An interview with the literary critic Dwight Garnerby David Wolf / October 15, 2013 / Leave a comment
This is the third in a new series of interviews about the art of criticism (to read the first, with Adam Kirsch, click here and the second, with Ruth Franklin, click here). More to follow soon.
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…