Skip to content

From my interview archive: critics Clive James and James Wood

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

Clive James called his first book The Metropolitan Critic, which always struck me as a decent job title, if a vague one. But only a vague title could capture the expansiveness of the man’s professional interests, which ranks high on the list of qualities I respect about him. James’ bibliography includes not just criticism but cultural essays, fiction, poetry, “unreliable memoir,” travel writing (to go along with his travel television), and more recently a series of columns in the Guardian called “Reports of My Death.” In that last, he writes on varying subjects in varying relation to one theme: his own passage from this mortal coil, which looked imminent on his cancer diagnosis seven years ago but now, thanks to an “experimental drug,” seems, at least to his readers, to recede further back into improbability with each passing year.

“I’m not terribly interested in originality,” James said once, or probably more than once. “Vitality is all I care about.” Though an offhand remark in an interview rather than one of his phrases wrought with famous care and delivered for laughs (such as his immortal description of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a “brown condom stuffed with walnuts”), it’s stuck with me: the word vitality may well sum up much or all of what I seek out in any given work myself. I suspect, though, that on average I go in for a more controlled, less exuberant variety of the stuff  than James does: I’ve never read or heard him express any enthusiasm for, say, J.M. Coetzee, though Coetzee did blurb James’ essay collection Cultural Amnesia — a favorite book of mine, and not just because it revealed our shared fascination with Chris Marker — as “a crash course in civilization,” I think approvingly.

And of course I also admire the vitality of James himself, which now manifests as a faintly embarrassed but robust instinct for survival, but which has also driven him to write so prolifically over such a wide range of cultural territory, to learn French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian and Japanese, and to dance the tango now and again. It may have also played a part in the unsavory scandal that came to light in 2012, but you’ve got to take your yin with your yang. Not that I’d have suspected it in the least back when I interviewed him on The Marketplace of Ideas in 2009, ostensibly about his then-new poetry collection Opal Sunset but really about all the things I could possibly ask him about — and more to the point, all the things I could learn from him — in a mere hour.

But not everyone I know, and that includes other writers whose work I enjoy, think James deserves the time of day as a critic. As near as I can tell, they find him too frivolous, too unserious, too jokey, too concerned with his own writing style and too unconcerned with serious evaluative labor — the same charges often leveled at film critic Anthony Lane, one of the New Yorker writers whose work I never, ever miss. (When I heard another film critic I respect write Lane off for having “no theory of cinema,” I realized that was one of the main reasons I do read him.) While I never did get the chance to interview Lane, and not for lack of un-replied-to e-mails to his employer, I did get to interview another of my personal New Yorker A-listers: literary critic and occasional novelist James Wood.

“I sleep very poorly these days,” Wood wrote in a 2013 piece on his parents. “I lie awake, full of apprehensions. All kinds of them, starting with the small stuff, and rising. How absurd that I should be paid to write book reviews! How long is that likely to last?” Indeed, both he and James bear the mark of another time, one in which critics enjoyed a higher cultural profile, or at least could engage with a single book for three or four thousand words instead of having to crank out image-intensive clickbait on the problematic casting choices of the latest superhero blockbuster franchise at sixty bucks a pop. (Intriguingly, critics do seem to have retained their importance to the common reader and viewer, or more recently gained it, here in Korea, where they still go round and round the circuit of media and public appearances.)

But then, I’ve never really longed to become a full-time critic: my interest lies in the essay form itself, and throughout their careers writers like Wood, James, and in critic mode even Coetzee, have done their part to maintain that form into the 21st century. You could even argue, as no less a desired but never landed interviewee as Paul Graham did in 2004, that we’ve entered the Age of the Essay. Whatever their commercial viability, essays, critical and otherwise, have an appealing potential not just as treatments of single subjects but nexuses of a variety subjects — as, in a different way, do interviews, at least when done right. Wood, and even more so the still-vigorous James, covered a great deal of intellectual ground during our conversations. “Thank you for reading my book,” said the latter after we finished recording, and I told him any interviewer would’ve done the same. His reply: “That’s the first naive thing you’ve said all hour.”