When British author Geoff Dyer came to speak at Zócalo Public Square at the Getty Museum, he was prepared to be a bore. “It’s going to be the classic definition,” he said, “the bore, the person who lectures you about something you already know more about.”
Dyer, a novelist, memoirist, journalist, and critic, may have been inspired by the museum setting, but he worried that attendees would know about art, and know a lot. He devoted his talk to a specific work, but he held his cards close, not explaining that much beforehand, either in his opening remarks or in my interview with him.
For all the audience knew when they sat down, Dyer was planning to read his fiction. Or talk about jazz or the Venice Biennale, both of which he has covered as a reporter. Or launch into a discussion of the art of Burning Man. (“My evangelical phase about Burning Man is well and truly in the past,” he admitted, although he said he was once passionate about it.)
Instead, he told a story, one that led listeners in to his experience of an artwork and what it meant to him—without revealing, until the very end, what artwork he was talking about. He showed only one slide, and it wasn’t the subject of the talk. It would ruin the experience if I were to tell what it is, but with 40 minutes and an Internet connection, you can see the whole thing here.
Dyer pushes against expectations in his published work, too. He doesn’t think the division between fiction and nonfiction is all that interesting. “The most basic distinction—did it or didn’t it really happen—doesn’t actually get you very far,” he said. Readers have different expectations for each genre, but he likes to disrupt them. “What I don’t like is constructing a book that fits in with any kind of generic template, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.”
His most recent book, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, follows a writer very much like himself to the Biennale, and then to India, a path he has taken. But as close as the Jeff in the story may come to real-life Geoff, he’s still Jeff with a “J,” a subtle distinction that telegraphs that this book is not completely true. “We still go to nonfiction for content. And if it’s well-written, that’s a bonus,” he said. “But we don’t often talk about the nonfiction work of art. That’s what I’m very interested in.”
“I like the idea that people are reading one of my books, and they’re not quite sure if it’s behaving as it’s meant to be behaving. Calling that last book Jeff in Venice with a ‘J’ foregrounds that question.”
Much of his work—books on jazz and yoga and D.H. Lawrence (technically, a book about not writing about D.H. Lawrence)—comes from the perspective of an enthusiastic, intelligent amateur. During the question-and-answer period of the Zócalo event, Dyer explained he’s picked a new subject and then “just sort of barged in.” He went on to say that he’d written an essay about this—“My Life as a Gatecrasher”—published in 2006 by The Threepenny Review.
But for all his concerns about not knowing much about art, he does, in fact, know quite a bit. His intelligent enthusiasm has led him to reported from the Venice Biennale and Burning Man multiple times. He’s written a book on photography, and his very first book was a critical take on the art critic John Berger.
Published in 1987, Ways of Telling: Works of John Berger is, Dyer says, “an unbelievably boring little book. Almost as soon as I finished it, I thought, God, why did I do that? There was this writer I loved so much, who’s made so many freedoms available in terms of how you write about art, and what do I do? I subject his work to this really timid, subacademic form of processing. It’s justifiably out of print.”
“The good thing is, it got that stuff out of my system,” he explains. “Moving ahead a couple of books, that book about jazz was dedicated to him. I thought that was a much more appropriate tribute to him, really; in a way I’m trying to listen to music with a kind of intensity that Berger looked at paintings, and to maybe respond to it in a similar way to the way he wrote about art.”
Berger’s Ways of Seeing asked viewers to look at the assumptions they were making about art. By keeping the subject of his talk a secret, Dyer forced all assumptions aside. Instead, the Zócalo audience came to his talk as he wanted to approach the artwork itself—as pure experience.