Laura Miller tells us about the changes in the publishing industry, the role of Twitter for a critic, and her love of a certain type of ghost stories. By Danielle Pedersen.
What was the main reason behind co-founding Salon.com?
Well, at that time the web was something that very few people outside of the technology industry even knew about. It was sort of coming into public awareness and the founder of Salon, David Talbot, wanted to do a sort of New York-ish style magazine out of the West Coast. There were a lot of challenges in the West Coast that was kind of invisible in New York. He met a guy who was kind of a web evangelist back in the day and that was our first publisher. He sort of made the technical side happen. David had been thinking about this for a while so everybody that he brought on was someone that he worked with at the San Francisco Examiner. So he sort of had his little dream team mapped out. As soon as he got a place to run with it, that’s what happened. That was back in 1995.
How do you think the field of working for an online magazine has changed since you started Salon.com?
I guess in some ways, it’s probably harder because everybody is so used to web publishing at this point that the work of the writer has become kind of undervalued. A lot of people work for free; the world gets accustomed to not for paying the writers. At least back then, one thing I can say about it was, it was a lot harder to get published in print. But if you did, you usually got paid.
How would you describe the role of the book critic today?
That is a huge issue. There’s all these different kind of book criticism. There’s book criticism that appears when a book comes out. It’s a book that no one’s ever heard of before, so you’re telling the world about it; hopefully helping people appreciate it. Then there’s usually more in depth criticism that’s written and published after the publication. It can be criticism of something written a hundred years ago or something written ten years ago. Then there are just quick hit type things and reader reviews. There are just so many different kinds of book criticism out there. It’s kind of hard to say that book critics have any one role.
It seems that book reviews have changed significantly since 1995; especially in online publishing. How do you believe that your job has changed since you began Salon?
Well, we used to review a lot more comprehensively. We used to put out a book review every day. This was probably because we had sponsorship from Borders. So that gives you a sense of the fact that there’s as much support for it—literally on the level of advertising and sponsorship. The idea was that we were covering it as a beat. There are still a few small handfuls of publications that do that. I think for us, that model turned out to be not that effective. Basically, readers were not really reading it. They weren’t reading it because they were like “why should I care about these books?” If you have all these reviews that are iffy, they’re like “why should I care about that?” It was really kind of hard to argue with that. They’re voting by just not reading them. You kind of have to make a case for not only that the book is worth people paying attention to but that the criticism itself is worth paying attention to.
What are your thoughts on the future of the book industry?
I think it’s really unpredictable. It’s in a state of constant flux. It’s really foolish to predict where things are going. I feel like the sort of world of reading as a result of the internet is going through this incredibly, blindingly fast evolution. It’s kind of recapitulating all these evolutionary stages where there’s all this rush and excitement because people who couldn’t publish before now can publish. Then there’s all this stuff swamping the market and people suddenly go ‘wait a minute, most of this is crap. How am I supposed to find something that’s good?’ Then there’s a realization that people have that in the early days of the self-publishing boom, people used to say ‘Oh, no more gate keepers.’ But the problem is that if you’re actually looking for something to read—as opposed to someone who just wants to publish something—the fact that there were gate keepers was really kind of helpful. They helped sort out all the crap. Now, you find a lot of people talking about gate keepers again, saying ‘we need some kind of gate keepers. We didn’t like the old gate keepers but, we still need a gate keeper. ‘ The fact of the matter is that whenever you have a gate keeper, someone is going to be mad at them because one of the things they’re doing is saying ‘this really isn’t good enough.’ And the person who wrote that always thinks that it is good enough and is mad and they think that they’re the victim of injustice. That’s it in terms of readers and publishers. It’s pretty huge.
And in the traditional book industry?
Their changes have more to do with retail—and that is troubling. The decline of independent book stores is worrisome because that was actually one of the more valuable gate keeper functions. These were people whose specialty, when they were good and there were a lot of really great ones—was putting people together with books that they would love. People trusted them and they had a relationship with them. That was one of the core, important relationships between the reading public and the publishing industry. For whatever its problems, it really worked for a lot of people. There really isn’t anything to replace that as it becomes more and more difficult to support that business model financially. That’s just really troubling. People talk about how great it is that these things are falling apart because they mistakenly believe that people’s reading will become more diverse. Instead, what it means is that people will rely more on single information sites like Amazon or big name best seller lists like USA Today or the New York Times. Actually people’s reading habits and reading choices will become narrower because they have fewer points at which they have someone who they trust saying to them ‘you should try this.’ I’m sorry to say this but I kind of think that because of the decline of the retail aspect that we will see more and more concentration of success and revenue and exposure to a shorter and shorter list of big name writers.
Looking specifically at your reviews, is there a set of criteria that you use to measure the quality of a book?
Well, there’s two phases to my work as a reviewer. Basically, I’m focusing on introducing people to books that I think are worth reading, so I don’t do a lot of negative reviews. I really don’t do any. I may mention something in passing that I do not think really works but the sort of negative, discriminating part, or the part where I say ‘this isn’t good enough’, happens before I write the piece. It happens with me deciding not to write about certain books—which I do all the time. It’s not a question of writing positively about whatever happens to cross through your desk, but one of the things I need to say to my readers is ‘this is worth your attention.’ The first part is picking the book, deciding it’s good enough to be worth my readers time to even read the review and the second part is explaining why that’s the case. It doesn’t mean that I ignore whatever the problems may be with the book but, I don’t use that space to say ‘Listen, this really isn’t worth your time.’
You're the most well known for reviewing new writers (You even served as editor for The Salon.com Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors) yet you're first book you turned to a young adult series. Could you tell us what propelled you to write: The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventure in Narnia?
It’s really a book about reading. I think for most people the first intense reading experiences they had in their lives were usually as children. To a certain extent, I think that a lot of people compare all subsequent reading experiences they have in their lives to their childhood reading experiences. Some people are very attached to their sort of seriousness, so they’re not going to talk about their childhood reading. But I think that for people who read for pleasure rather than to impress other people, they do hold up those early, intense, reading experiences as a dream or standard of something they’d like to get back to. So I just wanted to look at that relationship by picking my own personal series of books that was that for me.
We've also noticed that you're very active on Twitter and it seems like you really enjoy it! Do you think that social media, especially Twitter is a needed extension of the critic's role?
Well I don’t know if it’s needed. It’s kind of a weird thing. I don’t think anybody really needs Twitter. It’s good for people who don’t read Salon that regularly but are still interested in the book reviews. It’s a good way to just alert them that there’s something new. I have friends who just don’t spend a lot of time reading on the web but they want to read the things that I write or things that I recommend. So it’s useful for that. Then there’s a lot of times my experience of just filtration, or some of things I’m just disappointed by, that stuff I will post about in Twitter. It gives me a chance to say ‘you know, I tried this, and boy it really didn’t work for me’ in a different format. Every once and a while I want to say ‘I think this book is a catastrophe’ or ‘this is fine but the ending is terrible.’ I find it useful for that.
A long time ago, I read in New York Magazine that you broke up with someone because he was a huge fan of Ayn Rand. We were wondering, are there any other dealbreaker writers on your list?
There are writers that I think if people like them, it argues that they have to have taste. But I don’t think bad taste is a moral failing. There are writers that I don’t especially like. For instance, I don’t really like Philip Roth but a lot of people that I like, like Philip Roth. I think that writers and tastes aren’t totally trivial but they aren’t always a sign that someone has a character problem. This guy, in his defense, was a total sweetheart in most respects but he had this weird ideology. It affected how he felt about issues that were distanced from himself like the economy and politics. It didn’t actually affect the way that he treated people. He didn’t treat people in this imperious, contentious way that Ayn Rand advocates. He didn’t assume that if someone was temporarily weaker than him that he was going to be grabbed by his heel. It was weirdly baffling. I think the problem was that he took it really seriously as a kind of ideological thing and I just thought it was silly.
Last question — is there a particular book or genre that you consider to be your personal favorite?
I’ve always like the genre of psychological ghost stories like The Turn of the Screw and The Haunting of Hill House. And while I would never read exclusively that, I guess I have a particular fondness for that genre. It’s a very specific genre. It’s not like it’s any old ghost story, it has to be this kind where the reality of the ghost is always sort of a question mark.