Critical Mass

Interview with David L. Ulin

By Eric Banks

On Thursday the Los Angeles Times announced that David L. Ulin would be taking on a new position as book critic for the paper after five years as book editor. Critical Mass asked him a few questions about the changeover and what he is anticipating in his new role with the newspaper.

How would you describe your new position as book critic of the Los Angeles Times?

The Times has had full-time book critics in the past—I believe the last was Richard Eder, who left in the mid-1990s. Since then there have been various people on staff who wrote about books, but no one was officially designated as the paper’s book critic. That’ll be my new title.

Basically, the plan is, I’ll be writing a review a week, for either the Sunday or the daily edition, as well as other pieces—profiles, critical features, appreciations, essays. I’ll be contributing more to the blog, and I wouldn’t mind exploring some multimedia pieces for the web–video interviews, etc. I feel like it’s pretty wide open. There are so many other kind of avenues and venues for talking about books today—part of the book critic role is the traditional one, but one of the questions I’m interested in is, What does it mean to be a book critic in 2010? How does a book critic operate three-dimensionally? How do we function in that world?

When will the switch from editor to critic occur?

I’m going to stay on as book editor until they name a replacement. For the time being, I’ll try and do both.

Is there a time frame for naming a new editor?

No, but there will be another book editor named, and when that happens, I’ll shift over into the critic’s position full-time. For the moment, I’ll be reviewing more in the critic’s role. Once the editor is in place, I’ll shift more into the other, nonreview writing—features and so forth–that goes on top of the reviewing.

And you’ll still be involved with the annual Festival of Books?

Yes, definitely.

What sort of leeway will you have in terms of coverage?

The Times has a tradition of fairly voicey, autonomous critics. The other critics who are here—in architecture, the arts, etc.–are definitely given a lot of leeway to explore their territory. It’s my sense that the same will be true.

I imagine at this point that anyone who’s been reading the section will know my interests and sensibility. I’m a fairly diverse reader. So I’ll write about all kinds of books. Of course I’ll do the big books, but I’ll continue to cover small and independent presses, literary fiction, new writers, and some things that are a little bit off the beaten track and might get overlooked, as well as other topics that interest me–books about music, some books about sports, cultural criticism.

I’ve loved editing the book section, but I’ve been restless to go back to writing full time. For the last several months I’ve been frustrated by not having as much time to write as I want. So I was looking for a way to make a change where I’d be able to write more, and the paper was receptive to figuring out a way to make it work, which I’m immensely grateful for.