Daniel Mendelsohn's interview in Prospect magazine is my new favourite thing. I've rounded up some highlights:
I am a great believer in deadlines. I come from a scholarly background, having done a graduate degree in Classics before I ever dreamed of being a writer; and in that world, the rule is that you can’t write anything until you’ve read everything. So for a person like me, with that training but making a living as a writer for the past 20-something years, it’s useful to impose limits, as I could spend years researching a piece.
I often like to incorporate the reaction to something—whether a book or a movie or a TV show—into my analysis of it. This, to a large extent, betrays my training as a classicist: I’m always writing as if everything has been over for 2000 years. I like that angle because you get to see the whole of a phenomenon, and part of that is how other people have reacted to it.
For me, the crucial thing is the beginning not the ending: the piece cannot be written unless I have my lede. And often I’ll be agonising because I have an idea of what I want to say about the work in general—I know what I’ve been thinking, I’ve been pondering for a long time, I have the “middle”—but unless I can think of the first sentence—which often comes on the train or eating a piece of pizza or something—then the whole thing won’t flow. I’ve never been a person who can write different parts of the piece before I start. I’m working through my thoughts as I’m writing the piece, which I suppose is why they have the shape that they do.
But I still think it’s imperative, even if you’re a weekly critic, to do more than read the book in question. It’s still inconceivable to me for anybody, including a newspaper critic with a weekly beat, not to read the other works by an author. It’s just irresponsible not to do that because you’re failing to do your job, which is to make things interesting and coherent for your reader. If you haven’t read the author’s other books, you don’t know if the book that you’re reviewing represents an evolution, an improvement or whatever.
I’ve been writing for a living for over two decades and nobody has greater respect for people who can turn in good snappy copy, at length and on time, than I do. Only real writers understand that writing is a job.
It was my great friend, the editor and writer Bob Gottlieb, who said it. Right before my first book, The Elusive Embrace, came out in 1999, he took me to lunch and gave me a lecture about what it was like to be reviewed. He told me that the only thing worse than a stupid bad review is a stupid good review, and I have quoted him ever since—because it’s true. I think that any serious author wants one thing: to be comprehended, to be read intelligently and generously. Whether the reaction that stems from an intelligent and generous reading is praise or blame, one wants to feel that the critic has wrestled meaningfully with one’s work. What could be the value of praise that’s based on an unintelligent reading?
I like to joke that when I review things I act as if the author has been dead for 200 years, but the fact of course is that they’re not like Euripides, they’re not dead. That said, when I review a person’s work, that person is reviewed as an author, not as “a person.” When I’m reviewing a book by an author, I’m not thinking of that person as a father, husband, son or whatever… unless of course it bears interestingly on the work. The work is what matters.
I will repeat that if the review of one’s work is intelligent and legitimate, one doesn’t feel hurt personally. I can be grumpy professionally—I don’t like it when someone says that I got something wrong, that this or that in my book didn’t work, or whatever—but I’m not personally hurt.
This is precisely what editors are for: they rein you in, they keep you honest and don’t let your arguments run away with you. Bob Silvers at the New York Review is always saying, “But isn’t it also the case that the author did this or that, too—are you sure you’ve got it right?”, or “Don’t you think you should tone it down?” The best advice anybody ever gave me was when I was working on my dissertation. I had what I thought was a grand theory of the two Euripidean tragedies I was writing about, and when I first started writing the temptation to ignore everything that didn’t fit into my theory was terrific. My dissertation advisor pulled me into her office one day and said, “Your problem is that you think that what looks like inconsistencies, what doesn’t fit, are “problems.” What they really ought to be are the keys to developing a larger and more interesting thesis.” The point was that, instead of sweeping the anomalies under the rug you have to expand and adapt your argument so that it can accommodate everything in the text. I’ll never forget that moment—it literally changed that way I think about and interpret texts.
First of all, I think undergraduates should be kept away from Theory at all costs. I don’t think people should be allowed to even hear the word “theory” until they’re doing graduate work—for the very good reason that it’s impossible to theorise about texts before one has deep familiarity with them (not that that stopped anyone in the 1980s when I was in grad school). Undergraduates should be taught to have a clean appreciation of what texts say and how they say them, and learn how to write intelligently and clearly about that. If undergraduates had to have a model of criticism it ought to be popular criticism rather than traditional academic criticism.