October 2009

Barbara J. King

features

An Interview with Ron Charles

Over the last few years, I came to realize that a large percentage of the items on my startlingly lengthy fiction-focused wish lists had emerged from the reviews of Ron Charles at The Washington Post. I began to pay closer attention to the way Charles writes, how he brings alive a novelís contents and a writerís spirit with insight and generosity.

A few other people were paying attention too. Earlier this year, at a meeting of the National Book Critics Circle, Ron Charles won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

Charles is Deputy Editor of the Postís Book World. His reviews are online, he †tweets, and you can watch his NBCC acceptance speech on YouTube.

Last month, Ron Charles talked with me at a coffee shop near The Washington Post building. Our interview is edited for length.†

To a viewer watching, it seems as if you had so much fun accepting the NBCC award for excellence in book reviewing. Was it as much fun as it looked to be?

Yes, it was an absolute delight. I was thrilled to have won. I was honored and a little embarrassed. I had my daughter and my wife with me in the audience. I used to be a teacher and loved teaching, and before that I wanted to be an actor. I really like speaking to people, and I like being funny. I just rarely get a chance to do that now, or to speak in front of a group. Iím always behind a desk or in front of my computer.

You have talked about the idea of a goal of a book critic being to coax readers out of the ďecho chamber of a bestseller list.Ē I wondered if you could talk a little about the practical process involved. †††

You canít leave the bestseller list completely behind, of course. You have to lead people, not stand far away and scream at them about all these esoteric books that you think are so important. I think the trick is to see where they are, where their tastes are, and then try to lead them gently into books that they will like, that they can relate to, that you can interest them in because they liked some other book.

This happens a lot on the Thriller page on Mondays. There are certain bestsellers that always show up; we tend to review those authors more and more rarely, but try to introduce new Thriller writers and new Mystery writers whom we think are important and really good. It is much harder with Romance readers. Thereís a huge group out there -- maybe the largest single group of readers. And we donít know how to review Romance books in any intelligent way.

Is there a Romance reviewer, specifically?

No. We tried.† But every time we always got exactly the same review, which included at the beginning or the end a line about, ďWell if you like this kind of crap, youíll like thisÖĒ

Very engaging for the readers!

A total turn-off. So condescending. We keep trying. We have had a little more luck with Historical Romance, itís more like Historical Fiction. Sometimes we do find someone who is sympathetic and can review it from the point of view of people who do like and do know something about it. Eloisa James is a great Romance writer. She reviews Romance books herself, intelligently. Sheís got a PhD from Yale, sheís a brilliant woman. There are a lot of such people who read these books and their tastes need to be appreciated and addressed. The specialty publications have taken over, Romance Times for example, and weíve kind of just dropped the ball. Thatís a shame.

You have this mountain of 150 books a day coming in. Can you give me a sense of how do you even choose among them? You tweeted once about how you had started a book, did not feel engaged particularly, but assigned it to a different reviewer. Do you do that often, and how do you deal with choosing?

It doesnít happen often. I make the choice very carefully and very slowly, what I am going to read myself, because I donít have much time. If I spend a day or two reading, I cannot stop and go to something else; itís got to be 80 pages a day of reading outside of work. If Iím already 160 pages behind, Iím lost.† I just plough ahead and write a negative review if I have to. In the case you mention, I only stopped because I couldnít think of anything interesting to say.†

Hereís an example. Jonathan Tropper has just written a book called This is Where I Leave You. I started to read it, and I had just finished a family dysfunction novel two or three books ago. I just knew that I had used up my family dysfunction critical lines. Even though I knew it was a good book, I knew it was funny, it just wasnít for me that week. So I assigned it out and our reviewer loved it.

But your practical question was about what happens when the 150 books come in, on these carts. Our book reviewer manager brings them up, makes the first cut, taking out a lot of self-published books, romance, weird science fiction from publishers weíve never heard of, textbooks, political tracts by different groups that are more like pamphlets or statements. A lot of stuff goes immediately before we even get to it.

Rachel [Rachel Shea, Editor of Book World] and I go through it and make another cut. We grab books like triage, picking books we think will survive. That group is still pretty big. Every week, all the editors pick out 4 or 5 books for that week that we think will interest our readers, or that we think are important, or that might make good reviews. A lot of those things overlap of course, but sometimes they donít. †††

We might be looking for groups of books to write a column about, or some sort of Round Up. Of course weíre drawn to big names, the big publishers like Knopf and FSG and others, their books do get more attention despite all the claims to the contrary. One, we trust them, we have relationships with them. We know their taste. We have some sense that those books have gone through an editorial process thatís pretty rigorous. Books that rise to that level are probably worth a second look.

But I can hear all the little publishers screaming right now! There are all little publishers I adore, like Algonquin, Unbridled, and Soft Skull, and they get our attention too, but we pass over good books all the time. Most of the books we reject are good books I am sure, but we just donít have the staff to read all the books -- we have to make hundreds of snap judgments every week and go from there and do the best we can.

I have a hypothesis, that you are drawn to books about people living in flawed families. That phrase, it occurs to me, can describe most of us. Iím thinking of your review of Whiteheadís Sag Harbor, or Keeganís Swimming, or Ogawaís The Housekeeper and the Professor, or OíNanís Songs for the Missing, and I could go on. You seem to relish a writerís illuminating these families. Iíd be curious to know if you think Iím at all right here.

I would have said that those are just the books that are being published and that those are some of the best authorsí take on the subject. Am I drawn to those books? I would have thought that I have a preoccupation with Historical Fiction. I do so little self-reflection on this. The books just fly at me so fast! Those titles that you named, I could never have come up with those titles in a thousand years. I recognize them when you say them, but if you asked me to name six titles I would go completely blank. At this point, after 12 years of thisÖ I was really worried years ago, that there was something wrong with me, but Iíve talked to other people in this situation. We lose all our memory, and become completely note-dependent. Thereís so much detail, titles and names, washing over us all the time.

So they are very alive for you in the moment, and then you are on to the next, and then they are very alive for you in the moment, itís iterative.

Yes. Iíve talked to enough critics now that itís a clichť. They tell me, theyíre sitting there in an airport, someone asks, ďOh youíre a book critic, what do you recommend?Ē and they go completely blank. They canít think of The Great Gatsby. When I was teaching it wasnít that way. I had my field, American History, 19th century, I could rattle off the whole canon, and all the critical apparatus on top of that. But that was when I was reading 12 books a year, over and over again, and now that Iím flying through them, nothing sticks.

Well, itís maybe in a sense, up to us, the people who read you, to say, ďThis review really touched me.Ē The four that I mentioned were ones that really mattered to me very much. Youíre widely known as fair and generous. And what comes to mindÖ Iíll give you another example: you reviewed Apologize! Apologize!, Elizabeth Kellyís first novel, and in there you said, ďItís good enough to overcome its flaws.Ē I liked that phrase. It led me to wonder: Do writers contact you? Do they thank you? Do they yell at you?

Yes, I have experienced all those things. In general, I donít hear back from writers, which is good, because if I have any kind of relationship with writers, I canít review them anymore.

This is good advice for writers: If you get a really nasty review, you should immediately reach out to that critic and contaminate that critic with your familiarity. Maybe drop by for dinner, date that criticís daughter, make sure that that critic can never review you again! With the critics who love you, you should never contact them.

Iím halfway kidding. I do get very nice notes from authors, and I really appreciate it. Itís natural, I suppose, to reach out and make contact with someone who likes your book. I do like that, but it does cloud the professional relationship.

As far as being generous, maybe more than ever, I am so in awe of the talent that I have the privilege of reading every week. There are so many wonderful novelists out there. As I am reading their books, I feel the weight of their time, and their feelings in the most superficial sense. I guess Iím probably more sensitive than other critics -- better critics -- to authorsí feelings. In the sense that somebody worked on this for years, her husband loved it, and then she got an agent to like it, and then they got an editor to like it, and a whole group of serious thoughtful people likes this book. So if Iím going to crap all over it, Iím going to have a really good reason. Not just that Iím not getting enough sleep this week or I have some pet peeve with the subject or with some narrative tic this particular author likes. There had better be some substantial reason to not like the book, some critical reason that is important to readers. Itís another pet peeve of mine -- if you just donít like a book, who cares? Iím trying to help my readers at the Post figure out if they might like the book or not, if itís something they want to read. This brings up the whole distinction between critics and reviewers.

What is the distinction?† ††††††

In my mind, reviewers, like myself, are looking at books that are out there and trying to help you decide what you might enjoy reading. Critics are trying to lay down some sort of literary principles and see how they are being applied in literature; itís a little academic, and much more for the ages. Some very fine reviewers do blend these two very effectively. James Wood of course, but he does seem more of a critic than a reviewer to me.

Youíve talked about cultivating delight, and maybe that has something to do with it.

Yeah, thatís important. Too many critics -- of course, there are not that many critics left, so who am I talking about?! When there were critics around, and I would be with them, they were just too hard to please. I thought they had lost their capacity to be delighted in the way that I see in some of my friends who are movie critics (not at the Post). They were just totally burned out. They just donít like movies anymore and I donít blame them because so many movies are awful.

But for the book critic, there are just so many more books. If youíre constantly seeing books you donít like, or if you are constantly disappointed, you should probably just take a break. You can easily find 52 good books a year to enjoy. Especially when the field is under such stress and weíre all being weeded out. It ought to be more about delight, it ought to be more about celebration. There are great puritanical standard-bearers out there who would take offense at that, but thereís a role for them too. But maybe not at newspapers. †††

Iíd like to shift just a little bit. You mentioned one time that we should all, and I think you mean everyone involved in literary conversations, become ďbetter hunter-gatherers.ĒAs an anthropologist, I wonder, do you ever think in evolutionary terms about reading and reviewing? All the stuff thatís going on -- the Kindles, the multimedia, the stuff thatís obligatory to ask about in these interviews now -- didnít it all emerge from our ancestors sitting around a fire and telling stories?

†Wow. Thatís a huge question. By hunter-gatherers, youíre exactly right, thatís what I was talking about. We used to all love stories, when we were little. All children respond to stories and are delighted by them and they want to know what happens next. They have basic narrative desires. I think itís a shame to lose that in a kind of academic snobbery. We forget that what matters are the plots that excite us or inspire us or frighten us and characters that we can relate to, and thatís really ancient.

Hereís what I see happening to book critics. As groups get smaller, they get more intense, speaking sociologically, and more paranoid, and they become more obsessed with their purity and their standards. That makes them shrink faster, sort of a black hole collapsing. There seems to be a rise in literary snobbery, making us more and more irrelevant. People read us less, so we become more snobby, so people read us less.

As for the Kindle, since I have to read so fast and so much, and take notes, I donít use it and I donít have any use for it. I like my house filled with my books. Itís a wonderful way to decorate your house, with all these great ideas and stories and people that youíve shared your life with over the years. I canít imagine boiling all that down to a little computer device.

†Do you have a routine? Do you read better in certain places than others?

I read all the time. I almost brought a book here. Itís a real struggle to fit the 80 pages a day in because I read very slowly, about 25 or 30 pages an hour, when Iím reviewing. Thatís 3 or 4 hours of work, outside of work. I get home, like everybody else, tired and worn out. I read on the train a lot, to and from work. I read at work when I can. I spend 2 or 3 hours every night reading. Itís just constant, all the time.

I think your Twitters are addictive. You manage a balance between substantive articles and posts, and also riffing! And of course with what youíve been talking about, with the pressures to read, read, and read, how distracting is this tweeting? You tweet a lot.

My wife finds it really distracting! My daughter has refused to become a follower of mine; she thinks itís completely ridiculous that I do this. It came out of that NBCC meeting. I had no idea [before that] what it was at all. Iíd just gotten on Facebook to follow my daughter. Twitter sounded absurd, you know, ďI had pork and beans tonight,Ē who cares about this? But [at the NBCC meeting I learned] that professionally you can direct people back to your own site or your reviews, so I decided Iíd give it a try.

I donít think I tweet quite as much as I used to. I now have this tool that allows me to file my tweets in the morning, and they come out during the day. It fits into my life a little better.

About 2 years ago I wrote to you out of the blue about a review of yours I liked and you were very kind and responded to me. At the time, you mentioned something about a thundering emptiness in your inbox. I wager with confidence that this has changed. With the blog, the podcast, youíre reaching out in many different ways -- you are connecting with readers differently?

Yes, itís true. Twitter has helped a lot. I hear from many more people now. Coming to the Post [in 2005] helped a lot too. I was at the Christian Science Monitor for 7 years, whose audience is a tenth of the Postís audience and spread across the country. Here, you run into people all the time who read the Post, who like Book World, who felt misled by your review of this or whose book club read that book you said you liked. Thatís just a wonderful thing that you only get when you have a great city newspaper with national exposure.

You have talked several times about the weeding out of reviewers and critics. Itís a sorrowful thing.

The number of books keeps rising, as far as I can tell. The number of readers is stable or stagnant or even declining. When you look at the amount of space we spend covering televisionÖ Iím not criticizing my own paper, Iím criticizing my own industry. Who needs help watching TV? Reviews of television shows, I shake my head; I can figure out if I want to watch The Office or Curb Your Enthusiasm all by myself. But help me find a good novel, in this enormous stack of books at the book store. Thatís a real service.

Has all this multimedia outreach changed your relationship with publicists? Are publicists tweeting you and trying to talk you into all manner of multimedia?

Not aggressively, not annoyingly. Itís so nice being at the Post, where, if you call a publisher, they are going to pick up the phone. Part of that is because itís the Post, part of it is because there are only a few book sections left. The publicists are more and more dependent on us.

I also produce our podcast every week, which goes up on Friday nights on iTunes, at our website. Every week we interview two authors whose books weíre reviewing that week. And I have never been turned down by an author. I think that is new. Publishers and authors are just so desperate for any kind of attention now: they donít advertise their books, and theyíre not being reviewed, and thereís no budget to travel. The chance to be on our podcast, for them, may be the most important element of their publicity.

Itís a big deal.

Yes, it is a big deal, and thatís discouraging from my point of view to think that, to think how serendipitous it is for me to call and say, ďwill you be on our podcast?Ē and itís like winning the lottery for them. Itís not that big a show in comparison to having a good ad campaign or being reviewed in 40 newspapers.† †††††

So much pressure is being put on authors to promote their own books now. God bless them, most of them are not very savvy at this. And why should they be? They are either academics or they have been sitting alone at their desk for the past 8 years working on this novel; they donít know the first thing about promoting a book. They are out there inventing it on their own, because the publishers wonít give them any support or any money.

You mentioned before we started the interview that you have a daughter in college now. Do you succumb to the urge to look at her syllabi and see what she is reading?

Definitely. Iím delighted to see that she is reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diazís novel. Great choice. I was as little surprised to see that it had been canonized into the academy so quickly. This was for a course on Hispanic literature. †When I was in school I think everything we were reading was extremely old, but that was a long time ago.

When she was in high school, I kept very close tabs on what my daughter was being assigned. Since I was an English teacher for years, I was an aggressive critic. I think all the English teachers were very grateful when my daughter graduated. Though my wife is an English teacher in the same district, so that tended to keep me in check.

My other daughter doesnít speak. She has cerebral palsy. She is 20 years old. It has been interesting to live with someone whose relationship to books is very different; it is arrested at childrenís books and books that rhyme, very musical books. She loves books and being read to; itís probably her favorite thing.†

The rhythm and the sounds may appeal very much to you as well as to her, in that joint experience.

It was a thrill and I still remember very clearly: We couldnít tell what she could do, it was a pretty severe case, she was born blue and not breathing. It took her a long time to get her breathing. She survived. [The doctors] had no idea what her condition was or what her responses would be or what her life expectancy would be. So nobody told us, and nobody knew, whether she could hear, whether she could see, whether she could feel, what sort of language internally she would have, whether she could watch TV or be read to or follow instructions. Sheís a quadriplegic. I remember very very clearly reading to her Ride a Purple Pelican, a book by Jack Prelutsky [and Garth Williams], and seeing her laugh, and just light up. That was the first indication we had that she could respond to literature.

 

For speaking with me, I thank Ron Charles sincerely.

Barbara J. King is Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. Her new book will be published by Doubleday in January, Being With Animals: Why We are Obsessed with the Furry, Scaly, Feathery Creatures Who Populate Our World. She fails to tweet, but does answer email at bjking09@gmail.com.