Reviewers & Critics: Ron Charles of the Washington Post

by
Michael Taeckens
4.15.15

Most people in the publishing industry know Ron Charles not only as a book reviewer for the Washington Post, but also as the mastermind behind the Totally Hip Video Book Reviews series. Noted for his keen wit (follow him on Twitter @RonCharles), Charles has been singled out for excellence in criticism: The National Book Critics Circle awarded him the Nona Balakian Citation for book reviews in 2008, and he also won a first-place prize for arts and entertainment coverage from the Society for Features Journalism in 2011. Before starting his career at the Washington Post ten years ago, Charles was the books editor of the Christian Science Monitor in Boston. He was one of three jurors for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.

How did you get your start reviewing books?
In the late nineties I was teaching English at a ritzy prep school in Saint Louis. (Jon Hamm was on the staff too; oddly, he rarely mentions me when people interview him.) One day, an old student’s mother called and said she thought I should try reviewing books. I loved teaching, but I was going out of mind with all the paper grading (which was only about 10 percent of the paper grading my wife does now at Bethesda–Chevy Chase High School). So I drove over to the fantastic (long gone) Library Ltd. Bookstore and looked at the books on the New in Fiction table. I picked up Richard Russo’s Straight Man, read it, reviewed it, and sent it off to the Christian Science Monitor. Lo and behold, they bought it and asked for more. I still remember getting that e-mail while I was on vacation with my family at Chautauqua.

Were you hired as the Washington Post’s fiction editor? Do you miss reviewing nonfiction?
I was hired to be an assignment editor for Book World; I wrote a review each week "just for fun," on my own time. Happily, in the last couple of years, I’ve been able to build that into my official work schedule. (I was promoted to deputy editor and then editor of Book World.) I’ve always concentrated on fiction, but once in a while, some nonfiction book will cross into my very narrow window of expertise, and I’ll review it. Just last week, for instance, I reviewed For the Right Reasons by Sean Lowe from The Bachelor.

 

How many books do you get a week—and of those, how many are you able to review? How many does the Post review per week on average?
Our office manager says we get about a hundred and fifty books a day. A day. I run a review of my own every Wednesday, and I blog about books and publishing most weekdays. On Sunday I usually run one of those blog items in the Arts & Style section. The Washington Post Book World, as a whole, produces about seventeen reviews a week.

Are you able to select what you want to review or are books assigned to you?
I choose my own books.

You do a lot of writing for the Post’s website as well. I try to write something about books or publishing every day for the Post’s Style blog. I started doing that a couple of years ago because I wanted to learn about blogging and WordPress—in case this whole summarizing-the-plots-of-novels thing doesn’t work out. It’s been fun. It provides a nice break from editing and reviewing; it’s a whole different pace and tone—sometimes ridiculously silly, sometimes breaking news, sometimes very esoteric.

What is your opinion of negative reviews? Do you ever regret or feel guilty about dishing out a mean review?
I’m painfully aware that somebody has worked on this book for years. I feel ill when I’m about to run a negative review. I can’t sleep the night before, and I run through the review line by line in my head, second-guessing and regretting every critical word.

I’m from Saint Louis. What can I say? And yet I know that a book section is only useful if it’s honest, if it puts its readers first. Reading a book takes a lot of time and dedication—far more than any other kind of entertainment or artistic pursuit, such as a movie or a play. Our readers deserve careful, candid, considered criticism of books they might be interested in. And, at the risk of being grandiose, our literary culture deserves critical assessment that is unfettered by concern for any particular author’s feelings.

Speaking of negative reviews, you’ve raked a couple of “experimental” novels over the coals recently. How do you feel in general about fiction that pushes the limits of form or language?
It’s true, I wasn’t as impressed by, say, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing as some very fine reviewers were. But I appreciate what Eimear McBride is trying to do in that novel, and I’m always eager to see writers experimenting with form and style. I was very impressed, for instance, with Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. There’s a Faulknerian quality to this Kenyan author’s work, but she’s working in her own tradition, too, in fascinating ways.

Small presses seem to be getting more and more attention these days. Are you able to feature reviews of small presses very often? How important is it for you to try to review books outside of the Big Five?
We try to spread the love, but we’re not particularly concerned with attending to some publishers more than others. Our assignments are driven title by title.

What about race and gender—do you keep these in mind when you assign or review books?
For several years we’ve tried hard to correct the gender imbalance in our coverage. VIDA: Women in Literary Arts singled me out last year for success in this area. We have a lot further to go on racial diversity. On one hand, you don’t want to count and establish quotas because that seems contrary to objective New Critical evaluation, but on the other hand, I find that when we don’t pay any attention to the numbers, we fall back into our old, comfortable habits of favoring white guys’ books. So the struggle continues!

It seems increasingly common that the same books receive the vast majority of review attention. Do you think this is an inevitable outcome in the publishing industry?
You need to remember that Book World is part of a newspaper. That means we attend to the books our readers will be hearing about and talking about. Our coverage must, to a certain degree, report on the culture we’re all experiencing. There is, fortunately, space for us to find and trumpet new authors, but if Jonathan Franzen publishes a book, we’re going to review it. That’s not a problem; that’s our job.

Your Totally Hip Video Book Review series was a huge hit. I imagine it must’ve taken you countless hours for each one of those episodes. Any plans to bring it back?
Thank you. The Totally Hip Video Book Review was not, in fact, a “huge hit”—Jenna Marbles is a huge hit—but it was fun to do. Management, at the time, was uncertain about those videos. I’ve since been encouraged to start up again, but satire is always risky, and besides the time commitment, which was crushing, I lived in constant, nauseous anxiety about offending somebody and getting in trouble. (The night before the episode about “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self” went up, Victor LaValle had to talk me off a ledge.) Nonetheless, I’m thinking about buying a new video camera—my younger daughter, a modern dancer in New York, took mine—and seeing if I can post a few episodes soon. Stay tuned, as we used to say.

Do you enjoy social media? How useful is it for your job?
Something about my nervous personality responds to social media, but its usefulness is radically overstated, and its effect on my life has been almost entirely negative—so much wasted time, so much fruitless flacking, so much despair that I’m not being liked or shared or retweeted enough.

The whole enterprise fills me with shame.

Do prepublication reviews or blurbs matter to you at all?
Since blurbs are almost always from friends, they’re essentially useless— except to indicate what kind of circle a particular author runs in. But pre-pub reviews are still useful to help me get some sense of a book’s subject, approach, and audience.

Do you ever have time to read for personal enjoyment?
I enjoy my work a great deal, but I’m always behind, so my personal reading time is devoted to the flood of magazines that come into our house.

Michael Taeckens has worked in the publishing business since 1995, most recently at Graywolf Press and Algonquin Books. His website is michaeltaeckenspr.com.