William Styron

Soon after it began publishing, the Paris Review interviewed William Styron who was then living in Paris. The interview was conducted in early autumn on a sunny afternoon at a cafe on the boulevard du Montparnasse—parfait. The interviewer begins by asking Styron if he enjoys writing.

“I certainly don’t. I get a fine, warm feeling when I’m doing well, but that pleasure is pretty much negated by the pain of getting started each day. Let’s face it, writing is hell.” This is spoken by the author of Sophie’s Choice, Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner and Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness that describes Styron’s battle to overcome depression.

Styron’s account of his struggle to write should give some consolation to all those aspiring writers who are about to abandon ship. But like Roth, who said every writer needs his “poisons,” Styron also thought of writing as somewhat therapeutic for “people who are perpetually scared of nameless threats as I am most of the time.”

While admitting his work has been influenced by the notables—Joyce, Flaubert, Dos Passos and Fitzgerald, “the strongest influences are out of the past—the Bible, Marlow, Blake, Shakespeare.” Again, this leaves unanswered the question of how the work of one writer can influence another. No doubt, it is a matter of considerable subtlety and may be nothing very specific, but rather a vague, indefinite form of learning without awareness.

Styron is then asked about his view of the critics, of which he had many. He replies, “From the writers point of view, critics should be ignored, although it’s hard not to do what they suggest.” He then notes how hard it is to have critics who are also your friends. He reads their reviews…but they don’t really help him much, at least in ways that he can pinpoint.

“Look there’s only one person a writer should listen to, pay attention to. It’s not any dam critic. It’s the reader….The writer must criticize his own work as a reader. Every day I pick up the story or whatever it is I’ve been working on and read it through. If I enjoy it as a reader then I know I’m getting along all right.”

What do I expect to learn or find in reading a critics review of a book? It is really one and only one thing—I want to find out if I might enjoy reading the book. I am far less interested in placing the book in the context of other works by the writer or much of anything about his or her life.

Nor am I the least bit interested in what the book reviewer thought about its literary excellence—its structural or post-modern features. Rather, I want to know what the book meant to the critic and how it might have affected him. I look for the experience the reviewer had in reading the book, what insights it gave him, if it led him to identify with any of the characters or their situations and the significance that might have had for the reviewer.

In short, I want to know if it is worth my time to read the novel and head down to the bookstore to buy it. I confess, I rarely get this kind of information from most reviewers. Like Styron, I have to start reading the book and if I like what I read in the beginning, it is likely that I’ll enjoy the rest of it.

As a totally unrelated but profoundly relevant footnote, I would like to cite a passage from the interview with Paul Auster that is also included in Volume IV of the Paris Review Interviews. It was conducted in 2003 when Auster was then 56. Even at that relatively young age he could say,

“Time begins slipping away, and simple arithmetic tells you there are more years behind you than ahead of you—many more. Your body starts breaking down, you have aches and pains that weren’t there before, and little by little the people you love begin to die. By the age of fifty, most of us are haunted by ghosts. They live inside us and we spend as much time talking to the dead as to the living. It’s hard for a young person to understand this. It’s not that a twenty year old doesn’t know he’s going to die, but it’s the loss of others that so profoundly affects an older person—and you can’t know what the accumulation of losses is going to do to you until you experience it yourself.”