A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In his introduction to the second collection of Paris Review interviews (I’ll admit that I haven’t read the first, but it hardly seems necessary to read them in any particular order), Orhan Pamuk writes frankly about the crises of confidence he suffered as a young writer. Cautiously hopeful about his chances of success, yet dogged by anxiety about the costs of failure, he discovered in The Paris Review the inspiring voices of those who had made it: established writers with a corpus of recognized work already behind them, describing their insecurities and failures as well as their triumphs. Pamuk writes of his loneliness fading away as he glimpsed similarities between his own experiences and those of his literary idols, including Faulkner, Sartre and Mann. Aspiring and published writers alike – not to mention anyone interested in twentieth-century fiction – will discover similar delights in the latest collection of conversations dating from 1953 to 2006.
Although each interview is prefaced with a brief description of the location, timing and circumstances of the meeting – be it in a hotel room, over lunch at the writer’s home, or squeezed between other appointments in a university office – the transcripts are presented in strict dialogue format, with no narrative interference from the interviewers. There is no need for description: the subjects’ voices leap off the page, each distinctive personality brought to life through their anecdotes, quips, counter-interrogations, minor asides and personal confessions.
Philip Larkin, when not casting prickly judgements on modernism, particularly with regard to music (“The chromatic scale is what you use to give the effect of drinking a quinine martini and having an enema simultaneously”), is impressively honest about his vocation: “I never had the least desire to “be” anything when I was at school,” he says, “and by the time I went to Oxford the war was on and there wasn’t anything to be except a serviceman or a teacher or a civil servant… The Civil Service turned me down twice, and I thought, Well, that lets me out, and I sat at home writing Jill.”
Of course, most writers followed a thornier path to success. Peter Carey’s account of his first rejection will strike a chord with anyone who has sent off an unsolicited submission to an agent or publisher. Barely out of school, Carey submitted a manuscript to Geoffrey Dutton of Sun Books in Australia. “[Dutton] wrote me a letter saying, This is fantastic, we love the character, we’d love to publish it. Imagine, I was twenty-four years old. I was about to leave Australia for the first time, so on my passport application, in the space where they ask for your profession, I wrote author. Then I went to a meeting in Melbourne with Dutton and his partner. The partner spent all of the meeting looking for a spelling mistake he’d discovered on page three or four. And I slowly realised that they weren’t going to publish it.”
Alice Munro’s reminiscences about her formative years as a writer reveal much about the tug-of-war between an individual’s creative instinct and ‘real’ life: “I think I married to be able to write, to settle down and give my attention back to the important thing,” she admits. “Sometimes now when I look back at those early years I think, This was a hard-hearted young woman. I’m a far more conventional woman now than I was then.”
It is particularly interesting to compare the contrast of opinions on the value of creative writing courses and the pitfalls of combining a career in fiction with journalism or academia. Faulkner, in typically brusque fashion, declares that “The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice.” One suspects that Isaac Bashevis Singer would agree: “I think that journalism is a healthier occupation for a writer than teaching, especially if he teaches literature. By teaching literature, the writer gets accustomed to analyzing literature all the time. One man, a critic, said to me, I could never write anything because the moment I write the first line I am already writing an essay about it… It is very bad when a writer it half writer and half critic. He writes essays about his heroes instead of telling a story.” But what about Harold Bloom, who for years has been one of America’s most popular university lecturers? In his words, “The idea of Herman Melville in a writing class is always distressing to me.”
John Gardner is more positive about the value of workshops: “When you’re reading only classical literature, all the bad stuff has been filtered out. There are no bad works in either Greek or Anglo-Saxon, so when you read this kind of literature, you never really learn how a piece can go wrong [which you can by looking at a work in progress]. The other thing that’s helpful is that there are an awful lot of people who at the age of seventeen or eighteen can write as well as you do. That’s a frightening discovery.” But Gabriel Garcia Marquez is scathing about the expectations of such young hopefuls: “These young writers are wasting their time writing to critics rather than working on their own writing. It’s much more important to write than to be written about. One thing that I think was very important about my literary career was that until I was forty years old, I never got one cent of author’s royalties, though I’d had five books published.”
Alice Munro, while teaching writing at York University in the 1970s, describes the time a student who wasn’t in her class brought her a story to read. “I remember tears came into my eyes because it was so good…she asked, How can I get into your class? And I said, Don’t! Don’t come near my class, just keep bringing me your work. And she has become a writer. The only one who did.”
Despite – or perhaps because of – the modern explosion in writing schools, many professional authors are critical of what they deem to be declining standards in fiction. Here is Faulkner again: “It is true that poetry had suffered a great blow in our time. But not because of television or other things, but because poetry itself became bad. Good literature has nothing to fear from technology.” And Gardner: “No novel can please for very long without plot as the centre of its argument. We get too many books full of meaning by innuendo…this has been partly a fault of the way we’ve been studying and teaching literature, of course. Our talk of levels and all that.”
For his part, Harold Bloom is intensely sceptical of feminist criticism (“The true test is to find work, whether past or present, by women writers that we had undervalued…by that test they have failed, because they have added not one to the canon. The women writers who mattered – Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and others who have always mattered on aesthetic grounds – still matter”) but his ruminations on Shakespeare are perhaps more interesting. “What we think of as Freudian psychology is really a Shakespearean invention and, for the most part, Freud is merely codifying it,” he suggests. “I’m not so sure Shakespeare doesn’t largely invent what we think of as cognition. I remember saying this to a seminar consisting of professional teachers of Shakespeare and one of them got very indignant and said, You are confusing Shakespeare with God. I don’t see why one shouldn’t, as it were.”
Given the opportunity to expound his opinions on declining standards of “morality” in literature – although not the good/bad species of morality one might expect – Gardener says, “Fiction goes immoral when it stops being fair…you lie about characters, you make people do what you want them to do. This is characteristic of most hot-shot writers around now. [John O’Hara] is a great writer, though he wrote badly. But what he does morally, that is to say, what he does in terms of analysis of character and honest statement about the way the world is, is very good. Of course, some writers last a long time because of their brilliance, their style. Fitzgerald is a good writer – a fine stylist. But he never quite got to the heart of things. Samuel Beckett is loved by critics, but, except for John Fowles, I hear no one pointing out that the tendency of all he says is wrong. He says it powerfully, with tragicomic brilliance, and he believes it, but what he says is not quite sound.”
Of course, many top writers are also their own worst critics. According to James Thurber, “My wife took a look at the first version of something I was doing not long ago and said, God damn it, Thurber, that’s high-school stuff. I have to tell her to wait until the seventh draft, it’ll work out all right. I don’t know why that should be so, that the first or second draft of everything I write reads as if it was turned out by a charwoman.” Or Toni Morrison: “If someone asked me, What do you do? I wouldn’t say, Oh I’m a writer. I’d say, I’m an editor, or, I’m a teacher. Because when you meet people and go to lunch, if they say, What do you do? and you say, I’m a writer, they have to think about that, and then they ask, What have you written? Then they have to either like it or not like it. People feel obliged to like or not like and say so.”
Stephen King is even more direct. When not rebutting critics who disapprove of his use of brand names in fiction (“It’s a Pepsi, OK? It’s not a soda. It’s a Pepsi. It’s a specific thing. Say what you mean. Say what you see”), he speaks directly about every writer’s aim: “I’ve always thought that the sort of book that I do – and I’ve got enough ego to think that every novelist should do this – should be a kind of personal assault. It ought to be somebody lunging right across the table and grabbing you and messing you up.” King tells several amusing stories about the “research” he has performed to create authenticity in even his most nightmarish thrillers. In one case, his wife discovered him tying his son to his bed (“I think it was Joe because he’s the more limber of the two boys”), only to be told that King was hoping to discover whether a person would have to be double-jointed to free himself.
For the most part, the interviewers are very good at pressing their authors to expand on throwaway comments, although several ambiguous one-liners do make it through with little explanation (Graham Greene’s statement, “I don’t think that the books one reads as an adult influence one as a writer” should buoy the children’s writers among us). Many of the old-guard seem only too eager to impress readers with stinging home truths (Faulkner: “The good writer never applies to a foundation. He’s too busy writing something. If he isn’t first-rate he fools himself by saying he hasn’t got time or economic freedom”) but these are tempered with inspiring words (“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than you contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself”), not to mention wisdom and poignancy (Marquez: “The only thing I really regret in life is not having a daughter”).
Perhaps James Baldwin sums it up best: “The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out,” he says. “But something forces you anyway… You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it.” In an anecdote describing Gertrude Stein’s response to Picasso’s portrait of her, Baldwin hits on the prescience exhibited by the greatest artists – the prophetic eye which ensures the admiration of their work by future generations, and our continuing fascination with them. “Gertrude said, I don’t look like that. And Picasso replied, You will. And he was right.”
The Paris Review Interviews, Vol II; Philip Gourevitch, ed., Picador 2007, 500 pp. ISBN 13:978-0-312-36314-7