Semipublic Intellectual Sessions: “Under Review”
By Aaron Bady, Boris Dralyuk, Jane Hu, Christian Lorentzen, Julian Lucas, Ismail MuhammadDecember 31, 2021
BORIS DRALYUK: Thank you very much, Irene, for that generous introduction. And more importantly, thank you for so brilliantly organizing, not only this panel, but all five of the Semipublic Intellectual Sessions, as well as the satellite events. As you just heard, the range of topics has indeed been great. It has indeed reflected LARB's mission, but that sweep is not for everyone. Not a month goes by that we don't receive a comment on one of our lyrical essays or pieces of cultural criticism or Film/Television reviews that reads, "I thought this was the Los Angeles Review of Books!" Well today is that persistent commentator's lucky day. The subject of our panel is the state of book reviewing, and joining us are some of our favorite practitioners. I'll go in order of screen position here. Aaron Bady is the editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review and an editor-at-large at The New Inquiry, as well as founding editor of Popula. You can find his work at The Week, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, many other venues, and, we're happy to say, in LARB, as part of the "Dear TV" collective and as an occasional reviewer of actual books. Jane Hu is a PhD candidate in English and Film & Media Studies at UC Berkeley. Her pieces on film, literature, race, and pop culture have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Bookforum, The Nation, Harper's, The Ringer, The Awl, and other places. Christian Lorentzen is an essayist and critic based in Brooklyn, a regular contributor to the LRB, Bookforum, and Harper's, and a contributing writer for Air Mail. You can find his pieces at many other venues as well. Julian Lucas, also based in Brooklyn, is an associate editor at Cabinet, a contributing editor at The Ballot, and, in a late-breaking development, a staff writer at The New Yorker! His work has appeared in the NYRB, Harper's, Vanity Fair, and The New York Times Book Review. Ismail Muhammad, who lives in Oakland, is currently a story editor at The New York Times Magazine and was previously the criticism editor for the much-missed Believer. His work has appeared in Catapult, The Paris Review, LitHub, The Atlantic, The Nation, and other venues. I've just given you an overview of these people's careers, a list of publications. But what I'd like to do is to start by asking each of them to give us, briefly, their origin story as a reviewer, how they came to book criticism, what drew them to the field. And also, if you can reflect on this, were their models for your work? What were the book reviews you read before you started reviewing books? Were you attracted to particular critical voices? I think I'll start with Christian, if I may.
CHRISTIAN LORENTZEN: Okay, well, in sixth grade, I started a newspaper in my classroom, The Room 20 Times. And then, a decade or so later, I moved to New York City. And one of my friends said she knew an editor at the Hartford Courant who would publish anybody she sent him because he loved McSweeney's, which was where she worked at the time. That person was Amy Berdahl, who has written a wonderful collection of short stories. At the time, I had a job as a copy editor at US Weekly, which was a fun place to work, but not what I wanted to do with my life. Later, I got some other edit jobs as an editor at the now dead magazine called The New Leader and was editing book reviews and writing them there. My friends started a magazine called n+1, and for a while I was their film critic. I worked for a while at Harper's and The New York Observer. And then I ended up as an editor at the London Review of Books and I'd say that was where I really committed myself to writing book criticism. And eventually, I stopped editing, because I had become more interested in writing my own pieces than helping with other people's pieces. Although editing was always fun, and so now, I just keep writing my pieces and trying to survive. I can't really say that I ever went about it with some goals. It's just an ongoing conversation between me and a few editors that I work with.
BD: And I think probably an ongoing conversation between you and a kind of imagined reader, or an actual reader from whom you hear on occasion.
CL: I was thinking about that. Sometimes I think I'm writing my pieces to a younger self. Sometimes I'm very much writing them to a particular editor, especially Mary-Kay Wilmers, who really made a big difference for me, as Keith Gessen had done before that. And as far as an imagined audience, I get mail from like Australia, Nigeria, all over the place. I was at the Bar Clandestino last night and met somebody who really loved one of my pieces when she was an undergrad. You know, it was nice to hear. I think you have to think of the audience as really intelligent and interested in books and just write to those people.
BD: I think we'll return to that. Maybe, Jane, you can tell us a little bit about your experience, since you're still in academia, so you have this other very demanding job …
JANE HU: My origin story begins with undergrad, I was the first round of summer interns at The Awl. And very luckily, got to cut my teeth on, not necessarily book reviewing, but little deep dives. Sometimes it was etymological deep dives — they sent me a little research trips to let me flex the early budding literary critical penchant I had. One of the pieces I just looked at that I wrote early on was on the decline of book reviewing. This is a question that has haunted, not just me, but the history of literary criticism in all of its forms. It's interesting to see how much staying power the death of book reviewing has.
BD: I think book reviewing is sustained by pieces about its death. It's the early obituaries that keep us going.
JH: Yeah, it was interesting. George Orwell said it was dead, Virginia Woolf said it was dying, Cyril Connolly. Even the prior Anglo Empire was constantly clamoring about the death of book reviewing. Christian might have more to say about this, but the different landscapes of American book reviewing versus other forms of book reviewing might be something interesting to talk about. But yeah, it's just something that I've continued to do. Book reviewing is still my favorite genre of public writing, but I don't necessarily see it as all that different from other kinds of cultural reporting, at least for myself. In all of those cases, to maybe answer the second part of the question, I'm writing toward, and this feels really narcissistic to say, a younger version of myself, who wants to have the historical and literary context for understanding the contemporary work that they're confronting. I am a very big believer that all contemporary media is in one way, or another indebted to literary forms. Even when you're reviewing a film, literary criticism is still an important part of how we might approach reading them. So that's something that I definitely am invested in forwarding in my literary reviewing as well.
BD: Well, thank you for justifying our existence and putting that commenter back in his place. Aaron, since you're also on the bridge between academia and the freelance world of book reviewing, maybe you can tell us a little bit about how you got started.
AARON BADY: Yeah, the prompt about an origin story is interesting, because an origin story implies a retroactive coherence, and I look at my career and can find none. But it's interesting to think about the different ways into book reviewing. I started off writing on a blog and had no understanding of what I was writing as a kind of formal review, as a form. It was just a step up from scratching your thoughts in an email to a friend. I think in a lot of ways, and we'll all talk about how we love reviews, we hate writing reviews! There's a constant Jeremiad against reviews is something that holds it all together. I'm not saying anything unique by saying that I don't ever feel like I know how to write a review or that I figured out how to write a review, but part of that for me is it always comes from wanting to have a conversation with people on the internet, essentially. That's a very 21st-century experience, like writing things on a blog where people are going to comment, and we're going to hash it out on Twitter. And if we don't, it's a big bummer, right? There is this way in which that kind of review is all about sparking a conversation. That's just a different kind of literary discourse than I think you could have at the speed of a print periodical, for example, what a lot of classic versions of the book review are like. Or in academia, where a book review is commissioned, and it maybe comes out a year after the book is out. And then maybe people read it, and it slowly percolates, and it remains the one book review that you've had.
BD: It's for the record.
AB: It's for the record, right? And I struggle with writing for the record. I never find myself. It never feels right to me, I want to have a conversation with this book here and now. And part of that is also that I spent time as a bookseller, and you just have a different relationship with the book as commodity, when you're literally selling it and literally having that experience of watching people come in and look for a book and say, "What book do you want? Well, what do you like?" That is another form of: How do you make this object legible to people? And how do you make it legible to the 75 different very distinct, irreducibly distinct types of engagements different people are having?
BD: It's fascinating to me that you're asking yourself questions which I think Christian probably wouldn't ask, having read some of his thoughts on book reviewing. You're imagining an immediate response by a vast number of people, and you're thinking about it, not necessarily in commercial terms, but in consumer terms. You are addressing the consumers of literature — not buyers of books, but the people who are actively consuming it. Christian, am I wrong in thinking that this runs athwart your approach?
CL: I definitely have a magazine mentality of a piece where you try to have it be perfect. And I never really did much blogging. And I hated it. When I wrote for New York Magazine, there was a comment section under my pieces; I never looked at it, but I just didn't even like that it was there. But on social media, it's definitely nice to have pieces go around and know that people are reading it. I'm absolutely not opposed to conversation, I try to think of pieces as like artifacts that are being carved into stone, which is also the way I think of most literary writing. And as far as the consumer goes, I have to trust that there are people out there who are readers, and that they're going to find the interesting books, and that some writing about those books will encourage that. In my version of the decline of book reviewing, it has nothing to do with the type of stuff that Aaron is talking about, because that's in an intellectual mode, and it's a noninstitutional, maybe intellectual mode that's out there. Whereas in the magazine world, as web content and traffic have become the imperatives, you get a lot of literary consumerism, content, lists and endless lists of books. Often the lists are written by people who haven't read the books they're listing off, and it's just a higher form of publicity. And I think of that stuff as like akin to litter.
BD: At least litter-ature.
CL: No, like —
BD: I know, I know.
CL: Like in the '80s and there was a lot more trash on the road.
BD: I get it. It's interesting what you say about the book review itself as a kind of finished product that stands on its own, a chiseled piece that's on the level of literature. Ismail, you've been in the position of editing pieces for magazines, both reviews and essays. Do you approach these kinds of pieces as things that ought to stand on their own? Or are they really inherently derivative? Are they just in conversation with a published book? And also, the origin story, if you can sneak in there.
ISMAIL MUHAMMAD: I'll do the origin story first. I was one of those graduate students who started writing to get out of academia. Just a variation on a theme. I was never extremely good at dissertating. Because I couldn't do the thing where I wasn't in conversation with my field, what I liked to do was to have a conversation with myself about something that I found interesting in a text or about literary history. It turns out that LARB was into that stuff. My first piece was published on LARB about a Rick Ross single song and hip-hop aesthetics. It came out of wanting to still do that intellectual exercise that grad school authorized, but in a different way than academia was able to let me do. From there, I just kept hopping from host to host. I got a job at The Millions. After meeting its former editor, I started freelancing more frequently after getting that job. Very randomly I got a job at The Believer after its former book reviews editor, because The Believer reviews so many things, but he left that job and I got hired and tried to remake that section in my image. It wasn't really a review section; I think it might have reverted back for the remaining issues to being more of a book reviews section. For the most part, it was a chance for people to glom on to something they were obsessed with or interested in and just spiral out about it for 1,000 words, 2,000 words. And eventually, after doing that job for a year and a half, I got hired at The Times. I say a lot of my work hasn't been in book reviews, per se. I don't pursue book reviews as book reviews; they are an occasion for me to think through a question that I have for myself, or to chase a feeling or an effect or a thought that crossed my mind. As an editor, I try to push people away from having ideas that can be chiseled into stone. It's hard for me to imagine a genre like the book review being able to convey a thought that can stand the test of time, and it should just be part of a passing conversation or thought. I'm sure I've written book reviews where I've changed my mind about the book a week after it's come out and I go back to these reviews I wrote three or four years ago and find that after rereading the book, my mind is completely changed. Which I think is fine. My ideal form of criticism is the passing thought that you alight upon and catch via writing, but then might dissolve after that.
BD: So what's constant and ongoing is the conversation. It's also an internal conversation with whatever object happens to spark that response. I think that's similar to what you were saying, Aaron. It's being plugged in and entering that stream, that ongoing stream — not really thinking of the review as a finished product, not really thinking of it as the final word — the antithesis of the academic, for-the-record review. Julian, tell us about your own experience and where you land on this spectrum.
JULIAN LUCAS: Sure. I knew I wanted to write and write about literature from high school, but I thought initially that I would end up where some of our other panelists have in academia. As an undergraduate, I wrote a senior thesis on Derek Walcott and Ishmael Reed. I was very interested in Afro-Diasporic religion and the history of the African diaspora and the way that novelists and poets pursued formal strategies to address this history. I really was set to apply to graduate school, I just wanted to take a little break first. But I had an opportunity, through an internship I had done, to take a job at Cabinet Magazine, and move to Brooklyn to do that after spending some time in Benin and Senegal. I really loved working on a magazine. It was a small office. We didn't publish book reviews, but I became immersed in the world of magazines, and I started encountering critics that I really loved — Hilton Als, Margo Jefferson, Brian Dillon, who actually wrote for Cabinet while I was there, and at the same time I knew Hilton from an event. And through him, I met Bob Silvers, and I got my first chance to write book reviews at The New York Review of Books. At first, I stuck to things that were thematically related to what I thought were ultimately going to be an academic project. I wrote about Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, I wrote about Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad. I found that I just really loved book reviewing. I love getting to turn my attention to one book after the other, and I felt myself wanting to branch out. In about 2017, I couldn't continue full-time at Cabinet, there wasn't the budget for me to stay, but luckily, at the same time, more freelance opportunities were opening up to me. I started writing as a contributing writer at The New York Times Book Review, and got to try my hand at some literary essays about books. And later, I think the moment that I was like, "Okay, I feel like I'm a book critic now," is in 2018 to 2019. I was one of the people who did the Harper's New Books column. I do other forms of writing, but I feel like book reviewing is something that I can't imagine going away from. As for the spectrum we've been talking about, I've actually always felt torn between where Christian is, you know, the idea of the literary criticism as a totally stand-alone, etched in stone. That's, I think, where I started, but if you take that approach all the time, sometimes you can't be as plugged into conversations in the way that Aaron is talking. I don't know if I've resolved for myself how to do both of those things, if that makes sense.
BD: It does make sense. And it actually brings up a point that Jane mentioned and other people have mentioned, as well. I like to pose it to Jane: the review as not only a vehicle for a conversation with a certain publication, or a vehicle for one's own thoughts or worldview, but as a piece that is engaged with broader social issues. So cultural criticism by means of the reviews of cultural artifacts. Could you tell us a little bit about your experience as a cultural critic, writing book reviews. Is it a comfortable place to be, responding to books with the aim of delivering perhaps a more important message outside of purely literary discourse?
JH: My first and probably last passion will be literary criticism. And I see that as you know, Ismail mentioned, at The Believer I see that as a very much capacious category. I don't think it's necessarily medium-specific to the object. I heard this in some of the other LARB sessions. The work of close reading is what good literary criticism does, right? That can manifest in all sorts of cultural objects. Coming across it in real life, in real density, you know, I grew up in a very nonliterate household. My parents are Chinese immigrants. We did not have a lot of books and we definitely did not subscribe to any journals or magazines. I first got literary criticism beyond high school, in the critical essays you were taught to write in college. I got it through academia, or scholarship, first and foremost, and I still go back to some of the first works of literary criticism that I read by Eve Sedgwick or D. A. Miller in works from the '80s and '90s. They're totally of their time. They're of their deconstructive moment, of Yale School literary theory, but they're also totally contemporary. I don't really see, maybe that's because I don't want to see as much of a difference between really good scholarly literary criticism and contemporary public writings. My ideal literary criticism is not etched in stone, but it stands right. It stands, and it reads differently now. But it's no less sort of relevant because of that.
BD: Less a statue, more an organic creature.
JH: I like meta readings of literary criticism, too. One reason I was so drawn, as I think a lot of reader friends of mine in and outside of academia are, to Sianne Ngai's work when I first read Ugly Feelings, I realized, "Oh, she's reading Spivak's scholarship as a kind of literature, like, she's reading literary criticism as a kind of literary text." That was extremely exciting to me. This is a long-winded way of answering your question. That lens of literary criticism that places texts in their cultural or sociopolitical, geopolitical moment, in which we can retroactively return to, right? The story doesn't end with the writing or the first time reading a piece of literary criticism. That hermeneutic is really useful. I like reading novels more than poetry for this because I think that novels carry, in their genres, ways of looking at the world and moving through narrative spaces that continue to be pertinent to our current moment. I really believe that. They are good vehicles for smuggling in by the writer. Whatever moment that they're writing in, that they might not even be aware of, and then similarly, I think they're interesting vehicles for smuggling in — I don't know why I'm thinking of it as smuggling — but the work that cultural criticism can do is very effective through fiction that already has built-in narratives.
BD: That was an excellent answer to my question, not roundabout at all. And it brings up another question, which is also something I began to talk about earlier: the construction of an audience. I want to ask those among you who are not just reviewers, but also editors or have been in a position of editing a piece of the kind that Jane describes, which is a highly intellectualized approach to book reviewing: how do you square that with whatever venue you're editing for? How do you square it with your audience's needs and ability to access that kind of work? What is the general reader, in your view, of the journals you've edited? Maybe I'll start with Christian, because you've been both an editor and a reviewer, so you've seen it from both sides. How do you conceive of the audience when you're editing as opposed to writing your own reviews?
CL: The London Review of Books certainly had and has a lot of crossover between your general reader and a lot of the readership as well as the contributors are academic specialists in history, science, you know. Judith Butler is in there, Jacqueline Rose, some high-level philosophers. When I worked there, there were about eight of us sitting around in a circle and some of us were more specialized when it came to the academics than others. It was a different experience than editing at The New York Observer, which was more of a pop-type situation. You just have to trust the intelligence of your readership, generally. They'll come to you because you're giving them what they're interested in. Editors are generally best off trusting their own tastes and curiosity and always trying to expand on that in finding new writers and widening the subject matter of their publications.
BD: Thank you for that. And I want to ask other editors who entered editing a little bit later, at a different kind of venue. This is the first time that we're talking expressly about the internet. I think the internet really does change the way we edit for our audiences. I personally feel that I have great liberty at the L.A. Review of Books, because I think the pieces will find their readers. I can publish a piece that is extremely intellectualized. I know that it won't get a great number of hits from the general reader, but it will find its passionate readers. I know it'll have a life beyond the pages of any weekly publication or monthly publication. Ismail and Julian and Aaron, whoever wants to answer this, do you feel the same way in your positions — that you have greater liberty in the digital age, to vary the material that you publish, to let people range in new and interesting ways?
IM: The Times is not The Believer. There's a particular spectrum that we're working in at the magazine. To give an example, one of the two examples: I wrote a profile of Maggie Nelson for the magazine a few months ago. Speaking of comments, Christian brought up comments, the comments section on that profile. Wow. Their comments boiled down to, "What the hell is this? I can't understand what you are or Nelson are saying." And that is one kind of Times reader. A few weeks later, I edited a profile of the novelist Gayl Jones, who's a relatively obscure African American novelist who disappeared about 20 years ago, who was edited by Toni Morrison, one of the first practitioners of contemporary Black feminist fiction. That profile was incredibly popular, despite not really being a profile because Gayl Jones is reclusive and wouldn't sit down for a portrait or for an interview at all. I don't know what the page reads were, I don't look at that data, but I am on Twitter so I saw how it was doing on there and I got so many people emailing me about it and stalking me out in Oakland to talk about it. Because of the internet, you can trust that people will find their way to things that are important to them or that resonate with them. Which is why I think that idea about having a conversation with yourself about the punctum that animates your interest — it feels possible, or has always felt possible for me, because you could trust that you get this expanded audience of people who will also find that punctum interesting. I'll never forget we used to have a book festival in Oakland that sadly stopped being organized, maybe like three or four years ago. I was on a panel, I written a piece about Dana Schutz, that painting, and Emmett Till. It was in Real Life Magazine and was a fairly high-level, high-concept piece that quoted from Saidiya Hartman and Toni Morrison and Leigh Raiford, various academics. At the end of the panel, a high school student from Oakland, a Black girl, stopped me was like, "Did you write this piece, I really loved it." And proceeded to talk through the ideas. I was teaching at Cal at that point, as a grad student, and I was like, "My undergrads can't even, like, process a short story sometimes. And, here, you read this thing." It gave me faith I think that I still hold today that things circulate, right? I don't feel nervous in writing about an obscure literary or cultural figure or assigning a piece about an obscure literary or cultural figure or an idea, because it'll find its way and then, hopefully, metastasize over time.
BD: Yeah, very well put. Julian, do you feel the same way?
JL: I think that's one of the few encouraging things about the internet's effect on criticism. The niche and the weird can find its audience in a much bigger way than before. And that was beautiful to see with that Gayl Jones profile, not that she should be niche in any way, but that spread happening. As an editor, I've been somewhat spoiled by not having to think about that. I did most of my editing at Cabinet, which is an aggressively untimely magazine. We're based on the idea of curiosity, and really just letting writers explore intellectual interests without any reference to relevance and to just completely follow their curiosity. But there's something beautiful about seeing people do work at a place like that, that then can spread very widely, which the internet makes possible. I got to commission pieces there, we had a column on colors, for example. A writer and friend, Namwali Serpell, who I got to commission to write basically a short story essay about turquoise. This is far from book reviewing, though. I have to admit that I haven't done much editing of book reviews, even though I've been an editor at a Cabinet. And at the point, I've mostly edited other kinds of writing.
BD: Aaron, have you edited many book reviews for Popula?
AB: Yeah, not Popula, but at The New Inquiry we would run book reviews. But The New Inquiry was and is the kind of publication that would only run a book review if there was something interesting to say about it, right. "What is the occasion for this to become an interesting conversation," and this is one of the weird things where we're talking about book reviews as if it's one object, but actually there are the kinds of book reviews that circulate in canonizing space. These are the important books that we know people will be reading, so there's going to be Franzen, Sally Rooney, Colson Whitehead. There are going to be those people that are going to get reviewed, right? The thing with something like LARB and your ability to edit an astonishing number of pieces allows for. You can do reviews of the things that wouldn't fit into that category like things that are truly niche or things that are just going to have to wait for their audience. When I was an academic, I came out of African literature. African literature is and will always have a strange place in American publishing, because it can't be mainstream, and it won't be mainstream, but then that often means there isn't room for it in the mainstream journals, right? Because there isn't room for much of anything in the mainstream journals, except for what is the mainstream American literary conversation. You end up with one African writer who gets reviewed in the big magazines. That's something that the internet can allow. With an endless amount of space, suddenly that constraint goes away, and the world of literature becomes a much more hospitable place to inhabit. If you can find the person who has something to say about a thing that can bring it into the conversation. That's why I find internet reviewing a much more congenial place to live as a writer.
BD: Well, thank you for saying that. I do think that that is very much what we aim for, that kind of congenial space. I do wonder though, when we publish reviews, more and more frequently, of literature in translation, literature from other parts of the world, even Anglophone literature from Africa and Asia and other parts of the world, whether we're not, unfortunately, still speaking to that same small number of people — creating a space for them to speak. But are we reaching new audiences? As editors of major print publications that arrive on people's doorsteps every week and have a certain set of things under review, you have greater power. Those publications still enjoy greater power in terms of breaking through for certain authors, getting those authors into another realm. Christian, when you were editing at the LRB, was that a conscious sense of responsibility that you and your fellow editors carried?
CL: Yes. The LRB has a decent record on that score, which can be attributed to the boss's eclecticism. There were some times when she would send out an order, commission more reviews of novels in translation. Then it takes a few months for the pieces to come in. I forget the title of the novel [Blinding], but I got a piece by a really good writer named Marty Riker about Mircea Cărtărescu's novel that's themed on butterflies, considered by many to be a late modernist masterpiece, that it just appeared in translation. Then the boss said, "Well, this is a little heavy, maybe we should assign more thrillers." A lot of brilliant editors of publications like that have a tendency to correct one way and then correct another. [Abdulrazak] Gurnah just won the Nobel Prize and two of the biggest pieces about his work in English, or in the US or UK, were in the LRB. There could have been more, perhaps. When I was working there, there was always a sense that we were never going to be perfect, but issue after issue, you get it right sometimes.
BD: Thank you for that. I think this is a pretty good place to remind people to leave their questions in the Q&A. We already have a good one. In fact, I think I'll leap to that question. The question is to Aaron and others, from Gabe Yoon-Milner. Can you speak some more to the ways in which rejecting gatekeeping attunes you to a different mode of engaging literature? If it does?
AB: Would you like me to answer that?
BD: Yes, please, Aaron.
AB: It's a hard question, but I do think there is a way when I've gotten deep into a writer, when you have those kinds of projects where you can really spend time with a writer, you start to learn how impossibly eccentric their canon is, right? You start to learn — the people they're reading are just wildly different than the people that you can assume that your readers will have read. It can be difficult to write to an assumed audience. When you try to assume who you're writing for, it can be difficult to bring that incredible strangeness of who the person you're working on, who they've been influenced by, who they're writing through, who their predecessors are. There's a freedom to — I don't know if this is what Gabe means by against gatekeepers — letting those questions go, that allows you to get much deeper into what a writer is really about.
BD: I like that. Christian, you had a nuanced reading of the role of the gatekeeper in your piece. Could you say a little bit more about that? I know, probably, the term gatekeeper is offensive to everyone, but maybe you can speak a little bit more about creating the kind of culture that you want to see, which was the thesis.
CL: I don't really like the concept of gatekeeping so much because I've found, in my experience, these magazines go on and on. If you miss a writer as a contributor, or you miss a writer as a subject they'll probably another chance to get that right. A lot of these places that are thought of as gatekeeping institutions are more permeable than people starting out imagine them to be. The line about creating the culture you want to be a part of, that was something Keith Gessen said when he was reflecting on starting n+1, and it's something that's generally stuck with me and kept me going as I make my modest contribution to the discourse. In my own writings on the state of book reviewing, I've generally felt that there are some editors who, and some places who, have allowed things to be diluted in the name of poptimism or a literary journalism that imitates celebrity discourse. There's been in some places, although maybe less so this past year, a devaluing of the book review itself. That was my experience a few years ago at New York Magazine, where I was basically told to invent a different kind of book criticism that was not based on reviewing one book at a time. And then eventually my job was eliminated. They've since corrected that, and they just hired Andrea Long Chu and her pieces are going to be very exciting to read. I thought it was strange that this was happening at a time when there are a lot of exciting young critics like everybody on this panel, of which I believe I'm the only person who's not young. Anyhow, not sure where I'm going here.
BD: I appreciate that.
CL: I think as long as the intellectual energy is coming from young people, like you guys, there's a reason to be optimistic about the state of literary and intellectual culture.
BD: We're all of a certain age. And let's just all call each other old dogs for the purposes of this discussion. One question that I'd like to ask, building on what Gabe asked earlier: How do we, let's say five years, 10 years into our professional lives, learn to like new things? How do we open up our own horizons as critics? How do we stay active, responding to new material? Julian, I see you nodding. I'm going to go with you.
JL: I was nodding in an effort to generate thoughts that were not there yet. But I can try. For me, it just has to be the willingness to do more homework. The force that tends to keep me reviewing things that are already in my familiar ambit, is really: "Oh, great. I've already read all the books by this person. I've read their contemporaries. I've read the people they were influenced by." The thing that might keep me away from something new is usually there's so much that I don't know and there's so much that I could get wrong. Like Aaron was saying, when you really delve into someone who is a very mainstream writer, and you delve into everything they've written and you delve into what they've read, it's very strange. You're presented with having to make choices where there are not clear right and wrong answers. That's also the most exciting part of the process for me. Just to name one experience, a review that took me way too long — I wrote for The New York Review about Scholastique Mukasonga's work. That was a case where I got completely lost in the history of Rwanda and its culture and literature. At one point, I was looking at the dissertation of this priest, who had also translated epic poems in the '60s, and I was so shamefully late on it. But that's also the thrill of book reviewing for me, why I chose it over graduate school — obviously, the two are compatible — but the opportunity to be sucked into that new and strange unknown that Aaron was talking about. You have to be willing to accept more homework. If you stay that way, you can remain open to the new.
BD: That's a great response. And Jane, we're not all trying to get you to leave academia, I promise. This isn't an intervention. I have another question from the Q&A. Kavita Das asks, given this great conversation on the dynamic versus static nature of book reviews, have any of the panelists ever rereviewed a book? Have you gone back to revise your opinion? Or have you addressed books that you've reviewed earlier in a different way in subsequent pieces?
CL: I did once with Don DeLillo, Cosmopolis, which I thought was out of touch when it first came out, but then after the 2008 financial crisis seemed to me very prescient.
BD: So that was a positive reassessment?
CL: It strictly happened because I usually have written about DeLillo when the chance comes because he's a boyhood favorite of mine. Even though I also did not grow up in a very literary household or anything. My dad did, for some reason, have copies of End Zone and Underworld just sitting there the whole time waiting for me to discover them as a teenager.
BD: Do you have any counterexamples, perhaps things that you would now refuse to revisit but have really altered your opinion about certain books? Are there pieces of which any one of you is not necessarily, let's say embarrassed, but you really feel that they are of their time? Nobody wants to fess up to that.
AB: I won't fess up to that, but I did, as you know because you edited it, I recently published a review of a Bolaño. This novel about Roberto Bolaño, where he becomes a Peruvian. And it was an occasion to read a lot of Bolaño that I had not read, since the Bolaño explosion happened 10 years ago, right? A lot of people read The Savage Detectives in 2007. I was trying to write about a novel that was just published, even though it was translated from a few years ago by the Spanish novelist Javier Serena. But it allowed me to do the thing I'm always trying to do, which is escape from the event of publication and just think about Bolaño, and the timeliness of Bolaño, and how different it is to read Bolaño now than it was in 2007. And how that was different than when he was writing his novels in the late '90s and early 2000s. And how actually, those novels in the late '90s and early 2000s are very much of their time. Now we feel an estrangement — I feel an estrangement from that time that I maybe didn't in 2006, 2007, 2008, when 2666 was coming out and blowing up. That's the writing that I was and am trying to find a way to do to, to think across those different timescales and get away from the promotional material that fills everyone in this Zoom chat's inbox, right? We all get that constant push from publishers who are trying to make the publication of a new novel, with such good intentions. They're trying to desperately get some great writer a little bit of precious oxygen and light. It's so hard to break through. But also, the force of that promotional machine can sometimes take over the discourse, and it can become the path of least resistance for writers and editors commissioning, and figuring out, "What am I going to write next? Well, oh, hey, this is coming out. I'll check that out. And it's probably going to be great!" But pretty soon the coverage gets shaped by that event-ness of publication dates, and a new novel by so and so.
BD: Aaron, you're really talking my language. I'm glad I'm not the only one who's noticed this. Before I add my two cents, I want to say that Aaron's piece ["The Bolaño Boom: On Javier Serena's 'Last Words on Earth'"] is in the chat, and you can easily find it on our site. It ran on Monday, it's a wonderful piece, everyone ought to read it. Now, I'll say that I have noticed, of course, as an editor that the coverage of big books takes a pretty predictable shape, especially in the last three or four years. It's a flood of positive and not particularly insightful reviews. And then there's one brilliant takedown that garners a lot of attention. And then we rest the case and move on to the next big thing. It can get very tiring. Christian, you tackle big books all the time.
CL: I just did Rooney. I had written a fairly generous review of Conversations with Friends that a friend of mine said, "Your review was technically positive, but it seemed to me you didn't actually like that book." I felt she was talented. It was better first novel than most I was seeing at the time, and I was reviewing a book every week back then, or two. With the three of them piled up, I saw patterns across the novels that I couldn't help but be more critical of and, I suppose, less generous toward. I'm working on a late Franzen piece right now and I wrote about Purity when it came out, and I've tried to avoid looking at the reviews of Crossroads so far. I'm not going to look at them until I basically have my draft ready to go. I'm just trying to keep the noise out and hope that my own reading and my own piece that I write will stand on its own relative to the flood of enthusiasm for this big new tome about a church youth group in 1971. It's still fun to write about books that everyone's talking about. It's also fun to write about obscure writers no one's ever heard of. I luckily have the chance to do both.
BD: Ismail, you were going to say something. But I do want to ask you a question as well.
IM: Just to offer a brief rebuttal to the characterization of the cycles of reviews. With that history, you have the flood of or the fuse of positive reviews and then the one hatchet job, but then there's always the aftermath —
BD: Yes, right.
IM: — six months to a year later, because of the temporality of the internet, something really interesting pops up. Or because of the broadness of the media landscape at this point. Somewhere on the media map that were not paying attention to, something interesting pops up. That's what keeps me going: the thrill of finding that review either sometime down the line or somewhere that I wasn't anticipating finding it.
JL: It's never too late for someone to move past the noise around the release and really say something true. The book I've noticed this most about, or I paid the most attention to, was when Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad came out, it very much followed that pattern Aaron described: flood of huge reviews, and then one or two hatchet jobs. What struck me, because I had also reviewed it so I could judge, was how both the celebrations and the castigation, it seemed to me, ended up being more about the idea of the book than the book itself. They ended up celebrating this beautiful story of a runaway fighting for freedom. Then there was one castigation I read that saw it as a concession to wokeness that Whitehead was making. Across many of these reviews, what was missed was that this was neither. This was a Voltarian allegory, which is mixing and matching different parts of US history. I often ask myself: "How much is this a response to a presumed audience or an imagined moment? And how much is it a response to what's actually in the book?" That can be one of the risks of reviewing as cultural criticism, even though that can be a wonderful thing as well.
BD: That's a very balanced and important point. I really appreciate that, that's a great example. Somewhere between the response six months after the book's publication and rereviewing something a decade later, two decades later, and reprofiling, I want to go back to what Ismail said, this revisiting. Can you name or would you be willing to name — this suddenly feels like HUAC — but would you be willing to name the books that you've changed your mind about? Or at least perhaps one book, and tell us what the context of that change was, if you can? If not, that's perfectly fine. It's just very curious.
IM: Jesmyn Ward's Sing, Unburied, Sing, came on out in 2019, 2018 — I have not rereviewed that book, I've gone back to reread it. When it came out, obviously we were in a very particular political context. That was one the first books that I was assigned to review upon release, as opposed to writing in the aftermath of the media cycle. There was an impulse to, and to speak to what Julian was saying, to write to the moment that the book is arriving in, right? Which is a pressure that all critics are prone to. What I couldn't do as I was reviewing that book in the month that I had to review it, was go back and consider the echoes between Ward's novel and Toni Morrison's body of work, or to read through some other contemporary fictional engagements with the questions of the Black diaspora, or the Black South, or police brutality. Now, that book has been placed in a different critical context. I wouldn't review that book the same way that I did when it came out — which is not to say that the book is worse, or that I would review it worse now. When I review books, I'm not evaluating quality so much as thinking through the ideas at play in them. My ideas about that book's place in the American literary landscape is totally different right now.
BD: That makes a great deal of sense. I'm going to move on to another question in the Q&A, from Peter Morgan, which also returns us to the listicles and the consumerist elements of book selling. And the question is: Curious about how literary critics deal with the proliferation of amateur critical forms of book vloggers, TikTok, Goodreads, Amazon reviews, all of that. Does anyone have strong opinions about that realm of book reviewing? Does it interfere with your work at all? Or is it simply another contributing factor?
IM: You have to know your lane, right?
AB: I love it. Treating it as an almost sociological object, right? It's not criticism, it's not going to be good criticism, it's not going to be good readings. But you do get insight into how people read, right? The thing I learned as a bookseller was that I had no idea how people read. I had done a PhD in literature, and I thought I understood how people read. Then I started interacting with people in the bookstore. And no, I had no idea — everyone is so random and so particular and so specific and weird, and you don't have insight. I did not have the insight I thought I had. With all of the amateur or all of the stuff that bubbles up around books: there's one little candle in a giant darkness. You get a little bit of light into seeing how people are reacting to these texts that then makes it easier to figure out what your own reactions are. And to sometimes see, "Oh, I'm having that same knee-jerk reaction, maybe I should think a little deeper, or I didn't respond to that part at all, maybe I should think more about that." It might be bad criticism, but it's still such an interesting experience.
BD: I completely agree. May I share a story of my own about Goodreads or Amazon? I forget which one it was, I think it was Goodreads. I don't get that many reviews for my publications on Goodreads. I'm eagerly awaiting the next one to drop. I once edited a collection of stories and poems written during the period of the Russian Revolution and Civil War. I wanted to give a fairly full picture of the many positions one could take at that time and the way those positions were refracted through literature. I, of course, had my own position, but I didn't want that to be evident. One very committed Marxist saw right through me. I had never felt so seen. He didn't call me a reactionary, he called me a Menshevik. I was pinpointed. It was really remarkable. So there are good readers out there. Christian, are you anti-tech?
CL: I never had a smart phone until last fall. I guess I've had one for a year now. I'm old, I just don't really have the bandwidth to pay attention to all that stuff. I don't know. There are definitely some people on Twitter who tweet about their reading. My favorite one is this guy named Steve Abernathy. And we email with each other. He lives in San Francisco and he's one of the people I think of as my audience. But TikTok, it seems like people are having fun on there, so that's cool. But mostly I have my head in books or magazines.
BD: Well, speaking of books, another question on that topic, if you're publishing works, other than criticism, or hope to — I think books is what this person is asking about — how do you find the courage to write a negative, more critical review of a book, considering that so much of the publishing world seems fueled by social capital? Do you ever worry about burning bridges? Anyone? Christian, why not?
CL: It's already happened. You can't help it, you just got to write your pieces. I've certainly probably pissed some people off. That's neither my intention nor do I think of it as personal. I think of myself as writing mostly about American literature, and sometimes English literature, because that's what I know better. There are occasional exceptions to that. People tease me that I don't write enough about novels in translation. But I know there are other people who are more competent at it than I am. I'm not out to hurt anybody's feelings, but I'm sure it's happened. I sit in my room, I have a few friends I talk to on the phone every day, and just try to keep the pieces coming out and the money coming in.
BD: I do wonder whether that kind of professional life, which sounds in some ways enviable, is common these days — whether there is an economic space for people who can piece together a good living either as staff reviewers, or as freelancers with high talent and high demand for their work. I'm sure it exists. It does give you a certain luxury, not to fear burning bridges, because people expect of you a fair assessment. Aaron, do you ever feel the danger?
AB: Yeah, we all do it. The short answer is that you try to be a good citizen of the community and hope that, in whoever you might have pissed off, your good deeds will out balance your sins and then just let the chips fall where they may. Book reviews are always dying, but it seems harder to write book reviews in an age where every author needs to promote their book, or it'll disappear without a trace. The stakes seem very high now. Maybe everyone is saying book reviews are bad for different reasons, in different decades. One of the problems right now is that people can't not take a negative review personally. I've had weird Twitter spats with authors who I reviewed, I thought, quite fairly, who went on tirades. It's a very difficult thing to balance out.
BD: You should hear what Bolaño wrote.
AB: He hates me, he can't stand me. Because authors may only get a handful of reviews, they can't deal with a bad one. If you're only going to get one or two reviews, there isn't the space for there to be a breadth. And maybe authors are always going to be authors, and their friends are always going to take things quite personally. It does seem to be a symptom of the limitations of our print sphere that there's often not room for the contentious conversations we would like to have, and you might accept, if it weren't, "This is my one chance to get a review in The New Yorker. They better damn well give me a good one."
BD: Certainly. Do those of you who edit or write for the kind of publications that really do matter to a writer's career, where a negative review can feel like the end of it all, do you sense that responsibility? Julian, you've just started with The New Yorker, but you've contributed before.
JL: Once you've accepted to review a book, you've agreed to be honest about it, and you can't worry about that. I've certainly declined to review things that I sense I won't like, and I don't think I'll dislike in an interesting way. Sometimes you think you won't like something, but you'll want to engage with it either because you want to say this is a constructive project, and it should be advanced in a different way, or because whoever wrote it, you don't believe what they believe, and you want to rebut it. There's a big middle category of books where you sense you're not going to like them, and you might not have anything interesting to say about the fact that you don't like them. If you do end up being assigned to review them, you go ahead, and you'll be honest. I don't think any critic should feel compelled to seek out books that aren't that great if it's put before us. When an author is considered in a major publication, and maybe it's their first or only outing, if it's someone who has written a lot of other books, I try to get a sense of their whole career. I just reviewed a book by Percival Everett, The Trees. Christian also reviewed it, and I enjoyed it a lot. It was far from my favorite of his books, and my review was positive. I was not completely enraptured by the book, but many of his other books had me laughing until I cried and were absolutely brilliant. You try to give a sense of what someone's broader accomplishments are, or if it's a first book, what you think the promise might be. Of course, you don't want to lie about that — it's become a cliche to say it's very promising and maybe they could do this or that. Sometimes you honestly do see someone who's written a debut novel, and it doesn't hang together, but they write beautiful, descriptive prose. You have to approach it with responsibility, but honesty is the ultimate responsibility.
BD: Yes. Jane, would you agree? As still firmly in the academic world? All knives are bared in book reviews in academia. You're supposed to be viciously honest, if nothing else. Do you bring some of that same sense of responsibility to reviews of cultural items outside academia?
JH: I agree with a lot of what Julian just said. I've declined to review books where I sense that it might not be worth trying to parse out an interesting or an uninteresting review that I don't feel suited for. In my tiny Venn diagram overlap of studying contemporary Asian American and Asian-authored literature in school and as a scholar, and then often being asked, in an Orientalizing or an interpolated way, to review that for the public, whether fiction or nonfiction, there's an interesting pressure point there because of the notorious underrepresentation of Asians in American culture. There are certainly a lot of Asians everywhere, right? That's a commonplace. In terms of literary high media representation, there is a true burden of representation, both for the creative artists and for the cultural critic. Not to throw the whole project of Asian Americans under the bus, to put it not very politely. The question of representation and representativeness becomes fairly fraught. You both feel that you can't afford not to take on the task of trying to convey the message of an author in a way that doesn't feel generalizing. The category of the Monolith is already overwhelmingly present. It's just really hard. There are a few lines, a few rails that you're drawing together. I don't imagine that everyone on this panel would agree with me, but as someone who's still in academia, I do see reviewing as a public service. When it comes to uneven forms of racial representation in cultural criticism, that's just an extra labor that you're always measuring when you decide to take on and convey something in the most generous light possible. You're being honest, but you're also trying to be fair to the broader circumstances and history of publication and coverage that certain historically underrepresented groups get. You're trying to balance out history whenever you're reviewing something recent.
BD: That's a fundamental point. And in fact, it leads very well into the last question that we'll be able to discuss before we draw this discussion to a close. And the question is, you've talked about revisiting your own reviews, but I'm wondering if you feel there's a collective societal responsibility to rereview the classics periodically? The books that make it into curricula, the hallowed or, in some cases, tolerated books. And that develops a little bit on what you were saying, Jane. This is open to anyone who would like to respond. Ismail, do you think, in your position, for instance, the profile that we were just talking about, as revisiting of something that perhaps ought to be a classic that has been ommitted? Do you think that we should do the same for books that are very much firmly ensconced?
IM: No. As an editor and a critic, my job has been to try to continually expand the boundaries of the canon. When you do that, you're generating more friction, more conversation, and it becomes clear to readers, whether they're in the academy or in publishing or just lay readers, it becomes clear what belongs and what doesn't over time. If Imani Perry's profile of Gayl Jones does elevate her to a more appropriate place in the canon of African American literature, I wonder what effect that has upon how we conceive of the canon. As for going back to rereviewing a book that we agree to be good, I don't really see the value in it.
BD: Yeah. I very much like that idea of a positive intervention in the canon rather than necessarily knocking something out. But I think maybe the question is, perhaps about knocking things out, reassessing works that are already in the canon and you know that in the current context are not doing very good work. Aaron, do you have any thoughts on that, or anyone else?
AB: I think it often depends on how happy you are with the canon or however it construed. Reanalyzing the canon just perpetuates it, right? Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness has been criticized a million ways up and down, in terms of its place in African Studies and discourse about Africa, and it won't go away. There is a strangeness in the more you criticize something that you think shouldn't be there, the more it nails it down in place. Like Ismail is saying, the work is finding the thing that never got to be a classic, the stuff that was out there and that nobody's read. If we could put it back there and do a literary critical version of taking a time machine back to whenever and saying, "Let's read this person that you never heard of alongside of the canon that you know." That's a really powerful and interesting gesture that expands the literary world in fascinating ways.
BD: I couldn't agree more. As Conrad said, "No publicity is bad publicity." Well, thank you very much, everyone, for this wonderful discussion, which actually left me feeling very hopeful about the state of book reviewing. And I hope that our audience feels the same way. Thank you again to Irene for organizing this entire set of sessions. Thank you all and sundry for supporting us over the past 10 years. With your help, we will continue this conversation into the next decade.
AB: Thank you, Boris.
CL: Thanks for having us.
JL: Thank you, had so much fun.
Ismail Muhammad is a story editor at The New York Times Magazine. His writing has appeared in The New Yorker, Paris Review, Bookforum, and other venues. He lives in Oakland.
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