Ramona Koval is well known to Australian readers as a radio broadcaster with a particular interest in literature, having hosted the ABC’s former ‘Books and Writing’ program for many years. This book (2005) is a collection of interviews she did with a range of writers between 1996 and 2004, mostly at writers’ festivals, with a few in writers’ homes. The list of contributors is a sort of who’s who of contemporary literature, though no doubt there could be arguments about who is included and who left out – why no Margaret Atwood, for example.
It’s easy enough to see why writers appear at literary events; they hope to sell more books. And some may even enjoy it. But what do audiences hope for when they attend sessions at writers’ festivals? Personally I like to see writers I already admire perform in public, and also to check out writers I haven’t read, but might read in the future. Part of the pleasure is the element of theatre that comes with a good public conversation. I guess I also hope to learn something that may help me better understand the work of the writer in question. When faced with the transcripts of such conversations rather than the physical reality, there is both loss and gain. Some of the excitement is missing, but the ability to consider and reflect is much enhanced.
But what is it that writers can say about their work that adds to the pleasure of reading it? I was struck by an exchange between Koval and Saul Bellow. He says: ‘I don’t want to bare my soul, or my self, to a public …’ And she replies: ‘as a writer of novels, that’s what you’ve been doing all your life – showing us what’s going on in your head and your heart.’ To which Bellow replies: ’Yes, but between me and the public, there is my art. Between me and the … audience there is no art.’ So does the work of art stand alone, without further explication from the author? Bellow’s comment didn’t stop him from talking more generally about how he sees the ‘modern predicament’ – an ‘unbearable state of distraction’ – or how he finds that this world encourages comedy more than the great and deep emotions he had initially hoped to evoke with his writing. But interesting as his views might be in themselves, I’m not sure they help me understand Bellow’s ‘art’.
Ramona Koval is an experienced interviewer who allows the conversation to take its course, rather than imposing a framework on it through her questions. However I wonder if she sees literature as offering us truths about the world, as she often asks her interviewees about whether a writer has a special wisdom. Mostly they seem to say ‘no’. Normal Mailer, for example, says a writer may approach the truth, but never find it. Saul Bellow says: ‘I don’t know the answers. I only know my answers.’ David Malouf says that going to writers for wisdom is ‘unwise’. And Harold Pinter says: ‘I never think of myself as wise’. Susan Sontag, on the other hand, doesn’t suggest that she is wise, but thinks that literature should ‘embody a certain wisdom’. Unlike many of the interviewees, she places more emphasis on reality than imagination. Others offer a whole range of reasons for writing, including a sense of ‘reflecting the tenor of the times’ (Morris West), exploring conflict (Edna O’Brien), a desire to ‘inhabit other minds’ (Ian McEwan), revealing ‘moral peril’ (Tom Keneally) or simply as ‘a form of love’ (Judith Wright). These are in a sense truths about the world, though they are certainly not prescriptions for action. I guess writers offer insights into living, rather than formal prescriptions on how to do it. Though there is also William Gass: ‘people who read novels to pretend to find out about life are just fooling themselves’.
As one would expect, Koval also asks questions that relate to the content and form of the writers’ work. Again, the answers are as various as the writers, though not of course mutually exclusive. Several said how important they found it to show what makes people do what they do. Some inhabited their characters to the point that this dictated the way the story developed. Others considered language the most important element of the novel – including the misuse and distortion of language that several saw as the scourge of official communication, like ‘humanitarian intervention’ when they mean war, or ‘freedom-loving peoples’ when they mean clients of the United States (Harold Pinter). I can’t agree with David Malouf, who thinks that readers get caught up in a relationship with a writer because of the ‘particular music’ of a writer’s language, but that just shows that writers’ concerns and readers’ responses are as various of the leaves of autumn. Note here Alfred Kazin: ‘I don’t believe for a moment that language by itself is the primary literary force in any literary work.’
Overall, I find it hard to say what I took from this book. Obviously I’ve left out a huge amount that is important. While I enjoyed reading each of the interviews and thought a number of them compelling or moving or thought-provoking, I found it difficult to think coherently about the whole collection. Possibly my appreciation was limited by the fact that I’ve only read works by about half of the writers, and often not the ones specifically mentioned in the interviews. I found it hard afterwards to remember which author said what. Each sees things a little differently. Perhaps this was Koval’s intention. One test for the book is whether reading interviews with authors I haven’t read has made me want to read them. I’ll have to think further about that. Amos Oz, perhaps.
In conclusion, I can’t go past one of the best misprints I’ve ever seen. P.D. James comments on women having to cede their property to their husbands on marriage until the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in1882. This has been rendered here as the Mad Women’s Property Act. Perhaps the rather upper class tones of Baroness James of Holland Park got mistranscribed …