Over the past several years, Entertainment Weekly books editor David Canfield has emerged as one of the brightest and smartest talents in the literary industry. He writes and assigns publishing stories as well as book reviews; creates monthly, seasonal, and annual book lists; and interviews a wealth of writers—over the years he has profiled such luminaries as Tomi Adeyemi, Ronan Farrow, Sally Field, Leslie Jamison, Sally Rooney, and Colson Whitehead, among many others.
Born in Redondo Beach, California, Canfield spent a great deal of his childhood in Auckland, New Zealand, and later received his BA from New College of Florida, where he studied political science. A chance undergraduate internship at IndieWire launched his career in arts journalism. He continued to cover TV and film at Slate and Vulture before landing at Entertainment Weekly, where he was given the chance to do what he never thought was possible: earn a living reading and writing about books.
How did you get your start at Entertainment Weekly?
I’d transitioned to freelancing after a year at Slate but was eager to go full-time again. An opening at EW popped up to work under Tina Jordan, which felt like a dream—I’d read EW for much of my life and loved the books section particularly. Too good an opportunity to pass up, so I applied.
How has your role at Entertainment Weekly changed since you started, and how has EW changed?
I’ve been at EW for two and a half years, and things have changed rather dramatically in that time. A few weeks after I started, it was announced the office would move to Los Angeles and that I would need to move across the country to stay on staff. I was the only dedicated books writer-editor to make the transition and stay at EW, which meant—despite not having experience in print—I’d need to curate the magazine’s books coverage in the interim. It was the best and scariest education I’ve ever had. I felt a responsibility to maintain what had been built, which meant speed-reading to a degree I didn’t know I was capable, and learning the ins and outs of crafting a review section. This required a lot of gut intuition and a not insignificant amount of math. Hopefully I found a way to make it my own while not losing what made it so great for so long; that’s certainly been the goal. In any case, with the help of several amazing colleagues, particularly a stellar lineup of writers, I’ve settled in these past two years, even as the magazine changed ownership and, shortly thereafter, transitioned from a weekly to a monthly. It’s been turbulent, to be sure, but our books coverage has endured, and I’m proud of it.
How many books do you get each week—and of those, how many are you able to include in your literary coverage, whether in print or online? How many books does EW cover per month on average?
It has required a real shift in philosophy and focus, but I’ve found the monthly format surprisingly conducive to books coverage—the longer lead time and uptick in sophistication has allowed us to be a bit more strategic and, I think, ambitious in our approach to covering books. Our section runs six pages on average, and we typically kick off with an essay on a big title or two, with the intent of leading a conversation. For February we paired Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt with Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s Children of the Land before the controversy regarding the former really blew up. We then try to include a longer author profile, another Q&A, and sprinkle smaller reviews throughout. Between that and other areas in the magazine—the Must List, the occasional feature—I’d say we cover a dozen books per month, not including digital roundups.
As for how many ARCs I receive each week? To be honest the stream of books seems endless, I really couldn’t tell you.
How many books are you typically reading at any given time?
I’m looking at around four a week, then flipping through a couple more, and I actually have a fairly specific process here to keep me on track. I’m most closely reading what I’m set to review—usually one a week—and what I’m set to feature in another way, whether via a profile, Q&A, or larger reported piece. Then just racing through whatever else may be a priority for us down the line—usually books that are further out—or simply stuff that grabs my interest. I always try to cast the widest possible net between myself and my writers, but I’ve learned that in this job, you have to follow your taste a little, or it’ll eat you alive.
Is there ever anything from the publishing side that raises your interest in a particular author or book—a sizable advance, notable blurbs, your relationship with an editor or publicist?
I do pay attention to blurbs, not remotely to gauge quality—a fool’s errand—but because, especially for authors and titles I’m less familiar with, the choice and range of blurbers can indicate target audience or just a general vibe that the publisher is going for. This is helpful when you’re mocking up a monthly magazine and trying to find a diverse mix of voices, styles, and genres. But the past few months have opened my eyes to this question in a new way—my role as an editor who gives books a national spotlight but who also is expected to lead and/or contribute to conversations sparking debate and finding their way into the mainstream.
It’s a tricky balance. We’re often the first to cover a title with a big advance and campaign behind it—we exclusively announced the deals for both American Dirt and Kate Elizabeth Russell’s My Dark Vanessa—and we do that because we are a news organization. When it comes to reviews and features, it’s incumbent on those with a platform like EW’s to give every book as equal a chance as we can to be discovered. Given the sheer amount of work to consider, does a huge advance or major publicist push make a difference? It can’t not. But whatever your feelings on American Dirt, the story around it made very clear the way certain authors get lost while other, let’s say more palatable, books are all but willed to best-seller status. That’s all a long way of saying that, yes, awareness is key but so is seeking out work from communities and publishers that aren’t the obvious top-of-the-stack choice.
What’s your reading process like?
Scattered? It’s really changed for me. I miss reading on the subway, but L.A. has its advantages. When I was doing this job in New York, I carved out smaller slivers of time more frequently; now, I make room for big, more occasional chunks, whether it’s a weeknight or a lazy Saturday. This is probably a humblebrag, but I love reading at the beach for hours at a time, and being here means I get to do that…pretty much every weekend.
How conscientious are you about diversity—gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.—when choosing which books to review?
Extremely. Publishing isn’t as far ahead in many respects as some would like to think, and it’s simply a better, more robust cultural space when we’re able to hear from and grapple with diverse voices and perspectives. I’m seeking out these books anyway, beyond the mandates for coverage that I’ve set, because as long as they’re not the norm—speaking specifically about books by queer folks and people of color—there remain countless untold stories to be told that are fresh, challenging, and vital. What reader wouldn’t want to get in on that?
You seem to be consciously including books from smaller presses in your coverage. Do you see this as a critical part of your role?
Well this certainly speaks to your earlier question about the impact that huge advances, publicity campaigns, etc. can have on coverage. It can be harder to find the space for these books, not only in the magazine, but in allotted reading time. But that’s what also makes them important to prioritize. I feel like we could do a better job of highlighting smaller presses than we do, to be honest. We’re trying and we’re paying attention. But I wouldn’t disagree with anyone who looks at our coverage and says we should be doing more. Especially seeing the antics around certain companies and certain political figures, it’s important we use our platforms wisely.
Have you ever changed your mind about a book that you praised or panned earlier? Has a work of criticism ever changed your opinion of a writer’s work?
I mean, yes. Maybe I’m stubborn, but when I give something a mixed or negative review, I tend to stay pretty confident in my arguments. I know I can get carried away, conversely, by something on a first read, fall under its spell or just genially drift along with it. Even the most critical of readers, I think, should be familiar with that experience. For me this often leads to reconsiderations—often, yes, brought about by another’s work of criticism. Last year I was entranced by Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise and still think very highly of it, but after reading strong dissents by writers I respect like Rumaan Alam and enthusiastically debating it with my brilliant co-critic Leah Greenblatt, I’m perhaps a bit less enamored of it, or more open to seeing where some of its grand ambitions fall short. And I believe that’s how it should be: Our relationship to books, especially those that really stick with us, should evolve and grow more complex. Worthy literature is never simple and rarely perfect.
What’s your opinion on the worth of negative reviews?
I’ve said it before, but what’s a literary culture without disagreement? To dismiss the value of negative reviews is to dismiss the value of the critic, frankly—and art needs criticism. It is its lifeblood, setting the stage for analysis and debate and new ways of seeing a work. That can’t just be positive. I worry about book coverage shifting fully into a recommendation-service machine. There’s value in that, too, absolutely—it’s a big part of what we do at EW, and I wouldn’t ever change that. But we need to leave room for sharpness, for nuance. And, hey, a well-written pan is hard to come by and damn fun—and instructive—to read.
If you could change one thing about the book-reviewing process or the world of book criticism, what would it be?
Time. Always more time.
Has social media been helpful at all in your role as a critic?
Speaking as someone who dislikes social media and probably wouldn’t have it if not for professional reasons, yes, it truly has. Social media doesn’t make me fearful or reluctant, as I think the anti-PC cliché goes, but it does keep me on my toes and more aware of experiences outside my own. That’s essential and instructive for me.
Where do you see books coverage in ten years?
I mentioned my earlier concerns, but I think there’s reason for optimism. As more outlets turn to subscription-based models, we see more outlets bolstering their books coverage accordingly—something I think many would have considered unthinkable not too long ago. The decline of print, the tremendous struggles faced by digital media, and rapidly changing ideas about publishing and its problems create ongoing uncertainty and tension. I’ll never feel comfortable about the state of books coverage. But I’d like to think it can grow and stabilize and that, in turn, we can reinforce the importance of strong, distinctive criticism. That or consolidation and traffic obsession will turn it into a flurry of identical, numbing listicles. Who’s to say?
Which book critics, past or present, do you particularly admire?
Parul Sehgal, whose talent is as peerless as her empathy. I learn so much from every review of hers and am consistently in awe of her command of the form. Laura Miller, who I had the pleasure of working with at Slate, has that rare ability to dig into highbrow and lowbrow, literary and not, and really every genre imaginable with equal flair and authority. She’s also such an engaging, curious writer. Leah Greenblatt, who can pack so much into such tight spaces—a true model of economic engagement. Full disclosure: I get to edit her every month, so I’m a little biased.
What books that you aren’t reviewing are you most looking forward to reading in the near future?
This supposes I’ve put out review assignments beyond the immediate future…alas, my summer and lists are already pretty stacked, but I can’t wait to dig into the new novels of Yaa Gyasi and Imbolo Mbue and Akwaeke Emezi and Emma Cline—four authors who really blew me away with their debuts, and I’ve been waiting eagerly to see what they do next. And a new Marilynne Robinson was just announced? Counting the days for that galley.
Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995. He is a cofounder of Broadside: Expert Literary PR (broadsidepr.com).