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"... for interviewers are courteous and gentle-mannered, even when they come to destroy."
July 8, 2010 5:09 PM   Subscribe

"The Interview was not a happy invention.... In the first place, the interviewer is the reverse of an inspiration, because you are afraid of him." An epic rant by Mark Twain, published for the first time this week.

More of Twain's work will be appearing over the coming months. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Twain's death and, in accordance with his wishes, his full autobiography will finally see publication later this year [previously].
posted by ardgedee (31 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
...and that was during the good old days of interviews.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:37 PM on July 8, 2010


...BEFORE Larry King.
posted by oneswellfoop at 5:49 PM on July 8, 2010


...BEFORE Larry King.

I find that very hard to believe.
posted by joe lisboa at 5:55 PM on July 8, 2010 [5 favorites]


Well, the days of yellow journalism... But I think his critique stands up to the test of time pretty well.
posted by el io at 6:05 PM on July 8, 2010


There are plenty of reasons why the Interview is a mistake. One is, that the interviewer never seems to reflect that the wise thing to do, after he has turned on this and that and the other tap, by a multitude of questions, till he has found one that flows freely and with interest, would be to confine himself to that one, and make the best of it, and throw away the emptyings he had secured before. He doesn't think of that. He is sure to shut off that stream with a question about some other matter; and straightway his one poor little chance of getting something worth the trouble of carrying home is gone, and gone for good. It would have been better to stick to the thing his man was interested in talking about, but you would never be able to make him understand that.

Wow. I find myself in the extraordinary position of disagreeing completely with Mark Twain.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:13 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


Which is to say, conducting an interview where you let the subject lead what to talk about is not always a great idea. I interviewed once a conservative politician who wanted to talk about classic cars. That's great; I was more interested in his atrocious city planning ideas. Many times the questions you want to ask, the questions readers want to see answered, are not the things your subject wants to talk about. Especially when it comes to people in positions of power. You can't let them lead. Frost/Nixon is an object lesson in this.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:22 PM on July 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


> Especially when it comes to people in positions of power.

For "especially," read "only." One of the huge problems with journalism (in general, there are honorable exceptions, blah blah) is that stupid and cowardly reporters treat people in power like celebrities, handing them softball questions and backing off when they get pushback, and celebrities (i.e., powerless people like writers) the way they should have been treating the people in power, pummeling them with questions about whatever they think will be most embarrassing. If a politician wants to talk about classic cars, force him to confront his malfeasance; if a writer, actor, or whoever wants to talk about classic cars, let them talk about classic cars.
posted by languagehat at 6:39 PM on July 8, 2010 [12 favorites]


If a politician wants to talk about classic cars, force him to confront his malfeasance; if a writer, actor, or whoever wants to talk about classic cars, let them talk about classic cars.

... and if Leno wants to talk about classic cars, encourage him. Then give his slot to Conan.
posted by joe lisboa at 6:44 PM on July 8, 2010 [3 favorites]


One of the huge problems with journalism (in general, there are honorable exceptions, blah blah) is that stupid and cowardly reporters treat people in power like celebrities, handing them softball questions and backing off when they get pushback, and celebrities (i.e., powerless people like writers) the way they should have been treating the people in power, pummeling them with questions about whatever they think will be most embarrassing. If a politician wants to talk about classic cars, force him to confront his malfeasance; if a writer, actor, or whoever wants to talk about classic cars, let them talk about classic cars.

The thing about the celebrity angle, too, is that if you want to interview, say, a film-maker on his new release, and ask him not embarrassing questions but rather, questions about the inspiration of the story, the process, funny tales from the set and so forth, and the film-maker talks about classic cars at length, it's not necessarily a shot interview. It could be "wow, look, I didn't know this guy was so passionate about classic cars", showcasing his human side, or his quirky side, or whatever. However, if in the entire two hours you spent with the film-maker, the only thing he would talk about is classic cars, without a word about his new film, your editor would question whether you really tried, or whether the interview is even worth printing, but would probably end up running it anyway.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:46 PM on July 8, 2010


> your editor would question whether you really tried, or whether the interview is even worth printing

Yeah, don't get me wrong, I understand the pressures and I'm not under the delusion that the interviewers all just happen to be idiots (even though I'm sometimes given to intemperate rhetoric along those lines)—what I'm saying is that the outcome is a bad one, whatever the reasons. The editor is going by a simplistic metric of what makes for a good interview (namely, talking about the issue of the moment). What is likely to be interesting beyond the moment is what the interviewee can talk most passionately and knowledgeably about, which is probably not what the editor is interested in.
posted by languagehat at 6:57 PM on July 8, 2010


Definitely. A lot of great interviews from famous people consist of just turning the dictaphone on, sitting back, and letting the subject riff for 90 minutes. Robert Downey, Jr. springs immediately to mind. I once read an interview with him, I think following up Natural Born Killers, where I he mentioned the movie, oh, once tops. The rest of the time he was just tangenting. It was great stuff.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:02 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


The gist of Twain's complaints seem to be mostly that he feels put-upon for being the foil of interviewers bent on wanting to show off their own wit for him, or for preparing their interview questions fully in advance and insisting on dully frogmarching through them all in lieu of engaging in anything like a conversation.

The latter still exist in those who email questionnaires off to celebrities, edit down the results (or worse, don't), and call it an interview. The former don't seem to be all that common, especially in political reporting.

I called it a rant in the OP because that's what it looked like to me: a dozen handwritten pages of spleen venting, to be filed away after the feeling passes. Twain had spent many years as a journalist, so presumably even after this rant had been drafted he could have been talked into conceding that all interviews aren't bad, as necessary evils go.
posted by ardgedee at 7:25 PM on July 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


The rest of the time he was just tangenting. It was great stuff.

Are you saying that cocaine is one of the best things to happen journalism?
posted by hanoixan at 7:26 PM on July 8, 2010


Gah. I heard about this on PBS and I totally thought he was talking about job interviews. And I was confused too because I figured those were a more modern invention. I'm an idiot.
posted by kmz at 7:51 PM on July 8, 2010


for preparing their interview questions fully in advance and insisting on dully frogmarching through them all in lieu of engaging in anything like a conversation

This. This is what he is ranting about, and he is absolutely correct; nothing kills any chance of getting interesting 'meat' out of the affair than an interviewer who thinks he has prepared properly by showing up with such a list of questions (unless he is the rare type who can ditch it once something 'clicks' ...)
posted by woodblock100 at 8:07 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I am one of the world's biggest Mark Twain fans and readers, and yet I find myself dreading what is coming as we trudge through piece after piece like this as the previously unpublished material is released. He was incredibly prolific, and not always at his best, and he was a hothead, and a depressed and cynical one toward the end of his life. I am sure these didn't see the light of day for good reason, and am feeling a bit sad already as I anticipate the experience of reading a bunch of his crankiest op-ed material in a drawn-out cascade.
posted by Miko at 8:13 PM on July 8, 2010 [2 favorites]


I enjoyed reading that, while listening to Mahler's 11th Symphony.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:19 PM on July 8, 2010


"Now his interruptions, his fashion of diverting you from topic to topic, have in a certain way a very serious effect: they leave you but partly uttered on each topic. Generally, you have got out just enough of your statement to damage you; you never get to the place where you meant to explain and justify your position."

This is it exactly. This is how I always feel after doing an interview, particularly on-camera. I always want a do-over, to call them back and explain, or add a caveat.

In his day, it seems interviewers were better prepared. Most of the time these days they are just asking questions off the top of their heads, and need to be prompted to get them to cover the basic crap they would have asked straight away had they spent a few minutes preparing for the interview. Twain would have hated it.

I love his writing, and I can't wait to read more.
posted by Patapsco Mike at 8:19 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


unless he is the rare type who can ditch it once something 'clicks' ...

Too bad Dick Cavett showed up too late.
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:32 PM on July 8, 2010


"Would you say that to Tom Petty?"

-B.B.Thornton.
posted by ovvl at 8:44 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


This is a good year for Twain. Most productive I've seen him in some time.
posted by TwelveTwo at 9:01 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I think he wrote this after the Colbert interview.
posted by Huck500 at 10:43 PM on July 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


You have to wonder why he wanted it to be published so long after his death. What was he hiding?

Maybe we will learn the truth about King Leopold. Or Queen Victoria.

I've long suspected that The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County was a fixed race. Maybe we'll learn the truth when the autobiography is published.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:22 AM on July 9, 2010


I don't think this attitude was unique to him. I think when newspaper interviews were invented, they were disapproved of. Proper journalism was thought to be the reporting of speeches and events, interviews felt like lightweight fluff. (IIRC the book "Flat Earth News" by Nick Davies mentioned this).
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:56 AM on July 9, 2010


> I find myself dreading what is coming as we trudge through piece after piece like this as the previously unpublished material is released.

I'm ambivalent. We're seeing his sketchbooks, basically. It's rare that sketchbooks are great works in their own right, but as drafts from the same mind and hand that wrote lasting works of literature they have value by association. These are the doodles and experiments that took place between the stories and essays we're familiar with, and so they're opportunities to see what he had to say when his guard was down, see what he considered throwaway or not worth developing. As rants go, it's not as sharp as the fuck-you letter he sent to a snake-oil peddler. As an opportunity to see him whine about problems that continue to plague celebrities of today, it's momentarily pleasing, but there's not much there to dwell on.

The Mark Twain Project is carefully doling these out; if there's better stuff, the editors are playing close to the chest and will be withholding them for use as teasers to promote the coming autobiography. It's a little cynical to do this, but I can't blame 'em; they've been waiting fifty years to get this book out and they're entitled to do some hype-building to get the public buying the book.
posted by ardgedee at 7:42 AM on July 9, 2010


One of the best interviews I have ever seen was Barbara Walters interview with Jack Lemmon about Save the Tiger, if I remember right. She asked him about the film, and he said it was important to him because he's an alcoholic. She said "Oh?" and then he talked about it for an hour. She never said another word.

Sometimes it's good to get out of the way when a subject wants to talk. That being said, I agree with Marisa Stole the Precious Thing, that there are a lot of circumstances when a reporter has to control the interview, especially when they're trying to get information that the subject doesn't want to discuss.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:55 AM on July 9, 2010


Another cranky old writer from Missouri. Must be in the water.
posted by Goofyy at 8:04 AM on July 9, 2010


I'm ambivalent. We're seeing his sketchbooks, basically.

I don't disagree about the essential value of this kind of stuff to scholars, but there's a vast amount of his manuscript material, lesser works, correspondence, draft material, etc. of Twain's out there already, and I'm not sure how much the newly released stuff will further illuminate his process and thinking vs. how much it will just cast a bright light on the nastier parts of his personality and his tendency to carp. Of course I'm as excited to see it as anyone, but I'm dreading some of the slogging that always accompanies reading a lot of his unedited or less-edited verbiage.
posted by Miko at 9:59 AM on July 9, 2010


Here's a piece in today's Times about the book. Justin Kaplan, probably Twain's best biographer, says: “One thing that gets Mark Twain going is his rage and resentment. There are a number of passages where he wants to get even, to settle scores with people whom he really despises. He loved invective.”"

That's kind of what I meant about feeling a little daunted by the prospect of reading through all this. "Twain's Best Flameouts and Rants, Vol. I."
posted by Miko at 8:48 PM on July 10, 2010


an excerpt from the newshour:
Harriet Elinor Smith is the official editor of the autobiography. She's been working here for more than 30 years. And she says that among the writings Twain wanted to suppress was his somewhat shocking view of Christianity.

HARRIET ELINOR SMITH, editor, "Autobiography of Mark Twain": "There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory. The invention of hell measured by our Christianity of today, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the deity nor his son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled."

That would have been considered very shocking in his day.

[...]

SPENCER MICHELS: The autobiography does include social and political material Twain thought too hot for the times, like these remarks about President Theodore Roosevelt's role in the massacre of Filipino guerrillas after the Spanish-American War.

ROBERT HIRST: "He knew perfectly well that to pen 600 helpless and weaponless savages in a hole like rats in a trap and massacre them in detail during a stretch of a day-and-a-half from a safe position on the heights above was no brilliant feat of arms. He knew perfectly well that our uniformed assassins had not upheld the honor of the American flag."
a study in contrasts with, say, l'affaire nasr or weigelgate...
posted by kliuless at 8:55 AM on July 11, 2010


fwiw:
At a more general level this is a tax on journalists, who now have a greater fear of being fired for past actions. It's also a tax on the moody, the volatile, the web-savvy, the non-mainstream, and a subsidy to in-control smooth talkers and careful writers...

Conceptually, the core problem is that the distinction between the private and public spheres is breaking down, but at different rates for individuals and mainstream institutions...

One possible outcome is that the current public code of behavior becomes applied to writers' private lives and I suppose that is what we are seeing and it is also what a lot of "common knowledge" models would predict. That is, most of us know that many writers say such things in private, but that's tolerated as long as it doesn't become common knowledge about any particular writer...

A polemicist who is secretly taped encounters a greatly different outcome than a polemicist who is not taped. One option is for public institutions to adopt a "statute of limitations" for private remarks and with a short time window...

Overall, we need more incentive-compatible, generalizable organizational reforms which will allow mainstream institutions to have more flexible relationships, and indeed sometimes more distanced relationships, with their writers. Yet reputational forces are often quite blunt, and grossly calculated, and mainstream institutions are not very far along on making such reforms work.
oh and: "Our wired and Twittered world is increasingly blurring the distinction between the personal and the professional, and in such a world honesty is a much greater virtue than mealy-mouthed meekness when it comes to expressing the truth as you see it."
posted by kliuless at 9:09 AM on July 11, 2010


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