Literary criticism

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 April, 2007, 12:00am

The Paris Review Interviews: Volume 1

by the editors of The Paris Review

Canongate, HK$225

Literary reporting is one of journalism's greatest scams. Anyone can write about authors. The recorded message on the MTR could get a good interview out of a nervous debut novelist - in any of the three languages. While the hacks covering every other beat, from politics to pop music, need surgically sharp instincts to cut out rhetoric and complexity or give life to tedium, a blunt instrument is the best tool in a literary interview. Short, vague questions guarantee results. Some authors detest giving interviews. But once the recorder is on they do their best to be intellectual celebrities - highlighting their cleverness while appearing warm, open and worth reading.

Whereas politicians and pop stars need to be prodded towards ideas, authors are best left to wander.

A good interview can start and end with: So, why did you write this book? The interviewer should let the author talk, resisting the urge to even nod or add 'hmm' or 'I see'. Most authors will provide at least 3,000 words of good quotes by the end of a one-hour, one-question interview. Those quotes will wind through the writer's methods, views, homelife and gossip on fellow scribes. Author profiles in the Sunday Morning Post are about 1,400 words, which is as long as you'll find in most newspaper's books pages. So the journalist need only thread the best remarks, and use as many as possible - give journalists more than a few paragraphs between quotes and they'll start claiming that the way the author drew breath halfway through the phone interview exposed the crux of his personality.

But newspaper editors have decided that people don't like lively author profiles that are easy to read at weekends. What readers want, apparently, are dense trends pieces. Whereas a profile of a pop star can fill a broadsheet page without a line about whether the album has any technique, the more interesting and articulate authors are ignored, and their aims are conveyed to readers by third parties in essays or reviews. The circuit of literary festivals grows each year, thanks to readers who are keen to get to know authors. The more highbrow the literary journalism, the more likely that criticism will squeeze out the author profile.

Then we get to the intellectual summit of literary hackdom, The Paris Review, and find long, loose author interviews transcribed as questions and answers.

Founders Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton had William Styron write the introduction to the first issue. He announced that the Review was 'removing criticism from the dominating place it holds in most literary magazines and putting it pretty much where it belongs, ie, somewhere near the back of the book'. With criticism back at the front of the book, 54 years later, the Review has released the first collection of its best interviews.

These long interrogations, sometimes conducted over years, will fascinate anxious would-be writers - the kind who grab the front row at events during the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival, so they can ask authors: 'How do you start a novel?'

Hemingway liked to stand while typing, but was otherwise 'spooked' about saying too much about the writing process.

Rebecca West says she wishes she could do a book in one draft. 'Do you know anyone who can?'

Her interviewer replies: 'I think D.H. Lawrence did'.

West: 'You could often tell.'

She dismisses Tolstoy, says Somerset Maugham 'couldn't write for toffee' and describes E.M. Forster's A Passage to India as 'all about people making a fuss about nothing, which isn't really enough'.

Like most of the writers in the collection - which includes editor Robert Gottlieb and filmmaker Billy Wilder - Saul Bellow says he's unsatisfied with himself.

T.S. Elliot looks back at his youthful self as someone who lacked the skill to be apprehensible: 'In The Waste Land I wasn't even bothering whether I understood what I was saying.'

Dorothy Parker, alone and aged in 1956, her New York flat full of lamb chops, newspapers and a rubber doll - 'it's throat torn from ear to ear' - considers herself a failed wit: 'A 'smartcracker' they called me, and that makes me sick and unhappy. There's a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is simply calisthenics with words.'

Kurt Vonnegut's Paris Review interview was quoted around the world when he died this month. He discusses how his experience as a PoW in Dresden when the allies firebombed it, killing 135,000 people, became his best novel, Slaughterhouse Five.

'Only one person on the entire planet benefited from the raid, which must have cost tens of millions of dollars. The raid didn't shorten the war by half a second, didn't weaken a German defence or attack anywhere, didn't free a single person from a death camp. Only one person benefited - not two or five or 10. Just one ... Me. I got three dollars for each person killed. Imagine that.'

Editor Philip Gourevitch makes no attempt in his introduction to explain why the interviews with Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Stone, Richard Price, Jack Gilbert, Elizabeth Bishop, and James M. Cain were chosen, or whether they're the best. But each rambling one has more elegant sense than what Styron called the 'learned chatter' in the bulk of literary journals.