Photograph by Lawrence Impey.
“Writing, for me, has always been a way of not having a career,” Geoff Dyer explains, by way of introduction, in his new essay collection Otherwise Known as the Human Condition. His goal in such a retrospective, he adds, is not to illustrate the coherent themes of his work. Rather it is “to serve as proof of just how thoroughly my career had avoided any focus, specialization, or continuity except that dictated by my desire to write about whatever I happened to be interested in at any given moment.” Dyer’s readers will find that sentiment unsurprising. He is the author of four novels, a critical study of John Berger, a book of photography criticism, and several books inexplicable in blurb form (e.g. Out of Sheer Rage, a National Brook Critics Circle Award finalist ostensibly about D. H. Lawrence but largely about the process of Dyer attempting to write about D. H. Lawrence; and Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, a travelogue as easily filed in humor as it might be in philosophy). Otherwise Known as the Human Condition is a curio cabinet of reviews ranging across photography, art, and literature, combined with Dyer’s experiential approach to topics as wide as forays into the foreign world, and his search for the perfect cappuccino-and-doughnut combination.
How does one approach selecting from a life’s work for an essay collection like this?
My editor, Ethan Nosowsky, and I both independently turned up with a provisional list of what we’d like to see. And we were pretty gratified at how, in a Venn diagram sort of way, there was so much overlap between the two. I’ve written a real lot, including things I’d forgotten about. The general rule would be that they had to at least raise some question—I’m thinking of the pieces about books here—something that transforms it from being a review to a sort of essay in its own right. People either are or are not interested in Denis Johnson, say, but there are a few things in that essay which are worth raising about people other than Denis Johnson. The better the piece, in some ways, the more irrelevant it would render this issue of whether or not you had read the book in question. The pieces also aren’t chronological, so you get a juxtaposition of a piece written maybe twenty years ago with a more recent one—and the slight contradiction that emerges because of that.
Most of these essays are personal at some level; do you look back on the sentiments and feel like the they hold up for you over time?
What I’ve really liked doing is combining what you might call art criticism or music criticism with something that is happening in real life. Something like “Blues for Vincent,” where I combined what is in a photograph with something in a love letter. So to answer your question in the most prosaic, literal-minded way: Of course I’m not in love anymore with the women to whom these love letters were sent. But I think there is an enduring truth in the sentiment, even if the sort of cast list has changed.