This is the second in a new series of interviews about the art of criticism (to read the first, with Adam Kirsch, click here). More to follow soon.
Ruth Franklin has been described as one of America’s “most important critics under 40.” She is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction (OUP) and is currently working on a biography of the writer Shirley Jackson. Franklin has written for many publications, including the New Republic, the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, Granta, and Salmagundi, to which she contributes a regular film column. In 2012 she was awarded the Roger Shattuck Prize for Criticism.
For Prospect, Franklin has written on the elusive fiction of JM Coetzee, the resurgence of the American short story, the growth of “post-national” literature and, in the current issue, Margaret Atwood and the pleasures of science fiction. I spoke with Franklin earlier this month about harsh reviews, the gender gap in literary criticism, and her unusual first encounter with James Wood…
There is a popular stereotype that literary critics are all failed novelists, bitter that they never “made it,” but in a speech you gave last year, you mentioned that you had always wanted to be a critic. Why?
Books were a major part of my life from as early as I can remember. I guess I exaggerated a little bit in that speech—it’s not as if I grew up reading the New York Times Book Review—but if I had known as a child that there was a profession in which I could read books all the time and get paid to do that, that is certainly what I would have thought was nirvana.
I understand you went to grad school, so was the original plan to pursue the dream of getting paid to read books as an academic?
I didn’t really have a plan. I had bounced around between academia and journalism for a little while, and at the time I decided to go to grad school I was living in Poland, where I worked as a research assistant at the New York Times Warsaw Bureau.
Was there ever any temptation to go into that more straight journalism?
Definitely. In college I was the editor in chief of my college newspaper and really thought that that was the path that I wanted to pursue.
What directed you towards literature rather than the traditional journalism?
I guess the fear of living too much in the fact-bound world. The life of the mind, not to put it too grandiosely, has always been really important to me and I wanted to be sure of having the kind of life where I was free to pursue it. The life of a foreign correspondent seemed very stimulating and exciting in so many ways, but deep at heart I’m the kind of person who likes to sit at home and read books.
How did you find academia?
It was clear after a couple of years that the academic path just wasn’t for me. Part of the issue was I wasn’t quite prepared for it. I entered grad school without the kind of laser-like focus on a single subject that seems to be required to succeed. People often ask if my first book [A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction] grew out of my dissertation and the answer is unfortunately no. If I had had that much idea of what I wanted to write about in grad school I might have stayed!
I had an epiphany one day that it would be possible to read books in a serious way even if I wasn’t in academia. That was literally the day I decided to leave grad school. I remember going to the library and taking out about a dozen books that were all books that I had wanted to read but which I wasn’t required to read for any course.
But when you turned to writing for a wider audience, was that academic background useful?
Extremely useful. In fact I can’t imagine becoming a critic without having had that background. All the early pieces I wrote for the New Republic came directly out of my grad school studies. My very first piece for the magazine was a review of a translation of a book by Ingeborg Bachmann, who I discovered in grad school and became one of my literary heroines. It was extraordinary to take the knowledge that I had accumulated in what felt like a very impractical environment and use it in the real world and actually get paid for it.
You have this great story about your first brush with the New Republic before writing for it….
In my first year of grad school at Harvard I participated in a conference organised around the subject of “dirt.” I gave a paper—this was the first paper I had ever given at a conference—about the visual images of dirt in women’s magazines and how they contributed to women’s negative perception of their own bodies. I don’t remember what I said and I’m sure it wasn’t very original but this academic scene at the time felt very dynamic. The professors under whose rubric this was all organised—Marjorie Garber and Barbara Johnson, the founding mothers of the critical theory programme at Harvard—were very exciting people to study with. So the conference was really a wonderful experience.
And so it was dispiriting to read James Wood’s report on the conference, “Cambridge Postcard,” in the New Republic. He had apparently been lurking at the conference all weekend—I don’t think anybody was aware of his presence—and he had written this scathing little article about it. It was demoralising to see how this outsider had taken what we were doing and twisted it in what seemed a cynical way. There were many women at this conference and the way they were described, i.e. “giggling and squirming,” seemed quite sexist.
He had actually used a quote from my paper in the article, “the iconography of the Tampax,” which he thankfully didn’t attribute to me by name. But I recognised it immediately. This was, of course, mortifying to see in print. But also I felt there should have been some sensitivity to the fact that these were students just getting their feet wet in academia.
Fast forward several years. I came to work at the New Republic. I arrive at my first editorial meeting and there’s James Wood. Imagine my surprise that he turns out to be a very kind person, very soft-spoken. I couldn’t believe that the person who had written this horrible, mean piece was the same person as kind, thoughtful James Wood! We became friends and eventually one day we went out to lunch and he encouraged me to start writing for the “back of the book.” I felt that was the right moment for me to “out” myself to him.
How did he react?
James was deeply apologetic. For some time after that he plied me with gifts and of course all was forgiven.
How did you go from being quoted in a less-than-desirable manner in the New Republic to working there?
When I left grad school I really thought I wanted to go into publishing. I had a vision that I was going to be like Nan Talese and have my own imprint. But I had a hard time getting the kind of job that I wanted. So I spent a miserable year working in college textbook publishing and then thankfully, through a connection, I became aware of the job opening as an assistant managing editor at the New Republic and I landed there.
You’ve written many essays and reviews for the New Republic. Your pieces tend to have a long intro where you interrogate an idea around the piece. How do you approach the beginnings of those longer pieces?
When you’re writing about a book at that sort of length—anything from 3000 words to 5000 words—you can’t start by launching right into the book itself. I think it’s necessary to give some kind of critical context of what the review is going to do right up at the beginning so that the reader is prepared for the kinds of questions you’re going to be asking.
When I first came to the magazine I remember reading one long piece that was ostensibly a review of a new edition of Coleridge. In fact it barely mentioned the book at hand. I asked James, why doesn’t the book come up? And he said, well it’s not really about the book. At the time I was really puzzled by that—I thought, how can we run a book review that isn’t really about the book? And of course a lot of people will say that’s exactly what’s wrong with the way magazines like the New Republic and the New York Review cover books. But it’s simply another method of criticism. It’s not about telling the reader what books to buy but rather telling him or her how to go about thinking about books. It’s about the reader’s education.
Do you approach your New Yorker pieces differently?
The New Yorker has a more specific idea of what they want their book reviews to accomplish, whereas for the New Republic, as long as you’re asking questions and coming to some kind of resolution, I think it’s safe to say those pieces can go anywhere. For the New Yorker, because it’s more of a general circulation magazine, it’s important to provide an overview that explains why this writer is important and why people should be taking time out of their busy day to read a 3000-word piece about them.
At the start of your (very positive) review of David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green you discuss the difficulties of writing about why you like something, as opposed to how easy it is to write about a bad book. Why is that?
I do think that often it can be harder to explain why you love something than why you hate it. That’s not only true about books, it’s true about many things in life. I think a lot of the time when critics do write negative reviews it’s born out of kind of a lover’s disappointment, because we approach every book wanting to fall in love with it. When the book fails to seduce us we feel that the author didn’t live up to his or her end of the bargain.
But, more importantly, I do think that critics have an obligation to be honest in their writing. I meet reviewers all the time—often novelists or other writers—who simply refuse to write negative reviews. They don’t see any value in singling out books for criticism; they would rather prop up books they enjoy. That’s fine to a certain extent, but when you come upon an author who is over-valued and whose books are being praised for reasons that show that people have lost their grasp of what is important in literature, then I do think that it’s important to step back and say so. We’re not just looking at books as artefacts that are published in the year 2013. Hopefully a book that’s really good is one that we’re going to want to come back to in 10, 20, 50 years. Too often novels are praised out of context—you read a novel and you have an enjoyable experience and you think “oh this is a great novel.” But actually that’s not what makes a novel great. What makes a novel great is that it asks valuable questions that are going—to use a cliché—to stand the test of time.
So is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which you reviewed very critically, one that you feel needed to be judged with a longer view?
Sure. I often think of the Orwell essay “In defence of the novel.” Orwell complains that the novel is “being shouted out of existence” by the inflation of praise, and he writes that “to apply a decent standard to the ordinary run of novels is like weighing a flea on a spring-balance intended for elephants.” His view is that since all novels published at a given moment are basically fleas, critics are forced to recalibrate their thermometers to judge the difference between one flea and another flea, making distinctions that aren’t really important. Meanwhile, when a truly great novel comes along, it bursts the thermometer that we are using to measure the fleas. With Franzen and Freedom, it seemed to me that here we have a flea that is being treated as an elephant. That doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with the flea—it’s perfectly good as fleas go—but to regard it as an elephant is to lose our grasp of what a really great novel is.
Are there any truly great novels that have been published in the last 3 or 4 years that you feel will stand the test of time?
It’s hard to limit oneself to the last 3 or 4 years. I have my list of the best books of the 21st century. I love the books of David Mitchell and I think Cloud Atlas is a truly amazing novel. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is definitely on my list. Looking back a little further I think Don DeLillo’s Underworld is one of the best works of American fiction in the last 20 years.
On a different subject, you have been outspoken on the topic of gender balance in literary culture—in particular the disparity between the number of male and female critics being published in the top magazines and newspapers. As someone who has been an editor and freelance writer, you’ve seen both sides of the gender gap issue. Working at New Republic did you perceive it as a problem? Or is it worse as a freelance?
Working at the New Republic it was hard not to be aware that there were very few women on staff. In the past the magazine has traditionally had a very male-dominated feel. Of course, it’s never had a female editor. Having said that, I’ve always felt very encouraged in my career there. I was given many valuable and high profile assignments and I rarely felt I was treated unequally because of my gender.
Why do you think “prestige publications” have failed to include more female reviewers?
I think the larger issue is that there simply are not as many high-profile female reviewers, period. The gender imbalance in book publishing has been entrenched for a long time—although it’s interesting to note that it didn’t always exist and at the beginning of the 20th century novels were a women’s world. But in serious journalism and criticism it has existed for a long time and these changes come glacially. Editors have a tendency to rely upon an established stable of writers. It’s hard for any new writer, male or female, to break into that stable.
Do you think that having more female editors is a solution to the problem? There are publications, such as the London Review of Books, where there are as many or more women on staff as men, but which still include relatively few female reviewers.
I think it’s absolutely essential to the solution of the problem. Until we see generations of women holding these top editor positions and they’re not an anomaly—the LRB is the only one of these publications with a female editor versus the New York Review of Books, the New Republic, the TLS and all the others—then we’re not going to see change in the field. It’s great to see that there are women as staff editors at magazine like the New Republic and the New Yorker and I hope to see them someday as top editors.
In what ways do you think the gender imbalance impoverishes the literary conversation?
I think that women generally are looking for different things than men. One of the things they tend to be looking for—of course it’s not universally or exclusively true—is fiction by women. Kathryn Schulz, New York magazine’s critic, has talked about this. She says that she is able to choose which books to cover, and when she looked back on how many books by men and women she had reviewed, she found that the numbers were almost exactly equal. Then when she looked at her predecessor’s numbers—books he had reviewed by women vs. books by men—they were strikingly imbalanced.
It’s not a slur on her predecessor, Sam Anderson, who is a wonderful critic, but I think it’s a sign of taste. There’s not a deliberate desire to exclude books by women from the cultural conversation, but that lack raises deeper questions about the way that people’s taste is formed and what they value in literature. It’s empirically true that women read books by male and female writers and men read books only by male writers. Until that changes, if it ever can change, that’s why we need women critics.
Do you think that there are certain themes or issues that male critics might miss that female critics might be more likely to notice?
I’m hesitant to say that there is a female way of looking at books. Every reviewer is going to bring a different set of perceptions. It’s valuable to have readers from all different kinds of backgrounds, and women are necessarily going to diversify that pool of readers. There’s also a racial imbalance in this field that has been given far less attention but is equally important.
Final question: I wondered if you could name a particular book or essay that you hold up as the standard to which you want to write criticism?
I don’t have a touchstone essay I always go back as a model for how I want to write criticism. I mentioned Orwell’s “In Defence of the Novel” because I think that’s such a great reality check for reviewers. Everything in it is as true today as when it was written.
In terms of exemplary works of criticism, the works of Janet Malcolm are the ones I go back to most often. I guess that’s surprising as she’s not a traditional critic. But what I love about the way she writes—in her Chekhov book or her biography of Gertrude Stein, or my favourite of her books, The Silent Woman, which is about the writing of Sylvia Plath’s biography—is that she’s able to bring together the real-world story behind how these books were written, as well as a deep understanding of the books themselves. That is what I would most like to emulate.
More by Ruth Franklin
Never mind the pigoons: Those who dismiss science fiction as “unliterary” should think again. Margaret Atwood’s extraordinary MaddAddam ranks as one of her finest novels.
He always slips away: JM Coetzee’s new novel, The Childhood of Jesus, is a profound existential comedy. But what does it all mean?
What a difference a decade makes: Ten years ago the American short story was in decline. Now it is once again a vital genre.
African jewels: A timely anthology of short stories reveals the strength of contemporary African fiction—and the growth of globalised, “post-national” literature.