Slate editor Jacob Weisberg (left) introduces his website’s new multimedia star, author and TV presenter Clive James, to the guests at his downtown loft, celebrating the publication of James’ new book, Cultural Amnesia. (I couldn’t fit him in the shot, but W.W. Norton editor Robert Weil was just the other side of Weisberg.) I was fortunate enough to get a one-on-one conversation with James earlier in the week, where we discussed how his front-page NYTBR article on Leni Riefenstahl bios perfectly encapsulated many of the themes of his book, from the moral responsibility of the artist to the surface allure of totalitarianism. It’s a highly digressive book, in which a chapter on Terry Gilliam quickly morphs into a discussion of political torture, for example, but it hangs together quite effectively, with early critical reactions favorable. Some of what James deems worth remembering about the modern world isn’t what we must celebrate, but what we must never forget, especially concerning the great tyrants of the 20th century and those who supported (and opposed) them. “You’ve got to find a way of defending liberal democracy with a whole heart,” he reflected. “It’s bound to be unsatisfactory in a million ways, but the alternative is much worse.”
On the multimedia front, he’s glad to have Slate handle the hosting duties for his webcasts. “You can die of success real quick on the Internet,” he says regarding the cost of bandwidth; he’s also got a European cable company called SkyArts paying for broadcast rights to help defray the costs further. But the idea of an online talk show is something he’s had in mind ever since seeing his first grainy, stuttering MPEG a decade ago. Now that he’s essentially vlogging from his living room, he says he can’t imagine working any other way. “I won’t come into a TV studio anymore,” he insists. “I’m retired.” Thankfully, though, that doesn’t extend to his literary career: His next volume of memoirs is slated for UK publication soon, there’s probably a collection of critical essays on poetry down the line, and maybe even a long novel about the Pacific theater of the Second World War if he finds enough time.