Jorge Luis Borges on Writing: Wisdom from His Most Candid Interviews
“A writer’s work is the product of laziness.”
By Maria Popova
Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) is the most celebrated and influential Latin-American author of the twentieth century, his literary legacy resounding loud as ever and exuding far-reaching philosophical reverberations. In 1972, when Borges was in his seventies and completely blind, a bright and earnest young Argentinian man of letters by the name of Fernando Sorrentino, only thirty at the time, sat down with the beloved author for seven afternoons in a tiny, secluded room in the National Library and recorded their conversations — “low-key, casual chats, free from any bothersome adherence to a rigid format” — on tape. Published in 1974 as Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges (public library), the conversations, spanning everything from literature to politics, couldn’t be commercially distributed until the overthrow of Isabel Perón in 1976 due to the author’s anti-establishment political convictions and the frankness with which he discussed them with Sorrentino.
Culled here from the seven lengthy and meandering conversations is Borges’s wisdom on writing — a fine addition to famous writers’ collected advice on the craft.
On why, as Joyce Carol Oates elegantly put it, it’s toxic to imagine an ideal reader, defying Michael Lewis’s assertion that the awareness of an audience’s existence exerts “invisible pressures” on the writer:
An absurd statement; how is a person going to write better or worse because he’s thinking about who’s going to read him?
Before I ever wrote a single line, I knew, in some mysterious and therefore unequivocal way, that I was destined for literature. What I didn’t realize at first is that besides being destined to be a reader, I was also destined to be a writer, and I don’t think one is less important than the other.
On literature as a gateway to the human condition:
I believe in psychological literature, and I think that all literature is fundamentally psychological.
On not mistaking anonymous authorship for lack of creative exertion, and why fairy tales exemplify the refinement of storytelling:
Each year a person hears four or five anecdotes that are very good, precisely because they’ve been worked on. Because it’s wrong to suppose that the fact that they’re anonymous means they haven’t been worked on. On the contrary, I think fairy tales, legends, even the offcolor jokes one hears, are usually good because having been passed from mouth to mouth, they’ve been stripped of everything that might be useless or bothersome. So we could say that a folk tale is a much more refined product than a poem by Donne or by Góngora or by Lugones, for example, since in the second case the piece has been refined by a single person, and in the first case by hundreds.
On not getting lost in movements:
I no longer believe in literary schools now; I believe in the individual.
On the advantage of writing about history:
I believe that a writer should never attempt a contemporary theme or a very precise topography. Otherwise people are immediately going to find mistakes. Or if they don’t find them, they’re going to look for them, and if they look for them, they’ll find them. That’s why I prefer to have my stories take place in somewhat indeterminate places and many years ago.
On Shakespeare’s singular gift, echoing Virginia Woolf’s timeless meditation on craftsmanship, and the limitations of translation:
I think of Shakespeare above all as a craftsman of words. For example, I see him closer to Joyce than to the great novelists, where character is the most important thing. That’s the reason I’m skeptical about translations of Shakespeare, because since what is most essential and most precious in him is the verbal aspect, I wonder to what extent the verbal can be translated.
On why free verse is more challenging to write than metered poetry, the former embodying Bukowski’s poetic admonition that the only worthwhile writing is the kind that “comes out of your soul like a rocket”:
I find it harder to write free verse. Because if there isn’t some kind of inner drive it can’t be done. On the other hand, using a regular meter is a matter of patience, of application . . . Once you’ve written one line, you’re forced to use certain rhymes, the number of rhymes is not infinite; the rhymes that can be used without incongruity are few in number . . . That is, when I have to fabricate something, I fabricate a sonnet, but I wouldn’t be able to fabricate a poem in free verse.
Touching on Italo Calvino’s meditation on what makes a classic, Borges defines what makes a book timeless:
A timeless book … would be just as admirable if it had been published a hundred years before or if it were published a hundred years later. A book that can only be defined by its perfection.
On why the explicit pursuit of prestige warps the integrity of writing and how commercial pressures commodify literature:
It’s possible that the fact that literature has been commercialized now in a way it never was before has had an influence. That is, the fact that people now talk about “bestsellers,” that fashion has an influence (something that didn’t use to happen). I remember that when I began to write, we never thought about the success or failure of a book. What’s called “success” now didn’t exist at that time. And what’s called “failure” was taken for granted. One wrote for oneself and, maybe, as Stevenson used to say, for a small group of friends. On the other hand, one now thinks of sales. I know there are writers who publicly announce they’ve had their fifth, sixth, or seventh edition released and that they’ve earned such and such an amount of money. All that would have appeared totally ridiculous when I was a young man; it would have appeared incredible. People would have thought that a writer who talks about what he earns on his books is implying: “I know what I write is bad but I do it for financial reasons or because I have to support my family.” So I view that attitude almost as a form of modesty. Or of plain foolishness.
On trusting your inner compass for merit, in literature and in life:
I believe that whenever one does wrong, he knows he’s doing wrong. Still, he does it. I believe that no one thinks his own behavior is exemplary. And this holds true in literary matters as well.
On writing and aging:
To reach the point of writing in a more or less uncluttered manner, a more or less decorous manner, I’ve had to reach the age of seventy.
On the advice his father gave him about when not to take advice:
My father gave me that advice. He told me to write a lot, to discard a lot, and not to rush into print, so that the first book I had published, Fervor de Buenos Aires, was really my third book. My father told me that when I had written a book I judged to be not altogether unworthy of publication, he would pay for the printing of the book, but that it was each man for himself and I shouldn’t ask anyone for advice.
On the metric of literary merit:
A writer should always be judged by his or her best pages.
On his distaste for novels, a form Borges believed would eventually die out, and the advantage of short stories over them:
I never thought of writing novels. I think if I began to write a novel, I would realize that it’s nonsensical and that I wouldn’t follow through on it. Possibly this is an excuse dreamed up by my laziness.
The essential advantage I see in it is that the short story can be taken in at a single glance. On the other hand, in the novel the consecutive is more noticeable. And then there’s the fact that a work of three hundred pages depends on padding, on pages which are mere nexuses between one part and another. On the other hand, it’s possible for everything to be essential, or more or less essential, or — shall we say — appear to be essential, in a short story. I think there are stories of Kipling’s that are as dense as a novel, or of Conrad’s too. It’s true they’re not too short.
When Sorrentino pushes back against Borges’s self-alleged laziness — an incongruous notion given his prolific literary output — the author replies with a sublime affirmation that creative labor never feels like work and, to the extent that “laziness” is the avoidance of work, the best way to avoid work is by making a living out of what you love:
A writer’s work is the product of laziness, you see. A writer’s work essentially consists of taking his mind off things, of thinking about something else, of daydreaming, of not being in any hurry to go to sleep but to imagine something . . . And then comes the actual writing, and that’s his trade. That is, I don’t think the two things are incompatible. Besides, I think that when one is writing something that’s more or less good, one doesn’t feel it to be a chore; one feels it to be a form of amusement. A form of amusement that doesn’t exclude the use of intelligence, just as chess doesn’t exclude it, and chess is a game I’m very fond of and would like to know how to play — I’ve always been a poor chess player.
Towards the end of the final interview, Borges offers his counterpart to H. P. Lovecraft’s advice to aspiring writers and shares his own bit of wisdom:
I would advise that imaginary young man to study the classics; let him not try to be modern, because he already is; let him not try to be a man of a different epoch, to be a classical writer, because, indubitably, he cannot be this, since he is irreparably a young man of the twentieth century.
His parting words reflect on creativity, aging, hope, and legacy:
I believe one must not lose hope after fifty years. Besides, one learns by hard knocks, isn’t that so? I think I’ve committed all the literary errors possible and that this fact will allow me to succeed some day.
The image that I shall leave when I’m dead — we’ve already said that this is part of a poet’s works — and maybe the most important — I don’t know exactly what it will be, I don’t know if I’ll be viewed with indulgence, with indifference, or with hostility. Of course, that’s of little importance to me now; what does matter to me is not what I’ve written but what I am writing and what I’m going to write. And I think this is how every writer feels. Alfonso Reyes said that one published what he had written in order to avoid spending his life correcting it: one publishes a book in order to leave it behind, one publishes a book in order to forget it.
Seven Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges is a treasure trove of insight in its entirety, its magic best captured by Borges himself in the prologue, penned on July 13, 1972:
Paradoxically, the dialogues which take place between a writer and a journalist bear less resemblance to a question-and-answer session than to a kind of introspection. For the interviewer, they can be a chore which is not entirely free of fatigue and tedium; for the interviewee, they are like an adventure in which the hidden and the unforeseeable lie in wait. Fernando Sorrentino knows my work — let us use that term — much better than I do; this is due to the obvious fact that I have written it one single time and he has read it many times, a fact which makes it less mine than his. As I dictate these lines, I do not wish to slight his kindly perspicacity: how many afternoons, speaking face to face, has he guided me, as though it were unintentional, to the inevitable answers which later astonished me and which he, no doubt, had prepared.
Fernando Sorrentino is, in a word, one of my most generous inventors. I wish to take advantage of this page to tell him of my gratitude and the certainty of a friendship that will not be erased by the years.
Complement with Susan Sontag’s transcendent letter to Borges.
Published September 3, 2013