The Interview Project

I have conducted over eighty interviews with critics, theorists, and philosophers, some of which have appeared in Symploke, Boundary 2, and minnesota review. A complete list of published interviews is available here and a selection was gathered in Critics at Work: Interviews 1993-2003. Most recently, I discussed the history and practice of the critical interview in a 2018 article for Biography, which is excerpted below. 

Criticism Live: The History and Practice of the Critical Interview

by Jeffrey J. Williams

Stephen Greenblatt opens his book stamping the new historicism, Shakespearean Negotiations (1988), with the declaration: “I began with the desire to speak with the dead.” In investigating the history of contemporary American criticism, I instead began with the desire to speak with the living, and thus far I have conducted more than 60 interviews with critics, theorists, philosophers, and editors about it.

Interviews have an iffy status in criticism. While some interviews with figures like Foucault or Derrida have attained canonical standing, they usually fall into a generic no-man’s land, accessible but not quite real criticism or scholarship. They flirt with the world of popular culture, with one branch of their family tree the celebrity profile. For instance, in “On Not Giving Interviews” Fredric Jameson eschews them as promoting “bad habits” of thought “from which thinking only slowly recovers, if at all. The logic … is, to be sure, at one with commodification and fashion.” However, rather than disdaining them, I think that we should see interviews as another kind of critical writing. No doubt some interviews bear out Jameson’s reservations, but I think part of the muddle stems from the range and variety of the form, extending from blurb-like comments that effectively serve as promotional copy for a book or short remarks that build an academic celebrity profile, to substantive expositions of a critic’s work and thinking in article-length, or even in a few cases book-length, form. Indeed, Jameson himself had an important early interview in Diacritics, and Raymond Williams’s Politics and Letters provides the best single overview of his work, and also his life, through a sustained series of interviews.

The kind of interview I favor is the article-length version—that is, around 20-40 pages in print—that covers a critic’s body of work rather than only a particular book or issue, and offers reflections on criticism and theory in general, similar in scope to literary interviews in creative writing journals like the Paris Review, that cover an author’s career and offer thoughts on writing. In my surmise, this version has become an established genre, emerging in the late 1970s and 1980s, coalescing in the 1990s, and becoming commonplace in the past decade. Indeed, a number of critical journals, including Boundary 2, Diacritics, Differences, JAC, minnesota review, New Left Review, Public Culture, Radical Philosophy, Social Text, and Theory, Culture and Society, have run interviews, some regularly and some irregularly, although the phenomenon has largely fallen beneath scholarly radar. I’ll call this kind of interview “the critical interview,” designating that it is one with a critic, parallel to the literary interview that designates one with a writer, rather than attributing any particular quality to the interview itself. Like most genres, it takes from and adapts earlier forms, although my contention is that it represents an innovation rather than just a variant of those forms. One way to characterize it is that it is a hybrid of the literary interview and the scholarly article. From the literary interview, it takes a holistic framework, usually surveying a writer’s career and body of work, as well as ideas on the state of literature. In contrast to the literary interview, it eschews a focus on process and craft, and from the scholarly article, it takes the more serious bearing of academic work as well as presumed intellectual remove to talk about criticism and cultural politics. It also adopts the span of the full-length article, parallel to the way that the literary interview adopts the span of a full-length short story.

While the orientation of the critical interview is usually summative or reflective rather than toward a new finding, it has provided a medial genre for criticism in the research era, crafting a more accessible mode to convey specialized discourse. In midcentury, as American higher education vastly expanded following upon World War II, criticism took a largely colloquial, pedagogical idiom; but in the research era, maturing in the 1970s and emphasizing theory, criticism adopted a more specialized, professional idiom. In this context, the interview fashions a counterbalance to the critical article and book. As the article or book chapter moved from the informal essay, such as Orwell’s overview of Dickens, which appeared in a number of midcentury anthologies of criticism, to its contemporary academic form and manner, the critical interview gained traction as a bridge to those in a field who might need more accessible exposition, or to those in other fields. That they adopt a conversational idiom might be one reason for their being considered of lesser value, as if casual rather than expert knowledge, but I think that their more accessible mode is precisely why they took hold as a genre.

Interviews give a lived sense of criticism, of the intellectual, institutional, and biographical coordinates that inflect the ideas critics have and positions they take. They show how a critic might speak and move through his or her thought extemporaneously. They are of course a rhetorical form like any other kind of writing rather than unmediated expression, so they might function like “the reality effect” in fiction, projecting a realism while governed by their own generic expectations and modes of representation. Still, they can give a distinctive sense of a critic, like a lecture, with paths of thought and expression that might be erased in a finished article. They can go where articles do not: they can ask details about background—not just personal but historical and institutional, and as I mentioned, they tend to offer a synoptic view of a critic’s work that one rarely gets in an article. In their accessibility and wide-angle lens, they probably serve more like surveys, guidebooks, or other such expositions. We tend to downgrade such genres as rudimentary or pedagogical, but to see it in a pragmatist way, it is a mistake to think that an article holds the metaphysical essence of thought that an interview only palely imitates. Rather, they have different roles and purposes, with the interview a step toward attaining or modifying a picture of criticism or theory.

I started doing interviews more or less by accident. In the early 1990s, only a couple of years out of graduate school, I took over the editorship of the minnesota review, a literary and critical journal.

Excerpted from: “Criticism Live: The History and Practice of the Critical Interview,” Biography 41.2 (2018): 235-55.