Special Edition: A Book Critic Talks Shop

Sam Sacks is a fiction critic for the Wall Street Journal and one of the most trustworthy taste-makers in the book world. In this interview he discusses good reading and the job of the critic.

So far this space has been reserved for books (and bookish things) that we love here at Goldberry Books. But the book world is made to turn by people—authors, editors, publishers, designers, illustrators, publicists, critics, and others who make it so we can share those things we love (and you can read the titles you devour). So every now and then we’d like to share the wisdom and experiences of those people. Consider this the debut of a new series of interviews in which we dig into the wonders of bookdom. Up first: Sam Sacks.

Sam writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal and is an editor at Open Letters Review—and is one of a handful of book critics who we trust (almost implicitly) here at Goldberry. We asked him about what good reading looks like and what his job is as a book critic.

You make your living writing about books, so presumably, you have to read in a very focused, thoughtful fashion. Have you developed any skills or habits that help you do that kind of reading that might also be useful for the non-professional reader?

One habit that reviewing has instilled in me that I think could be an enjoyable practice for anyone is making annotations while reading. People may reflexively connect writing in books with school work, but the history of marginalia is much more informal. It's really just a way to actively engage with and respond to what you're reading, whether or not you plan to ever look at your notes again. My own marginal comments (or digital notes, if I'm using an e-reader) are hardly high-toned—they vary from makeshift symbols to one-word reactions ("ha" or "hmm") to inane statements of fact so that I don't get confused ("she is wife"), to any other thought or association the book provokes. I would now find it very difficult not to read this way, as though I were muzzling myself. Books are nothing without our involvement, after all—our attention, our interpretations, our judgments. Marginalia is a kind of running scorecard of the things we think.

You mention judgment . . . How early in the process of reading a book do you begin to formulate a judgment about a book? Is it something you do unconsciously for a while and then you begin to give voice to? Do you actively try to wait until the end?

It's impossible not to have reactions to things while you read, but what I really am trying to do is figure out what the book is attempting. This just means being alert to anything that seems to stand out or, especially, seems to repeat or create a pattern. It could be a theme or an idea or a stylistic signature or an emphasis on character portrayal or plot twists, or whatever. I want to first understand why the book is the way it is. When (or if) I get a sense of this, then I can try to judge how successful I think the author is at it. Of course, I will return to my immediate responses—things I liked or disliked in the moment—and then try to give some context and meaning for those opinions. Sometimes, a larger understanding of the book allows me to see what I was missing at the time, and I'll revise my judgments. Sometimes it's just a matter of better informing my first impressions: I really enjoy reading this, and why is that?

Do you find that you have to remove yourself from the scenario or do you think its worth leaning into your impressions? For example, you might not appreciate the goals of an author, but it might also be true that the author manages to artfully pursue those goals. I suppose another (most simplistic) way of asking this question might go like this: to what extent is it the job of the critic to tell his or her reader how he or she feels about the book they are reviewing?

Ah, saying what you think and feel is everything! While it's important to read and contemplate with an open mind and a certain amount of objectivity, in the end, you need to present your personal view of things, or else you're just writing SparkNotes. Criticism is really nothing more than the application of a point of view onto a work of art. What's important is how illuminating and developed and grounded and dynamic (and eloquently expressed) that point of view is. There's a big difference between a really considered viewpoint, that speaks to some larger aesthetic or moral idea, and personal taste, which is arbitrary and incontestable. Good criticism will always elevate argument over mere preference—but this is still, fundamentally, a matter of belief, and the more the beliefs are based on passionate conviction, the better the review is going to be.

For a working critic, this might be a pedantic question, but how do you know when a book is really worth writing about for your publication. You probably read hundreds of books each year and you have to sort them to, what, three dozen you are truly going to consider in writing about? Do you let your instincts guide that sort of decision? Is it an editorial decision beyond you? Perhaps you have a system?

I usually review three books a week, so I cast a much wider net than most reviewers, but I suspect the central question we all ask ourselves is the same: Am I going to have something of interest to say about this book? The answer might be yes for myriad different reasons: If I am familiar with the author or if the author is considered important, if the book's subject is intriguing, if there's something distinctive about the style or approach if a bit of reading has revealed a particular excellence of one kind or another, if there's some extra-literary cause célèbre surrounding the book's publication, if the book feeds into some larger trend or phenomenon, etcetera and ad infinitum. As I say, the nature of my column means that I need to make the range of my interests and approaches as wide as humanly possible. The only things I really try to avoid, in fact, are repetition and over-familiarity. I often pass on dystopian novels, for instance, because I have reviewed them so many times that I have run low on things to say (unless I find one that is singularly good). What I want to avoid more than anything is the appearance of boredom. Reviewers who have been around a long time are susceptible to becoming jaded. That is something that must never be allowed to corrupt a review, so it's important to curate my selections so that I don't allow the attitude to come about.

Thanks so much for doing this. Let’s end with this: what was the last book that truly surprised you (in a good way—maybe for its inventiveness, thoughtfulness, or even just quality of prose)?

It's probably not the most recent example, but one book that the question brings to mind is A Luminous Republic by the Spanish writer Andres Barba and translated by Lisa Dillman. It's a short, fable-like novel about a band of feral children who abruptly appear in a city in South America and begin disrupting the way of life there. By the description, you are probably thinking something along the lines of Lord of the Flies of Children of the Corn. But I found that the novel didn't fit either as allegory or straight horror and that its depiction of childhood is more expansive than typical portrayals and far more unnerving.

Barba explores the ways that unfettered creativity is both euphoric and terrifying, and the meticulously unfolding, almost clinical approach to the story made me think very differently about childrearing and the hard constraints that even the most laissez-faire parents put on their kids' imaginations and freedoms. I've thought more about the implications of this quick, gripping little book than I ever could have expected.

More from Sam Sacks:

Be sure to check out Sam’s review of Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel, Klara and Sun.

Oh, and you can order the book here (if you like) or swing by the store next week. Ishiguro is a favorite around here.

Thanks for checking out this edition of the newsletter and thanks to Sam for participating.

Until next time, happy reading.