“There were certain periods of literary history that, as an undergrad, were less interesting to me. Now, it just seems like, the more I read and think about them, the more endlessly interesting they get.”
In a new series, I will be interviewing members of the University staff in an attempt to get know who they are as people, and what they were like as students.
The first interview in this series is with English lecturer David Hering. Having completed an English undergraduate degree at Liverpool, I can vouch for how well liked and respected David is by the students he comes into contact with. As anyone who has had David as a tutor can attest to, he is easy to speak to, which meant that this interview in his office, with its chair-desks that don’t really work, was both easy and insightful.
The first thing to ask is, what university did you go to and what course did you do?
D: I went to Glasgow University as an undergrad and I did a single honours English degree, but I also minored in Classics as well, which is a good thing actually. Doing English and Classics really is useful because you get to know all the archetypal structures for literature that you will be studying later. Glasgow is a great university and a great city.
Similar to Liverpool in terms of its cultural makeup I imagine.
D: Yeah, very similar – similar attitude, similar sense of humour. I’m from Liverpool – my parents aren’t from Liverpool so I don’t have a strong accent – and I left Liverpool to go to university in 1998. It had been worse, but at that point, Liverpool was not in the best way. Glasgow had just won the European Capital of Culture a few years previously, so it was, culturally, way ahead of Liverpool at that time. For example, Glasgow had record shops, Liverpool didn’t have record shops.
As far as I can tell you’ve ridden that wave of the Capital of Culture.
D: (Laughs) Yeah I’ve been to Glasgow and then bounced back. Returning to my time at university though, I’d always been interested in literature, but that was the point that I realised that this was something I could make a career out of. In my teens I tended to divide my time quite equally between music, cinema and literature, but I began to focus more on literature during my undergraduate degree. I began to discover literature that I hadn’t experienced before, or stuff that I had heard about and hadn’t had a chance to read – stuff like Ulysses. Ulysses was the gateway book for me. I remember looking at all the appendices at the back of it and how every chapter corresponded to a colour, an organ and an hour and being really amazed. I remember finding the idea that a book could be a system really interesting. Also, modernism and then latterly discovering a lot of the stuff from the 60s and 70s, the post-modern stuff, and then meta-fiction and self-aware fiction was really exciting because I wasn’t super aware of a lot of it. I remember thinking that if I wanted to research stuff, I would want to research that stuff and, indeed, I am.
Where in Liverpool did you grow up?
D: South Liverpool. Liverpool was in trouble in the 70s and 80s. When I grew up the Albert Dock was derelict, there was so much of the city that wasn’t used. I was born in ’79 and in ’81 we had really substantial rioting in Toxteth, all the way down Upper Parliament Street, kind of where I grew up.
So you grew up near the University?
D: More Smithdown Road area. This rioting is what happens when a government is not interested in a city. It’s only recently when you see those unbelievable notes that have been released where it was suggested that Liverpool should be wound down that this was confirmed. ‘Managed decline’ was the term they used – it’s time to let this city wither and die. It’s incredible to see this, and get this confirmed. Both my parents were union reps, my dad was a strong, radical socialist. In Liverpool, in the 80s, there was a strong sense of collective protest, and there was as strong sense of fighting against the drain on manual labour which was exemplified by the docks closing down. Incidentally, the same thing happened in Glasgow.
Liverpool’s has an unrivalled consciousness of identity, at least in the UK, did you feel that identity affected you growing up or did you feel detached from it?
D: It’s kind of weird because my parents weren’t from Liverpool and, as a kid growing up, I wasn’t particularly into football and stuff like that. Liverpool has a very strong identity, and part of that identity, during the 70s and 80s, was really forged in opposition, or in defiance, through being attacked. There’s a kind of stereotype about Liverpool in the 70s and 80s which is that people felt sorry for themselves but that was just a response to being under attack. That, as a kind of stereotype, has largely disappeared now. You wouldn’t want your cities culture to necessarily be defined by the fact that there’s now a massive shopping centre on the docks because that’s not culture, that’s business. But, I think for those people who lived through Liverpool in the 70s, 80s and 90s, there is that sense that if that is going to rejuvenate a cultural scene, then so be it. It can cause problems though. Take the Kazimier for example, the other side of the coin. You get a development that will bring more people in, and then they take that culture away. The Kazimier was a genuine scene.
Obviously, the university experience you had was very different to mine. The internet was in its foetal stage and thus university offered a huge expansion of opportunity in terms of what you could read. Students coming now have been far more exposed because of their access to the internet, beyond that, how do you see the experience of the student having changed?
D: I try to ask people about their reading habits quite a lot because I know the internet has affected me. When you have an almost infinite number of texts and an almost limitless video and sound repository, reading becomes more difficult. With the large repository on offer, it has actually become more difficult to do sustained reading. I often ask people in my tutorials about this because I’m aware of the level of distraction there is now. It was only halfway through university that I got a mobile phone. I held out because I really didn’t like them.
D: Yeah, I alternate between thinking having one is great and thinking it’s a total burden. So I was twenty-one before I got a mobile phone, but that was the way, you know? People had pagers when I was in university. In terms of the internet, there was no Wi-Fi, the internet was something that you queued for and accessed through a computer in the library that was plugged into a wall. If you tried to download a trailer it took fifteen hours to do it. So, it was exciting because you only had a limited access to it. I mean, you’re of the age of the internet, did you find that the availability affected you?
Yeah, it has affected my taste massively. So in terms of music and film it has affected me massively. I don’t think I would have been exposed to nearly as much music were it not for the internet.
D: See, this is the thing. When I was fourteen or fifteen I would go to independent record shops and stuff, but if you wanted to hear a band you had to buy a CD for £12, or if you wanted to see a movie that wasn’t available in the rental shop, which it never was, it was like £17. If you reckoned something might be good you had to buy it, and if it was crap, it was crap – you were stuck with it. Plus, there were rare records; previously you would go and look for them in shops but now you can just type it in on YouTube and everything is there. Similarly, rare books, when I was doing my undergrad and my masters, there were books I was trying to get a hold of that were out of print, whereas now you can probably find copies that people have scanned and put online. At Glasgow University, your archive access was microfilm and microfiche which was fairly primitive technology.
You also teach film studies – did you see the Oscars last night?
D: I’ve long stopped being interested in the Oscars. Although I did notice that Mad Max won a lot of awards which I was very pleased about. I spent my teenage years watching the Mad Max films so it was a bit of a homecoming for me.
Was Tom Hardy on a par with Mel Gibson?
D: He was fine, I thought – he only had about three lines. But I parted way with the Oscars when Forrest Gump beat Pulp Fiction for Best Picture. I saw it as a great injustice.
Forrest Gump? Everyone’s favourite film?
D: Yeah, well, not mine (Laughs).
I did the Talking Pictures and Noir modules last year and you lecture/tutor on both of those. I discovered while doing those modules that, doing the stuff that was more off-the-wall, rather than doing American Literature or Romantic Literature, which are very broad topics, was far more exciting. What subjects do you find stimulate you the most while you’re teaching them?
D: I remember as an undergrad having a not dissimilar feeling. There were these things that I really wanted to get to grips with and I felt that I kind of had to trawl through a lot more general stuff to try and get there – the things I wanted to get to grips with were inevitably in my final year. But when you get there, you finally realise that you can’t have a full knowledge of these small literary fields without getting a proper sense of literary history. There were certain periods of literary history that, as an undergrad, were less interesting to me. Now, it just seems like, the more I read and think about them, the more endlessly interesting they get. While, as an undergrad, I used to say ‘I’m not very interested in the Romantics’ or ‘I’m not very interested in the Victorians’ – I tended to be interested in the twentieth century – all those undergrad prejudices have just melted away. As you read, you get much better sense of literature as a continuum. So, while I was interested in modernism and contemporary literature, you can’t do it in a vacuum. While I have a particular interest in things like graphic novels and post-modernism, you need those big historical courses to get a sense of how we get to that place. I think if I had just got my wish and gone straight to the things that I wanted to do, it would have been too unmoored.
Students at Liverpool, at least in their first year, are required to do English literature and English language, what is your take on English language?
D: I did a lot of English language at undergrad – I did two years of English language.
Were you forced do that or did you choose to?
D: It was a bit from column A and a bit from column B, to be honest. It was useful and it still proves to be very useful. It’s not the kind of thing that I’m passionate about. You could see people who wanted to go on and do all kinds of other bits and pieces with it, and they were really excited by it. The language stuff that interested me most was Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, Old English and that really is more in line with the historical literary modules.
How long has your book ‘David Foster Wallace: Fiction and Form’, which is out at the end of this year, been in the making? The way I’ve perceived it you have to dedicate time to really understand what he does.
D: He’s got a bit of a forbidding reputation but I actually think he is more approachable than that. I think people have that perception because of the big novel Infinite Jest – it takes such a long time to read. Infinite Jest is the type of novel that I discovered that I really liked while at university. Books like Moby Dick, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow – the big world-containing novel – I find really fascinating. But the book itself took a couple of years to write and it also required a couple of archive trips as well. The book makes quite a lot of use of his letters and his drafts, so I found myself out in Austin, Texas, which is where they have the Harry Ransom Centre, which is this gigantic literary archive. This place is a literary geek’s wildest dream. It’s not just his stuff either. You look through the catalogue and you see they’ve got Edgar Allen Poe’s notebooks, Walt Whitman’s notebooks, the proofs of Ulysses. So on the final day I did something of a tour.
Is there an aspect of not wanting to meet your heroes in reading all this personal literature?
D: [Foster Wallace’s] notebooks are very interesting because he has a lot of marginal conversations with himself on the page, so you can see him kind of talking to himself. It’s not remotely surprising if you know his work, which is very self-conscious, but you can see in the marginalia of his pages that there’s a commentary on what he’s actually writing at the time. To know the books well and to look at the way they come together is really incredible. Also, because his archive is so big, I was going through these things and I would discover pieces of short fiction which he’d never published. To discover all this new stuff, and these are the only copies, that’s really interesting. They’ve got a couple of letters from Thomas Pynchon from the 60s while he was writing Gravity’s Rainbow in there as well. The weird thing was, I would read Wallace’s letters and he would be saying something like ‘I’m never going to be as good as Pynchon’ and then you read Pynchon’s letters and you would see him saying ‘I’m never going to be as good as …’ It’s the anxiety of influence in action.
My major exposure to Foster Wallace is the commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005 and I always felt it gave a good insight into him as a person. Are his notebooks and the guy presented in the commencement speech relevant to each other?
D: All that stuff in the commencement speech about being present all the time, and the importance of making a decision about what to or what not to ‘worship’, is present in all the literature and is meta-textually present in the notes as well. He’s always commenting on his ideas and you’ll occasionally come across one where he’s put a smiley face sticker, so you can see he’s pleased he’s knocked out a great page or something like that, so that self-consciousness is there.
Thanks for talking to me David, it’s been a pleasure.