Marilynne Robinson on The Daily Show, Mark Twain on Interviews

Marilynne Robinson is one of those authors whose name I keep running into and each time I do I make one of those mental notes that never quite materializes to read one of her books.  Mostly I’m interested in reading her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead: A Novel, and her most recent work, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self.  The latter collects Robinson’s Dwight H. Terry Lectures at Yale University on the topic of religion, science, and consciousness.  No lack of ambition there.

Robinson recently appeared on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.  Typical Stewart, a little bit serious, a little bit funny.  You can watch the five minute clip here.

Update:  Let me take an opportunity to embellish this post a little bit with another item I just came across.  Let’s begin by recognizing that this is not the most enthralling interview.  Robinson was not exactly inspiring and Stewart’s fan base, which seems for the most part to be a bit hostile to religion, is apoplectic (see the comments below the video clip).  There are probably a number of reasons why this interview doesn’t quite soar when on paper it probably looked like a good idea, but would anyone consider that the format itself is to blame?  In other words, are interviews inherently flawed?

The Mark Twain Foundation has just released for the first time in print a 10-page hand written essay on the subject of interviews written by Twain in 1889 or 1890.  You can see the whole essay at the Newhour’s web site including scans of the handwritten pages.  Here is an excerpt (sections of which brilliantly match form to content) that expresses Twain’s dissatisfaction with the interview:

The Interview was not a happy invention. It is perhaps the poorest of all ways of getting at what is in a man. In the first place, the interviewer is the reverse of an inspiration, because you are afraid of him. You know by experience that there is no choice between these disasters. No matter which he puts in, you will see at a glance that it would have been better if he had put in the other: not that the other would have been better than this, but merely that it wouldn’t have been this; and any change must be, and would be, an improvement, though in reality you know very well it wouldn’t. I may not make myself clear: if that is so, then I have made myself clear–a thing which could not be done except by not making myself clear, since what I am trying to show is what you feel at such a time, not what you think–for you don’t think; it is not an intellectual operation; it is only a going around in a confused circle with your head off. You only wish in a dumb way that you hadn’t done it, though really you don’t know which it is you wish you hadn’t done, and moreover you don’t care: that is not the point; you simply wish you hadn’t done it, whichever it is; done what, is a matter of minor importance and hasn’t anything to do with the case. You get at what I mean? You have felt that way? Well, that is the way one feels over his interview in print.

Yes, you are afraid of the interviewer, and that is not an inspiration. You close your shell; you put yourself on your guard; you try to be colorless; you try to be crafty, and talk all around a matter without saying anything: and when you see it in print, it makes you sick to see how well you succeeded. All the time, at every new change of question, you are alert to detect what it is the interviewer is driving at now, and circumvent him. Especially if you catch him trying to trick you into saying humorous things. And in truth that is what he is always trying to do. He shows it so plainly, works for it so openly and shamelessly, that his very first effort closes up that reservoir, and his next one caulks it tight. I do not suppose that a really humorous thing was ever said to an interviewer since the invention of his uncanny trade. Yet he must have something “characteristic;” so he invents the humorisms himself, and interlards them when he writes up his interview. They are always extravagant, often too wordy, and generally framed in “dialect”–a non-existent and impossible dialect at that. This treatment has destroyed many a humorist. But that is no merit in the interviewer, because he didn’t intend to do it.

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. He doesn’t know when you are delivering metal from when you are shoveling out slag, he can’t tell dirt from ducats; it’s all one to him, he puts in everything you say; then he sees, himself, that it is but green stuff and wasn’t worth saying, so he tries to mend it by putting in something of his own which he thinks is ripe, but in fact is rotten. True, he means well, but so does the cyclone.

3 thoughts on “Marilynne Robinson on The Daily Show, Mark Twain on Interviews

  1. Thanks for that clip, Mike. I’m constantly impressed by the caliber and type of guest Stewart has on the show. Oh, and I find that I’m far more inclined to take some of (albeit a small portion) of my reading list from Stewart, rather than O’s Book Club!

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