RRC: That gap in Sam’s view of the world leads him into different kinds of problems than the gap in Frank’s view, doesn’t it? You say you weren’t after a win-lose confrontation. But I think about the power of the closing pages of the novel, with their Proustian evocation of memory and time through Frank’s point of view. The deep intuitions of meaning that are at the core of Frank—however badly they fail him—have a power that almost nothing in Sam has. When something like that does exist in Sam, he either doesn’t understand it or he actively tries to extinguish it—like when you have him go back to an early memory of his mother, and of loving baseball as a child, a memory he’s trying to flee. On the other hand, there’s the beautiful passage, which will appeal to the neo-Luddites among us, when Frank recalls the sound of tickets at the baseball game being torn, and thinks how disappointing it is that it’s been replaced by a digital beep. Sam constantly tries to break experience down into the quantifiable, while denying that there’s anything more than that. I felt at the end, Frank’s view—the view of poetry, tragedy, and memory—does win. But maybe that’s just me wanting it to.
CB: I’m probably more sympathetic to that view than Sam’s, ultimately. It’s important you mention memory. One of the huge differences between the two is the use to which they put the past. Sam has a very instrumentalist idea about the past. The past is where you gather the data that will tell you about the future. And you test the truth of your beliefs by making predictions and seeing whether they come true, so in that sense, meaning is embedded in the future. For Frank, meaning is embedded in the past. He’s nostalgic. He’s constantly referring to the past—not for any particular lessons, but as the place where real life was, the real thing, the thing we’ve lost now. The root of things.
Neither of these views, taken to its extreme, is a proper view of the world. There’s another view that would say that meaning is in the present—that it’s what we’re going through in any given moment. In the end, there’s probably some way of balancing all of those. You know, so that you don’t become completely amnesiac about the past or use it merely as raw material for getting you to the future. But you also don’t become so stuck in the past that you can’t live the life that you’re in now.
RRC: You’re the editor of Harper’s, but the picture of journalism in what your novel calls our “digital churn” isn’t exactly pretty. There’s a great passage where Waxworth’s editor cautions him against trying to be a writer. He says, “Three-quarters of our readers can’t tell the difference between good writing and bad writing, and the rest actively prefer bad prose.” What are you saying about the state of journalism? Is this the best of times for journalism, or the worst of times?
CB: There are various things in the book that have real-world analogs. The Interviewer, the magazine where Sam works, is a longstanding legacy publication that has been bought by a social-media billionaire, and that has a lot of similarity to Chris Hughes buying the New Republic. Of course, that eventually blew up in his face, and he sold it. None of the novel is based on Harper’s at all. People who know the magazine will know it is the opposite of being in the daily digital churn. We put out a monthly magazine, and that’s pretty much all we do. Nobody is doing verticals of any kind with Harper’s, and no one is putting out two posts a day and all that.
When I started out in literary journalism, the people I came up with weren’t doing a lot of hard reporting. The ambition was not to be Bob Woodward, but Joan Didion. They wanted to write beautiful stuff that would last, and they wanted to speak big, important truths about the way we live. They weren’t about getting a scoop or uncovering something. That work of hard journalism, reportorial work, is extremely important, and I think we remain in a good place as far as it’s concerned. A lot of that still happens and a lot of it happens online. So in that sense, I don’t know if it’s the best of times, but we’re in a pretty good place.
But the people who went into the field with ambitions to create lasting, meaningful works that happened to be built out of reported facts—people who wanted to write great New Journalism–type literature—a lot of those people wound up writing for various online-only publications in a way that, I think, was really pretty destructive, both socially and personally. It warped people. So there’s that element too, in my novel and in real life. I wouldn’t say that I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Gawker. But I saw a lot of people who were really talented and ambitious—ambitious in the right way, in terms of caring about quality—who wound up using all their chops and their intelligence and their passion on writing snarky commentary about news stories that would be forgotten in two days. At a certain point, you lose sight of what made you want to do this thing in the first place.
RRC: Your book is haunted by the prospect of writing unfulfillment. Margo wants to be a poet, but she’s not doing it. Frank has this “big book” he keeps not writing. Sam should be writing, but he’s actually just plagiarizing from his own earlier work in order to meet deadlines. Your novel suggests that the ranks of young people who go to New York and try to find their destiny includes a lot of casualties.
CB: Read Balzac—you’ll see that in Lost Illusions. That’s part of why I call the first section of the novel “The Young Man From the Provinces,” in a knowing way. We tend to have a kind of presentism, a sense of exceptionalism about our own moment—the feeling that there’s all these unprecedented things happening. But even the stuff I just talked about, the stuff I’m saying that the internet did to a lot of my peers, that has always happened to smart, ambitious young people. This is why it’s good to be a little more like Frank, to study history and read literature that’s more than six weeks old.
RRC: Baseball plays an important role in your novel, as part of that philosophical tug of war between Frank and Sam, and there’s a lot of wonky analytics stuff at the core of your story. But there’s also this sense of baseball as the game of life. What fascinates you about baseball?
CB: There’s obviously something about baseball that is ripe for the kind of mythologizing that Frank does. It has gotten more of that than any other sport. One huge thing is the role luck plays. You can hit the ball square on, as hard as you can, and happen to hit it right at someone—or you can have a broken-bat blooper that barely clears the infield but wins the game. There are 162 games over a season—ten times as many as football—and over that long season, the Sam Waxworths of the world say, all that luck will average out, and you’ll have an enormous amount of data at the end that allows you to judge the underlying quality of players in some objective way that isn’t context specific. That’s why it’s so good for the analytics crowd. At the same time, on the individual level, for a single at-bat in a single game, the role of luck is enormous. That tension is really interesting to me.
RRC: I think about how almost all of baseball, in terms of batting anyway, exists in that little gap between not getting a hit eight times out of ten, which makes you a poor hitter, and not getting a hit seven times out of ten—which makes you a great hitter! Baseball is this mythic American game, and yet the amount of failure that you are required to embrace as a player is a great antidote to the American ideology of success. I think your novel addresses this paradox brilliantly.
CB: William Gaddis—I keep coming back to him—wrote an essay, “The Rush for Second Place,” which incidentally also appeared in Harper’s. Dale Carnegie shows up in a lot of Gaddis’s novels, and this American obsession with success was very, very interesting to him. Gaddis himself spent the first chunk of his writing life on The Recognitions; it was his first novel, and he was already about thirty-five when it came out. The book sank without a trace, and Gaddis basically understood himself as a failure for the rest of his life. His next book, JR—which took him twenty years to write, because he had to spend that time making a living—is a wonderful study of the theme of failure in a culture like America’s that’s so obsessed with success.
RRC: Last question. As a baseball fan, are you a stat head or a poet?
CB: I’m kind of both. Growing up, my twin brother and I—the book is dedicated to him—were obsessed with the Yankees teams from the 1950s. That was because we grew up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when the Yankees had one of their few periods of truly sustained mediocrity. They were really bad teams. But they had so much history. So, we loved the history of the game in a way that is very much in that Frank mode. We romanticized it—it was this lost thing, that we had not seen Mickey and Yogi and Whitey. But at the same time, we were really interested in the stats side. And our favorite book was the Baseball Encyclopedia, which is pure statistics. We would look players up and learn important things, like how many doubles Ducky Medwick hit in 1934. Or whatever.