The dying art of literary interviews

February 11, 2024

Conversations with writers have now become increasingly platitudinal and monotonous

The dying art of literary interviews


one are the days when literary interviews were based on extensive research and a rare artistic spirit. In an article published in The Atlantic – titled The Precarious State of the Literary Interview – author Sarah Fay raises concerns about how such conversations with writers have now become increasingly “platitudinal and monotonous.” She cites British novelist and essayist Pico Iyer’s claim that literary interviews have lost their lustre owing to an “over-reliance on sound bytes about authors.“ These sound bytes, usually lifted through quick, cursory Google searches, stand the danger of making one interview with an author indistinguishable from others he or she may give.

Incidentally, Fay was once part of the editorial team of The Paris Review – a publication that has, since the early 1950s, made a concerted effort to enrich the calibre of literary interviews. The Writers at Work series, which first appeared in The Paris Review in 1953, has been recognised for widening the scope of these interviews. In a paper titled, The Literary Interview as Autobiography, Jerome Boyd Maunsell writes that early interviews for The Paris Review were conducted in a manner similar to that of an artist painting a portrait. The conversations would be conducted over the course of several meetings. Prior to the advent of the tape recorder, two interviewers would spearhead the conversations and would alternate between asking questions and taking notes. The interviewers would then share a transcript of the conversation with the writers, who, in turn, would make significant alterations to the text. As a result, the final version of the interview was steered by a spirit of collaboration.

While these practices are still upheld in literary journalism, it is difficult to gauge whether the same degree of thought goes into modern-day interviews with writers. Literary interviews have now become a gimmicky tool for publicity. Most interviewers tend to ask writers a list of formulaic questions that don’t always merit incisive, analytical and thought-provoking answers.

Sceptics say that the appeal of an insightful conversation with writers seems to have gradually eroded. In our ever-evolving digital reality, people suffer from limited attention spans and seldom have the time to read a book, let alone a long interview with its author. It is difficult to accept such a cynical thesis on the matter, especially at a time when book aficionados have triumphantly carved out a niche for themselves on social media. But, even so, the conversations surrounding books remain, at best, hollow, fragmented and uninspiring. Consequently, most literary interviews lack originality and the capacity for critical thought.

It is believed that literary interviews are a dying art in desperate need of nurturing. The publishing world views literary interviews as golden opportunities to generate a buzz around a book and its author. Few recognise that these conversations are a creative genre in their own right.

Such interviews serve as a doorway for readers to understand the social circumstances, creative influences and spiritual motivations that led an author to produce a particular work.

Such interviews are often considered a means of understanding the genesis of a literary work. They serve as a doorway for readers to understand the social circumstances, creative influences and spiritual motivations that led an author to produce a particular work. Some readers might ask why it is necessary for them to understand the trivia surrounding a literary work when they should be concerned solely with the work itself. It is, therefore, important to understand that literary interviews provide a counter to conventional literary criticism as they allow us to hear the author’s viewpoint on what they hoped to achieve by writing a particular book. These insights can provide some useful guidance on how to approach a book.

A textual analysis, though significant, can often lead us to draw narrow conclusions on a literary work. Reading a book is tantamount to being invited to visit a person’s house for a short duration. The reader is a guest who is led into certain rooms in that house. Only the writer has access to the other rooms. A skilled literary critic recognises this constraint, but still succeeds in casting a revealing light into those forbidden rooms. This can only be possible if the critic understands the writer’s motivations. If conducted in a nuanced manner, literary interviews can serve as a portal for readers and critics to heighten their understanding of a text.

In a separate vein, literary interviews can be perceived as a creative blend of biographies and autobiographies. More often than not, these conversations are bound by the parameters of a biography, as interviewers rely heavily on the direction that the interviewee wishes to take. By answering questions about their literary works, interviewees are engaged in a complex process of reclamation. As they dive deep into their consciousness to pluck out suitable responses, they are excavating ideas that could form the basis of an autobiography in action. The interviewer – who possesses the sole authority to ask questions – can ask them to elaborate on these ideas or raise questions about their claims. What emerges is a collaborative first-person narrative that is subsequently edited and embellished. The final product is, therefore, an account of a writer’s creative journey where the subject and the creator are equal collaborators.

Given the relevance of such interviews to literary discourse, an active effort needs to be made to understand the value of these conversations. In the context of Pakistani Anglophone literature, Mushtaq Bilal’s Writing Pakistan: Conversations on Identity, Nationhood and Fiction uses interviews to build an architecture around a literary work. Dealing with a broader range of concerns, Claire Chamber’s British Muslim Fiction: Interviews with Contemporary Writers includes conversations with Pakistani authors, Mohsin Hamid, Aamer Hussein, Kamila Shamsie and Tariq Ali. Apart from these significant texts, little has been done to tap into the creative and artistic potential of such literary conversations. Interviewers who speak to writers about their work must use these conversations as an opportunity to look beneath the surface instead of regurgitating themes and ideas that show up on Google searches.

The writer is a freelance journalist and the author of No Funeral for Nazia

The dying art of literary interviews