From the TCJ Archives

The Jules Feiffer Interview


FEIFFER: As I said to you yesterday, because of my own association with Eisner, and affection for him—it’s really much greater than affection, because in some ways my career begins with him, and my career before I worked with him began with him—I found I couldn’t read your piece [editorial in The Comics Journal #119], because it was just too upsetting to me.

But I started by reading this first letter by whomever [Gerard Jones in Journal #121], and then Fiore’s response to you afterwards which I thought was actually the most impressive. I guess what I find disturbing about all this goes beyond what you wrote: there is something about the nature of criticism in America which I find comics criticism imitating in its worst forms. At least what I read in terms of your response to Jones, I see more about the Eisner criticism industry than about Eisner, and that seems right in keeping with American criticism, whether it’s in literature or theater. It’s about each other.
And what reviewers review are each other’s reputations. Partly that’s to enhance one’s own, and each other’s points. And the work in question, it becomes clear, is secondary. It’s essentially raw material to prove that the other guy is a schmuck and that you’re a lot smarter than he is. I think that very honorable careers, of people who’ve established themselves and done good work over a period of years, and where the European artists who would still be honored, are regularly disposed of here like fast food or old cars, because we have no further use for them, because we’re fast track, because too much has been written about this guy already, and I can’t get in on that, so what I can do is take the people who’ve liked him apart, because I’ve got my guy. And this internecine critical warfare lays waste to some serious people who’ve done serious work, whether it’s Will Eisner, Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, or Arthur Miller. I’ve seen too much of it, and it really appalls me.

There’s no question that, as the letter writer—Jones, I guess it is—said that the serious critical work can be done in counter to the applause Eisner has gotten. Although why there’s a rush to that, when it took so many years to get that applause, and so many years to get that notice, and the guy was unheard of for such a long period of time, why, now that he’s been recognized for hardly even a decade, there has to be rush to critical judgment, and let’s bury the schmuck, he’s getting too much praise, or too much attention. Only in America.

Why one has to look at Eisner’s work and say "Was there Hemingway in there? Where’s the Fitzgerald in here? Where’s"—for Christ’s sake—"Proust in here? Where is Joyce? Where are his influences?" In fact, Eisner was, while working in the cartoon mode, was well aware and influenced by Ring Lardner. There’s a touch of Lardner in some of those stories. Certainly O. Henry. And much that was going on in movies in addition to the popular movies, in the German Expressionist movies. I mean, there’s the smack of Fritz Lang in his work I’ve written about before. But he knew a lot about this stuff, and the reason he chose movies to be inspired by, as opposed to what was going on in fiction, is the obvious one: that it was the closest thing that came to comics. It was a popular medium. It was a visual medium. It was what everybody saw, what everybody was moved by. And like comics, it was a sister form that was also considered vulgar. This was before anybody was writing, before there was mass criticism in favor of movies. Before Partisan Review discovered movies, before anyone had ever heard of Manny Farber, before the New Wave critics, before Truffaut or Godard were writing seriously about movies, before anybody thought Howard Hawks was an artist, before anybody thought that John Ford was anything but a commercial director.

So Eisner was not going after what he thought was a serious form. When he borrowed from movies, he borrowed from movies, because it was in the air to borrow from movies. As it was in the air for me, when I was writing for him, to borrow from radio, I mean, these were the norms. And part of the norm of American commercial writing—and we’re talking commercial here, because if Eisner wanted to be anything else but commercial he would have gone into another business—is sentiment. If you’re not dealing in sentimentality on a greater or lesser level, just as if you’re not dealing in violence, then there’s no room for you in the comics business, there’s no room for you in the television business, there’s no room for you in the movie business. There is room for you in poetry, there is room for you in small literary reviews. But there’s no room for you in mass American arts, in any form, popular arts or the less popular arts.

Eisner was interested in comics. And if you’re in comics, somebody has to hit somebody else, somebody has to drive a car over a cliff, somebody has to blow up an airplane, somebody has to be a good guy, and somebody has to be a bad guy. But, more than anyone else in that form, up to that time, and past that time, Eisner was able to squeeze more human interest and more dimension and take heroes and use them—as he used the Spirit—as side characters to telling another story. Sometimes that story was too sentimental, sometimes the story was too trite, but often enough it was full of wit and cautionary values and fascinating visual perceptions that went beyond the visual and made it part of one’s perceptions, the way seeing early Fellini films became part of our perceptions as we left the theater and the world was redefined visually by 8 1/2 or La Doice Vita.

Whenever you [finished reading] Eisner, the world was redefined by his eye, his camera eye. That contribution was so original, and so innovative, at that time to this time, that I think that anything else one can say about it, whatever shortcomings, whatever lack, whatever you feel—whether I agree with it or don’t agree with it, and I disagree with much of it—is beside the point. Whether it’s valid or not, you cannot tell me that this is less than the contribution that Jack Kirby has made, or less than the contribution that Frank Miller is making.

Mostly what your magazine writes about with great scholarship and research and an enormous amount of thought put into analysis, is the business of who’s beating up on whom [in comic books]. And who else is getting beat up by whom. And what higher forms of violence that we can go into. And it still remains the operating theme of comics after all these years. Which is why I no longer read them. I can look at the art and marvel at some of the stuff as it’s drawn. But then I look at the subject, and it hasn’t advanced one whit since Siegel and Shuster.

GROTH: You’re saying we criticize that deficiency?

FEIFFER: Yes. Well, I think it has been written about, I mean, I read about it in your magazine, but I don’t think it’s written about enough. And when you stop writing about it, you go back to criticizing the old stuff with the same degree of research and seriousness that you did before, as if these things have not already been discounted. I think after a while, something has to be said about the immorality of the body count. Eisner’s work was not about the body count. But much of the work that’s followed is really stylish dressing for the body count, from Spider-Man to Dark Knight. It’s the body count. The only contribution that Dark Knight and others like it have to make, other than their graphic wonders, is that the cartoonists themselves are getting older, their heroes are getting older. So the stories, which arc now supposed to be more serious, are not really more serious, they just have more self-pity involved. They’re about cartoonists who have begun to develop a paunch and begin to lose their hair and begin to have lives and marriages that fall apart [and] begin to reproduce that in their work in one kind of violent metaphor or another. That’s not serious to me, that’s just bullshit. That’s the end of my lecture.

GROTH: Well, everything you said about Eisner’s Spirit work I think I recognized and gave its due, but what I was criticizing in the first place was his recent work. I don’t think that criticizing an artist 50 years after he starts his career represents a rush to criticize.

FEIFFER: Well, how many other artists have written about the comic book business?

GROTH: How many artists?

FEIFFER: How many comic book cartoonists have done cartoons about comic strips, about the early years of the business, or the business today?

GROTH: Oh, very few.

FEIFFER: Well, now that in itself is of interest. Now, whether the character represents Eisner as Eisner or is a glorified version of Eisner, when Arthur Miller writes about himself, you get a glorified [version]—[as is the case when] most writers when they write about themselves in a text—

GROTH: But Arthur Miller is criticized for it.

FEIFFER: Arthur Miller is criticized for it.

GROTH: You don’t have people defending him on the grounds that he is a saintly figure who is above criticism.

FEIFFER: No, as a matter of fact, I think that it’s shameful that the only thing Arthur Miller is honored for today is Death of a Salesman, and that’s finally what he’s been satisfied with it. I think it’s—again—what we do to our writers. That there is much in After the Fall. I saw a production of it a few years ago, it’s quite remarkable and barely noted. There’s much in Albee’s later works, same thing. We’re not interested in them any more. I think there are these critical moods and shifts, some of which may be based on real value, but that on the other hand it all has to do with pleasing this month’s critic. As opposed to looking at the life’s work of an artist, and making judgement, certainly, but also putting in a perspective and offering a certain degree of respect.

I’m sure there’s much to criticize in Eisner’s later work. But there’s much to applaud in the fact that after not touching that work for many, many years, he came back to it, and he’s looking at it with a fresh eye, and he’s not doing bullshit violence, and he’s not buying into the mainstream, and he’s going off on his own track, and it happens to be a track that’s personal to him, and whether he’s stretching that enough or not is beside the point. As critical as one can be of some of that stuff, it’s still more interesting to a reader whose interest is larger than one of the caped hero-genre and flexing their muscles, to a reader whose point is somewhat larger than the further deification of the Sly Stallone syndrome. He’s trying something. And that should be encouraged and applauded, rather than trying to bury him.

GROTH: Well, with all due respect, he’s been encouraged with laudatory reviews for 10 years. Repeatedly and endlessly; in fact universally. In fact, I think my piece was probably the first piece truly critical of his work. So, in terms of criticism, I think he’s been given a pretty fair shake. I can’t think of any other author who’s been given nothing but praise for his entire career.

FEIFFER: But, as I’ve said, your response seemed to be more about the criticism than about Eisner. And that’s what the critical fraternity does. You’re really much more interested in answering them than in dealing with him. I think your vision is skewed.

GROTH: I was surprised when I went back to do some research, at how savage some of the reviews for Carnal Knowledge were. It was not terribly well received.

FEIFFER: Oh, it was by the people who counted. New York Times in particular, and the news magazines, I think, maybe Time. I don’t remember. But the important one was Vincent Canby’s, which was an out-and-out rave.

GROTH: I noticed, for example, among the critics I scanned, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, and John Simon all pretty much savaged it. In fact, they almost all wrote the same review.

FEIFFER: Well, it wouldn’t surprise me. Those are the people who... I’ve started reviewing films for National Public Radio on Sundays, and I think, invariably, the films I like, Pauline will bash. And the same is true of Stanley. Kauffmann actually used to be a friend of mine before I started writing plays. The moment I started writing, he ceases to be a friend.

GROTH: Was that on your part or his?

FEIFFER: Well, it might have been mutual. The personal nastiness of his reviews... I don’t care about whether he liked the plays or not, I’d prefer him to like them. But there’s something truly personal and mean-spirited in Kauffmann’s work. In regard to me. And in Pauline’s, too. Particularly in regard to Carnal Knowledge. No, I think Little Murders was even worse. I forget now—so many years ago. That bothers me.

GROTH: Well, it’s unfortunate. Have you ever talked to Kauffmann about that?

FEIFFER: I don’t talk to Kauffmann, period.

GROTH: But I mean originally, after he reviewed your first play?

FEIFFER: When I wrote the first play, he was still the New York Times critic, and I was delighted, because I thought I would get a fair hearing. Fortunately, he was removed by that time, so...

GROTH: Well, it’s interesting that that should be your perception, because I always thought that Kauffmann was a pretty balanced critic.

FEIFFER: I think that as he’s gotten older, there’s a meanness that comes in that wasn’t there in the early years. I’m not talking about just me, but there are Simon-ish touches that come into his writing. That’s not all the time, but from time to time.

GROTH: I hesitate to ask you what you think of Simon.

FEIFFER: Simon is a joke and a waste of time. I don’t bother to read him at all. And I’ve not read his, reviews on me. Ever.

GROTH: Well, I will refrain from quoting him. The common denominator in the reviews I read were that the characters in Carnal Knowledge were more like cartoons than fully-fleshed out characters. Do you think that there’s any validity to that?

FEIFFER: Well, do you think there is? As opposed to what fleshed-out characters in what other films? The fleshed-out characters in The French Connection? The fleshed-out characters in...

GROTH: 400 Blows?

FEIFFER: Are those fleshed-out characters? I don’t think so. No.

GROTH: Well, do you think there is no such thing [as fleshed-out characters in film]?

FEIFFER: I think where you see fleshed-out characters are in novels. And what you see in theater and film are hints and indications and symbols, and to the extent that you identify with them, or that an expression, a performance will reach you or move you, that becomes fleshed-out. And I’m not saying that doesn’t happen. It happens an awful lot of the time. I think it also happens in Carnal Knowledge a lot of the time. I think you see when Nicholson in those early college days finds himself confused by what’s going on between himself and Susan as she’s moving more and more towards Sandy, that’s very real. The fight between him and Bobby, the Ann-Margret character. If that’s a cartoon, it’s no cartoon that any critic has ever seen.

GROTH: Right. But when you asked me if I thought it had validity, I didn’t dismiss it out of hand. I’m not sure if it was relevant. But it’s also ironic, because of course, that’s an implicit denunciation of cartoons.

FEIFFER: Well, that’s the point. No one is going to say something is a cartoon, particularly in this country, as a compliment. What they mean by cartoon is that it’s one-dimensional. Now generally, it’s one-dimensional people writing this material, so you’ve got to be careful about what they have to say.

GROTH: So you think fiction was more suited for that.

FEIFFER: Fiction? Yes. Films are wonderful, and theater is wonderful. That’s not what they are best at. If you come out of a play with an understanding of a character, traced with such clarity and definition on film, generally people will say that’s novelistic, meaning that it’s not ordinarily cinematic or theatrical.

GROTH: But, you agree that film and theatre are capable of that?

FEIFFER: Well, it’s capable of going further than it does. but it’s never the ideal form, because what fiction can do which you can’t do in theater and you can’t do in film, is get at internal thought. So that while a character is acting and behaving, he or she can also be thinking, and we can learn about that. Realistic theater is about behavior. Abstract or surreal. More modern theater is about other things, not necessarily behavior, and maybe between the lines we can learn about the larger meaning of our lives, we can learn about tragedy, and we can learn about the dimensions of hypocrisy, or the failure of the state, but we can’t learn in these forms, about the inner workings of a particular character, the way you can in a novel. A film can show us a lot through close-ups, and behavior…I mean, silent behavior. You learn often more that way than through dialogue. How someone reacts, what the eyes do, what the face does, how the body moves, how two bodies move together. And in many ways that can tell us a lot more than any amount of dialogue can tell us on stage. That’s one of the beautiful parts of filmmaking. On a higher level. And the same thing is true of TV.

GROTH: Now, are you saying that categorically, that films are capable of doing that?

FEIFFER: I’d say films are capable of doing that. You’re not overwhelmed by examples, but there’s no question they’re capable of doing it. They’ve done it. Films can be, have been, and will continue being great literature.

GROTH: Do you not think that should be an imperative on the part of filmmakers?

FEIFFER: Oh, I think it should be a goal. Whether it’s imperative or not, you know, if a filmmaker makes an imperative, it’s like going back to our conversation about Eisner’s early days.

GROTH: I didn’t mean to be too dogmatic about it.

FEIFFER: If it becomes an imperative, you don’t make those movies, because they don’t get financed. As a writer, if I wrote fiction, I could do anything I damn please, and somebody might publish it. It might be small press, but I could get some copies into print. That’s not true of films, because they cost a lot. And if you wrote a serious work of art and tried to get it filmed, the odds against it are enormous. And it’s amazing how many of these works nonetheless are done. I mean, serious works by serious people done on a shoestring. But it’s a struggle. It’s always a struggle. It’s easier with theater because theater is cheaper. It’s still, outside of New York, not unlike Mickey and Judy renting a barn. People can still do that, put companies together and say what they want to say.

GROTH: Do you feel as strongly about artistic standards as you do about your political principles?

FEIFFER: What a strange question. Of course I do.

GROTH: Well, they’re not necessarily-

FElFFER: [Laughter],

GROTH: That’s not necessarily always the case.

FEIFFER: In my case, if I didn’t, my plays would run

GROTH: Oh, yeah. Well, the reason I ask, is just because you seem to express your political views much more vehemently and more frequently than you do your artistic principles.

FEIFFER: Oh, it just depends on what I’m being asked about; that’s one thing. And the other is that, in terms of artistic principles, I’m not comfortable about talking about the quality of my work, if we’re talking about my work. Or its integrity, because as far as I’m concerned, that’s a given, and apparent, or it can’t be defended. And I’m certainly not the person to defend it. It’s got a long record. I mean, that can’t be argued about.

GROTH: No, I wasn’t thinking about your own work, I was thinking about your feelings toward other’s work.

FEIFFER: Oh, sure.

GROTH: I had the impression—I could be wrong—that you give greater latitude toward artists than politicians. You’re not inclined to balance criticism of Nixon with his trip to China, or whatever.

FEIFFER: Yes, I think it was ironic and quite wonderful that Nixon went to China and opened the doors to China, and I give him credit for that, as I give Lyndon Johnson credit for the poverty program, and passing civil rights legislation. And I give Ronald Reagan credit for making the country feel good again, even over the wrong things. Yes, I do give credit. But, now we’re talking politics again. What is your point about artistic judgement?

GROTH: My point was that when you concentrate on politics, you ‘re quite rightly harsh and concentrate on the negative, and you concentrate, when you talk about artists, almost exclusively on the positive. I was wondering if there was in any sense the possibility that you are much more lenient with regard to artistic standards than you are with regard to political standards?

FEIFFER: It’s not a matter of latitude, the politicians who I feel negative about are the ones who shape my life. The artists I feel negative about, I will generally ignore, so they don’t have too strong an influence one way or the other. The ones I feel positive about will also shape my life, in a positive way. Both are strongly personal responses to how I get through my day. I mean, I’m not going to sit still for a novel I pick up, which may be popular but I think is badly written and is irritating to read and I’m not going to suffer through 3 or 4 or 500 pages of that. But I have no choice with Ronald Reagan and I have no choice with George Bush.

GROTH: Right. Well, during the Playboy interview, for example, you didn’t talk about LBJ’s record on civil rights, you called him a certifiable war criminal, and compared him to the German high command. So, there was no sense of-

FEIFFER: Of balance there?

GROTH: Yeah.

FEIFFER: I think that opinion stands well in the eyes of history.

GROTH: But do you see my point?

FEIFFER: That I should have some balance?

GROTH: No, not necessarily, just that one could get the impression that you do give greater latitude to—

FEIFFER: The negative than the positive?

GROTH: Yeah.

FEIFFER: Well, if I do err in that way, it’s because too many people err in the direction that you’re suggesting. We were surrounded in those years, as we are surrounded today, by people who will say, look at all the good Ronald Reagan has done. Look at all the good Ronald Reagan the racist has done. Look at all the good Ronald Reagan the arms merchant has done. And there’s no question that one can find, if one looks carefully enough, a certain amount of good Reagan has done, and a certain amount of good Johnson or Jimmy Carter has done. You can find good. But one also has to examine the general context, and has that been for the better or the worse? And then make judgements accordingly.

GROTH: Well, let me bring up John Simon because he’s probably the best example to bring up in this context, but could you understand how someone could feel as strongly about what he considers to be bad art as you do, about what you consider to be bad politics?

FEIFFER: I feel strongly about bad art also. I do. But John Simon’s examples of bad art aren’t necessarily what I would consider bad art. John Simon came along around the time, or a little after writers like Bob Dristan and Kenneth Tynan, and by god, they wrote negatively also. But they also wrote with some kind of clear vision of what theater ought to be, and beyond that, what society ought to be. They couched their criticism in those terms, so you started with the theater and it bled out to the all-around general social fabric. One can make judgements about their work accordingly, how one felt in terms of one’s own view of these opinions, not just in regard to a specific play, but everything beyond that. Simon operates out of a closet and doesn’t seem to know very much except—-he’s a very learned man—but he chooses not to write very much, but within the confines of that closet. And what he writes there is generally mean-spirited and narrow. That doesn’t mean he won’t be right sometimes. Maybe even he’s right a lot of the time. But even when he’s right, it’s a pinched view of the world that has no interest to me.

GROTH: Let me ask you one last question about that. Do you at least admire what you perceive to be some commitment on his pan? Or, perhaps to pick a less antagonistic example, on Kauffmann’s part?

FEIFFER: Oh, yeah. I think Kauffmann’s got real commitment, and he’s serious, and I don’t lump him with Simon except that—and I still read Kauffmann, I don’t read Simon. Kauffmann has real intelligence. Simon has bastardized his intelligence into a show-business gimmick, so that what he does is a weekly wrestling act for New York Magazine, disguised as criticism. Sometimes he has real things to say, but it’s always a turn of phrase, and—he knows what he’s getting paid for, and he’s delivering the goods.

GROTH: So you think it’s calculated on his part?

FEIFFER: Yes, I think it’s calculated and I think, not that he doesn’t enjoy it, I’m sure he enjoys it.

GROTH: Would you say that’s dishonest?

FEIFFER: Oh, I think much of criticism is dishonest, and whether he’s any more dishonest than the rest, I’m not going to say that.

GROTH: I’m not sure if there’s anything more we can say to refine this discussion. I’m curious, I’m not sure how to put this, but I’m curious to know if you are as offended by cultural deprivations as you are about political deprivations because, of course, your whole career is mostly criticizing the political rather than the aesthetic and the cultural.

FEIFFER: Yes. And the focus is on the political. But as a private citizen I’m offended by a lot of stuff. And since I do only one cartoon a week, it’s hard to fit it all in. I’ve got to prioritize.

GROTH: Are there any critics that you enjoy reading? Film, literary, or theatrical crimes.

FEIFFER: I still enjoy reading Brustein’s work, who’s an old friend of mine, who I may disagree with, but I still enjoy the way his mind works. There are a number of literary people who I enjoy very much, their names don’t come readily to mind. But a number of the people who write the New York Review. I recently read a thing on dim that was wonderful, but I can’t remember the name of the writer. But it was a piece on biographies of movie stars, Myrna Lqy and others. Lovely piece. Political writings, as I mentioned earlier, Theodore Draper. Extremely informative.

GROTH: Do you like Christopher Hitchens?

FEIFFER: No, not really. I find him a little bit much in the Cockbum smart-ass grit. You know, that combination. Because I used to like Cockbum’s work. Much less now. But it’s a combination, I always think of these guys as Lord Peter Wimsey, full of charm, wit, but underneath it’s all pure disdain. It gets tiresome after a while, that kind of disdain.

GROTH: You think that represents a lack of Commitment?

FEIFFER: Oh, no, I think the commitment is very much there. I think it represents a kind of contempt for everyone else’s commitment but their own.

GROTH: You’re doing film criticism yourself.

FEIFFER: Well, not really criticism, I’m just doing occasional reviews. It doesn’t reach the lofty heights of true criticism. It’s just me.

GROTH: That’s for National Public Radio. How did that come about?

FEIFFER: Oh, it came about very simply. Susan Stamberg, who used to be the co-host of All Things Considered, is an old friend of mine, she was starting a Sunday morning show. We had any number of meals in which we talked about movies, and she said, I love you talking about movies, why don’t you do it for the show. So I am.

GROTH: I hope you’re keeping a file of these film reviews.

FEIFFER: No. I have some of them on tape. Most of them are on tape, but, no, they’re not written.

GROTH: Oh, they aren’t?

FEIFFER: No, we simply get on the phone with each other, it’s recorded, and I say what I have to say.

GROTH: It’s completely extemporaneous?

FEIFFER: Absolutely, I don’t even make notes.

GROTH: That’s pretty amazing.

FEIFFER: I don’t know. Have you heard them? Maybe it’s not.

GROTH: No, I haven’t.

FEIFFER: You might not be so amazed once you hear them.

GROTH: I have a couple of general questions. One is, do you draw for yourself?

FEIFFER: No. Hardly ever. I’ll draw for my little girl, as I drew for the first one. Do I draw for pleasure? Hardly ever.

GROTH: You just don’t feel the need to?

FEIFFER: I don’t get any real satisfaction. I will draw for myself in a kind of preparation, a mood preparation for doing the strip. Or if I’m sitting down to write and I’m resisting, I’ll do what amounts to some un-Feifferish doodles. Which will give me pleasure. But I don’t keep a notebook, I don’t sketch. I am a cartoonist by profession, but it is no longer a hobby. It’s a pleasure when I do it, and it’s pleasure when I think of it, and I get pleasure out of other people’s work, but it no longer holds my interest as a plaything. Although writing and making notes does.

GROTH: And here’s a question out of left field, but I’m curious as to what kind of music you like.

FEIFFER: Well, I don’t know any more. It has changed. I used to listen to classical music all of the time. Then a couple of years ago that stopped, and I switched to jazz all of the time. And now I listen to absolutely nothing, which depresses me. I don’t know what’s going on, and what the changes are. I’ve never listened to rock and roll, and I’ve never understood it. I’ve never understood Bob Dylan or why he was ever popular. Still don’t. Or that kind of folk. Country music leaves me totally cold. Virtually all contemporary music since the 1940s leaves me cold.

GROTH: [Joking] Not a big punk rock fan, I guess.

FEIFFER: No, and also I have no knowledge of this. I’m not forming judgements. I’m not for a second saying this work is crap. I’m just saying that it has no interest to me.

GROTH: .So you don’t listen to music as you draw?

FEIFFER: No. I will at times put on some jazz when I’m drawing, but I find that, particularly as I get older, any intrusion of sound affects my concentration. I’m a news junkie and listen to National Public Radio all the time when it has its news shows on. But not when I’m drawing. And obviously not when I’m writing.

GROTH: Some months ago, when I talked to you briefly on the phone, you just happened to mention that you were reading Strindberg. I was curious as to haw you organize your reading.

FEIFFER: Eclectically, as I always have. It just depends on what I happen to pick up. A few months ago I was on a real reading binge. Generally, I leave that for the summer. This summer I haven’t read anything at all. I got that mailing from you, what’s your summer reading like. Last summer, my god, there were endless books I was reading, and did read, and so far this summer, I’m still plowing through Elia Kazan’s book, and that’s been about it.

GROTH: I was curious as to whether you try to systematically read plays.

FEIFFER: I don’t read many plays. Hardly at all.

GROTH: Are there any novelists that you like that people might not expect you to like?

FEIFFER: I can’t think of who. I mean, I like Joe Heller. Particularly Something Happened, which I think is a brilliant book. Arnold Bennett perhaps. Somebody people have never heard of, and wouldn’t expect. He’s a brilliant early 20th-century novelist who remains a favorite of mine. It’s just a joy to discover a new book, a book that’s a library discard, by him that I hadn’t heard of.

GROTH: How about Mailer?

FEIFFER: Mailer, I started reading The Deer Park, again. And it’s a wonderful book. I was reading that up in the Vineyard. I just did a piece up there for part of a show Urban Blight. It was an eight- or nine-minute monologue in which the character, quite reminiscent of Mailer, is explaining and defending his friendship with Donald Trump, written in Mailer-ese, and I had great fun with the language, enormous fan, and it worked very successfully.

GROTH: I know this is an almost impossibly broad question, but I wanted to ask you what you look for in a novel, do you have any specific preferences?

FEIFFER: Oh, I guess I look for writing that immediately engages me. I find that if the first couple of sentences or the first paragraph doesn’t grab me, I’m not going to buy the book or read it. And after that it really depends mainly on the writing. If the writing is appealing, it doesn’t really matter what the subject is, I’ll find that I can get into almost anything. Writing.

GROTH: Do you like Vidal’s work?

FEIFFER: Not much. No. I think it’s awfully glib and not true. It’s all prepared and pre-cooked. I just don’t believe him. Basically I have to trust a writer, which means that I think he or she is writing the absolute truth as this writer sees it, without false colorations, and I think that Vidal is a brilliant stylist, but I never find him speaking to me directly. I just don’t believe what he has to say to me. I remember seeing Vidal’s play. An Evening with Richard Nixon, and I ended up feeling sorry for Nixon.

GROTH: Jesus. Not the intended reaction.


GROTH: Why is that?

FEIFFER: Just because of the overkill and the setting up of false terms. It’s not that he was saying anything inaccurate, because what he was saying was quite true, but it was just the bullying.

GROTH: Do you like his essays any better than his fiction?

FEIFFER: No. Again, the tone bothers me. And me over-simplification, and a few years ago, his small, ungifted attempt at anti-Semitism. That didn’t appeal to me either.