Nowadays we're inundated with authors' commentary on their work. Jose Saramago blogs. Margaret Atwood Tweets. Literary novelists are expected to be available for phone chats with book clubs.
It's difficult in the midst of all this lit-chatter to conceptualize exactly how groundbreaking The Paris Review interviews were when they started to appear in the early 1950s. But as editor Philip Gourevitch has observed, most midcentury literary magazines were preoccupied with literary criticism. The upstart journal's decision to forgo all of that in favor of publishing writers' discussions about their own work was fortuitous.
In a four-volume collection culled from The Paris Review's massive archive, we learn that James Baldwin improvised his sermons, Joan Didion originally wanted to be an actor, Dorothy Parker hated her reputation as a "smartcracker," E.B. White "was never a voracious reader," brainy puzzle-maker Jorge Luis Borges admired Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut was hurt when a reviewer asked critics who'd praised Vonnegut in the past "to now admit in public how wrong they'd been," and Jack Kerouac, a combative and insufferable interviewee, was deeply invested in seeming clever.
The advice on offer to aspiring writers is vast — and sometimes contradictory. In his introduction, Orhan Pamuk recalls discovering Faulkner's interview while he was holed up with his first novel after dropping out of architectural school, and finding the answer to the question that seemed most urgent: "What sort of person should I now become?" An artist, in Faulkner's view, is "completely immoral in that he will rob, beg, borrow or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done. ... The writer's only responsibility is to his art." Toni Morrison would disagree. "Why should I get to steal from you? I don't like that. What I really love is the process of invention." These strongly held opposing views, bound between the same covers, give the volumes immense energy.
Of course, there are deficiencies. The talk with Graham Greene, one of my favorite writers, is stiff, brief and strangely bloodless. And diversity is lacking.
What separates the best of these conversations from your average author chat, though, is that they take place, by and large, over days or months or years. The interviewer and writer stake out positions. They return time and again, like old friends (or enemies), to debates and ideas they know well. The final interviews, culled from all of this material, are the best kind of fiction. Erased of the cliches, plot summaries and rote commentary that form the bulk of the slapdash author Q&As we see so frequently now, The Paris Review's collection enables us to continue believing that the authors we revere are effortlessly wise and entertaining and spend their lives imparting wisdom about how to write well.