Sunday, October 28, 2007

FREEDOM OF THE PRESS: Mark Twain on Written Interviews

'I have, in my time, succeeded in writing some very poor stuff, which I have put in pigeonholes until I realised how bad it was, and then destroyed it.

But I think the poorest article I ever wrote and destroyed was better worth reading than any interview with me that ever was published.'

- quoted in "Mark Twain, A Conglomerate Interview, Personally Conducted by Luke Sharp," The Idler, Feb. 1892

'It is a free press...There are laws to protect the freedom of the press's speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press.'

- Mark Twain License of the Press speech
Recently, some candidate 'interviews' have appeared in local media, which seem to confirm the same concerns about this particular technique that were eloquently expressed in the late nineteenth century by Samuel L. Clemens, more popularly known as 'Mark Twain'.

Reproduced below is a quotation from Twain's letter of complaint to Edward Bok, circa 7 July 1889:

"No, no—it is like most interviews, pure twaddle, and valueless.

For several quite plain and simple reasons, an "interview" must, as a rule, be an absurdity.
And chiefly for this reason: it is an attempt to use a boat on land, or a wagon on water, to speak figuratively.

Spoken speech is one thing, written speech is quite another.
Print is a proper vehicle for the latter, but it isn’t for the former.
The moment “talk” is put into print you recognize that it is not what it was when you heard it; you perceive that an immense something has disappeared from it.

That is its soul. You have nothing but a dead carcass left on your hands.
Color, play of feature, the varying modulations of voice, the laugh, the smile, the informing inflections, everything that gave that body warmth, grace, friendliness, and charm, and commended it to your affection, or at least to your tolerance, is gone, and nothing is left, but a pallid, stiff and repulsive cadaver.

Such is "talk," almost invariably, as you see it lying in state in an "interview."
The interviewer seldom tries to tell one how a thing was said; he merely puts in the naked remark, and stops there.

When one writes for print, his methods are very different.
He follows forms which have but little resemblance to conversation, but they make the reader understand what the writer is trying to convey.

And when the writer is making a story, and finds it necessary to report some of the talk of his characters, observe how cautiously and anxiously he goes at that risky and difficult thing ...[to wit]

• "If he had dared to say that thing in my presence," said Alfred, taking a mock heroic attitude, and casting an arch glance upon the company, "blood would have flowed."

• "If he had dared to say that thing in my presence," said Hawkwood, with that in his eye which caused more than one heart in that guilty assemblage to quake, "blood would have flowed."

• "If he had dared to say that thing in my presence," said the paltry blusterer, with valor on his tongue and pallor on his lips, "blood would have flowed."

So painfully aware is the novelist that naked talk in print conveys no meaning, that he loads, and often overloads, almost every utterance of his characters with explanations and interpretations.

It is a loud confession that print is a poor vehicle for "talk," it is a recognition that uninterpreted talk in print would result in confusion to the reader, not instruction.

Now, in your interview you have certainly been most accurate, you have set down the sentences I uttered as I said them.

But you have not a word of explanation; what my manner was at several points is not indicated.

Therefore, no reader can possibly know where I was in earnest and where I was joking; or whether I was joking altogether or in earnest altogether.

Such a report of a conversation has no value.
It can convey many meanings to the reader, but never the right one.

To add interpretations which would convey the right meaning is a something which would require -- what?
An art so high and fine and difficult that no possessor of it would ever be allowed to waste it on interviews.

No; spare the reader and spare me; leave the whole interview out; it is rubbish.
I wouldn’t talk in my sleep if I couldn’t talk better than that.

If you wish to print anything print this letter; it may have some value, for it may explain to a reader here and there why it is that in interviews as a rule men seem to talk like anybody but themselves."

Very sincerely yours,

" ...the liberty of the Press is called the Palladium of Freedom, which means, in these days, the liberty of being deceived, swindled, and humbugged by the Press and paying hugely for the deception."

- "From Author's Sketch Book, Nov. 1870," reprinted in The Twainian, May 1940

"Think what tedious years of study, thought, practice, experience, went to the equipment of that peerless old master who was able to impose upon the whole world the lofty and sounding maxim that "Truth is mighty and will prevail"-- the most majestic compound fracture of fact which any of woman born has yet achieved. For the history of our race, and each individual's experience, are sewn thick with evidences that a truth is not hard to kill, and that a lie well told is immortal."

- Mark Twain, "Advice to Youth," 15 April 1882

'There are 869 different forms of lying, but only one of them has been squarely forbidden. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.'
- Mark Twin, Following the Equator; Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar

'I am different from Washington; I have a higher, grander standard of principle.
Washington could not lie. I can lie, but I won't.'
- quoted in Mark Twain, Henderson

A lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.
- attributed to Mark Twain