Lynn Barber at the premierer of "An Education" in 2009. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

A Curious Career: learning Lynn Barber's rules for celebrity interviews

Lynn Barber's A Curious Career is a curious concoction, a mixture of retold stories and reprinted interviews from a writer who has always been better at writing about other people rather than herself.

A Curious Career 
Lynn Barber
Bloomsbury, 211pp, £16.99

The rules of the celebrity interview can be pretty plainly stated, according to Lynn Barber in her new memoir, A Curious Career. Both participants – interviewer and interviewee – “know that this is a transaction in which we both hope to get something more than we intend to give. The celebrity hopes for maximum publicity for their book or film or whatever they are plugging in return for minimal self-exposure. The journalist delivers the publicity but aims to wrest a few revealing remarks from the celebrity along the way.”

How do you go about that wresting? Chapter three of this book, “On Interviewing”, provides a handy instruction manual – you’d think almost anyone could do it. Do your research. Arrive on time. Make sure your tape recorder is working. Hope your front tooth doesn’t fall out (this happened to Barber when she was interviewing Oliver Stone; apparently he was a gent about the whole business). See if you can persuade your subjects to allow you into their home. Ask open-ended questions: you can’t go wrong with: “Why?” I’ve done a fair bit of interviewing along the way, and I can vouch for the quality and usefulness of this advice: I even allowed myself to be pleased to discover that Barber hates listening to her own voice on her recordings just as much as I hate listening to mine.

Whom better to take advice from in this regard? Soon to be 70, Barber is the doyenne of celebrity interviewers. She got her start at Oxford, writing for Cherwell, the student paper, where she had the good fortune to interview Bob Guccione, who was just about to launch Penthouse to rival Playboy. She ended up working for him for £16 a week: “not bad for those days – enough to buy a new outfit every week at Biba”. She wrote a couple of books (the title of the first, How to Improve Your Man in Bed, has a perfect Mad Men ring to it) and eventually joined the Sunday Express Magazine, where (once again interviewing her old pal Guccione) she started writing her pieces in the first person, which wasn’t the custom then. The “Demon Barber” was born.

Now, perhaps all this sounds a little familiar to you. Much of this information – and much of interest that’s in this book – can be found written more carefully, and certainly at greater depth, in An Education. This first memoir was published in 2009 to wide acclaim, and its central story of the teenage Barber’s relationship with Simon, a much older man, was made into a fine film starring Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard. If you haven’t read An Education, that’s the place to start – for A Curious Career is a curious concoction, an odd and, finally, not very satisfying mix of retold stories, reprinted interviews and hasty recollection.

By now the tale of Barber lying to Julie Andrews when the actress asked if she had children (Barber denied the existence of her daughters to save precious interviewing time) has been recounted often; but it’s presented here rather as if it were brand new. Interviews that can easily be found online (with Marianne Faithfull, with Martin Clunes) are reproduced in their entirety for no better reason, one feels, than to pad out the book; interviews that are less easily accessible (with James Stewart, with Muriel Spark) are, alas, not included – but then if they were the reader might not purchase the author’s earlier collections of interviews. Clever old Lynn.

There is also a sense that, in the end, Barber isn’t really a natural memoirist. Towards the close of the book she reveals that she discovered, after An Education had been published, what happened in the end to Simon – “my conman”, she calls him. As he was so much older, it is unsurprising to learn that he died. Barber’s reaction is a pretty brisk “Phew!”.

Other people are her game. “To be a good interviewer you have to know yourself pretty well,” she writes: and in the most important sense at least, she does. She is “exceptionally nosy”, she tells us; but this applies best to her subjects. Introspective she is not. Over the long course of her remarkable, and curious, career, that nosiness has been served her – and us – pretty well. 

Erica Wagner is the Eccles British Library Writer in Residence and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Why empires fall

Hulu
Show Hide image

Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

0800 7318496