Sentences in a blindly godless world

Michael Atkinson is a New York film critic, essayist, poet, and novelist. His most recent novel, Hemingway Cutthroat, which is the second volume in a projected series of books inspired by Hemingway’s literary life, is slated for release in 2010. In addition to Hemingway, Atkinson loves Thomas Pynchon, J.G. Ballard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Flannery O’Connor, and Ray Bradbury. But what makes Atkinson the kind of bloke I’d want at a neighborhood block party is the pleasure he takes in small things — his love of artisan beer and shellfish, as well as the pride he takes in the fact that his children can identify Timbuktu on a map. For more on Atkinson and his considerable body of work, please visit 


Michael Atkinson

Who are you?

I have been for the most part a New York-based film critic, for some 15 years, and in that time I’ve gained a little notoreity, I guess, for being both feverishly particular and “two-fisted,” as a colleague put it. But I’m also a longtime poet (with, for now, one volume published, and another on the way), and now a novelist. Mostly I just write, and I’ve had my hand at almost anything you could name that’s made of sentences, from obituaries to limericks to memoirs. What’s more to say? A dad, a homeowner, a stalwart anti-imperialist.

What was the last book you read? How did you like it?

Lately I’ve been reading non-fiction — Orwell’s journalism, Hemingway biographies, that sort of thing. A lot of modern fiction bores me — especially the veiled-autobiographical kind that comes out of writing programs. The last book I began and didn’t finish was a Patricia Cornwell mystery — so bad — and the last book I finished was Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, first time I’ve picked it up 30 years. And I still love it.

What role does literature play in a blindly godless world?

The question of “roles” is always difficult, particularly in a culture that’s becoming as attention-deficit as a mayfly. What role does literature, or art, play otherwise? Depends on the individual, I’d think. I know this: if it’s time-killing and distractive, “just entertainment,” then it’s not art, and I don’t care for it. I just don’t have the time for “entertainment.” I’ve got 50 years to live at best, so I have to be picky. My perhaps ham-fisted designation of a blindly godless world is born out of political pique, not book-love. If only the world were more concerned with expanding their experience through the work of their fellow citizens (a definition of art?) and not myth systems, we’d all be a lot better off.

In the past 10 years, what’s the best movie adaptation of a novel? Explain.

If you’d ask about the best “book” adaptation, I’d have to say Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, because it is in fact so much more than an “adaptation,” or even a “movie,” or any other category you’d care to put to it. (It certainly puts Susan Orleans’s The Orchid Thief to shame.) But for novels, it might just be Alphonse Cuaron’s version of P.D. James’s Children of Men, a perfect fugue between wildly resonant narrative and extraordinary real-time filmmaking. And science fiction is, frankly, the best way to address the days of the new millennium, so far.


Anne Sexton: those eyes, those lips, and that exquisite writerly nose!

Who is your literary lover?

I really wanted Anna Akhmatova until I saw that nose. Otherwise, it’s Anne Sexton. So hot, so crazy.

Actors, comedians, and athletes are often elected to political office. Is there a novelist you think would make a good senator? Explain.

Yes, I would’ve voted for Gore Vidal if I’d had a chance, but only if he promised to keep writing essays. I’d vote for Margaret Atwood, if she’d change her citizenship. Otherwise, Joan Didion, who seems like a natural choice. The first part of this question, however, is a horror.

Of the books you love most, which one is your Chimay Cinq-Cent (for you wine-wussies at there, this is beer at its ambrosial best)?

Turn a page, tip a pint.

Oh, so many. Likening it to the best heady artisanal brew suggests that you can’t partake of it often, but only occasionally, selectively. And that’d be Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Does fiction carry a burden beyond stylistic excellence?

Of course it does — it carries the burden of being ethically sane and of caring more, if only a little more, about the reader’s precious time than it does about the writer’s soul or ambition. But that’s all.

In the last 25 years, what’s the most significant change in the form of the novel?

Solipsism, I’d venture; so many new novelists and arbitrary narratives built of faux-Alice Munro sentences kvetching about childhood memories the only fictional justification of which is that they’re modeled on what happened to the writer at one point. Why editors think readers are interested is a puzzle, because largely, they’re not.


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