Re­view­ers & Crit­ics

Poets and Writers - - Contents - By michael taeck­ens

Lau­rie Hertzel of the Star Tri­bune.

LAU­RIE Hertzel grew up in Du­luth, Min­nesota, and worked at the Du­luth News-Tri­bune as a re­porter and editor be­fore mov­ing to the Twin Cities to write for Min­nesota Monthly magazine. Since 2008 she has been the books editor of the Star Tri­bune in Minneapolis, or the Strib, as the lo­cals call it. Hertzel is the au­thor of the mem­oir News to Me: Ad­ven­tures of an Ac­ci­den­tal Jour­nal­ist, pub­lished by the Uni­ver­sity of Min­nesota Press in 2010, and her ar­ti­cles and short sto­ries have ap­peared in pub­li­ca­tions in the United States, Fin­land, and Aus­tralia, in­clud­ing the Brevity blog, TriQuar­terly, South Dakota Re­view, North Dakota Quar­terly, and the South Carolina Re­view. She has an MFA in cre­ative non­fic­tion from Queens Uni­ver­sity in Char­lotte, North Carolina, and teaches at the Loft Lit­er­ary Cen­ter in Minneapolis. Hertzel is also a board mem­ber of the Na­tional Book Crit­ics Cir­cle (NBCC), where she is cur­rently the chair of the au­to­bi­og­ra­phy com­mit­tee.

The Star Tri­bune re­views many books from smaller presses. Is this by de­sign—and if so, what is your rea­son­ing be­hind it?

I de­cided when I first took this job that we would fea­ture books from small presses as of­ten as pos­si­ble. There are many rea­sons for this, one of which, of course, is that there are so many fine smaller presses here in Min­nesota: Gray­wolf, Milkweed, Cof­fee House, Holy Cow!, New Rivers, and oth­ers. I also ad­mire what uni­ver­sity presses are do­ing—kind of fill­ing the gap with fine short sto­ries and lit­er­ary and ex­per­i­men­tal fic­tion that big­ger pub­lish­ers can’t af­ford to take a chance on.

I am also aware that in some cases Strib re­views are the only re­views some small-press books get. I do this for our read­ers—I want to bring their at­ten­tion to books they might not hear about oth­er­wise.

You do a thor­ough job of cov­er­ing the lo­cal lit­er­ary scene and re­view­ing books by lo­cal au­thors. Does that re­gional fo­cus ex­tend much be­yond the Twin Cities?

It does, though it mostly stays within the bor­ders of Min­nesota. We re­view books pub­lished by out-of-state pub­lish­ers,

and we re­view books by au­thors who live in or grew up in the state. Though we can­not pos­si­bly re­view ev­ery­thing. Min­nesota is an in­cred­i­bly lit­er­ary place, and if I re­viewed all Min­nesota au­thors, I would not have room for any­thing else.

Minneapolis is such a hot­bed of lit­er­ary ac­tiv­ity—not least of which is the pres­ence of the afore­men­tioned indie presses, as well as the es­teemed Loft Lit­er­ary Cen­ter, which will launch the Word­play Fes­ti­val, helmed by Steph Opitz Lan­ford, in spring 2019. What do you think has spurred such ro­bust lit­er­ary growth in the area, and how does it feel to be work­ing in such a vi­brant lit­er­ary com­mu­nity?

This is a ques­tion that we ask over and over: Why so much won­der­ful work and such ac­com­plished writ­ers here? I wrote about this a few years ago when 50 per­cent of the Na­tional Book Awards went to Min­nesota writ­ers—Louise Er­drich and Will Alexan­der. It has to do, I think, with the tremen­dously gen­er­ous foun­da­tions and grants that Min­nesota has long been known for, as well as the great small presses you men­tion, which all moved here at about the same time the Loft be­gan. There are also some out­stand­ing MFA pro­grams here, and about fifty in­de­pen­dent book­stores.

And you can­not dis­count our weather. There are not a lot of out­door dis­trac­tions in De­cem­ber and Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary. Or March, the ab­so­lute worst month of all.

Cov­er­ing all of this is in­spir­ing and frus­trat­ing. I am it for books cov­er­age— I have no staff. I can’t get to ev­ery­thing, nor to ev­ery­one, and what you men­tion is only a small part of what’s go­ing on. There’s the Twin Cities Book Fes­ti­val in the fall, and tons of au­thor lec­ture series through li­braries and col­leges and other places.

Ev­ery day I come across an­other

Min­nesota writer whose name I put on my list of “writ­ers I need to pro­file.” That list is long.

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

I get about a thou­sand books and ARCs [ad­vance re­view copies] per month. We re­view about eight books a week—five on Sun­days—but I also try to work books cov­er­age into the pa­per in other ways, such as au­thor pro­files, Q&As, and my weekly col­umn. Other ed­i­tors run book re­views and in­ter­views in their sec­tions too, so there is book news sprin­kled through­out the pa­per, which is great. There are so many wor­thy books.

Has your book re­view space in­creased or di­min­ished over the past few years?

It is the same. We still have two open pages on Sun­days. We also run two short re­views on Mon­days, some­thing I started ten years ago, and one re­view on Tues­days on the Fea­tures cover. Book re­view­ing is ex­pen­sive for news­pa­pers— not just the postage for send­ing around all those books and the money we pay free­lancers, but the space it eats up. It brings in pretty much zero ad­ver­tis­ing dol­lars. So I am very, very grate­ful that the Strib con­tin­ues to fund this work. Your debut book, the mem­oir News to Me: Me­moirs of an Ac­ci­den­tal Jour­nal­ist, was pub­lished eight years ago. What was your ex­pe­ri­ence as a first­time au­thor, and how did it feel to be on the other side of the book re­view­ing equa­tion? With News to Me I learned how hard a pub­lisher’s ed­i­tors, copy­ed­i­tors, de­sign­ers, and mar­ket­ing peo­ple work. I also learned how hard it is to get re­viewed. I think I gained a lot of em­pa­thy for writ­ers, es­pe­cially first-time writ­ers, es­pe­cially first-time writ­ers of small-press books. I was lucky that my re­views were all pos­i­tive, though some were rid­dled with in­ac­cu­ra­cies, per­haps be­cause the critic was try­ing to do too much in too short a time. So I try to be both care­ful and em­pa­thetic in my work as a critic.

Any opin­ions on the value of neg­a­tive re­views?

We don’t run a lot of neg­a­tive re­views, but we do run them when war­ranted. I just fin­ished writ­ing one this morn­ing, as a mat­ter of fact. My phi­los­o­phy is that we do not trash debut books by un­known writ­ers—what is to be gained by hold­ing up an ob­scure book and telling the world that it’s bad? On the other hand we have run neg­a­tive re­views of Stephen King and John Irv­ing and other well-known writ­ers. It seems to me to be a ser­vice to read­ers to let them know which books by their fa­vorite au­thors might be skip­pable.

All that said, with room for only five re­views each Sun­day, I would rather run rec­om­men­da­tions than pans.

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

I ad­mire crit­ics who are widely read, smart, and not afraid to let their re­views re­flect their per­son­al­i­ties. I love wit and hu­mor in a re­view: Ron Charles, Car­los Lozada, Ellen Akins, Kather­ine A. Pow­ers, Charles Finch, and my Scot­tish critic, Mal­colm Forbes.

What books that you aren’t re­view­ing are you most look­ing forward to read­ing in the near fu­ture?

Be­tween read­ing for work and read­ing for NBCC, not a lot of ex­tracur­ric­u­lar read­ing gets done. If I read some­thing pub­lished this year, I’ll usu­ally write a lit­tle Mon­day shorty re­view just to jus­tify my time. That said, I re­ally want to read Anne Ap­ple­baum’s 2017 Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine when I get the chance. It’s been sit­ting in my din­ing room for a year. And, yes, I re­al­ize that makes me the most fun per­son at the party.

MICHAEL TAECK­ENS has worked in the pub­lish­ing busi­ness since 1995. He is a co­founder of Broad­side: Ex­pert Lit­er­ary PR (broad­sidepr.com).

Lau­rie Hertzel

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