In this 2018–2019 Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics Q and A series, curated by Jonathan Leal, Emerging Critics offer short takes on big questions: What makes good criticism? How might one arrange one’s life to produce it? How do discrete critical interests relate? And if given the chance, what assignments would one pursue immediately? Applications are now open for the third class of NBCC Alan Cheuse Emerging Critics. Deadline April 3, 2019. Details here.
What are your current critical interests? How have these developed or evolved over time? Are there particular genres or themes to which you are committed? What sorts of issues or concerns have animated your work?
This question always gets me because I have many interests as a reader and thinker as well as a wide range of personal experiences I can bring to bear, so, usually, I say I’m a generalist. I want to engage critically with the widest range of books possible, but there are things I love as a reader that I don’t want to cover as a critic and vice versa, with a whole lot in between. For instance, I enjoy a good romance novel, but I wouldn’t enjoy critiquing romance. For me, a romance novel's the pleasure is transport and escape, and that pleasure's antithetical to the attention of critique. However, literary fiction is something I rarely self-selected as a reader, and it’s something I love as a critic because criticism showed me a way into its pleasures. Then, there’s that wealth of books that are both for me. Poetry, young adult, science fiction, fantasy, cookbooks, nonfiction, memoir, biography, art, crafts, history, LGBTQ+ (I won’t even touch how fraught I find this as a category; for instance, LGBTQ+ people write all sorts of things about all sorts of things, so is it based on author? Content? But I digress.), short stories, essay collections, graphic novels, and comics are all categories where my pleasure and critical faculties are ambidextrous. Paying attention to my own reactions when I’m reading helped me discover this breakdown.
I think I’m particularly committed to independent presses and will always seek out their work. They publish so many interesting books, and much of what I’ve found riveting, electrifying, or completely unique has come from these presses. For some genres, like poetry, the majority of the genre is produced by independent and small presses, so only looking to the big publishing houses would essentially mean codifying my own blind spots.
No matter the book or genre, I think I’m always concerned with voice, self-awareness, sense of audience, and a knowledge of and engagement with conventions. Many of the things I flag as a critic come from a deficit in one of these areas. I want to feel like the writer’s in control of the work and actively making choices, so I’m especially attuned to moments where something in the writing seems unexamined or unrealized while simultaneously dominating my reading experience.
What do you think makes good criticism? And relatedly: what makes a good critic?
Good criticism comes from a place of curiosity, empathy, nuance, and contemplation. A good critic twines these impulses into insight, whether their critique praises, condemns, or remains ambivalent about the work. I suppose there are also many technical aspects I don’t think much about because they’re on my list of “givens”: judicious quotes, compelling distillation, an ability to capture the work’s sense and sensibility, attention to content, craft, and how each informs the other, and, often, an effort to contextualize the work culturally, literarily, or thematically.
How, if at all, does criticism inform your creative work?
Criticism revealed the scarcity mindset I’d been taught as a reader and writer. It probably doesn’t help that I first came to writing as a poet, and poetry’s a genre that’s tortured by scarcity around audience, publication, and remuneration, as well as being obsessed with the idea of youth and prodigy. But even more generally, while I’ve always like to read, I’ve never been in sync with the reading tastes and signifiers expected of me as someone often labeled “academic.” Even if I could appreciate those expected books aesthetically or technically, the emotional and cultural distance I felt from many of them helped me internalize so much shame about what I loved, which was more often vilified than venerated. It was only a short jump for those same judgments to affect my creative writing as well as my reading.
Criticism's helped me become more aware of publishing’s hierarchies, Achilles’ heels, and the systemic nature of certain problems. Realizing some problems affect me but aren’t because of me has been hugely helpful in exorcising the harmful messages that had shut down my curiosity about my internal voice, my own imagination, and the specificity of my experience. I only arrived at those realizations by thinking through what bothered me and what I wanted to celebrate in the books I was reading as a critic, especially because so much of my reading revealed trends. (When doing eight book feature after eight book feature, you can’t help but notice publishing’s current fascinations).
Reading so widely—across genres and publishers—has taught me two things. First, while most of what I’d been taught about the reading public assumes there’s only one type of desirable reader or audience—and, therefore, that there are very few publishers worth reading or submitting to because the “good” audiences have self-selected the good presses, etc.—there’s actually an audience for everyone. What gets celebrated is a very narrow slice of what exists or even what's wanted. Second, I’m a good and generous reader who deeply appreciates every author who strides as close as they can to their compulsions, their own voices, their passions, and their complexities. But that’s not to say I’m just here for confessional writing. Imagination is deeply personal, and we’re all imagining when we write, whether it’s imagining characters, imagining the past into the present, or imagining the gaps in an audience’s knowledge and offering them facts. Staying present with the work of so many authors and holding up their voices has helped me become more generous with myself; I’ve learned to stop turning a knife on my own writing, publication record, and career that I would never use on others.
Given the many demands on your time, how do you arrange your schedule so you can produce good work?
This is the big question, and the answer is: I do the best I can. Between book criticism and farming (my paying jobs: poetry and essays haven’t produce income yet, but I live in hope), I’m pretty much always working. Most days, that means I’m on my feet by 7 am, at the farm by 8 am, checking cows from then until 10 am, writing and reading from 10 am to 2 pm, doing another hour of farm work before heading home around 4 pm to take care of the never-ending life tasks, and then doing a second round of reading, writing, or admin work from 6 pm to 8 pm. This is the ideal routine, but any part of it can and does go pear-shaped with distressing regularity because I have a spouse, he has his own small business that also affects our schedules, we have personal obligations, and, as of present, I still live without a time-turner.
With so much on my plate, I live my life according to deadlines, without much of margin for error. Although I always strive to meet my own standards for good work, I’ll grit my teeth a long time over something post-publication if I feel I could have made it better given another week, especially if it’s about someone else’s work. But there’s a fine line between helpful self-reflection and perfectionism.
Once, I overheard a singer explaining her tattoo, which read, “Perfection is the enemy of joy.” That’s stuck with me ever since. Perfectionism is something I struggle with because of my upbringing, and I’ve found perfection is a punishing voice, not an asset. I work hard to embrace the idea of “good enough,” because it’s what enables me to try when I’m given a crazy deadline or realize I’m neglecting writing my own poetry or essays because I need to prioritize paying work or when the constant pressure of trying to make a living means I have 12 books to review in one month while also spending freezing January days feeding hay or fixing tractors or dealing with frozen pipes and broken tank heaters only to spend an even more freezing January night out in a field dealing with a difficult calving. When I finally haul myself upright and make it to my desk, I often feel half dead, but I don’t think that’s where any of us are supposed to live. The truth is, something always suffers, and my life can often feel like an unending triage.
Maybe this is adjacent to an answer, but it feels important to say I’m coming from a space that exists precariously close to an edge: of time, of income, of personhood from which to read and write and bring myself wholly to the task of working and living. And I think it’s a myth that someone’s best—be it artist, writer, or anyone else that’s been told hardship is the incubator of genius—will ever come from a place that’s the enemy of joy because attention and effort are a kind of joy, and joy can’t endure in a place of desperation and lack.
For you, right now: what would be your dream assignment?
Author interviews. I’d love to do more book reviews with follow-up interviews or even interviews alone because I’m always curious how authors are constructing the world on the page. For me, an author interview feels like the most marvelous bookend to the singular experience of reading, and I’m itching to have those conversations with more authors. If I have to name just one, my dream interview would be Kristin Cashore because I've been reading her work for 10+ years and would love the opportunity to do a long-form interview about craft, the growth of YA, her unique perception of heroines and heroics, and the development of her oeuvre over the last decade.