Re­view­ers & Crit­ics

Poets and Writers - - Contents - By michael taeck­ens

Sam Sacks of the Wall Street Jour­nal.

SAM Sacks grew up in Sil­ver Spring, Mary­land, stud­ied lit­er­a­ture at Tufts Univer­sity, and re­ceived his MFA in cre­ative writ­ing at the Univer­sity of Ari­zona in Tuc­son. In 2005 he moved to New York City and worked for years at var­i­ous book­stores, in­clud­ing the Strand and Hous­ing Works Book­store, where he still can be found ev­ery Satur­day vol­un­teer­ing. In 2007 he co­founded the on­line lit­er­ary jour­nal Open Let­ters Monthly, which he edited for ten years, and to­day he is an ed­i­tor at its sis­ter site, Open Let­ters Re­view. He started writ­ing the Fic­tion Chron­i­cle col­umn for the Wall Street Jour­nal when the pa­per in­au­gu­rated the week­end Books sec­tion in Septem­ber 2010. His crit­i­cism has ap­peared in Harper’s, the Lon­don Re­view of Books, the New Repub­lic, Com­men­tary, the Weekly Stan­dard, Prospect, Mu­sic and Lit­er­a­ture, and the New Yorker’s Page-Turner.

What path led to you be­com­ing a lit­er­ary critic?

I’m the prod­uct of the van­ish­ing, much-lamented free city weekly. After col­lege, on the en­cour­age­ment of a friend, I wrote a book re­view that was pub­lished in Pitts­burgh’s sec­ondary al­ter­na­tive news­pa­per Pitts­burgh Pulp. As I moved around in the years that fol­lowed, I kept writ­ing re­views for beer money at places like Flag­pole mag­a­zine in Athens, Ge­or­gia, the Tuc­son Weekly, the Las Ve­gas Weekly, and the New York Press. Around the time that this kind of out­let started dry­ing up for me I co­founded, with Steve Donoghue and John Cotter, an on­line lit­er­ary jour­nal, Open Let­ters Monthly. This wasn’t quite the ear­li­est Wild West days of on­line book blog­ging and re­view­ing, but it was early enough that it was still pos­si­ble to throw to­gether a site with­out any money and get it taken se­ri­ously on the strength of the writ­ing alone. It’s here that I started writ­ing much longer crit­i­cism, with the added mo­ti­va­tion of want­ing to make the site a suc­cess. After a few years I had built up a pretty ex­ten­sive body of work and started to get pay­ing gigs, and through some ridicu­lous good for­tune, the gigs turned into vi­able full-time em­ploy­ment.

You re­view fic­tion ex­clu­sively. Is this by choice?

Fic­tion is what I love most and un­der­stand best, but the

ex­clu­siv­ity is more a re­flec­tion of my role at the Wall Street Jour­nal, which is to write a col­umn re­view­ing the week’s new and note­wor­thy lit­er­ary fic­tion. If I had un­lim­ited time—and some al­lowance to learn on the job—I would hap­pily re­view crit­i­cism, lit­er­ary bi­og­ra­phy, travel writ­ing, na­ture writ­ing, es­says, po­etry, and who knows what else.

You’ve re­viewed quite a lot of fic­tion in trans­la­tion and nov­els and short sto­ries pub­lished by small presses. Is this the kind of work you per­son­ally pre­fer?

I some­times wish I could wave a magic wand and erase these kinds of dis­tinc­tions from read­ers’ minds, my own in­cluded. I know that cat­e­gories are nec­es­sary for mar­ket­ing pur­poses and that read­ers can find them use­ful, but it dis­mays me that trans­lated and small-press fic­tion gets balka­nized into high­brow gen­res aimed at nar­rowly se­lected au­di­ences. If I re­view more of these books than some crit­ics, it’s only be­cause I do my best to treat them as though they’re no dif­fer­ent from more main­stream books. Which they’re not, in the im­por­tant ways. Good books are good books and are for ev­ery­one.

How many re­view copies do you re­ceive per week, and of those how many are you able to re­view?

I’m not quite sure be­cause they’re all sent to the Wall Street Jour­nal. There the ed­i­tors set apart the fic­tion for me, and I go in once a week to sort through the new ar­rivals and or­ga­nize them by month of pub­li­ca­tion. The pub­li­ca­tion cal­en­dar I made for July, which is a some­what light month, had fiftythree ti­tles. Then I fill a tote bag with books I’ll want to read or read into— I gen­er­ally bring home ten to fif­teen books ev­ery week. On av­er­age I’ll end up re­view­ing three of them.

Is there any­thing from the pub­lish­ing side that raises your in­ter­est in a par­tic­u­lar book or au­thor—the size of the ad­vance, no­table blurbs, your re­la­tion­ship with an ed­i­tor or pub­li­cist?

I do my best not to think about ex­tralit­er­ary things like that be­cause they tend to make me ir­ri­ta­ble, which is not a good frame of mind to have go­ing into a book. Blurbs par­tic­u­larly an­noy me be­cause of the way they par­ody ac­tual re­views, though I re­al­ize I should lighten up. Nat­u­rally I pay at­ten­tion when pub­lish­ers re­ally get be­hind a book. But per­sonal rec­om­men­da­tions are the most help­ful. Pub­li­cists and ed­i­tors are first and fore­most book lovers, and it’s hard not to want to share in their ex­cite­ment when they get gen­uinely en­thused

about some­thing they’re bring­ing out. This also makes the din of pre­pub­li­ca­tion ac­claim more man­age­able, be­cause an hon­est pub­li­cist can play the “gen­uinely en­thused” card only so many times.

Has a work of crit­i­cism ever changed your opin­ion of a writer’s work?

Yes and no. Noth­ing can take the place of a di­rect en­counter with a book. But if crit­i­cism doesn’t lead me to change my own judg­ment, it won­der­fully broad­ens my un­der­stand­ing and ap­pre­ci­a­tion of what a writer is do­ing. Take Philip Roth, a writer about whom ev­ery­one has an opin­ion. I have never en­joyed his books, and when I read them I have great dif­fi­culty see­ing past what I think are mas­sive lim­i­ta­tions: the self-pity, the blam­ing, the ab­sence of doubt or in­tro­spec­tion. But be­cause of the won­der­ful crit­i­cism I have read of him—by Wy­att Ma­son, D. G. My­ers, Claire Mes­sud, Laura Ta­nen­baum, and count­less oth­ers who aren’t im­me­di­ately com­ing to mind—I have a deep­ened re­spect for his im­por­tance to the canon: for the lib­er­at­ing power of his anger, for his will­ing­ness to change his style, for the un­com­pro­mis­ing na­ture of his view of life, and so on.

This is, in­ci­den­tally, why lit­er­a­ture is so en­rich­ing—we ex­pe­ri­ence it sub­jec­tively and ob­jec­tively all at once. Ev­ery book is both per­sonal and com­mu­nal, so the pos­si­bil­i­ties of in­ter­pre­ta­tion are end­less.

What is your opin­ion about the value of neg­a­tive re­views?

Neg­a­tive re­views are healthy, stim­u­lat­ing, com­pletely nec­es­sary. In my view there are fairly strin­gent moral pro­hi­bi­tions against judg­ing peo­ple in life, but art is where one can love and hate at pas­sion­ate ex­tremes. When I have re­grets about my own re­view­ing, it’s usu­ally when I’ve shied away from neg­a­tiv­ity into some fea­ture­less mid­dle ground. I should say that the best neg­a­tive re­views are not sim­ply hatchet jobs but pieces that use a book’s weak­nesses or trans­gres­sions to il­lus­trate a larger idea.

If you could change one thing about the book-re­view­ing process or the world of lit­er­ary crit­i­cism, what would it be?

I wish re­view­ing paid more. This isn’t a pas­sive-ag­gres­sive com­plaint about my own lot, by the way. As men­tioned I’m ex­cep­tion­ally for­tu­nate to make a liv­ing as a critic. Most peo­ple can’t. God bless the ex­cep­tions, but most out­lets don’t pay enough to jus­tify the work and time that goes into a long, in­volved work of crit­i­cism, mean­ing that count­less im­por­tant pieces have gone un­writ­ten for lack of fit­ting com­pen­sa­tion.

So­cial me­dia— is it help­ful or a hin­drance?

I’m only on Twit­ter, and I use it only to pro­cras­ti­nate, un­for­tu­nately. I ad­mire peo­ple who make it work for them.

Which book crit­ics, past or present, do you par­tic­u­larly ad­mire?

It’s more fun to stick to the present. The most im­por­tant thing for a critic is to have a reg­u­lar berth some­where, and, not­with­stand­ing my ear­lier lament about money, there are more re­ally good place­ments than is widely rec­og­nized. I make a point to read ev­ery­thing by Lidija Haas at Harper’s, Chris­tian Lorentzen at New York, An­drew Fer­gu­son at the Weekly Stan­dard, Sarah Nicole Prick­ett at Book­fo­rum, Bar­ton Swaim on po­lit­i­cal books for the Wall Street Jour­nal, the two re­cent hires, Parul Sehgal and Jen­nifer Sza­lai, at the New York Times, Kather­ine A. Pow­ers at the Barnes and No­ble Re­view, and, maybe my fa­vorite, Colm Tóibín at the Lon­don Re­view of Books.

Sam Sacks

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