“These things, writing and reading, are never, I don’t think were ever, ever meant to be exclusive from anything else. I think they were always meant to be part of the grand fabric of life.”
Until last year, The San Francisco Chronicle had the nation’s youngest book review editor toiling in its basement. Oscar Villalon, 37, had arrived internally from the paper’s copy desk and had scarcely looked the part. Broad shouldered and rigged at several inches over six feet, he walked with dipped shoulders and resembled an outside linebacker with the USC Trojans, his alma mater that he rooted for religiously.
The man loved football, video games, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and literature on about equal footing. Casual expertise with Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy got him his first job in professional journalism. When we spoke, he had just finished rereading Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March.
In September of 2009, Oscar Villalon became the publisher of McSweeney’s. I spoke to him recently about the state and future of book reviewing, reading and literature’s place in our contemporary culture.
The Rumpus: Tell me a little about your new job and your decision to take the position.
Oscar Villalon: As the publisher here, my responsibilities are varied, but the primary one is to make sure the business is healthy, financially, and that we’re growing. What made me take the job was the idea of working with incredibly talented people who embrace new ideas, and it’s always nice working for a company whose products, if you will, you were already happily devouring.
Rumpus: How did you end up on the books desk at the Chronicle?
Villalon: They were searching for a deputy for a long, long, long time, and for various reasons just couldn’t find one. And basically my boss at the time, she more or less called me into her office and said something along the lines of, “Hey, you read a lot.” Again, you’d be surprised, these papers do not have a lot of big readers. And by reading, I mean stuff like, I brought in, because I started very late with this, but I was reading William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and I had my paperback with me and I’d read it on my lunch breaks, stuff like that. And I think that got noticed by the art critics, like, “William James. You don’t see that a lot.” But again, it’s not like—as anyone who’s read William James would know—it’s not daunting. This is very accessible stuff, it’s just fascinating and it’s a shame that more people have not read William James, but it’s not like I was bringing in stuff in Sanskrit that was very specialized and pretentious. I mean, it’s William James. It’s like, if you want to know about your civilization, you’ve gotta read this book. This guy, he was laying down the groundwork.
Anyway, so they said, “You know a lot about books. Do you want the job?” And that was it. I didn’t apply. I certainly wasn’t sought out, beyond the building. I just happened to be ten feet from my boss. There’s no way you can plan it. That’s just luck.
Rumpus: What is the biggest misconception the average reader has about working in publishing?
Villalon: You don’t get to read on the job. Ever, unless the servers have all crashed and you have no choice but to read while they get fixed. So that means you do all of your reading at home, on the weekends, etc., time for which you do not get paid. No, it’s not a hardship compared to most jobs, but yes, it’s a demand on your time that your spouse and child may not find as necessary as you do.
Rumpus: That seems to be the cultural struggle of our age. Never enough time for everything we want to expose ourselves too. And there’s an idea—and I think it’s largely put forth by people that are a generation older than us—what I call the sort of mono-media idea. It’s that people who like books cannot be people who have space or time like television, cannot be people who like to go to the movies. That different forms of culture and media are in vicious competition with one another.
Villalon: Right. When I was a teenager, for example, I listened to a lot of music. I watched a lot of TV, and I watched as many movies as I could. But I read too. It never occurred to me that these things were incompatible.
Now having said that, it was clear to me as a teenager, though, that reading was incompatible with popular culture, just in the sense that no one read. Let’s be honest, read for recreation.
Rumpus: You mean amongst your friends?