The Craft of Criticism: An Interview with Yahdon Israel

by Tara Cheesman | Aug-03-2018

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.

Yahdon Israel is a writer, and creator of Literaryswag, a cultural movement that intersects literature and fashion to make books cool. He has written for Avidly, The New Inquiry, Brooklyn Magazine, LitHub, and Poets and Writers. Yahdon is the Awards VP of the National Book Critics Circle, the host of the Literaryswag Book Club, a monthly book club that's free and open to the public, and the host of LIT, a weekly web series about books and culture.

What is your approach to criticism?

My approach to criticism is both, choice and circumstance. Because I’m always thinking about the people who don’t read, I try my best to create criticism that engages people who may never read a traditional book review. That’s what informs my approach to books. Hence why I created the book club and the show LIT. There has to be multiple pathways for people to access literature. And those of us who are already privy to the value of literature can’t just assume that people know. To be honest, if it hadn’t been for my Senior Thesis Advisor at Pace University, Dr. Sarah Blackwood, who told me about the MFA, which set me on this trajectory, it would’ve taken me that much longer to arrive. I see my work as that conversational piece that makes the process of arrival a lot less intimidating.

You host the monthly Literaryswag Book Club in New York City. How’s it going?  What kind of people are showing up? And are there any plans to livestream for people outside of the city?

The Literaryswag Book Club is the zenith of the work I do in literature. Not only because it’s centered around books but because of who I focus on--people who aren’t in the literary world. The Literaryswag Book Club really speaks to people who want community and good conversation. The hardest part of this book club is convincing people that they really don’t have to read the book to attend. I do that because it’s often the excuse that keeps people from stepping outside of their comfort zone.

Once people come and see what I mean, that them not reading the book doesn't exclude them from the conversation, they usually join the book club and become readers. THAT, to me, is point of literature: to create possibility where there once wasn’t any. Literature can also build bridges between people, another thing I’ve witnessed at the book club. So many people have become best friends, and it’s because of a book club. That’s lit to me.

On the subject of livestreaming, I’m trying to figure out the logistics of it. With video comes a lot of technical things I haven’t quite figured out. I’m going to get to the bottom of it though.

I learned about #literaryswag through Instagram. You’ve said that you favor that particular platform because of the relationship between text and image. Do you think it’s possible to provide smart and concise book reviews and criticism using social media?  Is anyone doing it, to your knowledge?

I absolutely believe it possible to provide smart and concise book reviews on social media. For a while, I’d been writing reviews for books I liked under the hashtag #literaryswagbookreviews, but I was just experimenting with it. And though I don’t know of people writing book reviews on Instagram, what I can say is that literary platforms like @vqreview are embracing bringing longform—as it pertains to Instagram, at least, (300+ words)—on IG, which begins to transform the way people think about social media and what’s possible.

Who, in 2018, do you think is impacting the literary scene?

If there’s anyone who I believe is having a huge impact on literature this year it’s Saraciea Fennell. She’s an Afro-Latina writer and book publicist who founded the Bronx Book Festival. There was a time when I thought the only way to change literature was by better books being written. Not only was this thinking naive, it was also arrogant as hell—because the feeling that informed this thinking was this audacious idea that my book was going to be the one that “changed everything.” And to an extent, to be a writer, you kind of have to believe that about yourself. Then you read.

The more books I read, the more I became of the mindset that the best books have already been written. This is not to say (at all) that there isn’t a need for new voices; I’m just realizing that there are so many voices, already published, that still haven’t been heard, and another writer isn’t necessarily going to change that. The work that Saraciea is doing in the Bronx is crucial because she’s not only bringing books to the Bronx—a borough that lost its only bookstore in 2016—she’s bringing more readers to books. If there’s anything literature needs, it’s more readers.

When you talk about coming to the realization that a lot of the best books have already been written, I can’t help thinking about how many books only get reviewed on publication. And that most smaller presses are struggling to have their books reviewed at all. What is the critic’s responsibility towards helping these voices be heard? Is it a part of the critic's job to seek out the books (backlists, book with smaller marketing budgets behind them, etc.) that  are sometimes lost in the noise?

That's a big question, and I don't think it's one that criticism can necessarily answer by itself. It's important to remember that, at the end of the day, while literature is art; it's also a business, which means that money will always be part of the conversation. This also means that any media and literary platforms that would like to support the work of lesser-known writers and smaller publishing houses have to prioritize the books that have a built-in anticipation and readership because it helps brings eyes to their site. And a critic or writer may not care about those things, but if you're the one who's running the site, you have to. I say all this to say this is an institutional problem linked to economics and we, as a literary world, we have to reckon with those costs honestly. The things off the page matter just as much as what's on it.

I guess a related question is: who do you think reviews should reach out to? Should a critic’s target audience be new readers or existing readers?

Only the writer can answer that question. I do believe that every writer has their intended audience. I’ve personally come to understand this by writers’ use of the pronoun “we.” That “we” always tell me who the writer believes themselves to be in conversation with, or writing for--and oftentimes it’s people who are like them.

I will say that writing for an audience that’s unlike the one you’re used to writing for can expand the way you think about a book. In the sense that you can’t fall on the assumption that you already know your reader and have to work from a place where you’re trying to know them, which creates a lot of possibility.

Can you tell us about your interview show LIT?

LIT is a weekly YouTube series and podcast where I talk to writers and cultural figures about books and culture. The purpose of the show is to make literary culture both endearing and inviting to book lovers and non-book lovers alike. I started the show last July and plan to bring the show back this year. I didn't know what it took to run the show, and in hindsight, I'm glad I didn't because I probably wouldn't have set out to make the show to begin with. The show is definitely worth the work that goes into but there's A LOT of work that goes into it. Not mention the resources. So now I'm putting the infrastructure into the show to make sure that it can run consistently.  Fortunately the show has over 30 episodes, so there's a lot of content that will hold a viewer over till I bring the show back.

Who do you think is the most literary and/or literature inspired designer and or clothing line?

I would have to say my friend, Charles Harbison. I did a whole interview with him for LitHub where we talked about the writers and books that influence his aesthetics. From that interview I learned that Patti Smith, Augusten Burroughs, and the Bible influenced his work. It was an amazing conversation in that it reminded me why this work matters.

Have you ever considered organizing a #literaryswag fashion show or photo shoot?

The photoshoot is in the works. That’s all I’m going to say.

Do you still carry a duffle bag of books with you? And, if so, what’s in the bag right now?

Yes I do. In the duffle now is Dave Itzkoff’s biography on Robin Williams, Robin; Angela Flournoy’s novel The Turner House; Alexander Chee’s essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel; and Porochista Khakpour’s memoir, Sick.

Photo Credit: Bill Gentle


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



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