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Robin MacArthur

Robin MacArthur reads a love letter to her home state of Vermont for an episode of State of the Re:Union with music scored by Red Heart the Ticker, MacArthur’s band with her husband Tyler Gibbons. MacArthur’s debut novel, Heart Spring Mountain (Ecco, 2018), is featured in Page One in the January/February 2018 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine.

The Tunnel

“Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea....” At the Lannan Foundation in 1998, William Gass reads from his second novel, The Tunnel (Knopf, 1995), which took twenty-six years to write and earned him the 1996 American Book Award. Gass died on December 6, 2017 at the age of ninety-three.

The Tunnel

“Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea....” At the Lannan Foundation in 1998, William Gass reads from his second novel, The Tunnel (Knopf, 1995), which took twenty-six years to write and earned him the 1996 American Book Award. Gass died on December 6, 2017 at the age of ninety-three.

The Tunnel

“Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea....” At the Lannan Foundation in 1998, William Gass reads from his second novel, The Tunnel (Knopf, 1995), which took twenty-six years to write and earned him the 1996 American Book Award. Gass died on December 6, 2017 at the age of ninety-three.

The Tunnel

“Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea....” At the Lannan Foundation in 1998, William Gass reads from his second novel, The Tunnel (Knopf, 1995), which took twenty-six years to write and earned him the 1996 American Book Award. Gass died on December 6, 2017 at the age of ninety-three.

The Tunnel

“Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea....” At the Lannan Foundation in 1998, William Gass reads from his second novel, The Tunnel (Knopf, 1995), which took twenty-six years to write and earned him the 1996 American Book Award. Gass died on December 6, 2017 at the age of ninety-three.

The Tunnel

“Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea....” At the Lannan Foundation in 1998, William Gass reads from his second novel, The Tunnel (Knopf, 1995), which took twenty-six years to write and earned him the 1996 American Book Award. Gass died on December 6, 2017 at the age of ninety-three.

The Tunnel

“Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea....” At the Lannan Foundation in 1998, William Gass reads from his second novel, The Tunnel (Knopf, 1995), which took twenty-six years to write and earned him the 1996 American Book Award. Gass died on December 6, 2017 at the age of ninety-three.

The Tunnel

“Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea....” At the Lannan Foundation in 1998, William Gass reads from his second novel, The Tunnel (Knopf, 1995), which took twenty-six years to write and earned him the 1996 American Book Award. Gass died on December 6, 2017 at the age of ninety-three.

Reviewers & Critics: Leigh Haber of O, the Oprah Magazine

Michael Taeckens

Leigh Haber is the books editor at O, the Oprah Magazine, a position she has held for more than five years. She graduated from George Washington University with a degree in international affairs, and after getting a job as a copy aide at the Washington Post Book World, she worked for many years in book publishing, first in publicity and later as an editor—at Jeremy Tarcher, Ballantine Books, Avon, Bantam Books, Berkley Books, Harcourt Brace, Scribner, Hyperion, and Rodale—before turning to work as a freelance editor and start-up consultant. At O, the Oprah Magazine, Haber is responsible for putting together the Reading Room section of the magazine, and is always on the lookout for books to feature or excerpt elsewhere in the magazine. She also works with Oprah Winfrey and the rest of the staff to identify new candidates for Oprah’s Book Club. She can be followed on Twitter, @leighhaber.

You got your start in the literary world as a copy aide at the Washington Post Book World in the late 1970s. What was it like working there? Did it make you want to forge a path within the publishing world?
I arrived there not realizing there was an industry behind the books I loved reading—I’d never thought about it before. It was soon after Watergate, so the Post was a glamorous and iconic place, filled with characters. My first boss there was William McPherson, who’d just won the Pulitzer for criticism. He passed away last year, sadly, but that was a universe I am lucky to have glimpsed up close, and, yes, it did lead me to publishing.

You later worked in publicity for several years at Ballantine and Avon, and after that, in editorial for many years at Scribner, Hyperion, and Rodale and as a freelancer. How does your former experience as a publicist and editor inform your role today?
I am so steeped in the book world—it helps me stay on top of what’s coming out when, especially given that we work so far in advance, when there are no indicators of the reception a book will receive. Many of my book publishing colleagues—authors, editors, publishers, agents, publicists, media colleagues—I’ve known them for decades, which helps inform everything I do at O. But I like to try to approach the job itself as a reader, plain and simple. Do I love the book? Will our readers? And are we helping them to discover new talent or writers they’ve never read before, especially women writers? Are we finding books that will challenge or delight them? That’s our mission.

Who are some of the notable authors you worked with—and what are some notable projects you worked on—before you started at O?
When I was a publicity director I flew all over the place with a range of authors I now realize is absolutely astonishing, though at the time, being a mother of two boys, I was just trying to keep it all together.  I worked with Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Umberto Eco, Charles Simic—and also Jimmy Buffett and Helen Hayes, to name a few who really stand out.  I also worked on a tour with Mickey Mantle, which thrilled my dad.  At Avon Books they were publishing lots of writers who were just gaining a literary reputation, including James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, and John Edgar Wideman. But there I also worked with Rosemary Rogers.  Those were incredibly fun days.

As an editor, I’m probably proudest of having acquired and edited Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. But there are so many other writers I am honored to have worked with: Steve Martin, Jacqueline Novogratz, Jonathan Ames, Richard Hell, Tess Gallagher, Lou Reed, Glen David Gold, the Kitchen Sisters, Terry Gross, Bill Maher, the authors of The Intellectual Devotional, Scott Simon, Aasif Mandvi, Peter Jennings…

The literary coverage at O is quite expansive and varied. You oversee book reviews, book lists, excerpts, and original essays—anything else? How has your job evolved over the five years you’ve been there?
When I walked into this job more than five years ago, I’d never been a magazine editor. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but my editors did. From them I’ve learned an entirely new skill. And I’m still learning. On the first day of my job I was told I needed to send some books to Oprah for book club consideration. I was frankly terrified. But then I read Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis and I just felt it was a book Oprah would embrace. We’ve had six picks since then, and it’s always a thrill to know we are helping the authors to grow their audiences. Oprah’s passion for books is at the core of my job and always at the top of my mind. I consider it a privilege to assist her in bringing an entirely new dimension to a writer’s career. As far as Reading Room is concerned, I love that the support is there to be feminist, to be globalist, to be diverse, to cover poetry and literary fiction and emerging writers along with the established. And, yes, now I’m also helping to find essayists and contributors to the themed packages we do. How has it evolved? I will always recall this position as one that has to be occupied with a weird combination of humility and a kind of hubris. As to the hubris, I have to choose a few books to cover from the many worthy candidates, which means I have to trust my taste. Humility because I am always aware how lucky I am to be working on this platform, as a part of the incredible legacy Oprah has earned.

Walk me through what a typical week in the office is like for you.
We receive hundreds of books per week—probably two hundred a day. Sometimes it feels as if every day is Christmas, and other days I feel as if I’m drowning in books. And some of the books we receive make me wonder—is there really an audience for a topic this narrow and obscure? But every day I’m combing through the mail, opening packages, and trying to get a sense of the landscape. Most of the time my eyes are bigger than my stomach, and I bring home a bag bursting with books—I still read from the physical galleys. I have a beanbag chair in my office, and there are days when I am sitting in it, looking from my window overlooking Central Park from the 36th floor of the Hearst Building and thinking, “They’re paying me to read?”

I love envisioning the section every month with my editors and my partner in the art department, Jill Armus. There’s a lot of back-and-forth in terms of finding contributing writers, editing, revising, fitting, fact-checking, and so on. My favorite moment is when I see the section come together on page. The hardest times are when I’m working on the mammoth July Summer Reading package—eighteen pages instead of four. It’s tough trying to do something different and to get it right, but it’s exciting, too.

But it’s not all about books. We have a lot of conversations about a wide range of topics. Gayle King’s assistant is obsessed with Beyoncé. I’ve had to learn about her. You pretty much can’t survive in the O office without being a passionate pet lover, whether dogs or cats. You have to be willing to discuss your sex life, your therapist, how long you wear your favorite bra before washing it. It’s all fair game.

How many books do you typically receive per week—and of those, how many are you able to write about each month? 
I would estimate we receive five hundred to seven hundred books a week. Of those, we can typically cover about fifteen a month. 

Other than your interest in a particular author, what sorts of things, if any, influence you when choosing which titles to include—blurbs, prepub reviews, large advances, social media buzz? What about your relationships with publicists and editors—do those ever hold any sway?
I don’t view blurbs as helpful. They seem very quid pro quo to me. Raves in prepubs do sometimes alert me to books I need to take seriously. Advances don’t matter to me, and while I very much value my relationships with publicists, editors, and authors, it’s all about the read.

How conscientious are you about diversity—gender, race, sexual orientation, etcetera—when choosing what to include? And do you try to pay attention to books published outside of the Big Five publishers?
When I first started at O, I made a conscious effort to make the section and its contributors “diverse.” But I have to say that now happens organically. And all things being equal, if there’s a choice between a great book by a man and a great book by a woman, the woman wins.

O has been particularly inclusive of poetry over the years. Is poetry a special love of yours? Has it ever been difficult persuading editors to allow space for it?
I am not a poetry maven. I admire it, and I love reading it at times, but I don’t consider myself an expert by any means. I think it enriches our culture, and the section, so I go to others who know more about it than I do to teach me. My favorite was getting Bill Murray, who is a huge poetry fan, to tell us about five poems he loves—in person, at the Carlyle Hotel.

How many freelancers do you work with? Are there certain things you look for in a reviewer?
It’s just myself and an assistant on staff, so we do lean on freelancers. And while I have three or so regulars, I also like to have fun pairing a book with a reviewer. My favorite match-up was asking Mary Roach to review Ian McEwan’s novel in which the narrator was an unborn fetus. And I like to intermix big names with young new voices.

Is social media at all helpful to you in your role as a book editor?
I should use it more than I do in terms of promoting the Reading Room section, and I do try and follow what others are doing. Because Oprah.com is a separate entity, and O doesn’t have an online version, it’s hard to fully spread the word about how robust the section is.

What is the status of Oprah’s Book Club, and how does Oprah go about choosing which books to pick?
The book club is alive and well when we find the right book. The way it goes is that when I read for the section, I am always also thinking about what Oprah might like, either for the book club, or for some other purpose—film, movie, or just for pleasure. I send her books, and if something profoundly resonates, she will likely call me to tell me so. Then we talk about whether it could be a selection. We’d love for there to be picks on a more frequent basis, but that’s hard because the book has to be right and the timing for Oprah has to be right too. And of course, others are always sending books to Oprah—she’s not just hearing from me.

How have you seen the publishing world and the media landscape change over the past five years?
It seems indies and physical books are back. That’s cause for celebration. But print newspapers and magazines are, of course, facing challenging times, which means we have to keep innovating.

A frequent complaint in literary circles is that negative reviews take up space that could otherwise be used reviewing better books. Where do you stand on the value of publishing negative reviews?
I was told when I came to the magazine that we should pick books we think are worthy of coverage and share them with our readers. If we don’t like or love a book, we just won’t cover it. There are just too many good books to celebrate to devote space to the ones we don’t like.

Of those publications that still devote space to literary criticism, which are your favorites? Are there any book critics whose work you particularly enjoy? 
I’m really going to miss Michiko Kakutani and Jennifer Senior. We also lost Bob Minzesheimer to brain cancer last year. And as everyone knows, the day of the standalone newspaper book review section, except for the New York Times Book Review, is gone. But I’m looking forward to seeing what emerges, because I do think books are as important and as vital as ever, and there are lots of wonderful voices out there writing about them.

Name three books you’ve read in the past year that really knocked your socks off.
It still amazes me that the right book in the right moment can blow your mind. I just reread Night by Elie Wiesel, as there is a new edition with a foreword by President Obama. All I can say is that it’s as heartbreaking and beautiful now as it was when I first read it years ago. Future Home of the Living God, the latest from Louise Erdrich, absolutely floored me. It felt as urgent as a punch to the gut. The Hate U Give made me hopeful. Angie Thomas channeled her righteous anger into something incredibly brave and new, and she’s giving young people all over the country the sense that, yes, someone feels as I do.

 

Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995. He is a cofounder of Broadside: Expert Literary PR.

Reviewers & Critics: Kevin Nguyen of GQ

by
Michael Taeckens
8.16.17

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

Reviewers & Critics: Dwight Garner of the New York Times

by
Michael Taeckens
1.15.15

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

Reviewers & Critics: Isaac Fitzgerald of BuzzFeed Books

by
Michael Taeckens
8.19.15

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).

Reviewers & Critics: Carolyn Kellogg of the Los Angeles Times

by
Michael Taeckens
6.14.16

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.

 

Reviewers & Critics: Parul Sehgal of the New York Times Book Review

by
Michael Taeckens
4.12.17

Parul Sehgal is a senior editor and columnist at the New York Times Book Review. Previously she was books editor at NPR and a senior editor at Publishers Weekly. She grew up in Washington, D.C., Delhi, Manila, Budapest, and Montreal, where she studied political science at McGill University, and moved to New York City in 2005 to study fiction in the MFA program at Columbia University. In 2010 she was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. Her TED talk on literature, titled “An Ode to Envy,” has been viewed more than two million times since it was posted in the summer of 2013.

What was your path to becoming a literary critic?
Random and inevitable. I’ve written a bit about how books were a highly controlled substance in my childhood home. My mother had a marvelous, idiosyncratic library—lots of André Gide, Jean Genet, and Oscar Wilde, lots of philosophy, and lots of Jackie Collins. But she was terribly strict, and the library was off-limits to us. Naturally my sister and I became the most frantic little book thieves; I must have spent the first decade of my life with a novel—and usually something massively inappropriate like Judy Blume’s Wifey or Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge—stuffed in the waistband of my pants. Reading was an illicit, compulsive, and very private activity for me; discovering criticism—in the Washington Post Book World—opened up a whole world. I suddenly had interlocutors. It was thrilling.

More prosaically—and to the point—I needed a job after graduate school, and Publishers Weekly was hiring. From there I started freelancing for a number of places: Bookforum, Slate, the New York Times Book Review. I just got addicted to the form, its constraints and possibilities. Book reviews remind me of that great Zoë Heller line about kissing: It’s about trying to be creative in a limited space.

Has your background in creative writing informed your work as a literary critic? Do you think literary criticism as a practical pursuit can be taught, and do you think it should be in MFA programs? 
It has given me a huge admiration for fiction writing. It’s lonely and difficult work, and I think having attempted it helps me treat books with care and respect. I found MFA workshops enormously helpful too, but not for the expected reasons. I don’t think they made me a better writer, but I learned how a certain class of people talked about literature. There was a whole depressing vocabulary: about reader “investment,” about how certain effects were “achieved” or endings “earned.” Has anyone written about when and why so much finance jargon has migrated into fiction classrooms? As for whether criticism should be taught, why not? Good criticism can refresh our responses. Last year I taught a class on criticism at Columbia that was largely devoted to unlearning boring, clichéd, or, worse, fashionable ways of thinking about books. And given how difficult the world is for young writers, why shouldn’t myriad kinds of practical writing be taught in these programs—book reviewing, grant writing, copyediting? 

Talk a little bit about your role at the New York Times Book Review—what kinds of books do you oversee, and within those categories, how many books do you look through on a weekly basis? 
I live in the shadow of wobbly stacks of books…who knows how many? I shudder to count. I handle a variety of topics: some fiction, lots of nonfiction—science, technology, philosophy, psychology, nature, and religion. 

Other than your interest in a particular author, what sorts of things influence you when selecting a book for coverage? Do relationships with editors and/or publicists help? What about blurbs and pre-publication reviews?
I look at everything—blurbs, trade publications—but it really comes down to sitting with the book and reading those first few pages or chapters, waiting for a voice and argument to emerge. I don’t think relationships in publishing do much to influence my thinking, but there are a few editors I really admire, who have interesting minds and interesting taste: Fiona McCrae and Jeff Shotts at Graywolf, Eric Chinski at FSG, Ed Park at Penguin Press. I’m always curious to see what they’re up to. 

You write Roving Eye, a brilliant New York Times Book Review column devoted to international literature. What was the genesis of this column? Considering that international literature by and large gets such short shrift in U.S. culture, do you see this column as a corrective of sorts?
Thank you! All credit to the editor, Pamela Paul, who’s a champion of international literature. I think the column is partly a corrective—but that sounds so dry and dutiful, no? I like to think of it as a way for readers to discover not only books in translation but books that are exploring some terrain or technique we might not have encountered—as with the Lebanese writer Rabee Jaber, who is so much more sophisticated on terrorism and political violence than any American writer I’ve read, or the French writer Virginie Despentes, who has created a genre of her own—queer, punk, feminist, screwball noir. 

You also write for the New York Times Magazine—several essays for the First Words column on language, and in late 2015 you profiled the wonderful Mary Gaitskill—and you’ve written critical work for other publications, including Bookforum, where you’ve written about Zadie Smith, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Lorrie Moore, and Anne Carson. Will we be seeing more of this kind of work from you? 
I hope so. I have wonderful editors at Bookforum and the New York Times Magazine—the great Michael Miller and Sasha Weiss—who let me, and on occasion push me, to veer off course and try something new. I’m very lucky in this way. And I love author profiles and essays on language not least because I’m always looking for ways to smuggle in book criticism where people don’t expect it. Book reviewing can get a bad rap as glorified book reports, when it really is this amazing instrument, this vocabulary of pleasure.

In an interview with the Columbia Daily Spectator, you mentioned that when you’re reviewing a book you read it twice, and then “The third time, I kind of dip in and out of it as I’m actually writing the review…and often as I’m writing, my opinion of the book radically changes.” I find this fascinating. Is this system unique to you, or is it somewhat prevalent among book critics? And do you find it at all frustrating—or perhaps rewarding—when your opinion about a book changes during the process of writing?
I suspect most reviewers experience this to some degree. It’s what makes it interesting, the process of self-interrogation: Why does that character please me? Why does she feel so real? What makes someone seem “real” in fiction anyway—and just what kind of achievement is it? It’s a conversation with the self, with one’s own tastes and biases—or it is for me at any rate. There’s something Cezanne said that I think about a lot, something like, “I know what I am looking at, but what am I seeing?” That’s what reviewing feels like to me. It’s very much to “re-view,” to see again, to try to see farther and see deeper.

Social media: helpful or a hindrance? 
Neither—an occasional pleasure. I’m not really on social media; I’m only on Twitter and that only nominally. I’m too secretive and long-winded and erratic in my habits—but how I love to eavesdrop. 

In your NBCC speech you said, “A review is someone performing thinking, and our finest reviewers are, to my mind, no less remarkable than our finest athletes: What do they do but exercise their precision, subtlety, and stamina for our enjoyment?” Aside from your esteemed colleagues at the New York Times, who do you think are some of our finest reviewers working today? 
Kathryn Schulz is almost upsettingly good, isn’t she? Who else can move so effortlessly between science and literary fiction? She has the range. And I think she’s one of the few white writers I know who consistently and interestingly thinks about race. Kevin Young is a genius. I think Dayna Tortorici is an extremely fine and precise thinker, and I wish she’d review more. The Irish critic Mark O’Connell can’t write a boring sentence. I love Steph Burt’s mission to find and defend the new. And then, of course, there’s James Wood. I’ll never forget reading him on how Orwell possibly cribbed a detail from Tolstoy—a man about to be executed adjusting a blindfold that was tied too tightly. I was unspeakably envious. To be on such intimate terms with these books—what could be better?  

 

Michael Taeckens has worked in publishing since 1995. He is a literary publicist and cofounder of Broadside PR (broadsidepr.com).

Parul Sehgal (Credit: David Surowiecki)

Reviewers & Critics: Laura Miller of Slate

by
Michael Taeckens
2.15.17

Laura Miller, a journalist and critic living in New York City, is a books and culture columnist for Slate. In 1995 she cofounded Salon, one of the first online-only magazines, where she worked as an editor and staff writer for twenty years. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, the Guardian, and the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the “Last Word” column in 2003 and 2004. She is the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (Little, Brown, 2008) and editor of The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors (Penguin, 2000) and Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2016).

 

What was it like writing about books for a web publication in the 1990s, when print criticism still completely dominated the scene? Did you have a particular mission in mind for literary coverage when you launched Salon?
It was a great time to be writing and editing pieces about books because the idea of an Internet magazine was totally new. There were no rules. But there were also no guidelines. We had to make things up as we went along, and from square one, which is an experience hard to convey now, when everyone is used to getting journalism online. I spent a lot of time just drawing rectangles on legal pads trying to conceptualize how to publish a “magazine” that had no material substance. But that scrambling was very much outweighed by the thrill of doing more or less exactly what we wanted. With no metrics, no conventional wisdom about what “worked” online, we had a very rare freedom. I also worked with amazing people. Dwight Garner edited our books coverage back then, and every November we’d go on these epic reading binges to come up with a year-end top-ten list between the two of us.

The main thing we aimed to do was to bring a more elastic, less stuffy style to bear on literary criticism and journalism, a more informal voice. That voice is now ubiquitous on the Internet, so it’s also hard to convey just how refreshing it felt. We often used reviewers, Stephanie Zacharek and Charles Taylor in particular, who were primarily film critics of the Pauline Kael school—although they were very knowledgeable about books. If we had a mission, it was to bring that kind of lively, vernacular approach to book criticism and journalism.

Did Salon’s books coverage change in style or volume during your two decades there?
Enormously. We went from running a book review every day to running a couple of books pieces per day along with the review during the dot-com boom, to, near the end of my tenure, a definite press from above not to cover books at all unless they offered a “red meat” political angle. That’s one of the reasons I left Salon—its divestment from substantive literary coverage.

Now, at Slate, do you purposefully seek books from presses outside the Big Five?
At Slate I’m fortunate enough to work closely with a great editor, Dan Kois, and we kick a bunch of ideas around every month or so. The focus is more on what will make an interesting “column,” which is technically what I write for Slate, although it sort of alternates between reviews and essays. As a journalist, your concern is for your readers—and editors/bosses—with providing them with interesting, arresting, trenchant writing. It’s nice if that also means bringing attention to a smaller press offering, but that’s not a priority. No respectable literary journalist considers helping out authors or publishers to be a central purpose. That would be a big mistake. A publication commands a significant audience because it prioritizes running pieces that are interesting and meaningful to that audience. Once you start to put someone else’s needs ahead of your readership, they tend to evaporate. Readers are really good at detecting ulterior motives.

In an interview with the National Book Critics Circle, you said, “I’m under the impression that most literary critics are primarily interested in writing, and while I find that subject fascinating, I am probably more interested in reading.” I find this rather intriguing, and think it’s a chief reason your writing on literary culture is so distinctive. Can you elaborate on your statement here?
We live in a time when everyone wants to write and seemingly no one “has time” to read. Everyone wants to speak and increasingly few people want to listen. People sometimes scoff when I make this observation and claim that aspiring writers read more than anyone else, but that is not my experience. I’m constantly meeting people who, when they learn what I do, always want to talk about the book they plan to write despite the fact that they seem to find no books worth reading. We fetishize the idea of being a writer in a variety of ways, most of them narcissistic. So when I meet a big reader who professes no desire to write, I think of them as a beautiful, almost mythical creature, like a unicorn, to be celebrated.

I also believe that reading is a profoundly creative act, that every act of reading is a collaboration between author and reader. I don’t understand why more people aren’t interested in this alchemy. It’s such an act of grace to give someone else ten or fifteen hours out of your own irreplaceable life, and allow their voice, thoughts, and imaginings into your head. I can’t respect any writer who isn’t abjectly grateful for the faith, generosity, and trust in that. I think there’s an unspoken, maybe even unconscious contempt for reading as merely “passive” in many people who obsess about writers and writing. Discussion of writers and writing generally bores me. But I’m always interested in why people read and why they like what they like. That’s far more likely to surprise and enlighten me than someone fretting about daily word counts and agonizing over their process.

Another hallmark of your critical writing is your interest in and attention to a vast array of authors—from Haruki Murakami, Rachel Kushner, Helen Oyeyemi, and Colson Whitehead to George R. R. Martin, Tana French, Neil Gaiman, and Elmore Leonard. How do you choose which authors to write about and which books to review?
I can’t say! I follow my nose, I guess. I’m generally looking for something that interests me because that’s the only means I have for inferring what might interest my readers, which is always the first goal. Genre is a complicated issue because it can be both an unfair stigma and an identifier of books that are reliably formulaic in an uninteresting way. But as a rule I find that it’s pretty easy to ignore genre divisions. They’re a marketing tool for publishers and readers with specific tastes, but it doesn’t serve a critic to believe in them unquestioningly.

How conscientious are you about diversity—gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.—when choosing what to write about?
As a duty, not much—and really, what writer wants to be read out of someone’s sense of obligation or desire to look good to others? But it would be very boring to constantly read and write about the same sorts of books with the same sorts of people in them, so variety is something I seek out.

Is there anything from the publishing side that raises your interest in a particular book or author—the size of the advance, notable blurbs, your relationship with an editor or publicist?
There are some editors with distinct tastes worth following (or avoiding), and a handful of publicists I trust to tip me off that something might really appeal to me. But mostly I tune out the marketing because it’s just not a reliable indicator of a book’s merit. Blurbs are hopeless: They’re mostly the result of favor trading. I do pay attention to trade reviews, and within the business of covering and publishing books there’s an extensive grapevine that I try to tap into frequently. Those are impartial takes. One thing I’d say to smaller publishers is, if they get starred trade reviews it would be worth it to send an email saying, “Would you like to see a copy?” If it’s not a press I work with a lot or have in my rolodex, making it easier to act on advance reviews is helpful. There are weeks when I just don’t have time to hunt down the contact information online.

You also write about a fair amount of nonfiction as well. Do you believe that reviewing a work of fiction is a markedly different art from reviewing a work of nonfiction?
Of course. Fiction is a work of art conjured out of whole cloth. It may be based on real world events and people, but it has no obligation to them. Nonfiction has a relationship to the truth that also needs to be considered. On a journalistic level, readers are typically more interested in nonfiction reviews. A review of a novel is interesting to the extent that you’ve read or intend to read the book, but you can learn something from a review of a nonfiction book even if you never read the book itself. People like learning stuff.

In August 2012 you wrote a Salon article, “The Case for Positive Book Reviews.” Where do you stand on the value of negative reviews?
I don’t think that a harsh (or even a merely unenthusiastic) review of an obscure book has much meaning in a world where the vast majority of books go almost entirely unnoticed. “Guess what. A book you’ve never heard of isn’t much good” is not an appealing premise for most readers. On the other hand, when a book has some stature in the world, it’s another matter; knocking down the unjustly prominent is part of a critic’s mandate. It’s just that hardly any books are prominent. Readers often really enjoy savage or derisive reviews. There’s a great, pent-up feeling of resentment out there on the part of readers who feel that they are constantly being sold—by reviewers and publishers—on books that are bad or just far less good than the praise they get. It’s kind of dumb, because what’s going on is usually just a disparity in taste, but we persist in the desire to believe that there are objective, consensus standards of good and bad. There aren’t. I’m not very keen on gratifying the anger people inflict on themselves as a result of embracing that belief at the expense of some poor author who has no responsibility for this.

Have you ever changed your mind about a book that you praised or panned years earlier? Has a work of criticism ever changed your opinion of a writer’s work?
I have to be constantly reading new books, so I rarely get the opportunity to revisit anything. Sometimes I bail on a book if the first chapter or two don’t grab me, and then later the enthusiasm of others makes me wonder if I should have persisted. But by the time I’ve read and written about a book, my opinion is pretty solid.

What advice do you give to young students who aim to become professional critics?
My advice to people who want to be professional critics is not to. It wouldn’t be responsible to encourage young people to pursue a career path that is so economically unfeasible. It’s a nice sideline, but the only deliberate path I can think of to recommend is journalism school. There you can at least learn an assortment of skills by which you might—might—someday make a living as a writer. But it would be smarter to have a reliable day job that pays the bills and gets you out into the world and then write reviews on the side.

How many books do you typically receive per week—and of those, how many are you able to write about each month?
I get maybe seventy-five to a hundred books per week. It depends on the week. I write about three or four new books per month, since sometimes the topics of my column aren’t specific new books but an essay about a cultural topic or author/book from the past.

In an interview with Daniel Mendelsohn you stated that Twitter is “an absurd place to look for literary criticism.” Outside of that, has social media been helpful at all in your role as a literary critic?
I follow many people whose opinions and taste I value, so if they’re enthusing about a forthcoming book, I want to know that. This is especially true of big readers who are not writers—booksellers, bloggers, vloggers, etc.—and who operate outside of book/publishing enclaves. I like to know what all kinds of people are reading and what they think of it, especially if they’re the sort of people who pay real money for the books they read. I don’t follow publishers and I take all recommendations from published authors with a huge grain of salt because, as with blurbs, that part of Twitter is full of disingenuous logrolling.

What books that you aren’t reviewing are you most looking forward to reading in the near future?
I’m a big audiobook fan, so I fill in the gaps of my work-related reading with listening. I really don’t need to be doing any more sitting down, thanks very much. The titles tend to be a mix of classics—as much Trollope as I can get—and new fiction that for one reason or another I didn’t end up reviewing, like Nathan Hill’s The Nix and Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees. I’m addicted to Audible’s daily deals for members, which offers all kinds of titles for five dollars or less. That’s where all my impulse buying goes, and I’ll probably never have time to listen to everything I’ve bought from them. 

 

Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995. He is a cofounder of Broadside: Expert Literary PR (broadsidepr.com).

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