September, 2018

The Craft of Criticism: An Interview with Ruth Franklin

by Fran Bigman | Sep-21-2018

In this Q&A series, The Craft of Criticism, NBCC members Tara Cheesman and Fran Bigman ask book critics and review editors for their thoughts about contemporary criticism. If you’re interested in being interviewed for the series,please get in touch at franbigman@gmail.com and tara.cheesman@gmail.com.

Ruth Franklin is a book critic, former editor at The New Republic, and the author of two books: Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (2016), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography and was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2016, and A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (2011).  Franklin’s work appears in many publications, including the New Yorker, the New York Times Book Review, the New York Review of Books, and Harper’s. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in biography, a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library, a Leon Levy Fellowship in biography, and the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism. 

What's one recent piece you're especially fond of and why?

I realize this is a column about criticism, but I’m particularly proud of a profile of Tracy K. Smith, the current U.S. poet laureate, that I wrote for the New York Times Magazine back in April. I’ve always been fascinated by the creative process—how exactly did it come about that this particular person made this particular work of art?—and Smith was very open about sharing her thoughts about her poetic method. I enjoy the challenge of weaving together criticism and profile writing to produce a different kind of reflection on a book and its author.

What's one way you think the role of criticism is changing? 

Now more than ever, I think the critic’s role is to suss out books and authors who aren’t being given the attention they deserve and make a case for their importance, rather than to codify canons or reaffirm popular taste. As the publishing world is becoming more centralized and conservative, it’s the responsibility of critics to push back: to reject the same-old “Great American Novels” dressed up in new guises and seek out what’s new and exciting.

What's one of your main goals when you write criticism?

To give my audience a sense of what it feels like to read a particular book. I try to convey not just the thoughts it prompted in me but the reading experience itself.

How do you think your reviewing style has changed? 

To be honest, I used to be a lot more comprehensive. My first assignment from the New York Times Book Review was a novel by Stewart O’Nan—his eighth. You can believe I painstakingly read my way through each of its predecesors! Unfortunately, I don’t usually have time anymore to be that thorough. But I’m also not convinced it’s necessary. Few of my readers will have read every single word an author has written. Sometimes it’s actually better to know less about a person’s previous work—that way it’s easier to avoid preconceptions.

What's a good place to be writing criticism for right now? How about a good place to be reading criticism? 

I publish in a lot of different magazines—Harper’s, the Atlantic, the New Yorker—and have had great experiences with all my editors. For sheer fun, my favorite outlet right now is probably New York magazine—their writers manage to make a convincing case that serious literature deserves to be as popular as whatever’s new on HBO.

Do you consume or write reviews in less traditional forms than online/print, like social media, podcasts, video?

Um, no. Am I missing something great out there? I’ve tried a few book podcasts, but I haven’t found one I love.

Is there a specific author or publisher you’re paying particularly attention to because you feel they’re doing something new and/or innovative?

I used to read everything David Ebershoff published at Random House because his taste seemed to be exactly aligned with mine. So many recent books I loved were his—Charles Bock’s Beautiful Children, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. Alas, he left the business! The lists at Riverhead, Graywolf, and Counterpoint are consistently interesting and surprising. Europa Editions and Archipelago do excellent work in translation. But I always try to remember that great books can come from literally anywhere.


Fran Bigman is a freelance writer living in New York City. She has a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge, and she has written about books for the Washington Post, the Times Literary Supplement, Lit Hub, Words Without Borders, and Granta.com. You can find her on Twitter @franbig.

NBCC Reads: Rebecca Foster on Carsten Jensen’s ‘We, the Drowned’

by Rebecca Foster | Sep-19-2018

What are your favorite works in translation? That's the question that launched this summer's NBCC Reads series, which draws upon the bookish passions of NBCC members and honorees. (Previous NBCC Reads series dating back to 2007 here.) Tell us why you love the book (in 500 words or less) be it a new one, like Sayaka Murata’s quirky little novel, Convenience Store Woman, or something a bit older, such as Stefan Zweig’s evocative memoir, The World of Yesterday.'The deadline is August 3, 2018. Please email your submission to NBCC Board member Lori Feathers: lori@interabangbooks.com 

From the first line onwards, Carsten Jensen’s seafaring epic, We, the Drowned (tr. Charlotte Barslund and Emma Ryder), is a magnificent combination of history and legend: “Many years ago there lived a man called Laurids Madsen, who went up to heaven and came down again thanks to his boots.” Jensen traces the history of Marstal, a small island off the coast of Denmark, across nearly two centuries of war, peace and maritime adventure, starting with conflict with the Germans in the 1850s and continuing through to the aftermath of World War II. Over the decades readers meet four generations of fathers and sons, whose journeys reflect the island’s dependence on the sea. The book has many identifiable influences, from Homer to Heart of Darkness via Robinson Crusoe, and, though it is a translation from the Danish, its 700 pages read as fluently as any English-language text.

While the novel also includes first-person and third-person omniscient sections, the predominant use of the first-person plural is particularly clever because the identity of the narrating group shifts as the story progresses: first it is Marstallers generally, then schoolboy peers, and later the widows left behind on the island. Having this mutable body of observers – almost like the chorus in a Greek myth – allows Jensen to show every situation from the inside, but also to introduce occasional doubt about what has happened. An example is the slyly postmodern chapter following a central character’s death: “We don’t know if that’s how it actually happened. We don’t know what [he] thought or did in his final hours. …We don’t really know anything, and we each have our own version of the story.” It’s that blend of ancient epic-style storytelling and fresh perspective that makes this book so enthralling.


Rebecca Foster is a freelance writer and proofreader. An American transplant to the UK, she regularly reviews books for the Times Literary Supplement and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Ron Charles, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, and Tsitsi Dangarembga

by Taylor Anhalt | Sep-16-2018

Reviews & Interviews

Fran Bigman interviews former NBCC board member Laura Miller in the latest addition to the NBCC  Craft of Criticism series.

Ian P. Beacock reviewed Holly Case’s “The Age of Questions” in the LA Review of Books.

Kathleen Rooney reviewed Jose Olivarez's “Citizen Illegal” for the Chicago Tribune.

Hamilton Cain reviewed David Quammen's “The Tangled Tree” in the New York Journal of Books.

K. L. Romo reviewed “This Mournable Body”, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s tale of grief and survival, for The Washington Independent Review of Books. She also reviewed “Love Coming Home”, in which interior designer Jennifer Adams links happiness to home, for Booktrib.com.

Joe Peschel reviewed two re-issued novels by Ursula K. Le Guin: "The Eye of the Heron" and "The Beginning Place" for The Oregonian.

Jennifer Solheim interviewed Camille Bordas, author of the novel “How To Behave in a Crowd” at Third Coast Review, and with Rebecca Makkai, author of “The Great Believers” at Fiction Writers Review, where she is a Contributing Editor.

VP of Membership Anjali Enjeti reviewed Kathryn Schwille's "What Luck This Life" for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 

Anita Felicelli reviewed Khaled Hosseini's “Sea Prayer” for the San Francisco Chronicle.

The Washington Post’s Fiction Book Critic Ron Charles writesJames Frey has written a memoir disguised as a novel about his first novel that was disguised as a memoir. But the only thing you really need to know about “Katerina” is that it’s ridiculous, a book so heated by narcissism that you have to read it wearing oven mitts. You can watch video book review of “Katerina” here.

Lanie Tankard reviewed “A History of Silence” by Alain Corbin for her September "Eye on the Indies" column in A Woven Tale Press. 

Former NBCC board member Dan Cryer reviewed Gary Shteyngart’s “Lake Success” for the San Francisco Chronicle, as did Jeff Baker for the Seattle Times and Rebecca Foster for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Jeff Baker recently reviewed “Ohio” by Stephen Markley and “Dopesick” by Beth Macy for the Seattle Times. He also interviewed John Larison about “Whiskey When We’re Dry” for The Oregonian.

Tayla Burney reviewed the new Pelecanos from a D.C. resident's perspective and wrote about the real DCPL jail branch he highlights in the novel for DC Line.

Joan Frank reviewed Daniel Mason's “The Winter Soldier” for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Rebecca Foster chose five books on the refugee crisis for an OZY Good Sh*t list.

NBCC board member Tom Beer reviewed “Small Fry” by Lisa Brennan-Jobs for Newsday.

NBCC VP/Secretary Mary Ann Gwinn reviewed “Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life” by Diarmaid MacCullough for Booklist.

Elizabeth Block reviewed Maggie Nelson’s “Something Bright, Then Holes” for The Brooklyn Rail.

Jacob Appel reviewed “PTSD: A Short History” by Allan V. Horwitz for the New York Journal of Books.

Gerald Bartell reviewed Peter Blauner’s “Sunrise Highway” for Newsday.

Member News

NBCC member Daniel Nester published "All My Friends”, a memoir piece, at Puerto Del Sol. 

Former NBCC Emerging Critics Fellow Zack Graham’s short story "Version Control" was published in the inaugural issue of the 17th Street Review on Friday.

NBCC members note: Your reviews seed this roundup; please send items, including news about your new publications and recent honors, to NBCCCritics@gmail.com. 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.


The Craft of Criticism: An Interview with Laura Miller

by Fran Bigman | Sep-14-2018

In this Q&A series, The Craft of Criticism, NBCC members Tara Cheesman and Fran Bigman ask book critics and review editors for their thoughts about contemporary criticism. If you’re interested in being interviewed for the series,please get in touch at franbigman@gmail.com and tara.cheesman@gmail.com.

Laura Miller is currently books and culture columnist at Slate. In 1995, she co-founded Salon.com and worked there as an editor and staff writer for 20 years. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Times Book Review, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and many other publications.

What's one recent piece you've really enjoyed writing, and why? 

Two of my recent favorites came out at around the same time. One, from April, was a piece in the New Yorker about a novel called Tangerine. It was a sort of adequate novel, trying to be a Daphne du Maurier novel, and it wasn't really—the press talked a lot it being a Patricia Highsmith-style novel, but I didn't think it was that. It had this weird old-fashioned quality, and it was enjoyable because it reminded me and a bunch of folks about other books. My editor was really great about letting me write about how a novel could be not that good but still be enjoyable. That was a really fun piece to write. Then I wrote a piece for Slate about two memoirs by two younger women. One was this memoir of sex addiction, and one was a memoir of a lot of incredible sexual adventures by a sex columnist. I compared these two memoirs to each other and looked at the very different ways the two different authors interpreted the same types of experiences depending on what narrative they were applying to them. 

In a past interview, you mentioned that you try to read outside your comfort zone. Why do you feel that’s important?

I really like most ghost stores, so if I like a particular ghost story, it may be just that I am willing to meet it halfway. I don't really like reading about cowboys, and so if I really like a particular novel about cowboys, it's probably a pretty good novel. So you do have to bear your own tastes in mind. This novel Tangerine, it does what I think it's intended to do, and some people have no interest in that. So you have to communicate to the reader what you’re bringing to the judgement that you're making—what preferences or resistance. 

Re personal writing, in past interviews you’ve talked about how writers might use first person to indicate their general stance on something, or just make it more subjective, like saying “this author doesn’t usually do it for me,” instead of going for a blanket condemnation. 

I think that when I started writing reviews, reviewers tried much harder to be categorical and authoritative. There is a declamatory style that you still get from some established critics, but that's less and less common now, and it's more common for reviewers to disclose those personal preferences or introduce enough first-person elements into the review that you have a sense of where they’re coming from. It helps orient readers about the judgements you're making. The internet makes people aware of how many different perspectives there are out there, so it becomes important to clarify where you’re coming from as opposed to thinking that culture has a unified conversation or unified voice.

How have your reviewing style and interests changed over the years?

When I was at Salon, especially towards the end of my time there, I would run story ideas past an editor, but mostly I could do what I wanted, especially when it came to fiction. Now at Slate I have a couple of editors, and they have definite ideas of what they'd like me to do, what to focus on, pieces they want me to write, so every month or so I come up with a list of forthcoming books but also other cultural ideas, because I don't just write about books for them. I’d send them that list and they'd pick what they'd like.

Do you still find yourself writing more about nonfiction? 

No, not so much now. It really depends. At Salon, I wound up writing about nonfiction as a way to run coverage of all kinds of things. But at Slate they have a person on the editorial staff who's a professional historian, and people who are familiar with philosophy or science or whatever who can also write about books. Slate would tend to want someone with more expertise than I have to write about those subjects. I like to write about and read fiction, but moving to Slate means that my reading diet is a little bit less varied than it used to be. One of the most popular pieces I wrote for Salon was about a book that explained probability to the average reader—I learned a lot. It was a challenge to write about. With a lot of nonfiction, it's like there's this point at which it's all interesting because you're relatively new to it. Or it might be interesting because you're really conversant with the material and so you understand what it means when someone focuses on this aspect or that aspect—take a work of history, like why are they focusing on this cause or that trial instead of this one—that's interesting. but if you're in the middle and you already know the basics and you're just reading another book that goes over the basics, it’s not as interesting as when you first started. 

Is there a specific author or publisher you’re paying particularly attention to because you feel they’re doing something new and/or innovative?

I like the taste of the editors at Small Beer Press, and then I like specific editors who work at specific houses, including Joshua Kendall at Mulholland Books and Jennifer Hershey at Random House. Some of the authors I’m paying attention to are Marlon James, Susan Choi, Tana French, Francis Spufford, and David Grann.


Fran Bigman is a freelance writer living in New York City. She has a PhD in English from the University of Cambridge, and she has written about books for the Washington Post, the Times Literary Supplement, Lit Hub, Words Without Borders, and Granta.com. You can find her on Twitter @franbig.

Gary Shteyngart, Football Books, and Stephen King

by Taylor Anhalt | Sep-10-2018

Coming up Friday, September 14, at Poets House: NBCC's official Brooklyn Book Festival Bookend event, Is the Poet the New Public Intellectual? moderated by board member Tess Taylor, with board member Daisy Fried, former board members Steph Burt and Craig Teicher, the Pulitzer award winner Gregory Pardlo.

Reviews and Interviews

This week on the Craft of Criticism series she curates with Fran Bigman, Tara Cheesman talks to Booklist's  Donna Seaman.

This week in NBCC Reads: Favorite works in translation, Hamilton Cain on Edith Grossman's translation of "Don Quixote."

Colette Bancroft reviewed Gary Shteyngart’s “Lake Success” for the Tampa Bay Times. The book was also reviewed by Priscilla Gilman for the Boston Globe and Allen Adams for The Main Edge.

Erika Dreifus interviewed Jennifer Baker, editor of “Everyday People: The Color of Life”, a new short-story anthology from Atria Books, for the September issue of The Practicing Writer.

Sarah Leamy reviewed Eleanor Kriseman’s “The Blurry Years” for Hunger Mountain.

Board member Lori Feathers wrote about Ottessa Moshfegh's “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” and the Russian classic “Oblomov” by Ivan Goncharov for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her latest installment of her regular feature "Best of the B-Sides" can be found at Words Without Borders.

Meg Waite Clayton's monthly audiobook roundup for the San Francisco Chronicle reviewed Michael Lewis's “The Coming Storm”, Nell Stevens's “The Victorian and the Romantic”, and Jacqueline Woodson's “Harbor Me”.

For her weekly Lit Hub column, NBCC VP/Online Jane Ciabattari talked with NBCC nonfiction award winner Carol Anderson about seven books on democracy and its challenges. Her pick for September books was the Dzanc Fiction Award winner, Alice Hatcher's "The Wonder That Was Ours."

Robert Allen Papinchak reviewed Karl Ove Knausgaard's “My Struggle: Book Six” for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

NBCC board member Laurie Hertzel reviewed Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s “Small Fry”, a memoir about growing up with Steve Jobs, for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

For PopMatters, Jenny Bhatt reviewed A.M. Homes’ “Days of Awe”, a "witty, smart short story collection with darkly satirical commentary on American consumerism and more. Every story is also a master class in dialogue writing and the art of listening to both what is said and, more importantly, what isn't said." She also reviewed Rilke’s (tr. by Uli Baer) letter collection for PopMatters. "These are letters he wrote to friends and acquaintances suffering from losses of loved ones. There's no pithy condolence or mystical ideology here. The letters are filled with beautiful language and intense insights about how grief, death, and loss can actually make us whole and even transform us."

At the National Book Festival this weekend, Carlos Lozada spent fifteen minutes talking about upcoming nonfiction books this fall. You can watch the video here.

Matthew Jakubowski wrote an experimental review of Beatriz Bracher’s first novel translated into English, “I Didn’t Talk”, for 3:AM Magazine.

Tara Cheesman reviewed Carla Guelfenbein’s “In the Distance With You” for The Los Angeles Review of Books.

Amy Weldon reviewed Paul Kingsnorth's “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” for the Summer 2018 issue of Orion Magazine. 

Michael Sandlin reviewed Monica Munoz Martinez’s “The Injustice Never Leaves You” for the Texas Observer.

Clifford Garstang reviewed Merilyn Simonds’ “Refuge” for the New York Journal of Books.

Jan Alexander talked with Andrew Martin about his debut novel, “Early Work”, in Neworld Review.

Martha Anne Toll interviewed Lydia Kiesling on her wonderful debut novel, “The Golden State”, for The Millions. She also reviewed David A. Kaplan’s “The Most Dangerous Branch” on the NPR website.

Jim Ruland reviewed Lisa Brackmann's unsettling new novel “Black Swan Rising” for The Floating Library in San Diego CityBeat.

Allen Adams reviewed “Playing to the Gods” by Peter Rader and “Superhuman” by Rowan Hooper for The Main Edge.

Jay Jennings reviewed Mark Leibovich’s “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times” for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Joan Silverman reviewed Dawn Drzal’s “The Bread and the Knife” for Press Herald.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell reviewed Brad Felver’s “Dogs of Detroit”, winner of the 2018 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, for the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Dana Wilde reviewed “Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment” by Rachel Carson and “A Naturalist at Large: The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich" and “The Outsider” by Stephen King in the Off Radar column for centralmaine.com newspapers.

Olga Zilberbourg reviewed Keith Gessen's second novel, “A Terrible Country”, for San Francisco Chronicle.

Mike Lindgren reviewed three books about football—one on the ’68 Jets, the USFL, and the Mannings for Newsday.

Madeleine Schwartz reviewed Lara Feigel’s “Free Woman: Life, Liberation, and Doris Lessing” for The New York Review of Books.

Renee K. Nicholson discusses several books: Steve Almond’s “Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country”, Silas House’s “Southernmost”and Elizabeth Catte’s “What You  Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia”, among others at The Millions.

John Domini reviewed "This Mournable Body", by Tsitsi Dangarembga for The Brooklyn Rail.

Anita Felicelli reviewed Ishmael Reed’s “Conjugating Hindi” for the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Tayla Burney reviewed Aimee Molloy’s “The Perfect Mother” for Washington Independent Reviews.

 

Member News

Author Elizabeth Rosner will be interviewed by Martha Frankel at The Golden Notebook on Sept 16th at 4 pm in Woodstock, NY for her publication of the paperback edition of “Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory”. Her book is included among the best books of 2017 by the San Francisco Chronicle. She has author interviews on NPR and the New York Times. Her book was also reviewed by Gayle Brandeis for the San Francisco Chronicle.

On September 16, 3 p.m. at Guild Hall, East Hampton, N. Y., Grace Schulman, Jill Bialosky, and Philip Schultz, memoirists and poets, will discuss the processes of writing both memoirs and poems.

On September 29th, 5 p.m., at Canio's Books, Sag Harbor, N. Y., there will be a book launch and reading for Grace Schulman's new memoir, “Strange Paradise: Portrait of a Marriage.”


The Craft of Criticism: An Interview with Donna Seaman

by Tara Cheesman | Sep-07-2018

In this Q&A series, The Craft of Criticism, NBCC members Tara Cheesman and Fran Bigman ask book critics and review editors for their thoughts about contemporary criticism. If you’re interested in being interviewed for the series,please get in touch at franbigman@gmail.com and tara.cheesman@gmail.com.

Donna Seaman is Editor, Adult Books, for Booklist. A recipient of the James Friend Memorial Award for Literary Criticism and the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award, Seaman has written for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and other publications; she is a former board member for the National Book Critics Circle and was a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Her new book is Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists.

I think it’s safe to say that you are the queen of the “250 words or less” review. How does knowing you need to maintain a strict word count affect the way you review the book? Please describe your work process.

Thank you! This is a true compliment. It is very difficult to write substantially and well within such a concise format. It is, in fact, maddening. But it does teach you to be sure every word works. I think of each review as a structure in which each word is weight-bearing. Nothing can be squishy. It’s difficult to achieve flow within those confines, and you must leave out many elements of the book, yet also avoid generalization. One might think that someone who continually writes short reviews, some as terse as 175 words, would be strategic in her reading. With me, one would be wrong.

I give myself over to each book entirely. Unreservedly. No matter what length review I will write. I read as a reader first, open to the book’s power. But I am a critical, exacting reader who has read many books in many genres and many subject areas. So all sorts of lights go off in my reading mind. I’m thinking about language and style, voice and form. I’m sensitive to continuity and repetition and velocity and magnetism. I read with pen in hand, taking notes, marking up the ARC. I almost always write well beyond my word allotment. This can evoke self-loathing, but it is also useful. Once I’ve had my say, I can then figure out what can be sacrificed without gutting the review of its specificity and, one hopes, its vitality. This process is painful, but also compelling. Each review is a puzzle to be solved.

I imagine with only a small amount of space in which to get the job done, there are not a lot of ways for you to express yourself creatively. You frequently use alliteration—is this one of the ways you instill your voice into the reviews or is it entirely coincidental? Are there other ways?

I think about the Booklist review as a literary form with rules, like a sonnet. A form that one must try to infuse with energy. One way to achieve that is with rhythm, and alliteration is one way to accentuate that. But often, and curiously, alliteration occurs unintentionally and it can be more distracting than enhancing and if that’s the case, I eliminate it. Word choice is essential to richer expression, and I spend a lot of time mulling over shades of meaning, reading the dictionary (bliss), and trying to find just the right word to use to pinpoint the author’s tone, perspective, and intent. In writing short reviews, I find myself harmonizing with the book, echoing its pacing, its texture. This subliminal convergence conveys a lot. As for my voice, I hope it comes through in what I choose to emphasize. That is an expression of a critic’s aesthetics and values.

Writers on the Air: Conversations About Books collects interviews from Open Books, the radio show you hosted on Chicago Public Radio. Would you tell us a little bit about that experience?

Writers rarely appeared on the airwaves in Chicago, and I thought that was a terrible omission. Writers acquire sharp insights into diverse experiences, places, and subjects and the public benefits from hearing their voices as well as from reading their books. When a colleague and friend, Craig Kois, became manager of Loyola University Chicago’s community radio station, I suggested a book show.

WLUW was, at the time, a volunteer station, with members of various communities hosting shows about social issues and the arts. I added Open Books to the line-up, and it didn’t take long for publishers to reach out to me to ask if I would be interested in speaking with authors they were sending to Chicago for readings and other events. I was stunned at the caliber of guests I was able to welcome into our modest studio. Many were prominent, such as Diane Ackerman, Margaret Atwood, T. C. Boyle, Michael Chabon, Sandra Cisneros, Jamaica Kincaid, Peter Carey, Anchee Min, Chitra Divakaruni, Paul Theroux, Barry Lopez, Jane Smiley, Russell Banks, Terry Tempest Williams. Others were just starting out, such as George Saunders, Aleksandar Hemon, Colson Whitehead, and Lydia Millet. Initially, the show ran for a half-hour, but we soon extended it to an hour, because the authors were so articulate, so passionate. And we still ended every session feeling as though we could have gone on even longer. I loved the intimacy of radio. The directness. The mix of intent and the unexpected that charged those deeply literary conversations.

Open Books went through several iterations, and for a time became part of Chicago Public Radio.  After its run completed, I was a book critic for WBEZ for a spell.

Conversing with writers deepened my respect and my commitment to try to do each book justice in my reviews. To read open-mindedly, to appreciate all that went into every page, to understand the context for each book, what connects it to others and what about it is distinctive. Conducting author interviews strengthened my conviction that book critics’ play a crucial role in literature, which is, after all, a grand conversation.

When I’m feeling defeated, I remember brilliant writers talking about how they rewrote manuscripts over and over again. How they abandoned novels that would not come to life. How they spent years and years reading, thinking, writing, rethinking, and rewriting. I am inspired by the generosity of spirit I’ve witnessed in writers, along with incandescent genius. I mostly feel humbled. And grateful.    

Your new book, Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists, was published in 2017 and tells the stories of seven marginalized/forgotten women artists. What is your experience as a woman critic and do you have any thoughts on why so many publications are finding it challenging to attain gender parity?

I cannot understand how and why gender parity in journalism remains so elusive. Women are readers. (Statista.com tells us that in 2018, 75% of the women survey respondents stated that they had read at least one book in the previous twelve months.)  Women are writers. (DATAUSA reports that 60.6% of American authors were female in 2016.) Why doesn’t the roll call of published book critics reflect this? There is no lack of talented women reviewers and critics. I find it hard to believe that women aren’t seeking opportunities to write reviews. Reviewing, after all, is a very accessible portal to publication. I wonder what the ratio of women to men is in the NBCC membership? There are certainly many women editors. It’s baffling and unacceptable.

Whenever we make a bit of progress in combating sexism and racism and other forms of oppression, we suffer backlash and lose ground; we have to begin again. It’s a long, slow, frustrating, even tragic effort. But we have to keep on standing up for what we believe in and value, on all fronts.

I’ve been very fortunate: I’ve never experienced discrimination of any kind as a freelance writer or at Booklist, which has a majority female staff.

As for women artists, the situation is no better now in terms of museum and gallery acquisitions and exhibitions than it was back when the subjects of my book were working. And most art by women is still priced below that of men.

What was the most useful piece of advice, editorial or otherwise, you’ve received about your writing?  What advice do you give to critics just starting out?

The first college writing class I taught was part of a summer conference. The director, an outstanding and innovative male writer, editor, and educator, talked during the opening session about disciple and rigor. He told us that a writer must write every day, no matter what, and no matter how badly you wrote. If you had a job, you got up early and wrote before you went to work. A revered woman writer on the faculty rolled her eyes. Later she told me that she couldn’t approach writing so rigidly. She said she was always writing in her head, always looking and listening and thinking, but she didn’t write every day. She said that the days she didn’t write were just as important as the days she did. She felt that there was no point in forcing it, or turning creative writing into a chore. Even as someone who works constantly on deadline, I try to write when I’m the sharpest, when I can keep other tasks and demands at bay and concentrate. Discipline is essential, but flexibility and reflection and unruliness are important, too.

My advice to beginning critics is read continuously and adventurously as well as attentively and inquisitively. Read books old and new, and read established critics past and present. Read book reviews wherever you can find them and get a sense of what sort of books are covered by different publications and websites. Hone your opinions, nurture your interests. Every critic wants to review new works by major writers; emerging reviewers will not get those assignments. So pay attention to emerging writers. 

Book review editors need reviewers who are knowledgeable about history, health, art, science, politics, the environment, business, food, entertainment––everything that books are written about. Book review editors seek critics for every form of fiction. And poetry.

Be omnivorous and specialize. Read and review with respect. Write about books as you hope your books will be written about. Be ethical and fair. Be exacting and passionate. Approach reviews and critical essays like the literary art forms they are. Write about books because books embody life in all its paradoxes; because books deepen, complicate, and record life. Books expand our perceptions, unnerve us, rescue us, and engender empathy and wonder. Books bring order and meaning to the chaos of existence. Books preserve memories, pay tribute, identify and solve mysteries, reveal truths, articulate emotions, and take us out of ourselves and into the world.


Tara Cheesman is a blogger turned freelance book critic, National Book Critics Circle member & 2018 Best Translated Book Award Fiction Judge. Her reviews can read online at The Rumpus, Book Riot, Los Angeles Review of Books, Quarterly Conversation and 3:AM Magazine. You can follow her on Twitter @booksexyreview and Instagram @taracheesman

NBCC’s Brooklyn Book Festival Bookends Event: Is the Poet the New Public Intellectual?

by Admin | Sep-06-2018

Today’s Poet-Critics on Criticism and Critique

September 14 201, 6:30 p.m.
Poets House
10 River Terrace, New York, NY 

National Book Critics Circle poetry chair Tess Taylor invites some of today’s leading poet critics—Stephanie Burt, Daisy Fried,  Greg Pardlo, and Craig Teicher—to talk about how the terrain of criticism is changing;  what poets add to the literature of critique; and to what ends we write criticism now. How is the criticism poets write different than other criticism? What is the relationship between the forms of poetry and the forms of critical intervention? Where do poets understand the borders of these genres?   How do critical and poetic projects feed, chase, devour or fuel each other?   We will discuss what poet-critics offer the world that academic critics might not. In particular we will ask: is the critic an activist? Is the poet the new public intellectual?

THIS IS AN OFFICIAL 2018 BROOKLYN BOOK FESTIVAL EVENT

 Stephanie Burt is Professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, most recently The Poem Is You: Sixty Contemporary American Poems and How to Read Them (Harvard University Press, 2016) and Advice from the LIghts: Poems (Graywolf, 2017). Her writings on poetry, comic books, and other topics appear semi-regularly in the London Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, Rain Taxi, the Yale Review, and other venues in the UK, US and New Zealand.

 

Daisy Fried is the author of three books of poetry: Women’s Poetry: Poems and Advice, named by Library Journal as one of the five best poetry books of 2013, My Brother is Getting Arrested Again, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and She Didn’t Mean to Do It, which won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Her poems have appeared recently in Best American Poetry, London Review of Books, The Nation, New Republic, Poetry, American Poetry Review, Threepenny Review and elsewhere. She has been awarded Guggenheim, Hodder and Pew Fellowships, a Pushcart Prize, the Cohen Award from Ploughshares, and the Editors Prize for a feature article from Poetry, for “Sing, God-Awful Muse,” about reading Paradise Lost, breastfeeding and the importance of difficulty. She is a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle, poetry editor for the literary/political resistance journal Scoundrel Time, and occasionally reviews poetry for the New York Times, Poetry and the Threepenny Review. Formerly the Grace Hazard Conkling Writer-in-Residence at Smith College, Fried is a member of the faculty of the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers, teaches at Villanova University, and lives in Philadelphia.

Gregory Pardlo's collection Digest (Four Way Books) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. His other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts; his first collection Totem was selected by Brenda Hillman for the APR/Honickman Prize in 2007. He is Poetry Editor of Virginia Quarterly Review. Air Traffic, a memoir in essays, was released by Knopf in April.

 

Tess Taylor’s first book, The Forage House, was called “stunning” by The San Francisco Chronicle. Her second book, Work & Days, was called “our moment’s Georgic” by critic Stephanie Burt and was named one of the 10 best books of poetry of 2016 by The New York Times. Taylor’s poetry and nonfiction appear widely. She currently chairs the poetry committee of the National Book Critics Circle, and is on-air poetry reviewer for NPR’s All Things Considered. She was a Distinguished Fulbright US Scholar at the Seamus Heaney Centre in Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and was most recently Anne Spencer Writer in Residence at Randolph College.

Craig Morgan Teicher's latest poetry collection, The Trembling Answers, won the 2018 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets.  His first collection of essays, We Begin In Gladness: How Poets Progress, will be published by Graywolf in November.


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