“An ideal, awesome job,”—that’s how Sam Anderson, at several points in our conversation, describes his position as book critic for New York Magazine. In that capacity, he’s written serious essays on DeLillo’s novels and DFW’s death, entered into the obligatory agon with James Wood, talked up his influences, and won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle’s award for “Excellence in Reviewing.”
This might seem like book-reviewing-as-usual, but one thing setting Anderson apart is his style. His reviews tend to be funny, playful, and earnest. These tendencies get crystallized in Anderson’s “imitative reviews,” which take on the style of their subjects and work in the normal review tropes—summary, context, verdict—around the edges. They can be good (this one on Donald Barthelme) or not-so-good (this one on Richard Price), but, either way, they’ve proven to be surprisingly, harshly polarizing. (We could bury ourselves under blog posts, but here’s a quick study in contrasts.)
(An aside: Isn’t any attempt at humor inherently hit-or-miss? Isn’t it much easier to reach a broad, basic level of competency while holding forth to the reader than while needling her? Aren’t Creativity and Degree-of-Difficulty worthy aesthetic criteria? And, finally, honestly, aren’t authors like Barthelme and Price doing just fine in the book review department, making an alternate take more than welcome?)
In addition to reviews, Anderson writes essays both personal and journalistic. These include shorter Slate pieces and longer attempts—notably “Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Joyce,” a literary travelogue the American Scholar named its best essay for 2004, and, more recently, “In Defense of Distraction,” which dominated New York‘s most-read and -commented lists. In the following interview, edited lightly for clarity and heavily for concision (just email me if you want to know his dissertation topic), Anderson talks about reading, reviewing, and evangelizing.
Rumpus: So, why’d you leave academia for journalism? Or maybe we should start with: why’d you get into academia?
Anderson: Academia seems like a very official word to use—I was really just in grad school. And I’m still in grad school, technically. I have a dissertation that’s in limbo. Anyway, all through college I wanted to be a writer, and I always thought the smartest writers were also the best readers. I applied to a handful of MFA programs and a handful of English PhD programs, and I was really torn about what to do. It turned out that NYU offered me money I could live on and New York City, and none of the MFA programs had that combination.
Rumpus: Did your time spent in grad school influence your magazine stuff?
Anderson: Yeah, I really benefited as a writer and reader by going to grad school. My voice, when it’s really hitting the way I want it to, is a blend between academic jargony stuff and really colloquial, engaging stuff. I think a lot of people who do magazine criticism or even creative writing are too skeptical and dismissive of academic thinking.
Rumpus: Let’s finish filling in the background—how did you end up at New York?
Anderson: Even before NYU, I got a master’s at LSU, took some classes in literary nonfiction. I started writing little essays and reviews—for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the Christian Science Monitor, then the Oxford American. But it was the Joyce essay in the American Scholar that got noticed, which was amazing. I got an agent because of that, and he put me in touch with Slate, where for the last year I’d been banging my head against a wall to get into. People always ask how I broke into bigger places, and I’m a little sad to tell them it’s because my agent was great pals with a Slate editor. This proposal I’d pitched them on my own that had gone nowhere—it was on the comedian Mitch Hedberg—my agent sent it over to Slate and they were like, “Yeah, let’s see it.”
Rumpus: But you never did any book coverage for Slate.
Anderson: No, I don’t think I wrote a single book piece for Slate. Even when New York hired me, it was to do online sports stuff. After they got to know me, I said, “My dream job is to be a book critic.” They happened to have an opening, they auditioned me, and I got it.
Rumpus: It seems like the first thing people notice about your writing are the “imitative reviews.” Can you describe them? Are they parody, homage, or a blend of both?
Anderson: I’d define it as a review written in the style of the book it’s reviewing, and I should add that I’m far from the first to do this. [For example, Updike.] To answer your question, I’d say it’s a blend that leans toward homage. To get that deep inside a style, to the point where you can reproduce it, you have to have a pretty healthy respect for it. But the first one I ever wrote, for the Cincinnati Review, a really good journal that will do three reviews of the same book, was on J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. In that case, I really disliked the book, so it was more of a straight parody.
Rumpus: Do editors resist the idea?
Anderson: It’s a gimmick, and some people just hate it all together. I pitched it to Slate, and they weren’t very receptive. I mentioned it to some other places and they didn’t like it. Then I got the job at New York and just kind of did it. I’ve never met resistance once I finished the piece, but it’s been resisted conceptually.
Rumpus: So why push forward with this? The reviews have to be more work, both to sell and to write.
Anderson: Yeah, if it’s done badly it reads much worse than a regular bad book review. But what the imitative review does really well—that a regular review just can’t do at all—is create the style of the book for the reader, rather than just tell the reader about the style. The reader just experiences it. It communicates a lot very efficiently.
Rumpus: Don’t a couple of block quotes do that too?
Anderson: Unfortunately, there often isn’t space. It’s hard to fit a significant block quote, let alone two or three, into a 1000-word review. But there’s also the entertainment value with the imitative review. You’re creating a mini-literary object for the reader to enjoy, which is something that’s always been important to me. I find so much book criticism to be really boring, really irrelevant. If you can entertain the reader, that’s always a good thing, as long as you can back it up with the kind of grad school seriousness we’ve talked about.
The book review is itself an interesting form. Martin Amis, who’s one of my favorite critics, once said that when a music critic reviews a concert, he doesn’t compose a concert about that show; and when an art critic reviews an art show, he doesn’t paint a picture about that show. But book critics kind of do. Amis said, “When you review a prose-narrative, then you write a prose-narrative about that prose-narrative.” For me, that’s exciting. It’s an opportunity to be artful, rather than to pretend your prose is very formal and transparent.
Rumpus: Here’s what I still don’t get. If an imitative review should be light and cheery, if it shouldn’t take itself too seriously, that sounds like a good cover band at a bar (and I mean this as high praise). But then, like a cover band, it assumes a certain familiarity with the original artist—and I guess with normal book reviews, too.
Anderson: Ideally, an imitative review hits on every level of your audience, starting with people like my mom who’d never heard of Donald Barthelme and thought “Wow, that was really weird.” I don’t think I could sit my mom down and explain to her what Donald Barthelme is like in an interesting or relevant way. At the same time, one of my good friends from grad school who’s a Barthelme nut also loved the review because he recognized the little elements I recycled from Barthelme himself.
Rumpus: Let’s move on to your other reviews. How would you connect the spirit and sensibility behind the “imitative reviews” to the more standard ones?
Anderson: My magazine prose ideal—I formed it in college, when I was reading all the old New Yorker writers like White and Thurber and Dorothy Parker, who is one of my favorite critics—is to be really engaging, no matter how serious the topic, no matter how big the ideas. I want to keep in mind the reader, and my first instinct as a writer is to be funny. I hope that tone runs through all my writing.
Rumpus: New York‘s a general interest city magazine, maybe the best one, so you not only write serious reviews, you also compile stuff like “What to Read This Summer.” I guess I’m wondering if your tone is also a function of that audience. Do you feel the need to evangelize for reading (though I admit that’s hokey way to put it)?
Anderson: Well, you have to be careful when making assumptions about your audience. But you can see how much energy goes into New York‘s fashion coverage and so on. More broadly, you see trends in our culture moving away from reading a 1,300-page book, which is what I’m reading right now, the new William Vollman. So when I write that review next week, a very basic part of my approach will be that 99 percent of my readers will never read this book—will look at it as an archaic and tortuous thing. If I’m excited about a book, I want to write something that makes every person who reads it drop what they’re doing and go out and buy the book.
I came from a family that was lower middle class. They weren’t huge readers, definitely not serious readers. In a way, I feel like an ambassador between that culture and high literary culture. The best compliment I got about that Joyce piece was from family members who said “Now I want to go read Ulysses.” So there is a bit of evangelizing—you want to tell them what they’re missing. That’s not all I’m doing, but it’s always there. And I guess that’s a naive ideal I’ve always had.
Rumpus: Well, to my mind, it’s a good thing. What gets lost when a newspaper’s book section folds isn’t just a few paying review slots, but also the chance that someone will read a review without intending to. I don’t think that’s the case with something like The Rumpus, where the audience kind of self-selects.
Anderson: Right. I’m also really lucky because my editors give me carte blanche to figure out what I want to read and what I want to review. With that power, whatever power it is, I try to be responsible, getting big books everyone reads (Harry Potter), books that are brilliant and literary, little books that just float across my desk from small publishers. One of my very favorite books I’ve reviewed for New York was a little one on Celine Dion [Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love]. And I was so proud—I think I was the first critic, at least in a quote-unquote bigger outlet, to get to it. That was in my slush pile, and I just started reading it and was blown away.
Rumpus: When we were emailing to set this up, you said of your own reviews: “Please only re-read the good ones.” Do you want to talk about the challenges of being a professional book critic?
Anderson: The standard I used to have as a writer was that when you reread the essay, there was not a single word you’d change. I spent like seven months on that Joyce essay. But that’s definitely not a standard you can maintain while writing on a serious professional deadline. It’s one of the many logistical challenges of being a book critic. Another is that you get this title and learn immediately how many books are being published. I mentioned my slush pile—the sheer number of books coming across my desk every day, every week, every month. To keep up with that flow and feel like you’re doing justice to the book industry’s good work is daunting.
Rumpus: Maybe here, we could transition into talking about blogs and books and reading. In early 2008, you wrote, “Although I fully recognize the power of blogs, I’m still internally calibrated to the steadiness of books.” This strikes me as an interesting baseline from which to discuss your “distractions” essay, but, first, does this still describe your online reading habits?
Anderson: Our reading habits are changing so fast that it’s not a silly question to ask if mine have changed since early 2008. This kind of counteracts what I said in the distraction piece, but, for myself, I’ve had to draw a clear line between my time online and my time reading books and writing.
Rumpus: How does New York’s Vulture Reading Room fit in here?
Anderson: Well, I always wanted to start a non-boring book club. We’re trying to figure out how to break the automatic tone of most online book clubs and to try and use online resources to have a different kind of book discussion. A lot of online book club discussions strike me as a little stiff—basically a batch of traditional essays pretending to be a conversation. You could pull them out of context and publish them as book reviews. I wanted to try something that feels more like an actual conversation, like when you’re reading a great comment thread or having a transcendent Gmail chat with a really smart friend, and it feels like you’re covering all kinds of ground very quickly, and no one is speaking in an official media voice.
I’m not sure we’ve actually achieved that yet. We’re still experimenting, and I’d like to work in IM chats, occasional flights of parody, scanned images of particularly interesting marginalia, obsessions over single words, music pairings, instructive doodles—whatever helps people engage, honestly and immediately, with the book in question.
Rumpus: Finally, I wanted to talk about your non-book reviews. I realize you’re not regularly invoking the Freedom of Information Act or anything, but something like “In Defense of Distraction”—it’s 6,000 words of straight magazine journalism. Do the book reviews and the straight journalism speak to each other?
Anderson: The deal with New York is that I’m the book critic and that I do a handful of longer pieces each year. The distraction piece morphed out of a review, actually. I was going to write about [Winifred Gallagher’s] Rapt, a fascinating book that struck me as very relevant. When I turned in a draft, the editors wanted to blow it up into a feature.
But back to your question. Being a book critic is a very strange job. It can be very isolating. You spend a lot of time sitting in a room by yourself, and interacting with actual people can remind you of the outside world. The distractions piece is a great example of how this all connects. I grew up immersed in pop culture, watching MTV and sitcoms every day. My attentional rhythms are different than a book critic’s from fifty years ago. Back then, you could assume a larger chunk of the population had leisure time they were going to devote to books. It was a question only of which books to cover and how to approach them.
Now, there’s such a competitive landscape for people’s attention. The question has become: how do you capture that attention?
First photograph by Morgan&Owen.
“James Joyce, Zurich 1941” by Michael Farrell (1940-2000).