Ron Charles is the fiction editor for the Washington Post. But he’s really much more than that. He’s someone I respect and look to for reviews of all the best new fiction in the book world. I enjoy his book reviews because he writes with authority, enthusiasm, intelligence, and he’s very very funny! You can always count on Ron Charles to be fair and honorable. Having said all that, I have to tell you that I am tickled pink to share this Q&A interview he agreed to do with me. You are all in for such a treat. And just wait until you watch the video.
It was almost impossible to choose one of Ron’s videos. They are all hysterically funny, and all about publishing and books. He even incorporates the aid of family members who are equally witty. Please go to You Tube to see the rest of his totally hip book reviewer videos. They will surely make your day!
Now, seriously, here’s…..Ron Charles.
Q: How long have you worked as fiction editor for the Washington Post? Did you always review books for them?
I came to The Post in 2005 to review books and work as the fiction editor.
Q: What was your professional background before the Post?
I was the Books editor at The Christian Science Monitor in Boston for seven years before we moved down to Washington.
Q: How did you get into book reviewing as a profession?
I’ve been talking about books and trying to get other people to read them for a long time. While in graduate school at Washington University, I started teaching American literature and critical theory at a little liberal arts college in Illinois. I ended up staying there seven years and then took a job at a ritzy private school in St. Louis. (Yes, Jon Hamm was one of my colleagues; I’m sure he’s telling the same story about me somewhere right now.) I loved teaching, but eventually the paper grading wore me down (Don’t tell my wife; she now has more than twice as many students as I ever had!). An old student’s mom suggested I try reviewing books. So, I went to Barnes & Noble, picked a novel off the “New” shelf (Richard Russo’s “Straight Man”) and wrote a review. The Christian Science Monitor bought it – and asked for more. Eventually, they put me on staff and we moved to Boston.
Q: How many books would you say the Post receives a week? And how on earth do any of them get into your hands? Surely you have helpers. I am picturing a group of cute little elves stuffed into a windowless room with boxes of books being opened all around them. Kinda like Christmas.
Yes, people often tell me, “It must be like Christmas every day!” I don’t know what Christmas is like at your house, but would you really want Christmas EVERY SINGLE DAY?!? We receive about 700 books a week. We review about 15 a week. The math is very cruel. We have a nonfiction editor (Steve Levingston) and a contributing editor (Dennis Drabelle) and an office manager (Tim Smith, the closest thing to our own “little elf” – your words, not mine.)
Q: How do you narrow down the books you finally choose? What do you have to take into consideration in regards to your readers?
It’s a very anxious balancing act. The trades are a big help (Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal). Of course, we try to cover the big books that we think everybody will be talking about. But we also try to discover new authors as often as we can. And we want to make sure we’re addressing a wide variety of tastes. The trick is to try to be as aware as possible of your blind spots and push yourself out of the comfort zone once in a while. But the real challenge is space. Every month we have to pass up great books we’d love to cover.
Q: Have you ever received unfavorable mail from people who have read a review you’ve written? If so, did you respond or just let it go?
Authors very rarely write to reviewers, which is as it should be. Once in a while somebody will send a thank you note, which is sweet. And two or three times – over more than 15 years of weekly reviewing – an author I’ve panned has written to complain. In such cases, I remind them that I’m just a leach; they’re the one’s doing the real work, producing what matters. Ignore me.
Q: I have to say, for the record, that you have helped me step outside my comfort zone on several occasions. You have a gift for this. Your review of SO MUCH FOR THAT by Lionel Shriver gave me pause. I stopped everything and bought that book. It is one of my all-time favorites. I slapped it into everyone’s hands and told them that they simply had to read it. For me, this is the hallmark for a remarkable reviewer. And you are that! Has anyone nudged you out of your zone to read something you might not have?
Well, thank you very much. That’s very kind of you. (I’m a huge fan of Lionel Shriver.) I’m not sure how successful I am, but I try as hard as I can to read a wide variety of novels (otherwise, it’d just be academic satires all year long!) I’m not so much concerned about my comfort as my limited expertise. When I choose a novel to review, I want to make sure I have enough background to say something interesting about it. I’ve only got five days for each review, so I usually can’t read the author’s backlist or do much additional research. If I sense that I don’t have what it takes, I’ll try to find a qualified freelancer.
Q: A couple of years ago you filmed a series of hilarious videos; all about the books and book business in some sort of zany way. I absolutely loved them all and think they were brilliant. Any plans to do more?
I so glad you enjoyed them! My wife and I loved making them. But – oh my! – how time-consuming they were. And, alas, they never really went “viral” (The world of “book people” is a lot smaller than most “book people” realize, I learned). I hope to do more when the spirit moves me, but at the moment, I’m working on other extracurricular projects.
Q:One last question. Do you have any plans of writing a novel?
I tried a couple of years ago, just to get a better sense of the challenges real novelists face. My first challenge was time: I read for work every night and spend big chunks of the weekend writing for The Post. But the second – larger — challenge was talent. I found it incredibly difficult to get my characters to move, to do anything. I abandoned that little experiment even more in awe of the remarkable writers I have the privilege of reviewing each week.
Ron Charles won the National Book Critics Circle award in 2009. I think he’s just fantastic! I can’t thank him enough for answering my questions. Enjoy!