Category Archives: book reviewing

The Art of the Review III: Michael Miller

Parul Sehgal -- April 1st, 2011

We’re thrilled to have Michael Miller in the hot seat this week. Miller got his start at the Village Voice and has since written for the Voice Literary Supplement and been an editor at Time Out New York–where he curated an extraordinary book section that celebrated both the popular and the recondite, the traditional and the experimental. Always pushing the reader to more complicated, challenging pleasures, he brought Brian Evenson, Lydia Davis, and Rudolph Wurlitzer to a whole new audience.

Miller is now a Reviews Editor at Bookforum where he’s also (full disclosure) my superb editor.

He chats with us about lazy critics, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Stephen Elliot’s good taste, and why being too “right” about a book can make for a dull review.

Give me a sense of your average day. How many books do you get/how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? How do you decide to farm out reviews?

I deal mostly with fiction and poetry, plus some nonfiction books about pop culture, music, and film. I’m not sure how many books arrive each day, but the stacks are high! I pick books in a variety of ways. Sometimes I’ll see a book by an author I’ve read and liked in the past. For instance, I read Ron Padgett’s biography of Joe Brainard, so I’ve set aside his new book of poems, How Long. Same goes for Jo Ann Beard: She has a piece I love in one of those Best American Essays anthologies (the one edited by David Foster Wallace), so I’m definitely going to check out her new novel, In Zanesville. I also hear about a lot of things word of mouth: I think Stephen Elliott has good taste, so I usually check out what he chooses for his reading group at The Rumpus. That’s how I heard about Deborah Baker’s The Convert.

I can’t speak for the other editors here, but when I’m assigning reviews, I try to find someone who knows the territory but not too well. Ideally, a reviewer will be just a little out of his or her element. That leaves room for some original thinking—even surprise—on the critic’s part.

In your review of Mark Gluth’s The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis, you praise its “direct, no-fat sentence style,” the author’s “creative command of his cultural references,” the book’s ability to quietly “break your heart.” These are all qualities I’ve admired in your reviews–economy, smart allusions, an emotional and intellectual engagement with the book. When you’re reviewing, do you have some sort of criteria that you hold the book to? Or does every book demand or invent its own set of criteria?

I think it’s impossible to let go entirely of your criteria for what makes a book successful, but I do try to leave my expectations at the door. I suppose that one of my criteria is how well a book sets its own terms. I recently read Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and that book’s success has everything to do with the way it sets its terms and dispenses with characters and plot development.

Sontag said (and I paraphrase villainously) that criticism should not regard itself–or be regarded–as art; to do so would be to betray its mission. I like the grim finality of this, but I’m not convinced. Take your review of Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance for the Believer. You have a great line–”It’s as if [Davis'] characters were rubbernecking while cruising past the pileups of their own obsessions.” That’s such a funny and weird and plain arresting image, I won’t be persuaded that it’s not art. Where do you stand? Do you consider criticism to be an art?

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The Art of the Review II: Ron Charles

Parul Sehgal -- March 25th, 2011

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!

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The Art of the Review I: Laura Miller

Parul Sehgal -- March 18th, 2011

We’re happy to announce a new series on PWxyz–The Art of the Review. Every Friday, we’ll be interviewing our favorite reviewers, talking technique, and taking the pulse of criticism today: How do critics select books to review? Have they ever been wrong about a book? How much impact do reviews have anyway? How do critics in print media feel about their online counterparts and vice versa–are they in league or at odds? We’ll be talking to reviewers at established dailies, at up-and-coming review websites, and working all over the world–in New York, Dublin, and New Delhi.

We’re kicking things off with an interview with Laura Miller, author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, and cofounder of Salon.com for which she writes a regular column on books, beloved for its wit, directness, and deep engagement with (and omnivorous appetite for) books of all genres.

She talks to us about how book critics have let down the public, why she likes reading–but doesn’t trust–James Wood’s reviews, and why everyone should at least try to read Twilight.

You’re one of the reviewers I most enjoy following—not least because I can never predict what you’re going to cover next. You write about a novel, like Room, one week and Let the Swords Encircle Me (the world’s longest, most intricate account of Iranian politics) the next. And the week after that, you’re on to Yellow Dirt, an exposé on uranium mining in the American Southwest. How do you decide what to cover?

I cover books that I’m enthusiastic about. I look at books in the same category, sample a bunch, and pick what I like the best. My general rule is in a month of 4 weeks, I do one fiction book and 3 nonfiction books: one memoir or autobiography, one history, and something contemporary. There are a few things I’m not into—I’m not big on military history, and sports books put me to sleep—but I do have broad tastes. Any book that someone tells me about or sends me, be it self-published or whatever, I try to look at the first couple paragraphs at least.

Why do you review so much more nonfiction than fiction?

At Salon, we know exactly how many people read every single story. When it comes to reviews, people are interested in reading the reviews of nonfiction books. Maybe it’s because even if they never read the book, they’ll learn something from the review.

“Franzenfreude” and the recent reports from FAIR and Vida have drawn attention to how infrequently authors who are women and/or people of color are reviewed compared to their white, male counterparts. Is this disparity something you think about or try to address in your review coverage?

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The PW Morning Report: Friday, Feb. 18, 2011

Craig Morgan Teicher -- February 18th, 2011

Today’s links!

Borders, Bookstore of the Week: Jacket Copy names Borders in Pasadena (one of the stores slated to close) as its bookstore of the week.

10 Lessons: Smart Company in Australia offers 10 lessons from the collapse of Borders Australia and Australia’s Angus & Robertson.

BBC Buys Out Lonely Planet: BBC Worldwide has acquired the remaining 25% stake in Lonely Planet from the company’s founders. From the Guardian.

The Maid Sues ‘The Help’: Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help, is being sued by a woman who has worked as a maid for Stocket’s in laws and says she was appropriated for the book’s main character.

Indies In the Digital Age: OregonLive looks at how indie bookseller like Powell’s are looking for their niche in the digital age.

Apple vs. Google: Seeking Alpha outlines the intensifying battle for the future of tablet computers that heated up this week with the introduction of the two companies’ subscription sales models.

Tina Brown on What to Read: The Daily Beast/ Newsweek editor offers some reading recommendations to NPR.

I Hate My iPad: So says a Slate writer, and he explains why.

The PW Morning Report: Monday, Jan. 31, 2011

Craig Morgan Teicher -- January 31st, 2011

New week, new links!

Borders Delaying Paying: Reuters explains how Borders is conserving cash by delaying January payments.

Foreign Rights Explained: Daily Finance talks about where the real money is in publishing…

Twin City Indies: They ain’t closing! Indie booksellers are fighting and winning , according to TwinCities.com.

‘Endgame’ Reviewed: The new biography of chess champ Bobby Fisher, reviewed by Salon’s Laura Miller.

Digital Design: The NYT talks about book design for the digital age.

PW’s Parul Sehgal on Criticism, Pleasure and Winning the NBCC’s Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing

Craig Morgan Teicher -- January 26th, 2011

Among the things we’ve been celebrating lately at PW is this past weekend’s announcement that our own nonfiction reviews editor Parul Sehgal won the prestigious Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle, an honor she shares with such esteemed critics as Joan Acocella, Daniel Mendelsohn and Ron Charles. Around here, we couldn’t be prouder.

NBCC board member (and former Balakian winner) Scott McLemee interviewed Parul for Inside Higher Ed to find out more about her and hear her thoughts on criticism. We wanted to point you toward that interview and give you a little sample.  Here’s Parul on what she’s trying to do when reviewing a book:

I try very hard to be fair to the author, honest with the reader, and to create something sturdy and beautiful in its own right. More presumptuously, I suppose I’m trying, in Baudelaire’s words, “to transform my pleasure into knowledge.”

We hope you’ll read the whole wonderfully intelligent interview.

[Full disclosure: I am on the board of the NBCC, but we have strict conflict-of-interest rules prohibiting voting for friends and colleagues for these kinds of awards, so I recused myself from all discussion and voting in this award.]

NBCC Panel on the Book Review, Revamped

Craig Morgan Teicher -- January 20th, 2011

Last night, the National Book Critics Circle (of which this blogger is a vice president) convened a panel at the Center for Fiction about the current state of the book review.  Barbara Hoffert of Library Journal, Jennifer B. McDonald, Staff Editor, the New York Times Book Review; Robert Messenger, Books Editor, the Wall Street Journal; me representing Publishers Weekly; and moderator Jane Ciabattari, President, National Book Critics Circle  talked for an hour and bit about each of our publications and where we thought book reviewing is and is going.  The whole event is available as a podcast on the NBCC blog, so check it out.

The PW Morning Report: Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011

Craig Morgan Teicher -- January 19th, 2011

Today’s links!

The Upside of Ugly Fonts: At Salon, Laura Miller examines the benefits in terms of reading comprehension of ugly fonts.

Father & Son: Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez are collaborating on a memoir to be pub’d by Free Press in time for Father’s Day. From USA Today.

Look at Vook: The WSJ takes a look at the poineering video-book app developer.

E-Books At Any Length: A new startup venture plans to bring short NF pieces to digital readers near you. From Fast Company.

No Comment: That’s what Simon & Schuster is asking writers to say if asked whether they wrote the anonymous Obama novel, though not everyone is complying. From the NYT.

Winnie the Cute: Watch an adorable French girl recount the plot of a Winnie the Pooh story. From HuffPo.

Super Villains and the Law

Craig Morgan Teicher -- December 20th, 2010

If the Joker blows up half of downtown Gotham, who’s liable for the damage (assuming, of course, that Joker isn’t going to say he’s sorry and pay up)?  Does the Americans with Disabilities Act apply to superheroes?  These are other questions are answered in a blog called Law and the Multiverse, which is also the subject of a story in today’s New York Times.

Here’s a little sample from the blog:

[W]hen Doomsday goes on a rampage of destruction across at least three states or the Joker blows up half of downtown Gotham, insurer’s aren’t actually going to want to pay for that, and there is reason to believe that under the terms of standard insurance contracts, they wouldn’t have to. The reason has to do with the way insurance policies are written, which is a matter of contract as much at it is a matter of law.

The blog, which is the brainchild of two lawyers, quite earnestly considers the constitutional and legal take on various aspects of being a comic book superhero.  If you’ve ever wanted to know what it would really be like to be a superhero (or villain), reading this blog would be a heck of a lot cheaper than dragging a crate of comics to a lawyer’s office and racking up the billable hours.

The PW Morning Report: Friday, Dec. 17, 2010

Craig Morgan Teicher -- December 17th, 2010

Today’s book and publishing news from across the Web:

E-Books Are Good News for Literature: So says the LA Times‘ David L. Ulin.

And Here Are David Ulin’s Favorite Books of the Year: Here they are.

Meet Diana Athill: The nonagenarian British memoirist and editor (and winner of last year’s NBCC award) talks to the Independent.

Richard’s Reading: Richard Nash tells the Millions about his favorite books of the year.

Gabrielsson Up for Grabs: The UK rights for Stieg Larsson’s partner’s memoir are still up for grabs reports the Bookseller.

An Amazing Translation Tool: Check out this video demonstration of Word Lens…you’ll be amazed. [Via @walkley]