9/1/13 — TALKING ABOUT BOOKS WITH THE WASHINGTON POST‘S RON CHARLES
Next time you feel overwhelmed by the number of books on your to-read list, think of Ron Charles, the fiction editor at the Washington Post. Charles and his colleagues at the newspaper get 150 books a day to choose from, with a lot careers depending on their decisions. I chatted with Ron recently about his job and how he approaches it. Here is the transcript of our phone conversation, edited and condensed.
MW: With all those books coming in, how do you decide what to review?
RC: It’s a triage process. Our office manager removes a huge percentage of the books that we don’t review—self-published books, textbooks, and others. After he’s organized them according to publication dates, the editors and I start pulling books we think might be interesting. Obviously we start with authors we recognize, best-selling, reliable authors we’ve reviewed before. There are certain presses we trust so we look at their books with particular interest. And then beyond that we’re getting pitched books by publicists all the time, which is particularly helpful with a debut novelist whose name we wouldn’t recognize. I’ve been at this for fifteen years now. I know a lot of the publicists and I know what they like and they know what I like, and some of them I actually trust.
MW: You review a lot of debut novelists. Would you say that your job, in part, is to discover new talent?
RC: They interest me a lot. I think it’s fun and exciting to discover new writers. And it’s great to think that we might have a part in launching somebody’s career. So that is a goal of mine.
MW: Who are some of the debut authors of the last year or so that you would recommend?
RC: One of the greatest pleasures of this job is seeing just how many fine new authors appear each year. Really, I’m amazed at the talent. Just a few months ago, this young man named Anthony Marra published a spectacularly moving novel about Chechnya called A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Recently, I reviewed a witty social satire by Adelle Waldman called The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P—, one of my daughter’s favorites, too. And of course, there was Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, which won the National Book Award. But honestly, I feel like I run across new writers all the time. It just goes to show you that, despite the griping you sometimes hear, new voices still can break in.
MW: You mentioned your review of The Love Affairs of Nathanial P—, a book that was also reviewed by The New York Times, NPR, the Los Angeles Times—just about everybody reviewed that book. How does that happen for a debut writer? Is it buzz that the industry’s created?
RC: Yeah. It was a really, really clever marketing campaign behind the scenes. It’s also pretty remarkable that all the reviews appeared within thirty-six hours of each other. Think how hard it is for a publishing house to pull that off. Her publicist, James Meader, did a really good job of convincing a lot of us that this was a clever, hip, timely book. Also once a book is creating a lot of buzz, we don’t want our readers to be the only readers who don’t know about it. I don’t want them to be the ones at the cocktail party who are out of the loop.
MW: Do you hear a lot from authors? Do they complain about bad reviews?
RC: They don’t complain. That’s very, very rare. The last time I heard from an author was maybe two years ago—a debut author who didn’t know better. I’m sure that authors complain to one another, but their publicists, I’m sure tell them, “Do not complain to the book section editor.”
MW: We hear so much about the changes in the publishing industry—the big mergers, the growing popularity of ebooks, the implosion of self published books—has that changed your role as a reviewer?
RC: No. I honestly don’t think it has except in a couple of strange situations. One is, it’s getting harder to find reviewers who are not connected to the book because as the number of publishing houses shrinks, I so often find that I have a book and I need to have it reviewed and the first three people I call tell me, “Oh, I can’t, I’m published by that house, too.” The other issue is I don’t know how long we can hold out against reviewing self-published books or ebooks. As more big authors start to bring books out exclusively on the ebook platform, I think it’ll start to seem weird that we’re ignoring them categorically.
MW: Why do you ignore ebooks?
RC: It’s a practicality. We just could not deal with the flood of books. With the published books, we know and rely on the fact that those books have gone through a certain amount of winnowing, imperfect as it is, by the action of having to get an agent and having to get a publisher and an editor. If we had to open ourselves up to ebooks, it would be several hundred thousand more a year, possibly per month. The numbers are just staggering. I have no idea how we would deal with that.
MW: Is that the reason for not reviewing self-published books or have you determined that the quality is not as good?
RC: It honestly is not a quality issue. It’s just a practical issue. We don’t know how we would deal with such a huge ocean of titles.
MW: There’s also been a proliferation of online book reviews—Amazon, Goodreads, blogs—how has that affected what you do? Or hasn’t it?
RC: It really hasn’t. I think it’s exciting that so many more people are involved and are able to express their opinions about books, and they’re able to form online communities and groups on Goodreads. That’s all really fun and part of the positive impact of the Internet on our culture.
MW: You’ve been reviewing books for about fifteen years—first at the Christian Science Monitor and now at the Post. Before that you were a teacher. Can you talk a little about the transition and why you made it?
RC: I thought that if I graded one more paper I would go out of my friggin’ mind.
MW: But you’re still grading papers in a way.
RC: Yeah, in a sense. A friend of mine said I ought to try book reviewing, which I’d never even thought of, but you know it was kind of a related field because I did critique books for a living in front of a very small, bored audience—
MW: So you taught English?
RC: Yes, I did. So I went to Barnes and Noble—I was in St. Louis then—and I went to the new fiction table, and I picked up a book by Richard Russo called Straight Man, which was about an English teacher, which I was, and I read it and I wrote probably several hundred words and sent it off to the features editor of the Christian Science Monitor, and they bought it and asked for more. So every few weeks I would go to the bookstore. I’d just pick books that I thought were interesting and write them up and then send them off, and they bought a majority of those reviews. And then, in six months or so, the book editor moved to another position and I asked if I could apply, and they flew me out there and I was offered the job. So we all moved to Boston.
MW: You also blog a lot.
RC: I do. I tried to learn how to do that, and I’ve found that with all these new platforms, there is no substitute for actually doing it. Not only do you not know how to do it but you don’t even understand what it can do until you’ve thrown yourself in and used it. That’s also been true for Twitter. You know I just wanted to figure out how does one blog, what’s the appropriate tone to take, what are people interested in. Many posts just fall into memory holes, of course, but some do okay.
MW: And you let your humor come through in your blogs. Some are very funny.
RC: Thank you. I enjoy that.
MW: There was one blog you did recently that was on a more serious subject—the anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act—and you mentioned your daughter who has cerebral palsy, so you’re also using your blogs to let your readers learn about you as a person.
RC: Right. And sometimes, cringe-inducing as that can be, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the fact that lots of readers do want some sort of personal connection with the people that they read regularly in the newspaper. Obviously that can be obnoxious, but it can also be handled sensitively and in a warm-hearted way, and that’s sort of what we’re all aiming for when we blog. A blog like that, I don’t mention my family and my personal life much, but I think when it’s appropriate, it does kind of round out your voice in a way. That post, for instance, was one of the most popular I’ve ever written. Not because of the personal connection but because it was a list and people cannot resist lists. I think someday the book section will just be lists.
MW: That blog, though, in naming books that dealt in a realistic way with people who have disabilities, was very central to what you do as a book reviewer because it highlighted another purpose that books serve in people’s lives.
RC: Yes, that it introduced them to other ways of living, to give them a sense of what other people experience, to humanize people they may not have any experience with. Yes, that’s the real, deep, ultimate purpose of reading fiction.
MW: What do you think is the most important function of a book reviewer?
RC: Well one of the functions is to help people find books that they’ll enjoy reading. I don’t have any problem with that consumer-assistance role that book critics play. I don’t think that degrades what I do as a newspaper book reviewer. Another function is to help people understand how books work, to try and help them develop their own critical tastes, ultimately to help them make better choices of what they want to read.
MW: I would add one other. I use book reviews to create a to-read list, but often after I read the book, I go back to reread the review, and it often helps me understand how the book worked and it helps crystallize in my mind why I appreciated the book.
RC: That’s nice. I hope that happens.
MW: Have you ever wanted to write fiction yourself?
RC: I have and I have actually tried. I just am terrible at it. I tried it specifically to get more sympathy for novelists. I thought it was a bit cowardly to be subjecting people to my opinions all the time without actually giving it a try myself. And so I have tried. And let me tell you, it’s really, really hard. I found it very difficult to get the characters to do anything, to move around, to express any kind of a plot. I thought I was okay with just dialogue and setting scenes and stuff, but as far as plot, I just thought it was tremendously difficult.
(Our thanks to Ron Charles for helping us launch Late Last Night Books and our thanks to The Washington Post for providing his photo.)