Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Kerri Arsenault, National Book Critics Circle member and New School MFA alum, interviewed Carlos Lozada, the winner of this year's Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
The Washington Post is in the spotlight (no pun intended) these days because of the Academy Award winning movie Spotlight, which portrays the efforts of the Boston Globe’s investigative team in uncovering ongoing sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. That investigation fell under the editorial leadership of Marty Baron, who is now editor at The Washington Post, where he “commands enormous respect” from everyone there, including book critic, Carlos Lozada. Lozada received the 2015 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.
Kerri Arsenault: The announcement of your post as nonfiction editor for “Book Party” (the name of your book column) says, “Carlos developed a detailed proposal on how to reimagine the role of the nonfiction book critic for a digital age.” What is the mission of “Book Party” and can you summarize your detailed proposal as mentioned in that article?
Carlos Lozada: The main idea I proposed was to make book criticism central to the mission of the Washington Post, not some sort of intellectual luxury item. This means treating books as news, engaging in the massive digital conversation around books, and attempting to experiment with the book review form. So, in an election season, for example, this means I tilt more heavily toward political books than I would otherwise. But I try to do it in unconventional ways–for instance, I did a piece just about the acknowledgments sections in books by presidential candidates, which I think are often the most revealing parts of their books. You can do this while maintaining the analytical rigor readers expect and deserve of book criticism.
KA: I read that piece. And subsequently starting reading all acknowledgments in a whole different light. What made you think, ah! I’m going to review the acknowledgements? Is that where you typically start reading a book?
CL: For politicians I always find them interesting, because they’re trying to discharge so many favors-- who gets mentioned and who doesn’t is always revealing. Political memoirs are not always terrific so you try to find meaning where you can.
KA: How do you generally approach reviewing a book? I’m thinking about John Updike’s "Rules of Criticism."
CL: It’s my first year doing this full-time, so I’m still trying to figure it out! I don’t think having hard-and-fast “rules” would always work for me, because each book is such a different experience, and the way you assess each one is distinct. Most of Updike’s rules seem pretty unobjectionable–stuff like giving enough quotation so readers get a sense of the writing, or not giving away key plot points–but others puzzle me a little. Sometimes you have to consider the reputation as much as the book itself, for example, because a reader’s experience of a book is wrapped up in popular expectations for it. Also, Updike says we shouldn’t blame writers for failing to achieve what they didn’t attempt, but what if you feel the author missed an opportunity to do something more ambitious or interesting with his or her material? Shouldn’t an honest reviewer point that out? Updike’s rules seem geared more to how authors would like to see their work reviewed. I get it, but I always try to remember I’m writing for readers, not for authors. That would be my only rule so far.
KA: You were prescient about Donald Trump as a presidential candidate. If someone doesn’t have time to read all eight books (as you did), which book of his do you recall being the most instructive about Trump? Or should readers just read your review?
CL: Well, yes, readers should always read my reviews! But if you want more than that, there’s a lot to choose from. Of course, Trump: The Art of the Deal is his foundational text, so it’s a good one to read to get a sense of the guy at his purest. That said, the one I found most interesting one was his second memoir, Trump: Surviving at the Top, because that is the only one where Trump appears slightly introspective. He’d had some business struggles, some issues in his personal life at the time, so there is actually some vulnerability there that you don’t see in his other writing. I think he realized this, because in his third book, Trump: The Art of the Comeback, he distances himself from the second book, saying his heart wasn’t in it. I think it was, more than in the others.
I should say, though, that the best book I’ve read about Trump recently was not any one of his own, but a book called Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success by Michal D’Antonio. It captures Trump as this quintessential figure of all-American excess. And the chapter about Trump trying to build a golf course in Scotland is just priceless.
KA: Any other books you would recommend about our current presidential candidates?
CL: I just went back and read It Takes a Village by Hillary Clinton from 1996. I knew about her memoirs Living History and Hard Choices, but I had no idea what It Takes a Village was about besides a first lady book about kids. It turns out it’s tremendous. It’s a real political manifesto on her part. I would recommend that more than her other books for anyone who wants to understand Hillary Clinton’s political project. Books from a lot of the other candidates are political memoirs and tend to be boring or propaganda. That doesn’t mean they aren’t revealing. Propaganda is revealing about its purveyor even if it’s propaganda.
KA: The only political memoir I’ve ever read recently is Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father.
CL: He’s going to be doing a memoir when he leaves and people are already estimating that it will get a $16-18 million-dollar advance. It will be interesting to see if it will compete more in the pantheon of presidential memoirs or as a continuation of the arc of his own story.
KA: Some of your reviews are done in hindsight, e.g. Bill Cosby, whose relevance resurfaced long after his books were written (Trump, in way, too). Why choose what you choose to review?
CL: I wish I had more of a method. Sometimes I’m drawn to a book because I know something about the subject matter; other times I want to review a book precisely because I know nothing about the topic. I try to keep a good mix of authors, of topics, of perspectives, but usually it comes down to whether I really want to devote several hours of my life to this particular story, and then inflict that on readers as well?
The best advice I got when I started the job was this: Don’t be hostage to the new. Sometimes there are books published last year, last decade, or last century that have new resonance and that are worth writing about right now. The review of Bill Cosby’s books was an obvious way to do that; his bestsellers from the 1980s were considered cute and funny back then–an extension of the Huxtable brand–but in light of what we’ve learned about him since, reading them becomes a very different experience, more creepy than funny. Books are not just for their own moment, or for any one moment in particular. Sometimes it’s something less obvious; last year I read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America for the first time, and I wrote about it in the context of the presidential race and American politics today, and of my own experience of becoming an American citizen last year. I’ve never gotten more reader feedback on a piece than that one.
KA: Do you think books reflect our culture or vice-versa?
CL: That’s too meta for me, Kerri. Whenever a piece refers to “the culture at large” or “we, as a society” I become skeptical. Specificity beats generality. I’d say only this: Books, no more and no less than film or television or music or architecture or graffiti, or any other art form, don’t just reflect the culture, they are the culture. It’s not a representation; it’s an identity.
KA: Yeah, it was a trick question. I just see you at the juncture of books and culture. Perhaps I should ask it this way; your reviews are part sociological commentary, opinion, political analysis, and book critique all infused with a terrific sense of humor. How did you go from political wonk to book critic?
CL: That’s an exceedingly generous description of my writing–I’ll take it. I’m interested in politics, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a policy wonk or a politics junkie. If my reviews incorporate all the perspectives you describe, it’s probably just because of the experience I bring to them. For my first ten years at The Washington Post, I edited our coverage of economics, of national security, some politics, and then ran our Sunday opinion and analysis forum, “Outlook,” which covers politics and culture and history and sports and sex and economics and basically anything and everything. Before that, I was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine for five years. This has been my first year as a full-time writer, but there is no better preparation to be a nonfiction book critic than all that. I can write fake authoritatively about almost anything.
KA: Lately, the book world has been writing and thinking and analyzing diversity in publishing. What are your thoughts on this topic?
CL: I think this movement and conversation is a healthy and necessary thing for publishing, for writers and for readers. I’d just encourage people to consider diverse definitions of diversity. Gender and race are important, but they are blunt and broad categories. I am a Latino reviewer, for instance. Does that define my writing more than, say, being Catholic? Or being an immigrant? Or being a parent? Reading and writing are intensely individual experiences, and imposing a particular kind of representation on an author or a book is not only unfair to the writer and the work, it also risks missing a lot of the terrain.
KA: What terrain would you like to see more of?
CL: I guess I was thinking about it in terms of any individual writer. I think everything that makes a writer, a critic, or a reader is a mix of a lot of things and come to the fore and matter more in different moments. If I’m reviewing a book about religion, maybe what matters less is that I’m a Peruvian immigrant to the United States and more that I went to the University of Notre Dame and that I’m Roman Catholic. It’s limiting to say something like, this is a gay female writer, and while that may be true, it may not be entirely helpful depending on the moment or depending on the work. That’s all I meant. Missing the terrain of what makes a particular writer and what informs that particular writing.
KA: Would it be more helpful to just call a writer a writer?
CL: I don’t think labels are entirely unhelpful. I just think they can be limiting so we have to treat them with care. It’s too easy to say, “this year, I’m only going to read books not written by white males” but maybe those books are all written by people with MFA degrees? That’s not too diverse. You are seeing a lot of people taking a stance on that sort of thing. I don’t think that necessarily helps the diversity conversation. It’s not unhelpful. It just could be more helpful!
I read Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me but also his first memoir, which was great, called The Beautiful Struggle. That book made me think; how much has Baltimore defined him? The Beautiful Struggle was so much about Baltimore and growing up the son of a Black Panther that I thought, maybe that’s a big part of his identity, too.
Carlos Lozada is associate editor and nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post. Find him on Twitter @.
Kerri Arsenault, MFA ’15, is an alumna of the MFA Creative Writing Program, Nonfiction, at The New School. Kerri is an NBCC Book Critic, a columnist at lithub.com, New England Editor for Jewels of North Atlantic, and she is currently working on a book about Maine, the environment, and the working class.