The Art of the Review III: Michael Miller

Parul Sehgal–PWxyz, 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?

Thanks for saying that. I have a hard time calling my criticism art, but some criticism certainly is. There are many different kinds of reviews. One is fairly service-oriented: thumbs up or thumbs down. Another is the “think piece,” or the essay, which we read not just for an author’s assessment but for an example of how someone engages with a book. The latter can be art. It doesn’t necessarily last because it’s right, but because of its voice, ideas, and syntax. People still read Lester Bangs and Edmund Wilson, but few do it to figure out what music to download or what books to buy.

Have you ever been wrong about a book?

Yes. As an editor, I’ve missed the opportunity to cover some great books. Terry Castle’s The Professor comes to mind. That was one of my favorite books last year, but I didn’t get around to it until the fall, too late to run a review. As a writer, I’m wrong all the time. This might sound evasive, but I think I’m sometimes wrong about a book because I’m trying too hard to get it right. There have been times that I have approached a book as if I’ve been handed the thing and asked to write a user’s manual: “Here’s what the writer is trying to do.” This isn’t a bad starting point, but this alone is not enough. Being totally right requires too much regurgitation, too much faithfulness. It’s boring and it’s almost never good for the book.

I recently interviewed Laura Miller for this series, and she made a point that professional critics have never been so necessary as they are now; in a world where more and more books are being published and fewer and fewer people are reading, curation is a crucial, much-need service. Do you agree?

Yes, I agree. There simply isn’t enough time to read all those books, and reviews should try to help people figure out what they’re going to read next. They should not lead the audience astray. But I also know that people’s taste in books is, like their taste in music, pretty diverse. In a better world there would be more curators, each with their own personality, that readers could choose from and look to for advice.

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

Present: Terry Castle, Geoff Dyer, Gary Indiana, Janet Malcolm, Joshua Cohen, Zadie Smith, Ed Park, Luc Sante, Sam Anderson, Stephen Burt, Laura Miller, Alex Abramovich, Eric Banks, Joan Didion, John Ashbery, Joshua Clover. I like some people who write more about music than about books: Robert Christgau, Jon Dolan, and Rob Sheffield come to mind. Past: Mary McCarthy, John Leonard, Edmund Wilson, Virginia Woolf, and David Foster Wallace. I’m currently reading a new book of Ellen Willis’s music criticism, Out of the Vinyl Deeps, which is a reminder to me of what really great criticism (art!) can do. I’m not there for the critical assessments (I already know what I think about most of the bands she covers). I’m there to experience her intelligence, which is massive and inspiring.

I read a rather enjoyably cranky screed the other evening: Rebecca West’s The Duty of Harsh Criticism. It’s a long moan about the dangers of a culture of limp and lazy criticism (“a chorus of weak cheers…a mild kindliness that neither heats to enthusiasm nor reverses to anger”). Laura Miller makes a similar point, only she says that overly generous critics have squandered the public’s trust: Because reviewers trumpet mediocre books, readers look elsewhere for recommendations. But on the other end of the spectrum, we’ve got Heidi Julavits saying that far from being indulgent, our literary culture speaks mainly in the “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt.” What do you think? Are critics responsible for the “ecology” of book culture, as Miller puts it? Do we need different kinds of critics today? Should they be in the mold of West or Julavits?

Both. There are plenty of examples of bland positive criticism. I see reviews that open with truisms (“Football doesn’t exactly seem like a sport that would appeal to literary novelists, but this book reveals that it actually does”—that sort of thing). A lot of reviewers write about books as if they’re these special, rarified things. I really can’t stand reviews that praise a novel’s ability to “capture the nuances of a friendship,” or an author’s “healthy dose of irreverence” or “poetic writing style” or whatever. Do people really talk like that? Anyway, when I read a review that tosses out this sort of praise, I can’t help but think, “Oh who cares.”

But hatchet pieces can be pretty rote too. Some critics, though good at tossing verbal daggers, are awful at describing what’s good about a book, especially when the book is challenging on some level. In a way, Julavits and West are making similar points, insofar as both are lashing out against lazy critics. To me, fixing that laziness isn’t about writing more positive reviews or more negative reviews—it just means writing better reviews. I think John Ashbery is a great critic, but few if any of his pieces are negative, because he has chosen not to write about books he doesn’t like.

To any up-and-coming reviewers out there: Be yourself. The book-review world can seem very stuffy and same-y. I think it could use more characters, personality, and fun.

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