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Episode XX: "Harry Potter and the Dreaded Op Ed"

Published 7/2/15
In this installment, I speak with Ron Charles. Topics include his absurd YouTube videos, the infantilism of American culture, books in public education, what he’s reading, the death of the book critic & more.

I’m here with Ron Charles, book critic over at The Washington Post. Ron has won the National Book Critics Circle Award Nona Balakian Citation, as well as served on the three-person jury for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch). Ron is also something of a YouTube savant, producing (and starring in, with his wife as occasional sidekick) “The Totally Hip Video Book Review”. These are, in short, hilarious and original. It’s not unusual to dip (or jump completely) into the absurd; one features Ron with a black dress and a pearl necklace (not that a man can’t wear those things in a non-absurd way).

Let’s use the videos as our conversational entry point. I get the impression that the creative energy behind them come from the vocational friction, conflicts and pressure you experience on a daily basis. When and why did you start producing them?

Indeed. And many thanks, by the way. Those videos evolved from my sense that we (book people) were all driving ourselves crazy trying to adapt to new and impossible market conditions.

The idea was to create a satire of the zany things we were doing -- and being encouraged to do -- to reach those much-desired younger readers (viewers, surfers, whatever they are.)

This commercial is a favorite of mine. Library of Congress called a few months later and asked, "How did you get permission from the police to do that?" Anyhow, the point of those videos -- or one of the points -- is that in our efforts to be hip and relevant and webby, we're making ourselves ridiculous. In fact, nobody really needs Book Reviews in 60 Seconds -- that's a totally absurd (and totally hip) endeavor. But of course, I'm a hopeless ham (no pun on bacon intended), and the videos also gave me a chance to poke fun at myself, the industry and things in the news. (Many of those gags and jokes already make no sense out of context.)

Do you think a similar pressure is being imbued on authors (i.e. social media followers being a relevant figure in book deals)?

Definitely. A little part of me dies every time I see some serious author pop up on Twitter or Facebook hawking her wares. "Please don't waste your time on this!" I want to scream. "Tell your 23-year-old media specialist to go AWAY and let you write." And, of course, the tragic part is that it doesn't work anyhow. Unless you have hundreds of thousands -- or millions -- or followers, all your tweeting and liking and oversharing and flapping your arms like a crazy person won't lead to any significant increase in sales. I keep waiting for someone at the Harvard Business School to publish research showing that social media activity is -- for 999.99999% --- a MASSIVE waste of worker and corporate time.

This reminds me of a reference you made to “cultural infantilism” back in 2007, in an article about Harry Potter. This turned out to be a somewhat prescient idea, both in the base material and criticism to come (thinking of A.O. Scott’s “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture”). How do you think the concept has morphed (or grown) since you referenced it?

Ug. "Harry Potter and the Dreaded Op Ed." My 15 seconds of fame!

Ha! Don't act like you regret it.

I still get mail from outraged teenagers who have Googled "Harry Potter" for some school project...But yes, lots of people I respect have written very intelligently about this (long) trend in American culture toward adolescent pursuits. It's fairly obviously in movies and music and fashion -- and books. There are plenty of very fine YA writers; we're living in a golden age of YA lit. And I can certainly see why people would want to read those fine books. (Teachers, librarians, parents.) But I'd rather read books for adults now. That's just me.

Conversely, what troubles me more is that so many young people are forced to read adult books in school. Why should teenagers be forced to study -- again and again -- the Death of the American Dream, the ennui of middle age, the loss of sexual desire, etc., etc? But I suppose Common Core is taking care of that problem by rooting fiction out of the curriculum altogether! (Soon -- or perhaps already -- it'll all be "snippets" of pop nonfiction. Ug.)

In the same article that you wrote of “cultural infantilism”, you also wrote: “The schools often don't help, either. As I look back on my dozen years of teaching English, I wish I'd spent less time dragging my students through the classics and more time showing them how to strike out on their own and track down new books they might enjoy.” This struck a deep chord with me. Throughout my secondary education, I liked English the least. It was a struggle, and I often found myself resorting to SparkNotes. Even today I look back on the core concepts taught in those classes—locating motifs, metaphors, juxtaposition, etc.—and I don’t find it a useful base for my love of fiction. People don’t become readers because they love dissecting literature, they love it because it makes them lost. How reversible (or irreversible) do you think our common practices in teaching English are?

Guilty. (I taught English at the college and prep school level for about 15 years.) From what I hear, we're busy destroying even our flawed teaching of English. Our obsession with testing and the profit motive behind big-scale online education means that only things that can be tested will be taught. Love of literature, inspiration, courage, empathy, sensitivity, wit -- those qualities will continue to be emphasized at expensive private schools, but the masses will be all quiz-n-drill via online shorts…My wife -- I should add -- is one of those rare hold-outs. But she's got 150 students. And half-way through the year, they all change. Imagine trying to teach literature or writing under those conditions.

This is me playing devil's advocate (and let's leave private schools out of the question, as they'll do what they want), but perhaps we ought to leave fiction out of public education, and it should be up to publishers to engage the younger crowd? And, if that's the case, what do you think publishers could be doing better in this regard?

I'm looking for my You've Got To Be Kidding emoji....

I think there's a pile of crap emoji, which would be just as useful.

Public schools with caring teachers and librarians working with classes of 20 students at a time are our best method for teaching kids to read and write smartly and joyously. (My wife's an award-winning English teacher in the DC area. What she puts up and endures is inspirational.)

Fair enough. Up to this point (I believe), we've been strictly negative, so let's see if we can't be positive. What should we be most excited about today in the landscape of all things books?

Easy: There is a huge number of remarkably fine new novelists appearing every year! Scoff at the MFA programs all you want -- and maybe they don't have anything to do with it, I'm not sure -- but from where I sit, we're doing a remarkable job of encouraging very talented people to write fiction. (Our problem now is demand, not supply, but that's a return to the negative theme we're trying to leave aside for a moment.)

Can I have a (brief) roundup of some of your (current) favorite novelists?

I should keep a list! Jim Shepard's new novel -- BOOK OF ARON -- blew me away, but of course he's been great for a while. This new writer, Viet Thanh Nguyen, just published THE SYMPATHIZER. Fantastic. James Hannaham's DELICIOUS FOODS really impressed me. DUST, by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, came out of the blue (to me, at least) -- and I couldn't believe how impressive it was.

Four great recommendations. Let me ask the same question but zoom out a bit. Keeping with the theme of 'positive': what do novelists today do very well, even better than writing generations of the past?

I'm not going to be able to say anything intelligent about that without some reflection and research.

Well, let's forego intelligence and get honest intuition.

I see such stylistic sophistication, such interesting experimentation with structure and voice. And of course, we're hearing from so many people we rarely heard from in the past. Jesmyn Ward comes to mind. SALVAGE THE BONES. Wow…And, of course, our older writers are still doing really great work, too: Anne Tyler's last book recycled old themes and characters, but made it all seem fresh. A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara, another devastating novel. And Marilynne Robinson keeps knocking it out of the park (to use a fresh sports metaphor of my own.)

Ha! And on the topic of "tropes", what are some well-paved paths you think literary fiction is getting a bit too familiar with? (I know this is going negative again, but I'm too curious.)

I've started to skip academic satires because, even when they're funny, I just have nothing left to say about them…But then Susan Choi comes along with MY EDUCATION and I love it! The universe of books is so incomprehensibly large now that I can't really make a case for too much clotting around a particular subject. It'd be like spotting animals in the clouds; you see what you want to see (or what you want to complain about). (Which reminds me of the letters I get from self-published authors: "The publishing industry keeps blocking stories like mine." Baloney.)

That's a very, very fair point. We're almost out of time so I want to switch gears a bit. How have you seen your job change—that is, the job of any book reviewer on a large newspaper—since you started out?

I've been at this almost 20 years now, so the biggest change is easy to detect: Most papers have dropped their book critics. (Of course, so many papers have closed too!) And now we're writing amid a sea of readily available consumer reviews and amateur criticism -- much of it surprisingly (distressingly!) good. Once every city paper had to have its own book critic for its local readers; now, those readers have easy access to the best reviewers in the world -- and to their friends' reviews. We could discuss the loss of critical diversity, the rise of winner-take-all voices, etc…But those are debatable losses.

If you've got the time, can you elaborate on that a bit?

Across the country, we have far fewer critical voices writing in daily newspapers, true. But individuals in those cities only had access to one of them, so even as we have lost many critics, readers have gained access to many more around the world. How many different 900-word responses to a particular literary novel does America need? And how many can it support?

Couldn't agree more. It's been a pleasure talking Ron. Thanks for your time, and your words.

Enjoyed this very much. Many thanks for asking me.