An interview with Miriam Markowitz

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.


Photo by Sean Hemmerle

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?

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Microinterview with Nell Zink

Photo credit: Fred Filkorn

I interviewed Nell Zink, author of The Wallcreeper, for The Paris Review’s blog. It’s one short question from me, one long lovely answer from her. (That’s not the whole story, of course, but it makes for a good one.)

What kind of jobs have you had? Do you write full-time now, “living the dream”?

I was always a bit concerned about purity of essence. I never wanted a job that might affect the way I wrote or thought. I remember how in college I was very proud of having finagled a job in the English department, where I spent most of my time collating and stapling. I didn’t major in English, obviously, because I preferred being challenged in courses where I might get bad grades. Once, Gordon Lish came to speak there and warned us explicitly against going to work in publishing, because it forces wallcreeperyou to read bad prose all day every day and spoils your style. After his talk, all the other student writers jumped up to beg him for jobs in publishing while I wandered off strengthened in my resolve to do manual labor.

Read the whole thing at The Paris Review: Purity of Essence: One Question for Nell Zink.