Tag Archives: book reviewing

The Art of the Review VI: Belinda McKeon

Parul Sehgal -- July 13th, 2011

The malingering Art of the Review is back and delighted to present Belinda McKeon, the Irish critic, curator, playwright, and novelist–her first book Solace is out now from Scribner. She’s also (full disclosure) a good friend of mine–but I’m her fan first and foremost, so I’m especially thrilled that she joined us for this long and candid chat on criticism, her debut novel, the differences between Irish and American literary culture, and the view from her window.

What drew you to criticism? How did you get your start?

I’d loved writing essays in university – really, really loved it, more than any nineteen-year-old should, and I wanted to keep doing it. Like most of my classmates, I came from a high school background where opinion meant regurgitation of something already written by somebody else, where teachers expected us to memorize the answers in the Spark Notes. And at first, my subjects – English and Philosophy – seemed so alien, the ideas being rattled out by the lecturers seemed so complicated, that I felt as though I’d wandered into a course in atomic physics instead. But somewhere along the line, everything clicked for me, and I realized the pleasure of thinking about a piece of writing, of reading it closely, of looking for the undercurrents, of finding an argument and going in deep into the work to make it hold. I started reviewing books, and interviewing authors, for the college newspaper, and when I graduated, I sent my resume to the Irish Times, and asked if I could do the same for them. I got lucky; it was a summer at the height of the boom, and opportunities were there for graduates. They sent me to plays, and they let me rummage in the books cupboard, and they sent me to interview authors, several of whom were personal heroes, so that was a tad on the intimidating side. But they also told me to get on with it, so I did.

What, if any, are the critic’s responsibilities?

To give the work the time it deserves. To put aside preconceptions, and not just preconceptions, but the stubborn initial impressions which can sometimes set in too firmly, too soon. To read carefully. To somehow bracket out other distractions. It’s not an author’s fault if you’ve been too busy checking email or twitter all day to give their book your attention. It’s not their fault if doing so has made you ratty and scattered. So don’t take it out on them, and – I know this isn’t easy – don’t take on more assignments than you can reasonably manage in a given space of time. It’s also not an author’s fault if you have three other books breathing down your neck as you try to read or review theirs.

Have you ever been wrong about a book?

I certainly hope so. In fact, I would hope I’m at least a tiny bit wrong every time. It’s not very interesting if it’s possible to get this stuff 100% right. Or are we talking about atomic physics again?

What critics – past or present – are important to you? Which contemporary reviewers do you read regularly?

James Wood is not just a critic I admire hugely, he was a teacher who made a real difference to my writing when I had him for a master class at Columbia. That was just a four-week thing, and I took it two years in a row, gatecrashing the first year, if I remember correctly. His approach is considered, intelligent, and born out of a deep love of writing and what it can do. I’m a complete fangirl, I admit it. As for critics from the past: I want to meet H.L Mencken when I die.

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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 Value of Negative Reviews

Rose Fox -- August 30th, 2010

Sarah Rees Brennan waxes eloquent (at some length) on being a writer who reviews and is reviewed.

Like any other person who reads a ton of books, I hate many, many books. Oh, how I hate them. I have performed dramatic readings of the books I hate. I have little hate summaries. I have hate impressions. I can act out, scene by hateful scene, some of these books. I can perform silent hate charades.

And in the past, I have reviewed a couple of books I hate. And then I would always feel crappy afterwards.

And I would wonder why. After all, I hated them! It was a public service to warn people off them!

This is why. One is that I am sort of terrible at reviewing things I hate. I am not reasonable about it. I do not add ‘Oh, but despite my loathing for the subject matter, the prose was excellent’ or ‘Still, the idea of a dragon in love with a tree is an intriguing one.’ And I feel that, especially since hate reviews are the most popular ones, because people love to see people hating on stuff, nobody is sure why but it is fascinating! – I feel it’s important to be able to write a hate review as close to objectively as you can, explaining why and wherefore, and not only getting your cruel mock on.

I get my cruel mock on. I’m not fair. And generally, I wish to be fair.

In the comments to Rees Brennan’s post, a pseudonymous commenter who self-identifies as a professional reviewer says, “I just don’t take anyone seriously who doesn’t occasionally pan a book, and I don’t bother with all-positive review sites. If someone only has something nice to say, then what they say is pretty meaningless, because I have no idea if they’re unable to admit not-liking something or if they don’t have critical faculties to decide whether the prose sucks (maybe they like sucky prose fine, some people do) or whatever.”

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Too Many Books

Craig Morgan Teicher -- July 20th, 2010

GalleyCat is highlighting an interesting project going on over at The Book Publicity Blog, which is taking pictures of book reviewers overstuffed review copy shelves.  We thought we’d show you our book room.  PW’s adult book room is located in the kitchen of our new office.  It suffices to say we don’t have a kitchen so much as a very busy library, as you can see, with a fridge in it.  The only thing more hectic is working as a freelance reviewer and having hundreds of galleys in your home (this blogger has some experience in that arena).  But, they are book, which are better than most other things.

Harper Perennial Courts Blogger-Reviewers

Craig Morgan Teicher -- July 16th, 2010

The hip folks at Harper Perennial want bloggers to review their books.  Today, the company announced an invitation to bloggers on its Olive Reader blog asking any interested blogger to leave their email and blog address in the comments field (the email won’t be publicly displayed) to be included on a regular email blast featuring new HP books.  Here’s more from the post:

[E]very six weeks or so I send out an email with books for review. This email usually features 6 or so books. They’re almost always books of ours that I’ve read, books that I am passionate about, and books that might need a little extra push from me and from you guys to get out there…

…That’s where you come in. Do you want to get on this list? If you do, please please leave a comment on this entry. Put your email address in the email field, and your blog address in the actual comment.

So, if you’re a blogger and you like free books, you might want to sign up.