Emerging Critics

Bookchat: Four Tips from Tom Beer

By Heather Scott Partington


Tom Beer, book editor of Newsday and former NBCC President (2015-2017), met with NBCC’s Emerging Critics in our first advisory Skype session. Emerging Critics Committee Chair Elizabeth Taylor also joined in. Tom spoke about his time as both a freelancer and editor, focusing on how ethical considerations weigh into the work of a critic. Here are four recommendations from Beer about professionalism and ethics of literary criticism.

1: Your Calling Card

First you have to book the job. Tom suggests that having an easy-to-find, easy-to-read website will increase your chances. “It’s your face to the world,” he said, assuring the emerging critics that editors will Google a prospective writer in search of his or her work. For that reason, Beer suggested keeping it simple (a number of free options are available), and updating your website frequently with recent clips. No clips? No problem. Beer pointed the critics toward Rebecca Skloot’s now famous “Reviewing 101,” offered to all NBCC members, which offers suggestions such as reviewing on a personal blog to establish some examples of your writing.

2: Blurred Lines

The world of reviewing can be isolating, which is why a social media presence can help prospective critics. Beer mentioned how using sites like Twitter can help a critic learn what’s happening in the literary world, make connections, and tweet easily-shareable links. Is “following” someone on Twitter the same as knowing them too well to review their work? Beer doesn’t think so. But he cautioned us that many critics define ethical lines for themselves. He shared with us that Carlin Romano spearheaded a survey of NBCC voting members several years ago on the subject of ethics. The results were varied, proving again that each critic has a responsibility to establish his or her own lines and respect the policies of each publication. The hard-and-fast rule, as Beer and many others see it: “blood, sex, or money”–don’t review a book by anyone if you share any of the three.

3: The Wind-Up

Pitching reviews to editors is grueling, thankless work. Beer’s recommendations for getting pitches accepted were clear: “Be concise, and direct. State your interest, and try to specialize.” Beer also gave good advice about getting to know a publication, before you take the time to send a pitch letter. Reading the publication to discover things like voice, style, length of pieces and breadth of coverage will inform your pitches and save you disappointment. Taylor chimed in, suggesting that critics include a resume, or information about their other interests. “Be available; be open,” Beer said, adding that a line about being “open to other possibilities” can show an editor your willingness to work.

4: Trial by Fire

Don’t expect to review the book you pitched, says Beer, but if an editor sees your potential, you may get a first assignment. “The first assignment is you being tried out,” Beer said. The editor stressed how important it is to be reliable. “Hand in something ready to go to copy,” he said, “meet deadlines, meet word count.” Basically, don’t be a problem. Taylor even suggested getting your work in early. Both suggested taking the business side of criticism as seriously as the creative. Your number one responsibility, on your first review? Beer says, “inspire confidence.”

Heather Scott Partington is a writer, teacher, and book critic. She is a recipient of the Emerging Critics Fellowship from the National Book Critics Circle. Her writing has appeared at The Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares’ Blog, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She is a contributor to Goodreads, Las Vegas Weekly, and Electric Literature. Heather holds an MFA in Fiction from UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus. She teaches high school English and lives in Elk Grove, California with her husband and two kids.