Over the course of three novels and eight non-fiction books, addressing subjects as diverse as jazz, D.H. Lawrence, World War One and John Berger, Geoff Dyer has quietly become one of the most interesting and admired writers of his generation.
His work has become particularly known for the distinctive approach he takes to the thin line that lies between his fiction and non-fiction. In his ‘travel’ book, Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, the narrator, who we presume is Dyer himself, treks arbitrarily around the world with scant regard for the traditional tourist traditions. Whilst proudly declaring his utter lack of musical expertise in the area, his book on jazz, But Beautiful, went on to become a classic in its field. Out of Sheer Rage, the book he intended to write about the life of D.H. Lawrence, instead becomes a book about a man failing to write about the life of D.H. Lawrence.
Following the critical and commercial success of Yoga…, his most recent book, The Ongoing Moment, sees Dyer turn his attention to the subject of photography and its history. He does this by reviewing its significance from the point of view of the subjects captured, rather than by the photographers themselves. Although declaring his own lack of proficiency early on, even to not owning a camera for much of his life, the book provides a lucid insight into the thought and art that lay behind the lives of photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, Diane Arbus and Dorothea Lange.
The sheer diversity and inimitability of his bibliography has led him to being described by one critic as “quite possibly the best living writer in Britain”. With the paperback publication of The Ongoing Moment imminent, Geoff kindly talked to Three Monkeys about this and other topics.
After the success of Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It, did you feel under any publisher pressure for a further collection of reflections on modern day travel and the ‘slacker’ lifestyle’? What was it that brought you to a history of photography instead?
I never feel under any pressure to do anything and would not respond to such pressure if there were any – and for the record there wasn’t any! Actually, I think when writers talk about pressure from their publishers they are often projecting their own desires while failing to come clean about their own hunger for big sales etc. It’s funny, we always think that success grants you artistic freedom, but in many ways the relative commercial failure of almost all my work meant that there was never any of this kind of pressure – a success in itself. So what if I wanted to write a strange little book on the First World War that had little sales potential after a novel that sold about two copies! It didn’t make any difference to anyone. I am now sometimes described as a successful writer but as far as I’m concerned I’ve been a successful writer for nearly twenty years in that I’ve spent all that time doing exactly what I want without any regard for the commercial consequences. I’m slightly worried that that may come out sounding as though I have some kind of private income or something. In fact the opposite is the case. Because I come from a working class family and it was always more efficient for my parents to save money (by not spending it) than to earn it, I found it was second nature for me to get by on little money. And the freedom was priceless. Lawrence felt exactly the same in this respect.
I decided to write about photography for the same reason I have written about anything – It was interesting to me and I wanted to find out more about it.
You choose to divide the topic up by the subjects photographed, rather than by artist or chronology. We see a recurrence of images of ‘the blind man’, hats, roads, benches, solitary figures, windows, of barber shops… from the start of the 20th century right through to the end. Is this something that became clearer as a method as you researched the book, or was it already a well known approach to photography?
I had that idea pretty early on, though it changed a lot as I found out more about photography and as the book generated its own structural potential and limitations. As with most highly original ideas, the amazing thing is that it’s not been done before! Though it has with painting: iconography and the different ways in which Christ or Apollo or whoever has been depicted and so on.