Dwight Garner is a book critic for the New York Times. A former senior editor of the New York Times Book Review, he was the founding books editor of Salon.com. His writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Nation, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a biography of James Agee.
I spoke to Garner earlier this month about what makes a good critic, why book reviewers are increasingly nervous about being honest and why metaphors and similes are like plastic explosives.
How did you become a literary critic?
It happened very slowly, and then very quickly, as they say about going over a waterfall. It was an improbable process, for sure. I grew up in West Virginia and then in south Florida in a family that didn’t really own books. We had the Bible, and we had Reader’s Digest condensed books. Those are almost worse than no books. I was attracted to novels—Stephen King was my JK Rowling—and music and movies early on, but I had no one to talk about them with. I discovered critics in the lifestyle sections of newspapers and in places like Time magazine, which my parents subscribed to. Some of these voices were terrific; they really turned me on as a reader. So in that sense I was reading criticism early. I was always a “back of the book” kind of reader.
It really started in college. I loitered almost daily at the town’s independent book and record store and I was also the arts editor of the student paper. One day I was buying a new book—this was in Middlebury, Vermont—and I told the owner I planned to review it for the campus paper. This nice gentleman said, “Well, if you’re doing that, take it, it’s free.” From then on we had a deal. If I wanted to review a book, it was on the house. I got pretty avid. I suspect I nearly put him out of business.
How similar was your writing then to now?
My stuff was pretty dire, I’d guess, and derivative of many other people. By the time I was in high school my English teachers had turned me on to Pauline Kael and Greil Marcus. I loved James Wolcott’s stuff, too.
What was it about Wolcott, to take one example, that appealed to you specifically?
I remember going through the microfilm and microfiche machines, getting a sore neck, just to find Wolcott’s old stuff in the Village Voice and Harper’s. I still have those Wolcott printouts. They’re on those warped old pieces of prehistoric photo-print paper. I’m still a fan.
His stuff just popped off the page. It was the most vivid critical writing I’d ever read. His stuff shouted, the way good art does, “I’m alive.” I felt the same way about Kael and Marcus, among others. These people had things appearing in magazines like Rolling Stone, and in newspapers, and it felt like, to my blinkered perspective at any rate, a golden age.
I reread the work of my favourite critics—Orwell, Agee, Updike, Tynan, Sheed, Macdonald, Kazin and so on—all the time. Just to breathe that air. But there’s nothing like reading a critic in real time. That’s the blue meth. There’s nothing like going to see a film and coming back and inhaling the words of a critic like AO Scott or Stephanie Zacharek, now at the Village Voice. There’s nothing like getting that buzz in your head.
How did you go from writing for your college paper to working at Salon?
I was the editor of my college newspaper. I was a journalism geek. I was also the campus stringer for the New York Times and wrote theatre and book reviews for the alternative weekly in nearby Burlington, Vermont for, I think, $35 a pop. Back then that paid for a big night out. I amassed a set of clips, and I sent them off to the Village Voice. I got a call about six months later from an editor at the Voice Literary Supplement, Scott Malcolmson. He left what was, up to that time, the greatest voicemail of my life. I’m pretty sure he used the word “dude.” He said something like “Dwight, dude, your stuff is great and we’d love to have you in the Voice.” I believe I played this to my girlfriend, in our shitty little off-campus apartment, about 19 times. If it had happened today I would have used auto-tune and made a little electronica song out of it. I would call the song, “Dwight, dude, your stuff is great and we’d love to have you in the Voice.” We took one of my $35 freelance checks and celebrated with a vial of crack. More likely it was beer.
So from that point on were you doing a lot of writing?
After college I became the arts editor for that same alternative weekly in Vermont. (It’s now known as Seven Days.) I was also writing a lot for the Voice, and for alternative weeklies like the Boston Phoenix, where I was a contributing editor. One day I met the luminous human who would become my wife, just as she was about to flee to New York City for graduate school. I went with her. We lived in Brooklyn in the early 1990s and I freelanced, making painfully small sums of money. I’d write a long piece for The Nation, reviewing three books, really bearing down, and get paid $125.
By 1995 we were scarily poor, and fearing we’d have to move back to Vermont with our tails tucked. I lucked into a job as an editor at Harper’s Bazaar, the fashion magazine, then edited by Liz Tilberis. I’d been writing some short reviews for them. I worked there for about a year. It was an out of body experience. I’m the opposite of whatever a sharp-dressed man is said to be, and I’d climb in the elevator each morning with these angular 6 foot 3 women in black. Their haircuts cost more than my rent. I’m sure they thought I was the IT guy, or whatever that job was called in 1995. I had a pleasant year there, though, and then Salon—the first real online magazine—came calling. An editor at Bazaar, Deborah Kirk, knew David Talbot, who was starting Salon. When David offered me a job at Salon I didn’t even have an email account. I thought I’d be throwing my work down a hole. But the magazine was superb, and the staff was lovely. Chip McGrath, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, hired me away from Salon three years later, in early 1999.
Am I right in thinking you were doing more editing at first at the New York Times Book Review? How did that period of writing influence your writing today?
I was an editor at the Book Review for almost a decade. The editors there, this assortment of brilliant weirdos and wits, bore down on clichés and sloppy thinking. The great Chip McGrath especially. It was the best writing school imaginable. I mostly learned what not to do as a critic working there.
Were there any particular aspects of criticism that you grew to hate?
We were trained assassins of so many words—“compelling,” “poignant,” “lyrical,” “gripping.” The word “read” as a noun – “this is a compelling read”—would make blood pour out of our eyes. I learned to avoid more than a paragraph or two in a row of plot summary, that odious crutch of people with nothing to say.
Editing taught me the importance of quoting well. I’d like to think if there’s one thing that I do halfway decently, it’s quote others. It was Montaigne, I think, who compared quoting well to arranging other people’s flowers. I like writers who quote well and bring stray insight into their pieces. It’s like they’re pulling stars out of the sky.
Some critics write in a voice of absolute authority—their work implies a teacher-student between them and the reader. Your reviews read more like you’re addressing a friend.
The Voice of God was never going to be my voice. It’s not the voice of the critics I’ve loved most. You want your opinions to have authority, but you don’t want the velvet fog that often attends it.
When I was just starting out, one of the things I disliked most about journalists (and critics) is that you could learn more by talking to them for five minutes than you could by reading a year’s worth of their pieces. Their articles and essays seemed to me like masterpieces of indirection, of plausible deniability. I want to sound like I’m talking to a close, literate friend. In fact, I’m lucky to have had an amazing and ongoing email correspondence, across more than 15 years, with a great friend who is a writer. I want my reviews to sound not so different from the emails we pop back and forth. I want to be direct, and I want to make fine distinctions, and when appropriate I want to be funny. Humour is undervalued in criticism.
A theme that runs through all your pieces is your desire to convey the experience of the reader, from talking about the cover of the book to the passages that really bore you.
If I get frustrated with a book, you’re going to feel that frustration. If it made me weep—this happens rarely, thank god—chances are I’ll let you know. I want my personality to be in there, around the edges. I like it, as a reader, when I understand what turns a critic on or off. You can’t take the personal asides too far, though. They get cloying fast.
I’d just like to ask you about your use of similes and metaphors, which is one of the most distinctive elements of your writing. Someone even started a website called “The Collected Metaphors of Dwight Garner.”
It’s just the way my mind works. It gets me in trouble sometimes, verbally. I’ll be at a dinner party or talking to my wife, and things will get a little spirited, and I’ll make a comparison that leaps out before I’ve had a chance to think it over. “You’re really like Christopher Walken’s character in Annie Hall, aren’t you?” Or something like that. Simile and metaphor are like plastic explosives. You’ve got to handle them carefully.
Do you think you bring an underlying aesthetic philosophy to your reviews?
I don’t think so. Books work or don’t work in so many different ways. I hate it when I see a critic crucify a writer from some elaborate cross they’ve constructed. I was on a panel earlier this year with a well-known writer, and I was delighted when he announced about his favourite novels, “I’m a sentence queen.” He likes books that are alive on a cellular level, sentence-to-sentence. I’m suspect I’m a sentence queen, too, mostly. A terrific story is a terrific thing. But give me a great voice.
Do you feel that criticism can go beyond the page? That is, do you feel that podcasts, conversations, interviews and so on, have a place in the grander scheme of criticism?
I like podcasts. Three smart people chewing on the same book at the same time brings out interesting contrasts. The Slate Culture Gabfest is one of the highlights of my week. I listen while walking our dogs. It’s criticism of a genial, social sort.
I’ve done my share of that kind of thing, but I mostly avoid it. I’m envious of people who can open their mouths and have perfectly formed sentences and paragraphs come out. When I’m speaking in public—even right now, frankly—I’m inwardly wincing at every word that pops out of my mouth. I want to retract them all immediately, and re-phrase. Like so many people who write, I started because I wanted to gain possession of the things in my head that, when I opened my mouth, came out all wrong. Words are like little kids; you don’t want to send them out of the house until they’re dressed and have brushed their teeth. At a lectern I’m a fumbler, the most inarticulate buffalo in the world.
When you were at Salon, you wrote that newspaper book critics should be given term limits: “Four years maximum, given the track record of the critics at the New York Times and most other dailies.” Having been a critic on a daily newspaper for about four years, I wondered whether you’d changed your mind or do you feel there still might be some truth in it?
It was a tendentious thing to say, and historically very stupid. By the way, it used to be that a young critic, when young, could say stupid things. They’d vanish on crumbling old newsprint. Thanks to Google, nothing now is forgotten. It is true, in some cases, that term limits might be useful. But that’s with critics who probably weren’t very good to begin with. The best get better with time.
Do you feel you’ve mellowed as you’ve become more established yourself?
I hope not. There are traps you don’t want to fall into. When I became a daily critic for the New York Times, Frank Rich, the paper’s great former theatre critic and columnist, took me out for a drink. I asked his advice about how to have a career that was anything like his at the paper. He looked at me over his martini (onions, not olives), his eyes twinkling, and he said four words: “Don’t have any friends.” He was kidding, but only slightly. What he meant was, avoid mingling with the people you’ll be writing about. Too many critics, in his opinion, become compromised to greater or lesser degrees.
When I worked at the Book Review, we had a rule. A potential reviewer might say to us, “I can’t review X’s book because I know her.” We’d reply with this question: “Do you know the names of her children?” That was the litmus test. If you don’t know the names of someone’s kids, how close can you be?
That’s a tangent. Some of my best friends are writers. Obviously, I’ll never review them. I mostly avoid meeting new writers. I don’t go to literary lunches. I go to maybe one book party a year. It’s painful to keep away from writers. I love writers.
Do you feel like Twitter has had a deleterious, mellowing impact on critical discourse, as Jacob Silverman argued last year?
Not really. On Twitter people mostly play nice because if you say something cutting about someone, they’re likely to know in about 15 seconds. Their front pocket is going to vibrate. Contumely alert! Tweet wars are incredibly depressing. It’s like battling by throwing one frozen pea at a time. I like Twitter. If you learn how to calibrate it, the conversation is fizzy. I don’t think the Twitter world spills over much into the critical world.
What’s hurt critical discourse is that there aren’t as many book review sections. It doubles the burden on anyone reviewing for the Times. You often feel like yours may be among the only national reviews a book gets. It’s as if you’re taking its yearbook photo.
When I was an editor at the Book Review, the idea of writing for the Times would make some writers freeze up. You’d assign them a book, then you’d talk to him or her on the phone a few weeks later and they’d say, “Why did you send me this steaming pile of dog waste? This book is criminally bad.” Then the review would come in and it would be eight paragraphs of the most tedious plot summary topped by a word like “lyrical.” I was often in the position of gently reminding reviewers, “You’re not writing this for the author’s mother. You’re writing it for the tens if not hundreds of thousands of serious and inquisitive people out there who will be reading you.”
But now there are a number of good online-only reviews like the LA Review of Books, The Millions etc. And then there are, of course, all the reviews on Amazon and blogs. Do you feel like those places fill the gap?
I like some of these a lot, and I hope for more of them. I guess I’m thinking back to a time, not so long ago, when a serious book would get seven or eight major national reviews right off the bat and you felt like there was a dialogue going on. The Voice Literary Supplement was still around. Time and Newsweek were vastly more influential. And so on. People have to look a bit harder to find places like Slate, which has a really lively new book section, and the LA Review of Books. You don’t find them in the dentist’s office. I hope people are looking.
You’d have to be very credulous to trust Amazon reviews. So many are written by a writer’s friends or family—or by their enemies. They’re about as reliable as book blurbs. Which is to say, not at all.
Have you been tempted to write more TV or movie criticism?
It was Clive James who made me think that being TV critic would be the best job in the world. Because you’re writing about everything. But the same is true with books. I don’t trust myself as a film critic. I’m not sure why. At Salon they let me write a few movie reviews. I still get bitter e-mails from people who can’t believe I’m the hoser who ruined the perfect critical score, on Rotten Tomatoes or some movie website, of LA Confidential because I semi-panned it 15 years ago on Salon. They are genuinely aggrieved. They are coming to my house to fling DVDs at my head. I now like that movie. What was I thinking?
Finally, if there were one essay and one book of criticism that you could recommend to someone who is beginning to get into this kind of writing, what would they be?
Brutal question. For the essay let’s say one of Kenneth Tynan’s critical profiles, written for the New Yorker. Maybe the Tom Stoppard one, or the Roman Polanski. For the book, I’m not sure you could do better than one of Clive James’s collections. I’ll pick As Of This Writing.
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