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?