An Interview with Nick Hornby 

In High Fidelity, London-based writer Nick Hornby drilled deep into the male psyche, tapping into a shadowy place where emotions are replaced by top five lists, and where songs and ex-girlfriends compete for a spot at the top. The book permanently grounded Hornby on the American literary map, giving him the flexibility to write about… pretty much anything he wants.

Since then, Hornby has been something of a literary gadfly, writing essays about pop music for the New Yorker and a column about books for McSweeney's The Believer. A year ago, McSweeney's packaged up a collection of Hornby's music essays in Songbook. Soaked with adulation, the essays read more like letters from an acutely smart fan club member than a cynical rock music critic. Their cumulative effect is immensely disarming and inspiring.

Now, McSweeney's has out Polysyllabic Spree, a collection of Hornby's columns from The Believer. Both high-minded and easygoing, these essays have the voice of a giddy, conversational grad student. In each installment, Hornby consumes a stack of novels--a balanced mix of classics and bestsellers--and, in a sideways sort of way, lays out critical thoughts about the books, writing, and the act of reading itself. In one essay, he even imagines that he is physically duking it out with the rather boorish Victorian writer Wilkie Collins.

What prompted your recent shift from writer to critic?

HORNBY: I'm not a critic. I'm an avid consumer, and when you're a writer and an enthusiast, you find yourself wanting to talk about stuff. But I think that Songbook and Spree are kind of anti-criticism.

The conversational tone that you've taken in both Polysyllabic Spree and Songbook is languid, casual, and easygoing. Is writing as easy for you as you make it seem?

You'd be amazed how long it takes me to write things that people can read in two minutes. Still, I do think that's the way it should be. The writer should do the work, not the reader.

Which is easier for you, fiction or nonfiction?

I think nonfiction is easier for everybody. The advantage of knowing what happens next can never be underestimated.

What odds would you put on a fight between Maxim and The Believer?

Now, see, you're implying that Maxim would beat The Believer to a pulp because we're wimps. But I think we'd end up dancing round and round them, and they'd be swinging these wild punches that wouldn't land: The Believer in 12.

With the huge success of High Fidelity, do you worry that your place in pop culture has been pigeonholed?

Well, over here in the UK I'm the football guy [for the sports memoir Fever Pitch], and I ignore it. In the US, I'm the High Fidelity guy, and I ignore that, too. I have a very strong sense of what I want to do, and I certainly don't want to do anything twice, so I don't really worry about being typecast. The media feels the need to pigeonhole much more than a readership does.

Do you agree that there is "guy writing" and "girl writing"? Your lists and competitive spunk seem to fall distinctly in the guy camp.

I challenge anyone, of either gender (see, there I go again) to read Wilkie Collins and not to think of the experience pugilistically. Or at least in terms of arm-wrestling. But the whole guy/gal, chicklit thing has got so depressing--and depressingly reductive--that I can't bear to think about it. All I know is that any book which makes a naked pitch for one gender or another is a book I don't want to read.

Are you lamenting that iPods and the like are killing the idea of an album?

No lamentations here. The album was effectively killed by the CD, and the need artists felt to occupy 70 minutes of disc space. I never heard any great 70-minute albums. The iPod certainly suits my way of listening to music, which is to reduce albums down to two or three great songs.

Is there a similar phenomena occurring in literature?

I'd be the last to know. But it's hard to imagine that books--which take commitment and patience, both to read and to write--won't eventually be affected by the iPod mentality. I suspect that in the end, the effects will be good. Writers will have to stop being self-indulgent and boring if they are to attract any attention.

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