by Parul Sehgal, PWxyz, Mar. 18, 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?
I think I’m evenly split on gender. When it comes to race, I’m sure I could do a better job. If I have a bias, it’s that I tend to be an Anglophile. When I’m looking at a stack of books, I need to be careful that I’m not just selecting books by British people! And I don’t like French novels at all. So I have these particular prejudices that I’m aware of. I actually wrote a column suggesting people read outside their comfort zone, and I tried to do the same. I tried to read The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
I hated it. It was just so…French!
What are the responsibilities of the reviewer?
Your primary responsibility is to the reader. My friend Lev Grossman, the Timemagazine book critic, has a motto that sums it up: “Don’t lie.”
I just read an interview with Helen Vendler in which she said she addresses her criticism to the author, to Keats, say. She said she tries to prove to Keats that she understands what he is doing.
There are critics that you like reading but you don’t trust—like Helen Vendler. Or James Wood—I love reading him, but when he tells me a book is good, I don’t actually believe it. I believe he thinks so. But I think his taste is completely bizarre. You have to try to meet a book where it is. You can’t review a crime novel and complain that it’s violent or cynical. But I don’t write a lot of negative reviews anymore—it’s not my brief—and that’s where you wind up with what most authors and publishers consider ethical quandaries: negative reviews that they feel are unearned. For average readers, the big ethical issues are positive reviews that are unearned. You have to be honest. It’s bad when an author gets a bad review he or she doesn’t deserve, but it’s bad for the overall ecology of book reviews, if a reviewer gives a book an unduly positive review. It establishes a climate of bad faith. This is something that has already happened; there’s a feeling in the public that reviewers try to sell them on authors that aren’t that good. That’s one reason that professional reviews are becoming extinct: people don’t trust them.
Is there anything editors and reviewers can do to mend this breach of trust?
While it is true that we’re in a crisis of reading, and half of all Americans didn’t read a book for a pleasure in the last year etc., we also live in a culture where curation is becoming more and more important because there are so many options. If you’re going to only read one book a year, you want it to be a really, really good book, and you need someone whose judgment you can trust. That’s why a bunch of people reviewing random new books is just not meaningful in a world where so many books are published and so few people are reading. One of the reasons people listen to their friends is that friends are accountable. Readers need to have relationships with reviewers. People clearly want to talk about books and they want recommendations. What they need is someone they can read consistently. There ’s no reason why they shouldn’t follow a particular book reviewer the way they follow a particular film reviewer. My readers tell me all the time that they buy books I recommend because they know me and they know my tastes.
Have you ever been wrong about a book?
That’s assuming there is a right or a wrong. There are books that I didn’t like that become really, really successful. But I was honest about them. I never would have thought The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova would have been a bestseller, even though I really enjoyed it. It was so atmospheric, and I read it during a very cold week, and I was drinking lots of tea and just got so into it. But I thought that the people who read The Da Vinci Code would find it too slow. It amazed me that the book was as popular as it was, that the public had more patience and discrimination than I suspected.
You and Louis Bayard co-authored a really smart article on criticism,“Who Killed the Literary Critic,” in which you wrote, “We don’t have celebrated public critics now because critics don’t care about the public, not because the public doesn’t care about critics.” Do you still agree with this sentiment?
There aren’t many people who are public professional critics (and there are even fewer now than when I wrote that). I feel like I’m trying to occupy a middle ground between the proud philistine Amazon reviewer and the snooty critic who thinks it’s his job to man the barricades against the philistines. It’s not a comfortable position, but it’s where my inclinations are. I like difficult, adventurous writers like Lydia Millet, but I also like entertaining things that everyone else likes, like The Hunger Games. And although everyone says they want critics to make discriminations, the dirty secret is that most people seem to believe 1.) That there’s an objective good and bad in literature, and 2.) That their own standards of quality are the objective absolute standard. For a lot of people who aspire to be critics, their primary interest is in demonstrating their own erudition. It’s not always conscious, but there’s a sort of preening critic who sees himself (it’s usually a guy) holding back the Mongol hordes. I feel like even if I don’t like the things that everyone else is reading, I try to check them out. I’ll read The Da Vinci Code. I read Twilight. I even read The Shack.
Well, okay, I gave up when he started talking about the nature of the Trinity. But what I’m really interested in is reading and readers. I think they’re under-celebrated and that it’s a far more creative activity than people acknowledge. A really great reader is like a violin. The notes exist, but without the violin you don’t have any music. And the reader has to be good enough, open enough, and seasoned enough—they’re so many qualities a reader needs to have. I may never have wanted to read Twilight; but when I read it, I understood why people like it. And I also feel that it’s important to be in touch with what a lot of people like to read because that determines what gets published and what gets written.
And otherwise the conversation becomes about what people ought to read rather than what they are reading.
That whole eat-your-spinach dynamic is a reason that people don’t want to read. I care about booksellers and authors and publishers and editors and librarians—all the people involved in the culture of a book—and all these people benefit when more people read and buy books. Anything that fosters enthusiasm about books, especially reading for pleasure, has my top support.
Can criticism encourage this enthusiasm?
Yes and no. If it’s a thumbs up or down thing, it’s the equivalent of an Amazon reader review, which isn’t very helpful. Amazon reviews tend to be one star or five stars, slams or raves. The kind of criticism that’s needed is one that enlarges the reader’s understanding of the book. It’s a mixture of meeting the reader where they are and encouraging them to go a little further, a little deeper. People are more enthusiastic if they feel they’re part of a thoughtful book culture, which is why they join book clubs or read reviews. And another thing: people are more likely to read reviews of movies they’ve seen and books they’ve read—reading reviews is not just a consumer thing. Readers want to know what someone else thinks. They want to be part of the conversation.
For more casually brilliant bon mots, follow Laura Miller on Twitter:@magiciansbook