It’s been a celebratory week here at the Review, as we continue to bask in the glow of this year’s Discover Awards presentation. Now congratulations turn to BNR columnist Katherine A. Powers, recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. The award will be presented this Thursday, March 13th in Manhattan as part of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Awards.
Taking in a wide range of works of fiction, memoir, biography, history, sports and travel writing, Powers’ long-running column A Reading Life appeared for many years in The Boston Globe, before moving to the Review, where it appears twice a month, in 2011 (she has been a regular contributor here since the Review began publishing in 2007). Powers is also the editor of 2013’s exceptional Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963, a collection of correspondence from her father, the National Book Award-winning novelist J.F. Powers (Morte d’Urban). This past August, she spoke with James Parker here about her father’s fascinating life and the making of Suitable Accommodations.
The NBCC’s Simone Tyrell recently spoke at length with Katherine A. Powers about how she got started as a critic, her methods as a reviewer, and many other questions. We’ve posted an excerpt below — read the whole interview here.
ST : What was the first book you reviewed?
KP : My first assignment (for the April, 1989 issue of Boston Magazine!) was of two baseball books, an ideal subject for me because I am a fan of the game and, even more, of its history. I just now looked at those reviews and see that I did a hatchet job on both books: Bill Littlefield’s novel, Prospect, and George V. Higgins’s The Progress of the Seasons: Forty Years of Baseball in Our Town. I also see in myself—the book reviewer of that distant day—a person who is clearly very pleased with herself. This is something I think I have learned to disguise.
I will say here that I don’t like to trash books the way I used to. Now I try hard to choose books to review that I am pretty sure I will like. If there is enough time, I reject books I thought would be good but which turn out, on reading, not to be. It’s just better all around given how many books there are and how little space the world grants to book reviews. On the other hand, if I have a deadline and firm commitment to provide a review of a book which turns out to be a failure, I go ahead and take off the gloves. I just wrote a very negative review last week, not published yet, and it gave me no pleasure at all because the author is one I admire, but he fell down badly here.
ST : What is your process when you review a book?
KP : There is an old saying that a reviewer is a person who reads a book less than once. A joke, yes, but I do think that that really was true of a fair few reviewers in the days when there were a lot of reviews in a lot of newspapers and magazines. I always read a book I am reviewing once—but seldom the entire thing twice. If it is nonfiction, I usually read the table of contents first; then, if there are photographs, I spend (waste) a great deal of time poring over them. Then I briefly skim the introduction, then read the conclusion, and then the whole thing starting with the first chapter on to the last, at which point I zip through the conclusion again. Only then do I read the whole introduction—and that is because most introductions contain a great deal of blather and I don’t want to start out exhausted.
If it is fiction—a novel, say—I open it up here and there and read a few paragraphs, just to get a sense of the voice and to whet my appetite. Then I read it from start to finish. Sometimes if I am very anxious about the fate of a central character, I do glance at the end. I know this is a sign of a weak character, but I prefer to think of it as being the mark of a professional. If I am too worried, I’m not going to be able to concentrate on how the book is being written and what it’s up to. When I am reading I can’t easily distinguish between the made-up world of a novel and what some people consider reality. So I worry.
As far as forming judgments—or figuring out what I am going to say in a review—I try to notice what I am noticing while I’m reading. Because I am, essentially, a reading addict, my impulse is simply to rip right through a book, fiction or nonfiction, just for the animal pleasure of it. But sad experience has shown that if I abandon myself in this way, I will finish the book without being able to say much except: Boy was that ever good, you should read it. And so I take a lot of notes and jot down passing thoughts and anything that niggles at me as I read—not always full-fledged observations, just fleeting impressions. These often turn out to get at the crux of things once I sit down and think things through.
After finishing a book, I read over my notes, reread passages, and settle on likely quotations for demonstrating the book’s essential nature. I often try to express precisely what the book is about—its aims, its style, approach, originality or lack of it—to my particular friend, Bob, who has an extremely useful mind. Then I try to come up with a first sentence. I can’t seem to get going without that. On the other hand, I have never written an outline in my life. I am a very, very slow writer, rewriting endlessly (or so it seems), working on the review until it doesn’t make me want to throw up.
ST : Are there reviewers writing now whom you especially admire?
KP : There are a number whose work especially appeals to me. The Washington Post (for which I write on occasion) has an extraordinarily fine stable of reviewers: Jonathan Yardley, Michael Dirda, and Ron Charles. Each has his own voice and his own bee in his bonnet, and each has, in addition to style and acumen, a sense of humor which I consider essential to true understanding. I am also a big fan of James Wood (though I disagree with half his assessments), George Scialabba and James Parker (both friends, but geniuses all the same), Brooke Allen, James Marcus, D.G. Myers, Dwight Garner, and Anna Mundow (another friend). I am devoted also to John Crace’s excellently amusing “Digested Read” column in the Guardian.
ST : Are there any particular books you like reading? For example, what genre of books do you prefer?
KP : I like practically everything except inspirational tracts, political rants, and celebrity stuff. I review audio books as well as print ones and so, because review copies come in the door unbidden, I listen to a lot of books I wouldn’t necessarily read with my eyes, such as political memoirs, tales of domestic life and marital strife, and really junky crime and espionage thrillers. When I say “junky” I am not referring to the great masters of that large genre, my favorites of the moment being Oren Steinhauer, Charles Cumming, and Michael Gruber.
The 2013 NBCC Awards ceremony begins this Thursday, March 13 at 6:00 pm at The New School, 66 West 12th Street, New York, NY. The event is free and open to the public.