Thanks to The School of Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of their students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2013 in our 30 Books 2013 series.
The NBCC awards the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing each year to recognize outstanding work by a member of the NBCC. The citation is awarded in honor of Nona Balakian, a founding member of the National Book Critics Circle, where she served as the board’s first secretary. The eminent critic and longtime editor at the New York Times Book Review also served on the Pulitzer Prize committee, the Board of Directors of PEN, and the Authors Guild board, was the author of Critical Encounters: Essays (1978), and co-author (with Charles Simmons) of The Creative Present (1969). Nona Balakian passed away in 1991. Previous winners of the citation include Joan Acocella, Daniel Mendelsohn, Thomas Mallon, Maureen McLane, Steven G. Kellman, Laurie Stone, Scott McLemee, Albert Mobilio, JoAnn Gutin, David Orr, Elizabeth Ward, George Scialabba, and Ron Charles.
Simone T. Tyrell, on behalf of the School of Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Katherine A. Powers, recipient of the Nona Balakian Citation For Excellence in Reviewing for the 2013 NBCC awards.
Simone Tyrell : How did you get into reviewing books, has it always been your ambition? Were there any particular influences in your life that inspired your career?
Katherine Powers : I really began to notice and read book reviews when I was in my early twenties, and thought how wonderful it would be to write them for a living. But I hadn’t any idea at all of how one would go about doing that or in fact how to get any sort of a job beyond the one I had, which was tending bar in Dublin and later in London. I had dropped out of university (flunked out, actually) but still read books—novels chiefly—nonstop. Reading book reviews and literary criticism took the place of the conversations about books I would have liked to have had, and might have had, if I hadn’t been surrounded by people whose only reading was the racing form.
After many years and a certain amount of pulling myself together, I went back to school, finished, and worked as an archivist. I still thought writing book reviews was what I should be doing in life, but I STILL hadn't a clue how one would go about such a thing. Then, incredibly, in every way, when I was forty-two years old, I got a lucky break. A friend who was an editor at Boston Magazine phoned me out of the blue and offered me the job of writing the magazine’s book-review column. It emerged later that she had called me to get the phone number of another friend of mine, an actual journalist, and had been going to offer her the job but decided that I would do just as well. I am glad I didn’t know that at the time.
ST : What was the first book you reviewed?
KP : My first assignment (for the April, 1989 issue of Boston Magazine!) was of two baseball books, an ideal subject for me because I am a fan of the game and, even more, of its history. I just now looked at those reviews and see that I did a hatchet job on both books: Bill Littlefield’s novel, Prospect, and George V. Higgins’s The Progress of the Seasons: Forty Years of Baseball in Our Town. I also see in myself—the book reviewer of that distant day—a person who is clearly very pleased with herself. This is something I think I have learned to disguise.
I will say here that I don’t like to trash books the way I used to. Now I try hard to choose books to review that I am pretty sure I will like. If there is enough time, I reject books I thought would be good but which turn out, on reading, not to be. It’s just better all around given how many books there are and how little space the world grants to book reviews. On the other hand, if I have a deadline and firm commitment to provide a review of a book which turns out to be a failure, I go ahead and take off the gloves. I just wrote a very negative review last week, not published yet, and it gave me no pleasure at all because the author is one I admire, but he fell down badly here.
ST : What is your process when you review a book?
KP : There is an old saying that a reviewer is a person who reads a book less than once. A joke, yes, but I do think that that really was true of a fair few reviewers in the days when there were a lot of reviews in a lot of newspapers and magazines. I always read a book I am reviewing once—but seldom the entire thing twice. If it is nonfiction, I usually read the table of contents first; then, if there are photographs, I spend (waste) a great deal of time poring over them. Then I briefly skim the introduction, then read the conclusion, and then the whole thing starting with the first chapter on to the last, at which point I zip through the conclusion again. Only then do I read the whole introduction—and that is because most introductions contain a great deal of blather and I don’t want to start out exhausted.
If it is fiction—a novel, say—I open it up here and there and read a few paragraphs, just to get a sense of the voice and to whet my appetite. Then I read it from start to finish. Sometimes if I am very anxious about the fate of a central character, I do glance at the end. I know this is a sign of a weak character, but I prefer to think of it as being the mark of a professional. If I am too worried, I’m not going to be able to concentrate on how the book is being written and what it’s up to. When I am reading I can’t easily distinguish between the made-up world of a novel and what some people consider reality. So I worry.
As far as forming judgments—or figuring out what I am going to say in a review—I try to notice what I am noticing while I’m reading. Because I am, essentially, a reading addict, my impulse is simply to rip right through a book, fiction or nonfiction, just for the animal pleasure of it. But sad experience has shown that if I abandon myself in this way, I will finish the book without being able to say much except: Boy was that ever good, you should read it. And so I take a lot of notes and jot down passing thoughts and anything that niggles at me as I read—not always full-fledged observations, just fleeting impressions. These often turn out to get at the crux of things once I sit down and think things through.
After finishing a book, I read over my notes, reread passages, and settle on likely quotations for demonstrating the book's essential nature. I often try to express precisely what the book is about—its aims, its style, approach, originality or lack of it—to my particular friend, Bob, who has an extremely useful mind. Then I try to come up with a first sentence. I can’t seem to get going without that. On the other hand, I have never written an outline in my life. I am a very, very slow writer, rewriting endlessly (or so it seems), working on the review until it doesn’t make me want to throw up.
ST : Are there reviewers writing now whom you especially admire?
KP : There are a number whose work especially appeals to me. The Washington Post (for which I write on occasion) has an extraordinarily fine stable of reviewers: Jonathan Yardley, Michael Dirda, and Ron Charles. Each has his own voice and his own bee in his bonnet, and each has, in addition to style and acumen, a sense of humor which I consider essential to true understanding. I am also a big fan of James Wood (though I disagree with half his assessments), George Scialabba and James Parker (both friends, but geniuses all the same), Brooke Allen, James Marcus, D.G. Myers, Dwight Garner, and Anna Mundow (another friend). I am devoted also to John Crace's excellently amusing “Digested Read” column in the Guardian.
ST : Are there any particular books you like reading? For example, what genre of books do you prefer?
KP : I like practically everything except inspirational tracts, political rants, and celebrity stuff. I review audio books as well as print ones and so, because review copies come in the door unbidden, I listen to a lot of books I wouldn't necessarily read with my eyes, such as political memoirs, tales of domestic life and marital strife, and really junky crime and espionage thrillers. When I say “junky” I am not referring to the great masters of that large genre, my favorites of the moment being Oren Steinhauer, Charles Cumming, and Michael Gruber.
ST : How did you go about selecting the letters for Suitable Accommodations? Did you enjoy editing it?
KP : The book amounts to the story of twenty-one years of my father's life—and sixteen of mine. I selected letters which would tell that story. And I guess I did rather enjoy editing it, first because many of the letters are, in my view, very funny; and secondly, because putting the book together helped me figure out that my father and mother didn't really know what they were doing. Most children think their parents are guided by reason and make choices that make sense. At least I did. Now I know better.
ST : Any advice for writers who are just starting their careers?
KP : If you want to make a living you might consider bartending. It seems entirely possible that there will be no professional book reviewers ten years from now. But the future is something I have no real views on.
Katherine A. Powers’s column on books and writers ran for many years in The Boston Globe and now appears in The Barnes & Noble Review under the title “A Reading Life.” She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life—The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
Simone T. Tyrell is currently a second year MFA student in the writing program at The New School, with a concentration in nonfiction writing. She has a background in finance and archives.