“The beauty of Bookworm,” observes Kevin Lozano for the NYR Online, “is that it elevates conversation—the dance between two minds—into an intellectual pursuit.” He is referring to the Los Angeles public radio show hosted by Michael Silverblatt and dedicated primarily to wide-ranging interviews with writers. Since its first broadcast in 1989, Lozano writes, the show has served as “an archive of intellectual history: a record of what some of the most important writers of the twentieth century (Toni Morrison, Susan Sontag, John Ashbery, Salman Rushdie) and the twenty-first (Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, Valeria Luiselli) thought about their books.”
Lozano is a writer and an editor for The Nation. He has written about, among other subjects, the attention economy and the Internet in the age of climate change. In addition to The Nation, his work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, GQ, Artforum, and Pitchfork. I e-mailed him last week to discuss the boundaries of novels, the trajectory of the magazine, and the exploratory nature of conversations.
Jordi Anaya: In your piece on Bookworm you quote an interview in which Susan Sontag says fiction is “an education of the heart, an education of sympathies.” Are there works of fiction that have spoken to you in this way? What are some qualities you look for in fiction?
Kevin Lozano: There are a number of novels that have rewired my brain and scrambled my sense of the world, in all the best ways possible. Some that come to mind are, of course, the classics: Madame Bovary (the funniest novel ever written), To the Lighthouse (a book I read every year), The Red and the Black (which, my girlfriend convinced me, is a novel that can explain the persistence of social climbing in New York). In the contemporary vein, I return to novels like Mary Gaitskill’s Two Girls Fat and Thin, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (a novel much better than the guff it gets). What makes these books models for what Sontag was talking about is what they elicit in me as a reader: a sensory satisfaction—I like prose with indelible style—and a kind of intellectual spark, a story that pushes me to question my own convictions (political, social, moral).
I am a bit old-fashioned in what I want and seek out: I like when novels are novel-y, which is to say, constrained by the boundaries of the text and contained in the pleasure of language—separate but related to other forms and not merely fodder for intellectual property. They should also be fun! It is hard to be funny, but I like novels, flawed ones especially, that make me laugh. Mary McCarthy’s The Oasis, for example, is not one of her more popular or well-known books, but it is her funniest. The ending is hilarious, but it also fails. Sometimes, getting to see the mechanics of a work of literature is just as fulfilling as reading the “perfect” novel. But I can’t countenance bad novels, and the qualities that turn me off are easy to discern: I hate poorly researched books, telegraphed plots, and flat characterization. Do you ever feel like an author doesn’t know how things are in the world? That’s when I put a novel down without guilt.
You mention that the interview is often perceived as a “marginal form compared to the review or the essay,” and that Claude Lévi-Strauss labeled it a “detestable genre.” As a critic, how do you appraise the interview? And as a literary editor, how do you use interviews?
I don’t agree with Claude! I love interviews, especially long ones. Being able to conduct them, or edit them, is a real art form. As an editor, they are fun to work on because the challenge—to mimic the pattern of a conversation while retaining a thematic through line—is an enjoyable one. For a critic, interviews are great primary sources. Even when interviews are bad and rote, one can still spot a writer’s fixations: it helps to get a greater sense of what a writer is up to if you can identify what ideas they repeat and what phrases they lean on. I am interested in conversations. I love listening to radio and podcasts during my downtime. I like to hear what people are thinking about. I wanted to write about Michael Silverblatt because he understands that conversation is part of the critical project, even if he does not call himself a critic. He’s an erudite guy and such a precise reader that he can sometimes teach authors about their own work, which is remarkable. This is what I am looking for, as both a reader and writer, in an interview: to see thinking in action.
I’m curious about how editing is taught or transmitted, since it is rarely discussed publicly in the same way writing is. How did you learn to edit? Are there editors who you learned from or worked with closely?
I wish there were more formal structures for teaching people how to edit in the way that there are for writing, but editing remains a sort of folk art. There are lots of different theories and potential structures for a story that are available to writers and editors. There is also so much vociferous disagreement about what is necessary and crucial (like if the so-called nut graph is needed or not) and so many house styles that dictate how a story even unfolds. Then there are matters of tact that often don’t get taught, like answering e-mails promptly (Robert Gottlieb is right that writers deserve a swift response to a draft that has been handed in) or hopping on the phone to let a writer kvetch.
I bemoan the lack of formal schooling because my own education as an editor, like so many, happened through making mistakes, whether it was someone getting mad at me or me getting mad at myself. Over the years I have developed a general philosophy and rules about editing. While I could outline some of them (creating a tight structure gives the writer and editor room to play rather than constraining them), I think it is kind of boring and my work should be invisible! I aspire to work backstage as an editor, and I want my writers to get the credit; ideally, I occupy the role of a bureaucrat helping to make sure the editorial process is seamless. That is not to say that I didn’t learn many valuable lessons from my mentors and friends—like my colleague David Marcus, The Nation’s literary editor; my dear college professor and friend Hua Hsu; my editor at the Review and the loveliest guy in magazines, Max Nelson; and my collaborator in all things, Dilara O’Neil. There’s still so much to learn, and I must admit, even if I’ve been editing much of my working life, I am still a greenhorn.
You used to be a music critic for Pitchfork. What similarities and differences do you find between writing about music and writing about literature?
This is a hard one to answer because I think of myself as a retired music critic. I wrote about especially intense music during my years at Pitchfork: noise and experimental music and anything that challenged me. That could be taxing. Now that I am checked out of that scene, I don’t always want to find what’s new in that world. I like what I like. Still, there is something valuable I learned as a music critic that I use as a literary critic: a commitment to a materialist approach to art in general. I crave context as a reader—historical, political, and all the details that explain how and why stuff gets made. There’s also a common lexicon for describing the rhythm of a writer’s prose and of a drummer’s beat, and writing about music made me think about sound seriously, which carries over to an appreciation of sentences and structure.
In your review in The Nation of Dana Brown’s Dilettante, a memoir about his experiences working since 1994 at Vanity Fair, where he witnessed what he calls the “rise and fall” of the glossy magazine, you recount working as a low-level editorial employee at Condé Nast in the 2010s: “there was no way around the blandness of our toil” because “to survive…was seen as needing the validation of engagement numbers and page views.” In both the earlier era of Vanity Fair and the later, engagement-driven era you describe, magazines’ editorial decisions seemed to be determined by their social and economic climates. What do you think a magazine should offer readers, regardless of the climate? Are there any features of the magazine that were discarded along the march to Internet metrics that you think should be brought back?
At the end of that essay I wrote admiringly about my North Star for all magazines, Partisan Review, and I quoted Irving Howe’s account of what Philip Rahv, one of that magazine’s founding editors, saw as his mission: he “wanted his magazine to constitute a public act…. Rahv saw cultural life as if it were enacted in a political arena…. He ran the magazine as if he were heading a movement.” A worldview is an essential thing for magazines, even general interest ones, and I feel that periodicals of all sorts, preoccupied with where the wind blows, abandon their worldviews for passing whims. The worst thing that the metrics revolution engendered is this flightiness, the idea that a magazine is supposed to reflect the preferences, and cater to the needs, of some imagined audience on Twitter. It is so obvious to me, flipping through new magazines and older, established ones, that editors, writers, and publishers are anxiously scrolling their feeds, because their assignments reflect that shallowness. I want a magazine that engages with the Internet but isn’t of it!
What I so admire about Partisan Review, even if I can admit its pretension and self-importance, is that its editors and contributors truly believed in the magazine as an intellectual arena. I read magazines because the act of public writing and thinking is gravely important to me, and I am chasing a reading experience that isn’t just educational but unmoors me a bit. That isn’t to say the pleasure principle isn’t important as well. As with novels, magazines could stand to be a bit cheekier without sacrificing their intellectual heft, which is why I enjoy magazines like n+1 and The Face and the LRB. As I wrote in my review of Brown’s book, magazines are a magical medium, caught between the novel and the newspaper; there is a practical artistry that is unique to the form. And while the market, and the prejudices of an editor’s perceived audience, can curdle what makes a magazine special, I still have a lot of hope that things will only get better.
You quote a 1991 interview with Michael Silverblatt in the Los Angeles Times in which he said that “there are phrases that have lodged in my mind like splinters, hundreds of phrases,” and that he wanted to know “how those phrases came to be.” Are there any particular phrases you’ve encountered in books or magazines that have stuck with you like this? Could you speculate on how they came to be?
Virginia Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting” is quite meaningful to me. One sentence in particular captures what I love about her, why I love what I do, and why I feel lucky to work with words:
The number of books in the world is infinite, and one is forced to glimpse and nod and move on after a moment of talk, a flash of understanding, as, in the street outside, one catches a word in passing and from a chance phrase fabricates a lifetime.
I don’t need to speculate as to how this phrase came to be, maybe because the ideas behind it are so self-evident and easy to appreciate—so easy that, for my birthday, my friends got me a Cameo video of a reality TV star (Romain from Selling Sunset) reading these lines to me. When I’m having a bad day, I watch the video or just read the essay and remember what it’s all about.