restricted access Interviews with Contemporary Novelists, and: Going to the Territory (review)
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Reviewed by
Diana Cooper-Clark. Interviews with Contemporary Novelists. New York: St. Martin's, 1986. 297 pp. $25.00.
Ralph Ellison. Going to the Territory. New York: Random, 1986. 338 pp. $19.95.

Why does one read interviews with authors? Diana Cooper-Clark confronts the question directly in her introduction to Interviews with Contemporary Novelists, explaining that "when a writer enchants me, I want to breathe the same air, ascend the heights in conversation, and in some small measure follow the creative river to its source. . . ." She conducted her interviews, she explains, to "talk to the writers about contemporary literature in general, and their work in particular, and give them an opportunity to respond to critical interpretations of their work." As a group, the twelve interviews also suggest an unarticulated agenda. Cooper-Clark seems to want the authors to denounce feminists and critics, especially those employing any theoretical perspectives developed in the last two decades, to reject many contemporary modes of fiction (metafiction for example), and to disdain a number of specific writers. She seems, in fact, to score herself a point each time she elicits a dismissive comment about Barth or Pynchon. Those authors who follow Cooper-Clark's lead thus end up providing the most fatuous and least interesting interviews. Erica Jong, for example, who is neither stupid nor ignorant, wastes much space succumbing to Cooper-Clark's agenda. Margaret Drabble, similarly, does not appear to her best advantage, but it is easy to see why in the light of such questions as: "What is your feeling about the particular kind of labelling that goes on in the critical world, especially the feminist critical world?"

The interviews, nevertheless, provide interesting moments. Ehe Wiesel articulately discusses the moral and educational imperatives that impel his work. Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortázar both elucidate the principles behind their stylistic experiments, and Toni Morrison provides generously detailed analyses of some of her novels. The book also contains interviews with Nadine Gordimer, Robertson Davies, I. B. Singer, Vasily Aksyonov, Mary Gordon, and Colin Wilson, who announces (for those readers as yet unaware) that "I probably am the greatest writer of the twentieth century but I don't care about it any more. It doesn't worry me," he reassures everyone, "one way or the other."

Interviews of course can do more than let us breathe the author's "same air," however hot or tepid. In addition to feeding the fan's need for intimacy, good interviews can meet the scholar's need for information, both biographical and critical, and can allow readers to see an author's critical acumen applied to works other than his or her own. This has always been the case with Ralph Ellison's interviews. A first-rate scholar, his life's work has been to recontextualize the American canon so as to reveal the contributions of those marginalized or erased in the "official" version of history, literature, and literary history. In consequence, his discussions rarely center on his own work so much as reintegrate the literary, social, historical, political, musical, and artistic factors that made his own work both possible and necessary.

Going to the Territory, a collection of sixteen nonfiction pieces written over the last thirty years, contains one exemplary interview, originally published in 1967. Although the questions focus primarily on the role of the Negro writer, Ellison constantly broadens the issue so as to discuss the Negro American writer by locating black experience inside the framework of American experience and reading [End Page 331] American literature in the context of that integrated experience. He examines the effects of the minstrel tradition, for example, by showing how, at one point, both black and white authors adopted "styles of dialect humor transfused into literature from the while stereotype of the Negro minstrel tradition." Later he rehistoricizes that tradition by indicating the relationship of the stereotype to the archetype, using examples from Faulkner. The rest of the book similarly makes astute connections among the historical, social, and literary. Because most of the selections are occasional pieces—lectures, book reviews, magazine articles—they can be seen as comprising an extended interview, rich with autobiographical details and with...


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