Mark Athitakis on Book Reviewing

Mark Athitakis spoke to us about current trends in book reviewing and American fiction.

Mr. Athitakis is a writer, editor, and literary critic, whose work has appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and Chicago Sun-Times, as well as his excellentliterary blog.

A Conversation with Mark Athitakis

Q: Could you describe some trends you've noticed in American fiction over the last decade? Any recent changes in the type of work being published and in critical responses to the work? In what direction to you believe American fiction to be headed?

A: One thing that seems clear to me is that 9/11 didn’t “change everything,” as so many people assumed it would at the time -- American fiction has hung onto its vampires and romances, its mannered considerations of families in crisis, its immigrant assimilation tales, and to a large extent its sense of humor. Though on the evidence of books like Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, and Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, the humor seems more pointed. A technology-driven social decline isn’t the punchline to American prosperity, as it was in Don DeLillo’s White Noise; now that decline is just assumed, and it’s the launchpad for other, richer, gloomier jokes.

Still, 9/11 did change a few things. Though there are a fairly small number of novels that address 9/11 head-on, there seem to be plenty of novels that’ve sublimated the past eight years or so of military adventures into other settings, imagining oppressed states (as in Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio) or recalling repressive regimes (as in Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases and Yiyun Li's The Vagrants). It may be meaningful that in the past few years there have been two prominent big books of literary fiction about the Vietnam War, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn. Weren’t we supposed to be past these books? Aren’t literary readers supposed to be more interested in The Way We Live Now? It’s almost as if we’re clinging hard to old war stories in spite of their irrelevance to our current state of affairs, as if the Vietnam era is now "the good old days." But there are also very good novels that address the sense of paranoia that comes with being a formerly comfortable middle-class American after 9/11 -- James Hynes’ Next being among the best of them.

Q: Are there certain types of books that you find to be frequently overrated by critics or receive excessive critical attention? Have you noticed certain types of books that tend to be underrated by the critical community?

A: Given how heavily newspaper book sections have been trimmed in the past decade, I have a hard time getting my head around the notion of “excessive critical attention” -- critical attention of any sort is so hard to come by these days that it seems impossible for it to be excessive. But, yes, I recognize that “literary” books get a disproportionate amount of review attention, sometimes unfairly -- book-review real estate is harder to come by, yet Philip Roth’s new book is still reflexively covered by a lot of review sections, even if it’s not a comparatively important Roth novel. If I assume that by “critical community” you mean reviewers who write for metro daily newspapers and magazines, then the range of books that are being under-served is easy to identify: books from university presses, works in translation, small-press books, poetry, graphic novels, and lots of genre fiction, though crime novels seem to be luckier in terms of coverage. I suspect it’s always been thus, though now even literary authors have a harder time landing a review. A writer with a smart debut story collection that might’ve been covered 20 years ago has less of a chance of getting covered now.

Q: How has the Internet changed the nature of book reviewing? Have you noticed any significant differences between the critical styles and aesthetics to be found in online versus offline literary culture?

A: The Internet hasn’t made it any easier to be a book reviewer -- it’s still hard work, easily the worst-paying arts journalism gig in terms of hours spent per dollars received (assuming you’re receiving any dollars at all). What the Internet has done is lower and even remove the barrier to entry to start reviewing and getting your reviews read. It feels like the Dark Ages now, but when I started out in 1995, being a reviewer involved figuring out a way to catch the attention of a publication’s editor through some mix of guile and decent-enough college-paper clips, then putting those clips in the mail, politely following up a week later, politely following up another week later, then maybe getting an assignment which would run a month later, the clip of which you could then use to start the process all over again with a different publication. Your “presence” in the critical community was entirely a function of when your last review appeared, which might’ve been months ago. Now you can start a free blog instantaneously and publish on a daily basis. Instead of wondering who’s reading your reviews, you can know your readers by name and interact with them. People don’t just know what you wrote last week; they know what you tweeted two minutes ago.

A lot of bad writing emerges from that process, of course -- not everybody who starts a book-review blog is going to be a particularly interesting book reviewer. But the Internet has opened doors for excellent critics who would have had a harder time being heard without it. For the past six months or so I’ve been working on a project for the National Book Critics Circle in which I’ve interviewed the editors at literary websites -- publications that run book reviews but that don’t have a print presence -- and it’s clear to me that in many cases the quality gap is closing between the better pieces on those sites and the reviews in many mainstream magazines and newspapers. Indeed, much of what I read in The Rumpus or The Millions is a lot more interesting to me as a person who cares about books than what I’ll see in, say, USA Today or the book reviews run by the Associated Press. Gannett and the AP have much wider reach, and they still play a very important role in bringing word about new books to people who aren’t necessarily big readers. But I think any smart aspiring critic is better off trying to land a piece in The Millions instead of going through whatever byzantine process is involved in getting a book review in USA Today.

Q: Could you suggest some dos and don'ts for new book reviewers about writing and publishing reviews?

A: All I really have are two old-fashioned dos: Read a lot and write a lot.

I hesitate to offer any don’ts, because the landscape is changing so radically and so often that you might as well try anything. But, if it doesn’t sound too fogey-ish of me, I wish more reviewers, especially younger reviewers, would ease off writing in the first person. I’m as guilty as anybody -- there’s something about blogging and other online writing that encourages the chatty tone of “I think” and “I felt.” But I can tell who’s doing the thinking and feeling from the byline, and, as I once heard a journalism professor put it, “A good story doesn’t need you in it.” Some people can make the first-person sing, but if you’re constantly leaning on those I-thinks and I-felts, experiment every once in a while with making a review less about you. It will likely force you to think a little more critically about what you’re trying to say, pushing you away from just voicing your reactions and making you articulate them. Ultimately that’s what any good critic is trying to do.

Q: Could you tell us something about your own book, Lyons?

A: Lyons is a photo history of my hometown of Lyons, Illinois, published by Arcadia, which has put out hundreds of similar books -- you’ve seen them in the “Local Interest” section of every Borders and Barnes & Noble store. Lyons is a working-class town with a lively history: It played an important role in the founding of the city of Chicago, it's always been a drinking town, and during the 1970s and 80s it had a famously corrupt municipal culture, centered largely around its assortment of strip clubs and the prostitution rings operating inside them; you know things have gotten really bad when the feds are cracking down on a burg with fewer than 10,000 residents. I grew up in an interesting suburb at an interesting time, and not a lot of people who grew up in the suburbs can say that.

If you know the town, or if you’re a member of my immediate family, it’ll be a fun read; otherwise there’s probably no compelling reason to pick it up. But I do think of it as closely connected to my other writing. That book sprung directly out of a novel I was working on when I moved back to the Chicago suburbs from San Francisco in 2003. It wasn't a great moment in my life: My journalism career had stalled, a nonfiction book project I started had fallen through, and though I wasn’t living in my parents’ basement I was still back in an area I hadn’t lived in since I was in a teenager. I was spending a lot of time thinking about how much I was a product of where I was raised, so I started to do some research and drafted a few chapters -- not of a historical novel, exactly, just a novel that was informed by some of Lyons’ history. I wrote about 100 pages of the book before facts became more interesting to me than fiction---and frankly, a little easier to write about -- so I pursued the Arcadia book and abandoned the novel. I occasionally think about returning to fiction, but it’s hard enough for me to try to get better at reviewing without trying to get better at a very different kind of prose writing too.

Interview on Book Reviewing - Next Steps

Did you enjoy this interview about American fiction and book reviewing? You might also like our interview with John Matthew Fox on how to write book reviews.

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