Kevin Nguyen is the digital deputy editor of GQ, where he writes about books, music, and popular media. He grew up outside of Boston in the 1990s and attended the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. Since moving to New York City five years ago, he has run the Best Books of the Month feature at Amazon and was editorial director at Oyster, “the Netflix for books,” then Google Play Books after the tech giant acquired Oyster in 2015. He can be followed on Twitter, @knguyen.
At GQ you mostly work on reported features, but you also compile a Best Books of the Month feature. How many books do you receive each month, and of those how many are typically included in your roundups?
I went on vacation last week and returned to four mail crates of unopened galleys. So I’m getting something in the vicinity of fifty to seventy-five books a week. And honestly, I wish publishers wouldn’t send me things unsolicited. Most of those books are never going to be touched, and eventually they are shipped off to Housing Works for donation. In a given month I’ll try roughly twenty books. From those I’ll finish about half, maybe slightly more. And then I’ll pick about half of those—so it’s somewhere between four and six books each month. It really depends on how strong that month is.
In an ideal world, I would just request those books and not receive any mail. It feels like such a waste, but once you’re on those distribution lists, there’s no getting off them.
It’s funny. If I died today, the books would keep coming to the office, and I think about the poor person who would get stuck dealing with several thousand pounds of galleys each month. Which is why I plan to never die.
What sorts of things, if any, influence you when choosing which titles to include: blurbs, pre-pub reviews, large advances, social media buzz? What about your relationships with publicists and editors—do those ever hold any sway?
I keep a very long spreadsheet of books that are coming out, based on a combination of catalogs, publicist and editor pitches, Kirkus, previews from places like the Millions, and of course, word of mouth. Twitter can be a good signal, but its taste is fairly narrow.
I do read a lot of stuff blind, too. My equivalent of digging through the slush pile is browsing through everything available as a digital galley on Edelweiss.
Blurbs mean nothing. Same with big advances. Honestly, by the time the galley rolls around I’ve forgotten what I read about it in Publishers Lunch. I’ve been doing this for [checks watch], oh, Jesus, nearly seven years now. But I’ve got a system that works.
How conscientious are you about diversity—gender, race, sexual orientation, and so on—when choosing what to include? And do you try to pay attention to books published outside of the Big Five publishers?
Most people won’t cop to this, but I pay pretty close attention to making sure my list is inclusive. That spreadsheet I was talking about has a column that denotes if an author is a woman or a person of color, so I can make sure that there’s never a month when I am reading only white dudes. It feels weird—I am literally checking boxes—but it’s also a way to keep me honest.
On the upside, usually what I gravitate toward in terms of stories tends to be inherently diverse. You read enough and you see that a lot of books by white authors suffer from a kind of maddening sameness—thankfully you can identify this from the first fifty or so pages, if not sooner. Publishing has made slow strides forward in putting out books by people of color. Big lead titles are more diverse than ever.
And, of course, that spreadsheet also lists publishers. I make sure to read across the Big Five and indies each month. It’s probably the most useful column I have. Penguin Random House controls over 50 percent of trade publishing, and you could easily make the mistake of reviewing exclusively their books.
You’ve also edited some excellent literary features at GQ—Kima Jones’s interview with Colson Whitehead and Alex Shephard’s piece on Jonathan Safran Foer, to name just two examples. What goes into these features? Are you conceiving of them? Do you have much leeway when it comes to assigning literary coverage at GQ?
Both of those stories were my idea. Since we’re not a book-specific outfit, we have to find a story deeper than “this is a new book.” It has to speak to a broader audience, and that restraint had led to better pieces, in my opinion.
Kima and Alex did a great job with both, even though they were very different. Kima went deep with Colson Whitehead, and we were confident that the strength and reception of The Underground Railroad would justify going to such an intense place with the interview. For the Foer piece, it was a profile because we knew he was in an interesting inflection point in his career. Plus he surrendered some weird quotes about Natalie Portman. Love him or hate him, the guy is worth reading about.
You’ve written eloquently about the overwhelming whiteness in the U.S. literary culture and publishing industry. What critical steps do you think need to be made to diversify the literary ecosphere? In your recent Millions article you pointed out one bright spot of 2016: the momentous National Book Awards ceremony, so much of which was due to the National Book Foundation’s executive director, Lisa Lucas. Have you seen any other positive changes over the past couple of years?
As I mentioned earlier, publishing is a behemoth that is trudging along slowly in the direction of progress. But it still has a long way to go. Publishers used to excuse themselves by saying that the data showed books by people of color didn’t sell—a disingenuous claim. Well, in the past three years, we’ve seen some tremendously successful fiction by authors of color. So now editors and agents can’t say that anymore. Progress marches forward, and even the most reluctant figures have no choice but to be dragged along. I hope that in the next five or ten years, literary events will become spaces that are less oppressively white. I think we can get there.
You’ve had an interesting career path in the literary industry, with a notable stretch at the editorial side of Amazon, where you ran the Best Books of the Month feature. What was it like behind the scenes there? Did you and your team have full editorial control over which books you picked each month?
Amazon is bizarre, man! But the editorial team was—and still is—great. Real readers, with full editorial freedom. There was never any pressure to include or exclude anything, at least not in my time there. Remember that summer when Amazon was refusing to stock books from Hachette? It was one of the reasons I left the company. But one of the last Best of the Month lists I put together included Edan Lepucki’s California, a Hachette title we couldn’t even sell. Nobody at Amazon gave us a hard time about that, even when Stephen Colbert made that book a symbol against Amazon’s vicious business tactics. I don’t think Amazon is good for the world, but that editorial team is a bright spot in a bleak machine.
After Amazon you worked for two years at Oyster, an e-book streaming service billed as the “Netflix of books,” which was bought and later closed by Google Play. At Oyster you launched the Oyster Review, a remarkable online literary magazine that included reviews, interviews, essays, and book lists and featured an impressive roster of writers and critics. What went into creating and running that magazine?
A lot! Oh, man, but what a fun time. Basically, Oyster attempted to capture the indie bookstore feel and taste and personality in the digital space, as opposed to the big-box retail approach of Amazon. We hoped both could coexist, just like they do in brick-and-mortar.
The Oyster Review was the place where we’d establish our literary identity. Every great indie bookstore has one. And online, what you do instead of shelves and author events is publish reviews and essays and comics. I edited and art-directed the whole thing. And most people didn’t see this because it was in the Oyster app, but there was a whole mobile experience that had to be designed for too. So from conception to construction to day-to-day editing and production, I had a hand in all of it. And I loved doing it.
Obviously, it didn’t totally work out. But Google acquired the company, and one of the big selling points to them outside the engineering was the Oyster Review and all the fine editorial work we’d done. I’m very proud of that. I mean, has a tech company ever acquired a literary magazine before? It might be the first and last time that ever happens.
In addition to reviewing books and writing about literary culture, you’ve written widely about TV, movies, and gaming. Have your interests in fields outside of literature influenced and informed your literary criticism and vice versa?
Oh, definitely. You can tell the reviewers who do only books. There’s a strange stilted myopia there. I think the best writers have broader interests and can talk intelligently about other mediums.
Of those publications that still devote space to literary criticism, which are your favorites? Are there any book critics whose work you particularly enjoy?
Bookforum is probably the most complete publication out there. It has a strong perspective and tone and taste. Plus, the reviews are damn good. I wish they’d do a little more online so more people could see it.
I keep waiting for someone to start the Pitchfork of books, but every new book-related site that launches ends up feeling so flat and overly positive. Oh, and too damn white.
Name three books you’ve read in the past year that really knocked your socks off.
White Tears by Hari Kunzru by a mile. What a tremendous, smart, weird book. I tore through The Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann in a couple of days. And Ottessa Moshfegh’s short stories in Homesick for Another World have stayed with me in strange and surprising ways.
Michael Taeckens has worked in publishing since 1995. He is a literary publicist and cofounder of Broadside PR.
Dwight Garner is one of the most beloved book critics writing today. His New York Times reviews, whether positive, negative, or mixed, are always entertaining—not an adjective most would use to describe book criticism. Language comes alive in his reviews; one gets the sense that he’s playing with words and having fun along the way.
Raised in West Virginia and Naples, Florida, Garner started writing for alternative weeklies such as the Village Voice and the Boston Phoenix after graduating from Middlebury College. In 1995 he became the founding books editor of Salon, where he worked for three years, followed by a decade as senior editor at the New York Times Book Review. He has been a daily book critic for the New York Times since 2008. The author of an art book, Read Me: A Century of Classic American Book Advertisements (Ecco, 2009), he is currently working on a biography of James Agee. You can follow him on Twitter, @DwightGarner.
With Goodreads, Amazon, and countless blogs, it seems like everyone’s a book critic these days. What credentials do critics have that make them critics? And what was your own path to becoming a professional book critic?
No credentials are required to write criticism: Either your voice has authority or it doesn’t. Either it has style and wit or it doesn’t. Thank God there’s no grad program, no Columbia School of Criticism. Nearly all the best critics are to some degree autodidacts. Their universities are coffee shops and tables covered with books.
I grew up in a house that didn’t have many books in it, beyond the Bible and Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, at any rate, and where culture wasn’t particularly valued. I loved reading critics—book critics, movie critics, rock critics—from the time I was young. They gave me someone to talk to, in my mind, about the things I cared about. I’m the kind of reader who’s always flipped first to the “back of the book” of magazines, or to the arts pages of any newspaper. I worked in a record store during high school and wrote rock reviews for the school newspaper. This makes me sound almost cool; I was not almost cool. I was also the editor of my college paper. But I prefered writing book reviews, which I also did. Writing book criticism seemed to me then, and seems to me now, a chance to talk about everything that matters—the whole world, really.
You can’t trust Amazon reviews; I’m less certain about Goodreads, which I don’t know enough about. I’ve found it to be a terrific resource for certain kinds of information. Good writing is good writing wherever it appears, definitely including blogs. The more voices the merrier.
Facebook and Twitter have been a terrific boost to authors and publishers. Has social media aided your role as a critic?
I forget who it was who said that Facebook is a smart service for simple people while Twitter is a simple service for smart people. Ouch, right? But true enough. Twitter is companionable if you follow the right people, and you can dip into real-time conversations about books. You can see what people are saying; you can glean links to reviews. If people I respect are talking about a book, and it’s not on my radar, I’ll put it on my radar. I’ve reviewed books because I’ve seen interesting people talking about them.
Does buzz—a big advance or an author’s name—influence you?
Buzz matters and it doesn’t matter. Occasionally you might weigh in on a book because you have something to add about something everyone is talking about, perhaps to deflate the hype. Book critics envy movie critics only in that movie critics write weekly about things people are talking about and are likely to see.
Are you able to select which books you review or are they assigned to you? If you have a relationship with a publicist or editor, does it tip the balance?
At the Times we pick our own books. The daily books editor, Rachel Saltz, is a mensch, though, and is great at suggesting things. I review six or seven books a month; my schedule is two reviews one week, one the next. It’s about [equivalent to] the schedule of a major-league pitcher. Two or three of those books I know almost on contact that I want to review, because I’m interested in the author or I’m interested in the topic. After that, it gets headache-making. I sit down once a week or so with a big pile of galleys and poke around in them, looking for signs of life.
Relationships with publicists and editors (I don’t have many of those) don’t matter, either—a book is worthwhile or it isn’t, and the good ones know that. Having said that, a really good editor or publicist will know that very rare occasion to send up the bat signal, to indicate that a genuinely extraordinary book is on the horizon. Alas, even the bat signal, three times out of five, turns out to be hype.
Given the inordinate amount of review copies you must receive daily—just how many do you receive on an average day?—it seems like an e-reader would possibly help lighten the load. But the allure of physical books—even with galleys—is so hard to resist, isn’t it?
I get twenty-five to thirty books a day, and they really pile up on the porch. Last summer an elderly woman heard our three dogs barking—the windows were open, and we were out—and she saw the huge, sloppy pile of mail out front. She knocked on our neighbor’s door and asked, “Do you think the person who lives there is dead?”
I read e-books sometimes, mostly on my phone, but I don’t like to review from them. I write all over my books, I really mark the shit out of them, and I’m not confident that the notes I take on, say, a Kindle, will be recoverable in ten years. They’ll vanish, like the e-mail messages or the photos you meant to save from the laptop you owned three laptops back. So give me the dead-tree edition. I suspect I’ll always feel this way. Oddly, I do prefer to read magazines now on my phone or laptop. I find it easier on the eyes.
Have you ever changed your mind about a book that you praised or panned years earlier?
I deeply regret one or two reviews I’ve written. I was too hard, once, on a writer with a first book out; I still mope about my arrogance. These are the kind of reviews I’ve heard described as, “You know that thing you’ve never heard of? It sucks.” I regret a few raves, too—times when I’ve gotten carried away. I want readers to trust what I have to say on an intergalactic level but also on a bank-card level. Books aren’t cheap. I don’t want thousands of people walking around thinking they’d like to dun me for $26.95.
When you’re reviewing a new book from an author with previous books to his or her name, do you read the author’s backlist as well?
Very nearly always. It matters especially with fiction. I recently read the first three volumes of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle in just a few days. Each is five hundred pages or so. It felt like I was back in college, cramming for an exam. But those are beautiful books, and I feel lucky to have been able to submerge myself in them. It was like having a lovely fever.
Negative reviews: Do they have a purpose and a place? When a review is mostly a summary with nary a positive or negative opinion in sight, is that essentially a kind version of a negative review?
I hate summary reviews, unless the critic is very knowlegable about the topic and is sort of touring it for you. It’s among my goals as a critic to rarely if ever write one. You can’t trust a critic who doesn’t write negative reviews. Most books simply aren’t that good. I try to find things to admire even in books I don’t like, and I try not to be punitive and to have a sense of humor. But what’s a critic for if not to think clearly, make fine discriminations, and speak plainly?
There’s been a lot of talk within book-critic circles about the VIDA Count and calls for more racial and cultural diversity. Do you take this into consideration when deciding what books to review?
I try not to think about it. I try to pluck the books I most want to review, and hope that my interests are not so unlike everyone else’s that the mix will be a genuine mix. But it’s always in the back of the mind. It matters.
If you could change one thing about the book-reviewing process or the world of book criticism, what would it be?
I wish more young novelists wrote criticism, or at least kept a hand in. Some do, but fewer than in generations past. Doing so used to be part of being in the guild. I discovered a lot of novelists through their criticism. Now everyone plays nice, at least in print, and it gets dull.
What books that you aren’t reviewing are you most looking forward to reading in the near future?
The notion of reading for pleasure versus reading for work doesn’t have much meaning for me—it’s always both. But when I’m off duty, I most often find myself poking around in cookbooks. I thought my wife and I owned a lot of them; we have eight hundred or so. Then I met Nathan Myhrvold, who has fifteen thousand! I guess if you’re that wealthy it’s easier to be a collector.
I also like to read poetry and things like old collections of rock writing. Robert Christgau’s record guides from the seventies, eighties, and nineties are devilishly funny, and I find all kinds of things I want to listen to in them. I’ve heard that Christgau is writing a memoir. There’s a book I’m looking forward to. Put me down for that.
Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995, most recently at Graywolf Press and Algonquin Books. His website is michaeltaeckenspr.com.
In late 2013 Isaac Fitzgerald was selected to lead BuzzFeed’s new Books section, which has seen tremendous growth under his leadership. Doubtless one of the reasons BuzzFeed solicited Fitzgerald was for his excellent work as the managing editor at the Rumpus, where over a period of four years he published essays by many contemporary writers, including former Reviewers & Critics subject Roxane Gay.
These days Fitzgerald is a familiar figure in the New York City literary-events scene, having interviewed and moderated panels with a number of debut and established authors alike. This past spring, for instance, he led a discussion with authors Stephen King and his son Owen, and Peter Straub and his daughter, Emma, at St. Francis College in Brooklyn, New York. Fitzgerald has written for the Bold Italic, McSweeney’s, Mother Jones, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and is the cofounder of Pen & Ink and coeditor of Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them.
You were recruited to lead BuzzFeed Books a couple of years ago. Around that time you mentioned in an interview with Poynter that you were establishing a positive-only book-review policy, which caused a flurry of reactions from, among others, the New York Times, the New Yorker, Gawker, and NPR. Do you still stand by your decision?
Most definitely. Since I was brought on in December 2013, my goal has been to be the friend who’s always grabbing your shirtsleeve and saying, “Hey, this is what you should read next.”
The books conversation on the Internet is huge—that’s a wonderful thing! In that line you mentioned from my conversation with Poynter, all I was saying was that my little corner of the books Internet was going to be a fun and positive place. Which I’m proud to say is what we’ve accomplished.
I’m always thinking of larger audiences, of course, but in some ways it’s a really personal project. I think about the dirtbag kid I was, growing up poor in rural Massachusetts. If it weren’t for my parents, who love literature, I don’t know how I would have gotten into books. We weren’t supposed to love books—they didn’t seem cool, interesting, or relevant to our lives—and books weren’t supposed to love us. The world of books felt distant, something that was for other people. Not us.
So I got lucky. I got to fall in love with books. But I just as easily could have not, so it’s important to me that I use my tools and resources to make BuzzFeed Books great, not only for writers and critics, but for all the readers who might have been left out before. To use the wide reach and sense of connection enabled by the Internet to foster a love of books.
I wonder if part of the negative response to your “positive-only” intention was led by people thinking you were primarily going to feature reviews of books. But you’re featuring books in a variety of ways other than reviews. Was that your plan from the beginning?
The craziest thing about the whole experience was that it all happened before I had even shown up for my first day at work. There wasn’t really a plan yet. When I first showed up at BuzzFeed, it became abundantly clear that I had heaps to learn from my coworkers. Then, and even more so now, it was a totally staggering Avengers-team of a cohort—all these people with incredible skills in their wide-ranging areas of expertise. Design! Editorial! Tech! Video! There were so many possibilities for BuzzFeed Books, a wild array of options I hadn’t considered or had available to me before.
What it comes down to is that we’ve got myriad ways to talk about and have fun with books at our disposal. We do run reviews every week in our newsletter, written by different members of the BuzzFeed staff, recommending new books, but there are also essays, quizzes, lists, and videos. Every morning when I wake up, my hope is to get a reader who previously didn’t know about a certain book or author connected to something he or she is going to love.
What are the different ways in which you cover books? Have any particular series been especially popular during your tenure?
Our personal essays—usually by writers who have recently had a book come out or have one forthcoming—have a massive readership. Our aforementioned newsletter, which comes out twice a week—and once a week contains a review of a new book—has a subscription base of over 175,000 people. Our recommendation lists are at the core of what we do, whether it’s the best books of the year, the most exciting books of the summer, or just the sixty-five books you need to read in your twenties. These lists reach hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of people.
One of the things I love about working at BuzzFeed is the emphasis on experimentation. I started playing around with Vine and gave #6SecondBookReviews a shot. You might think six-second videos and books wouldn’t make the best bedfellows, but our account now has over 1,600 followers, and some of the Vines have close to 100,000 loops, which isn’t half-bad for short clips of me holding out books, talking like an auctioneer, and (once in a while) running into a wall.
I’m particularly impressed by many of the literary essays you’ve published. Who are some of the authors you’ve showcased, and how often do you run these kinds of first-person pieces?
We’ve published essays from writers such as Roxane Gay, Lev Grossman, Mat Johnson, T. C. Boyle, James Hannaham, Jami Attenberg, Nell Zink, and many others plus excerpts from Chuck Klosterman, Judd Apatow, and more. I try to run at least one essay a week, and they pair nicely with the fantastic essays that Doree Shafrir and Kat Stoeffel are publishing in the BuzzFeed Ideas section.
What is a typical day in the office like for you?
I read for work on the train, until I get into the office. I eat yogurt-covered pretzels. I read pitches and edit essays. I eat yogurt-covered pretzels. I work on posts and help my coworkers with their book-related content. I eat yogurt-covered pretzels. I read on the train ride home and then when I get home, I eat more yogurt-covered pretzels that I brought home from work. While my diet probably isn’t all that desirable, the amount that I get to read certainly is.
BuzzFeed has branched out well beyond “listicles” in recent years, including expansion into serious international journalism. How has BuzzFeed’s expansion changed things for the Books section? Has it expanded your audience?
I’m always stunned by how much BuzzFeed News is accomplishing. The investigative unit, led by Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Schoofs, leaves me in awe, as does our foreign desk, led by Miriam Elder. All boats rise. The bigger the site gets—not just News, but also Video, and the Life section—the more potential Books content has to reach readers.
I’m also very excited about Saeed Jones becoming our new literary editor. Saeed and I were friends before BuzzFeed—he helped me get the job when he was heading up the LGBT section—and working with him has been an incredible experience. The fact that he’s going to start publishing literary fiction on the site starting in spring 2016, not to mention the generous emerging-writers fellowship he’ll be heading up, isn’t just good news for BuzzFeed—it’s good news for the writing world in general. And that really shows that BuzzFeed is invested, not only in the world of books, but also in the literary world as a whole.
How much traffic does BuzzFeed Books get per month?
We don’t share traffic information for specific sections, but I can tell you that BuzzFeed Books has seen significant traffic increase since we launched, and it continues to grow.
How many books do you get a day? How many are you able to cover?
We receive anywhere from thirty to fifty books a day. We have a BuzzFeed Books library that everyone on staff is encouraged to browse. If they find any book interesting, they can cover it, whether it’s in the form of a recommendation, as part of a roundup or list of books, or even in a personal essay. Because of the amount of content we get to publish, we’re able to touch on numerous books. If a book really has my attention, I’ll usually try to get an essay from the author, because once I get obsessive about a book all I want is more writing about anything from that same brain.
What sorts of things influence you when deciding to select a book for coverage? Do blurbs, prepublication reviews, large advances matter at all? How about relationships with publicists and editors?
All of that definitely helps, and it should. It’s all information coming from well-informed, passionate people who have made books a huge part of their lives. But what it comes down to is that I’m really lucky to have the freedom to cover what I want. I never feel like I have to cover a book for any reason beyond that which is between its two covers. So the most important thing is that it’s a good book.
Do you cover books of all genres?
It pleases me so much that not only do we have the freedom to cover all sorts of books, we also have the staff to do so. The best thing about working at BuzzFeed is how many ridiculously smart book-lovers work here. While my background is in contemporary literary fiction, we have other members on staff who are huge fans of science fiction, fantasy, children’s books, and young adult fiction. And everyone gets to contribute; although I’m the books editor and Jarry Lee is staff writer, anyone at BuzzFeed can cover a book that they enjoyed.
We also have an internal book club. We’re currently reading Mia Alvar’s short story collection In the Country, which is fantastic. We also have authors come visit us at BuzzFeed HQ, where we have a conversation attended by staff members, but also do fun posts and cartoon drawings of the authors. We’ve had Margaret Atwood give us advice on surviving a zombie apocalypse, dating tips from Chuck Palahniuk, as well as visits from Judy Blume, Issa Rae, Meg Cabot, and Renata Adler.
Everything comes into BuzzFeed Books from different pipelines—which allows readers with all kinds of interests to find something that’s right for them.
BuzzFeed Books is particularly adept at featuring and promoting a diversity of writers—diversity of race, sexuality, gender. Do you see what you’re doing as a corrective to an imbalance in the publishing world?
From where I’m sitting, there have always been diverse storytellers, so diversity in coverage comes naturally as long as you pay attention and focus on seeking out the best work. As an editor, when you cast the net wide and keep striving to reach and hear from more people, you’re just doing your job.
What do you think BuzzFeed offers that other literary sites don’t?
I don’t like to play the comparison game, so here’s the way I see it: For a long time, the literary world—and coverage of the literary world—was a very fancy cocktail party, with champagne and tuxedos, and it was very hard to get into. What the Internet has allowed is not for everyone to storm that party and tear it apart—in fact, that party, and the forms of discourse it has developed, are incredibly important. It’s about building around that party, so that all kinds of voices can be heard and so many styles of book coverage and discourse can happen. So while I’m maybe playing Frisbee over here, there might be beer pong over there, and a fish fry across the way. The other thing that’s nice is that as the Internet progresses it’s becoming easier to go from one party to another, so someone in a tuxedo might step across the way to the fish fry.
For me, it’s not about what we have that other places don’t, or vice versa. It’s about the ways in which we all contribute to the conversation about books. Which is really why we’re all here, right? No one in this business is here to get rich. We’re here because we really, deeply, truly love and care about books. How that’s expressed will vary for different people and outlets, but it is all love.
You’ve interviewed a number of authors—Joyce Carol Oates, Junot Díaz, and Emily St. John Mandel, to name a few—for live events. Is this part of your official role at Buzzfeed? Who else will you be interviewing in the near future?
I love interviewing writers—basically, I’m loud and curious and I show up on time, which event organizers really seem to like. Interviews aren’t in my job description, but when I first got to New York, the Strand offered me the opportunity to do a conversation with Joyce Carol Oates. And recently, I interviewed former BuzzFeed writer Anna North, whose book Life and Death of Sophie Stark is fantastic, and moderated a panel featuring Stephen King, Owen King, Peter Straub, and Emma Straub. All of which BuzzFeed has been very supportive of.
I’ve been doing live events and book discussions since back in my Rumpus days. Doing and supporting live book events is incredibly important to me, as just another great way to expand the conversation around books. When it comes right down to it, whether online or in person, my favorite thing to do is talk about books.
Where do you see the future of book coverage in ten years?
Hopefully the cocktail party is bigger than ever, with more voices from different socioeconomic backgrounds, more diverse voices, more international voices. I think with the growing worldwide audience, not to mention incredible translations from presses like Graywolf and Melville House, we’re only going to find that as book lovers we find strength in one another, too, and that group is only going to continue to grow.
Are there any books coming out in 2016 that you’re especially looking forward to?
Another fun thing about my job is that I’m usually planning for the next week, or the next month, or if I’m really good, the next season. I’d be lying to you if I said I had a Google Calendar with all of the 2016 releases already marked out. So instead of talking about books on the horizon that I’m excited for but really haven’t had a chance to read yet, I want to leave you with a couple of the books that have really lit me up this year: The Sellout by Paul Beatty; A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara; Get in Trouble by Kelly Link; and The Invasion of the Tearling, the second book of a killer science fiction–fantasy trilogy that began with The Queen of the Tearling, by Erika Johansen.
One book I can name that I’m excited about in 2016 is All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders. It comes out in January, which might barely be 2016, but in Internet time that feels aeons away.
Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995. He is a cofounder of Broadside: Expert Literary PR (broadsidepr.com).
In January Carolyn Kellogg was named book editor of the Los Angeles Times. She’d been leading the newspaper’s online book coverage since 2008, when she launched the books blog Jacket Copy, and had joined the staff full-time in 2010, the same year she received a Times Editorial Award for feature blogging.
Kellogg grew up in Rhode Island and attended the University of Southern California. Her first job in new media was at Disney Interactive in the 1990s, and in the years since then she’s had many professional roles, including managing editor of the music-festival website Woodstock .com, editor of LAist.com, and web editor for the public-radio show Marketplace. As an early book blogger, in 2005 she launched Pinky’s Paperhaus—a podcast in which she talked to writers about music—which she shut down while she was in graduate school. Kellogg, who earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Pittsburgh, has retained a sense of the literary playfulness that marked those early projects: On Twitter (@paperhaus), she has attracted more than thirty-four thousand followers.
How has your job changed since your promotion to book editor earlier this year?
Almost entirely. I previously wrote daily for our blog and weekly book reviews and features. Now I assign and edit all our coverage for print and online. While I occasionally have a chance to write, overseeing our coverage is keeping me busy. I’m interested in bringing new voices into our pages, interesting thinkers, people you may not have heard of yet but who have a strong point of view. I consider that one of the great opportunities of my new position.
When Los Angeles Times editor Davan Maharaj announced your promotion, he stated that your role “will go beyond the printed word to explore ideas, film, art and society.” Are you reviewing other art forms as well, or is this all through the lens of literature?
In March we announced a lineup of ten critics at large, who will be engaging with books and ideas and culture in our pages: Rebecca Carroll, Alexander Chee, Rigoberto González, Marlon James, David Kipen, Laila Lalami, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Adriana E. Ramírez, John Scalzi, and Susan Straight—fantastic writers all, and I am delighted to be working with them.
There’s almost a default belief that people with MFAs in creative writing will either pursue jobs as teachers of creative writing or become acquisitions editors at publishing houses. How do you think your MFA degree has informed your role as a book critic and book review editor, and what advice would you give to current MFA students who want to pursue a similar path?
I think the idea that an MFA will result in a job teaching creative writing has been, or needs to be, recalibrated. There are simply many more MFAs awarded every year than there are creative writing jobs. Getting an MFA in creative writing is delightful, but it’s going to take a killer book or two before you’re sharing the faculty lounge at Princeton with Joyce Carol Oates. The best career advice I can give is to stay flexible: When I was in grad school and teaching comp and freelancing—copyediting—I wrote my first book review for the Los Angeles Times. If you really want to be a critic, you should feel comfortable expressing your opinions, join the National Book Critics Circle and use its resources, read widely, and pitch, pitch, pitch.
My MFA gave me the tools to see and understand craft. I can read an outstanding novel like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and observe how its switchbacks of humor, politics, pop culture, and inverted satire are operating even at the sentence level. Or pick up a robin’s-egg-blue galley from a writer whose prior novel was a gothic pastiche and see that she’s accomplished something totally genius with structure. This was, of course, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. And then there’s the downside—spotting the novel with fifty pages of jewel-like prose, polished to death in workshop, that fails to maintain that level of attention and concentration throughout.
You were recently interviewed on WNYC’s On the Media about “why the publishing industry isn’t in peril.” Music to everyone’s ears! What makes you feel optimistic about the future of the industry?
One of the things we talked about in that interview was adult coloring books, which really helped drive print book sales in 2015. They’re billed as a respite for grown-ups who are seeking the calm of coloring when turning away from staring at computer and phone screens. But another big sales driver were memoirs by YouTube stars, which sold to tweens—an entirely different demographic, seeking a connection to these stars that’s different from their frank, engaging videos. As long as people are turning to books from different age groups, for divergent reasons, publishing has reason to be optimistic.
The L.A. Times Festival of Books is one of the premier literary festivals in the country. How involved with it have you been over the years?
The woman in charge of programming the festival is Maret Orliss; she and her team do an amazing job. Over the years she has invited me to help select authors, organize panels, and come up with panel names; this year she went easy on me because of my new responsibilities. My biggest task in 2016 was doing two on-stage interviews, with Susan Orlean and Buzz Aldrin.
You’ve interviewed many luminaries over the years—President Jimmy Carter, Molly Ringwald, James Ellroy, Elizabeth Gilbert, LeVar Burton, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nick Hornby, Alison Bechdel, Tavis Smiley, Anne Rice, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Marlon James, among others. Who will you be interviewing this year?
My time is really taken up with assigning and editing these days, but nevertheless I’ll be interviewing Colm Tóibín about James Baldwin tomorrow night on stage, and I’m supposed to talk on the phone with Don DeLillo about Zero K.
You launched the newspaper’s influential books blog, Jacket Copy, in 2008. How has the blog grown and changed over the years? Is there a tonal difference between Jacket Copy and the newspaper’s books section?
In 2008, I was brought on as a freelancer by then-book editor David L. Ulin to launch Jacket Copy, so I’ve been with it since it took its first shaky steps. One of my first posts was about One Story versus Ninth Letter, two fantastic but very different literary journals, and I can see us writing a similar post today. The biggest divergence between Jacket Copy and the book section happened in 2010, when David moved into the role of book critic and a new book editor was hired whose longest tenure at the paper had been as editor of our Obituaries section. His tastes ran more to the severe than the cheerful blogging I’d been used to, like the annotated, color-coded, 61 Essential Post-Modern Reads.
How important do you think social media is in your role as an editor and critic?
I love Twitter. I am terrible at Facebook. The former, for me, is like a watercooler, around which many bookish people have gathered. I follow comedians like Patton Oswalt, international reporters like Borzou Daragahi, and the artist Jennifer Dalton so I have windows into other worlds, and I am grateful to people who think I might have something interesting to share from mine. If I feel like I’m being too boring…I try to post a picture of a bookshelf or a cat. Particularly a cat; it is the Internet, after all.
On average, how many books do you get per week—and how many of those are you able to assign for review? How many reviews do you feature on Sundays and how many during the week?
The L.A. Times gets hundreds of books every week. In print we have three or four pages dedicated to books coverage on Sunday, which is a mix of reviews, essay, and feature stories. We run book reviews and features during the week but not on a preset schedule. Our online coverage is constant and wide-ranging, limited only by our capacity.
What sorts of things influence you when assigning a book for review—an author’s name, the size of the advance, prepub reviews, blurbs? What about your relationships with editors and publicists—do those ever help a book get reviewed?
This is an interesting question, because it implies that if a book just has a secret weapon it will be reviewed. Of the things you mention, I don’t care a whit about the size of the advance, but the rest may factor into the decision to assign a book. More important, however, is the prose, and if it’s nonfiction, the subject. There is no secret, external weapon: In the end, a book stands on its merits.
Do you keep diversity—gender, race, sexual orientation, et cetera—in mind when assigning reviews?
I keep it in mind in regards to all our coverage.
Are you able to dedicate much attention to poetry, genre books, and/or children’s books?
Poetry fairly regularly, while I think children’s books are harder to get a handle on critically. I’m not sure where the genre lines are anymore; I think our coverage crosses them.
How many freelancers do you work with? Are there certain things you look for in a freelance reviewer? Do you pick up many reviews from the wire?
As of this writing, I have worked with about a hundred freelancers. A strong voice, a cogent pitch, and an ability to file on time are my favorite things. Our reviews go out on the wire, but we don’t take reviews from the wire.
Are there any book critics whose work you particularly relish?
Kathryn Schulz, now at the New Yorker; Dwight Garner and Parul Sehgal at the New York Times; and my former colleague David L. Ulin, wherever his writing appears.
What books that you aren’t reviewing yourself are you most looking forward to reading this year?
My prior regular reviewing responsibilities and my recently concluded tenure on the board of the National Book Critics Circle used to dominate my reading. Recently I started Viet Thanh Nguyen’s novel The Sympathizer, which is fantastic; I have Jean Stein’s West of Eden in my to-read pile; and I’ll probably blend stuff I’ve missed—Anna Karenina!— with new books, like Idra Novey’s Ways to Disappear.
Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995. He is a cofounder of Broadside: Expert Literary PR.