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Human Voices: Carola Dibbell Interviewed
Eric Obenauf , April 5th, 2015 11:37

Eric Obenauf, publisher and editor at the excellent Two Dollar Radio, talks to rightly-celebrated rock critic, writer and — as of this month — novelist, Carola Dibbell about being an out "women's libber" in the male-dominated 70s music-writing scene, the potential for stream-crossing in music criticism and fiction and, of course, her debut novel The Only Ones. (Artwork by Greg Skrtic)

At Two Dollar Radio, I’d like to imagine that we’ve carved out something of a reputation for publishing bold work from fresh voices. We do a lot of first novels. While two of our early successes came while publishing books by writers who had been around the publishing block – Rudolph Wurlitzer and Jay Neugeboren – in the recent past, the majority of the novels we’ve published have been authored by writers under age forty. This month, we’re releasing another debut novel with a sharp, engaging voice, but it’s by a writer on the eve of her 70th birthday.

Carola Dibbell is most broadly known as a rock critic, writing for the Village Voice for a number of years, and having her work anthologised by Rolling Stone and others. The Only Ones follows Inez Fardo in the aftermath of a wave of global pandemics. Inez, strangely immune to disease, makes her living as a test-subject. Her latest job is supplying genetic material to an affluent woman who lost four children in a month. When the woman backs out at the last minute, Inez is left caring for the product: a baby girl. An early review in Nylon Magazine called it “a genre-bending work of punk-rock science fiction.”

You were an early rock critic at a time when few women were doing it, appearing in the Village Voice and other alternative weeklies alongside critics like Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Paul Neson, and your husband, "Dean of American Rock Critics" Robert Christgau. How daunting was that?

Carola Dibbell: When I started writing rock criticism in the 70s, it was still relatively new territory, with rock itself remaining a pretty disreputable subject and the writing keeping pace—slangy, funny, sometimes very personal, sometimes formally wild, and often quite political. I was a political and literary young woman who had never managed to be genteel or have any manners to speak of, and this writing helped me find my voice.

The place of women in the guy-heavy world of early rock critics was not as bad as you might guess. Ellen Willis, a feminist, was one of the co-inventors of rock criticism in the late 60s; she became the first pop columnist in the well-behaved New Yorker. But well before then, a middle-aged Jane Scott had published the first American rock criticism, a review of the Beatles for the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1964. An Australian woman, Lillian Roxon, wrote the first rock encyclopedia in 1969. Lisa Robinson, today the music editor of Vanity Fair, co-founded Rock Scene magazine in 1973. By then, Jaan Uhelski was already out there with the Creem boys in Detroit, with Robbie Cruger a regular. Patti Smith also sometimes wrote for Creem.

In those early years, with critics acting like fans and fans like critics, many unlikely types wrote rock criticism —in the Village Voice music section my husband edited, future novelist Jamaica Kincaid reviewed Teddy Pendergrass. As an out "women's libber," you could for sure encounter hostility and flak in rock circles, but at the same time rock criticism was open to amateurs, as long as they were fans, so even though my own background was a little iffy, I felt surprisingly comfortable doing reviews and interviews. And punk itself, with its DIY values as well as its strong female presence, was an inspiration.

I should add that I would have been much less comfortable without those earlier women writers. I should also add that women were rarely the ones who ended up doing well in the field, though by the late 70s, Mary Harron's voice was heard in both New York and London, and Caroline Coon, Vivien Goldman, and especially Julie Burchill were becoming forces in British pop writing. I loved former teen pop critic Caitlin Moran's novel about a teen pop critic, How to Build a Girl. But it remains a guy-heavy profession, though Ann Powers, who has been a smart and humane presence at the New York Times, L.A. Times, and currently NPR, is arguably America's most influential critic today.

While you've published fiction in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Black Clock, and Fence, The Only Ones will be your first published novel, and it will be released just before your 70th birthday. Can you talk about the process you've gone through to get to this point?

CD: I always saw myself as mainly a fiction writer and spent more time working on stories or longer fiction than criticism, even though I had much less success placing the fiction. When my husband and I adopted a baby in 1985, I decided I couldn’t juggle everything, gave up the unpredictability of journalism, went back to the draft of a novel, Girl Talk, that I had never managed to place, rewrote it, got a new agent, still couldn't get it published, rewrote it again, and still got nowhere. And I have to say, I don’t fully understand why I kept trying, after that. It's an odd thing—I am not the most confident person, but I always believed in my work and trusted myself more than the publishers who turned it down.

Really to keep myself from getting clinically depressed, I began a new project as I sent Girl Talk off for what would prove its final round of rejections, in the late 90s. I'd also started doing a little reviewing again and found some younger women interested enough in my work to put it in a couple of collections of rock writing by women—the Ann Powers/Evelyn McDonnell project Rock She Wrote and Barbara Odair's Trouble Girls: The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock. I began to wonder if my rock criticism, which was vulgar and funny, was actually better than my subtle fiction. I wrote a novella or perhaps chapbook in that spirit, [Real Piece of Work], which my personal posse of readers liked so much I thought my ship was finally going to come in. And guess what? I couldn’t publish it. (It's on my website now at and was eventually excerpted, after a ten years wait.)

But somehow, I believed in what I was doing even more. I wrote another odd-lengthed, odd-voiced work in this same spirit—still no go. I set to work on another. And at this point, where it might have seemed that I'd become a total loser, if not completely out of my mind, I noticed another odd thing. My friends were starting to act as if I was doing something heroic. That made a great difference to me. But I'm not sure I would have stopped anyway. And like I say, I'm still not sure why.

The work itself had started to move in a speculative direction, first by happenstance, then because I'd liked where it took the plots. I decided to try my hand at some sort of science fiction, using my history of infertility, my experience of adoption, and the new things I was doing with voice. I started to write what became The Only Ones, a dystopian novel about a reproductive experiment told by a semi-literate woman.

One last thing I should say about the long process of getting the book into print. People talk about how important it is to have contacts in publishing. I know a lot of published writers, but their good words had never done me a bit of good, for years. I didn't make an easy sale on this project either, even with an energetic agent in my corner. But this time, I believe the right words at the right time here and there actually tilted the balance. I think about a line from a Bonnie Raitt song: "It's just the luck of the draw. You don't know how lucky you are." Sometimes a little lucky is all you need to be.

In your mind, how do you see the two merging—music criticism and fiction writing?

CD: When I talk about the ways writing rock criticism influenced my writing, I'm usually thinking of out-there gonzo style, especially Lester Bangs's. Lester had novelistic ambitions, and his language was funny, rhythmic, and unpredictable. I already had a taste for the great novelists literary snobs claim can't write—Theodore Dreiser, Doris Lessing. Unmanicured language and stories that don't quite stay in the box seemed truer to me. But goofing around in that funny way I first read in rock criticism—mashing up highbrow ideas with supposedly lowbrow subjects, writing a little rough or lopsided or loopy or inappropriately personal—that was just plain fun to do, strangely satisfying, like scratching an itch. I feel that way about Inez Fardo's voice (the protagonist of The Only Ones), with its funny grammar and leaps of logic.

As a music reviewer, you can spend a lot of time listening to and thinking about human voices. Timbre, timing, character, tone, all that. Even just hearing music my husband reviews, now that I've practically stopped doing it, gives me voices to think about. The conversational rhythms of some hip hop voices, pronunciation—I hear Inez Fardo like one of the old New York CBGBs punks, many of whom were, like her, from the big and surprising borough of Queens. And of course, there's the amount of time you spend noticing rhythm.

But the impact of the music and the language of writing about it had a more general impact on me, too. That's to say, loving pop and beat-driven music made me wonder why I wasn't writing some fiction equivalent, like genre—readable, not too highbrow, but artful and complex in its own way. So that's what I hope I did in The Only Ones.

The Only Ones is out now, published by Two Dollar Radio.