XU’s Dr. Conner Bassett explains weirdness, politics, art and his new novel Gad’s Book
By Griffin Brammar, A&E Editor
“There really is no reason to make art,” Xavier’s newest creative writing professor Dr. Conner Bassett said, “other than people just f*cking want to.”
This credo to creativity served as some of the strongest inspiration for Bassett when writing his first novel, Gad’s Book, which was released earlier this month.
The book centers around a tech worker-turned-writer who accidentally joins a group who may or may not be associated with Antifa.
“When I was a child, I told people I wanted to be a writer,” Bassett said. However, he admitted that in the years that followed he never did much writing.
It was an Asian literature class in college that reignited his flame for writing. “(The poems we read) had an emotional import. That’s when I started writing poems,” Bassett said. From there, he received his MFA in poetry from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and studied American poetry at the University of California Santa Cruz.
However, during his first year of poetry studies, Bassett recounted how he was never required to read a single poem, only books on theory. This caused him to question what his studies were all about.
“I found myself getting disillusioned with poetic theory,” Bassett said.
“Somewhere along the line, I found my poems trending more and more towards narrative,” he said. Bassett credited novelists like Don DeLillo and Donald Barthelme for reminding him of his love of literature. “I like the stories — the experience, not so much the theorizing, or the scholarship. I wanted to get into the ‘writing’ not so much the ‘academia.’”
After that realization, Bassett began work on Gad’s Book. “I haven’t written a poem since,” he said.
Recounting those experiences, Bassett explained how he uses the political organization implied to be Antifa to explore the complexities of art and political opinion as the character dives deeper and deeper into the group.
“There’s this constant demand to serve culture and not art. Art should be subservient to the culture and serve politics. That to me is an impediment to artmaking,” he said. “Really what this book is about for me is the confusion, the disorientation and the contradictions of thinking about politics nowadays.”
Bassett used the main character’s status as a writer to provide commentary on this political agenda. Every time the protagonist tells someone about his novel, they assume it serves some greater purpose or agenda, and he ends up being forced to discard his original ideas.
“In that sense, it’s very autobiographical,” Bassett said, laughing.
However, the similarities between author and character end there. “The real answer to that question is I don’t know,” Bassett said, when prodded on how much the protagonist was meant to resemble himself. Bassett said that he shares a lot of the character’s anxieties, and he arrived at the interview dressed identically to the protagonist. “If anything, the main character is a hyperbolic version of myself — a caricature.”
Bassett’s apprehension to typical academia is in part why he came to Xavier in the first place. “Frankly, if I’m being totally honest, I’m interested in teaching at religious institutions because they feel more liberated than state schools,” he said, pointing out how there are many ideas that can’t be presented at a typical state school. “This sounds cliche, but I’m drawn to the Jesuit mission.”
One of the first things Bassett teaches his classes is that he is a firm lover of all things weird in literature. Bassett also admits that Gad’s Book is a perfect example of the weirdness he loves. “I took Toni Morrison’s advice to write a book that you’d want to read,” Bassett said. “This is a book I’d want to read.”
When asked why he loves the literary weird so much, Bassett was conflicted.
“This feels like a moment where I have to say something important, and I have a hundred things I want to say,” he said
“The more pleasing something is, the less likely that thing is to reflect reality,” Bassett said. “There’s something about ‘weird’ that approximates the real.”
His perspective about weirdness as the best expression of reality harkens back to his childhood dreams of being a writer. He explained that he was influenced by a production of Waiting for Godot as a kid.
“You can imagine what that was like for an eight-year-old,” Bassett said. “I left the theater feeling like I had no idea what just happened, but whatever it was it was really important. I wanted to recreate that feeling.”
In the end, Bassett hopes that the weirdness rubs off on his readers.
“(I hope people get) an experience. Maybe a little jolt of disorientation. Maybe a little wake up call of some kind,” he said. “I hope they’re a little beguiled. A little unsettled.”
Mostly, though, Bassett implored readers to stop thinking about what art can teach them. “It assumes art only has a singular thing to give,” he said. “It also assumes the author has any idea what he’s doing.”
Finally, Bassett left with a piece of advice for all writers. “Endurance is a writer’s greatest strength,” he said.