BOOK REVIEW / Quite a lot to answer for: The Penguin book of interviews - ed Christopher Silvester, pounds 18.99

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The Independent Culture
IN THE introduction to his recent collection of essays, Martin Amis proposes that 'the star interview is dead' - robbed of any credibility or bite by the expert strategems of celebrity marketing: 'The great post-modern celebrities are a part of their publicity machines and that is all you are ever going to write about: their publicity machines. You review the publicity machine.'

Amis isn't alone in his scepticism, although many are keener to blame the death of the interview on the egotism of the modern interviewer. Mediated by anodyne celebrity marketing and the interviewer's unabashed partiality, how, it's asked, can anything resembling the subject's authentic self squidge through to the reader?

Whether or not the star interview is dead - and the extremely interested opinion of this reviewer is that it isn't - the case for Christopher Silvester's anthology of interviews can be argued either way. As a retrospective of a disappearing golden age, or as a celebration of a still potent form, this is an assiduously researched, entertaining volume which offers, among other things, a brisk, pop-up tour of 20th-century greats.

Framed by Horace Greeley's Q & A session with the Mormom leader Brigham Young in 1895 and Richard Stengel's gloriously fruitless encounter with Paul Johnson in 1992, Silvester's selection includes interviews with Marx, Bismarck, Samuel Smiles, Oscar Wilde, Christabel Pankhurst, Greta Garbo, Freud, George Bernard Shaw, Al Capone, Hitler, Stalin, Picasso, Gandhi, Beckett, JFK, Hemingway, Mao and John Lennon.

It's a fine spread, but if Silvester has erred in his choice, it may have been in giving too much precedence to historically important interviewees: this anthology proves that the greatness of an interview subject is no guarantee of an amusing or even instructive interview. We don't learn much about Marx from his conversation with R Landor that is not available to us in his published work. He may have changed the course of the modern age, but he doesn't give copy half as good as, say, the frisky Sally Army leader, W T Stead. ('Why should piety be incompatible with flirtatiousness which is . . . the secret of true, innocent gaiety and an inexhaustible spring of the joy of life?')

The volume could also have done with more interviews taken from the last 30 years. The impact of 'New Journalism' in the Sixties seems under-represented here. (The one contribution, from the American genius Rex Reed, is his

untypically tame account of a meeting with Bette Davis.) And although Silvester makes reference in his introduction to British women journalists such as Catherine Bennett, Barbara Amiel and, the leader of the pack, Lynn Barber, he hasn't provided any samples of their writing. Had he done so, his characterisation of their collective output as the 'hostile' work of 'harpies' would have been exposed as the unfairness that it is.

The wealth of earlier material does, however, have the merit of illustrating just how drastically the style and sense of our extempore speech has declined in the course of the century. Silvester quotes Wilson Mizner upbraiding Djuna Barnes in 1916: 'My God] Am I to be held up for intellectual plunder all the way to my office? The jewels of my speech that I have already lavished upon you would make you a pair of suspenders.'

Modern celebs may feel ransacked by the experience of being interviewed, but few could claim to provide such rich booty. Where are the Mark Twains, the Evelyn Waughs, even the Alfred Hitchcocks of today?

In the end, though, this anthology still provides some pretty good ammunition against the death- of-the-interview theorists. Silvester's introduction shows that concerns about the celebrity's fake interview persona and the prejudices of the interviewer have been round since the interview began. As early as 1895, the humorous writer Barry Pain was advising celebrities to do as many interviews as possible: 'Nothing conceals one's real self better than an interview, except more interviews.' Likewise, celebrities have evidently never not complained about being misquoted or misread by sly or sloppy interviewers.

What's clear is that the interview never was - and was never meant to be - accurate in, say, the manner of a news item. Even given optimum conditions, what Amis says about the literary interview - that it cannot tell us what a writer is like, only what he is like to interview - is true of all interviews. But the social masks that celebrities choose to adopt are never perfect, nor are they uninteresting in their own right.

Imagine that a friend of yours phones you and tells you she met Hillary Clinton at a dinner party last night. You know that your friend is not a disinterested witness: she may even be a passionate Republican. You also know that Hillary Clinton is unlikely to have taken your friend into a corner, lifted a flap in her navel and said: 'Here - have a look at my soul.' You are aware that your friend's account will be skewed, incomplete, impressionistic. But will any of this stop you from asking, with an eager little catch in your voice: 'So what was she like?' Of course it won't] Until such time as it does, reports of the interview's demise will prove to be greatly exaggerated.

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