Lexi Wangler, on behalf of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, interviewed Michelle Dean, the winner of this year’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
Lexi Wangler: You started as a lawyer, but started doing freelance full time several years ago. What was the decision process that led you to that?
Michelle Dean: I sort of fell into writing a little bit, in that I always wanted to be a writer, but as a little bit of a cautious and aimless twenty-something, I picked the path of least resistance and went to law school. While I was in law school, I was obsessively following cultural events, and I happened to be reading The Awl a lot, back in its heyday. I ended up starting to write for them and I’d been approached by a few editors since I was a frequent commenter online, which is a little embarrassing to confess now, but it was because I was in this job where I was pretty bored and finding myself getting into arguments about cultural issues of the day online.
LW: How do your interests inform what you review? Do you generally choose what you review? How do you choose?
MD: When you’re starting out as a critic, people give you a lot of mid-list fiction stuff in particular—things that aren’t necessarily raising huge issues. The fourth or fifth piece I ever wrote at The Awl (a piece that now I’m not sure I totally agree with) was on the Franzen-Freud debate, about how I suspected that Freedom wasn’t going to be the great American novel that reviewers were claiming it to be. Franzen was really popular at the time, so it’s funny to remember that now that the tide has turned on him a little bit, which I have complicated feelings about. From the beginning I was writing about larger issues, mostly in the form of think pieces. And then I think the book review that started getting me more attention was a review of Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, which I reviewed in 2012. That one I actually picked up basically overnight when whoever Slate had assigned it to had given it up and I happened to be working with the editor at the time on something else, and she was like well, would you like to review this? Which I guess is a way of saying sometimes the books come to you by accident, and you don’t always get to review what you want to review when you start out, but you can find other ways into the issues that you’re actually interested in. Not to denigrate mid-list fiction, but those books don’t always raise those issues.
LW: When you're reviewing a book, what is your process like?
MD: I usually read it twice. The first time is just a more normal, organic kind of read. I usually get my overall impressions from that read and then the second time I read it, I’m usually just going through to pick out things that support what I imagine to be the general argument that I’m going to make about the book.
LW: What's your favorite type of media to consume, since you write so broadly across television, novels and nonfiction books? Simpler phrasing: what do you like to watch and read?
MD: I am definitely a person driven by plot. I have certainly watched a lot of TV in my time, and I think, in general, media in serial forms are interesting to me because I like to see how people manage to stretch plot out over a long time. Right now it’s sort of a weird moment in television where there’s this extreme flowering of the form because a lot of TV is being produced, but there aren’t currently a lot of shows that I feel super passionate about. Obviously I really like books and spend a lot of time reading them—books are in an interesting moment where there are a whole bunch of writers who are not interested in plot, for better or for worse. Some of them have figured out other ways to captivate the reader, and others seem to think that captivating the reader is either something they shouldn’t be doing, even that captivating the reader is problematic for the art that they’re making. In some ways I am attracted to TV because of the dedication that the medium has to plot and to moving things forward, but I’m reading George Saunders’ novel right now and it’s super interesting and I really do like it. It’s definitely not a conventionally constructed novel or something that I think is overly concerned with plot, though I’m not really far enough to make that judgement yet. I like people who are evidently having fun telling the story, to be completely basic. Storytelling is the reason I started reading books when I was a little kid, and I’m probably not going to let go of that anytime soon.
LW: Do you find that watching/reading things simply is harder now that you review TV and books for a living?
MD: It depends—it’s harder to sink into books the way that I used to because I’m much more aware of the general trends. Even as late as my late twenties—thirty, really, when I started writing professionally—I read what the New York Times would tell you to read, the NYT Notable Books, I would buy those and read them in the evenings after I was done lawyering. I would really fall into those books and not read them as iterations of this or that literary trend, but now I do. Television is a lot harder to keep an intellectual frame of mind about, in part because it’s not intellectually produced. It’s working at much more of a gut level. But I think if you really like criticism, as I do, if you’re of a critical caste of mind, there’s a certain degree to which you are always watching with an eye to the things you like and things you didn’t like about it, and looking at the way it was achieving what it was trying to do. I really don’t think of the two things as separate endeavors, as criticizing or enjoying.
LW: This award is for your reviews, but you are also a journalist, which became strongly apparent with the BuzzFeed piece last fall on Munchausen Syndrome. Could you speak a little bit as to your different processes for reviews vs. longform journalistic pieces--the difference between being a reviewer and a journalist?
MD: I’m not sure that the approach is so different. The [Buzzfeed] piece was a very particular piece. There was a lot of thought and intellection and critical consciousness that went into framing that—the issues, the recording, the questions. Because of that, what I try to do in both criticism and journalism is just pay attention. You’re paying attention to the work of art that you’re criticizing—what they want to achieve. It feels like one is meeting a novelist on a relatively equal plane in terms of power and circumstance—I know novelists don’t feel that way about critics, but that’s mostly novelists’ neuroses talking, and I understand it and disagree with it. You are both people working in an agreed register, but in journalism, you’re paying attention to what’s going on in the room. For me, I say this a lot, Janet Malcolm is kind of my north star as a writer, if I had to pick one person whose approach I try to take. I think she brings that attention to reporting as much as she brings it to the criticism that she writes. With these crime pieces I’ve started doing, I’m entering somebody else’s world in order to write about it. It doesn’t really feel like the process is that much different, except I have to interact with people, and that is a lot more fraught. But I wouldn’t be the kind of reporter that I am without the critical consciousness that I have because one of the things that I went back and forth about, something I still go back and forth about in that story, is the extent to which one might be exploiting someone else’s trauma for personal gain, which Malcolm tells us in The Journalist and the Murderer, is sort of unavoidable. And yet, there’s a complicated relationship that gets set up where often the person that you’re interviewing does want you to tell their story. It takes a lot of thinking in order to navigate. I don’t want to come across as someone who’s figured out all the ethics of that, but most of the ethics do amount to what I’ve said: paying attention. Paying attention to what’s going on between you and the person, not resorting to abstract justifications about what you’re doing.
LW: As a critic and a journalist, who are some writers you admire—you mentioned Janet Malcolm in particular?
MD: Janet Malcolm is a staff writer for the New Yorker and probably one of the queens of nonfiction—and actually part of my upcoming book project. She was someone who started out as a photography critic and writing on the side, and then moved on to fact pieces and she did a few articles on psychoanalysis. They’re really interesting to look at from a reporting perspective. I was definitely influenced by Joan Didion, particularly by the political pieces that she used to write for the New York Review of Books, which were my favorite in part because I like writers who are able to make the process of their analyses something extremely enjoyable to read—that’s definitely a Didion thing. It’s hard not to name every single person who’s in this book of mine on women critics and intellectuals in the 20th century. I would say that Janet and Joan are the two people that I think about most. In terms of other writers that I think about as I write, I think about Flannery O’Connor—the texture of her stories, which are usually about pretty dark things, dark subject matter. I’ve now written a book about the critical tradition, but I wouldn’t say I was overly influenced by other critics. I wasn’t a person who read Pauline Kael obsessively when I was in school, and now I’m very glad that I have, but most of my heroes and heroines as writers were actually fiction writers. I was brought up in Canada—that is, I am from Canada, and was brought up in the Canadian public school system, so most of my favorite writers are people like Anne Michaels, Michael Ondaatje, Robertson Davies—I was brought up in a completely different tradition. It’s interesting to be writing criticism of American fiction which was so influenced by people that I frankly never read in my literary education. Philip Roth is the example I often use, whoever he is, he just wasn’t formative for me. Nor was, I should say, David Foster Wallace, in the way that he typically is for somebody of my generation writing about American fiction. It’s not what I was raised on—Alice Munro is what I was raised on.
LW: Your book SHARP is due out from Grove Atlantic next year. Tell me more!
MD: The proposal was structured around a dozen female critics and intellectuals of the 20th century who knew each other--there’s a pretty straight line you can draw down from Dorothy Parker to Janet Malcolm, and that’s the trajectory that [the book] goes through. When I wrote it, I already had a pretty good idea of who was going to be in the book and what their connections were. Over time, when I started writing more criticism, I also started reading more criticism, because I realized that I was sort of intervening in a tradition I didn’t totally understand, and the lawyer part of me was like, all right, we are going to read everything there is out there so you start to understand what categories people are working in. I ended up learning more about these different people and the links between them. The book has everyone, again from Dorothy Parker to somebody like Janet Malcolm, who is not a household name, though very respected in New York. Joan Didion’s in the book, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Nora Ephron, Pauline Kael, Zora Neale Hurston—a lot of people who were either linked in by knowing each other, by interacting with each other, or who were linked by the tone of of their work. When I first put out the proposal, the literary world was kind of repulsed by these statistics, such as byline count, authority, gender. It surprised me to learn that there was actually a really strong tradition in America of female critics speaking with general authority. All of the critics in my book encountered this or that obstacle from, let’s call them “naysaying men,” which is a broad category, but in particular who either didn’t like the authority that they were asserting to belittle them. Most of them just persisted anyway. I found that kind of inspiring, and the book is built around that idea. It’s a fun book to do. Unwieldy, but fun.
LW: One of the reviews you won this award for talks about how the author of that book discussed what was wrong with healthcare, childcare and maternity/paternity leave in American society as opposed to Finnish society, where she is from. Judiciously, you point out that she doesn't offer any solutions, just criticism. As someone who is also not originally from the US, do you have any additional thoughts on this that weren’t included in the review?
MD: I’ve lived in the US for eleven years, and what I have learned about the place is that it is a bit of a Tower of Babel, and I mean that in the very best way I can, in the sense that I don’t think there is any one solution to the problems of the country. That’s what’s tough for someone who is from a Scandinavian country, or for me, coming here from Canada, in that our problems—and I’m not even really talking about population size, I’m talking about the general agreements of certain principles of public life, are stronger in those countries. And then we get here and it turns out that this is a very big, very diverse place that has a strong tradition of everyone yelling at each other. It’s much harder for us to get through it. My general view is that Americans could get a lot better at talking to each other, and weirdly, tying back to this award, a lot better at criticizing each other: being clear about what they mean, being more open to opposing arguments. But that’s not a solution, right? It’s just something I think about a lot since the election. After having spent much of the last year immersed in [the Buzzfeed] story out of Louisiana, my feelings about America are very complicated. America is complicated. It’s very tempting to reduce it to one thing, but it’s not. It’s unfortunate with that book. I feel like it’s probably what the publisher wanted her to do, like, “Oh it’s Malcolm Gladwell except with socialist politics!” And I don’t really think that’s how political change is achieved—it was setting itself up to fail.
LW: As a woman writer, especially as a woman critic who writes about other women critics, how has the current political climate changed how you write, or even just your daily life?
MD: It’s funny, I think the political climate changed things less than [my] doing reporting, which goes back to your earlier question. The political climate is what it is. I think a thing that we have learned in the last year is that we are not paying enough attention to each other. I say that, obviously, as someone who is not a citizen of the United States, but I think it applies pretty widely: no one is paying enough attention to each other. There is a problem, right now, of people remaining focused on this big conversation that we are all a part of and there seemed to be, for a long time, an abdication of the need to pay any attention to it. The other review that was nominated was for a book by Jonathan Safran Foer—the problem that I had with that book is the problem that I have with a lot of contemporary novels, which is that they’re not really paying any attention to a wide swathe of human life. It’s about a person living a privileged life—and I realize we’re in a moment where people are tired of hearing accusations of privilege, but I think there’s no other way to describe what was going on in that novel—in a relatively unself-conscious way. I think that’s the root of the problem, somehow: this idea that we’re in this alone, that we can live only in our own heads and in our own situations. It’s always seemed to me that the idea of literature is against that. So I could suppose you could say that the current political climate has encouraged me to hammer home that message a little more clearly. I think it’s something that had been animating a lot of things that I’ve said about books over time. I was one of the people who was behind a big diversity push, and the thing that I’ve never really understood is, why wouldn’t you want to know what other people’s experiences are like? It boggles my mind that there are people out there who think, “I just don’t want to know. I’m just not interested. It’s just not for me.” It’s an impulse I find poisonous.
Michelle Dean's journalism and criticism appears regularly in The Guardian, The New Republic, and a host of other venues. Originally trained as a lawyer, she has been a full-time writer since 2012. Her book about women critics and intellectuals, titled Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having an Opinion, is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic.Lexi Wangler will receive her MFA in Fiction and Writing for Children in May 2017. She is an agency assistant at Massie & McQuilkin Literary Agents.