Welcome to the first of “Algonquin Talks,” our series of interviews with book reviewers, producers, and bloggers. Ron Charles, the esteemed fiction editor and weekly critic at the Washington Post, is one of the first book reviewers I met when I started working at Algonquin in 2000 and I can’t say enough good things about him. He and I both hail from St. Louis, and thus share in the lure of toasted ravioli, Ted Drewes frozen custard, and, of course, sliding down the side of the Arch, the Gateway to the West. It was an honor to speak with him recently.
— Michael Taeckens
I thought I’d start out with important things first. Is it true that you taught high school with John Hamm, AKA Don Draper?
Yes! We—Jon Hamm and I (I like that phrase, and I’m sure he’s making similar references somewhere)—taught at a very fine prep school in St. Louis called the John Burroughs School. He was an intern in the drama department and I was an English teacher there.
How did you go from teaching high school English to working as a book reviewer?
I was an English professor at a small liberal arts college in Illinois—I started to look around for other kinds of work and a friend suggested that I try book reviewing. So I literally just went to a book store and picked up a book—it was Richard Russo’s Straight Man—I read it, wrote a review, and sent it off to the Features editor at the Christian Science Monitor, and he bought it. I worked for them freelance for six, seven months. Then they called me to interview for the book editor job.
Loss of review space has plagued almost every major newspaper in the country. Has The Washington Post been similarly affected?
We’ve been fairly fortunate. When our stand-alone section was phased out last year, we kept our staff and our weekly reviewers like Jonathan Yardley, Michael Dirda, and Caroline See. And we were given new space in Outlook and Style, sections of the paper that have more readers than Book World ever did. Was it hard to see the pull-out section go? Of course, but we’ve been able to keep running about 80 percent of the reviews we used to, and those reviews are being seen by more people. It’s exciting to introduce new authors to an audience but at the same time, given your limited space, you know you’ve got to address those books that everybody’s talking about. And it’s a zero-sum game. All the space that you take for the big blockbuster books is going to take space away from some really charming new novelist.
You’ve become an Internet sensation with your series of hilarious video book reviews, “The Totally Hip Book Reviewer.” Whose genius idea was this?
My family and I used to make these funny videos for the holidays. Recently, we were moping around the house on a Saturday and I said, ‘Well let’s just try doing this for books. It could be funny.’ It’s such a rich subject for satire. With all the hand-wringing about the decline of journalism, the decay of book sections, there’s just a lot of comedy to milk out of this subject. I hope I haven’t already beat it into the ground. I’ve got a few more episodes in mind.
Has there ever been a time when you’ve given a review to a book that’s gone completely against the herd?
I was nowhere near as enthusiastic about Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom as most critics were, although there were some other important negative critiques. You always feel so nervous about that because you’re trying to keep your lack of sophistication carefully camouflaged. But I’m a huge fan of Jonathan Franzen. I think he’s one of the greatest writers that we’ve got. But I did have objections to that book. And I’m not sorry that I put them out there because I think it provided a little variety, which is always nice.
And it’s not like you slammed the book.
No! Now, a case where I was on the wrong side, positively, probably most embarrassingly … I thought Gargoyle was a really spectacular thriller, but most people thought it was pretty stupid.
Before we part, can you recommend three recent books that knocked your socks off?
Emma Donoghue’s Room is spectacular. I really liked Lorrie Moore’s book A Gate at the Stairs. And Gary Shytengart’s Super Sad Love Story was wonderful. You see him get better and more serious with each new book. At the same time, he gets funnier without the kind of badgering bitterness that can creep into some satirist’s work.
Thanks, this was fun.
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