What motivations shape a critic’s decisions to write about the books they defend and those they dismiss? And what are the ethical or moral dimensions of those decisions? Beyond mere conflicts of interest, what lines do they draw for themselves in their work? Are there personal forces or experiences that affect their preferences about what to read and review?
In this ongoing series of interviews with critics, one of the central questions will be, “What is a critic’s role?” It’s a broad question, open-ended, but one which can be used, if the critic chooses, to address the personal side to their lives as critics, and perhaps how they see their work affecting society and culture.
For the third post in this series, I’m very pleased to present an interview with Miriam Markowitz. Our conversation took place over email in recent months.
Miriam Markowitz is the deputy literary editor of The Nation and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She was previously an editor of Harper’s Magazine and Viet Nam News in Hanoi. Her essay “Here Comes Everybody” examines some of the root causes of gender imbalance in magazine and book publishing. You can read more of her writing here and follow her @mirimarkow.
Of note: Markowitz will appear May 27 at the Center for Fiction on a panel, sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle, set to discuss “Race, Gender, and Book Reviews,” moderated by Walton Muyumba.
Before we discuss your work at Harper’s and The Nation, I’d like to ask about the early years of your career. Were there specific experiences that drew you toward a life in letters, as they say? What convinced you that this was the kind of work you wanted to pursue when you were first starting out?
I had a pretty happy childhood that was clearly divided into Life and Books, the latter being as vivid and immersive for me as the former. My mother is a huge reader and took me to the library every week when I was little; at a certain point she decided to have the bus drop me and my sister off at the local branch after school, because libraries are not just repositories of knowledge but also some of the only places you can stick a latchkey kid without people calling the police.
There were no restrictions on what I could read. My upbringing in a hippied-out racially integrated neighborhood in Philadelphia wasn’t very structured, and I was terrible at sports. I liked to play with the neighborhood kids, dress up, and produce ridiculous plays with my sister. My mother worked a lot but she took us to museums and festivals and children’s concerts on weekends, so I was actively engaged with the world outside of home and school and extremely curious about it.
By the time I finished high school I was pretty done with “being taught.” I went to college to read primary sources and not textbooks. I wasn’t a specialist, and didn’t think learning specific types of methodologies was all that useful. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life studying minutiae and writing boring papers with colons in their titles, but I did want to continue to learn.
After college most of my friends went to grad school and I went on an adventure, traveling and working abroad. I was a cook and housekeeper in Mallorca and a newspaper editor in Hanoi.
What do you remember reading early on during that unrestricted time, and those trips to the library? It sounds wonderful.
It was. Kids should mostly be left to pursue their own interests, lest they never develop any their parents haven’t concocted for them. I read whatever I found in the stacks that looked good to me, mostly fiction.
The first “chapter book” I remember reading is Anne of Green Gables in maybe the second grade, and it blew up from there. All of the older YA classics—Island of the Blue Dolphins, A Wrinkle in Time, The Secret Garden, My Side of the Mountain, Calico Captive, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond. I was especially fascinated by the revolutionary and civil wars, the Underground Railroad, Native Americans, Holocaust and dystopian fiction, and novels starring what my Netflix queue calls “strong female protagonists.” Then Jane Austen, the Brontës, and a lot of science fiction and fantasy.
Like many good little girls I was delighted by the fantastic and uncanny, and even then suffered from some metaphysical bloodlust that could only be sated by books. That early attraction hasn’t abated. I still love fairy tales and mythology, and the new and old weird and wonderful—writers like Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, Mercè Rodoreda, Penelope Fitzgerald, who fell out of fashion for a while but whose work is resurfacing with the rising star of their heirs, such as Kelly Link and China Miéville.
One of my favorite authors was Guy Gavriel Kay, who writes beautiful historical fiction set in imaginary but recognizable places and eras. A few years ago we met on Twitter and we have become real friends since, which is still amazing to me—getting to know someone whose books shaped me so hard as an adolescent on a personal level as an adult. His work led me towards James Frazier, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, as well as more occult and Eastern stuff. I went to Hebrew after-school three days a week and the Bible is, was, and ever shall be my lodestar for both poetry and prose. Its vast, austere beauty, and the sonics of the elegiac, are always humming in my head.
I think children have better taste in books than adults, even in garbage. I miss the way I read back then. It’s a lot harder now read to a book and feel it’s as real as life. Some of that has to do with learning to read critically, but that’s the necessary pain of learning to write.
Some guy in Seattle got in trouble recently for saying, among other incendiary things, that if you aren’t serious about writing by the time you’re a teenager you will probably never become a serious writer. I would amend that to say that if you aren’t a rabid reader by then, you probably won’t be able to overcome the deficit of not having immersed yourself in books at a young age. It’s how you learn almost everything, the same way that immersion in a foreign language as a child teaches you the way languages work and helps you become fluent in new ones.
What was your time overseas like? That’s quite a shift from cooking and housekeeping to editing a newspaper. How’d that happen?
Traveling was another important thing in my family, especially for my father. My parents spent 11 months traversing Asia in 1977. I had been saving money since I was 12 to travel and was lucky not to have student loans; a guy offered me room and board in a cabin at his retreat center in the hills of Mallorca in exchange for cooking and cleaning.
I spent two months in the Balearics learning recipes for both paella and Catalan separatism from the Mallorquin housekeeper, a lovely older woman who was fired by the Anglo owner of the retreat center, who didn’t really care for fraternizing among the help. I made stops in Europe, South Africa, and India before landing in Vietnam where I had a friend from college—a tall, blonde Jewish girl from Texas who spoke flawless Vietnamese—who’d stuck around after a Fulbright year. I lived with her and her boyfriend in a one-room Hmong stilthouse in an artist suburb of Hanoi.
Eventually my friend and her boyfriend got tired of my sleeping on their bedroom floor, quite reasonably, and I needed a job. I submitted my résumé to the Viet Nam News, where they employed native English speakers to clean up stories that had been translated poorly from Vietnamese. I worked on the business and features desks. Some of the stories were hilarious: “Twenty VinaSeafood trucks crossed the border into China yesterday!” “Armless veteran of the American War pedals her way from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi—and back again—for the second time!” Others were just boring or sad. The paper is an organ of the communist government, but the English edition was aimed at American businessmen who had come to invest in Vietnam, so other than the occasional tribute to one hero or another the content was mostly apolitical.
I eventually got restless and my mother got nervous that I would fall too desperately in love with Vietnam and never leave. I did though, for an internship at Harper’s Magazine, where I was hired as an assistant editor when I was 24. Mostly I worked as a fact-checker, but I was given opportunities to edit, first for the Readings section, then the letters to the editor and more. I learned an enormous amount from my colleagues at Harper’s, which saw itself as a “teaching hospital,” an ethos we also subscribe to at The Nation.
Editing is a useful skill for writers, but so is cleaning toilets. All writers should have to scrub toilets, and not just for the grossly intimate human experience, but also because toilets and writing have a lot in common. Waiting for that inspired moment can feel a lot like sitting on the can with stomach cramps.
Yes, the pain of waiting for inspiration is just as physical, I totally agree. So what were some of your first experiences as a critic that got you interested in the form as a writer, and kept you interested?
When I was a kid I thought I wanted to be a million things. When I was older I realized what I wanted was to live a million lives, which you can do as a reader and writer. Full stop. Deciding what kind of writer to “be” is another story, and I think it usually happens organically.
I don’t really see myself as critic, although I edit reviews and criticism and I’m on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. The Nation offered me a good job on a book review that isn’t exactly a book review but a magazine within a magazine about ideas—sort of like the bygone Lingua Franca. I write long essays about esoteric topics that don’t necessarily appear to be connected, which is the challenge: to throw a bunch of idea balls up in the air and catch them artfully and coherently. Books are the starting point, but thumbs-up or down, or even how good books work—that’s not what I’m interested in writing about, not now at least.
I’m not sure there is such a thing as a professional critic. Even James Wood has a side-hustle at Harvard. The idea that this is an actual career seems to me misguided.
Why do you think there aren’t really professional critics? A lot of people make their money doing just that, or at least claiming that’s what they’re up to. Is it the term itself or the implied function of such a person in the culture that you object to? Is, for instance, Daniel Mendelsohn a critic, or something else?
Most people, whatever they claim, do not make a living wage solely for their work as critics. Show me a “pure” critic and I’ll show you someone who is independently wealthy. There are very few venues that pay decent money for criticism, and the majority pay a nominal fee or nothing at all.
At The Nation every writer gets paid, and fees are on a sliding scale based on merit, experience, the scope of the project, and also need. Many of our writers are professors who can afford to write for us because they have day jobs, and frankly we couldn’t produce the book review without them. I can’t speak to Daniel Mendelsohn’s personal circumstances, but professionally he isn’t just a critic, nor do I think he would claim to be. He translates (also not a lucrative vocation), teaches, and wins heaps of prizes. He wrote a bestselling memoir about the Holocaust. And good for him, because that’s how this whole game works: by piecemeal. There is no golden ticket.
It’s a little different in newspapers than it is for magazines and websites. A few staff critics still make enough money to live. But these are an endangered species, as book reviews are systematically reduced and then eliminated from newspaper coverage. And I would argue that they serve a different function—newspaper reviews tend to be just that, reviews. There is little room allotted to extended criticism.
Your enlightening 2013 essay, “Here Comes Everybody,” concerned many things, including sexism, the VIDA count, the “two separate economies in book publishing: the material economy, and the economy of prestige,” and the “currencies” of the work writers create. Reading it, especially your writing about Sheri Holman’s career, made me feel great hope and hopelessness about what critics do with their clout in book culture. You end the essay writing about the meaning of Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win. Here we are a couple years later. How do you think things stand now, in terms of both awareness of sexism, thanks to the VIDA count, and real victories or failures in the fight against it?
I think the VIDA count has been the single most important factor in raising awareness about gender disparity in publishing, and this year’s survey factors in race, which was an important next step. That our public discussion has evolved to include race and ethnicity is crucial. Race and gender can’t be discussed in isolation if you want to understand the underlying economic realities of publishing.
That said, the numbers haven’t changed much, including at The Nation, and trying to explain why without sounding like an apologist is difficult. Prestige book publishing also hasn’t really changed much as an industry, but critics and awards committees are moving from a place of defensiveness to one of action. That action is slow to manifest in bylines.
I think the authors who are reviewed will diversify before bylines do, because it’s a lot easier to assign different books than it is to dramatically revamp entire stables of freelance writers. Writing book reviews doesn’t pay well, and women and people of color often cannot afford to write for little to no money, and it’s difficult to retain those writers once they have graduated to better-paying outlets which would prefer them to write reported or opinion pieces than reviews. Many young writers have also opted out of book reviewing because writing for new-media ventures about sexier subjects pays better and gives them a lot more exposure. A review in The Nation doesn’t usually drastically increase one’s number of Twitter followers.
If you count the outlets who still pay for longer reviews and essays rather than blog posts or top-lists, there just aren’t that many left. The demise of the old New Republic was welcomed by many as the destruction of a bastion of white male privilege, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that when a venue like that disappears it’s unlikely to come back, or be replaced by anything comparable, and what does end up replacing it may not be any better or a lot more pernicious.
We’ve been quick to laud the diversity afforded by the innumerable opportunities of the internet, and it’s true that everyone with access to the web can “have a voice,” at least on Twitter and Facebook and personal blogs, but also in many new online publications. The problem is what that voice really amounts to if it is unfunded and unheard, or denatured by the dictates of both the market and its gatekeepers, whose motives and values are a lot less savory than the much-maligned literary gatekeepers, who, at the very least, tend to care about books and words.
The venture-capitalists who are funding brave new media start-ups don’t care about writers of any race or gender, they care about clicks and revenues. And when they realize there isn’t money to be made in journalism, especially the “serious” kind, they will pull out just as quickly as they bought in.
So the space for writers who actually want to write, not just help platforms sell ads, is diminishing, and even established critics are desperate to find a home for their work. That means not just more competition for fewer assignments and word counts, but also that less-privileged writers are less likely to pitch because they already feel discouraged. For every ten black writers I reach out to, I get one pitch. That number improves slightly if I count other racial and ethnic minorities and then substantially with women, but they are still significantly less likely to take on an assignment than male writers are to pitch or respond to a query from me.
Women writers are more careful about the assignments they take on. They tend to have fewer hours to spend on freelance work than men do, especially if they have children. Women are less likely than men to go after big game or write outside of their fields of expertise because they often don’t feel “qualified.”
I have rarely met a white male writer who didn’t feel confident in his ability and entitlement to tackle pretty much any topic or writer he pleased. It doesn’t help that those topics and writers tend to be white and male, both because people’s interests tend to mirror their personal status and because the writers that they and we, as a culture, admire have historically been white and male.
So there’s a vicious cycle here that involves all of publishing, and it reflects the social and political realities of the world at large. Can byline equity reshape those realities? Maybe. But people vastly overestimate how much money and power there is in publishing even at the highest and most lucrative echelons, which also don’t necessarily coincide.
I could talk about this every day and pretty much do—with writers and editors, with authors, publicists—everyone I know in the industry. But the industry is slow to respond to extra-market demands, and taking risks on new kinds of writers and work isn’t a priority for a business that perceives its very existence as precarious.
I do have a perhaps hare-brained theory that books themselves are changing for the better; and that in the next ten years we will find that the novels that win awards will skew towards women and minority writers. First, because gatekeepers are making active decisions to pay attention to those books, and then because the novel of White Male Existential Angst is starting to bore even its most stalwart readers. (Nonfiction will be slower to change, especially genres like history and biography.)
The last thing I’ll mention is that it’s worth thinking about why concerns about byline inequity have centered around book reviews and literary magazines rather than magazines in general, or publishing at large, especially given that book reviews and lit mags are such a meager slice of the pie. I have some thoughts, but I’ll save them for next time.