Q&A: Ulin Takes Critical Control in L.A.

Timothy Schaffert
From the January/February 2006 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Last October, David L. Ulin succeeded Steve Wasserman as the book editor of the Los Angeles Times and began overseeing the newspaper’s Sunday Book Review, as well as daily coverage of the publishing industry and literary news and analysis. Ulin is the former book review editor of the now-defunct weekly Los Angeles Reader; the editor of two anthologies, Another City: Writing From Los Angeles (City Lights, 2001) and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology (Library of America, 2002); and the author of a book of nonfiction, The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith (Viking, 2004).

In an article in the Los Angeles Times, published just days after Ulin’s appointment was announced, the newspaper’s editors spoke to concerns that the Book Review had lost touch with its readership. “I think that the Review will remain urbane and sophisticated, but we want it to be far more accessible and far more attuned to what is really hot in the book world,” deputy managing editor John Montorio was quoted as saying.

At the end of his fourth week on the job, Ulin spoke about his intentions for the Book Review and his responsibilities as its new editor.

How does an editor decide which books to review?
In terms of a daily newspaper, which is different from my prior experience working as a book editor for an alternative weekly, there is an obligation to cover certain books that are newsworthy or notable. That just comes with the trade. This is not necessarily a comment on their quality—many of them are books that you’d want to review anyway. For instance, when Salman Rushdie or E.L. Doctorow comes out with a book, not only is it a book to be reviewed, but in some ways, in the literary world, it’s a news event. But that’s really only a handful of books that you review as a matter of course. The rest of it becomes a matter of intuition and aesthetics. We will cover one thousand, twelve hundred, maybe fifteen hundred books a year, if we’re lucky, and that’s a drop in the bucket in terms of how many books are released.

What is the tone you’re seeking for the Book Review?
I want the sensibility of an informed and engaged conversation. I want—it’s sort of silly, because of course this is what I want—smart people weighing in intelligently about books. What I mean is, I’m looking for a real writerly sensibility, a voice-driven review section, where you actually feel, as a reader, that you’re engaging with the writer of the review, as well as the writer being reviewed.

Book reviewers tend to be polite. Are bad reviews necessary?
Absolutely necessary. I think there’s a tendency on the part of some reviewers—and frankly, on the part of some review outlets, too—to not exactly soften criticism, but to mitigate it, to look for the stuff that the reviewer likes and set that up as a way of mitigating the stuff
the reviewer doesn’t like. I can think of certain reviews I’ve read recently and in the distant past that have felt gratuitously cruel, like a mugging. I don’t think there’s any
place for that. But at the same time, I think if a book is really problematic
to a reviewer, the reviewer needs to say that, and in terms as unmuddied as possible. I think that kind of review is necessary to the critical dialogue. It’s not just patting people on
the head. Otherwise, we’re just shills for the book business.

Is there a risk of becoming a shill when you’re obligated to write about the newsworthy books?
I think there’s always a risk of becoming a shill for the book industry. It’s the obligation of editors and critics to remain vigilant and aware of that. I do agree that there’s an interesting discussion to be had about how and why certain books and writers get identified by their publishers and publicity departments as the [ones] to push. But you don’t give those books a free ride, you still critically engage with those books in the way that you would with any other book. I will also say that, especially in a section that can only review twelve hundred or so books a year, not covering a book can make a statement as well. There are instances where you might want to consciously skip one of those books, or any book for that matter, and in so doing, you send a signal.

Timothy Schaffert’s second novel, The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God, was published by Unbridled Books in November 2005.