As a double major in English and political and social thought, Mythili Rao (Col ’05) read widely and wrote constantly. It was her time at the Declaration, though, that Rao describes as “like being part of a slightly dysfunctional family of extremely smart and mildly eccentric writers” that made Rao realize she wanted to pursue a life in writing and journalism.
Today, Rao lives in New York and is a contributing writer for the Daily Beast/Newsweek, where her book reviews appear in the magazine’s “Hot Reads” column. She spoke recently to UVA Magazine about the process of book reviewing, and the books she’s looking forward to in 2014.
Q: When did you start writing book reviews?
A: After graduating from UVA, I moved to New York to do an MA in English at NYU. I’d applied for an internship at Publishers Weekly, but wound up reviewing books there instead. I started out reviewing a lot of literary biographies, which, for an English grad student, was pretty much perfect. I was able to use my PW clips to get my first assignment from the New York Observer and it slowly grew from there. Reviewing isn’t exactly lucrative, but I loved the fact that I could get paid to read and write about books. Even after I got a full-time job [Rao works as a producer for the radio show The Takeaway at WNYC], I didn’t want to give it up.
When did you start to consider yourself a book critic?
Last year I reviewed a total of 50 books for the Daily Beast, the New York Times and Words Without Borders. That said, the title “book critic” still feels a little bit aspirational. It’s difficult to make a career exclusively out of criticism—there just aren’t very many jobs for full-time book critics these days. I’m also conscious of the fact that a lot of the reviews I write are quite short. When you’re filing a 300- or 600-word review, you’re trying to share something of the essence of the book and provide a succinct critical assessment. There’s room for analysis, but very little opportunity for digression—you have to be very efficient in your discussion and accept that your role is limited. Still, it’s a role I feel very lucky to have fallen into.
Who are some of your favorite book critics?
Daniel Mendelsohn (Col ’82), who writes for the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker is one of the critical masters of our time. I really admire his range and his rigor. Dwight Garner’s reviews in the New York Times are also always a pleasure to read. No matter what he’s writing about, he just seems to be having so much fun. Criticism is just one of the many things Elif Batuman does (occasionally in the London Review of Books and elsewhere) but she’s very good at it; the same goes for Choire Sicha (in the New York Observer, the Awl, and Bookforum). I feel a mixture of dread and excitement when I see Caitlin Flanagan’s (Col ’84, Grad ’91) byline in the Atlantic—I don’t often agree with her but I’ve yet to get tired of reading her.
What do you think about websites like Goodreads, where everyone has a chance to critique books?
I think Goodreads is fantastic. As a critic, I find reading Goodreads reviews to be a helpful reminder of how personal and idiosyncratic individual reading tastes can be. Some books speak to us; some books don’t. We understand the same stories in different ways, or not at all. We are hit hard by different moments or aspects of the same book. It’s what makes literature great.
Do you have a system for reviewing books? What is your process?
I used to keep just one notebook that I used exclusively for reviewing. It’s running out of pages, but I still take it out for big assignments for, well, good luck, I guess. I developed the early habit of compulsively jotting down page numbers for plot points, “aha” moments, revealing quotations, etc. It’s a good practice to have. The notes give me a map of what reading the book was like—what moments gave me pause, what I puzzled over or what I wanted to share. I take these fragmented notes and flesh out the ideas around them.
The things I look for are pretty simple. First, old-fashioned plot and storytelling: Are you drawn into the author’s world, and made to care about characters or subjects you had no idea you cared about? I also look for sheer originality. I read a lot, so I like to be surprised by the workings of the writer’s imagination. I like it when writers construct entire worlds, or bend the conventions of “good fiction.” Finally, what really makes a book memorable for me are those flashes of insight, those incisive phrases and perfect observations, that stay with you long after you finish reading.
What do you make of some websites, such as Buzzfeed, recently banishing negative reviews?
The premise of the Daily Beast’s “Hot Reads” column is that we’re recommending new books, so I do try to seek out titles I’m excited about, and if I like something, I’m not afraid to gush. I think positive reviews can be a kind of service for the reader—people like getting reading recommendations—but it’s another thing altogether to make them a policy. Sometimes the books on my desk for a given week aren’t particularly good and I’ll say as much.
To an extent, I understand the pushback against negative reviews. Book review sections are shrinking and the publishing industry is struggling. With so much bad news in the book world, I can see where the impulse to showcase “good” books comes from. But ultimately, it’s silly (and counterproductive) to censor negative reviews. For one thing, well-written criticism isn’t necessarily “positive” or “negative”—it should provide commentary and start a conversation about a book. If, as a critic, you can’t say what you really think, what’s the point?
How to Review Prose Like the Pros
Rao shares her rules for reviewing
Soon after I started reviewing, I came across John Updike’s rules for reviewing, which include some sensible advice for anyone starting out. His first rule is, “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” I disagree with him a little bit on this—I think as a critic you can take issue with a writer (of fiction or nonfiction) for not attempting to, say, address certain crucial angles, clear up certain questions, tackle certain arguments, provide context, etc. But he’s right that you have to respect the author’s intentions. So my personal version of the rule is to try to focus on addressing the book the author wrote as opposed to the book I think he/she should’ve written. Another part of Updike’s advice has stayed with me too: “Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind.” Don’t be a literary traffic cop.