Sunday, April 25, 2010

The essential Deborah Solomon interview

I've long hated Deborah Solomon's Q&A interviews in The New York Times Magazine. They've always come across -- to me, anyway -- as a weird combination of needlessly combative and unilluminating: confrontational for the sake of confrontation in a lot of cases, without any real payoff that helps the reader understand a subject or interviewee any better.

In today's magazine, she gets down to the essence of her style in an interview with Craig Robinson, a basketball coach and the brother of Michelle Obama. He has a new book out, which leads to the following exchange:

Are you aware that in your new book you erroneously describe Princeton, N.J., as “the first capital of the United States”?

Oh. I was thinking that it was the first capital because that’s what I thought when I got to Princeton on the first day. I was awed by it.

It was the second capital under the Articles of Confederation. I wonder why your editors failed to catch that.

I wrote it, so I don’t want to blame them.

Don't get me wrong: Solomon is right on the facts. But the accident makes no material difference to the memoir, does it? It's an aside in the book, as best I can tell, but Solomon elevates it to a matter of importance ... why exactly? So she can not look like a pushover?

I can't decide if that's better or worse than this exchange:

You’re very discreet and clearly not following the Billy Carter model of wacky presidential relatives. Do you drink beer?
I actually don’t mind beer, but I just don’t drink it to excess.

Why is this in the New York Times? You can't just say it's a puff piece, because even puff pieces in the New York Times have coherence and identifiable logic about them. The best I can determine is that Deborah Solomon interviews -- if they're not just a hoity-toity version of The Chris Farley Show -- are performance art pieces, designed to elicit discomfort in interviewees and readers to no good purpose at all. I wish the Times would get somebody else to do this job.


Anonymous said...

I know! I always read these columns in the Sunday Times, and the fact that I've developed kind of a detailed opinion about "Ms. Solomon the interviewer" through her combative questions reveals nothing good about her. Sometimes, she's just a little snarky. Sometimes, she's a total jerk. And usually, she ends up showing that her interview subject is much more gracious than she is.

Makes you wonder what kind of illuminating responses she might get if each subject didn't know in advance that they should keep his/her guard up.

Marcotte said...

Sounds like she should get a correspondent job on The Daily Show.