the observer Sun 23 November 2008
Starting with EM Forster in spring 1953, every issue of the literary magazine Paris Review has carried an interview with a writer on some or other aspect of their art (fiction, poetry, screenwriting). From 1958 onwards, collections of these interviews were published under the general stewardship of George Plimpton, the Review's long-time editor.
This book is the third and supposedly final volume in a new series, edited by Plimpton's successor, Philip Gourevitch, that gathers the greatest hits of the earlier series, as well as providing a more durable and accessible home for recent interviews, such as the magazine's second bout with Norman Mailer, conducted in April 2007.
The form is Q&A, with a short, scene-setting preamble. The questions treat writing as a job like any other, a profession rather than a 'calling'. The effect of this approach is demystification. Martin Amis, Ted Hughes and Jan Morris all have things to say about the relative merits of composing by hand and by typewriter.
Perceived enemies to the work include television and dogmatism (Harold Pinter insists that there is 'no question' of him getting involved in politics), while the writers' chief ally is a good editor, with John Cheever providing a definition: 'A man I think charming, who sends me large cheques, praises my work, my physical beauty and my sexual prowess and who has a stranglehold on the publisher and the bank.'
As a rule, the interviewees are engaging anecdotalists and autobiographers, but weaker when it comes to literary matters. Even practitioner-critics such as Mailer prove inarticulate about the nuances of character and style, and discussion of influence usually descends into lists of beloved writers. It may be ungrateful to complain when the interviews offer so many other pleasures, but some of the writers' views are too extreme and silly to ignore - William Carlos Williams calling himself 'a better poet' than Emily Dickinson, for instance, or Evelyn Waugh dismissing Joyce as a 'lunatic'.