March, 2019

Awards roundup, reviews, and other wonderful things

by Laurie Hertzel | Mar-25-2019

Tommy Orange. Photo by Paper Monday.

John Leonard Prize winner Tommy Orange. Photo credit Paper Monday.


Awards news

The annual NBCC awards ceremony of March 14 was covered broadly and well. So happy to see so many members at our membership meeting that morning.

Zack Graham interviewed Tommy Orange the night he received the John Leonard Prize. The interview ran in Graham's Epiphany Magazine column.

Here are some of the news stories:

Associated Press

Book Marks

The Minneapolis Star Tribune

NBC News

New York Times

Publishers Weekly

Shelf Awareness

Texas Monthly


Washington Post

Washington Post newsletter


Members' reviews and interviews

NBCC Board Member Victoria Chang interviewed poet and editor, David Baker for Tupelo Quarterly.

NNBCC Emerging Critic Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers reviewed "Appalachian Reckoning: A Region Responds to Hillbilly Elegy," edited by Anthony Harkins and Meredith McCarroll, and "Anatomy of Silence: Twenty-Six Stories About All the Shit That Gets in the Way of Speaking About Sexual Violence"  edited by Cyra Perry Dougherty, both for Foreword Reviews. 

Michelle Newby Lancaster reviewed Sarah Bird's "Recent Studies Indicate: The Best of Sarah Bird" for Lone Star Literary Life.

The extremely busy Tobias Carroll wrote about Kathryn Davis's "The Silk Road" for the Minneapolis StarTribune; interviewed Mark Alan Stamaty for Bedford + Bowery; talked with Irvine Welsh at Longreads, and has a new column up at Words Without Borders.

For Kirkus, Gerald Bartell interviewed Mallory O’Meara about her book “The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Millicent Patrick.” 

Mike Lindgren interviews Victoria Riskin (better known as the daughter of Fay Wray, the iconic star of "King Kong") about her new book, which, he notes, is ,less a famous-parent memoir than  a history of Hollywood’s golden age. He notes that the interview (for Newsday) took place in the Empire State Building. Of course.

Barbara J. King (welcome back, Barbara!) reviewed "The Goodness Paradox" by Richard Wrangham for the Times Literary Supplement, and "Mama's Last Hug" by Frans De Waal for NPR.

Elizabeth Rosner reviewed Carolyn Forché's new memoir for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Christoph Irmscher reviews Juergen Goldstein's "Georg Forster: Voyager, Naturalist, Revolutionary" for the Wall Street Journal.

Kathleen Rooney interviewed Lucy Knisley for the Chicago Tribune.

Meredith Maran reviewed "Inheritance" by Dani Shapiro for the L.A. Review of Books.

 Amy Weldon reviewed Adam Nicolson's "The Seabird's Cry" for Orion Magazine.

Joan Silverman reviewed "Elsey Come Home" by Susan Conley for the Press Herald.

Former board member and Balakian recipient Steven G. Kellman reviewed Carolyn Forché's memoir "What You Have Heard Is True" for the Washington Post.

Rayyan Al-Shawaf reviewed "Pay No Heed to the Rockets: Life in Contemporary Palestine" by Marcello Di Cintio, and "A Rebel in Gaza: Behind the Lines of the Arab Spring, One Woman’s Story" by Asmaa al-Ghoul and Selim Nassib for The Believer.

Meg Waite Clayton's monthly “Listening In” for the San Francisco Chronicle reviews the audiobooks of Yangsze Choo's The Night Tiger, Devi Laskar's debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, and Toni Morrison's The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations.

Over on his blog, Robert Birnbaum, also known as Our Man in Boston, has been busy writing about baseball, Jim Harrison, Charles McCarry, and many other things.

David Nilsen interviewed poet Emily O'Neill about her book "A Falling Knife Has No Handle" for On the Seawall and reviewed Sarah Barber's poetry collection Country House for Southern Indiana Review.

Paul Wilner interviewed Erik Tarloff about his new novel, "The Woman In Black'' for ZYZZYVA magazine.

Yvonne Garrett reviewed Malcolm James's "Black Leopard, Red Wolf" for The Brooklyn Rail.

Julia M. Klein interviews Snowden Wright about his novel, "American Pop," for Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. She also reviews Ayelet Tsabari's "The Art of Leaving" for the Forward, and Cara Robertson's "The Trial of Lizzie Borden" for the Boston Globe.

Chuck Greaves reviewed Peter Heller's "The River" for the Four Corners Free Press.

Lanie Tankard reviewed Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman's memoir "Sounds Like Titanic" for The Woven Tale Press.

Joseph Peschel reviewed  Andrew Ridken’s first novel, "The Altruists," for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He also reports the happy news that he has completed work as the script consultant on the short film, "The Ghost in Her," written, produced, and directed by Michael Gérard White and is working as a script consultant on a second film.

NBCC members note: Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including news about your new publications and recent honors, to With reviews, please include title of book and author, as well as name of publication. Make sure to send links that do not require a subscription or username and password.​ We love dedicated URLs. We do not love hyperlinks.

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the president of the NBCC board

Emerging Critics Series: Leena Soman Navani

by Leena Soman Navani | Mar-22-2019

In this 2018–2019 Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics Q and A series, curated by Jonathan Leal, Emerging Critics offer short takes on big questions: What makes good criticism? How might one arrange one’s life to produce it? How do discrete critical interests relate? And if given the chance, what assignments would one pursue immediately? Applications are now open for the third class of NBCC Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics. Deadline April 3, 2019. Details here

What are your current critical interests? How have these developed or evolved over time? Are there particular genres or themes to which you are committed? What sorts of issues or concerns have animated your work?

I'm focused on literary fiction, especially novels that are written by and/or center folks who are underrepresented in American literature. This focus doesn’t necessarily "animate" my work in particular—I think politics animate all our writings (whether or not we as a larger literary community can admit it). But I do take seriously the idea of critic/reviewer as gatekeeper and am interested in helping correct systemic erasures. What I hope animates my work is a real love for literature and honest engagement with the work at hand.

What do you think makes good criticism? And relatedly: what makes a good critic?

Two delicious, difficult questions. I don't know that I can answer the second at all. Maybe honesty? A certain clarity or distinctive point of view?

As for the first question, the best criticism to my mind is grounded in creative text(s), but also reaches beyond them to wrestle with a greater body of knowledge—with insights and ideas that emerge from the texts but aren't necessarily limited to them.

I applied for the Emerging Critics Fellowship partly because I was inspired by a wide-ranging NBCC panel discussion at AWP; that conversation focused on how criticism is its own art form, on how the best criticism can stand alone as a piece of art whether or not the reader has read the book(s) in question. It was really moving to hear the panelists talk this way. It was a compelling challenge: not only to gesture toward whether someone should read a certain book, but to do so while concerned with an entirely different and more robust endeavor altogether.

How, if at all, does criticism inform your creative work?

Writing criticism has humbled me in my creative work, in a good way, I think. It has made me more conscious of and patient with my own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to craft. Somehow, it has also helped me be more expansive in my work. I'm less likely to get bogged down by perfectionism, and more likely to think about how my work might be in conversation with other work past and present, and how each piece might contribute to a greater whole.

Given the many demands on your time, how do you arrange your schedule so you can produce good work?

I try to balance being disciplined with internal/external deadlines to make sure I'm making progress while cultivating my own energy and momentum any given day/week/month. There are so many different types of tasks/work—creative writing; critical writing, which is also creative in its own way; reading widely and deeply for research, assignment, and/or enrichment; administrative tasks related to pitching, submitting, and applying for opportunities, etc.—and I'm a master of using one type of work to procrastinate on another that I'm not in the mood to approach, let alone complete. I try to work with my motivation rather than fight against it, which ideally leads to small wins and more motivation. I also force myself to start well ahead of each deadline and never with a blank page. (For instance: I try make sure whatever reading I have to do for an assignment gets done as a priority, then jot notes in my phone where the stakes are much lower, and then transfer those notes to a page to get a draft going.) I give myself a long runway and explore different ideas and directions in my head and in notes so I have material to work with as deadlines approach.

For you, right now: what would be your dream assignment?

I might be interested in examining in depth a given theme, issue, or idea across genre or even across media. This is partly because I've been reading and writing more widely in the last year than I had been.

For example, I’m so eager to read Sally Wen Mao’s new collection Oculus, which includes a series of persona poems about film star Anna May Wong and imagines her time travelling. I loved Peter Ho Davies’ novel The Fortunes, which also portrayed Anna May Wong, as well as Ling Ma’s novel Severance and Vanessa Hua’s novel River of Stars, which don’t include Wong, but do have dynamic Chinese women who migrate to the U.S. as protagonists. I lived blocks away from the Four Ladies of Hollywood gazebo (officially, the Hollywood and La Brea Gateway, interestingly commissioned the same year as The Joy Luck Club movie came out), but don’t think I’ve seen more than a few excerpts of Wong’s films. I’d love to spend some time watching them (and The Good Earth, from which she was famously excluded) alongside more contemporary cinematic portrayals of Chinese American women, reading Oculus and some relevant fiction and nonfiction (Yi Yun Li’s debut nonfiction is on my to-read list), digging into the recent history of that strange stainless steel sculpture. It’s certainly not hard to understand why Wong is a touchstone, but I could see investigating what her presence in film and literature, and other writing by and about Chinese American women, might help us understand about this moment as the U.S.-China relationship is changing, as Chinatowns across the U.S. are changing and working to resist gentrification, and other contexts. That’s one idea.

Leena Soman Navani’s writing has been featured in Ploughshares and Kenyon Review, among other publications. She is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. She lives in New York, where she reads for New England Review and is at work on some short stories and poetry. Find her on Twitter: lsoman.

Sandrof Winner Arte Público Press: ‘Thanks to your magnanimity, we will become more recognizable’

by admin | Mar-21-2019

This year the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award was awarded, for the fourth time in 37 awards, not to a person but an institution @artepublico the oldest & largest publisher of Hispanic literature in the U.S. "Their determination to build bridges not walls...has made the U.S. a better and more inclusive place for all," noted Sandrof chair Michael Schaub in presenting the award. The founder and staff accepted:

Nicolás Kanellos: When we founded Arte Público Press forty years ago, we envisioned it as part of the public art movement. Our books would draw from and give back to the community, reflecting its art, history and culture as well as its problems, like the muralists were doing. That is why some of our initial book covers, such as for The House on Mango Street, were commissioned to muralists.

Marina Tristan: Like the mural walls, our pages would help to make our people visible, announcing we are here, we have always been here and we have always contributed to life and culture in the United States. From the start, we were inclusive of all Latino ethnicities, religions and genders, and sought to combat stereotypes while inserting ourselves into the national identity. As we grew, the mural became a mosaic with each book becoming an individual tile in a large spectrum of varied images.

 Nelly González:  Like our writers, we are mostly children of the working class, the children of citizens, of families that have been here since before the founding of the United States.

Nicolás Kanellos:  I was an assembly line worker and a shipping clerk weaving my box-laden dolly through Seventh Avenue traffic in the garment district during the 1960s. Others come from humble backgrounds, doing domestic work, farm work and other manual labor.

Carolina Villarroel: We are the people selling the morning newspaper but never appearing in it, the men and women washing dishes and waiting tables but never savoring the meals; we are among the crowds on city sidewalks who individually remain invisible, never thought of as writers and artists. It matters not that we are descendants of original settlers, intermarried with indigenous peoples and descendants of African slaves, whether immigrants from long ago or just yesterday, because no matter how long Latino families have resided in and contributed to the making of this country, we have been seen as foreigners.

Gabriela Baeza Ventura: No matter how well we spoke and wrote the King’s English, or how faithfully we reproduced the canons of American literature and culture, our books remained foreign to the mainstream press and, with a few notable exceptions, outside the scope of national awards. Now, thanks to your magnanimity, we will become more visible, recognizable as part of this grand cultural venture that is the creation and publication of books. Muchísimas gracia.

Portrait by Paper Monday

Balakian Awardee Maureen Corrigan: ‘I’m so grateful for this life in books ’

by Maureen Corrigan | Mar-20-2019

On March 14 at the National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony at The New School in New York, Maureen Corrigan was honored with the Nona Balakian Award for Excellence in Criticism. Below is her acceptance speech. And here's a review from her winning entry.

Thank you. I’m so honored to receive the Balakian Award, especially because it’s an award that comes from my peers in the National Book Critics Circle. I’d also like to thank emerging critic, Justin Rosier, for his wonderful interview with me in the Critical Mass blog.

I’m told my remarks should clock in five minutes or less and I can do that, no problem, because I’ve been writing book reviews for Fresh Air for the past thirty years that must clock in at around five minutes. So here goes.

It’s very powerful for me to be accepting this award here at the New School, because I started my career as a book critic a few blocks away at the Village Voice. It was the mid 1980s and I was a Ph.D. student in English at the University of Pennsylvania, working on my dissertation on the culture criticism of the Victorian Sages, Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin. Like them, I was miserable. It was the high era of critical theory at Penn and I felt very alienated from the process of putting literature through the de-flavorizing machine of Deconstruction. I also felt alienated from the culture of the graduate English program at Penn, where Friday afternoon sherry hours were required attendance. A friend of mine who was equally alienated by the History Ph.D. program at Penn decided to apply for a job as an assistant editor at the Village Voice Literary Supplement and asked me to help her with the take home editing test the Voice gave her.

Think about that. Who gives a take home editing test? My friend got the job and as a reward for my “help,” she asked if I wanted to try to write a book review. It was as though someone opened the door to a wider world--a world of intellectual energy and light. When I started writing those Voice reviews, I was allowed to respond fully to the literature I read—with my head and my heart. Many years later I read an encomium to the critic Irving Howe that praised Howe by saying that he taught us that “enthusiasm is not the enemy of the intellect.” I immediately committed that phrase to memory and I repeat it as often as I can, especially to my students. Writing for the Voice gave me permission to write about literature in my reviews with my whole self--with my intellect, enthusiasm, passion, and humor. To this day when I’m having trouble with a review, I tell myself to imagine I’m writing for the Village Voice and that still works to free me up.

It was after I wrote a different kind of piece for the Voice—a long exposé about what it was like to work as a grader for two summers for the AP English exam then run by the Educational Testing Service—that I was contacted by Fresh Air and asked if I’d like to do a version of that piece for radio. Back then, I was still at Penn and living in Philadelphia and listening to Fresh Air religiously. I thought Terry Gross was the best interviewer and John Leonard, a founding member of the NBCC and then Fresh Air’s book reviewer, was just the most brilliant contemporary culture critic.

Of course I said “Yes!” That exposé was probably about 5000 words (because, after all, this was the Village Voice, known as the “writer’s newspaper”) and I was told that Fresh Air reviews averaged about 750 words. Cutting down that piece was the greatest writing exercise of my life and the producer who took me through draft after draft and taught me how to write for radio is here tonight. I’d like thank Naomi Person for her patience and her guidance and I’d also like to thank her successor, my current producer at Fresh Air, Phyllis Myers, for accompanying me every week on the wild ride of selecting which books to review and editing those reviews against our tight deadlines. I’d also like to give a loving shout-out to Danny Miller, the executive producer of Fresh Air and, of course, to Terry Gross. You’ve all given me a career as a book critic I could never have imagined.

Doing book reviews on radio requires a different style of critical writing: radio, after all, is about story-telling. My challenge every week is to think about how to get listeners to turn their attention for five minutes or so to my review on Fresh Air. To do that I need to tell a story—which is not the same as summarizing the plot. In fact, I think the most boring thing a critic can do is to summarize the plot of the book for paragraphs and paragraphs in a review. Radio is also an intimate form: I’m speaking to people in their kitchens, their cars, their bathtubs. . . . Listeners get a sense of my estimation of a book not only from my words, but also from how I sound. As one might expect in such a personal form, I sometimes receive some very personal responses from my listeners. Not everyone is a fan.  A few years ago, I received an email with a subject heading that read simply, “Your Voice.” It’s probably wise never to open up an email with such a subject line, but I did. The listener (whom I’m sure was a man), proceeded to tell me that his idea of hell would be to be locked into a room with only my voice piped in hour after hour.

Everybody’s a critic, right?

When I did my first piece for Fresh Air, my father, who was a voracious reader in the evenings after working at his job as a steamfitter, told me that it was great that I got to be on radio but that, “there was no future in it. Radio was a dying medium.” I’m happy to say he was wrong. For the past thirty years it’s been my privilege and my pleasure to bring good and sometimes even great books to the attention of the NPR audience. I’m so grateful for this life in books and I’m grateful for this honor. Thank you, and, please, keep on listening.


Portrait by Paper Monday

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. Her book So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures was published by Little, Brown in September 2014. Corrigan's literary memoir, Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading! was published in 2005. Corrigan is also a reviewer and columnist for The Washington Post's Book World, and has served on the advisory panel of The American Heritage Dictionary.

Emerging Critics Series: Tanner Howard

by Tanner Howard | Mar-20-2019

In this 2018–2019 Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics Q and A series, curated by Jonathan Leal, Emerging Critics offer short takes on big questions: What makes good criticism? How might one arrange one’s life to produce it? How do discrete critical interests relate? And if given the chance, what assignments would one pursue immediately?

What are your current critical interests? How have these developed or evolved over time? Are there particular genres or themes to which you are committed? What sorts of issues or concerns have animated your work? 

My thinking right now is in many ways shaped by the Master's program I just began at the beginning of January. I've long been interested in urban issues, particularly questions around gentrification and housing, and so it's been remarkable to get to begin studying them at a graduate level. But there's so many other pockets of my brain that I have a hard time shutting off, even when it means I can't focus on what's right in front of me— there's always a little voice in the back of my mind trying to thread the needle of the various interests I hold into some wider, cohesive narrative.

Right now, another one of my animating interests is the ever-evolving role of technology in our lives, and ways in which we can hopefully reimagine some better form of the Internet to enhance the quality of human and non-human life. Though these investigations will quite often run on parallel tracks for some time before I'm able to synthesize, there's just something that I've always found so captivating in the moment when my brain finally snaps all of the disparate pieces together, when I feel I may be onto something novel that can propel further inquiry. But as of now, I feel like I'm hovering around the edges of that kind of synthesizing moment, and it's a real thrill contemplating what new aesthetic experience will ultimately bring it all into focus.

What do you think makes good criticism? And relatedly: what makes a good critic? 

For me, I look to critics that express a profound and unrelenting drive toward the satisfaction of a sense of curiosity. An active mind is one that can only feel a temporary satisfaction as some nagging question is finally answered... until the pursuit of that first question creates its own new set of inquiries that lead, fractal-like, into a million possible new directions. I know very few writers who are able to transmit that unrelenting urge to know and to understand some burning question to their readers, and when I find it, I'm always floored by what it's like to be inside of their mental map. One person who's been a constant inspiration in the recent past is Hanif Abdurraquib, whose 2017 book They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us is my favorite essay collection this side of Ellen Willis. There's a generosity at play in Abdurraquib's writing that's heartbreaking and refreshing all at once: everything he writes is imbued with the richness and heartbreak of living a life colored by loss and mourning, and yet carried along by the artists and people that help us find ourselves and a renewed desire to live on, day by day.

How, if at all, does criticism inform your creative work? 

A good question. Right now I'm struggling a lot with the confusion of living to write and writing to live. There's something so jarring about reaching a point when freelance writing becomes your bread-and-butter to pay the bills: it's at once a dream made real, and yet it stifles some of the initial joy that I felt around writing as a purely aesthetic/emotional experience. So while writing remains central to my creative and emotional landscape, most notably in the daily journal that I've maintained for over four years, I actually look to other creative pursuits that aren't writing or criticism for an outlet. It's all very amateurish, but I like to do a lot of collage and embroidery, to take my mind off of words and place myself purely in the realm of free association, images, and a sense of tactility. Nothing profound, I know, but I need that to make the return to writing consequential once more.

Given the many demands on your time, how do you arrange your schedule so you can produce good work? 

Starting this new Master's program has been a challenge in that it's forcing me to recognize how unorganized I've generally been since graduating in 2017. It's not that I'm incapable of getting a lot done once I'm in the right headspace, but instead, I'm a bit paralyzed by the fact that I now need to make as much money as I had previously while devoting at least half of my week to schoolwork. For the moment, I'm trying to take things very day-by-day: knowing that, no matter what, I'll have something that I need to be doing keeps me going. That's actually made it much easier with schoolwork, especially because most of the work is reading. I don't need an excuse to pick up a book, and so whenever I hit a wall with other things I'm working on, switching tracks and curling up with a book and my cat is enough to get my mind moving again and thinking about the things I want to be thinking about.

For you, right now: what would be your dream assignment? 

It'd be something like this: later this year, Holly Herndon, an experimental electronic musician, will be releasing a new album featuring contributions made by an AI named “Spawn” that Herndon co-developed over the span of two years. When I first listened to the album, at one point, I was left sobbing, overpowered not only by the beauty of the music but by the implications of Herndon's work and her effort to demystify AI and its potential impact on our lives. Soon, I'm hoping to travel to Berlin to interview Herndon about the project because I think it really matters—not only to me personally, but also to the world that we live in. I want to give it the time and space it deserves.

Tanner Howard is a freelance journalist and Master's student in Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois-Chicago. They write primarily about housing issues, queer culture, and Chicago history, with clips in the Guardian, Columbia Journalism Review, CityLab, and elsewhere.

Emerging Critics Series: Jennie Hann

by Jennie Hann | Mar-19-2019

In this 2018–2019 Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics Q and A series, curated by Jonathan Leal, Emerging Critics offer short takes on big questions: What makes good criticism? How might one arrange one’s life to produce it? How do discrete critical interests relate? And if given the chance, what assignments would one pursue immediately? Applications are now open for the third class of NBCC Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics. Deadline April 3, 2019. Details here

What are your current critical interests? How have these developed or evolved over time? Are there particular genres or themes to which you are committed? What sorts of issues or concerns have animated your work?

My area of expertise is Anglo-American literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and my investment in the intellectual history of this period and its legacy guides much of my current reading and writing. Indeed, this was the era that gave rise to many of the topics that interest me, including mass literacy, print culture, psychoanalysis, international travel, and even criticism itself as a discipline. I write about literature of all genres and strive to attend at once to matters of historical context and questions of form.

Painting with the broadest of strokes, I would say that my work is driven by a fascination with the creative process, especially the idiosyncrasies of individual minds and the intricacies of interpersonal relationships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, such concerns lay at the heart of my dissertation, “Reading Between the Minds: Intersubjectivity and the Emergence of Modernism from Robert Browning to Henry James,” in which I examined a decade that the poet and novelist spent in social and geographic proximity in London, Florence, and Venice. Somewhat to my surprise, in describing the reciprocal influences of these writers, I ended up writing about a constellation of issues central to the biographical enterprise. These included: 1) the relationship a writer’s life bears to his work; 2) the ethical conundrum brought about by the publication—or, at the opposite extreme, destruction—of personal letters and journals; and 3) the curated afterlife that remains in the form of an author’s posthumous reputation.

To make a long story short, writing about biography as a genre led me to realize that I wanted to research and write my own biography of a literary figure. I am now working on a life of the late poet Mark Strand (1934-2014). While the historical period is different, my methods and concerns are much the same. I am interested in Strand’s friendships with other artists and writers and their influence on his poetic development.

What do you think makes good criticism? And relatedly: what makes a good critic?

As I see it, criticism’s dual purpose is to enhance understanding and appreciation of the work, a task which involves both evaluation (Is this a good book? If yes, what qualities make it so? And if not, where does it fall short?) and interpretation (What does this book achieve? What meanings does it convey? And why does it matter?).

Where evaluation is concerned, I think being a good—and responsible—critic requires acknowledging when you are not the right person to review a given work, admitting that sometimes you are not in a position to assess its ambitions and whether it succeeds or fails to achieve them. I am irritated in particular by negative reviews that strike me as revealing more about the limitations of the critic than flaws in the work. After all, no one is omniscient; we all have our blind spots, and it’s important to keep this in mind when agreeing to review something.

In general, though, I tend to privilege criticism’s interpretive function. I could read an endless amount of thoughtful, well-researched scholarship about a work that I love deeply, like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, or A.S. Byatt’s Possession. For me, the best criticism illuminates facets of a work I had not noticed previously and thereby leads to a richer reading experience. And in the very best—and rarest—of cases, a critical essay will rise to the level of the work under consideration and, in the process of engaging with it, add a new dimension to the conversation, another turn of the screw, as it were . . .

How, if at all, does criticism inform your creative work?

I regard my creative and critical work as more or less inextricable; certainly, they are interpenetrative. At an abstract level, I suppose my creative writing—poetry, for the most part, though I also have a campus novel in the works—is done with my version of the ideal critic in mind. This ideal critic who sits on my shoulder (and, unfortunately, has been known to inhibit my productivity with her lofty ideals!) is someone whose intellectual predilections are good match with my own: someone with a knowledge of the tradition to which I am trying to contribute, someone who understands the references I am making, et cetera.

Let me give a more concrete example. I have in my repository a certain amount of what might be described as “woeful poetry,” lyrics composed while I was in the throes of writing my dissertation, despairing that I would ever finish. I was totally immersed in criticism and theory at the time, and as a result these poems are intensely allusive, almost embarrassingly so. I make a lot of oblique riffs on the titles of seminal essays by writers like Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes, little inside jokes that undoubtedly are lost on the majority of readers but that hopefully go some way toward conveying my awful sense of being trapped in the academic labyrinth . . .

Given the many demands on your time, how do you arrange your schedule so you can produce good work?

One of the things that I love best about the biographical work I’m doing now is that it is constantly changing. Archives are unpredictable, as are interviews, so each day ends up looking quite different from the one before. That said, in general, I have noticed that I tend to alternate between two basic working states, each of which corresponds to a specific location. On the days when I am in the library, I enter into full-scale research mode. Then I get carried away by what Jacques Derrida called “archive fever” and become absorbed for hours on end in whatever I am investigating, taking copious notes and surprisingly few breaks. The antidote to this fiendish behavior is what I think of as writing mode, which most often occurs in the comfort of my home office, though it is no less obsessive in its focus. Then I take out all my notes and try to explain what I have found in my own words. Obviously, these are both extreme scenarios, but it does seem to be the case that lengthy stretches of uninterrupted time are essential to the critical process, at least for me. I am not someone who can leap quickly from one task to the next; on the other hand, I can —and do— leap between books with ease. Always, in the midst of everything, I am reading as much as possible. It’s the first thing I do when I wake up and the last thing I do before I go to sleep.

For you, right now: what would be your dream assignment?

I would love to write a regularly monthly column describing the wonderful unexpected discoveries made in the course of my research – things that have little or nothing to do with my subject, per se, but which are nevertheless worthy of attention. Recently, for instance, while researching the history of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop circa 1960, I came across a letter Leonard Cohen had written to the director in 1956 insisting that poetic talents should weigh at least as much as scholarly achievements in admissions decisions. Cohen’s letter is a rhetorical masterpiece, on par — in my opinion – with his most acclaimed folksongs. He convinced me; if it had been up to me, I would have accepted him without hesitation on the strength of that letter alone. I followed up a bit, however, and learned that he was rejected. Of course, none of this has much bearing on my biography of Mark Strand, but it was still a delightful part of my research process, and one I’d love to capture in print at some point. Toward this goal, I keep a folder on my desktop entitled “Simply Great Finds.” It’s full of serendipitous little discoveries I’ve made along the way, anecdotal evidence that, however irrelevant to my main theme, nonetheless has enriched my inner life.

Jennie Hann received her PhD in English from Johns Hopkins in 2017. A passionate traveler, she splits her time between Baltimore and New York City, where she is at work on a biography of the poet Mark Strand.

Emerging Critic Series: Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers

by Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers | Mar-18-2019

In this 2018–2019 Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics Q and A series, curated by Jonathan Leal, Emerging Critics offer short takes on big questions: What makes good criticism? How might one arrange one’s life to produce it? How do discrete critical interests relate? And if given the chance, what assignments would one pursue immediately? Applications are now open for the third class of NBCC Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics. Deadline April 3, 2019. Details here

What are your current critical interests? How have these developed or evolved over time? Are there particular genres or themes to which you are committed? What sorts of issues or concerns have animated your work? 

This question always gets me because I have many interests as a reader and thinker as well as a wide range of personal experiences I can bring to bear, so, usually, I say I’m a generalist. I want to engage critically with the widest range of books possible, but there are things I love as a reader that I don’t want to cover as a critic and vice versa, with a whole lot in between. For instance, I enjoy a good romance novel, but I wouldn’t enjoy critiquing romance. For me, a romance novel's the pleasure is transport and escape, and that pleasure's antithetical to the attention of critique. However, literary fiction is something I rarely self-selected as a reader, and it’s something I love as a critic because criticism showed me a way into its pleasures. Then, there’s that wealth of books that are both for me. Poetry, young adult, science fiction, fantasy, cookbooks, nonfiction, memoir, biography, art, crafts, history, LGBTQ+ (I won’t even touch how fraught I find this as a category; for instance, LGBTQ+ people write all sorts of things about all sorts of things, so is it based on author? Content? But I digress.), short stories, essay collections, graphic novels, and comics are all categories where my pleasure and critical faculties are ambidextrous. Paying attention to my own reactions when I’m reading helped me discover this breakdown.

I think I’m particularly committed to independent presses and will always seek out their work. They publish so many interesting books, and much of what I’ve found riveting, electrifying, or completely unique has come from these presses. For some genres, like poetry, the majority of the genre is produced by independent and small presses, so only looking to the big publishing houses would essentially mean codifying my own blind spots.

No matter the book or genre, I think I’m always concerned with voice, self-awareness, sense of audience, and a knowledge of and engagement with conventions. Many of the things I flag as a critic come from a deficit in one of these areas. I want to feel like the writer’s in control of the work and actively making choices, so I’m especially attuned to moments where something in the writing seems unexamined or unrealized while simultaneously dominating my reading experience.

What do you think makes good criticism? And relatedly: what makes a good critic? 

Good criticism comes from a place of curiosity, empathy, nuance, and contemplation. A good critic twines these impulses into insight, whether their critique praises, condemns, or remains ambivalent about the work. I suppose there are also many technical aspects I don’t think much about because they’re on my list of “givens”: judicious quotes, compelling distillation, an ability to capture the work’s sense and sensibility, attention to content, craft, and how each informs the other, and, often, an effort to contextualize the work culturally, literarily, or thematically.

How, if at all, does criticism inform your creative work? 

Criticism revealed the scarcity mindset I’d been taught as a reader and writer. It probably doesn’t help that I first came to writing as a poet, and poetry’s a genre that’s tortured by scarcity around audience, publication, and remuneration, as well as being obsessed with the idea of youth and prodigy. But even more generally, while I’ve always like to read, I’ve never been in sync with the reading tastes and signifiers expected of me as someone often labeled “academic.” Even if I could appreciate those expected books aesthetically or technically, the emotional and cultural distance I felt from many of them helped me internalize so much shame about what I loved, which was more often vilified than venerated. It was only a short jump for those same judgments to affect my creative writing as well as my reading.

Criticism's helped me become more aware of publishing’s hierarchies, Achilles’ heels, and the systemic nature of certain problems. Realizing some problems affect me but aren’t because of me has been hugely helpful in exorcising the harmful messages that had shut down my curiosity about my internal voice, my own imagination, and the specificity of my experience. I only arrived at those realizations by thinking through what bothered me and what I wanted to celebrate in the books I was reading as a critic, especially because so much of my reading revealed trends. (When doing eight book feature after eight book feature, you can’t help but notice publishing’s current fascinations).

Reading so widely—across genres and publishers—has taught me two things. First, while most of what I’d been taught about the reading public assumes there’s only one type of desirable reader or audience—and, therefore, that there are very few publishers worth reading or submitting to because the “good” audiences have self-selected the good presses, etc.—there’s actually an audience for everyone. What gets celebrated is a very narrow slice of what exists or even what's wanted. Second, I’m a good and generous reader who deeply appreciates every author who strides as close as they can to their compulsions, their own voices, their passions, and their complexities. But that’s not to say I’m just here for confessional writing. Imagination is deeply personal, and we’re all imagining when we write, whether it’s imagining characters, imagining the past into the present, or imagining the gaps in an audience’s knowledge and offering them facts. Staying present with the work of so many authors and holding up their voices has helped me become more generous with myself; I’ve learned to stop turning a knife on my own writing, publication record, and career that I would never use on others.

Given the many demands on your time, how do you arrange your schedule so you can produce good work? 

This is the big question, and the answer is: I do the best I can. Between book criticism and farming (my paying jobs: poetry and essays haven’t produce income yet, but I live in hope), I’m pretty much always working. Most days, that means I’m on my feet by 7 am, at the farm by 8 am, checking cows from then until 10 am, writing and reading from 10 am to 2 pm, doing another hour of farm work before heading home around 4 pm to take care of the never-ending life tasks, and then doing a second round of reading, writing, or admin work from 6 pm to 8 pm. This is the ideal routine, but any part of it can and does go pear-shaped with distressing regularity because I have a spouse, he has his own small business that also affects our schedules, we have personal obligations, and, as of present, I still live without a time-turner.

With so much on my plate, I live my life according to deadlines, without much of margin for error. Although I always strive to meet my own standards for good work, I’ll grit my teeth a long time over something post-publication if I feel I could have made it better given another week, especially if it’s about someone else’s work. But there’s a fine line between helpful self-reflection and perfectionism.

Once, I overheard a singer explaining her tattoo, which read, “Perfection is the enemy of joy.” That’s stuck with me ever since. Perfectionism is something I struggle with because of my upbringing, and I’ve found perfection is a punishing voice, not an asset. I work hard to embrace the idea of “good enough,” because it’s what enables me to try when I’m given a crazy deadline or realize I’m neglecting writing my own poetry or essays because I need to prioritize paying work or when the constant pressure of trying to make a living means I have 12 books to review in one month while also spending freezing January days feeding hay or fixing tractors or dealing with frozen pipes and broken tank heaters only to spend an even more freezing January night out in a field dealing with a difficult calving. When I finally haul myself upright and make it to my desk, I often feel half dead, but I don’t think that’s where any of us are supposed to live. The truth is, something always suffers, and my life can often feel like an unending triage.

Maybe this is adjacent to an answer, but it feels important to say I’m coming from a space that exists precariously close to an edge: of time, of income, of personhood from which to read and write and bring myself wholly to the task of working and living. And I think it’s a myth that someone’s best—be it artist, writer, or anyone else that’s been told hardship is the incubator of genius—will ever come from a place that’s the enemy of joy because attention and effort are a kind of joy, and joy can’t endure in a place of desperation and lack.

For you, right now: what would be your dream assignment? 

Author interviews. I’d love to do more book reviews with follow-up interviews or even interviews alone because I’m always curious how authors are constructing the world on the page. For me, an author interview feels like the most marvelous bookend to the singular experience of reading, and I’m itching to have those conversations with more authors. If I have to name just one, my dream interview would be Kristin Cashore because I've been reading her work for 10+ years and would love the opportunity to do a long-form interview about craft, the growth of YA, her unique perception of heroines and heroics, and the development of her oeuvre over the last decade.

A poet, writer, book critic, and farmer, Letitia Montgomery-Rodgers earned a B.A. in English from Penn State and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and M.A. in Applied Linguistics from Old Dominion University. She was a finalist for the 2018 Janet B. McCabe Poetry Award and the 2018 Hal Prize; her creative work has been published in Gulf Stream, IthacaLit, Menacing Hedge, SWWIM Every Day, and Peculiar, among others. Her critical work is published or forthcoming at Orion, The Millions, Kirkus Reviews, Foreword Reviews, and The Los Angeles Review. Find her talking about books and other passions on Twitter @murderopilcrows

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