Most everybody in the book business is a critic, from bloggers to agents to scouts, to audiobook editors, to writers, to judges for various literary and mystery awards, to publishers and even to independent bookstores who, at the ground level, have the opportunity to hand sell titles they are impressed by. Then, of course, there are professional book critics who are salaried and whose reviews invariably appear in newspapers and magazines.
As publishers, we receive about 5,000 queries and submissions a year, and doing 16 titles annually, have to say “No” 4,984 times. This is relatively easy to do, for our critical judgments are private, whereas professional book critics have to contend with authors, publishers, and publicists whose books are unfavorably reviewed or ignored. That can be a negative side, of course, but there are also gratifications.
With that, Ron Charles, Editor of The Washington Post Book World, was kind enough to discuss his work. I was impressed with his opening remark even before he responded to some questions I posed.
I’m flattered that you think anyone would care about my responses to these questions, and I think you’re wrong. But what the hell.
How did you get started as a book critic?
Out of graduate school, I started working as an English professor in one of those idyllic liberal arts colleges you’ve heard are dying across the country. I taught American lit and critical theory (the Women’s Studies Department even wheeled me out once a year to teach feminist criticism: “See? Men can do this, too.”). It was a lovely place—Principia College, high on the Mississippi River bluffs—but I began to grow restless and so switched for a few years to teaching at a ritzy private school in .St. Louis (The John Burroughs School; Jon Hamm and I were always carousing around town together. Not entirely true, but he really was in the Drama dept. during my time there). That school was pretty much the kingdom of heaven, but the paper grading wore me down, and when an old student’s mom told me I should try writing book reviews, I went to Library Ltd. — now, alas, gone—bought a book off the New Fiction shelf, read it, reviewed it and sent it off to the Christian Science Monitor. Lo and behold, they bought it and asked for more.
What attracted you to it? And what motivates you now?
Book reviewing was not so far from what I was already doing—explaining how good books work—so it was a chance to try something new that still fell within my limited skill set.
Now, almost 20 years in, it’s still a great pleasure to read such fine books—or, sometimes, not so fine—and write about them for interesting, interested people.
What are your thoughts about the role of the critic in general, and your own philosophical beliefs?
Oh, those questions make me tired. . . . It’s such an invitation to climb up into the attic and bring down some brittle Christmas tree decorated with profound thoughts.
But…. I do, honestly, think that insightful, respectful and elegant book reviewers can encourage talented writers and draw a few good readers to them. Such critics can also serve as a (very weak) brake on a culture careening through inanity and dullness.
My philosophy of reviewing is nothing particularly original: Try to judge a book according to how successfully it accomplishes what the author seems to have intended.
What do you look for in choosing a book to read?
First, I always hope I’ll enjoy the books I choose. Beyond that, a number of considerations come into play: I’m always trying (not always succeeding) to review a variety of books in hopes of reflecting the wide interests of The Post’s readers. Some giant authors (Morrison, Franzen, etc.) are unavoidable, but I’m also on the lookout for debut writers that sound promising.
Does being a critic have a downside as well as an upside?
The upside is obvious: I get paid to read great books and talk about them. The downside is shallow: I’m always, always, always behind. Every minute—even asleep—I know exactly where I am in a book and how many pages I’ve still got to finish that day. Sometimes, when conversations run long, I catch myself thinking, “That’s nine pages right there I could have read.”
How that’s for a start? Anything else?
This concludes Ron’s comments, But in a postscript, he added these words, as refreshing as his opening remarks: “Feel free to quote any of this so long as you correct my notoriously bad spelling and brush up my grammar.”
I invite any of you to ask Ron “Anything else” you cared to know. Send me your questions by email or post your remarks on this blog and I shall send them on to him.
Next week Haila Williams, Acquisitions Editor at Blackstone Audio, will take a well-deserved turn in these weekly “Publishing: The Inside Story” discussions.