The Roast Issue
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Bruce Robbins

For Jeff— An Undone Roast

Nothing very clever and oblique and roast-like is coming to mind. I went back through my files and made a list of editorial comments and suggestions I’ve received from Jeff over the years, fully prepared to be embarrassed myself as long as the list also allowed me to embarrass him. But all I got from the exercise was a picture that will be familiar to everyone who has been worked over by Jeff in his editorial capacity: extreme clarity, intellectual forcefulness, an imaginative vision of someone else’s potential project as a whole, on the one hand, and on the other a remarkable tendency to spare delicate authorial feelings, a tendency that seems to come not from spinelessness or squeamishness but from the sense of being engaged in a common project of genuine existential significance.

Talent, intellectual generosity, political solidarity—not easy things to make a roast out of.

I’m glad to see from Heather Steffen’s conspiratorial directions that the idea of interviewing Jeff has occurred to any number of people besides myself. It’s natural that it would. But what I’d really like to see would be an interview with him composed entirely of questions and cues and comments he’s offered other people while interviewing them. “What kind of family did you come from?” (“Your father was a TV repairman.” “You were a cab driver in Chicago when you were 18?”) “It’s also a material issue; a lot of them are probably working part-time jobs.” “I’m interested in careers and intellectual formation, and how you came to do a project like X.” “So, to fill in more of the timeline...” “It seems to me that your work is contrarian, in a good sense...” “Your discipline is X, but people who come upon your work would probably know you through Y...” “One thing that I admire about your work is that you’re actually putting your money down, applying what you think of education to what you do.” “If I put your career in narrative terms...I could say that the first predicate was working on A, but the move to B marked a new predicate. Did your project change?” “Or people might have realized that governments, contrary to the conservative litany, actually do some good.” “Could you tell me surprises you’ve had that changed the way you saw things, perhaps disappointments on the one hand, and good surprises on the other?” “If you were asked what you do it for....”

Notice that at some point in the course of his interviews, the people interviewed often end up asking Jeff a question, which he
then answers in the most natural way in the world, as if he were not the one supposed to be asking the questions. That reversal says something about the intellectual seriousness of the interview, or what he makes of it.

In this company, I don’t have to insist on how much sheer labor has gone into building, sustaining, and maintaining minnesota review. One thing that may be worth emphasizing about the interview as a successful form is the work (a multi-sided Williams motif) that goes into coming to his subject with an analysis already developed, a coherent if provisional sense of someone’s achievement. “One way to characterize your work is that you apply X to Y.” “I can see how A is consistent with your earlier work, both in taking a B view...and in C. But still, it’s relatively unique...” This means knowing—that is, finding out—a staggering amount about the backdrop against which the achievement emerged. But another and contrary thing that is also worth emphasizing is that, having done all this work, you have to be (and Jeff is) able to let it go:

Williams Is there any advice that you’d give to people who’d want to do this kind of project?

Radway I guess it would be: Listen. You have to learn how to listen.

Williams How do you train yourself to listen?

Radway That’s a really good question.

If you read Jeff’s interviews, you see that although he’s done an enormous quantity of homework for each one, his game plan never seems to hinder him from listening very closely to what he’s being told and, depending on what gets said, spontaneously and confidently striking off on a tangent. This is what permits, among many other things, the wonderful mano-a-mano moments, like the following with Bush-appointee Mark Bauerlein: “You were criticizing the academic world before for being cut off and insular, but now you’re saying that its being cut off as an enclave is precisely its virtue.”

Confident spontaneity that results from lots of hard work: it’s not just a model of how to conduct an interview, but a model of how to model intellectual confidence for young aspiring writers, as Jeff has been doing for twelve years, and a model of how to live an intellectual life that’s worthy of the name.