In 1995, a small group of writers and editors met to plan Salon. Laura Miller, who became employee number 5, was involved in creating the prototype. This was during a time when there were two models of web magazine, Feed and Word. Hoping to create a platform that was more journalistic and more general in appeal, they started by constructing a print magazine on the web and then gradually moved away from the original format as the new medium began to emerge.
For Salon, Miller writes a weekly book column called “What to Read,” covers the publishing industry and book trends, and interviews authors in between. She’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal and other publications. She’s also the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia.
Curious about the act of reviewing and what goes into a compelling critique, I asked Laura about how she approaches her work, what she thinks of publishing today, and what she’s looking forward to reading this fall season.
The Rumpus: You mentioned that in writing nonfiction―reviewing in particular―personality plays a large role. How do you integrate your personality into your writing?
Laura Miller: It’s very ad-hoc. There are times when a more informal voice seems right―humor being the most common example―and the first-person often helps with that. Especially when you write for a very general audience, it’s important to use something like a personal tone to signal that you’re being humorous. Because, trust me, there is no joke so broad that there won’t be someone out there who’ll think you mean it seriously. Writers also tend to use the first person more when they’re less sure of themselves or when they don’t want to be authoritative or categorical. I’m not going to say X author has never written a decent book, especially if I’ve met smart, discerning people who love his or her work and I may not have read every single book. So I’ll lean towards something like “He’s never done it for me.”
Rumpus: When you approach your writing, I’ve heard you say you explore your response to the work and that your reaction becomes your instrument. That’s interesting. Have you found that your interaction with reading has grown over the course of your career?
Miller: It’s not so much my reaction that’s the instrument―it’s more my sensibility. I think and hope I’m becoming more open. I’m more willing to believe that a book with, for example, a setting that doesn’t appeal to me (a Western, say), can still be a book I’ll love. I try to read outside my comfort zone, and as a result, I think that my sense of the potential of any given book has been enlarged.
Rumpus: How so?
Miller: The advantage of this is if I do read a Western or a novel about an obsessive mother-daughter relationship (another theme I don’t care for) and I like it, I can be pretty sure it’s an exceptional book. With other topics, ones that I’m pre-disposed to like (biographical works about the Romantic poets, for example), I have to be more vigilant. I don’t want my personal quirks to run away with my work
Rumpus: In a section that didn’t make it into The Magician’s Book you mention that many critics prefer a cerebral approach to reviewing rather than an emotional one. You go on to say that “If you rave, you can wind up looking like a pushover, while if you sneer at a book that almost everyone else likes, you come across as more selective. . . . Slap your heart on your sleeve for a book that other critics disdain and you may be accused not only of poor taste but of easy sentimentality.” Do you feel that critics who review only positively are taken less seriously than those who might enjoy skewering books?
Miller: Probably. However, the profession of criticism is in so much flux right now, it’s hard to say how significant that perception is or how widely held or how long it’s likely to last. I should clarify, though: it’s not so much that these other critics are more “cerebral” as that they adopt a lofty and detached critical persona, in part to invest their statements with more authority. That, traditionally, has been how we’ve expected critics, as arbiters of quality, to write. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t emotional about their subject. Some less-good critics, especially young ones, can fall in love with that detached and lofty persona because it pleases their vanity to think of themselves as very learned and discriminating. Intellectually insecure people worry about coming across as a lightweight and tend to be the most insistent on demonstrating how “serious” they are. An example of a great, lively, confident critic is Daniel Mendelsohn, who can write about both Cavafy and Mario Puzo with enthusiasm because he’s secure in his own taste and intelligence. When someone is particularly anxious about establishing the position of works in some rigid hierarchy of literary worth, their work is less interesting because then it’s primarily about their own insecurity.
Rumpus: I can imagine reviewing a book you dislike often feels unnecessary. How do you decide when to forgo writing a negative review and when to make your reaction public?
Miller: In my regular Salon gig, I don’t write negative reviews. It’s a column, called “What to Read,” and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to recommend. The critical part comes in the choosing of which book to write about―I reject a lot of well-received books and occasionally I’ll say why.
Rumpus: You often review for other publications where a book is assigned without your choosing, what happens when you’re handed something you wouldn’t have chosen for your own column?
Miller: Freelancing is slightly different: if I really don’t like the book, when I just don’t want to read it and don’t care where it’s going, I’ll usually bow out. However, there are books that have promise but don’t end up working for reasons that are worth talking about, and in that case I sometimes go ahead and review it. Every so often, when something is hugely popular or indicative of some dismaying trend, a proper hatchet job is warranted. But that’s pretty rare.
Rumpus: Do you feel pressure to forgo reviewing lesser-known books for what’s bound to be the next bestseller?
Miller: No. I don’t usually review bestsellers anyway. I do think about whether a book can be presented in such a way that its headline and deck will attract readers from the home page. It can be surprising which books work best―our readers have always been drawn to books about philosophy and physics, for example―but a quiet little memoir about a mostly unremarkable life, however well-written, is not going to pique their curiosity. Any book where the primary attraction is the quality of the prose style is not going to intrigue them much. They’re not going to care about something just because I tell them to! Often lesser-known works are like that―they’re lesser-known for the simple reason that they’re about subjects that fewer people are interested in. However, I do try to look at a variety of books because good ones can slip through the cracks.
Rumpus: In order for a review to be convincing, it must be enjoyable to read. How to you test your work?
Miller: As with every kind of writer, you have to try to read your own work as if it were written by someone else. It’s not quite possible, but you try, asking yourself if what you’ve written is the sort of thing you’d enjoy reading. There isn’t really a method for that, though.
Rumpus: Do you sit down to write with a specific audience or person in mind?
Miller: When you’re writing literary criticism, you do need to think about your audience, and it sometimes helps to envision a particular person as the reader you’re aiming the piece at. It’s different depending on the venue―a book about Narnia, the New York Times, Salon, etc. Will this reader understand a reference to Edmund Spenser? Some won’t. It’s particularly important to keep this in mind with American readers because they tend to get angry when they don’t understand references, which is unfortunate, but once you’ve put someone’s back up by indicating that you know something they don’t, they tend to be unreceptive to whatever else you’ve got to say. And to be fair to those readers, some critics really are just interested in showing off.
Rumpus: You’ve taught courses on book reviewing, what’s a good first step towards learning to read critically?
Miller: By the time someone’s decided to take a class in book reviewing, they’ve already got some sort of critical sense; that’s why they enrolled. You first learn to read critically in elementary or secondary school, although of course you go on developing your skills. What you CAN teach in a book reviewing class is some vocabulary, mental tools and a way for people to formulate why something is or isn’t working for them. You can teach them words like “expository,” for example, or point out that a novel bogs down because the characters have been stuck talking in a room for two chapters. But their ability to have a critical response to a book is already there, and the class is simply to help them find a better way to articulate it.
Rumpus: Since Harry Potter won the hearts and minds of children and adults alike in the late 1990s there’s been a growing appreciation for fantasy. Both Harry Potter and the Twilight series are young adult novels. What does the YA fiction reading experience offer grown-ups that adult novels don’t?
Miller: Actually, the earlier volumes in the Harry Potter series are more MG (middle grade), but I take your point. If you ask the adult fans of these books, they’ll say that the storytelling is superior and that adult fiction tends to get bogged down in displays of literary style. That can be true, but I also think that literary fiction strikes many readers as too gloomy, and with YA, there’s more likely to be a reasonably happy ending. This can come across as formulaic or forced, so I’m not saying I’m always on board with that preference. YA also tends to be much more forthright about its themes; a big complaint about literary fiction, especially short stories, is that readers find them cryptic. I do think that a lot of literary writers are not very good at sustaining a reader’s interest because they often come out of workshops, where people are obliged to read your work and pay close attention to it. Children’s authors are under no illusion that their readers will indulge them. They can’t afford to be boring, which is something (according to my teacher friends) that a lot of writing students don’t quite understand.
Rumpus: Who are some great YA fantasy authors writing today?
Miller: I really like Ysabeau Wilce and her Flora books, but I’m not able to keep up as well as I’d like because I only really review adult books and that takes up most of my reading time. I’m in a YA book group, but we tend to pick older or classic titles. I can recommend Polly Shulman’s The Grimm Legacy. But if you want good tips, find the web site of Gwenda Bond and do whatever she tells you. She will not steer you wrong.
Rumpus: What about adult fiction authors? Have you found that there’s been a significant uptick in genre-infused adult novels?
Miller: Yes, clearly. Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem have been doing this for years. George Saunders is published in the New Yorker. Kelly Link is revered by writers across genres. The most recent Tom Perotta novel―we’re talking about a very naturalistic novelist―is about a world from which millions of people inexplicably disappeared one day. These motifs are now everywhere.
Rumpus: You’ve been writing about books and the publishing industry for 20 years. What do you see as the major challenge facing book publishing today?
Miller: My greatest concern is that the whole stratum of expertise embodied by agents and editors and booksellers might be lost in the disintermediation currently going on. I know a lot of people who have felt shut out by the publishing industry are spitefully glad about that, but I for one know that my work has been made a lot better by the first two groups and that many, many readers won’t discover books they might love in the absence of the third. The editors and agents I know care passionately about books and have devoted their careers to finding and nurturing good authors and their work. A really good editor (and that includes many agents these days) has skills that take years to hone, and that’s not going to happen if the book business can’t generate enough profit to support it. It’s my experience that most of the people who grouse about how useless and out of touch the publishing industry is, how no one edits anymore, how all publishers care about are celebrity bios, and blah, blah, blah don’t in fact know very much about publishing or how it works and the particular challenges it faces. They are far too willing to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Rumpus: Fall is a big season in the publishing world, what books have your eye?
Miller: The Murakami and the Eugenides novels, which I mentioned earlier. I like the new Ali Smith novel and the Helen Oyeyemi novel. Alan Hollinghurst is another favorite of mine and I’m looking forward to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. In nonfiction, I’m excited about Claire Tomalin’s biography of Dickens, a forthcoming bio of the movie star/scientist Hedy Lamarr by Richard Rhodes, the Pauline Kael and Steve Jobs biographies. I can’t wait to read Debbie Nathan’s investigation of how the book Sybil came to be fabricated. I also love good narrative history, but there’s nothing on my list for the next couple of months that jumps out at me.