Clearly, we can’t get enough of Ron Charles. And can you blame us? Even before his alter ego, the zany Totally Hip Book Video Reviewer, peered up at us through strips of raw bacon, the longtime book critic has been charming, disarming, and educating us every week in the pages of the Washington Post.
The winner of the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award (his acceptance speech ought to be required viewing), he’s beloved for his humility and playful prose, for his reviews that, in Scott McLemee’s words, “display a knack for characterizing the shape and style of a book. Charles writes about craft without turning his reviews into manifestos for a single school of it.”
We–the tragically unhip–catch up with Charles and chat about Peter Carey, pornographers, and the virtues of curbing your enthusiasm.
Where did the Totally Hip Video Book Reviewer come from?
I’ve always made short funny videos for my family, and I started toying with doing a new series featuring a character I called the Super Book Critic who imagined that he had superhuman powers (it mainly featured me getting books out of trees). The idea evolved, and my wife and I thought, why don’t we take the review in this week’s paper—it was Mona Simpson’s Hollywood—and film it in three or four minutes? We ran around the house, and I acted it out a bit. I put it up on YouTube and got something like 3000 hits in 24 hrs. The response was incredible. I’d expected to hear from my manager or someone on the 5th floor telling me, “Take this down. You’re embarrassing us!”—or worse. But instead I got a note saying that the Post video team wanted to produce and edit the videos. But that would have been a whole other job, and it would have to be very professional. Instead we’ve kept it as a very casual arrangement. Most weekends, my wife and I make a video and hand it in to my editors on Monday. The audience is not that large—
But we are fervent.
People are being very nice about it.
I especially enjoyed your review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Speaking of Franzen (what a segue!), with the Franzenfreude episode, increasing attention is finally being paid to how infrequently authors who are women and people of color are reviewed compared to their white, male counterparts. Is this something the Washington Post is trying to address?
It’s a conscious weekly goal. We’re aware that we’re falling short, but we’re working constantly to make our coverage fairer. It’s been more of a challenge in nonfiction, I think. In fiction, there are just so many talented women authors.
Everyone is a critic now—on Amazon, Goodreads, on their blogs. Is this something you find threatening? Is the professional critic’s authority being diminished? Is it a good thing?
It’s not a good thing for my job [laughs], but I do think it’s a great thing that people can communicate about books and reach out to other readers—it’s wonderful to see this kind of enthusiasm. It’s what keeps book culture alive and vibrant. Even if you’re interested in some kind of obscure genre fiction, you can go on Goodreads and meet hundreds, even thousands of people who’ve read the book you have and are looking to chat. As far as the authority of the critic goes, I’m not in that realm. I’m just trying to be a daily newspaper book critic. I’m trying to read books that I hope people might enjoy, and I’m trying to help readers find things worth reading. I’m not setting down the literary theory of the 21st century.
You’re not? Get to it!
[Laughs] Despite how I appear in my videos!
Have you ever been wrong about a book?
Definitely. There are critics we both know who don’t seem to like books very much—it’s the oddest thing, I don’t know what draws them to reading—but I really like books. I’m moved, impressed, and plain awed by what I read every week. And sometimes I think that makes me too enthusiastic. But what I want to do is identify what each book is trying to do and how well it does it—as opposed to setting down a standard of what a book should do, and then commenting on how many books fail to reach my standard. My approach is kind of essential for someone who wants to review for a daily newspaper because you’re going to read lots of different kinds of books. But remember Gargoyle? I thought it was just spectacular. But most other critics thought it was kind of ridiculous. It’s about this pornographer who’s burned in a car crash and is saved by this 14th century gargoyle—
I know. Looking back, and having read some other reviews—particularly a good one in the New York Times—I can see that my review was a bit sophomoric and hyperbolic. But it did accurately reflect how enthusiastic I was at the time. And was I wrong about Peter Carey’s latest book? I mean, I love Peter Carey. I don’t think he has a more consistent champion than me. But I thought Parrot and Olivier was dull and rickety. And yet it was up for both the Booker and the National Book Award. People on both sides of the ocean were talking about it like it was one of the best books of the year. I didn’t agree. It certainly wasn’t one of Carey’s best.
So who do you write for? When you’re critiquing Parrot and Olivier, are you writing to Carey? To prospective readers?
I try not to think of the writer. But it’s so hard. I can only imagine what it must be like to work on a book for six or seven years, and then someone spends four days with it and tells you it’s no good. That does weigh on me. I try not to be snarky or dismissive, particularly with people just starting out. I actually try to only review first novels that I really like. But if it’s someone with more experience–if John Irving writes a crappy book like Last Night in Twisted River, I don’t mind saying it. What does he care what I think? But my first concern is for the Post reader—not the author’s readers or the publisher’s customers. My primary aim is to get the newspaper reader to spend 5 minutes reading a piece. It can be hard. Sometimes the books are very serious and the reviews can’t be particularly entertaining. Sometimes, you have to struggle to be as interesting as you can.
Tell me more about your approach to new novels. I think it was George Steiner who said that the job of the critic was to have “magnificent antennae” for the new, daring, or exceptional. Has there been a first novel that you’ve made it a point to champion?
I can’t claim any unique credit because we’re all reviewing books at roughly the same time, but Union Atlantic, Adam Haslett’s first novel was something I thought was very special. I really thought it was one of the best novels of the year. We’ve got a local author in D.C., Helen Simonson who came out of nowhere with Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I thought was absolutely charming. And Danielle Evans is another local author who’s extremely talented; she wrote a book of stories called Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. It’s such fun to find these people and trumpet their work and hope that something good happens for them.
Do you write fiction?
No, sadly. All I do is measure my life out in teaspoons. When authors complain about the reviews they receive (and I do receive some very aggrieved letters from time to time), I tell them, “Look, I’m latching onto the work you do, the work that’s really important. Do your own work the best you can. It only matters what other readers think. Reviewers aren’t as influential as we like to imagine.”
It’s heartbreaking. Our time will come.
Need your Ron Charles fix? Follow him on Twitter @roncharles.