Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews

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9780679771296: Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews

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Introduction

MARGARET ATWOOD

What is it about interviews that attracts us? Specifically, what is it about interviews with writers? Why should we pry? If a writer is august enough to be subject to interviews, we already have the books to read; shouldn't that be enough for us? (And the books must have been books we liked, because if we didn't, we presumably wouldn't be much interested in knowing anything about the person who has written them.)

Some of us are wary; even if we admire a book, we avoid an interview with its author. The writer is just the raw material, after all, and we prefer things cooked. Or perhaps we have a superstition about peeking: why ruin the memory of a night of magic by sneaking a look backstage, where the magician is wiping off the grimy makeup and the rabbits are born in hutches instead of, miraculously, out of silk hats? As Dorothy discovered in The Wizard of 0z, the fire that burns yet is not consumed may turn out to be-much to our disappointment-just a trick pulled by some wizened old fraud from Kansas. Some people may not be able to tell the dancer from the dance, but we think we can, and we prefer the dance.

Sometimes, on the other hand, we're greedy to know more. More of what? More of everything; more of anything; more of how and why, more of how-to. We would like to stand behind the interviewer and dictate the questions: what road did you travel on, and whom did you meet on the way, and who helped you across the river where the water was deepest? What other writers did you learn from, and does it matter what age, color, gender or nationality they were? (P. L. Travers's Mary Poppins as an avatar of the Great Mother in her Kali incarnation? Alarming, but just barely possible. Simone de Beauvoir influenced by The Mill on the Floss? After the first shock, it fits.... ) Once upon a time YOU, too, were young, untried, unpublished; so how did you manage, against all odds-or against some odds, at least-to accomplish as much as you have? Do you think that what you do makes any difference, to your individual readers or to the world in general? Where did the books come from-what part of your life? Does the writing always flow, or do you struggle? Do you have to suffer to be an artist, and if so, how much, and what kind of suffering would you recommend? Should you use-do you use-a pencil, or a pen, or your finger dipped in blood? Are there any special foods? What kind of chair?

It is our illusion that by knowing the answers to these questions we will know the central, the hidden, the necessary thing; that a writer's power is to be found in the sum of such answers. It isn't , of course. An interview is also a performance, and although a performance can reveal much, its revelations are selective, and its omissions and concealments are often as instructive as its grand pronouncements. (In this collection, for instance, it's an education to watch Elizabeth Bishop evading the issues.) Sometimes a writer doesn't want to tell; sometimes a writer doesn't know; sometimes a writer has forgotten. But why should a writer tell all? Why should anyone? How can anyone? All is a giant subject. In the interview, we must largely settle for conversation instead.

Your next-door neighbor might give you some of the very same answers as the ones you'll find in this collection-with a pencil, on a bed, with a glass of sherry, and yes to the suffering--but that is the mystery; or, if you prefer, the lack of mystery. Writers are human beings; they too inhabit bodies, had childhoods, get through the day somehow, experience JOY and fear and boredom, confront death. The rabbits they produce are only common rabbits, after all; it's the hat that's magic. And yet it is only a hat. This is what fuels our curiosity: the mix of the familiar, even the banal, and the radically inexplicable.

This volume is a revised version of the 1988 collection, Women Writers at Work, which was part of the Paris Review's highly praised series of interviews with writers. Both that book and this one are a departure from the norm. Previous Paris Review collections mixed men and women, but Women Writers at Work, as its tide suggests, is unisexual. That the editors have chosen to bring together fifteen writers as diverse as Dorothy Parker and Nadine Gordimer, P. L. Travers and Maya Angelou, Marianne Moore and Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison and Katherine Anne Porter, over what, in some cases, would be their dead bodies, merely because they share a double-X chromosome, was the result of readers' requests. Why not a gathering of women writers? the editors were asked. Which is not quite the same thing as why.

To some the answer is self-evident: women writers belong together because they are different from men, and the writing they do is different as well and cannot be read with the same eyeglasses as those used for the reading of male writers. Nor can writing by women be read in the same way by men as it can by women, and vice versa. For many women, Heathcliff is a romantic hero; for many men, he's a posturing oaf they'd like to punch in the nose. Paradise Lost reads differently when viewed by the daughters of Eve, and with Milton's browbeaten secretarial daughters in mind; and so on down through the canon.

Such gender-polarized interpretations can reach beyond subject matter and point of view to encompass matters of structure and style: are women really more subjective? do their novels really end with questions? Gender-linked analysis may seek to explore attitudes toward language itself. Is there a distinct female ecriture? Does the mother tongue really belong to mothers, or is it yet one more male-shaped institution bent, like foot-binding, on the deformation and hobbling of women? I have had it suggested to me, in all seriousness, that women ought not to write at all, since to do so is to dip one's hand, like Shakespeare's dyer, into a medium both sullied and sullying. (This suggestion was not made telepathically, but in spoken sentences, since, for polemicists as for writers themselves, the alternative to language is silence.)

Some years ago I was on a panel-that polygonal form of discourse so beloved of the democratic twentieth century-consisting entirely of women, including Jan Morris, who used to be James Morris, and Nayantara Saligal of India. From the audience came the question "How do you feel about being on a panel of women?" We all prevaricated. Some of us protested that we had been on lots of panels that included men; others said that most panels were male, with a woman dotted here and there for decorative effect, like parsley. Jan Morris said that she was in the process of transcending gender and was aiming at becoming a horse, to which Nayantara Sahgal replied that she hoped it was an English horse, since in some other, poorer countries, horses were not treated very well. Which underlined, for all of us, that there are categories other than male or female worth considering.

I suppose we all should have said, "Why not?" Still, I was intrigued by our collective uneasiness. No woman writer wants to be overlooked and undervalued for being a woman; but few, it seems, wish to be defined solely by gender, or constrained by loyalties to it alone-an attitude that may puzzle, hurt or enrage those whose political priorities cause them to view writing as a tool, a means to an end, rather than as a vocation subject to a Muse who will desert you if you break trust with your calling. In the interview that begins this collection, Dorothy Parker articulates the dilemma:

I'm a feminist and God knows I'm loyal to my sex, and you must remember that from my very early days, when this city was scarcely safe from buffaloes, I was in the struggle for equal rights for women. But when we paraded through the catcalls of men and when we chained ourselves to lamp posts to try to get our equality--dear child, we didn't foresee those female writers.

Male writers may suffer strains on their single-minded dedication to their art for reasons of class or race or nationality, but so far no male writer is likely to be asked to sit on a panel addressing itself to the special problems of a male writer, or be expected to support another writer simply because he happens to be a man. Such things are asked of women writers all the time, and it makes them JUMPY.

Virginia Woolf may have been right about the androgynous nature of the artist, but she was right also about the differences in social situation these androgynous artists are certain to encounter. We may agree with Nadine Gordimer when she says, "By and large, I don't think it matters a damn what sex a writer is, so long as the work is that of a real writer," if what she means is that it shouldn't matter, in any true assessment of talent or accomplishment; but unfortunately it often has mattered, to other people. When Joyce Carol Oates is asked the "woman" question, phrased in her case as "What are the advantages of being a woman writer?" she makes a virtue of necessity:

Advantages! Too many to enumerate, probably. Since, being a woman, I can't be taken altogether seriously by the sort of male critics who rank writers 1, 2, 3 in the public press, I am free, I suppose, to do as I like.

Joan Didion is asked the same question in its negative form-"disadvantages" instead of "advantages"-and also focuses on social differences, social acceptance and role:

When I was starting to write-in the late fifties, early sixties-there was a kind of social tradition in which male novelists could operate. Hard drinkers, bad livers. Wives, wars, big fish, Africa, Paris, no second acts. A man who wrote novels had a role in the world, and be could play that role and do whatever be wanted behind it. A woman who wrote novels bad no particular role. Women who wrote novels were quite often perceived as invalids. Carson McCullers, Jane Bowles. Flannery O'Connor of course. Novels by women tended to be described, even by their publishers, as sensitive. I'm not sure this ...

Revue de presse :

"The editors and interviewers of the Writers at Work series have become curators of live genius, marvelous literary taxidermists who have discovered a way to mount the great minds of their day without the usual killing and stuffing, to preserve them for all time. Surely this is now one of the single most persistent acts of cultural conservation in the history of the world, and one of our great national resources."-- Joe David Bellamy, Writing at the End of the Millennium

"Aspiring writers should read the entire canon of literature that precedes them, back to the Greeks, up to the current issue of The Paris Review."-- William Kennedy

"It is a safe bet that thirty and even three hundred years from now these conversations will be invaluable to students of twentieth-century literature."-- Time

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