Recently The Wonderlings Book Club was thrilled to announce a very special guest: Ron Charles, of The Washington Post! Mr. Charles joined us for a live Facebook chat on Thursday, March 1st 12:30 (EST) and a great time was had by all.
Ron is a true veteran of the study and discussion of great books and authors. He’s been a book reviewer for a sum total of more than 20 years combined, at The Washington Post and prior to that, the Christian Science Monitor, During our Wonderlings Book Club interview, we discussed that work as well as the process of book reviewing and who his own favorite authors have been, along the way.
Although his style is decidedly fun-loving, lighthearted and satirical (as we see in the delightful The Totally Hip Book Review, which he produces with his wife, Dawn), Charles is a veteran of all things literary.
Born and raised in St. Louis, Ron Charles earned an M.A. in English at Washington University in 1986 and began teaching American literature at Principia College (Elsah, Ill.). After the birth of his second daughter in 1991, his family moved back to St. Louis, where he taught English at the John Burroughs School and began writing freelance book reviews. Those essays eventually led to a job as the book section editor and lead critic for the Christian Science Monitor (1998-2005). In 2005, he became a senior editor and weekly critic for The Washington Post Book World. In early 2009 when The Post closed its stand-alone book section and integrated reviews throughout the paper, he was appointed deputy editor and given a weekly column in Style. In 2013, he was promoted to editor of Book World.
In 2009, he won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. He was also a judge for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (the year Donna Tartt won for her novel, The Goldfinch.)
Ron also hosts Life of a Poet, a series of interviews in conversation with some of today’s most prominent poets, co-sponsored by Hill Center, The Library of Congress and The Washington Post. He’s interviewed everyone from Jeffrey Eugenides and Joyce Carol Oates to Margaret Atwood, and many, many others. And last week, we were lucky enough to be able to interview him!
Celeste Helene Schantz Today The Wonderlings Book Club is very happy to welcome our very special guest, Ron Charles of The Washington Post. Ron is the editor of Book World, and we’re very pleased that he’s joining us on Facebook today as our guest for this half hour. Ron, welcome!
First, can you speak a bit about what it’s like to serve on the judging panel for the Pulitzer Prize? What was it like? What was the process?
Ron Charles The Pulitzer process is really exhilarating — and exhausting! The books flood in — more than 400, as I recall. (It turns out all you need to enter your book for a Pulitzer is $50. And a lot of people have $50. Or did. There were three of us on the Fiction committee. We read widely and tried to point each other toward books we really liked.
Shabnam Mirchandani Ron, I love your “stand-up comic” approach to book reviewing in the videos. Such an eclectic combination of raucous fun and sparking intellect! (and your wife is now my hero!) How on earth do you wade through an ocean of material and come up with such sassy, smart, and crazily addictive productions?
Those have been a blast for Dawn and me. We’ve been trying to create one a month. But a lot depends on the books I’m reviewing and my wife’s busy schedule (she’s a high school teacher). Not all books lend themselves to zany comedy, of course — so that’s the first hurdle.
Susan Pigman Ron, The Washington Post book section is always alerting me to books I would have otherwise missed. How do you choose which books to review out of the many possibilities published?
Ron Charles That’s our major challenge. We get about 150 books a day, but review only about 17 a week, so, as you can see, most don’t make it….. but we’re trying to create a rich selection of reviews on a variety of subjects to meet the interests of our audience. We rely on the trades (PW, Library Journal, Kirkus) and a few publicists we trust, and we poke around and see what we like. Once I identity a book for the THVBR treatment, I write up the review and then spend about a week working on the script and collecting all the props and costumes we’ll need. Come Saturday morning, we film all day and sometimes into Sunday. Then it takes me about eight hours to do the editing.
Shabnam Mirchandani Wow! How do you balance comedy and seriousness when confronted with the implications of a “post truth” moment?
Ron Charles I feel entirely free to add little satiric zingers about “post truth” when appropriate. My favorite was a scene of Tom Sawyer/Donald Trump promising to build a fence and get Mexicans to paint that fence. The Post has been very kind about supporting them online, but the audience is still, like Milton’s, “fit though few.”
David Delaney With that in mind, do you have a specific reader in mind when you review? T. Kooser said he wrote for his secretary. If she didn’t get it , it needed work.
Ron Charles David Delaney Ha! Kooser is always great. But no, I don’t have a specific reader in mind, though after two decades of doing this every week, I have a pretty good idea who my 18 or so readers are.
Celeste Helene Schantz Well, now you can add the members of our little group!
Ron Charles I’m writing for smart people who like literary fiction and are willing to step outside their comfort zone once in a while; people willing to take a chance on a novel if they think it has a serious enough intent and it done with enough skill.
David Delaney How has reviewing changed in the last hundred years — if it has?
Ron Charles HOW OLD DO YOU THINK I AM?
David Delaney At least old enough!
David Delaney I mean has the skeleton of the profession altered over the years?
Ron Charles The big change, of course, is the death of most of the nation’s newspaper and magazine book sections. And the rise of many, many new online review sites and the prevalence of costumer reviews. That’s a sea-change. Most of the reviews that remain have to be much shorter, much more consumer-advice oriented. People want lists of recommendations, they want thumbs up or down. They want recommendations from celebrities and, especially, their friends, broadly defined.
David Delaney When you write a review I notice you really strike a chord on the opening line. Is that critical in the material you review?
Ron Charles For various reasons (i.e. our click-based economy) I think reviews have also gotten much more promotional, much more positive, much more happy, much more “shareable.” If you write a meh or negative review of a midlist novel nowadays, so few people will read it that the CIA could store secrets in it. David Delaney, I spend half my time on the first two paragraphs, so thanks for noticing!
David Delaney It shows.
Susan Pigman Ron Charles I still miss Book World. But I appreciate the WP commitment to book reviewing, although I wince every time I have to look under Entertainment for them. Also appreciate the reviews of off-main-street books like Poetry and Science Fiction roundups.
Ron Charles Susan Pigman I miss Book World, too! But the times, they are a-changin’. Print is yesterday. Online is now. I’m glad you enjoying our monthly coverage of Poetry and SF. I instituted those columns because I felt those books were falling through the cracks in our regular coverage.
Shabnam Mirchandani Comedy as community service and conscience preserver is a fascinating phenomenon at the present time. Your thoughts?
Ron Charles Indeed, I think comedy — satire — may be the only possible response to America’s descent into madness over the last two years.
Celeste Helene Schantz Ron, today’s book reviews primarily focus on commercially successful novels. Our book club, The Wonderlings, currently focuses on provocative short form works (short stories, poetry, essays and novellas.) Is there still a place in book reviewing for shorter writing? Do you have a favorite short story or a favorite poem or poet?
Ron Charles I’m not a big short story fan myself. And novellas are extremely rare nowadays. But I try to make sure we do roundups of short stories periodically so that people know what’s out there. I find reviews of story collections are often exceedingly dull and plot bound….But please don’t tell anybody that.
I’m a big fan of poetry, and have, for the past five years, hosted a series called Life of a Poet, co-sponsored by the Library of Congress. They stream the interviews, but that’s a pretty dead way to experience them, I’m afraid. In the room with the author, it’s pretty electric, I think.
Celeste Helene Schantz On the other hand, poetry used to be a feature in major publications. It was poetry for the people, accessible and enjoyed by many . . .and stories were serialized and had cliffhangers . . .
Ron Charles Celeste Helene Schantz , We used to run a popular column called “The Poet’s Choice.” Trouble is, now we can know *exactly* how many people are clicking on each thing. I can tell you that poetry reviews are not burning down our server. But I remain committed to it! Just posted this interesting piece yesterday: https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/a11e4558-1657-11e8…
Shabnam Mirchandani Ron, please accept a Wonderlings Oscar (as the mirthful transcender of all categories) from us! Looking forward to your acceptance speech/video!
David Delaney When you read do you read at the speed of dialogue ?(when there’s dialogue of course)
Ron Charles I read about 35 pages an hour when reading for a review. But I can attain much, much higher speeds when reading for other purposes.
Celeste Helene Schantz Any last questions for Ron?
Rick Williams What writers make you laugh? And has your “Book Monkey” carefully selected any totally hip favorite books for 2018 yet?
Ron Charles Comic novels are disappointing rare, I’m sorry to say. The best recent example is Andrew Sean Greer’s LESS. Thank you so much for remembering the Book Monkey! She’s in this episode, I think: https://www.washingtonpost.com/…/feab7cfc-bd5e-11e6..
I’m happy to hang around longer. If I stop talking to you all, I have to go back to editing….
David Delaney The best critic you have read?
Ron Charles The best literary critic is James Wood at the New Yorker.
Shabnam Mirchandani As a newly minted honorary Wonderling, do you have suggestions for our next read?
Ron Charles Sing, Unburied, Sing is very powerful.
Celeste Helene Schantz As a former English teacher, you’ve studied your share of excellent literature. In the world of modern, commercially successful novels, do you still see glimmers of literary greatness and beautiful prose in the novels you review?
Ron Charles All the time! Honestly, I’m amazed at the literary talent! In fact, I think our real problem is a shortage of readers, not great books.
Celeste Helene Schantz Yes! I work at a library (I’m there right now . . .) and I would say the majority of patrons are online playing games. There are very few people in the stacks 😦 That’s one reason I started this group, to gather readers together.
Ron Charles Celeste Helene Schantz You’re killing me….
Mark Ordon On that note, is there anything that can be done? I recently came upon an opinion that there should be more focus on shorter forms, or at least books “in installments” to cater to a readership which is regretfully more distracted and has a very short attention span.
Ron Charles Mark Ordon I seen a few of those attempts (and written about them at least once) but none has survived for long that I know of.
Shabnam Mirchandani Nevertheless, we (the readers) shall persist!!!!!
Ron Charles If you love short fiction, you must subscribe to the wonderful ONE STORY magazine. https://www.one-story.com/
And here’s a picture of my desk at The Washington Post:
Rick Williams Nirvana…You probably have not complained of boredom recently!
David Delaney Where’s the desk?!
Mark Ordon Who needs the desk when the books are there?!
Ron Charles That’s our wonderful office manager, Nicole Chung, in the background.
Shabnam Mirchandani Let’s build a wall (of books)…
Ron Charles MARA! (Make America Read Again!)
Celeste Helene Schantz Okay, that’s our new slogan!
Ron Charles Celeste Helene Schantz I’ll sell caps in the Totally Hip Gift Store.
David Delaney Thank you Ron. This has been a great treat for me.
Ron Charles Wonderful to talk with you all. this has been great fun for me — and a little crazy trying to see what’s coming in. I’m always available on Twitter and email: @roncharles and firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rick Williams Fantastic! What a Great Guest‼
Shabnam Mirchandani THANK YOU!
Susan Pigman Thank you!
Mark Ordon Thank you for being with us!
Celeste Helene Schantz Ron Charles of the Washington Post, thanks so much for joining us today, and feel free to be a Wonderling for as long as you like. This has been great!
Ron Charles My pleasure! I leave you with this disturbing image:
Shabnam Mirchandani Meat head? Tribute to Lady Gaga’s sartorial adventures?
Ron Charles Shabnam Mirchandani Yes (Lady Gaga). It’s really weird for me to look back at some of the older videos and see once-timely gags that have grown so stale that I now have no idea what I was talking about!
Shabnam Mirchandani Ron Charles, you have a (die hard) fan in me..
Ron Charles New video coming next week (if the predicted wind storm in DC doesn’t destroy my house this weekend.)
Mark Ordon Whatever it may be, it will certainly keep me up all night
Ron Charles Mark Ordon Then my work here is done!