I am a New Yorker; I grew up on the Upper West Side and went to the Brearley School, a place I really loved. (Recently I interviewed Lydia Davis, the remarkable American short-story writer and translator – her new translation of Madame Bovary is just appearing from Penguin Classics – and was thrilled to discover that she too had been a Brearley girl in her time…) The year before my graduation, however, I spent a year at school in London; it was then that I determined to come to university here. Why? Oh, probably because it was a way of making trouble, really, but one where no one could really argue with me. So I read English at Cambridge, which nearly put me off reading books completely – but still and all, I truly began to feel that Britain was where I belonged. I can’t really explain why – I just knew it –
I went on to do an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, where I was taught by Rose Tremain and Malcolm Bradbury… and it was during that year long course that I began to take myself seriously as a writer, to accept that, in some ways, I didn’t have a choice about this. Finding a way after that to actually earn a living was another matter. How did I end up at as Literary Editor of The Times? Luck, perseverance – it’s hard to say. But even after fifteen years (!) I’ve never stopped being amazed that this is my job… seriously. I really feel I have never taken it for granted.
Can you outline some of the dilemmas faced by the literary editors today?
What’s a book? Is a memoir by Jordan or Russell Brand a book? Is a novel by Sharon Osborne a book? Or are these merely book-shaped objects which are part of a marketing scheme? In which case, how should we cover them? Do you interview a first-time novelist, or do you interview Chris Evans or Harry Hill? In some ways you could argue that it’s a fine thing that books are now seen as part of any famous person’s c.v. – but it leaves less space for what I would call real books.
Despite having lost a dedicated Books section, I still can’t really complain about not having enough space to review books – because when I first came to The Times a decade and a half ago, we had only a page of broadsheet book reviews – eventually two, and then more, but it’s absolutely fair to say that books have broader coverage than they ever have had. You can’t move for literary festivals these days, which is another outlet for discussion, as are book groups, and of course blogs (of which more later). But there are always more books than there is space to cover them. I imagine the only time this wasn’t true was in back in Gutenberg’s day… and maybe even then…
How do you make your choices for books to be reviewed?
Sometimes it’s easy. New Salman Rushdie, new Margaret Atwood? The technical term for whether or not you’ll cover those books is “no-brainer”, I believe. What’s harder is picking the book that’s not necessarily obvious; not least because you’ll have to drop something else in its favour. You want to make the right choices – let your readers know about the books they already know they want to know about, but also alert them to things they never would have found otherwise.
How do you spot those books? Different ways. I look at everything myself, of course – but there are plenty of days when I get four big Royal Mail sacks of books to look at (that’s maybe 100-125 books I guess) so time is, shall we say, of the essence. Trusted reviewers/colleagues will draw things to my attention. I go through the publishers’ catalogues, of course, and I talk to publicists – with whom I try to develop good relationships. Yes, it’s their job to “sell” books to me, but if we each know what the other is trying to achieve we can work together. I know the publicists who understand what I am trying to do… and the ones who don’t quite get it.
I should also say I’m trying to build an interesting set of books pages to read, even if you are not going to buy any of the books. So, you need to create a balance. You can’t have two pieces on a page that are too similar; you need variety. Of course, that will affect the commissioning process too.
Like dovegreyreader, I am on the side of books. I will send out a first novel with the caveat, tell me if you don’t like it… Of course I have run (and written) reviews that aren’t positive in my time, but on the whole I’d rather they were…
Tomorrow's questions to Erica...
How do you select your reviewers...is there a marrying up of titles and expertise?
What do you expect from a book review as a Literary Editor?
How do you feel the litblogs sit alongside the review pages?