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Clancy Martin Tells the Truth Even When He Lies

SS: You’ve translated books by Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, but you’ve also said that Georges Bataille is one of your primary influences. Bataille wrote philosophy and fiction, as well as anthropology. I was wondering what about Bataille impresses you so much.

CM: Certainly Bataille was a hero of mine for the reasons you just mentioned. I can’t compare myself, obviously, with these guys, but the great European intellectuals I admire of the 20th century didn’t just write philosophy. They were philosophers, but they were also interested in psychology, and they wrote fiction, and many of them wrote plays, and they wrote criticism for newspapers, and they did all these things. I’ve always admired that, and I’ve always thought that the humanities in this country would be so much stronger if we demanded that of our humanities professors. Because what is “research,” really, in philosophy? It’s a joke. What you’re doing is writing, and if you’re writing, then don’t you have an obligation to write to many different audiences, and not to write to just five other guys who are interested in the question of individuation, or something?

What I think I learned specifically from Bataille more than from any other writer is that the secret of doing your best work is asking yourself your most painful questions. He thought that the deeper the level of your confession, the more ferocious you could be in terms of your self-interrogation, the more intimate you could be with the ugliest aspects of yourself, the better your writing would be. We can all only do this so much, but I really try to follow that discipline. When I talked to [Noon editor] Diane Williams about my work — like, “Why did you pick these weird jewelry stories?” — she always said the same thing: “It was because there was this anguish of self-laceration and this anguish of confession in them, and that was the voice that was driving. The jewelry was just a vehicle.” So, I think that’s what I learned from Bataille. He wasn’t afraid to ask himself any question.

SS: You’ve published in every issue of Noon since 2006. I find the stories in there comparable to anything that you’d find in Harper’s or The Paris Review or The New Yorker, but outside of serious literary circles it’s relatively unknown.

CM:  I agree. I think that the stories in Noon can go toe to toe with stories in the very best places publishing short fiction in the world. And I know a lot of very smart people who hold the exact same opinion, including people high up in the world of publishing. I think in the fullness of time, Noon will be much more widely known than it is today, when people look back on this period of literary history. Diane Williams has an incredible ear, and she has an eye for all different kinds of stories. This is a cliché, but I think she has this kind of ear for authenticity. If there’s one thing that she taught me — writing for Diane was really my MFA — it’s how to carve all of the bullshit out of my writing, all of the literary pretension, any kind of fake word, any kind of cheap trick, anything that didn’t sound original.

SS: There’s a recurring theme in the reviews of your book, which is reviewers feeling like it’s fitting or clever to mention how much they think the book is going to sell. There’s a New York Times review that read, “All in all, it’s a winning combination. How To Sell will sell.” Newsweek had something very similar: “Selling How To Sell probably won’t be too hard.” And there are others. Do you think this is an unfair angle to take when talking about the book — almost characterizing it as something that’s not only about slick salesmen, but that’s also sort of a slick, flashy product in and of itself?

CM: I totally agree with you, of course. When I wrote the book, I was just praying that it would find a publisher. I remember telling my wife, and she remembers this, too, at the time we owed twenty thousand dollars on our car, and our dream was that we could get somebody to pay twenty thousand dollars for the book so that we could pay off our car. And then when people come out and say, “Oh, what slick packaging, blah blah blah.” I mean, it's total bullshit. And it’s also just this incredibly superficial observation because, as you say, it’s like, “Oh, won’t this be cute? Isn’t this cute, coy remark?” Reviewers see How To Sell: A Novel, and think it’s going to be so clever to say that this is about how to sell a novel, when, in fact, it’s about the most facile, superficial, idiotic remark you could possibly make.

SS: You could characterize How To Sell as sort of an exposé on the jewelry business. Did you intend it to be that?

CM: Well, I was writing what I knew. I didn’t intend it precisely to be an exposé on the jewelry business, but I started writing the stories when I was still in the jewelry business, and a lot of the stories in one way or another found themselves re-written into the novel. Then, the more I got into the novel, the more I realized that the jewelry business was kind of a metaphor for something I was trying to say about a particularly confused idea of the American Dream. It wasn’t just for autobiographical reasons that I made the narrator a Canadian. It’s also because a lot of Canadians have this crazy idea of what it is to be an American, like you’re just going to go to America and, like all Americans, you’re going to deal in all these shady practices and then, like all Americans, you’re going to get rich. Canadians are always sort of congratulating themselves, patting themselves on the back, saying, “Oh, well, we’re not Americans because we don’t care about money, so we’re really honest,” and blah blah blah.

SS: It seems funny to me that people are surprised about the kind of corruption that goes on in the jewelry business. I always figured that most retail is like that. Do you think the jewelry business is any more corrupt than any other type of high-end retail?

CM: No, I really don’t. I was recently having lunch with a guy who owns a very successful hedge fund in Texas, and he’s a real honest guy — they were never into derivatives or sub-prime mortgages and all these other things because they were just really smart, honest guys. I started telling him about some of the latest scams in the jewelry business that I had learned about when I was out in Vegas writing this article for Harper’s, and he stopped me and said, “Clancy, you’re not talking about the jewelry business, you’re talking about the world. It’s not the industry — it’s business itself.” And he said it as though he were talking to a child, like, “Haven’t you realized this yet?” Of course, it is in a way funny that people are like, “Oh my God! Look at the jewelry business!” when, in fact, it’s this way in every industry.


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