Reviewers & Critics: Leigh Haber of O, the Oprah Magazine

by
Michael Taeckens
12.13.17

Leigh Haber is the books editor at O, the Oprah Magazine, a position she has held for more than five years. She graduated from George Washington University with a degree in international affairs, and after getting a job as a copy aide at the Washington Post Book World, she worked for many years in book publishing, first in publicity and later as an editor—at Jeremy Tarcher, Ballantine Books, Avon, Bantam Books, Berkley Books, Harcourt Brace, Scribner, Hyperion, and Rodale—before turning to work as a freelance editor and start-up consultant. At O, the Oprah Magazine, Haber is responsible for putting together the Reading Room section of the magazine, and is always on the lookout for books to feature or excerpt elsewhere in the magazine. She also works with Oprah Winfrey and the rest of the staff to identify new candidates for Oprah’s Book Club. She can be followed on Twitter, @leighhaber.

You got your start in the literary world as a copy aide at the Washington Post Book World in the late 1970s. What was it like working there? Did it make you want to forge a path within the publishing world?
I arrived there not realizing there was an industry behind the books I loved reading—I’d never thought about it before. It was soon after Watergate, so the Post was a glamorous and iconic place, filled with characters. My first boss there was William McPherson, who’d just won the Pulitzer for criticism. He passed away last year, sadly, but that was a universe I am lucky to have glimpsed up close, and, yes, it did lead me to publishing.

You later worked in publicity for several years at Ballantine and Avon, and after that, in editorial for many years at Scribner, Hyperion, and Rodale and as a freelancer. How does your former experience as a publicist and editor inform your role today?
I am so steeped in the book world—it helps me stay on top of what’s coming out when, especially given that we work so far in advance, when there are no indicators of the reception a book will receive. Many of my book publishing colleagues—authors, editors, publishers, agents, publicists, media colleagues—I’ve known them for decades, which helps inform everything I do at O. But I like to try to approach the job itself as a reader, plain and simple. Do I love the book? Will our readers? And are we helping them to discover new talent or writers they’ve never read before, especially women writers? Are we finding books that will challenge or delight them? That’s our mission.

Who are some of the notable authors you worked with—and what are some notable projects you worked on—before you started at O?
When I was a publicity director I flew all over the place with a range of authors I now realize is absolutely astonishing, though at the time, being a mother of two boys, I was just trying to keep it all together.  I worked with Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Umberto Eco, Charles Simic—and also Jimmy Buffett and Helen Hayes, to name a few who really stand out.  I also worked on a tour with Mickey Mantle, which thrilled my dad.  At Avon Books they were publishing lots of writers who were just gaining a literary reputation, including James Ellroy, Elmore Leonard, and John Edgar Wideman. But there I also worked with Rosemary Rogers.  Those were incredibly fun days.

As an editor, I’m probably proudest of having acquired and edited Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. But there are so many other writers I am honored to have worked with: Steve Martin, Jacqueline Novogratz, Jonathan Ames, Richard Hell, Tess Gallagher, Lou Reed, Glen David Gold, the Kitchen Sisters, Terry Gross, Bill Maher, the authors of The Intellectual Devotional, Scott Simon, Aasif Mandvi, Peter Jennings…

The literary coverage at O is quite expansive and varied. You oversee book reviews, book lists, excerpts, and original essays—anything else? How has your job evolved over the five years you’ve been there?
When I walked into this job more than five years ago, I’d never been a magazine editor. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, but my editors did. From them I’ve learned an entirely new skill. And I’m still learning. On the first day of my job I was told I needed to send some books to Oprah for book club consideration. I was frankly terrified. But then I read Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis and I just felt it was a book Oprah would embrace. We’ve had six picks since then, and it’s always a thrill to know we are helping the authors to grow their audiences. Oprah’s passion for books is at the core of my job and always at the top of my mind. I consider it a privilege to assist her in bringing an entirely new dimension to a writer’s career. As far as Reading Room is concerned, I love that the support is there to be feminist, to be globalist, to be diverse, to cover poetry and literary fiction and emerging writers along with the established. And, yes, now I’m also helping to find essayists and contributors to the themed packages we do. How has it evolved? I will always recall this position as one that has to be occupied with a weird combination of humility and a kind of hubris. As to the hubris, I have to choose a few books to cover from the many worthy candidates, which means I have to trust my taste. Humility because I am always aware how lucky I am to be working on this platform, as a part of the incredible legacy Oprah has earned.

Walk me through what a typical week in the office is like for you.
We receive hundreds of books per week—probably two hundred a day. Sometimes it feels as if every day is Christmas, and other days I feel as if I’m drowning in books. And some of the books we receive make me wonder—is there really an audience for a topic this narrow and obscure? But every day I’m combing through the mail, opening packages, and trying to get a sense of the landscape. Most of the time my eyes are bigger than my stomach, and I bring home a bag bursting with books—I still read from the physical galleys. I have a beanbag chair in my office, and there are days when I am sitting in it, looking from my window overlooking Central Park from the 36th floor of the Hearst Building and thinking, “They’re paying me to read?”

I love envisioning the section every month with my editors and my partner in the art department, Jill Armus. There’s a lot of back-and-forth in terms of finding contributing writers, editing, revising, fitting, fact-checking, and so on. My favorite moment is when I see the section come together on page. The hardest times are when I’m working on the mammoth July Summer Reading package—eighteen pages instead of four. It’s tough trying to do something different and to get it right, but it’s exciting, too.

But it’s not all about books. We have a lot of conversations about a wide range of topics. Gayle King’s assistant is obsessed with Beyoncé. I’ve had to learn about her. You pretty much can’t survive in the O office without being a passionate pet lover, whether dogs or cats. You have to be willing to discuss your sex life, your therapist, how long you wear your favorite bra before washing it. It’s all fair game.

How many books do you typically receive per week—and of those, how many are you able to write about each month? 
I would estimate we receive five hundred to seven hundred books a week. Of those, we can typically cover about fifteen a month. 

Other than your interest in a particular author, what sorts of things, if any, influence you when choosing which titles to include—blurbs, prepub reviews, large advances, social media buzz? What about your relationships with publicists and editors—do those ever hold any sway?
I don’t view blurbs as helpful. They seem very quid pro quo to me. Raves in prepubs do sometimes alert me to books I need to take seriously. Advances don’t matter to me, and while I very much value my relationships with publicists, editors, and authors, it’s all about the read.

How conscientious are you about diversity—gender, race, sexual orientation, etcetera—when choosing what to include? And do you try to pay attention to books published outside of the Big Five publishers?
When I first started at O, I made a conscious effort to make the section and its contributors “diverse.” But I have to say that now happens organically. And all things being equal, if there’s a choice between a great book by a man and a great book by a woman, the woman wins.

O has been particularly inclusive of poetry over the years. Is poetry a special love of yours? Has it ever been difficult persuading editors to allow space for it?
I am not a poetry maven. I admire it, and I love reading it at times, but I don’t consider myself an expert by any means. I think it enriches our culture, and the section, so I go to others who know more about it than I do to teach me. My favorite was getting Bill Murray, who is a huge poetry fan, to tell us about five poems he loves—in person, at the Carlyle Hotel.

How many freelancers do you work with? Are there certain things you look for in a reviewer?
It’s just myself and an assistant on staff, so we do lean on freelancers. And while I have three or so regulars, I also like to have fun pairing a book with a reviewer. My favorite match-up was asking Mary Roach to review Ian McEwan’s novel in which the narrator was an unborn fetus. And I like to intermix big names with young new voices.

Is social media at all helpful to you in your role as a book editor?
I should use it more than I do in terms of promoting the Reading Room section, and I do try and follow what others are doing. Because Oprah.com is a separate entity, and O doesn’t have an online version, it’s hard to fully spread the word about how robust the section is.

What is the status of Oprah’s Book Club, and how does Oprah go about choosing which books to pick?
The book club is alive and well when we find the right book. The way it goes is that when I read for the section, I am always also thinking about what Oprah might like, either for the book club, or for some other purpose—film, movie, or just for pleasure. I send her books, and if something profoundly resonates, she will likely call me to tell me so. Then we talk about whether it could be a selection. We’d love for there to be picks on a more frequent basis, but that’s hard because the book has to be right and the timing for Oprah has to be right too. And of course, others are always sending books to Oprah—she’s not just hearing from me.

How have you seen the publishing world and the media landscape change over the past five years?
It seems indies and physical books are back. That’s cause for celebration. But print newspapers and magazines are, of course, facing challenging times, which means we have to keep innovating.

A frequent complaint in literary circles is that negative reviews take up space that could otherwise be used reviewing better books. Where do you stand on the value of publishing negative reviews?
I was told when I came to the magazine that we should pick books we think are worthy of coverage and share them with our readers. If we don’t like or love a book, we just won’t cover it. There are just too many good books to celebrate to devote space to the ones we don’t like.

Of those publications that still devote space to literary criticism, which are your favorites? Are there any book critics whose work you particularly enjoy? 
I’m really going to miss Michiko Kakutani and Jennifer Senior. We also lost Bob Minzesheimer to brain cancer last year. And as everyone knows, the day of the standalone newspaper book review section, except for the New York Times Book Review, is gone. But I’m looking forward to seeing what emerges, because I do think books are as important and as vital as ever, and there are lots of wonderful voices out there writing about them.

Name three books you’ve read in the past year that really knocked your socks off.
It still amazes me that the right book in the right moment can blow your mind. I just reread Night by Elie Wiesel, as there is a new edition with a foreword by President Obama. All I can say is that it’s as heartbreaking and beautiful now as it was when I first read it years ago. Future Home of the Living God, the latest from Louise Erdrich, absolutely floored me. It felt as urgent as a punch to the gut. The Hate U Give made me hopeful. Angie Thomas channeled her righteous anger into something incredibly brave and new, and she’s giving young people all over the country the sense that, yes, someone feels as I do.

 

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