Sven Birkerts in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
SVEN BIRKERTS: Why did you decide to write about Bellow’s essays in the form of a self-interview? Isn’t that displacing the focus just a bit?
SVEN BIRKERTS: Maybe so, yes. But the idea came to me as a kind of default after I had been beating my head against the standard, familiar thing — you know: hook, overview, bits of excerpt, some wrangling, some praise, followed by the larger pronouncement … I felt I just could not do it one more time. Then I remembered that Bellow had conducted a self-interview (included in this very collection) and something clicked. The form offers certain advantages, the main one being that you can break against the prescribed structure and meander to the things that are more interesting, as happens in good conversation.
But what about fulfilling your reviewer’s responsibility?
I own that there is a certain shirking of the task going on. Which would normally be unconscionable. But this seemed an exception. And here’s my reasoning: first, there’s no need to be arguing for Bellow’s literary status — he is one of our confirmed greats, a Nobelist, admired by his fellow writers the world over. The essays in this book have been published and published again; not only in their original journals like Partisan Review, The Atlantic Monthly, The American Scholar, and The New Yorker, but in previous books. They’ve been reviewed and discussed and —
It sounds like you’re saying “what’s the point?”
I guess I am. On the other hand, there’s always a point in writing about a great writer. That’s what being a great writer means — that he or she can (and ought to) always be written about. Which leads me around to my other rationale for these proceedings: reading the essays had me dropping in on some of the novels — and as I did, my brain started getting revved up in the unique way that it does when I get near that side of Bellow, as if there reallyis simply too much to think about. (I was, it seemed, living out the feeling of the title of the collection.) I was being overrun — like in those old movies when the attacking multitudes finally put their crude ladders up against the castle walls and swarm over everything. (Well, that’s a bit dramatic …)