In this Q&A series, The Craft of Criticism, NBCC members Tara Cheesman and Fran Bigman ask book critics and review editors for their thoughts about contemporary criticism.
Kerri Arsenault is an NBCC board member, the Book Review Editor at Orion Magazine, columnist at LitHub.com, Book Editor at Journal of the North Atlantic and Arctic. She is working on a narrative nonfiction book about a small paper mill town in Maine (St. Martin’s Press, March 2020). Literary Tweets @kerriarsenault.
How did you become a book critic?
When I lived in Oakland, California, I had been reading friend and author Melanie Gideon’s manuscript for her memoir, The Slippery Year, and based on my input to her work, she suggested I pitch a book review to John McMurtrie, the book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle. Miraculously, he said yes. It was the first piece I ever published. I finally met him in March and thanked him in person for jumpstarting my writing career. If it wasn’t for him, I’d probably still be a paralegal or a ski bum, which come to think of it, wouldn’t be a bad idea. Reviewing books isn’t very lucrative. Neither is writing.
Do you have a specific method/way of working you apply when writing reviews?
I generally follow John Updike’s rules for criticism. The one rule I never ignore is: “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” My method? It’s the same with anything I write; I scribble in the margins, dogear pages, take disorganized notes, draw images that mirror the structure of a book, circle terrible sentences and highlight good ones, go for a run, then I start writing.
John Freeman, Executive Editor at Lithub, knew McPhee was my literary hero so when John asked if I would be interested in interviewing him when Draft No. 4 came out, I said hell yes. When I turned the piece in, it was a janky mess. John helped me shape it into a manageable animal. A profile made sense because McPhee is a master profiler and observer, and I wanted my piece to reflect that, though I didn’t get to observe him in his milieu as he does his subjects. We spoke only on the phone.
For Barry Blitt, an interview suited him because he is an artist who responds, sometimes immediately, to what’s happening in the world. A conversation is a responsive form, which is germane to how he works. Plus I met with Barry over lunch on his back porch and it was just more conversational. Our dialogue better revealed his political, funny, slightly deranged, illuminating, and smart self. You never know what’s going to come out of Barry’s mouth or out of his pen. Why Barry? I love political cartooning and he is one of the best. Also, he lives in my town, and we’ve drunk a lot of wine together.
What’s it like being the Reviews editor at Orion Magazine? What are the challenges?
It’s the best job I’ve ever had; I get to work with smart, like-minded people who look out for each other, and such things as the planet, small birds, humanity, and big ideas.
The biggest challenge is finding the right books to review. I look for well-written, original, and intelligent books that examine the intersection of human experience and ecology, books that are not built on environmental writing tropes like mountaintop epiphanies or climate change doom, but on broader landscapes of the sociological, emotional, psychological, cultural, or physical kind. I’m essentially looking for books that exemplify the spirit of the stories that Orion publishes: unconventional but relevant, in our world but not known, that our audience may be interested in reading. I also scout books that Orion readers may not know about, so I take deep dives into academic, translated, and indie publisher lists.
When I find a book, I consider who is the best critic to write about it, maybe one who has a connection to the topic or who has something original to say about it. I’m also trying to assign books diverse in subject, genre, author, place, as well as assign a range of critics to those books. Then I look closely at the authors, too and sometimes consider socioeconomic status, race, gender, age, etc. It’s like a giant, spidery puzzle. Then I get pitches in from the ether and try to respond to them all, even working with or mentoring new critics who have potential. The world needs more analytical critics and I feel a responsibility to help them…if they want my help, that is.
Finally, we publish four issues a year and I only get space to publish six reviews, so that’s a challenge, too. I’m angling to do more because as we are all aware, our planet is in fucking peril and Orion is ground zero for examining related environmental issues.
Books about the natural world seem particularly suited for longform reviews. Are there any critics writing right now who you see embracing the potential of these books?
A good critic is a good critic no matter what they review. And the Internet has the capacity to publish an infinite amount of words, so longform reviews make sense. Publications just have to pay critics for those longer reviews. That’s the problem.
I’m seeing publications and critics embracing coverage of Orion-y topics, though I do feel bludgeoned about the didactic pretense of many of them and that many contain the word “doom” in the title. I’m not saying books about the natural world should give false hope–or that there is any hope at all, especially after the United Nations assessment was published about the speed in which humans are altering the natural world by contributing to the deterioration of biodiversity and ecosystems worldwide. I’m just asking for a little nuance from voices we haven’t heard from before about places and concerns we haven’t heard about yet. Again, I’m not necessarily looking for books about the “natural world.” For instance plastic or dioxin is not part of the natural world, nor is a memoir about leaving Sarajevo (see Aleksandar Hemon’s new dos-à-dos memoir) but if they are good books that address topics in an interesting way, why not review them?
Speaking of nuance, Orion has a series called “Young Readers Ask” in which children ask writers questions about their books. For example, a seven-year-old asks David Wallace-Wells about climate change. It’s fantastic! How did it come about?
I came up with the idea after giving my nephew Jasper Wood a copy of Mark O’Shea’s snake book for Christmas last year. (The Book of Snakes: A Life-Size Guide to Six Hundred Species from Around the World, by Mark O’Shea. University of Chicago Press, 2018.) My nephew kept asking me questions about snakes so I figured, why not let him ask the author? I know nothing about snakes! I also loved the idea of Jasper’s innocent questions laid out to Mark O’Shea, a famous herpetologist.
I foresee this series being a balm to the snarky, negative, idiocy we see on TV when pundits ask questions they already know the answer to. It’s cliché to say kids are the future but they are, and they are going to be responsible for the future of all life on the planet. There’s an army of kids out there who read and have questions about the mess we are leaving them, so why not let them grill us adults about the who, what, and why?
We’ve been seeing a resurgence of nature writing. Why do you think there’s more interest now? And do you see anything new happening with the form?
There’s more interest because most people are taking climate change and species extinction seriously…but still not seriously enough. Humans are selfish. We generally worry about what affects us directly. In Litchfield County, Connecticut where I live and other bastions of privilege, we give lip service to climate change, oceans of plastic, bee decline. But what do we actually do? We buy bottled water by the case, use insecticides in our gardens, and chug around town in our diesel-fueled cars. As soon as environmental issues start affecting those who actually have the agency to do something about it (see above) things will change. The poor and underprivileged of this world have been suffering in toxic environmental ecosystems and landscapes for ages. They live amid our garbage, in sacrifice zones. But it’s hard for them to do anything when they are barely making minimum wage and suffering diseases our garbage gives them, while also not having access to health care. Mark my words: as soon as the power brokers start suffering, laws will change. So yeah, there’s interest and there’s a lot of revelation happening now, but there needs to be a political, legal, and cultural reaction to this literature. I’m not seeing much movement yet.
Most “nature writing” in its current form is problematic. Environmental writing historically has been white, privileged, rural-based and to be honest, those are most of the books publishers send me. We need to hear voices from the periphery, from urban landscapes, from people not living among nature. We need to examine the ideas that Rob Nixon enumerates in his book, Slow Violence and Environmentalism of the Poor, that there are other kinds of environmental disasters, ones that occur “gradually and out of sight” and are “attritional.” And we need to read stories that are less didactic, ones where humans, plants or animals are at the center of the narrative, not just data points. So perhaps if we change the form of these stories, we can change how people react to them.