Reviewers & Critics: Bethanne Patrick

by
Michael Taeckens
2.12.20

If you’ve been on Twitter in the past decade, you have likely come across the popular hashtag #FridayReads, created by Bethanne Patrick in 2009. Patrick, who has more than 212,000 Twitter followers, has worn many hats within the literary community since the late 1990s—author, editor, book reviewer, interviewer, curator, and more. She is an avid champion of books and writers, always careful to shine a light on emerging authors as well as known personalities.

Bethanne Patrick (Credit: Three Irish Girls Photography)

Patrick is a graduate of Smith College and received her master’s degree in English from the University of Virginia. She has held editorial positions at Pages, AOL, Shelf Awareness, Book Riot, and the Washingtonian and was a host of “The Book Studio,” an author interview show that ran on the PBS station WETA in the Washington, D.C., area for four years. Currently a contributing editor and columnist at Literary Hub, she reviews regularly for the Washington Post, for which she has a monthly column; NPR Books, for which she covers mysteries and thrillers; Virtuoso Life, with her column Carry-On Companions; and many other publications, including Time, the Star Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times. Her author profiles have appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Poets & Writers Magazine, the Writer, and the Guardian, and her essays have been published online by Virginia Quarterly Review, Elle, and the Rumpus. She is the author of An Uncommon History of Common Courtesy: How Manners Shaped the World (National Geographic Books, 2011) and editor of The Books That Changed My Life: Reflections by 100 Authors, Actors, Musicians, and Other Remarkable People (Regan Arts, 2016). She is currently writing a memoir for publication by Counterpoint Press.

What was your path to becoming a literary critic?
Not one that anyone else might want to follow, or even could follow! I’d planned to start my career in publishing after college, with a job at St. Martin’s Press as a publicity assistant. However, I got married instead, to an Army lieutenant, and we moved overseas. That derailed my path a bit. We were lucky enough to be able to attend graduate school at the University of Virginia, where I received my master’s degree in English. But I had a baby instead of getting a PhD, and then another baby. More derailment. Finally, when our younger daughter was a toddler, I got serious about freelance writing and found that one of the easiest things to pitch was book reviews. 

Many of my colleagues use book reviews as a springboard to other types of writing and journalism. I am so focused on books that I never wanted to move on to anything else! I got a job at a magazine about books and authors, then a job at a big tech company running the books channel, then a wonderful position hosting a PBS author interview show, and a few other gigs along the way, slowly realizing that what I truly loved doing was writing literary criticism. 

What is your reading process like?
I am naturally a fast reader and—mainly due to graduate school, I swear—I retain what I read in a near-freakish manner, which helps enormously when I’m working on a review. I can recall names, details, even the shape of paragraphs on a page. People often say to critics, “Oh, you get to read for a living. How wonderful.” The truth is that we’re always racing with the clock and the calendar. I have to make sure I set aside reading time during the workday, and that’s difficult given phone calls, e-mails, and writing projects. Usually I block out two hours to read at midday, and I’m always reading in the evening, to a greater or lesser extent. Some of my colleagues swear off reading for pleasure or their own personal pursuits completely. I would burn out if I did that. On weekends and vacations I read anything I like. Often it’s still a frontlist title, maybe a juicy mystery I can’t wait to dive into but know I won’t be able to cover. But sometimes it’s history, biography, or poetry. My recent term on the board of the National Book Critics Circle gave me a thirst for those genres. 

How many books do you get a week—and of those, how many are you able to review or include in your round-ups? How many books do you write about per month on average?
Each day ten to twenty books arrive on my doorstep, the doorstep of our house! Gathering, opening, and organizing books takes more time than you might imagine. I’m constantly “culling the herd,” sorting out books for donation. I never, ever sell galleys, ARCs, or finished copies. The best aids in this task are my patient spouse and a couple of those Boston Public Library canvas sacks that Levenger sells.

Between reviews, book lists, and columns I am able to cover between twenty-two to twenty-five books per month. That’s a lot to read, because I do read all of the books I wind up mentioning. Since I finish four to five books each week, I just squeak by. I have to do a lot of careful reading in the trades and through online sources to winnow my selections. 

Is there ever anything from the publishing side that raises your interest in a particular book or author—a sizable advance, notable blurbs, your relationship with an editor or publicist?
I spent a short time working as a book publicist, years ago, and while I was probably the world’s worst book publicist, it made me conscious of how much works goes into book PR—so I try not to ignore pitches that come from publicists I trust, publicists who are forthright, responsive, and smart about what’s genuinely good. Advances, blurbs, massive advertising campaigns—those things don’t influence me much. I’ve seen multi-seven-figure-advance titles I loathed and low-three-figure advance titles I loved. That doesn’t mean a huge advance isn’t newsworthy or that it doesn’t signal something exciting. And if I’d paid more attention to those things earlier in my career, that might have been good. Right now, though, I’m at a point where I can use my taste and experience to choose the books I review. 

How conscientious are you about diversity—gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.—when choosing which books to review? 
Weirdly, not particularly conscientious, because I have always loved and sought out books from underrepresented groups. My mother, who nurtured me as a reader, chose diverse books for me years before anyone knew that could be a thing. She also read and chose books for me from the grownup shelves; I wasn’t confined to picture books or fairy tales. My sixth-grade teacher had me reading If Beale Street Could Talk, so I read James Baldwin before I even picked up Jane Austen. 

Through the years I think my consciousness about difference has been heightened by my severe depression. I know what it’s like to feel different, even if I have not been marginalized for my race, class, or sexual orientation. I’ve never been drawn to books that celebrated privileged characters or the status quo. A few of my favorites over the decades, in no particular order: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Silence by Shusaku Endo, Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee, The Bone People by Keri Hulme, Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan, Maurice by E. M. Forster…how many others am I allowed to list?

In the present I am drawn to books—fiction and nonfiction—that take American readers further and further away from our comfort zone. Sometimes that means in substance, Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo, sometimes in style, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter, and sometimes in both: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I loved Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips this year, not just for its experimental thriller structure, in which woman after woman’s first-person narration builds mystery, but also because it focuses on Indigenous tribes of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia, a place that was completely closed to the rest of the world until 1994, and is still so vast and uncharted by other perspectives. Who needs another book about the vagaries of an East Coast prep school when you’ve got that? And yet Lisa Lutz’s recent The Swallows proves that even that old chestnut, that tired canard, can be used to illustrate contemporary sexual politics and rage. 

Have you ever changed your mind about a book that you praised or panned years earlier? Has a piece of criticism ever changed your opinion of a writer’s work?
It is a critic’s right to change her mind, although I must say it’s usually on the negative side. I remain firm about books I reviewed negatively, but sometimes I see a positive review and know that I was a little too generous. Fortunately that’s changing as time goes by; I’m less nervous about my opinions, not just because I have grown as a critic, but because I’ve read so many reviews by now. Not one of them is “the answer.” Not one of us has “the answer.” Reviews, therefore, rarely change my opinion. However, longer-form works of criticism sometimes allow me to examine a writer’s body of work. Sometimes it confirms my opinion; witness Patricia Lockwood’s recent hilarious and learned consideration of John Updike in the London Review of Books. Sometimes it has me racing to read a writer I’ve ignored, as in the beautiful piece about Lucia Berlin by Lydia Davis in the New Yorker

What is your opinion of the value of negative reviews? 
Dwight Garner, call me. Not for anything untoward—I just think we could have a couple of martinis and talk about the power of a perfect pan. For a few years I published my Bottom Ten Books, never disparaging a debut author but calling out laziness and poor editing in big, big, big authors’ works. If no one ever says what doesn’t work, we can’t decide what does—even if what does, in another critic’s opinion, is the same thing the first critic said didn’t work. In the past ten years I’ve seen more and more sloppy, rushed endings to novels. That’s inexcusable. Why do that to a reader? Negative reviews can alert readers, the people spending their money on books, to not waste their time. Of course all reviews, negative and positive, have another function as well. The best criticism becomes part of a culture’s conversation about itself, helps us to understand what we value, what we have put aside, where we want to go. Even though I haven’t done much long-form criticism, I think about that conversation as I’m choosing books to pitch and review. What’s my audience? Will I be proud to have lifted this title and shared it in one small way with others? 

When you’re reviewing a new book from an author with previous books to his or her name, do you read the author’s backlist as well?
Often, if I’m reviewing a new book from an author with a backlist, I’ve read several if not all of that author’s books already. If I’m assigned a book by an author I’ve never read, I try to at least check out a couple of their books; if nothing else, then I’ll recognize if the book I’m reviewing is of a piece with their earlier work, or not. But I try to meet every single book on its own terms. I’m never reviewing my own perfect idea of a book. I’m reviewing whether or not a book succeeds in what it set out to do. 

Has social media been helpful in your role as a critic?
I literally would not have a career without social media. I was a book blogger, then a corporate book blogger—AOL, Publishers Weekly, Barnes & Noble—then a Twitter personality, and finally a freelance critic. Social media doesn’t influence the books I choose to review, but social media helped me gain a toehold as a reviewer. Some publications wanted to leverage the community I grew; other publications wanted to stay away from that vibe. When I decided I wanted to focus on criticism, I had to gain the trust of editors, one review at a time, and learn a lot about how to write good criticism, too. It’s absolutely not the same as casual blogging, although some bloggers—Maud Newton, Mark Sarvas, Laila Lalami, Mark Athitakis, and Sarah Weinman, for example— wrote stunning criticism from the get go. 

Where do you see the future of books coverage in ten years?
In ten years I hope there will still be print books coverage, and that I’ll still be contributing to it in some way. However, the publishing industry and the cultural criticism establishment will rely increasingly on digital archives, and will have invested further in online publications that provide thoughtful reviews and analysis to those who want it. 

Yet does everyone want that kind of coverage? No, and even if I wish they did, they wouldn’t. Hence my Washington Post column on the month’s top books—some readers, including the avid ones, prefer lists, recommendations, hot takes, and they’re finding those things plus thoughtful reviews in places critics sometimes ignore, like on Instagram and Reddit. 

I love writing traditional book reviews, but if readers aren’t paying attention to traditional book reviews in ten years, maybe reviews will change. Maybe not. One thing I’m paying attention to is the last paragraph of Zadie Smith’s recent piece in the New York Review of Books: “The intimate meeting between a book and its reader can’t be predetermined.... The internet does not get to decide. Nor does the writer. Only the reader decides. So decide.” A book, regardless of genre, remains a direct connection between author and reader. So I think there will always be a place for a direct connection between critic and reader, too, a place for two minds to connect—and disagree—about the same text. 

Over the past eighteen years, since you first started your job at Pages magazine, you’ve seen abundant changes in the publishing industry and the media landscape. How do you feel about the future of the literary industry? And the future of the media landscape?
When I started writing book reviews and then became an editor at Pages, it was the “turn of the century”—but even though everyone had e-mail, things like author headshots were still sent by snail mail. Layouts might be made, laboriously, using a digital program, but then checked, also laboriously, as printouts using red pencil. What I’m trying to say is: Media has gotten much faster. Whether that’s good or bad is up to the media beholder. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a good thing. We are better able to respond to a mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world. 

Has publishing gotten faster? Traditional publishing still operates under rules that are old-school. Some of that is appealing. It’s a relational industry, and that’s wonderful in some ways: People have friendships that cut across areas, and that can help a great author with a great book. But it’s also terrible in some ways—the old-school rules keep us tied to an outmoded system of sales and returns. I’m not trying to jump out of my lane. This affects critics because we might champion a book that doesn’t sell well, so it gets ignored even while being quite good. 

I’ve often said, “Publishing is not an arts collective.” I understand that publishing is a business, and that businesses need to make profits. But I worry, in the future, that the big imprints left will be forced to put their money behind the books that sell, leaving more nuanced books to small and independent presses. Was it ever thus? 

Of those publications that still devote space to literary criticism, which are your favorites?
The Washington Post, of course, since they publish my column and reviews! My absolute favorite publication is the London Review of Books. Every single piece they publish, even the ones that are [does best Simon Cowell voice] “self indulgent” are smart and searching. Bookforum, because it covers fiction that I don’t see reviewed anywhere else. I do love the Millions, especially their book previews, because those capsule reviews are pretty accurate, better than the trade magazine reviews, or maybe that’s just for literary fiction. The Paris Review, for its interviews, which contain a surprising amount of usable criticism. 

You created the prominent hashtag #FridayReads on Twitter, and your popularity on the platform has grown considerably over the years. How valuable has Twitter been to you as a member of the literary community?
Like many of my writer colleagues I am, at heart, an introvert—even if I present as an extrovert. Twitter has been invaluable to me as a place that doesn’t make me leave my house, or even my chair, and also doesn’t require me to write a review or a blog post or an essay in order to participate. I put all of my writing energy into my published reviews and my work-in-progress, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to chat about books, authors, writing, and publishing. Twitter, more word-centric than Instagram, is my preferred place to hang out, get the bookish news, share some laughs, and, increasingly, share my journey from lifelong depression into a healthy present. 

#FridayReads—the fact that it is still active is such a happy thing for me. As I’ve shared previously, it started when I was laid up with a broken leg from a car accident, in 2009. Here we are, a decade later, and people are still using the hashtag on different social-media platforms. I see it a lot on Instagram and Facebook. I see it used by different places—NPR, local libraries, bookstores, classrooms. 

What books that you aren’t reviewing are you most looking forward to reading in the near future?
Whatever Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes next. Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader by Vivian Gornick—I’d love a book of her marginalia alone. Eimear McBride’s Strange Hotel. And the new Hilary Mantel, The Mirror and the Light

 

Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995. He is a cofounder of Broadside: Expert Literary PR (broadsidepr.com).