the contextual life

thoughts without borders

The Laura Miller Interview: B-Sides and Outtakes

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The independent bookstore McNally Jackson, located in SoHo, New York, features a regular series called “Conversations on Practice” hosted by author and musician Glenn Kurtz. Kurtz, an excellent conversationalist, invites fellow writers to sit down with him to discuss their life and work. These are some of the most engaging nights going on in New York and Brooklyn’s thriving literary scene.

The other month Salon’s book critic Laura Miller was the guest. As a fledgling reviewer and interviewer, listening to an intimate conversation about Laura’s 20 years of experience in the field and her approach to the craft was of personal interest. 45 minutes flew, not seeming nearly long enough, and I was left with more questions than I’d had walking in.

Laura was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule—she has two deadlines a week—to let me pick her brain. The final version of the interview ran in The Rumpus last week; because of space, here are a few things that didn’t make it in:

In The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia you say, “A critic has to write as well as read, and while writing about a book can reveal things you’d never get from simply reading it, it can also make reading a less immediate and visceral experience.” When reading a book in anticipation of writing a review, what do you look for that you might normally pass over if reading for pleasure?

Key facts, like dates, names, places — Were they college freshmen when they first met, or seniors? At USC or UCLA? — that sort of thing. I had to overcome my tendency to skim over paragraphs with lots of capitalized words. I know I’m going to need certain facts when I sit down to write the piece, even if they aren’t the sort of thing I ordinarily dwell on.

I assume you have a lot of say in the books you choose to review for Salon. How much control do you have? Any considerations you keep in mind when deciding what to review?

Almost total. However, I do need to keep an eye on the readership for the various pieces I write, which is so easy to measure online. That’s one reason why I review more nonfiction than fiction, about three to one. I like the two genres equally, but if you could see a graph comparing the readership of my review column over the course of a month, you’d see a little mountain for most of the nonfiction reviews and barely a bump for the fiction. My employers don’t harangue me to write pieces that generate more traffic, but they don’t hire me to write pieces that only 5000 people are going to read, either.

How does reading and reviewing fiction differ from reading and reviewing non-fiction?

As a general rule, the average reader of, say, Salon is much more interested in nonfiction than in fiction. Even if a nonfiction book isn’t very well written, readers can often learn something from it, and even if they never actually read the book, they can still learn things from the review. People like learning things! So while a review of a work of fiction absolutely must discuss the book as an aesthetic object, often readers are perfectly happy to read a nonfiction review that basically decants the most interesting parts of the book and serves as an alternative to actually reading it.

Are you able to read a book without your critic-mind infiltrating?

The argument I make in my book is about the value of getting beyond the idea that our initial reading experiences are Edenic and that the eventual growth of our critical faculties represents a fall from grace or innocence. There’s a further stage of growth as a reader in which you can experience both the pleasure of getting lost in a book and the awareness of the book as a work of art. You can have both experiences at the same time, without the diminishment of either one. Actually, reading isn’t the only area of life in which this can happen; it’s one of the benefits of getting older, if you can manage it. You see experiences in many layers at once. But you do have to really work at it to get to that point. It takes practice.

What was the last book you read that used symbolism well?

Pretty much every good work of fiction does this. The most recent really good novel I read was “The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides, but I suppose most readers would not peg that book as particularly symbolic. So, off the top of my head: the way that fertility serves as the epitome of female power and vulnerability at the same time in Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder.”

Read Laura’s reviews, essays, and interviews at Salon
Learn more about The Magician’s Book
Buy The Magician’s Book from Indiebound
Visit Glenn Kurtz’s website
If you’re in the New York City area, you should check out McNally Jackson’s events


Written by Gabrielle

November 1, 2011 at 5:50 am

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