Our Need To Know Our Novelists

An investigation into author interviews:

It makes good commercial sense for publishers, journalists, and bookshops to promote author interviews. But these do not explain public interest in such interviews, or why we want our novelists to be celebrities. We have, after all, so many other celebrities to think about—celebrities whose jobs, if they have jobs, make for better stories than sitting alone moving words about on a screen. So why not spare novelists the burden of becoming public figures? Why not let them slope off to write their books in private, for the few souls left who read them? …

By [interviewer Ramona] Koval’s reckoning, we read or listen to author interviews for the same reason we read novels: to find out how to live. But where novels are often opaque in their wisdom, declining to tell us how to live as plainly as we might like, the interview offers clarity. There will be questions, there will be answers, and if the answers are a little elliptical—well, the interviewer can keep asking until the matter is resolved. The [1953] E. M. Forster Paris Review interview sets the tone for this kind of truth-seeking. “What was the exact function of the long description of the Hindu festival in A Passage to India?” “Would you admit to there being any symbolism in your novels?” Interviewer and novelist collaborate in isolating, condensing, and finally spoon-feeding the novel’s meaning to the audience. It’s been a long time since [Roland] Barthes declared the author dead, but we’re more eager than ever to hear the corpse speak.