not very precious about you know…I’m very unprecious in that process with the editor, almost to the extent that I am probably too much of a pushover sometimes with letting them change things…I just want the process to move on. The hardest thing in that process though, is the fact that you have to keep returning, over sometimes quite a long period of time, to the same thing that you’ve been looking at for ages, and it doesn’t change that much, and you have to read the same thing over and over. If you read anything or watch anything too many times, or listen to anything, there’s a neurological sensation where you completely lose the ability of appreciation, and getting to that stage as a part of an editorial process can be kind of depressing, or not depressing but it can be sort of numbing. But when the thing does eventually manifest, regardless of whether that’s printed or online or both, there’s always reward. Even if you can’t bear to really read the words anymore, there is a deep reward in the thing manifest.