The 2019 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, presented to an NBCC member for outstanding critical work, was awarded to Katy Waldman, a staff writer at The New Yorker. Ladane Nasseri sat down with Waldman to talk about reviewing and what it means to be a critic.
Ladane Nasseri [LN]: You wrote in a piece this year “the never-ending-ness of such a practice—of all critical practice, done right—is occasionally paralyzing.” As a literary critic, do you have a methodology to review a book in particular one that has been assigned?
Katy Waldman [KW]: When a book is assigned I will read it once, the pleasurable first read when my brain is starting to scrabble around and figure out what might be a good argument. I will probably go back and reread passages that seem to be stepping stones to an argument. On that second read I start to take notes and eventually to group the quotes in different categories all spatially arranged on a word document. It depends on the book. Sometimes you see the shape of the review that you’re writing before you start writing. A lot of other times I don’t really know where things are going until I start doing it.
LN: Is that initial reading done as a commonplace reader or with the critic’s hat on?
KW: That’s such an interesting question because I am not sure when the last time I was able to access a book as a non-critic was because I studied English in college and in high school. By the time I was in college even my pleasure reading was through the lens of someone who worked on texts for a major and I don’t know that I’ve ever been able to disconnect that plug.
LN: Do you feel some type of professional deformation as a result of having reviewed books for so long and that it’s now difficult to read for pleasure alone?
KW: I love that you say deformation because it feels like a handicap sometimes: if the job of the reviewer is to conjure for the reader how they might feel in response to a book, then I’m not actually transmitting that by manufacturing nits to pick.
LN: Journalists are asked to think of their audience when they write, and the advice given to writers is to write with their ideal reader in mind. Who do you have in mind when you write?
KW: It’s another great question. You’re right that criticism straddles these two modes of art-making and relaying information. It’s important to think about whether your reader will follow, will understand, will enjoy the work you are doing. I would never advise someone not to think about their readers, but I think there is a certain arrogance that you have to have as a reviewer to pronounce judgment which involves shutting out the hypothetical voices of readers and just saying what you think and then you can let them filter back in.
LN: What is your main goal as a reviewer?
KW: I think you are trying to solve two equations at the same time and do them both to the best of your ability. The first equation is how can I write something illuminating and interesting and useful to my readers and the second equation is how can I produce a piece that seems idiosyncratic, persuasive, beautiful to me according to whatever my standards are.
LN: You recently reviewed Elizabeth Tallent’s memoir, Scratched, and wrote about her effort to defeat procrastination, perfectionism, and the dreaded writer’s block. She suggests you wrote, that the cure for perfectionism is love. Do you sometimes suffer from writer’s block and what’s your suggested cure?
KW: Yes! I related very much to that book. Not to the producing rarified sentences that are to die for part but to the part of not being able to produce to my satisfaction and needing to do it anyway. Dwelling inside the fantasy of the gorgeous words that you have not written is so much more fun than mucking around the wreckage of what you actually have on the page. I look out of the window and daydream about how good my review is going to be when it’s done. Then the real thing goes up and I can’t even look at it.
Your second question is harder. I do a lot of trickery with the fonts on Google Docs. I’ll read a piece that I really admire and then I’ll use the font of that piece in my Google Docs to persuade my brain that the good piece is the piece I’m reading. Then, when I write, I’m just helping the good piece be what it already wants to be. It has nothing to do with me!
But to be a little less cute about it, just reading other work that I admire, whether it’s fiction, journalism, other articles—and that’s one of the nice things about working at The New Yorker, there is a trove of inspirational writing wherever you turn.
LN: Would you say it’s best for a critic to develop an area of expertise and review from that standpoint? Or is there something gained by approaching a book with minimal prior knowledge?
KW: There is tremendous value in both. When James Wood (who knows everything about everything) reviews a debut novel, he’s bringing the weight of literary history, the weight of many, many authors attempting the same thing that he has read and that is a really wonderful and invigorating experience—the wealth of expertise and context and hard-won insight. At the same time books are not written only to experts and so there is both value and delight in someone else’s virgin mind sparking off the book. Certainly, when people bring preconceptions that verge into misconceptions or biases about a topic that’s a problem.
LN: Is it important for a critic to develop a strong voice?
KW: Yes. Yes. When I think about the critics that I admire the most, Parul Sehgal for instance, Vinson Cunningham, they are unmistakable on the page. It evokes all the good work that they have done before when you are reading a particular piece. There is a kind of secondary pleasure of character that emerges. Getting to know what Parul likes and dislikes through her body of work is its own adventure.
LN: You’ve been a literary critic for The New Yorker for over two years and were a words correspondent for Slate for two years before that. How has the role of criticism changed during this time and how do you see it evolving?
KW: Things that were happening when I was at Slate are happening faster and more. Certainly, the ubiquity of opinion on social media, the idea that everyone can be a critic if they so desire, the idea that critics themselves are code-switching depending on what platform they are operating on. A linguistically conservative writer may be on Twitter, tweeting out memes because that is the idiolect of that community, and if they don’t then they will lose a lot of potential audience members. So, there are incentives in place to be fluent in lots of different types of speech and writing.
There is a bigger question about diversity that is happening all over literature. Having more diverse critics is extremely important and seems to be happening to some extent but not fast enough. There is definitely a righteous and definitely still insufficient effort to review and assign books by authors of color and that needs to continue to happen. but I’m glad that that seems to be more on the radar screen than it was in 2015.
LN: That takes me straight to my next question: a renowned author recently caused an uproar when they suggested creative excellence should be blind to questions of race, gender, or sexual orientation. Do literary publications and the media have a responsibility to bring to the spotlight the work of certain authors who may not naturally have access to a wider or more mainstream audience?
KW: Yes. The fallacy embedded in the comment that merit is blind is that if we were to lift up the very best voices they would not be diverse voices. That is just not the case. There is true excellence distributed across human writing and unfortunately, our system has been structured so that only certain manifestations of that excellence are elevated. So, what we need to do is to fight against that rigged system.
LN: Is there a book that you reviewed or didn’t get a chance to, and did not get as much attention as it deserved?
KW: I read a lot of books that are good and should get more attention. I really love the Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto and commend her to everyone. Start with her novellas. There are three great ones collected in the anthology Asleep.
LN: Are there particular publishers or authors you feel are being particularly creative or innovative and worth following closely?
KW: Yes. Indie presses are all great, Soft Skull Press, Catapult. There is a lot of fragmentary literature being written right now which is perhaps less novel than it used to be, but I still find it seductive. I want to see someone do something to push it forward and am not quite sure who the person is to do it. But I think it will probably be a poet.
LN: What are some of the practices that you turn to in the realm of your job or outside to inform and enrich your work?
KW: I used to play piano and sing, and I haven’t really done much of that recently, but I would like to get back to it. I feel like when I was younger, music and writing always fed into each other and fed off each other. Reading is important, walking, roaming. I know that sometimes when I am stuck taking a stroll helps. And I look a lot at animal pictures, especially dogs and yaks.
LN: Are there podcasts or websites that are references and that you see as complementing the literary work you do?
KW: There are instances of very intelligently wrought podcasts that do approach literature in some ways. S-Town by the Serial creators was an instance of that. I listen to a ton of podcast but none of them are in the same orbit as the type of literary criticism that I try to do. Certainly, the storytelling of Invisibilia or some episodes of this American life, I enjoy. The Culture Gabfest is really wonderful and helps me think through pieces of culture that I have and haven’t consumed.
LN: Is there any advice from a mentor or colleague that has stayed with you throughout your career?
KW: A lot of it would have to boil down to some variations of “just file the piece,” which is less advice than a kind of clenched teeth imperative.
LN: And what’s the one advice you would give to young writers who are inspired by your work and your role?
KW: Just file the piece [laughs]. I would say no one is going to have the exact same response to a book as you do, and your job is not to obfuscate that fact but to lean into it and present your reaction in as compelling and interesting a way as you can.
Katy Waldman is a staff writer at The New Yorker.
Ladane Nasseri is an MFA candidate in the New School’s Creative Writing Program. Follow her on Twitter @LadaneNasseri.
This interview was first published on March 6th, 2020 at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.