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  • The Rise of the Critical Interview
  • Jeffrey J. Williams (bio)

Over the last thirty years the critical interview has emerged as a major genre in literary and cultural studies. Journals such as boundary 2, differences, the Journal of Advanced Composition (JAC), the minnesota review, Public Culture, Radical Philosophy, Social Text, symploke, Theory, Culture & Society, and Workplace have run more than three hundred such interviews, and several have made them a regular feature. First emerging in the 1970s, the interview inflected the reception of criticism and its new discourse of theory, providing a colloquial introduction to theory and a bridge to contiguous fields and disciplines. At first interviews took irregular shapes, often occasional and short. But by 1990 they had coalesced as a relatively standard academic genre, dealing substantively with a critic's work and career in the form of an article-length Q & A. In some sense, just as contemporary literary fiction began absorbing popular genres in the 1990s, so too had the field of criticism absorbed the genre of the interview, forging a hybrid between scholarly academic writing and journalism, one that has developed hand-in-hand with the rise of theory.

I call it the "critical interview" to distinguish it from the conventional literary interview with novelists, poets, and dramatists. "Critical" does not necessarily designate the tenor of these interviews but simply that they occur in the critical field, covering criticism, theory, and other modes of contemporary scholarship, similar to the way that a literary interview is not necessarily literary but covers those in the field of creative writing.1 The critical interview descends from and departs from the literary interview, which was well established by the 1970s. While it has roots in the classical form of the dialogue and the modern journalistic sketch, the literary interview developed in its current form—the long-form discussion of a writer's work and career—after World War II, and it has become a mainstay of contemporary American literature. The Paris Review stamped the archetype since their first issue in 1953. It also disseminated them in two book series, nine volumes of Writers at Work (1958–92) and four of The Paris Review Interviews (2006–09). A wide array of other contemporary literary journals, including AGNI, the [End Page 1] Bloomsbury Review, Glimmer Train, Granta, and Tin House have taken up the genre. These have in turn spawned various collections, notably the University Press of Mississippi's "Literary Conversations Series."2 As John Rodden observes, the Paris Review ushered in "The Age of the Interview."3

Curiously, amid this efflorescence, there are almost no interviews with critics. For instance in midcentury one might have expected interviews with Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, or other prominent critics. But none of them were featured in a long-form conversation in a journal at the time. Instead the critical interview arose in a new variant of the literary journal, "the theory journal"—notably in Diacritics—rather than traditional literary journals, which gravitated more exclusively to creative writing.4 In the past decade, beside the stream of interviews in theory journals, the critical interview has burgeoned in online subsidiaries of established journals such as Social Text, new online journals like Public Books or the Los Angeles Review of Books, and podcasts and other new media platforms, which might signal a further stage of the genre. It seems we have entered "the age of the critical interview."5

We might expect that the interview, suggesting the tarnish of popular culture, is tertiary to professional work proper. Indeed some have expressed suspicions about the form.6 However, I will argue that the critical interview has played a significant role in the professionalization of contemporary criticism through a process of what I call "colloquialization." It is a commonplace that criticism in the era of theory became obscure, difficult, and jargoned. I argue that the critical interview gained traction as a kind of compensatory genre for theory and for the other modes of advanced academic research in literary and cultural studies. Criticism no longer spoke directly to an "educated public" but to a specifically academic public, so the interview provided a counterbalance to mediate specialized research...


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