S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: With every book I review of every genre, I try to go to the writers five yard line, like I try to completely understand what they’re trying to do. And once I’ve done that, I feel entitled to be merciless.
S3: If I wanted to be unkind or to be, you know, were or else I sometimes see things that I didn’t see before.
S4: Welcome back to Working, I’m your host, Isaac Butler, and other host, REMON alum Ruman, we just heard from Charles Finch and we’ll get to talking about him and your conversation with him in just a second. But since you challenged me last time to dress better on our resume calls, when we record these sessions, I will have you note I am wearing not only a button down shirt, but also a blazer.
S1: I really appreciate the extra effort. I think that like in this moment of lowered expectations, like I feel like all of the fashion people I know are wearing sweatpants all the time. No, I appreciate the effort. I’ve noticed, but I think you look great. You always look great with your beautiful head of hair. So it’s always a pleasure to see you. But yes, I will note, you do look very nice today.
S4: Thank you very much. Anyway, our guest today is Charles Finch. You know him well. I do, too. But what should our listeners who aren’t familiar with his work know about him?
S1: So Charles Finch is the author of the very, very popular series of mystery novels, the protagonist of which is Charles Lennox. Charles Lennox is a Victorian gentleman who’s repeatedly drawn into murder and intrigue. It’s a big series. There are more than a dozen entries now, and it’s a really beloved mystery series. Charlie has a whole other life. He’s also the author of a literary novel called The Last Enchantments, and he is also a very, very well-known critic. And it is in his capacity as a critic that I wanted to speak to him. Charlie is a regular freelance contributor to the Los Angeles Times, to The New York Times Book Review, to The New Yorker, in fact, to Slate. And I have always found him to be a very interesting critic. And I really wanted to talk to him about exactly what that job is all about.
S4: Great. Well, I cannot wait to take a listen, but before we do, we should mention that Slate plus members get a little something extra from your conversation.
S1: Can you tell us a little bit about that this week? Slate plus, listeners are going to get a particular kind of education because I asked Charlie to recommend the texts that he would teach if he were teaching a course on criticism. I also got him to tell me the critics he always turns to for insight or a stylish opinion. And Charlie and I also spoke about the books that he has been reading this year.
S4: Well, if you would like to hear that and get all sorts of other goodies, you should join Slate. Plus right now, I mean, at this point, what are you waiting for? You can even get a free two week trial by going to slate dotcom working plus.
S5: All right, now let’s hear Ramen’s conversation with Charles Finch.
S1: In many ways, it feels to me like a very of the moment thing, to have more than one job and you are a writer who I think of as having more than one job, one of your jobs is as a novelist, principally interested in writing a series of mystery novels with the beloved protagonist named Charles Lennox. But you have this other job, and I wonder if you could talk to me a little bit about your other job, which is my understanding is as a book critic.
S6: Yeah, absolutely. Criticism when I found it, which was in the mid 2010s, it was a huge relief because I had been writing so much fiction and criticism. I always think of Virginia Woolf saying the satisfaction of of a writing review is you can really spear the eel in the marrow, like you can really get it right. You have 800 words or twelve hundred words or two thousand words. And you can really I sometimes think at the end of the review. OK, now stay there to a writer because I think I’ve really summed up what you are getting at and what you are, which is probably an arrogant thing to think about. So yeah, I have this kind of bifurcated career, but they all come out of the same source river.
S1: So to be a critic is not just to discharge your own enthusiasm for reading itself, it’s to do some other thing. What is that other thing like? What is the sort of endeavor of the book critic?
S7: I think that’s such a great question. And I think the answer for me is that books evoke like a feeling first and then you have to try to feel lucidly in words. It makes you think like. So you have to think about why did I when I read, you know, when I read Alice Smith’s most recent book, I stirred up all these interesting and strange feelings in me. And then as a critic, I had to go back and look at where I put an exclamation point in the marginal stuff. And I have to try to cobble together something lucid and intelligent and rational about that. And so I think that’s the art of criticism to me, is trying to explain emotions, which in a way all art forms are trying to do through different means. I mean, there are many windows to my father’s house or whatever, but I think criticism is somewhere where you can really try to analyze why art is important to you and why it matters to you and where it succeeds and where it fails.
S1: What you’re describing, though, sounds to me like a matter of personal reckoning, right? Like you, Charlie Finch had a single kind of experience reading Alice Smith’s novel Summer or Karlovic, now scarred. And so you were tasked with responding to that feeling or distilling that feeling in 2000 words. What is the value then in the art, if indeed criticism is an art that you have produced right in that two thousand word essay, like what is the value to the reader or to the culture more broadly?
S2: That’s a good question. I mean, I think there are a lot of reviews that don’t have a lot of value if it’s just a recapitulation of plot or if it’s just a statement of preference. But I think that the best reviews often have an essayistic quality. And so they’re trying to say, well, what is this telling us about our moment of life? What is this saying in the context of the author’s other work? And then more broadly, I think it’s I actually don’t agree completely that it’s about personal reckoning or personal preference. I think that with every book I review of every genre, I try to go to the writers five yard line, like I try to completely understand what they’re trying to do. And once I’ve done that, I feel entitled to be merciless if I want to to be unkind or to be, you know, or else I sometimes see things that I didn’t see before.
S7: So I think that there’s more objectivity to the art of writing criticism than is generally perceived. It’s not just a reaction that stimulates.
S1: I mean, do you what do you think? Well, I think that’s a really look. So you use the word objectivity, which is a really interesting word to use with respect to this body of work, because it would seem to me and I think maybe in the popular imagination, that criticism provides like one particular opinion or way of thinking about a text. But what you’re saying is that the challenge of the critic is to understand the artist aim and to think about, like who the artist is and what it is they’re trying to do. What is it, do you think that qualifies someone? To write criticism, because I think that that’s like one of the central questions of this moment, is a collapse in critical authority and a feeling that, you know, everyone is possessed of an opinion, so. If criticism is simply artfully rendering opinion, isn’t that a thing that anyone can do and in fact, don’t we have all these tools for readers? That’s good reads for filmgoers? That’s letter box. There are music rating websites and platforms. Don’t we have the technology that elevates basically every participant in the culture into the role of critic?
S7: I’m not going to be sort of a rear guard action against like the democratization of reviews. I think in general it’s good that everyone’s reviewing and things like that. I do think something builds up when you or accumulates inside you when you dedicate your life to reading books. And I don’t think that that’s meaningless. And I think I’ve spent hours every day for my entire adolescent and adult life reading books. And I think that that creates little butterfly shades of understanding or of appreciation that maybe someone who reads three books a year, two of them about killing Lincoln or whatever, doesn’t have. So I, I don’t necessarily believe in like an aristocracy of readers, but I do think that that authority is not misplaced when they get someone like you or like me or like Zoe Heller or like Saidiya Hartman or like any of the innumerable critics I really love when they get someone to review a book, I don’t think that that authority is vested badly because they didn’t get, you know, John Grisham lover, 69 from Goodreads to review the new Jess Walter book or whatever. But it’s a it’s a good question. Where does anyone get their authority? And answer is usually from being a white guy. And solely that’s changing. And I think that’s probably a factor in the in any success I’ve had. But at the same time, I do work really hard and try to read really carefully and broadly and discriminating.
S1: I’m curious, actually, you brought up the notion of like the armchair critic who might read, you know, a dozen books a year. Charlie, how many books a year do you read, do you think?
S7: I’ve spent the last couple of years doing a lot of prize judging, which I would not recommend to my worst enemy, even though I think it’s worthwhile. And so a couple of hundred just for that in my heyday of reviewing, which I think was about in 2014 to 2018, and I think I’ll start doing more again. I’ve only done a dozen or so reviews the past couple of years. I think I was probably reading 200 or 300 books really carefully a year, and I’m lucky enough to be a quick reader. And I also, you know, I try to keep myself sane by going back into the can and or going back into philosophy or non-fiction a lot.
S1: But it’s a lot of fiction, you know, on a simple kind of logistical level. How do you think somebody begins a career as a critic? And maybe it’s just more useful to talk about how you begin a career as a critic? Like what were the first steps you took? What were the first assignments you got? And, you know, I understand it sort of all it can all kind of flow with its own logic after that. But how do you begin an endeavor like this professionally?
S7: Well, I came to it through my mystery novels, actually. There was an editor at USA Today named Jocelyn McClurg, who’s a really wonderful person. She’s retired now, but she’s a great reader. She’s like a Bloomsbury obsessive and collector. And she was a fan of my books.
S6: And so we had lunch and she said, Have you ever had any interest in reviewing? I doubt it. Like, we don’t pay anything and whatever, but and I beat her hand off.
S2: I was like, I would love to review because I was I think at the time 30 or so I published my first book when I was there, 24, I guess, and I’d published five mysteries by then. And I was shortly to publish my first literary novel. And I felt a little bit hemmed in by just writing fiction. And from there it was just a matter of, you know, producing enough that I could start to send out clips and stuff.
S7: But I think actually there’s really been an easier time to get your foot in the door. I think I think a lot of people I’m a member of the National Book Critics Circle Board and the emerging critics program there is amazing. I mean, I think there’s a huge will in the literary community to find young writers, particularly young writers of color, who are interested in reviewing. And so I think just joining the National Book Critics circle and reading the pitch letters that they have and then starting to pitch, I think within a few months, anyone who has really done the work is going to be able to review. I think it’s an exciting time for that reason.
S1: So you mentioned that a few years ago, right? When you were getting your start, your first editor said to you, like, you’re not going to be interested in this because there’s no money in it. Yeah, and there’s a critic named Nicholas Lazard who just wrote a piece for The New Statesman. And in this piece, Lazard is writing about his discovery that The Nation, the great American magazine, paid one hundred and fifty dollars for a book review in 1930, which would be the equivalent of about two thousand dollars today. Right. And so the critic who is currently making two thousand dollars for review, those are very, very few and far between. Those are very coveted. And and even the critic who is able to earn two thousand dollars at a go is not doing that once a week throughout the month is not bringing home ninety six thousand dollars a year. Working as a book critic, do you see that as a fundamental problem, that critics don’t actually earn enough money? And how do you reconcile? Not that it’s your responsibility to, but like how do you reconcile the significance of the critic and the culture with the fact that our culture doesn’t sort of invest financially back into those critics?
S7: Well, I think it’s a question about artists, neoliberal society in general, which is why is it completely unaffordable to do anything other than be a peon for capital? I mean, why why? It’s so sad to me that if you run into someone and say, oh, how’s your kid? What are they up to? And they say, oh, they’re in a band, you kind of give a little grimace. And if they say, oh, they’re working at a hedge fund, they’re like, oh, great. I mean, that’s I find it tragic that we live in a culture that devalues art and criticism included in that, a very small part of it. So much so I actually think that I mean, yeah, you need to do other jobs in order to be a working critic. There’s about, you know, 20 working critics, but there are only a thousand writers in America, they say, who make a living by writing. And that’s a travesty in the richest country in the history of the world. I mean, if you look at look at even England post-war, when they sent everyone to art school for free for just a couple of years, and the people who came out of that were like Howard Hodgkin and Bridget Riley and John Lennon and David Bowie. And there’s this whole generation of brilliance that just emerged by funding arts even minimally. And so I think that’s a question that criticism doesn’t need to answer as much as a question that Mitch McConnell needs to answer. As Bret said, to those who don’t know the world is on fire, I have nothing to say.
S1: So you mentioned the fact that you are active with an organization called the National Book Critics Circle. I want to just say the National Book Critics Circle says of itself that it is an organization dedicated to fostering a national conversation about reading criticism and literature. I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about how you think the organization. Meets that aim and I guess maybe. You know, this seems like an obvious question, but I’d love to hear you articulate, just sort of like the value in having a national conversation about reading and criticism and literature.
S7: Wow. Well, I mean, for those who don’t know, a little bit of context is NBCC, which I’ve been a member of for a decade and which I’ve been on the board of for a few years.
S6: I was the fiction chair last year.
S7: It’s a great organization and sort of I mean, the classic quintessential breakdown of the three big prizes is that the Pulitzer goes to sort of, you know, a big book that’s also got a lot of literary merit. Usually the National Book Award is sort of sometimes walks the line between, you know, literary venture and popularity. And then the NBCC has always prided itself on sort of being the third prize, definitely. But, you know, valuing above maybe the other prizes, inclusiveness, diversity of voices, experimentation. It’s giving awards to a lot of I mean, it was the first first party in the world to give an award to, say, Sebald. And there are innumerable examples like that where the NBCC and its prize giving has taken a real risk on a writer of unusual methods or a person from a different background.
S6: And so I think that that prima facie is the sort of value of the NBCC this year. For context, there was a huge contretemps in which essentially a bunch of us resigned over one member’s extremely retrograde and unfortunate opinions about institutional racism and so forth.
S8: But to the credit of a huge credit of a few people, including Marion Winik and Elizabeth Taylor and others, David Barno, the institution is rebuilt and I think we’re on track to give out the prizes. So what is the value of a place like the NBCC? I mean, I think I think there’s value even in the kind of fight we had this year, which is that I think someone needs to be living out on that edge for us, you know, like everyone when there are not everyone, but a lot of people when they’re 12 say that they want to be an artist or whatever, and some people can’t kind of stay behind on that island for us. And everyone I’ve met at the NBCC is someone who has spent their life thinking about these sort of never got off of that initial impulse. And I really admire that. And so I think that that has that can lead a culture even when the culture is not aware. It exists in a way like I mean, I think books often can sense something stirring underground and have their hand down to feel the earthquake. And so if you’re asking for a larger defense of criticism in books, I think book culture in every society since the invention of the book has has helped the culture to find a way forward where maybe it’s political and social institutions fail.
S1: I’m struck by the fact that you led your conversation about the National Book Critics circle and its function with a conversation about its price. So the National Book Critics Circle award surprise annually, as does the National Book Foundation. They were the National Book Award and the Pulitzers, which of course administers the Pulitzer Prizes in both journalism and in letters and. I wonder if you ever feel like prize giving is at odds with the endeavor of criticism itself or whether, like how you sort of square for yourself the NBCC as an institution that is invested in giving prizes and elevating the work that stands behind with the task of the critic, which is to sort of look at something from a little bit of a distance and sort of hold it up and explain it to an audience or talk it through with an audience.
S2: You know, I love the process of getting down to a shortlist, and I then dislike the process of choosing a winner because I do have that feeling like, well, these are five great books and we should try to honor them also. I have mixed feelings about prizes, but at the same time there aren’t that many opportunities. This is why it pissed me off when Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize, because I’m a huge Bob Dylan fan. But there’s a million ways Bob Dylan can get honored. And there’s like six if you’re a writer. So that’s set like I mean, who do I think should win the Nobel Prize? I don’t know. Kay Ryan should win the Nobel Prize. She’s like, you know, I’ve been writing out in the desert. She she’s this eccentric, wonderful poet. She refuses every year to teach at the Ivy League and teaches at community college instead because she says those kids at Harvard don’t need me. The kids at community college can learn something from me. So when I think about Bob Dylan winning the prize over someone like Ryan, I’m like, well, that’s ridiculous. So I, I see and value prizes. It’s not my own personal favorite way of looking at books. And I think a lot of the books that have won prizes have not held up and there are other books that emerge. But that’s part of the sort of horse interest of being involved with books, is that it’s it’s fascinating to watch opinions and not to bring up Alex Smith again.
S7: But I was sort of thinking as I was reading her that, you know, if you take place about 20 years ago, you would have about anything that Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan were the sort of signal writers of of Great Britain for their generation.
S6: And now it looks like a completely different story.
S2: I mean, it looks like maybe Hilary Mantel and Ashley Smith and sort of a host of other writers who are not necessarily from quite as privileged backgrounds, which I find interesting, have come sort of late, late breaking into the lead. And now there are more maybe well regarded. So that’s actually prizes are a part of that.
S7: But that’s sort of one of the things I love about books, is that stuff bubbles up from under after it has time to get appreciated. You know, I was the fiction chair for the NBCC last year. This year I’m judging the poetry and also doing the pen Faulkner Prize. And last year we gave the prize to a book of short stories by Edwidge Danticat. And I think when we gave it the prize, it had like 12 reviews on Amazon, which is not the be all end all. But it felt in a you know, obviously she has a high reputation and there’s nothing I can do for her that she’s not doing it for herself by writing brilliant work. But it felt gratifying. And then last week, I think God was at Reese Witherspoon or Carrie Washington, one of these people who are infinitely more powerful than I am because they’re famous and doing a side hustle with a book club, chose Edwidge as a book for their book club. And it felt like a real moment of like, OK, like this. We you know, we’re trying to build toward a world in which people read those unbelievably beautiful stories and inside out. She’s a Haitian American writer. If you don’t know her. And I. I mean, crack is amazing. She’s just a wonderful writer.
S5: We’ll be back with more of Ramon and Charles Finch in conversation in just a moment. But first, one of the things we’d love to do with this show is help you solve your created problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work or a big question about inspiration and discipline, send them to us at working at Slate Dotcom if and when we can. We’ll put those questions to our esteemed guests.
S4: OK, let’s rejoin Roman’s conversation with Charles Finch.
S9: If there’s a reader whose point of discovery is Amazon or is Goodreads, is these forces that are mediated or dictated by the algorithm or by prevailing taste, right.
S1: By by by sheer numbers. Is the function of the critic to push back against that, like, how does the critic sort of negotiate his or her role in that particular system?
S2: That’s such a good question, and it’s one that I think about all the time and that I think I have yet to come to a great answer about, because I do. I mean, so a writer who is on everyone’s mind a couple of months ago and previous to that was Sally Rooney. And, you know, I I really tore through normal people and had some of the best line by line writing that I can remember. But then as soon as it got ultra popular, I went back and I sort of revisited and I came away feeling like, oh, this is just like Twilight for me.
S7: It’s like, oh, how how could this how could this wonderful, beautiful boy like someone who’s just a plain, brilliant, beautiful girl. It’s so crazy. Like, what are the odds here? So there are moments where I sort of like where a book ends, sort of escape velocity from the literary world and becomes more than that. And I do think there’s sort of something salutary then.
S2: And in a review or, you know, Sally Rooney gets a lot of credit for being a Marxist and there’s barely any Marxist content, you know.
S1: Do you think this is hard for me to answer because I’m inside of the book universe, but do you think that there’s still a kind of lingering perception that the book as a form considers itself more rarified or apart from trashy television or Hollywood movies like two things that I also love, but do you think that there’s a perception that, like bookishness itself disdains those forms? And that’s sort of part of why we are in this particular struggle that we’re trying to talk about, which is like how do you crack a book against like a rating scale the way you can with, like a new reality show?
S7: That’s interesting. I mean, what’s so interesting about fiction as a technology or what have you is that the classic reading? If you go back to the scholars of the novel again, what is that? It was the first middle class art because it was portable, it was cheap. You could go to the lending library. And previously, if you wanted to own a Duccio or Petro’s Christoph’s, you had it in your house. It was behind mahogany. And if you wanted a court mask, you would have to be the Duke of Northumberland and get Milton to write you a court mask. And the novel came out and completely radicalized. That and for a long time it was considered a woman’s art. For that reason, it was poetry was considered serious and fiction. And now it’s sort of so I think there’s always a flux of how media are appreciated. And whatever’s easiest is going to be perceived as democratic. And whatever is difficult is going to be perceived as pretentious. And I just don’t believe any of that. I think people like what they like, they consume what they consume. And I, I don’t have the mental energy to worry about people who don’t like books and what they would think of my criticism. Does that make sense? Like I’m writing for someone who I assume cares and enough of those people exist that even if I only make five hundred dollars, it’s you know, and it matters to me.
S1: You know, I do actually want to ask you about the money, because as you yourself just said, you’re going to get five hundred dollars for reviewing Ali Smith’s summer, let’s say. And, you know, presumably you’re going to feel a particular responsibility to read the preceding three books that are part of the series of which that is the culmination. You’re going to feel a responsibility to read it, read the book under review quite deeply and make notes and write a draft and then turn it in chapter and write another draft if necessary. So. Is your work as a writer of fiction, subsidizing your work as a critic or. Do you see that relationship in those terms or is that simply are they are they too unrelated matters?
S7: Well, they’re definitely not unrelated.
S2: You know, I think the best year I ever had as a critic, I made, you know, twelve thousand or thirteen thousand dollars from criticism and, you know, several multiples of that for my mystery novels, which are, you know, bestsellers. And and I’m not saying that, but, you know, that is where I make my living is on the mystery novels.
S7: That’s why I write them in a way, I’m writing a book takes, what, five years or a year or seven years. And then you read it and you read it relatively quickly. And I think that a critic I mean, the hourly rate of pay, what would you say, your hourly rate of pay for your average review as it’s got to be?
S1: I mean, I’m certain I would make more working in retail if you break it down to the hour. Right. And obviously, like, you know, as these endeavors go, they don’t compare at the particularly the luxury of being able to sit at home and read a book and opine on it doesn’t compare with the sheer labor of like delivering packages for UPS. Right. They’re just there two different jobs. And it’s not that I value one more than the other or that the society should value one more than the other. But there is just because we live in a system that is so wholly defined by capital, it’s impossible to really, you know, think about this endeavor as distinct from capital. And of course, like in some ways, it’s a measure of privilege, right? Like I make a living as a novelist, as do you. And so I don’t have to worry about what I’m billing as a freelance writer. And that accrues and I do totally fine. In fact, you mentioned making twelve thousand dollars a year. There are a lot of freelance writers who would be like that is so much money because it is a lot of money for this particular endeavor. But it’s not really it’s certainly not enough to live on in this country, in the society. And so it keeps the work out of it. Sort of like that is one of the forces against which the National Book critics circles, Emerging Writers Fellowship is pushing against. Right. Like if that work is only accessible to somebody who doesn’t need twelve thousand dollars a year, then that keeps a whole spectrum of minds and voices and intellects out of the business. And that’s not a good 100 percent.
S7: And I think a lot of those people go into academia because they perceive it as a place with a more stable incentive structure. And that has turned out to be completely false. Like if you went and got an English PhD this year, there were 75 jobs for 800 new candidates. So it’s I mean, again, I think there are systemic problems to all of this. I’m not sure criticism is more or less implicated in any of.
S6: The other thing I try to think about is I think, you know, there’s a lot of people like I mean, and I love it about the world, that there’s someone who’s interested in everything. Like there’s someone who’s interested in, like geological striations in Cumbria or in Patagonia. And it’s not me because I don’t know jack shit about that. But I and what I’m interested in is, is, you know, I think a lot about what’s coming. Matthew McConaughey said in True Detective, he said life’s fairly long enough to get good at one thing. And this is the the thing that I’ve spent my life not getting good at. I don’t know if I’m good at it, but it’s the thing that I’ve cared about for my whole life. And and I don’t know. I think that has a validity or a power if someone’s given their life to something that that is meaningful.
S1: I want to ask you a little bit about the book that you’re engaged in right now, not the mystery, but you are writing a book of political essays. And I’m curious to understand the bridge between the literary criticism, the sort of act of looking at a work of art and then how that becomes. The kind of social critique that you see, and this is a great moment because Zadie Smith, the novelist and critic, published a book of essays earlier this year written in response to the pandemic. So it’s Zadie Smith functioning as a critic, but sort of functioning as a public intellectual, like the thing that she’s critiquing, the text that she’s critiquing of society itself. Right. It’s the politics. It’s the culture. It’s the coronavirus. So I wonder if you see a progression there between your engagement and writing about politics and your engagement, writing about literature.
S7: I think I mentioned before that between maybe 2013 or 12 and 17, 18, I wrote criticism inveterately. And at the end of it, I came away slightly disillusioned. And I think what I sort of concluded is that there are maybe like six or seven really exciting novels a year and the rest are all good and they’re well written and people have poured their hearts into them and I respect them and stuff. But in terms of stuff that’s really moving the ball forward and doing interesting stuff, I ended up seeing, you know, seven or 12 or whatever a year.
S8: And I got a little restless with writing reviews. I mean, I love to love something. I love to hate something. Writing reviews of books that are just nice books that some people may end up enjoying. They’ll sell a few thousand copies. And and I mean, I don’t mean to demean those books. Iris Murdoch had a great quote about how even a mediocre novel can tell quite a lot of truth, which is the case.
S7: But I think I with this new book, which I confess publishing in fall of twenty or twenty one, I hope it’s called What Just Happened, which is sort of a pun, I guess. I don’t know. And it’s it’s not so much political essays as it is going to be a chronicle of this pandemic year with culminating in election night. And yeah, a huge, huge proportion of my mental energy is taken up with being angry and sad and scared about politics, which has been healthy, I think, because I think a lot of people were already in that state. And for someone like me who has privilege, it’s it’s probably good that I experienced that. But I immediately felt like I wanted to write about it, maybe using half the tools I’ve used for fiction and half the tools I’ve used for criticism, because I think I’ve always wanted to find a way to fuse those. And so this will have the form of maybe like a journal. But I’m hoping to slip in to a camouflaged book of essays in the sort of Adornato Didion, Virginia Woolf style. I’m going to name a writer you hate at some point.
S1: But so Jarle, like you mentioned, that you had been reviewing pretty, you know, extensively, pretty consistently for a period of time. Is there a state for you after all of this reading, after all of this thinking where you’ve lost your ability to access the same kind of pleasure or to the very thing that pulled you to the calling to begin complet completely?
S7: I was on vacation last year and I picked up Norwegian word by Murakami, which I read in college, and I’ve never thought extremely highly of him. I think he has like a definite magic, but I read it and I read it without a pen. And it was the first time I’d read a book without a pen and like a few years. And I just read it and I found myself completely absorbed. And since then, when I read fiction, I try for the most part to read it and just read it because I think I’d gone too far in the other direction. And a lot of the greatest novels have enormous mistakes in them or enormous like stuff that you could critically go after. But if they have, you know, that sort of incalculable vitality that life possesses, it doesn’t matter at all. We completely forgive them. And so the critic can go too far in the direction of thinking about that. And I think particularly people who make criticism, their life’s work risk bitterness and jadedness and things like that. And that’s death to a creative artist. And so if you’re trying to balance both and I think, frankly, most of the people we mentioned are there are very few pure critics left Parool as one or Peter. I mean, but I think it’s important. Yeah. To try to keep that balance in your mind. I always think that Saul Bellow saying someone said, what’s this book about? And he said, I’m the bird, not the ornithologist.
S1: I mean, a little sometimes I wonder if I like the way the critic exists in the cultural imagination is sort of like the snooty simile, like you applying a plain language to abstract stuff and and essentially becoming so abstract, like there are hints of apricot and provincial wind. And it’s like, what are you talking about? Like you’re not actually articulating what the thing is, because I think much like a glass of wine, sometimes it’s just hard to talk about a book like especially a really great book.
S7: Well, and I’m not going to name names, but there are really bad critics who do just that, who are just responding Limbic Lee and just saying, well, this didn’t make me happy. Or, you know, the likability thing is a classic example. I mean, the thing the thing that bothers me most about the perception of critics is the what I think of as the ratha to a problem, which is Anton Ego and Raditude. Did you ever see that movie about the rat who cooks? Well, the big climactic scene is that this extremely foreboding critic comes and you get the sense and, you know, the director seems to have a bone to pick. You get the sense that he feels that critics are essentially useless. They’re just gatekeepers, they’re cruel, they’re frozen in their opinions, et cetera, et cetera. And the great triumph of the movie is that this critic remembers like actual feeling. And I think that there’s a perception of critics like that when in fact, critics are people who live on their nerve endings and really want to engage with, you know, the feelings of the world and what the, you know, a critic spends their time thinking about the stuff that most people I think maybe not maybe this is incorrect, but wake up at three and think about for a minute and then are like, oh, I don’t want to think about that. I just want to wake up and go to work and have a long day and talk to my family and so forth. So I think critics are actually the opposite of that gatekeeper thing. There are people who are the good critics who are trying to explicate for us or to and I think your work does this a lot and try to like take as a point of access, like a certain feeling or a certain emotional tenor in the air and then say how this book is either a representative of it or cutting against it or whatever. And those are the reviews I value. And in fact, they’re the opposite of hidebound or rigid or what have you.
S4: Woman, what a great talk the two of you had, but I also think you and I are in a little bit of a weird position cohosting this episode, because, like Charles, we are both writers of books and we’re also all critics. Of course, as you point out, on some level, everyone’s kind of a critic right now, thanks to websites like Goodreads and Letterbox. Does the democratization of criticism brought on by the Internet change how you view your job when you’re reviewing a book?
S1: It does, it has, and in fact, that particular democratization has helped me realize that I myself don’t have a good working definition of criticism. And so I had a secret agenda. And having this conversation with Charlie, which was to turn to a critic who I think is much smarter than me and get them to explain it to me.
S4: Oh, that’s great. That’s a good hidden agenda. And he also mentioned something that I think is really important and that I think you can really see in his reviews that he feels like one of the first steps in writing a piece of criticism is determining what the work in front of you is actually trying to do. Now, I think this can get taken too far. I think there’s this mistaken idea that reviewers have to evaluate a given work on whether or not it succeeds on its own terms. And I think that can be important. But actually, you can make an argument about whether the artistic projects terms are good or not, if you want to write. But no matter what, you still have to identify for the reader. Here’s what the artistic project is. And Charlie said that he feels in some ways that gives him permission to be rough on the work of art if he needs to, so long as he sort of honestly and in good faith figured out what it’s doing. What did you think of that? Do you sort of self consciously do that yourself when you’re reviewing?
S1: I think it’s a really astute point. I think that maybe there’s a cultural misunderstanding of the book review specifically because I really feel like I was speaking to Charlie as a book critic. The book review is not a book report. And so it has to be evaluative, but it has to evaluate in terms of what is in front of it. So which is to say, if you were talking about a movie like Frozen, you couldn’t lament that it didn’t include more murder and sex, because that is not the nature of the narrative form. You have to understand that this is an animated film for children. And so with it comes certain conventions and certain ways of doing the storytelling. And you have to look at how it accomplishes that within that context. So I think that’s a really generous point that Charlie is making. And I further think that there can be a misunderstanding about what it is to be hard on a book or hard on a work of art in a work of criticism to tackle it and say it has failed or it has fallen short in these ways. I see that fundamentally as an act of respect, and I think that I didn’t hear Charlie put it in exactly those words, but I think when you hear him talk about giving a work, his attention and really trying to figure out what the author is doing, I think you have to come away thinking book criticism is a way of paying respect to the idea of the book itself.
S4: Yeah, I totally agree. Now, that said, you are about to be in the position of having a work that you’ve written, widely reviewed. You have a new book, Leave the World Behind, coming out very soon. It’s been long listed for the National Book Award. It’s it’s been optioned to be turned into a TV series. And so it’s almost certainly going to get a lot of critical attention when you do the kind of Mr. Rogers thing where you change out of the blazer of the critic and put on the comfortable sweater and slippers of the book writer. Does your attitude towards criticism change? Do you have a pretty thick skin about that stuff? Do you not read them? Like, what do you want from the process of seeing your book criticized?
S1: That is a really good question. And I have to say that I will dodged the question by saying fundamentally my response to criticism is immaterial. Criticism is the critic in dialogue with the text for the benefit of the larger audience. It’s not to help the author improve something, although I would hope that if a critic takes a writer to task for a particular shortcoming, let’s say the critic is saying, oh, this writer has sloppy dialogue. If that writer then thinks, OK, I need to improve my dialogue and I will set out to do that in my next book, that is a great thing. But the critics responsibility here is not to the writer, it’s to the audience and it’s to the literary culture more generally. Understood. And so the writer’s own ego notwithstanding, I have no particular place in that conversation. I can only sit on the sidelines and be either mortified or amused.
S4: But do you feel like you learn things about your own work from reading reviews of it?
S1: I don’t know if I do, because I’m a couple of decades out from being a student, getting comments and marks from a teacher, you know, I certainly learn a lot about my own work from my peers. And I certainly learn a lot from a lot about my own work, from the work I engage in, ironically or maybe not, ironically, as a critic myself. So the ability to write criticism, which I do whenever I can, is really just a way of getting to read and think and get paid a little bit of money for doing it. So it’s almost like I’m getting away with a particular trick, which is I feel like I’m still in school and still engaged in the process of taking a book, holding it close, thinking deeply about it, and that stuff that I find so enriching personally that the money is beside the point. As Charlie said, that’s a particular form of privilege, that the money can be beside the point. But books enrich my life in such a way that I think it’s nice to be able to take capital out of the equation whenever that’s realistic to do so.
S4: Yeah, totally. You know, it’s interesting, when I interviewed the film composer Michael Abels, he talked about kind of his process having a creative component. You know, when you’re generating the thing and making the thing and the critical component and having to turn off that critical voice, at least at first, and then find ways to let it in as you revise and stuff. I’m in the midst of drafting a book right now, which is probably why this is on my mind. But I’ve written enough criticism that it can be a challenge as part of the process to turn that that voice off that, you know, I have to keep reminding myself the things you criticize are finished. This is a first draft you’re reading right now as you write it, and you can’t evaluate it with those same tools or you’ll never actually create anything because all you’ll see are the problems and you just have to save that to revision. Do you find yourself having to do that when you write fiction?
S1: That is absolutely true. That is a really good point. You should have a rigorous standard for your own work as a writer. But you should also understand that your first draft of something is not a completed book by some writer who is better than you. And so you have to be generous and gentle with yourself in order to get a project across the finish line. And so I think the the value of criticism to me is really disconnected from my impulse toward making art. It’s really in terms of thinking about art, thinking about books, thinking about their place in the culture, critical thinking about a book. Becomes critical, thinking about a film becomes critical, thinking about the politics of our moment becomes critical, thinking about the ways in which certain dynamics play out in daily life. It becomes a way of just being more enlightened and more thoughtful about the fabric of everything. I think that thinking more deeply benefits all of us.
S4: Yeah, it’s never a bad thing to think more deeply about the world in whatever avenue you can discover for doing it. That said, there’s fewer and fewer people who are able to make a living doing that kind of thinking on the page in the form of criticism. There’s a real crisis. Well, there’s a crisis facing all the arts, as Charlie pointed out, but it’s very acute in criticism right now as newspapers are shutting down and all weeklies are shutting down and word rates are plummeting. It’s very difficult for critics to make a living or anything approaching it in their field. I mean, you know, just thinking about theater for a second, there’s like maybe a dozen people in the country who make something approaching a living from theatre criticism. And most of them are, of course, in New York City. As I said, Charlie points out, there’s a broader problem, the arts in general. But I at least feel it most acutely when I look at critics and my friends who are critics. Do you feel that sense of crisis as a critic?
S1: I do, unfortunately, because I just don’t know how a rising generation of writers and thinkers will be seduced into the particular mode of criticism without there being any financial stability there. And I think that the culture suffers for that. This isn’t a problem about how intellectually sound or the culture is. I don’t think there’s any shortage of very smart people able to write really stylishly and perceptively with depth and a light touch about complicated issues. The challenges are there, newspapers and websites and magazines willing to invest in those writers. And I don’t know how to answer that question. And I hope that there will be.
S10: Well, we hope you have enjoyed our show this week, if you have, please consider signing up for Slate plus Slate. Plus members get benefits like zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do right here on working. It’s only 35 dollars for the first year and you can get a free two week trial now at Slate Dotcom working.
S1: Plus, we’re very grateful to our guest, Charles Finch. And as always, to our amazing producer, Cameron Drus.
S10: Join us next week for a conversation between me and writer director Phil Alden Robinson. Until then, get back to work.
S9: Hazlet plus members, thank you so much for your support for Slate’s journalism as a token of our appreciation, we have an extra couple of questions just for you.
S1: So, Charlie, while I have you here engaged in critical shoptalk, I want to ask you the kind of question I would ask you if I was meeting you for a drink at a bar, which, God willing, someday the pandemic will be over and we’ll be able to do that, which is who were the critics, who you are reading right now, who you think illuminate something? And also like, what are the novels that you’re reading right now that just have, like, rearranged you or have helped you, even though if you’re not engaged in the act of writing criticism in quite the same way, like, what have you been reading that is just so good that everyone needs to be reading right now?
S7: Oh, gosh. There’s that’s such a good question. I’ll tell you one book that I really, truly loved, which I expected from the description to hate, was The Cold Millions by Jess Walter, which is coming out in a month or so, I think. And it’s about the early days of the unionization movement in Spokane, Washington, which sounds so dry. But it has his sort of pantheistic, beautiful view of the world in it. And it sort of jumps from character, character to character in a really brilliant way. So I liked that. I really was fascinated by the discomfort of Evening by Marico Lucas Reinvolved, which won the international booker. They are a Lowlands Dutch writer and they write about it sort of almost like reading Shirley Jackson or something. They write about this extreme darkness of growing up in a highly religious lowland Dutch family. And it’s a very imperfect book, but with enough like little like a glimpse of perfection that I want to read everything they write from now on, criticism is such a I mean, you know, I the writer who I really can never get enough of is Zoe Heller, who writes for the New York Review of Books off. And I think she’s so, so, so smart. Peter Sheldon is a hero of mine, the art critic of The New York Times. And I wrote a or excuse me for The New Yorker Review, basically supine with admiration for him and The New York Times when his most recent collection came out, because I think that he is he really raises criticism truly to the level of art. I think I think that’s a valid like the question of whether genre novels can be art. I think the question of whether criticism art is art is valid. And I think in Sheldon’s case, the answer is yes. So there are a lot I mentioned Saadia Hartman, who I think is amazing. And then I like to go back and I like to read reviews from earlier times. I mean, Zora Neale Hurston, she wrote a lot of cultural criticism and anthropological criticism she worked with called Let Me Stress. So I’m reading a lot of her right now. Or D.H. Lawrence had this whole essay about the selfie, which is about LATRA. He was talking about how having our own image is going to debilitate our sense of ourselves. So there’s there’s all these critics who who I read contemporaneously. But I also try to go back and think about what people used to be thinking. But yeah, so it’s a mix of going back and I don’t know, you tell me what critics I read because I’m positive I read the ones that you click on.
S1: This is a hard one. Wesley Morris comes to mind. Yes. Yeah. Vanessa Friedman is the fashion critic of The New York Times, comes to mind. Robin Givhan, fashion critic of The Washington Post, comes to mind, know Friedman is a great example because she makes me read on a subject I don’t care about. Yes. I think that I am one of my favorite writers and of course, now I’m going to blink. And her name is the woman who writes about dance for The New Yorker because, oh, Joan Acocella.
S7: Joan Acocella couldn’t agree more. And if someone wants a book recommendation, her book, 28 Artists and Two Saints, is just a perfect book of criticism. It’s amazing. She tells an incredible story. This is the last thing I’ll say. But it’s one of my favorite stories. And I think it’s about what’s the name of Ballan? It’s about Valentine and Lincoln. Kirstein said to Balanchine they were in like some new city and he said, Do you want to go to a museum? And Balanchine said, No, I’ve already been to one. So I love Joan Acocella. When you read her books, there’s like all these anecdotes that you’re just like, I don’t remember that forever.
S1: Charlie, if you were teaching a course in criticism next semester, what are three books you would assign?
S7: Wow, that’s such a great question. I mean, yeah, what level of let’s say let’s take a college course, an undergrad, college courses on criticism, I think honestly I would teach let’s see by Sheldon. I think I would teach a lot of Zadie Smith, but I would sort of pluck from here and there. She’s someone I should have mentioned who I do not miss a word she writes. I think she’s almost a better critic than a novelist at times. Your mileage on swing time may have varied. I would have to really go and look. I mean, I think Saidiya Hartman, who is somewhere in between academic and cultural critic and book critic, I think she’s someone who every time I finish one of her essays, I almost want to go back to the start and reread it. And I learn something new every time. And then, you know, I love I love a lot of the old like Arthur Danto and people like that. So I wish I had a really satisfying answer. I’m going to think about it.
S1: That’s a good that’s a good introductory to criticism, though, from professors.
S6: Yes, exactly. Exactly.
S1: That’s about it. Thank you again to our Slate plus members, and we’ll see you again next week.