Issue 146, Spring 1998
An excerpt from the originally published piece appears below, including Julian Barnes' responses.
The Paris Review: What marks a piece of literature as British?
Julian Barnes: This nationality of the writer.
Are British writers less prudish than others?
Fuck me, no.
Why is wit so strongly indigenous to British writers?
Because it is our way of being serious.
Do you think British writers labor under the weight of tradition?
Well, it depends on the writer. But you can equally labor under the weightlessness of a lack of tradition. Having Shakespeare in your tradition at least gives you a sense of proportion, and a realisation that in all probability you won't end up being better than him.
Why a flowering of ex-colonial literature?
Freedom; confidence; a new subject matter.
Do you feel that British writers are more attracted to regional voices (Cockey, Scots) than their American counterparts? Why?
Is there a relationship between British and American literature?
Of course, though we should not be misled by sharing a common language. Victor Hugo thought that Zola was an Italian writer badly served by his Swiss translator.
What is meant by success for a writer in Britain?
Receiving a large enough advance to fund the next book; having all your books still in print; being on airport bookstalls and best-seller lists. Decreasingly it means having the respect of your peers; increasingly, the respect—or fleeting attention—of people without the slightest interest in literature.
Is there a connection between literature and a sense of nationalism among the countries in the United Kingdom?
Clearly in the case of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Nationalism in England is less straightforward, more reactive and less likely to express itself through literature.
Does the Booker ever get it right?
Yes, in that it is always awarded to a novel of serious intent.
Whom would you choose as your doubles partner: Julian Barnes or Martin Amis?