Countries of conversations
Interviews are the children of opportunity, writes Peter Osborne in the Introduction to the book A Critical Sense Interviews with Intellectuals 1996...
“Interviews are the children of opportunity,” writes Peter Osborne in the Introduction to the book ‘A Critical Sense: Interviews with Intellectuals’ (1996). They create a window opening into the secret smithy of the artist’s mind. Originally, interviews were an invention of nineteenth-century journalism and designed for the newspaper, to let readers peek into the lives of actors and writers. Interviews have lately entered the threshold of academic study and critical thinkers have questioned the role of interviews as a form of literary criticism.
What is Literary Criticism?
Literary criticism refers to the studies related to the classification, analysis, interpretation and evaluation of works of literature. Aristotle’s Poetics (fourth century BC) remains as one of the earliest and most enduring treatises on literary criticism.
Other eminent literary critics in the Western context would include, Longinus in Greece, Horace in Rome, Boileau and Sainte-Beuve in France, Baumgarten and Goethe in Germany, Samuel Johnson, Coleridge and Matthew Arnold in England, Poe and Emerson in America. Over the years, scholars have contributed to the rise of different schools of criticisms, such as the formalist, structuralist, feminist, post-structuralist, post-colonial and others.
Do interviews matter?
In the present age, when ‘all that is solid melts into the air’ and most writers are accessible to readers through social media, could interviews be considered as a trusted method of knowing the author? And if we believe French literary theorist, Roland Barthes, the author is long dead.
Thus, could we consider a mere speech to written performance, presumably by the spectre of the author, arranged between tables, as a sample literary discourse? Is it possible to critically study interviews as archives of literary observations and as testimonies to what is past, passing or to come of literature in a technocratic age?
Deliberations on interviews as literary criticism
Hyderabad-based, Sahitya Akademi Award-winning, Telugu short-story writer, Abburi Chaya Devi, says that the literary opinions in interviews originate from a very subjective perspective; hence, it would be risky to consider any discussion on the anatomy of literature during interviews as formal criticism.
The need to understand the literary and cultural relevance of interviews was recently highlighted at the Ethos Literary Festival, Kolkata, December 22-23, 2018, where a panel discussion, was conducted on, ‘Profiling the authors: Can interviews make or break images?’ by literary interviewers such as Jhilam Chattaraj, Sufia Khatoon, Anindita Bose and Al, Mooshina Muzammil. Poet and organiser of the festival, Kiriti Sengupta, merits the impact of interviews on literary criticism, provided, interviewers make an honest effort to highlight the creative virtues of the concerned work. He considers independent literary interviews better at understanding the author rather than the glossed ones published by big media houses. The idea further takes us into the debate concerning the theoretical lineage of interviews.
Eminent interviewer and critic, John Rodden in his book, ‘Performing the Literary Interview’ (2001) has suggested that interviews are an ‘emerging postmodern genre’ positioned between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture; ‘a form of literary performance’ and one that has been misunderstood due to its links with popular forms, and with the celebrity culture of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Rodden considers the literary interview as a serious genre, deserving scholarly attention and analysis.
Popular Telugu poet and writer, P Lalitha Kumari, also known as Volga, regards interviews as an opportunity for authors to self-construct themselves, hence, paving the way for an image that might not be real and extremely personal. She suggests that the shared investigation in the craft of a work by the interviewer and interviewee can be considered only as a sub-genre of literary criticism.
The evolution of interviews in journals as a sophisticated offshoot of literary discourses began in France. The first issue of The Paris Review, published in the spring of 1953, contained a lengthy interview of the writer, EM Forster. Although controversial, for its literary and financial implications, the interview set the pattern for the magazine’s legendary “Writers at Work” series.
Scholars of literature and culture often refer to interviews for academic scrutiny of literature. Dr C Murali Krishna, Professor, Department of English, Osmania University, considers interviews as useful secondary texts that add to the oeuvre of criticism on the writer’s work. He further highlights the unique ability of interviews to critique works while under-construction and present literature as a constantly evolving process.
At this juncture, it would be relevant to reiterate the reader-reception of interviews in the digital age. Presently, writers and critics break frontiers as engineers of digital spaces and they cater to a global audience who not only read but share, comment and create a community of critical suggestions or a participatory culture that further study the published interview and extrapolate a web of meta-discourses. Our digital handprints have enabled interviews to improvise the age-old art of conversation into islands of curated opinions floating, on a perpetually swollen sea of unceasing information.
The article aims to generate scholarly dialogues on the role of interviews as literary criticism. Simultaneously, it does not deny the relevance of interviews as the most alive and even unnerving form of knowing art and the artist. The beauty of interviews lies in its ambiguity or as noted critic, Emile Zola mentioned, in its “inherent hybridity”- the constructed aura of something natural; the difficult role of truth in portraying the artist and disguising the astute, inter-personal skills of the interviewer; the delicate power struggle between the interviewer and the artist.
In spite of such equivocal details, interviews like all enduring forms of art remain a witness, a spectator to the genesis, and shifting panoramic drama around a work. It dispassionately beholds the glorious flight of words into the skies of imagination and sometimes, the sad desertion of effulgent whispers form the mansion of literature.
- The writer is presently working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, RBVRR Women’s College, Hyderabad. She has authored the books, ‘Corporate Fiction: Popular Culture and the New Writers’ (2018) and the poetry collection ‘When Lovers Leave and Poetry Stays’ (2018).
- Jhilam Chattaraj