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  • Literature and the Rise of the Interview by Rebecca Roach
  • Jeffrey J. Williams (bio)
Literature and the Rise of the Interview Rebecca Roach Oxford UP, 2019, 304 pp. ISBN 978-0198825418, $74 hardcover.

In 1953, to bolster its first issue, the Paris Review included an interview with the esteemed British author E. M. Forster. The issue carried the elements one would have expected—four stories, four poems, and four essays, for the most part reporting on European literature and art—but an interview was an unusual entry. The leading American literary journals of the time, such as Kenyon Review, Hudson Review, and Sewanee Review, did not carry interviews. Since that experiment, the Paris Review has run more than 400 interviews, primarily with novelists and poets, and also with dramatists, memoirists, editors, translators, and other literary figures. Moreover, a procession of other journals has followed suit, and now more than 190 journals run interviews. For instance, one might find them in Agni, American Poetry Review, Bloomsbury Review, Glimmer Train, Granta, Iowa Review, Poets & Writers, and Tin House.

The genealogy of the interview extends back to ancient dialogues like Plato's and eighteenth and nineteenth-century compendia of sayings of major figures in literature and art like James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson. But those were usually artificial constructs ("Yes, Socrates, what you say is true"), or paraphrased epigrams ("A gentleman who had been very unhappy in marriage, married immediately after his wife died: Johnson said, it was the triumph of hope over experience"), and the form did not take its modern shape, of direct quotation in response to a question, until the late nineteenth century. The interview developed in conjunction with the rise of modern newspapers, which used quotes in news accounts, and sometimes featured "visits with the author" that might stitch in remarks on life and writing with descriptions of a writer's home.

The generic innovation of the Paris Review was to take the "visit" and upgrade it to a more serious, professional account of writing, expanding from a short sketch to a full-length piece that could stand on its own as a writer's statement on literature. The Paris Review's interviews typically aimed to cover a writer's view of the field, their writing habits, their influences and opinions of other work, and sometimes more general comments on the culture. At the length of a short story—roughly 15–20 pages in its first decade, expanding to 25–45 pages in subsequent decades—the interview was not a sideline or publicity vehicle, but a substantive [End Page 927] reflection. The interview with Forster, for instance, recounts his assessment of his own novels (he thought Where Angels Fear to Tread successful but The Longest Journey flawed), his views of modernism and critics, and his writing habits (he notes that it was a pleasure rather than a pain for him to write).

That version of the literary interview developed in response to the situation of literary studies in the US after World War II. Particularly with the postwar expansion of higher education through the 1950s and 60s, criticism flourished, and critics pushed for more objective, scientific approaches over biographical or appreciative ones. In William K. Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley's memorable formulation, critics banned attention to the author as "the intentional fallacy." In response, interviews were one tool to counter the new dominance of criticism, presenting an author's ideas and aims. As the impresario George Plimpton, one of the founders of the Paris Review, put it: "In an Age of Criticism, when so many magazines were devoted to explanations and exegeses of contemporary texts, the notion was to skip the indirect approach and seek out the authors in person to see what they had to say" (qtd. in Wilbers 198).

However, while some see this position as an assertion of amateurism, I see it as an assertion of a competing professionalism. Formal interviews like those in Paris Review worked to establish the professional autonomy of creative writers, apart from the critic. In the previous period, critics and writers were largely based in the magazine world rather than academe, and there was less distinction...


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