The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Talking with Book Critic Alan Cheuse

Alan Cheuse. Photo courtesy of Creative Services, George Mason University

Can one be a professional reader? Alan Cheuse has come pretty close in his long career as a book critic. Thanks to an uncanny ability to read a book a day, Cheuse has been the "Voice of Books" on NPR?s All Things Considered for 29 years, delivering brief, on-air reviews of the latest and greatest volumes. He has also reviewed for publications across the country---The New York Times Book Review and the Chicago Tribune among them---and was on the Pulitzer Prize committee that helped select A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan as this year's winner. And when he?s not reading? Well, he's adding to his long list of published fiction and non-fiction works, or teaching writing at George Mason University and Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Cheuse isn't knee-deep in the written word; he's all-out submerged. I spoke with the critic to find out what differentiates a good reader from a great reader, why he doesn't think writers should study their contemporaries, and how book reviewers are similar to royal tasters.

NEA: How did you become involved with book reviewing in the first place?

 

ALAN CHEUSE: My first wife and I were living in Greenwich Village, and she came home one day and said she had seen an advertisement in The Village Voice that said "writers wanted." And she said, "You call yourself a writer; why don't you answer this advertisement?" So I did.

It was for the Kirkus Review Service, and they had this little garden apartment on Greenwich Avenue in the Village. They paid $10 for a seven-line review, plus a quarter on the dollar of the list price of the book, which you could get by selling the book at the Strand Book Store at the corner of Broadway and 12th Street.

I did one review a day for a couple of years. Some days I made $10, and some days, if the book was saleable, I could make another couple of bucks on top of that. Winter was the best time to write for them because you wore a large, heavy coat, and as you left the office after getting your assignment, you could pull some big coffee table books off the shelves and stash them under your coat and take those to the Strand and sell them. These were all their discards. You could pull one or two off the shelf---sort of like Harpo Marx in A Night at the Opera as he goes in the food store.

That was in the early 1960s, so I learned to write very quickly---one review a day. Some books required a lot of time; it was just catch as catch can. One day they'd give me Eisenhower's memoirs, another day they'd give me a novel, another day they'd give me a book of poems, another day they'd give me a travel book, then a week of novels, then a couple of political books. You can't read every book at the same pace. Some books would take all day and all night to finish before I could write the review; others took a couple of hours. I did that for a couple of years.

NEA: Even more impressive to me than the speed at which you're able to write these reviews is the speed at which you're able to read these books.

 

CHEUSE: It's good training for graduate school. I went to graduate school and got a PhD in comparative literature. The reading, in a serious graduate program in literature---it's an assembly line worth of reading. So I already had my methods down. But I don't speed read. Every book has its own pace. I see the relation of reader to the story as the same relation as performer to a piece of music. Some music takes a slower pace; others you can interpret more quickly. So you have to follow the text. That's why speed-reading is just silly, at least when reading art.

NEA: Was this a skill you had to teach yourself, or had you always been this quick a reader?

 

CHEUSE: I don't know. When I was a kid, I read a lot of books but of course I have no idea what kind of a reader I was then except maybe "voracious." I read adventure stories, and sea stories, and science fiction stories, and horror stories. I first started reading Classic Comics; that?s where I first read Homer, in a Classics Illustrated edition.

But as an undergraduate at Rutgers, I guess I was a good reader but I was not a great reader. And I was kind of a silly student now and then. I remember specifically I flunked an English course because they had Bleak House on the reading list, and I decided I wasn't going to read a book that long. And [the professor] said, "Well, I'll have to flunk you." And I said, "I dare you." And of course he did, as he should have. I would have done the same thing if I were in his place. Since then, I?'e read Bleak House five times at least.

 

NEA: What is the difference between a good reader and a great reader?

CHEUSE: Someone who appreciates the work at hand. A great reader [is] maybe somebody who figures out all the relations among all the books he or she has read, or will read. Somebody who has a sense of what a novel is, what a genre novel is, what a lyric poem is, how to read an epic poem?someone who has stayed awake through the best literature courses they've had and carries that knowledge with them into their adult life.

NEA: With the wide range of books that you read, how does your method remain consistent when reviewing?

CHEUSE: I try to give [the book] close attention. Obviously I can't be a clean slate with writers whose work I know and admire. On the other hand, I know when they're off their feet, if they are. And I'll encounter a good writer who just doesn't work with my taste, so I'll put them aside. Reading shouldn't be work. Sometimes you encounter a writer who seems like a lot of work and you don't want to finish, no matter how good they might be in their own way. My taste isn't perfect or universal, but I try.

NEA: For your early reviews you had seven lines; for NPR, you have about two minutes of air-time. How difficult is it to distill a book in that brief period of time or print space?

 

CHEUSE: I try to get to the essence of it in such a way as to be clear and also interesting and keep the attention of the listener or the reader. I'm not blowing my own horn here, but when Robert Hass was the Poet Laureate, he once introduced me at some event at the Library of Congress. He said I wrote reviews that were as close to haikus as you could probably get.

There's a writer named Renata Adler who wrote an essay for the New York Review of Books maybe 40 years ago talking about reviewing, and likening what the reviewer does to someone who works for Consumer Reports. You try to give a good description of what the book does, and what you hope it will do to someone---you hope it will work on the reader in the same way it's worked on you---and give its essence, sort of lay it out and let the reader judge. You want to let someone know whether or not they should buy this book. Whether or not they're going to spend money, whether or not they?re going to spend their time on it. So that's my goal. Reviewers are sort of like the tasters that dictators and tyrants keep around them to make sure the food isn't poisoned.

NEA: What's your current reading pace?

 

CHEUSE: The ideal reading day for me is on an airplane, going a couple of thousand miles, because I can read a novel on the way out and I can read a novel on the way back. It depends on the length of the book; it depends on the prose style. I can read a short book in a couple of hours unless it's the kind of prose that makes you want to stop and savor it and think about it. A 400-page novel will take me more than a day. A long book takes a little longer, but a short book, if it's really beautiful and forces you into the reflective side of your brain, can take longer than its 60 or 90 or 150 pages might suggest.

 

NEA: You also teach writing at GMU and Squaw Valley. Do you think good writing can be taught?

 

CHEUSE: I think a writer can acquire a sense of how he or she wants to write by reading. So if anything I encourage people to read as much as they can of the good writers, and of their contemporaries whom they think are good. Although I don't think you can learn much from your contemporaries. Your contemporaries give you real pleasure. That?s why I love reviewing, because I can howl at the moon about books that give me real pleasure. But the real lessons come from reading the great dead, as opposed to the Grateful Dead.

I was a judge for the PEN/Hemingway Award maybe 15 years ago, and it's in part endowed by the youngest Hemingway son, who?s still alive. He and his wife were there at the Kennedy Library in Boston for the ceremony. And I said, "Your father is an even greater genius than any of us can say because he wrote before the age of the writing workshop." And he said, "No, no, no, he took writing tutorials at the University of Paris." I said, "Really? I haven't seen anything like that in his biographies." And he said, "He took a writing tutorial from Gertrude Stein, he took a writing tutorial from Sherwood Anderson, he took a writing tutorial from Ezra Pound." He was sort of half-joking, but I realized that?' what you do if you?re a serious artist who wants to write fiction or poetry: you take tutorials with these writers who worked 50 years ago or 500 years ago and you see what you can acquire in terms of craft from them.

NEA: Why can't you acquire the great life lessons, or the great writing lessons, from your contemporaries?

 

CHEUSE: Well, it's hard to see. You?re trying to do the same thing they're trying to do. I think it would be like trying to learn how to live from your kids. Maybe it's possible, maybe it's not. Whereas you know you can acquire certain awareness of how to live from your parents, or how not to live from your parents, and from your elders. But it's a bit more of a burden than you'd like to put on your children. So I think reading your contemporaries, you just want to enjoy their presence and enjoy their accomplishments, great or small, whatever they happen to be.

NEA: You're also a writer yourself. When you're editing your own work, do you apply the same methods as you do when you're reviewing?

 

CHEUSE: Sure, I try. But I depend on a couple of readers, because when I look at myself in the mirror before I go out in the morning, I might give myself a little more of a plus than a stranger would. So I have a couple of really good, serious readers that I depend on. They're like good gourmands. They'll say, "Well there's too much salt in this." Or, "This seems awfully peppery," or "Oh! You forgot the bread."

NEA: Since you have read so many books, is there anything you think is missing from today's literary scene, or anything you?d like to see more or less of?

 

CHEUSE: I try not to see trends because I don't know that you can see trends. But in 1956, the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier was writing a column for the daily Caracas newspaper, and he complained that too many novelists were focusing on the uninteresting aspects of domestic life. And I guess I would agree about that. I mean, there are some great writers of what we call domestic books---Jane Austen, To the Lighthouse---that's the great novel you can hold up as using the domestic life as a means to get at a higher vision. But a lot of books that tend toward the domestic don't look beyond themselves, or the writers don't understand how what we do everyday in the quotidian can be just as important and sublime as people on the frontlines of battles, or astronauts. Somehow the style doesn't get turned enough in that direction.

NEA: Have any books changed your life?

 

CHEUSE: Hundreds of them. A great book really changes the way you see and feel about the world. There are characters in novels more vivid to me than people I've known all my life, and there are scenes in novels that imbue me with a kind of feeling about life that most everyday I do not get. So in that way, what I get from fiction and poetry and drama is more alive to me than many, many things I've actually done. And those always come by means of a great book. So I've fought the battle with Napoleon, and I've gone to the moon with Tom Wolfe, and come back alive.

 

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