Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

The Critical I: Six Questions for Mark Rotella


OVER THE NEXT YEAR, the NBCC will be talking to book editors and critics around the country. We recently caught up with Mark Rotella, senior reviews editor at Publishers Weekly and author ofStolen Figs: And Other Adventures in Calabria(2004). While waiting for a contractor to show up at his Jersey City home, Rotella answered a few questions about balancing his life as a writer with his role as a book-review editor.

Q: Tell me about Publishers Weekly and your role there.

A: PW is published 50 weeks a year, and the reviews run two to three months before the books are published. Our readership includes publishing houses, book sellers, writers, book reviewers, film agents, and editors of other newspapers and magazines that run book reviews. I'm one of three nonfiction-reviews editors, and we each run around 16 reviews per week.

Q: Sixty reviews a week in the nonfiction section alone — that's out of how many books that cross your desks?

A: It may seem like we're reviewing every book that's out there, but in fact we're only reviewing maybe a quarter of all the books we get.

Q: What are the biggest challenges?

A: It's easy to fill up the whole review section with books from major presses. I try to also look at the smaller presses that are taking more chances and give them as much space as I can because in many cases, Publisher's Weekly, Library Journal, or Kirkus might be the only reviews the book gets. Another major challenge is simply getting publishers to send us books on a timely basis. We review books two to three months before they're released, and with so many publications on shortened publication schedules, just getting those gallies can be really difficult sometimes.

Q: You're a writer as well as an editor — what are you working on now?

A: My forthcoming book is about the great Italian-American singers of popular song — Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Dean Martin, Bobby Darin — and how through music Italians assimilated into American culture. It's due out in 2007 (FSG: North Point Press). Recently I wrote the introduction to a reprint of Carlo Levi's Christ Stopped at Eboli: The Story of a Year (also FSG). It was one of the first books on Southern Italy to be published in the US, and it really influenced my first book, so that was great — and also quite humbling. I write essays for The New York Timesand have been writing for the Jersey section a lot on things in the neighborhood. I also write articles and reviews for the Washington Post, the New York Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the St. Petersburg Times, the Village Voice, Newsday, Saveur, Forbes Life, and American Heritage.

Q: Does being an author change the way you handle reviews?

A: I think I've always tried to give each book a balanced review based on its own merit, rather than imposing what I wish the book would have been, and since my first book came out I've been even more careful about that. Even though I was working in the industry, when reviews of Stolen Figs were due out, I felt the same anxiety that every writer feels.

Q: How does your experience as a reviewer and a review editor influence your writing?

A: I like the balance of editing in writing — each informs the other. I think editing has informed my other magazine-writing skills by teaching me to get to the point. After looking at as many books as I have, I see what works and what doesn't work, and I try to do in my book what I think works. That poses its own challenge, too: You never really know until the end whether or not it's worked. But as I see everything that comes through, I tend to learn from that and take mental notes. Putting into words my thoughts on another book helps me with my own book. However, sometimes if I'm not careful, reviewing can hinder me because it'll cause me to think too much about my own writing.

Interviewed by Elaine Vitone