Writers talk about writing and other writers; Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Fifth Series, edited by George Plimpton and introduced by Francine du Plessix Gray. New York: The Viking Press. $16.95 is hardcover, $8.95 in paperback.
here is a new series of richly informative and fascinating conversations with eminent writers answering to what Francine Gray (in her clever "introduction") calls "our ravenous appetite for the Artist's Personality." Evidence of engaging personalities does, indeed, abound. We're as touched by P. G. Wodehouse's rueful awareness that his "world" is no more ("It's a shamem when things like spats go out"), as by his manifest decency and modesty. It's disarming to hear Joseph Heller cheerfully admit "I'm a showoff," and to eavesdrop on Gore Vidal's nervy, haughty, ever dependably witty self-fascination. It's good dependably witty self-fascination. It's good to hear Joyce Carol Oates gracefully, firmly deflect complaints that she writes too much.
Most of these writers are generous appreciators of the work of their contemporaries. Yet there is occasional backbiting: Vidal's contempt for Hemingway is wonderfully well-stated; James Dickey passes some highly amusing harsh judgments on his peers (Sylvia Plath was "the Judy Garland of American poetry").
From even the conversations of those who seem most remote or belligerent (a truculent Irwin Shaw; the "fragile" Joan Didion; the elusive, elliptical "Henry Green"), we learn intriguing and helpful things. For example, Jerzy Kosinski's disclosures about his childhood and youth in war-torn Europe, his revelations about favorite metaphors seem to me screens which block out candid discussion of a violence in his novels that I take (as do many other readers) to be revenge-fantasy. Still, Kosinski offers revealing insights into both the logic of his fiction, and his own sensibility (he confesses a continuing fear of "some oppressive societal force" scrutinizing him and his work).
If such in-depth self-understanding is relatively rare, we do nevertheless get some straightforward talk about literary principles and preoccupations. In a vigorous exchange of ideas on technique with her interviewer, the late Linda Kuehl, Joan Didion memorably expresses the artist's uneasiness with "interpretation": "I don't want to think too much about why I write what I write. If I know what I'm doing I don't do it, I can't do it." Writers as otherwise dissimilar as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Kingsley Amis agree that style is secondary to content; emphasize "giving the facts," maintaining "tension," eschewing embroidery ("I dislike mystification," pronounces Amis).
I hope I'm making it clear that this book abounds with both useful advice and hard, gemlike statements. Then a few more that I Can't resist quoting: "Fiction ism experimentation. . . . Every sentence is an innovation." (Cheever); "It is sad that the dumb Swedes gave their merit badge to Solzhenitsyn instead of Nabokov" (Vidal); "It a man wants to write about the circle that's made in the water when a fish jumps, he should be able to write about that and should not be charged off as irrelevant because he's not writing about the Vietnam riots" (Dickey).
The 15 interviews arranged here (in descending birthday-order, from Wodehouse through Oates) were originally published in the Paris Review between 1953 and 1978. They confer distinction, not just on the subject writers, but on several of the interviewers (notably Benjamin De Mott and Robert Phillips), whose artful questioning and probing significantly influence the excellence of the resulting statements. All in all, this fifth installment of a series that began appearing in 1958 does help comprise (in Francine Gray's words) "the richest document available on the craft of fiction in our ti me."