Christgau follows up his NBCC-award nominated Is It Still Good to Ya? with Book Reports: A Music Critic on His First Love, Which Was Reading (Duke Univ., Apr.).
What made you decide to compile your writing on books?
I love collections. I got into journalism with the idea that I'd be doing them. All those collections by Liebling and Kael and Tom Wolfe really inspired me. As I looked back on my work when putting together Good to Ya, I was sure that one piece needed to be in book form, the piece about minstrelsy titled “In Search of Jim Crow,” (first published in the Believer), which is 8,000 words long. There was no way I could do a music collection that could include that and wouldn’t jam up everything else.
What does Book Reports accomplish as a collection?
The first half of Book Reports deals with the history of popular music and rock criticism. When I hooked all those historical pieces together, building on the minstrelsy piece, it became my history of popular music. Obviously it’s piecemeal, but it flows.
Do you imagine your audience to be different or similar to the audience for rock criticism?
I want to persuade, but also to entertain. My love of written language is every bit as great as my love for music. I definitely aspire to a tone that is simultaneously literate and vulgar, serious and funny. That's a human ideal for me. I am interested in the highbrow/lowbrow synthesis. My sensibility, I am proud to say, is middlebrow. Casual music fans will have at least a passing interest in the artists I focus on, Aretha Franklin and Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart.
In a review of fellow rock critic Jon Landau’s work, first published in the Village Voice in 1973, you wrote, “most of us write about rock because fiction hasn’t compelled us for a long time. Rock seems so much more… relevant.” Do you feel differently now?
In '73, it was fair to think of the rock audience as a social entity, and rock critics tried to show that the form has true aesthetic merit. Pauline Kale was definitely a model, Greil Marcus, many others as well. In the course of the next 20 or 40 years, the literary stopped being so literary. Now, most characters in novels, the way they relate to pop music and movies is a part of who they are. That wasn't true 30 or 40 or 50 years ago. They lived in a more supposedly elevated world. Of course when I wrote that piece, things were already beginning to change. Certainly with Pynchon, but others as well.
I still find a lot of literary people way too attenuated for my taste. Michael Chabon made a decision not to do that any more. His first few books were about college students and blah blah blah, and then he wrote a much better book with The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay. Moreover, a lot of the people who write genre fiction are really aesthetes, they’re not just people who like to tell a good yarn. Genre fiction has gained real status in the wake of what we did, and that would have happened without us.