Tuesday, March 4, 2008

George Plimpton and Paris Review (My favorite books on writing)

George Plimpton, et al. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Volumes 1-8.

I need a word, here. You know how there can be something--a writer, or a music group, or a vacation spot--that you discover when it is still relatively obscure and difficult of access, sort of a cult item that you feel deserves wider recognition? And then that day comes when your relatively hidden treasure becomes well-known and widely available...

Is there a word for that conflicted feeling when your treasure wins the recognition and ease of access it so deserves? Perhaps the Germans have a word for it--after all, they gave us schadenfreude, and this is to some extent schadenfreude's mirror reflection.

The first volume of Writers at Work came out around 1960, and the last one around the end of the 1980s, and for those of us who didn't subscribe to the Paris Review from 1953 on, finding the collected interviews was both a joy and, sometimes, a bit of a quest. I have them all on my shelf. The battered first volume has interviews that now seem to be from the Age of Legend: EM Forster, William Faulkner, Thornton Wilder, Georges Simenon, Dorothy Parker, Joyce Cary, and a half-dozen others.

But, starting last year, the Review announced they would be publishing "The DNA of Literature" free on their website. And I can't help but applaud the idea. Even if I had to scour the world for years to find the books, and now anyone can download them for free. (Hence that funny feeling that has no name.)

However, they haven't been quite as generous as it sounds. Hundreds of interviews are now available as PDF downloads, but they held some back for republication in the new four-volume set being published by Picador (the first two are out). So if you go looking for the interview with TS Eliot or Ernest Hemingway, you will find you are out of luck. And if you are looking for interviews since 2000, you will generally be politely invited to buy the issue of the magazine in which it ran.

The interviews are marvelous. Although the writers are given free rein, the interviewers are intelligent and produce something far more in-depth and valuable than your typical magazine or newspaper interview. I'll never have a chance to sit down with Faulkner or Vonnegut or AS Byatt and have a chat, but these interviews are a good second-best option. Maybe even a better option, as they give me no chance to make a fool of myself.


Note to Jen: If you really seek out Ernie's interview, it's in the second edition of Writers at Work, and can be bought used on Amazon for less than $2...about 90% of everything Hemingway is quoted as having said is somewhere in that interview.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the heads up... what a marvelous collection of interviews.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I liked the original themed collection - the Women Writers one I've got is marvellous - and I do wonder if the Greatest Hits that they seem to be doing now will be quite the same. Though some writers can still be marvellously un-revealing, but the questioning is so skillful that it's obvious when it's can't, and when it's won't, tell, so that in itself is quite revealing.

And having them online is brilliant. I'm glad they've caught up, even minus the cherry-picked ones: for years they only had interviews up to the 70s or so available.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Rob--

Yes, endless hours of shoptalk there...

David Isaak said...

Hi, Emma--

You're right--it's wonderful to watch a writer not answer a question.

Some of the "conditions" of the interviews were fascinating, too. Someone--was it Cynthia Ozick?--would let the interviewer ask the question and then would type her answer.

I thoroughly understand that point of view. I trust myself more on the page than just talking along!

Jen Ster said...

Annoyed that they're withholding Earnest Hemingway. As somebody who used to be Hemingway in a former life, I'm qualified to say that all interviews with me should be free. Or would that be selling myself out?

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

Ah, that explains your style.

See the footnote I've added to the original post (becasue it's a pain to post a link in the comment trail).

David Isaak said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jen Ster said...

Hi, David - Wild Child Publishing requested a partial of No Accounting for Reality, my saga of Norse gods, giant house cats, evil City Council members and the end of the world. Whoo hoo!! I just sent it off.

Incidentally, Kellum's the one who thinks I used to be Ernie. I don't disagree, though. :)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Jen--

That's great news--and the description of the book alone ought to sell it. (Giant House Cats? The only scarier idea would be Cats With Hands.)