Questions for Clive James.

Examining culture and the arts.
March 14 2007 12:35 PM

Renaissance Man

Questions for Clive James.

(Continued from Page 1)

James: The people that you're talking bout—the so-called famous four, Humphries, Hughes, Germaine Greer, and myself—we did leave Australia around the same time but not to be together; we left in order to be individuals. The last thing we were ever going to do was hang out. The names were put together subsequently by journalists because it's a good story. You can't blame them. But it's not a movement, it's a bunch of individuals. I put a strong emphasis on that—we definitely don't hang out together; I mean, Germaine can't be hung out with; she's a very volatile individual. I would say the same of Humphries and Hughes.

Slate: So you thought of the move from Australia as a move toward being able to define yourself as an individual?

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James: Correctly or not, but mostly correctly, we thought Australia was a backwater in the early '60s. If you did our sort of thing, the arts and the media, you thought that the action was elsewhere. Things subsequently changed, and Australia began to have everything, and the necessity to leave was no longer thought to be an imperative. But in our day, we thought that the action was somewhere else. What we were wrong about was that the culture was already shifting, because European immigrants after World War II were already changing Australia from the bottom up, so there were more interesting things to eat, to drink—it was more interesting in every way. But we couldn't see that because we were young. The young know nothing. So we got on a ship and went abroad. The only reason I stayed abroad was I was broke and I couldn't get back again.

But that was a general thing that Australian people in the arts and media did right through the 20th century. In fact, that's one of the things that all prosperous liberal democracies do: They export talent, they colonize the world. American did it after World War I, when American writers were living in Paris.

Slate: You said once that your career as a critic started after the publication of an essay about Edmund Wilson, "The Metropolitan Critic," in the Times Literary Supplement. What happened after it?

James: This is all in my fourth book of memoirs, which is really about my early struggles—mein kampf!—but I'll try to give you a précis. The truth is very simple, and it's that I hit three or four deadlines a week in various literary magazines and newspapers until I was taken on as the Observer's TV critic in 1972, when I started drawing a regular paycheck. Until then I was a freelance critic, and I learned my craft by writing about simply everything. I was given courage by Wilson's example, I admired his range, the way his enthusiasm was genuine and universally applicable. I still recommend The Shores of Light to young people—that will get you started. But I found it very hard to do to make a living out of literary journalism, because you have to write a lot of bits and pieces to put a salary together. I'm told nowadays it is impossible. The weekly TV columns saved me. And at the end of the '70s, TV gave me a real salary: I went into it as a host and made enough to feed my family. I'm not so sure journalism would ever have done that.

Slate: TV criticism in the United States has only begun to bloom, and for a long time it was looked down upon as lowbrow—

James: Well, America had an acute shortage of television. William Shawn, in his last year as editor of TheNew Yorker, made a quiet request to me—to come to New York and be his TV critic. I had two big reasons not to: One was that my family was in Britain, and the other was that there wasn't any television in America because it was still stuck with the networks and nothing was on them. No one could foresee what would happen next: that the very paucity of the networks—their concentration of huge resources on producing practically nothing—eventually produced cable and HBO. HBO started making shows that were so good that the networks had to react to it. You couldn't have had The West Wing on NBC unless these marvelous things had happened on HBO. Now I think the main creativity in the states goes into TV rather than the movies. Band of Brothers is better than Saving Private Ryan. That's where the creativity will go from now on.

Slate: You speak in the introduction to As of This Writing about choosing not to come to New York because being here would mean that you were too much in the belly of the beast, so to speak, to have a clear perspective.

James: That was putting it rather grandly. On another level, I felt that America would also appeal too much to my sweet tooth. I'm inherently corruptible; I can feel it when I land in L.A., before I get off the aircraft. When I'm beside the pool at the Four Seasons, I can feel myself thinking, "Well, I wouldn't really want to write a script; no, I would like to be a script doctor. I've rarely seen a movie I couldn't improve by writing some extra dialogue. There must be a spare million somewhere for that." You're thinking that before you've even been in town for a few hours. So, everything about the states appeals to me too much. You can spend your whole time in New York just getting interviewed. Here, it is easier to be private.