Issue 167, Fall 2003
What follows is a letter Cynthia Ozick sent us in response to a request we made of a number of authors— that they revisit their Writers at Work interviews with a mind to recanting, revising, or applauding their feelings as documented years ago. Kurt Vonnegut had a good time of it, insisting he could not improve on the original interview, but thank you for the chance to 'fall in love with myself all over again." One or two others were seized with the impulse to correct typos and errata, about which we are slightly embarrassed. But Ms. Ozick went a step further, taking issue not only with her answers and interviewer, but with interviews in general; for though they purport to capture the essence of a writer, we must concede that such things are nebulous and, by nature, errant. —F.M.
Sixteen years after the publication of this interview, what I remember of it—before rereading—is a veil of resentment that, perhaps unfairly, has lingered all this time. I was, it goes without saying, hugely pleased to have been invited to be the subject of a Paris Review interview; it was a distinction I valued. Yet what got stuck in my head afterward was the interviewer's having hammered away at money. He was young, trying to make his way as a writer himself, and it seemed to me that this was his central, or at least his immediate, concern: how to support his own work. My particularized experience was to be a footnote, or an anodyne, to his anxiety. I felt hounded, corralled into a corner: why must I be pursued in this manner, what was it really that was fueling this exercise? The fault was mine. Or it may be that the fault is endemic in the nature and structure of any interview where the interviewer is too self-conscious. Excessive self-consciousness in an interviewer will produce the same in the interviewee. For a conversation to burst the shell of artifice, the interviewer and his subject ought to be afloat in something like Keatsian negative capability, or at least be allied by a long, loose, freely meandering line that doesn't resemble a tether. Long ago, in college, I came upon a paperback of Susanne K. Langer's Philosophy in a New Key. It opened, I recall, with a discussion of the meaning of a question. A question, Langer maintained, is that which portends its own answer. If I ask you something about money, money will turn up in your answer. If I ask you something about religion, religion will turn up in your answer. The premise of any inquiry induces, and subsumes, its like.
Now this may not seem terribly esoteric, and surely Langer went on to resolve it in the complexity of her thesis—but then, at seventeen, I found it dazzling. There was a lesson in it. It has taken me decades to learn it. The lesson is that one must not be submissive to every question, or one will be taken far, far from the measure of one's own defining imperative. And the root of submissiveness is politeness. The truth is that I no longer wish to be polite—a truth I have come to belatedly—and if asked certain questions today, I would not be so accommodating: there is always a lie in accommodation. Earnestness too is a kind of lie; it carries the wind of the gesturing prig. Who believes a prig?