Michael Silverblatt’s voice has been described as “so hypnotic, so compelling, that it apparently has prevented people driving on the LA freeways from committing acts of road rage.” What those drivers are listening to, more likely than not, is Silverblatt in conversation with an author. He hosts Bookworm, a thirty-minute interview program on the Los Angeles public radio station KCRW that has been one of the last bastions of serious literary conversation for a mass audience. Since he started the program in 1989, he has been cajoling writers to disclose insights not only into their work but into the ineffable mysteries of literature. His ambition, he has said, is for these conversations “to be as rich and rewarding and resonant as a dream.”
Over its hundreds of episodes, Bookworm has become an archive of intellectual history: a record of what some of the most important writers of the twentieth century (Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, John Ashbery, Salman Rushdie) and the twenty-first (Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, Valeria Luiselli) thought about their books. Silverblatt comes to each interview having read the entirety of a guest’s published work but never prepares questions or plans out a conversation ahead of time. Spontaneity is the animating force of Bookworm. “You get the sense that two people in front of microphones are starting to dance with each other,” he told the journalist Colin Marshall. During his conversations, if the guest is across from him, he claims he never breaks eye contact.
The interviews that emerge from this method are unusually candid. Silverblatt has gotten Mary Gaitskill to engage with past criticisms of her work and argue that some critics have misread her (her fiction is not “cruel,” she insists), Morrison to reflect on the politics of love, and W.G. Sebald to admit he likes to read scientists more than novelists. His queries flit between the oracular and the bewildering. In a recent conversation he told Edmund White that he thinks his 2020 novel, A Saint from Texas, is about “the gap between the human being as a meat animal and the human being as a holy spirit.” What could that even mean, you ask at first, but then the conversation unfurls and White explains how he modeled the minds of both a saint and a sinner—two twins, one who devotes her life to the cloth and another to the decadence of Parisian society. White ping-pongs between his admiration of Stendhal, his hope that Simone Weil might be sainted, and an anecdote about how “there are more swingers in convents” than one might think.
I have never lived in Los Angeles, but Silverblatt has been a presence in my own self-directed literary education for years. Like many listeners, I fixated first on his voice, which carries a gnostic air—a muffled, learned, and sometimes extravagant manner of speech, filtered through his Brooklyn upbringing and autodidactic erudition. This can be mistaken for pretentiousness or snobbery. An unnamed writer and former guest who talked to Lynell George for a 1997 Los Angeles Times profile of Silverblatt admitted that they were “a little scared of the guy.” Why? “I don’t understand half the things that he says. And the more arcane and cryptic he can be, it seems, the more he can throw people off base and get the upper hand. There’s a real Vincent Price element.” In the same profile, George remarked that “the more knotty, the more oblique and metaphorical the text, the more heartily welcomed by the Bookworm. Maybe because the knowledge feels unearthed? Or because the fruits have roots in something rich and real, and so—like lessons in life—they feel precious and hard won?”
That characterization was not quite fair. Since the show’s early years Silverblatt has made an effort to open the venue up to writers of all stripes, from mainstream figures like Anne Rice and Maurice Sendak to avant-garde ones like Fanny Howe and John Keene. “The Bookworm believes,” Silverblatt told the Los Angeles Times in 1991, “that writers are utterly different from other people. They see things differently, they remember things differently. For me, there are phrases that have lodged in my mind like splinters, hundreds of phrases.” He wanted to know “how those phrases came to be.” What unites his guests is their willingness in conversation to go past the imperative of publicity, to talk about their writing in a way that seems almost private and intimate, to learn about their own work alongside the interviewer until it seems novel again. He once told David Foster Wallace that “we’re entering a world that needs to be made strange before it becomes familiar.”
In the editor’s note to a new collection of Silverblatt’s interviews, published by The Song Cave, the poet Alan Felsenthal writes that Silverblatt “does not regard himself as a literary critic, but rather as a reader, whose charge is to put into words the qualities he loves in what he’s read.” But listening to his interviews, I’ve wondered whether criticism and interviewing are so easily distinguished. Both are ways of reading that involve sketching the contours of a writer’s public record.
The interview is often considered a marginal form compared to the review or the essay: Claude Lévi-Strauss called it a “detestable genre” beset by the “intellectual poverty of the age,” which is another way of saying that it is rare for an interview to do more than water down its subject for commercial consumption. The beauty of Bookworm is that it elevates conversation—the dance between two minds—into an intellectual pursuit. “It’s not respectful to talk to a writer without knowing the work,” Silverblatt told a Cornell audience in 2010, “although that’s what’s done on Charlie Rose or on Fresh Air. Someone else reads it and gives the list of questions to the host, who doesn’t have the time to do that reading because the program’s on every day. How could they?” If you go on tour, he warned the prospective writers in the room, most of your hosts won’t have read the book itself. “Until you get to me.”
Before Silverblatt was the Bookworm, he was the child of Russian and Polish émigrés to Flatbush, Brooklyn. He enrolled at SUNY Buffalo in 1969 with the intention of studying math to satisfy his parents’ wishes. But he soon came under the influence of his writing teachers John Barth and Donald Barthelme—whom he counts as his literary fathers—and abandoned his filial obligations for a life of letters. SUNY Buffalo in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a hub for influential writers and theorists: some of Silverblatt’s other teachers were J.M. Coetzee, Michel Foucault, René Girard, and Robert Creeley. It was a high time for campus politics, too, in the shadow of the 1968 protests. Silverblatt’s experience at Buffalo, at the time rich in resources as a result of Nelson Rockefeller’s plan to reinvigorate the state’s public universities, revolved around sit-ins and seminar rooms charged with the possibility of a different, more liberated world.
Living in what he called a state of constant “intellectual penetration” made him desperate to be a writer and thinker. He started a Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins but left after a year. “I was not a scholar,” he told Kristy Davis in a 2009 profile. “But I was a passionate student…I thought I wanted to be a writer, but that really didn’t turn out to be my gift.” After dropping out he made his way to Los Angeles to work on a movie he had coauthored with a friend, but it never got made.
His early years in Los Angeles were, by his own account, bleak: “he was broke, jobless, and drinking too much,” in Davis’s words. He credits a support group, and the friendship he found there, with turning his life around and helping him get a job in public relations for actors. It was through that work that he found himself at a dinner party with KCRW’s general manager, Ruth Seymour (née Hershman), who had just returned from a trip to Russia. Silverblatt recalls a publicity manager at the dinner saying, “I don’t fucking believe it. There’s Mikey Silverblatt from Brooklyn and Ruthie Hershman from the Bronx and they’re talking fucking Russian literature.” At the end of the night, impressed with Silverblatt’s “encyclopedic and passionate” energy, Seymour asked if he wanted to do radio.
He wasn’t sure at first. But that night, he later recalled, he “began to realize” that his PR job “was also preventing me from reading…I hadn’t had a literary conversation in months and months and months. I thought I was going to die.” He agreed to become the Bookworm. For the first five years he hosted the show on a volunteer basis, before a Lannan Foundation grant gave him the resources to devote himself to it full-time.
Early on, Bookworm was more self-consciously a radio program, and in the first few episodes he sometimes hosted conversations not just with authors but with guests from the wider literary world: publishers, representatives from arts organizations. It didn’t take long, though, for the format to take shape: each episode is devoted, usually, to the work of a single author, looking both at a new work and at their career to that point. Within a few years Silverblatt’s reputation as a formidable conversationalist was becoming widely known. In the middle of a 1991 interview with Joyce Carol Oates, she told him that he was “the reader that all writers postulate but never dare even assume exists.”
Bookworm: Conversations with Michael Silverblatt comprises interviews with twelve subjects, the earliest from 1992 and the most recent from 2013. Part of Silverblatt and Felsenthal’s selection principle was to focus on “the glorious voices of the dead.” “We began,” Felsenthal writes, “with our sense of the burden of the past, voices that will never be heard again and that will only be the dim intuitions of evidence of what it was like to live in an age defined by its writers.” They chose Morrison, Sontag, Ashbery, Sebald, Wallace, John Berger, Octavia Butler, Joan Didion, Carlos Fuentes, William H. Gass, Grace Paley, and Stephen Sondheim.
What makes the conversations worthwhile is not just the historical significance of the subjects but the way Silverblatt gets them to open up. Ashbery visited four times, and in the last of those conversations Silverblatt prompts him to give an intriguing definition of a poem: “a flat rendering of feelings or experiences.” The collection is dotted with similar moments of artistic and personal disclosure: Wallace tells us that he dislikes the kind of literary journalism in which “the East coast guy returns home and sneers at the state fair” or “the egghead goes on a cruise and sneers at the gross consumption”; Butler reflects on the vexed relationship between genre and literary fiction (“it’s just a matter of people wanting me to be one thing and one thing only”); Paley explains why she prefers short fiction to the novel. “I tried to write a novel at one point, and I saw that it was disgusting, it was terrible,” she says. “I have all of these interests in the political world and in the historical world. Less in the psychological world.”
Some of the interviews are records of friendships. Sontag, who counted Silverblatt a friend after they met when he was in college, seemed to believe in books the same way he did. Fiction, she posits in a 2000 interview, should be understood as “an education of the heart, an education of the sympathies…. That’s why we need novels. That’s why we go back and reread novels, to keep ourselves alive humanly and morally, so that we don’t shrivel up.” The sentiment that writing is a matter of emotional and moral gravity recurs throughout the collection. Such claims can seem familiar (Silverblatt knows his show sometimes sounds like “gauze and fairy dust”), but the conversations with Sontag and others never veer into pure pretension or publicity. They are more vulnerable. In the same 2000 conversation, Sontag expresses worry about the way a writer ages and emphasizes that she thinks her early work should not define her.
Elsewhere the conversations burrow deep into the work at hand. Take this exchange from Silverblatt’s interview with Gass about The Tunnel (1995), his novel about the mental life of a professor of Nazi history who starts digging a tunnel under his house, which Silverblatt read “in its entirety four and a half times”:
Silverblatt: I wanted to discuss this tunnel, which as you suggest is the inside of a mind. But because the inside of the mind has its wrinkled passages, it too is replicated in the bowel. We’ve got in this book a tunnel under the house, a tunnel inside the head, and a digestive tunnel—
Gass: That’s right.
Silverblatt: —that’s processing.
Gass: Every tunnel, you’ve got that.
Silverblatt: As a result, everything is happening, every world: in the world, in the mind, and in the body.
Gass: Yes. In other activities as well. That is, tunnels are not always escape tunnels or hiding tunnels. Sometimes you dig for ore. You dig for gold. Some of what presumably you might come out with is something rare and valuable as well.
The exchange moves from Freud to modernism and then to the embodied act of reading itself:
Silverblatt: I did experience this book in a very physical way. There are certain physicalities that are always considered okay for novels. Crying, which along with protracted reading, results in red eyes. Laughter is thought to be okay. But I sneezed over this book and farted, and there are bits of food stain on it, and so the book, in its way, becomes a record for each reader of his passage through the tunnel. It seems like a book meant to be lived in and to invoke responses that are very visceral and nonliterary.
Gass: Ideally, I would love to have it that way. Whether it succeeds in doing that, I don’t know. Certainly one of the problems, as I was mentioning earlier, of literature in general is to reach the material, to be what we envy, as Rilke envied Rodin having his hands in it. Of course, then the painter or the sculptor says, “I want ideas. I want—” He has to reach out from the material to mind, and literature, which is so conceptual, has to reach for the world in the most immediate and telling way.
Silverblatt’s interviews often convey his optimism about the prospect of spending a life reading with others. But elsewhere the show has a more dire pitch, a feeling that this shared life is shrouded in failure and waning in relevance. “We are losing our literature,” Berger tells him:
we are losing our ability to communicate amongst ourselves about our own heritage, that we have been dispossessed…. I, like you, get accused at times of that terrible word, conservatism. I want to say the desire to conserve literature is not the same as political conservatism.
The show is, in some ways, a bulwark against that loss. At Cornell Silverblatt said he hoped the show combats what Hans Magnus Enzensberger called “second-order illiteracy,” reading as a functional act for parsing restaurant menus and instruction manuals. “You could listen to television, radio, read newspapers and most magazines…and never encounter something you don’t understand,” Silverblatt said. “Do you understand what a nightmare that makes life?”
Since last spring, Bookworm has been on hiatus as Silverblatt takes an extended leave of absence. KCRW announced the hiatus quietly on Twitter after some fans wondered why the show’s feed had gone quiet, and the responses illustrated the ardor the show inspires. (“I miss him terribly,” wrote a motorcyclist. “He was my headset voice on so many desert bike rides.”) This collection feels like the beginning of an appreciation of Silverblatt’s efforts to make reading less solitary. “I try not to think about whether literature, literature of the highest aspiration and the highest seriousness, still has an audience,” Sontag told him. “I know it does. You and I are not alone.”