Laura Miller, a journalist and critic living in New York City, is a books and culture columnist for Slate. In 1995 she cofounded Salon, one of the first online-only magazines, where she worked as an editor and staff writer for twenty years. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, the Guardian, and the New York Times Book Review, where she wrote the “Last Word” column in 2003 and 2004. She is the author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (Little, Brown, 2008) and editor of The Salon.com Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Authors (Penguin, 2000) and Literary Wonderlands: A Journey Through the Greatest Fictional Worlds Ever Created (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2016).
What was it like writing about books for a web publication in the 1990s, when print criticism still completely dominated the scene? Did you have a particular mission in mind for literary coverage when you launched Salon?
It was a great time to be writing and editing pieces about books because the idea of an Internet magazine was totally new. There were no rules. But there were also no guidelines. We had to make things up as we went along, and from square one, which is an experience hard to convey now, when everyone is used to getting journalism online. I spent a lot of time just drawing rectangles on legal pads trying to conceptualize how to publish a “magazine” that had no material substance. But that scrambling was very much outweighed by the thrill of doing more or less exactly what we wanted. With no metrics, no conventional wisdom about what “worked” online, we had a very rare freedom. I also worked with amazing people. Dwight Garner edited our books coverage back then, and every November we’d go on these epic reading binges to come up with a year-end top-ten list between the two of us.
The main thing we aimed to do was to bring a more elastic, less stuffy style to bear on literary criticism and journalism, a more informal voice. That voice is now ubiquitous on the Internet, so it’s also hard to convey just how refreshing it felt. We often used reviewers, Stephanie Zacharek and Charles Taylor in particular, who were primarily film critics of the Pauline Kael school—although they were very knowledgeable about books. If we had a mission, it was to bring that kind of lively, vernacular approach to book criticism and journalism.
Did Salon’s books coverage change in style or volume during your two decades there?
Enormously. We went from running a book review every day to running a couple of books pieces per day along with the review during the dot-com boom, to, near the end of my tenure, a definite press from above not to cover books at all unless they offered a “red meat” political angle. That’s one of the reasons I left Salon—its divestment from substantive literary coverage.
Now, at Slate, do you purposefully seek books from presses outside the Big Five?
At Slate I’m fortunate enough to work closely with a great editor, Dan Kois, and we kick a bunch of ideas around every month or so. The focus is more on what will make an interesting “column,” which is technically what I write for Slate, although it sort of alternates between reviews and essays. As a journalist, your concern is for your readers—and editors/bosses—with providing them with interesting, arresting, trenchant writing. It’s nice if that also means bringing attention to a smaller press offering, but that’s not a priority. No respectable literary journalist considers helping out authors or publishers to be a central purpose. That would be a big mistake. A publication commands a significant audience because it prioritizes running pieces that are interesting and meaningful to that audience. Once you start to put someone else’s needs ahead of your readership, they tend to evaporate. Readers are really good at detecting ulterior motives.
In an interview with the National Book Critics Circle, you said, “I’m under the impression that most literary critics are primarily interested in writing, and while I find that subject fascinating, I am probably more interested in reading.” I find this rather intriguing, and think it’s a chief reason your writing on literary culture is so distinctive. Can you elaborate on your statement here?
We live in a time when everyone wants to write and seemingly no one “has time” to read. Everyone wants to speak and increasingly few people want to listen. People sometimes scoff when I make this observation and claim that aspiring writers read more than anyone else, but that is not my experience. I’m constantly meeting people who, when they learn what I do, always want to talk about the book they plan to write despite the fact that they seem to find no books worth reading. We fetishize the idea of being a writer in a variety of ways, most of them narcissistic. So when I meet a big reader who professes no desire to write, I think of them as a beautiful, almost mythical creature, like a unicorn, to be celebrated.
I also believe that reading is a profoundly creative act, that every act of reading is a collaboration between author and reader. I don’t understand why more people aren’t interested in this alchemy. It’s such an act of grace to give someone else ten or fifteen hours out of your own irreplaceable life, and allow their voice, thoughts, and imaginings into your head. I can’t respect any writer who isn’t abjectly grateful for the faith, generosity, and trust in that. I think there’s an unspoken, maybe even unconscious contempt for reading as merely “passive” in many people who obsess about writers and writing. Discussion of writers and writing generally bores me. But I’m always interested in why people read and why they like what they like. That’s far more likely to surprise and enlighten me than someone fretting about daily word counts and agonizing over their process.
Another hallmark of your critical writing is your interest in and attention to a vast array of authors—from Haruki Murakami, Rachel Kushner, Helen Oyeyemi, and Colson Whitehead to George R. R. Martin, Tana French, Neil Gaiman, and Elmore Leonard. How do you choose which authors to write about and which books to review?
I can’t say! I follow my nose, I guess. I’m generally looking for something that interests me because that’s the only means I have for inferring what might interest my readers, which is always the first goal. Genre is a complicated issue because it can be both an unfair stigma and an identifier of books that are reliably formulaic in an uninteresting way. But as a rule I find that it’s pretty easy to ignore genre divisions. They’re a marketing tool for publishers and readers with specific tastes, but it doesn’t serve a critic to believe in them unquestioningly.
How conscientious are you about diversity—gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.—when choosing what to write about?
As a duty, not much—and really, what writer wants to be read out of someone’s sense of obligation or desire to look good to others? But it would be very boring to constantly read and write about the same sorts of books with the same sorts of people in them, so variety is something I seek out.
Is there anything from the publishing side that raises your interest in a particular book or author—the size of the advance, notable blurbs, your relationship with an editor or publicist?
There are some editors with distinct tastes worth following (or avoiding), and a handful of publicists I trust to tip me off that something might really appeal to me. But mostly I tune out the marketing because it’s just not a reliable indicator of a book’s merit. Blurbs are hopeless: They’re mostly the result of favor trading. I do pay attention to trade reviews, and within the business of covering and publishing books there’s an extensive grapevine that I try to tap into frequently. Those are impartial takes. One thing I’d say to smaller publishers is, if they get starred trade reviews it would be worth it to send an email saying, “Would you like to see a copy?” If it’s not a press I work with a lot or have in my rolodex, making it easier to act on advance reviews is helpful. There are weeks when I just don’t have time to hunt down the contact information online.
You also write about a fair amount of nonfiction as well. Do you believe that reviewing a work of fiction is a markedly different art from reviewing a work of nonfiction?
Of course. Fiction is a work of art conjured out of whole cloth. It may be based on real world events and people, but it has no obligation to them. Nonfiction has a relationship to the truth that also needs to be considered. On a journalistic level, readers are typically more interested in nonfiction reviews. A review of a novel is interesting to the extent that you’ve read or intend to read the book, but you can learn something from a review of a nonfiction book even if you never read the book itself. People like learning stuff.
In August 2012 you wrote a Salon article, “The Case for Positive Book Reviews.” Where do you stand on the value of negative reviews?
I don’t think that a harsh (or even a merely unenthusiastic) review of an obscure book has much meaning in a world where the vast majority of books go almost entirely unnoticed. “Guess what. A book you’ve never heard of isn’t much good” is not an appealing premise for most readers. On the other hand, when a book has some stature in the world, it’s another matter; knocking down the unjustly prominent is part of a critic’s mandate. It’s just that hardly any books are prominent. Readers often really enjoy savage or derisive reviews. There’s a great, pent-up feeling of resentment out there on the part of readers who feel that they are constantly being sold—by reviewers and publishers—on books that are bad or just far less good than the praise they get. It’s kind of dumb, because what’s going on is usually just a disparity in taste, but we persist in the desire to believe that there are objective, consensus standards of good and bad. There aren’t. I’m not very keen on gratifying the anger people inflict on themselves as a result of embracing that belief at the expense of some poor author who has no responsibility for this.
Have you ever changed your mind about a book that you praised or panned years earlier? Has a work of criticism ever changed your opinion of a writer’s work?
I have to be constantly reading new books, so I rarely get the opportunity to revisit anything. Sometimes I bail on a book if the first chapter or two don’t grab me, and then later the enthusiasm of others makes me wonder if I should have persisted. But by the time I’ve read and written about a book, my opinion is pretty solid.
What advice do you give to young students who aim to become professional critics?
My advice to people who want to be professional critics is not to. It wouldn’t be responsible to encourage young people to pursue a career path that is so economically unfeasible. It’s a nice sideline, but the only deliberate path I can think of to recommend is journalism school. There you can at least learn an assortment of skills by which you might—might—someday make a living as a writer. But it would be smarter to have a reliable day job that pays the bills and gets you out into the world and then write reviews on the side.
How many books do you typically receive per week—and of those, how many are you able to write about each month?
I get maybe seventy-five to a hundred books per week. It depends on the week. I write about three or four new books per month, since sometimes the topics of my column aren’t specific new books but an essay about a cultural topic or author/book from the past.
In an interview with Daniel Mendelsohn you stated that Twitter is “an absurd place to look for literary criticism.” Outside of that, has social media been helpful at all in your role as a literary critic?
I follow many people whose opinions and taste I value, so if they’re enthusing about a forthcoming book, I want to know that. This is especially true of big readers who are not writers—booksellers, bloggers, vloggers, etc.—and who operate outside of book/publishing enclaves. I like to know what all kinds of people are reading and what they think of it, especially if they’re the sort of people who pay real money for the books they read. I don’t follow publishers and I take all recommendations from published authors with a huge grain of salt because, as with blurbs, that part of Twitter is full of disingenuous logrolling.
What books that you aren’t reviewing are you most looking forward to reading in the near future?
I’m a big audiobook fan, so I fill in the gaps of my work-related reading with listening. I really don’t need to be doing any more sitting down, thanks very much. The titles tend to be a mix of classics—as much Trollope as I can get—and new fiction that for one reason or another I didn’t end up reviewing, like Nathan Hill’s The Nix and Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees. I’m addicted to Audible’s daily deals for members, which offers all kinds of titles for five dollars or less. That’s where all my impulse buying goes, and I’ll probably never have time to listen to everything I’ve bought from them.
Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995. He is a cofounder of Broadside: Expert Literary PR (broadsidepr.com).