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The Books Interview: Nicholson Baker

Your new book, The Anthologist, is full of poetry.The narrator, Paul Chowder, is a poet trying to write the introduction to an anthology called Only Rhyme. He has these theories about rhyme and meter, which he's describing, as well as what is going on around him.Do you write poetry yourself?

I did write some poetry in college. My prose style came out of reading 19th-century English writers like Thomas De Quincey, and even earlier writers such as Boswell and Johnson. And then I'd read these American poets - Howard Moss, William Snodgrass, Elizabeth Bishop. And I got tremendously excited by them and was inspired to write a certain kind of observational fiction - but I knew I couldn't write poetry.

Did you have to read a lot of anthologies?

I love anthologies - I have about a hundred of them - but in order to write this book convincingly I had to simulate what would be in a poet's mind at the age of 50 or so. To do that, I had a spell, a sudden burst, of extra reading and I let it moulder down. The way memory works is hard to simulate and that's one of the challenges. How do you make a believable retrospective person when you don't have the same kind of memory?

Voice is very important in all your books.

It's important to get the voice right. I spoke into an audio device; I spoke and typed at the same time, talked into a video camera. And what I found was that the first time I explained some of Paul's theories on poetry it came out a little stiff and forced. It was the way you'd teach it if you'd just figured it out. But this is a fiftysomething poet. He's had this theory kicking around in his head for years, so I had to rewrite it over and again. I was just trying to find the right way of saying it.

Are you a great reviser of your work?

I am a very inefficient writer. What I find is that the pages which work are those where the person is sitting somewhere, walking somewhere, riding an escalator. So that's what I use.

You write about tiny moments in people's lives rather than dealing with big plots.

Being a thinking person in a specific place gets me going more than if I started with a story. I have tried to write third-person novels and stories, but they just didn't come naturally.

Sex was very much a part your early success. Would you go back to the subject?

You go through phases as a writer. Some of the earlier books were trying to be more finished; but I'd given up on that. Vox and The Fermata came from a secret fantasy I had when I was 11 or 12. I had this fantasy that I could stop time and take off women's clothes. I tried to put it into Vox. But it started to take over the book, so I left it for The Fermata. People had different reactions to it, but yes, I may come back to the subject.

You've written about your recent obsession with Wikipedia. Do you think it's good for writers?

I love Wikipedia, but I do want to make sure that at least the background to my books is correct. If you wrote, for example, that someone reached for the upper doorknob in a world where we don't have two doorknobs, you'd know it was false. If you read it 300 years later, however, you might not.

Did you expect such controversy over Human Smoke, your history of the beginning of the Second World War?

I remember being on a radio show just after the book came out and the presenter asked me if I was ready for the kind of spitting rage that this book was going to provoke. I thought that as the book presents a series of documents and facts to consider, it wouldn't anger people in that way. But it did. It made me angry, too. I didn't want the British cabinet to be talking about the starvation of Europe in 1939. It was troubling, because I am an Anglophile, and for me Britain is my civilisation, much more than America. There's something about the British character that just deeply appeals to me.

“The Anthologist" is published by Simon & Schuster (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture