November 24, 2008
The Paris Review Interviews
This is less a review than a simple sigh of appreciation. For those unfamiliar, as I was myself a year or so ago, The Paris Review is an (American) quarterly literary magazine, published since 1953, and edited by George Plimpton for its first 50 years. Its most enduring contribution – in the words of one critic, “one of the single most persistent acts of cultural conservation in the history of the world” – is the Writers at Work interview. Here, in relentless detail, many of the most famous writers of the 20th century present ‘the Art of Fiction’ – or poetry, or drama. They got off to a good start in the first issue when Plimpton called on an old friend, E.M. Forster, who at that time had published no fiction for almost 30 years. The prestige of the names interviewed has rarely dipped since.
Canongate in the UK, and Picador in the US, have recently published the third collected volume of Paris Review Interviews. It is as rich in literary big hitters as the previous volumes: sixteen authors including John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Jean Rhys, Martin Amis, Evelyn Waugh, Harold Pinter, Georges Simenon and others. The interest comes not only in the answers but in the questions. How better to open an interview with Joyce Carol Oates than to say: “We may as well get this one over with first: you’re frequently charged with producing too much.” Oates responds:
I really don’t know what to say. I note and to some extent can sympathize with the objurgatory tone of certain critics, who feel that I write too much because, quite wrongly, they believe they ought to have read most of my books before attempting to criticize a recently published one.
Oates doesn’t get it: the main complaint as I understand it is that nobody so productive can be good all the time – and a corollary of that is that we never know which ones of hers to try to find her at her best. One critic said that Oates “slops words across a page like a washerwoman flinging soiled water across the cobblestones.” Incidentally, that interview was conducted in 1978, and in the thirty years since, Oates has produced 41 novels, 21 collections of stories, 7 novellas, 7 collections of plays, 9 books of criticism and essays, 3 volumes of poetry, and 7 children’s books.
Some authors reveal more of themselves than they might intend. Evelyn Waugh is as prickly and reactionary as we might expect, denying the value of experimentation:
Experiment? God forbid! Look at the results of experiment in the case of a writer like Joyce. He started off writing very well, then you can watch him going mad with vanity. He ends up a lunatic.
Others are more forthcoming, and both interviewee and reader benefit from the technique of these interviews, which is to go into the nuts and bolts of writing, so that John Cheever can discuss both experimentation (more generously than Waugh) -
Fiction is experimentation; when it ceases to be that, it ceases to be fiction. One never puts down a sentence without feeling that it has never been put down before in such a way, and that perhaps even the substance of the sentence has never been felt. Every sentence is an innovation.
- and his family’s response to his work.
The [Wapshot] Chronicle was not published – and this was a consideration – until after my mother’s death. An aunt who does not appear in the book said, I would never speak to him again if I didn’t know him to be a split personality.
The starting point of some of the questions may seem trivial – how many hours a day do you write? – but there can’t be many readers who don’t on some level thirst for this kind of thing, the minutiae of a writer’s life. As a result the interviews have the combined thrilling effect of an intellectual transfusion and a guilty pleasure.
I have only two criticisms of the newly published volume 3. The first is that in the UK edition, it has been printed on cheaper, thicker paper than the earlier volumes, making the book blockier and harder to read without the spine breaking. Also, its concentration on famous names robs the reader of the greatest delight of volumes 1 and 2, which was the discovery of fascinating names less well known to us now. In volume one, despite the presence of Hemingway, Bellow, Capote, Eliot, Borges and Vonnegut, the juiciest and most opinionated interviews are with Rebecca West (at almost 50 pages, one of the longest in the book) and Robert Gottlieb, fiction editor: his interview combines his own responses with those of the people whose books he shepherded into print, from Cynthia Ozick to Michael Crichton. Crichton recalls:
Once I called Bob because I had read a book he had edited and had found it redundant. I called him and said, Boy, that book wasn’t very well edited. There was a very snarky silence because he did not take criticism well at all. There was this long silence. Then he said, Dear boy! I think you should consider, when you read a book that seems to you to be not well-enough edited, that perhaps it has already been incredibly edited.
We also learn surprising things, such as Borges’ admiration for West Side Story. In volume 2, notable moments include Graham Greene’s first answer (“What will you have to drink?”) and Philip Larkin’s interview, which he insisted on conducting by letter. “You will get much better answers that way.” He was right, and he is funny and anecdotal when not dealing in the business of literature. When asked if he ever shows unfinished work to anyone, he responds:
What would be the point? You remember Tennyson reading an unpublished poem to Jowett; when he had finished, Jowett said, I shouldn’t publish that if I were you, Tennyson. Tennyson replied, if it comes to that, Master, the sherry you gave us at lunch was downright filthy.
And he is happy to play up to his reputation as a reactionary:
A writer once said to me, If you ever go to America, go either to the East Coast or the West Coast; the rest is a desert full of bigots. That’s what I think I’d like: where if you help a girl trim the Christmas tree you’re regarded as engaged; and her brothers start oiling their shotguns if you don’t call on the minister. A version of pastoral.
Larkin was interviewed in 1982, and sadly – and accurately – refers to his work as a poet in the past tense throughout; he would publish nothing else, and died three years later. Shy of publicity and interviews, he nonetheless agreed to the Paris Review’s request: “I can see I should be in good company.” Indeed, and the only regret about this series – a fourth volume is planned – is all the writers they can’t include. Fortunately, the Paris Review’s website includes a list of all the authors interviewed since its inception, and some interviews are available to download in their entirety. It’s a treasure trove.