Reviewers & Critics: Michael Schaub

Michael Taeckens
From the January/February 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Michael Schaub is familiar to many in the book business as one of the shrewd and hilarious voices behind Bookslut, the pioneering, cheeky site that Jessa Crispin launched in the early 2000s. Since then, he’s been an indispensable voice in the literary community—both as an incisive literary critic and as one of the funniest people on Twitter (@michaelschaub).

Born and raised in San Antonio, Schaub attended Texas A&M University from 1995 to 1999, where he majored in English and journalism. He worked as associate editor, and later as managing editor, at Bookslut from 2002 to 2011, and is now a freelance writer and regular contributor to NPR and the Los Angeles Times. He lives in Austin, Texas.

On a few occasions over the years you’ve mentioned that the late literary critic D. G. Myers, your former professor, was your mentor. Did he inspire you to become a literary critic yourself?
Absolutely. He knew I wanted to be a journalist—at the time, I was working for the Texas A&M student newspaper—but he always encouraged me to pursue literary criticism. This was in spite of, or maybe because of, the fact that he and I disagreed on pretty much everything, from politics to literature. David loved to argue, and he’d encourage me to disagree with him. But I definitely wouldn’t have become a book critic without him; I’d have likely kept reviewing music. I still think of David every time I write a review. I miss him every day.

When Bookslut launched in May 2002, it quickly established itself as one of the smartest online literary sites around. How did you become involved with it?
It was pure luck on my part. I happened to be friends with Jessa Crispin, who lived in Austin at the time, and she told me she had started a literary blog and webzine, and asked if I’d contribute. I instantly agreed, even before I knew what the hell a blog was. But I just happened to be friends with the right person at the right time—it was kind of like being neighbors with Patti Smith or Kim Gordon, and having them say, “Hey, I’m starting a band. You play bass, right?” She was just the most incredible person to learn from.

Was Bookslut your first foray into writing about literary matters for a public forum?
It was. I had previously written for my student newspaper and for a few websites, but mostly about music. But when Jessa asked, I basically just pictured David Myers telling me I’d be insane not to do it. And I’ve been writing about literature ever since.

Bookslut’s daily blog was deliciously irreverent and opinionated. Did you ever take any heat for posts you wrote?
I’m sure I did, and I probably deserved most of it. We were bored by the mainstream literary coverage at the time, which seemed joyless and humorless, so I think a lot of people weren’t used to seeing, say, profanity in book reviews. The one post I remember that I did get a lot of pushback for was—well, I probably can’t say it in Poets & Writers, but it was kind of a throwaway joke that played on the word jazz sounding like another, very offensive word. I actually got a lot of angry e-mails from people who were shocked that I’d make a double entendre, and who evidently did not see any irony in complaining about risqué language in a blog called Bookslut.

I know you took a hiatus from Bookslut at some point, but then you returned for a while. What years did you work there, and what kind of writing and reviewing did you engage in afterward?
I wrote for Bookslut from 2002 to 2011, though I did take a hiatus in the middle of that. I was going through a rough period of depression, my brother had just become gravely ill, and I just couldn’t write. I could barely even read. After I left I was mostly reviewing books for NPR, and working on some essays and fiction that I am still working on, because I am apparently the slowest writer in the history of the universe.

You currently review books for a wide variety of publications—NPR, the New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles Times. Where else?
Besides those, it’s just Guns & Ammo. No, I’m kidding—I’ve been lucky to get the chance to write about books for Men’s Journal; the associate editor there, Jason Diamond, is an incredibly nice and talented guy. I’m also a staff writer at the Millions, where some of these essays I’m writing will eventually go when they’re done (I’m thinking around 2037). And I cohost a video podcast called The Book Report for the Millions, along with my close friend Janet Potter, who’s another Bookslut alum. Those are maybe the most fun things that I do—it’s basically a chance to talk to one of my best friends about books every week. And sometimes my pug makes a cameo.

On average, how many galleys and books do you get per week? Of the books you review, what percentage are assigned to you?
Let me just look around the house. Okay, judging by these piles, I get about fifteen thousand books every day, and one day they will all collapse on me and kill me. Seriously, though, I get about fifty a week—it can be challenging to keep up, but I can’t complain, obviously. As far as assignments go, for NPR, I send my editors, the wonderful Petra Mayer and Rose Friedman, a list of books I’d be interested in writing about, and they’ll pick the ones they’re interested in and assign me those. For the Times, they’ll usually just assign me books, although the writing I do there is more reporting than reviews.