“Founded in Paris by Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton in 1953, The Paris Review began with a simple editorial mission: ‘Dear reader,’ William Styron wrote in a letter in the inaugural issue, ‘The Paris Review hopes to emphasize creative work—fiction and poetry—not to the exclusion of criticism, but with the aim in mind of merely removing criticism from the dominating place it holds in most literary magazines and putting it pretty much where it belongs, i.e., somewhere near the back of the book. I think The Paris Review should welcome these people into its pages: the good writers and good poets, the non-drumbeaters and non-axe-grinders. So long as they’re good.’”
Here is the first portion of an introduction to an interview of Janet Malcolm, conducted by Katie Roiphe. The biographical information provides a superb context for Malcolm’s responses to the questions posed. To read the remainder of the introduction and then the complete interview as well as check out the Review’s other resources, please click here:
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Though I will make the trip up the elevator to Janet Malcolm’s stately town-house apartment, overlooking Gramercy Park, three times in the course of this unusual interview, the substance of our exchange will take place by e-mail, over three and a half months.
The reason for this is that Janet Malcolm is more naturally the describer than the described. It is nearly impossible to imagine the masterful interviewer chatting unguardedly into a tape recorder, and indeed she prefers not to imagine it. She has agreed to do the interview but only by e-mail: in this way she has politely refused the role of subject and reverted to the more comfortable role of writer. She will be writing her answers—and, to be honest, tinkering gently with the phrasing of some of my questions.
So the true setting of this interview is not the book-lined walls of her living room, where we sit having mint tea, but screens: Malcolm’s twenty-one-and-a-half-inch desktop Mac, with its worn white keyboard; my silver seventeen-inch MacBook, my iPad sometimes. The disadvantage of e-mail is that it seems to breed a kind of formality, but the advantage is the familiarity of being in touch with someone over time. For us, this particular style of communication had the reassuring old-fashioned quality of considered correspondence; it is like Malcolm herself—careful, thorough, a bit elusive.
Malcolm was born in Prague, in 1934, and immigrated to this country when she was five. Her family lived with relatives in Flatbush, Brooklyn, for a year while her father, a psychiatrist and neurologist, studied for his medical boards, and then moved to Yorkville, in Manhattan. Malcolm attended the High School of Music and Art, and then went to the University of Michigan, where she began writing for the school paper, The Michigan Daily, and the humor magazine, The Gargoyle, which she later edited. In the years after college she moved to Washington with her husband, Donald Malcolm, and wrote occasional book reviews for The New Republic.
She and her husband moved to New York and, in 1963, had a daughter, Anne. That same year Malcolm’s work first appeared in The New Yorker, where her husband, who died in 1975, was the off-Broadway critic. She began writing in what was then considered the woman’s sphere: annual features on Christmas shopping and children’s books, and a monthly column on design, called “About the House.”
Later, Malcolm married her editor at The New Yorker, Gardner Botsford. She began to do the dense, idiosyncratic writing she is now known for when she quit smoking in 1978: she couldn’t write without cigarettes, so she began reporting a long New Yorker fact piece, on family therapy, called “The One-Way Mirror.” She set off for Philadelphia with a tape recorder—the old-fashioned kind, with tapes, which she uses to this day—and lined Mead composition notebooks with marbleized covers. By the time she finished the long period of reporting, she found she could finally write without smoking, and she had also found her form.
Her ten provocative books, including The Journalist and the Murderer, Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, In the Freud Archives, and Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice, are simultaneously beloved, demanding, scholarly, flashy, careful, bold, highbrow, and controversial. Many people have pointed out that her writing, which is often called journalism, is in fact some other wholly original form of art, some singular admixture of reporting, biography, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, and the nineteenth-century novel—English and Russian both. In one of the more colorful episodes of her long career, she was the defendant of a libel trial, brought by one of her subjects, Jeffrey Masson, in 1984; the courts ultimately found in her favor, in 1994, but the charges shadowed her for years, and both during the trial and afterward the journalistic community was not as supportive as one might have thought it would be.
In part this might be because Malcolm had already distanced herself from them. “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible,” she wrote in the now-famous opening lines of The Journalist and the Murderer, and in much of her writing Malcolm delves into what she calls the “moral problem” of journalism. One of the most challenging or controversial elements of her work is her persistent and mesmerizing analysis of the relationship between the writer and her subject. (“Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness,” she writes in The Silent Woman; and she exposes, over and over, the writer’s prejudices and flaws, including her own.) When The Journalist and the Murderer came out in 1990, it created a stir in the literary world; it antagonized, in other words, precisely those people it was meant to antagonize. But it is now taught to nearly every undergraduate studying journalism, and Malcolm’s fiery comment on the relationship between the journalist and her subject has been assimilated so completely into the larger culture that it has become a truism. Malcolm’s work, then, occupies that strange glittering territory between controversy and the establishment: she is both a grande dame of journalism, and still, somehow, its enfant terrible.
Malcolm is admired for the fierceness of her satire, for the elegance of her writing, for the innovations of her form. She writes, in “A Girl of the Zeitgeist,” an essay about the New York art world, “Perhaps even stronger than the room’s aura of commanding originality is its sense of absences, its evocation of all the things that have been excluded, have been found wanting, have failed to capture the interest of Rosalind Krauss—which are most of the things in the world, the things of ‘good taste’ and fashion and consumerism, the things we see in stores and in one another’s houses. No one can leave this loft without feeling a little rebuked: one’s own house suddenly seems cluttered, inchoate, banal.”
No living writer has narrated the drama of turning the messy and meaningless world into words as brilliantly, precisely, and analytically as Janet Malcolm. Whether she is writing about biography or a trial or psychoanalysis or Gertrude Stein, her story is the construction of the story, and her influence is so vast that much of the writing world has begun to think in the charged, analytic terms of a Janet Malcolm passage. She takes apart the official line, the accepted story, the court transcript like a mechanic takes apart a car engine, and shows us how it works; she narrates how the stories we tell ourselves are made from the vanities and jealousies and weaknesses of their players. This is her obsession, and no one can do it on her level.
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To read the remainder of the introduction and then the complete interview as well as check out the Review’s other resources, please click here.
Katie Roiphe (born 1968) is an American author and journalist. She is best known as the author of the non-fiction examination The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism (1994). She is also the author of Last Night in Paradise: Sex and Morals at the Century’s End (1997), and the 2007 study of writers and marriage, Uncommon Arrangements. Her 2001 novel Still She Haunts Me is an empathetic imagining of the relationship between Charles Dodgson (known as Lewis Carroll) and Alice Liddell, the real-life model for Dodgson’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
I agree that the great books “speak for themselves”…and do so with unique eloquence. However, there is no documentation to suggest that authors such as Homer, Sophocles, Chaucer, Cervantes, and Shakespeare were ever interviewed. Oh, do I wish I could have interviewed them!
Fortunately, The Paris Review has been interviewing great authors since being founded in Paris in 1953 by Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton. I have retrieved from its archives an excerpt from an interview of Isaac Bashevis Singer by Harold Flender in 1968. To read the complete interview, obtain subscription information, and/or check out other resources, please click here.
Isaac Bashevis Singer lives with his second wife in a large, sunny five-room apartment in an Upper Broadway apartment house. In addition to hundreds of books and a large television set, it is furnished with the kind of pseudo-Victorian furniture typical of the comfortable homes of Brooklyn and the Bronx in the 1930s.
Singer works at a small, cluttered desk in the living room. He writes every day, but without special hours—in between interviews, visits, and phone calls. His name is still listed in the Manhattan telephone directory, and hardly a day goes by without his receiving several calls from strangers who have read something he has written and want to talk to him about it. Until recently, he would invite anyone who called for lunch, or at least coffee.
Singer writes his stories and novels in lined notebooks, in longhand, in Yiddish. Most of what he writes still appears first in the Jewish Daily Forward, America’s largest Yiddish-language daily, published in New York City. Getting translators to put his work into English has always been a major problem. He insists on working very closely with his translators, going over each word with them many times.
Singer always wears dark suits, white shirts, and dark ties. His voice is high but pleasant, and never raised. He is of medium height, thin, and has an unnaturally pale complexion. For many years he has followed a strict vegetarian diet.
The first impression Singer gives is that he is a fragile, weak man who would find it an effort to walk a block. Actually, he walks fifty to sixty blocks a day, a trip that invariably includes a stop to feed pigeons from a brown paper bag. He loves birds and has two pet parakeets who fly about his apartment uncaged.
Many writers when they start out have other writers they use as models.
Well, my model was my brother, I. J. Singer, who wrote Thie Brothers Ashkenaz. I couldn’t have had a better model than my brother. I saw him struggle with my parents and I saw how he began to write and how he slowly developed and began to publish. So naturally he was an influence. Not only this, but in the later years before I began to publish, my brother gave me a number of rules about writing which seem to me sacred. Not that these rules cannot be broken once in a while, but it’s good to remember them. One of his rules was that while facts never become obsolete or stale, commentaries always do. When a writer tries to explain too much, to psychologize, he’s already out of time when he begins. Imagine Homer explaining the deeds of his heroes according to the old Greek philosophy, or the psychology of his time. Why, nobody would read Homer!
Fortunately, Homer just gave us the images and the facts, and because of this the Iliad and the Odyssey are fresh in our time. And I think this is true about all writing. Once a writer tries to explain what the hero’s motives are from a psychological point of view, he has already lost. This doesn’t mean that I am against the psychological novel. There are some masters who have done it well. But I don’t think it is a good thing for a writer, especially a young writer, to imitate them. Dostoyevsky, for example. If you can call him a writer of the psychological school; I’m not sure I do. He had his digressions and he tried to explain things in his own way, but even with him his basic power is in giving the facts.
What do you think of psychoanalysis and writing? Many writers have been psychoanalyzed and feel this has helped them to understand not only themselves but the characters they write about.
If the writer is psychoanalyzed in a doctor’s office, that is his business. But if he tries to put the psychoanalysis into the writing, it’s just terrible. The best example is the one who wrote Point Counter Point. What was his name?
Aldous Huxley. He tried to write a novel according to Freudian psychoanalysis. And I think he failed in a bad way. This particular novel is now so old and so stale that even in school it cannot be read anymore. So, I think that when a writer sits down and he psychoanalyzes, he’s ruining his work.
You once told me that the first piece of fiction you ever read was the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
Well, I read these things when I was a boy of ten or eleven, and to me they looked so sublime, so wonderful, that even today I don’t dare to read Sherlock Holmes again because I am afraid that I may be disappointed.
Do you think A. Conan Doyle influenced you in any way?
Well, I don’t think that the stories of Sherlock Holmes had any real influence on me. But I will say one thing—from my childhood I have always loved tension in a story. I liked that a story should be a story. That there should be a beginning and an end, and there should be some feeling of what will happen at the end. And to this rule I keep today. I think that storytelling has become in this age almost a forgotten art. But I try my best not to suffer from this kind of amnesia. To me a story is still a story where the reader listens and wants to know what happens. If the reader knows everything from the very beginning, even if the description is good, I think the story is not a story.
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To read the complete interview, obtain subscription information, and/or check out other resources, please click here.
I agree that the “great books “speak for themselves”…and do so with unique eloquence. However, there is no documentation to suggest that authors such as Homer, Sophocles, Chaucer, Cervantes, and Shakespeare were ever interviewed.
Fortunately, The Paris Review has been interviewing great authors since being founded in Paris in 1953 by Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton. I have retrieved from its archives an excerpt from an interview of Aldous Huxley by Raymond Fraser, George Wickes in 1960. To read the complete interview, obtain subscription information, and/or check out other resources, please click here.
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Among serious novelists, Aldous Huxley is surely the wittiest and most irreverent. Ever since the early twenties, his name has been a byword for a particular kind of social satire; in fact, he has immortalized in satire a whole period and a way of life. In addition to his ten novels, Huxley has written, during the course of an extremely prolific career, poetry, drama, essays, travel, biography, and history.
Descended from two of the most eminent Victorian families, he inherited science and letters from his grandfather T. H. Huxley and his great-uncle Matthew Arnold respectively. He absorbed both strains in an erudition so unlikely that it has sometimes been regarded as a kind of literary gamesmanship. (In conversation his learning comes out spontaneously, without the slightest hint of premeditation; if someone raises the topic of Victorian gastronomy, for example, Huxley will recite a typical daily menu of Prince Edward, meal by meal, course by course, down to the last crumb.) The plain fact is that Aldous Huxley is one of the most prodigiously learned writers not merely of this century but of all time.
After Eton and Balliol, he became a member of the postwar intellectual upper crust, the society he set out to vivisect and anatomize. He first made his name with such brilliant satires as Antic Hay and Point Counter Point, writing in the process part of the social history of the twenties. In the thirties he wrote his most influential novel, Brave New World, combining satire and science fiction in the most successful of futuristic utopias. Since 1937, when he settled in Southern California, he has written fewer novels and turned his attention more to philosophy, history, and mysticism. Although remembered best for his early satires, he is still productive and provocative as ever.
It is rather odd to find Aldous Huxley in a suburb of Los Angeles called Hollywoodland. He lives in an unpretentious hilltop house that suggests the Tudor period of American real-estate history. On a clear day he can look out across miles of cluttered, sprawling city at a broad sweep of the Pacific. Behind him dry brown hills rise to a monstrous sign that dominates the horizon, proclaiming hollywoodland in aluminum letters twenty feet high.
Mr. Huxley is a very tall man—he must be six feet four—and, though lean, very broad across the shoulders. He carries his years lightly indeed; in fact he moves so quietly as to appear weightless, almost wraithlike. His eyesight is limited, but he seems to find his way about instinctively, without touching anything.
In manner and speech he is very gentle. Where one might have been led to expect the biting satirist or the vague mystic, one is impressed instead by how quiet and gentle he is on the one hand, how sensible and down-to-earth on the other. His manner is reflected in his lean, gray, emaciated face: attentive, reflective, and for the most part unsmiling. He listens patiently while others speak, then answers deliberately.
Would you tell us something first about the way you work?
I work regularly. I always work in the mornings, and then again a little bit before dinner. I’m not one of those who work at night. I prefer to read at night. I usually work four or five hours a day. I keep at it as long as I can, until I feel myself going stale. Sometimes, when I bog down, I start reading—fiction or psychology or history, it doesn’t much matter what—not to borrow ideas or materials, but simply to get started again. Almost anything will do the trick.
Do you do much rewriting?
Generally, I write everything many times over. All my thoughts are second thoughts. And I correct each page a great deal, or rewrite it several times as I go along.
Do you keep a notebook, like certain characters in your novels?
No, I don’t keep notebooks. I have occasionally kept diaries for short periods, but I’m very lazy, I mostly don’t. One should keep notebooks, I think, but I haven’t.
Do you block out chapters or plan the overall structure when you start out on a novel?
Huxley: No, I work away a chapter at a time, finding my way as I go. I know very dimly when I start what’s going to happen. I just have a very general idea, and then the thing develops as I write. Sometimes—it’s happened to me more than once—I will write a great deal, then find it just doesn’t work, and have to throw the whole thing away.
I like to have a chapter finished before I begin on the next one. But I’m never entirely certain what’s going to happen in the next chapter until I’ve worked it out. Things come to me in driblets, and when the driblets come I have to work hard to make them into something coherent.
Is the process pleasant or painful?
Oh, it’s not painful, though it is hard work. Writing is a very absorbing occupation and sometimes exhausting. But I’ve always considered myself very lucky to be able to make a living at something I enjoy doing. So few people can.
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To read the complete interview, obtain subscription information, and/or check out other resources, please click here.