This blog post was written by Programs Intern, LaTroya Lovell, about the Journalism Book Review Workshop on April 11, 2015.
Girls Write Now had the pleasure of hosting New York Times children’s book editor Maria Russo, and editors and writers from Flavorwire Jillian Mapes, Sarah Seltzer, and Pilot Viruet, as craft talk authors for our April Book Review Workshop. During the talks with these editors, our mentees got the inside scoop on the happenings of the review world. Reviewers face a huge duty when speaking on an artists’ work. We delved into the meaning of honesty and responsibility in journalism. With a special focus on book reviews, our craft talk authors journeyed back to their first favorites and we explored the books that made us want to be writers.
After the workshop we asked some of our craft talk authors a little more about the duty of a critic and the true value of literature. Here is what they had to say:
Was there a particular book, article, or author that made you want to become a writer? How do you feel about it next to where you are as a writer now?
- Sarah Seltzer: Many of the heroines from the classic YA books I loved, especially Jo from Little Women and Emily from a series called Emily of New Moon, go on journeys not just to become writers but to become writers making authentic art, writers who are true to themselves. They both undergo a lot of real pain to become artists! My reaction was: “Sign me up!” I would say that right now I’m still in the middle volume of my own trilogy. I’m happy with my life as a full-time blogger and writer, but I’m still struggling to express my deepest thoughts and feelings in a meaningful way in longer essays and stories.
- Maria Russo: When I was about 10, I first read Harriet the Spy. That book excited me and sent me in a new direction. Like Harriet, I lived in a New York City apartment building. There were always neighbors around, and so many of the neighbors were true characters. I began keeping my own spy journal, and that was fun. I realized that even just my apartment building was a world full of stories, and that I could figure out a way to tell them. Soon my best friend and I had the idea of starting a newspaper just for our building. We called it The Gibson Globe, because our building was called the Gibson. We typed it up, made copies at the library, and stapled the pages together. Then we sold it for, I think, 10 cents a copy. (It was the 1970s!) I trace my career in journalism back to The Gibson Globe, which was really the happy end result of reading Harriet the Spy. I still think Harriet the Spy is a great book! Though I imagine 10 year olds reading it today are shocked by how much she was — we all were — left alone by adults to figure out the world.
- Jillian Mapes: I read a lot of Judy Blume as a preteen and thought, “How cool that this is her job.” When I started subscribing to Rolling Stone in my early teen years, some of the writers there — especially the few women writers they had writing features at the time, plus columnist Rob Sheffield — were my heroes. Jenny Eliscu’s 2002 article, “Rivers Cuomo’s Encyclopedia of Pop,” was one that I read over and over again, in hopes of absorbing some of her brilliance.
When it comes to writing reviews, what can you say about being honest but responsible not to break down the artistic integrity of what you are reviewing?
- Sarah Seltzer: I think it’s important to really ask what the book you’re reviewing is trying to do, rather than what you want it to do. Is a book trying to undermine a traditional idea or structure? Or is it trying to be entertaining? Or to immerse us in an experience? Does it achieve its goals? Once you have answered those questions you can use the review to tackle bigger issues like “what is the function of romance novels in the feminist landscape of 2015?” It’s not fair to the writer to ignore the parameters of their work.
- Maria Russo: When I review a book, I think of it as something that has been entrusted to me. I feel that when you have an opportunity to review a book and get your review published, you are taking on a responsibility. But the responsibility goes in two directions. First, you have to be sure to do right by the author — that is, to show that you understand the book on the terms the author intended it. You have to get the facts right, as in all journalism. I always keep in mind how hard an author works to finish a book, and I try to respect that work. But the second, and really I would say the paramount, responsibility is to my own readers — the people reading my review to figure out whether they should spend their own money and their valuable time on a book. I would never want to recommend something that I think would be a waste of someone’s time, or even just an “eh” way to spend their time, when there are tons of great books out there for every taste. When I read a book that I’m going to be reviewing, I pay close attention to my own instincts. How does it make me feel? Am I finding myself reluctant to put it down, eager to keep reading? Or is it giving me nagging bad feelings in my stomach? When I sit down to write the review, what I’m ultimately trying to do is document my reaction. That’s I guess what makes a review feel “honest.”
- Jillian Mapes: I think intention — what an artist was trying to do — is very important to consider, particularly in terms of context. At the same time, you have to be true to your own opinion — that’s the point of criticism. Respect for the time and effort put in is crucial, though some writer take great joy in hating something. That’s not personally my style. If I don’t like something, I try to just be as specific as possible about why — not just what it is.
What value can a critic of literature and the arts bring to someone’s craft?
- Sarah Seltzer: Hopefully critics make people want to read or buy records or tickets! But beyond that, good book criticism can help people become wiser readers and understand the universe in which a book operates. Criticism also serves to help a writer feel understood, taken seriously, or better equipped to consider what she might strive for in a future work.
- Maria Russo: Well, I truly, truly hope that writers and readers, both, feel critics bring value to creative work! Over the years I’ve received some amazing letters from writers whose books I’ve reviewed, thanking me for “getting” their book. Those mean a lot to me. I hope that somewhere, there is a writer who has learned some little thing or other from my review. And I hope there are readers who feel I’ve given them good guidance about what to read next. One of the best things about the world of books and the arts, to me, is that it’s a world where people share their passions, pass them on, so I feel so lucky to have that be my job.
- Jillian Mapes: A critic can, of course, bring insight into what was and wasn’t successful in a work’s execution. Sometimes a creator can be too close to a work to objectively assess its strengths and weaknesses. Critics provide that kind of insight.
What advice can you give our mentees on finding the thing they are good at in life and building upon it?
- Sarah Seltzer: There are two questions I like to consider: What is your most consistent skill and what is the passion that excites you the most? Sometimes they are the same and sometimes they are totally different. The thing that makes my heart sing is scribbling stories and poems and little scraps of whimsy. But the skill I am confident in, and people respond to best, is my analytical ability. So I focus on my criticism and essays but indulge my creative side whenever possible. It’s important for women to build off of the reliable skill and nurture our strengths but not at the cost of cultivating the thing that makes our heart beat faster, whether it’s singing or solving equations or throwing a fastball. Beyond that, my advice is to keep in mind that everyone has insecurities. The more you shut out the noise and competitive droning buzz wherever you are in life, the easier it is to hear yourself clearly.
- Maria Russo: I would say that it is so important to pay attention to your own feelings and impressions as you go through your day. Don’t necessarily always be looking for things that get you approval from authority figures – that approval can be a good thing, and helpful to get you where you want to go – but first you need to find out where you want to go in the first place. So tune in to yourself, and I mean almost on the cellular level! When do you feel really good and peaceful? When do you feel like you lose track of time, because whatever activity you’ve been engaged in has absorbed you completely? That is your thing. Do it as much as you can. It could be reading and writing, like it was for me, but so many other things too – it could be talking to other people, it could be helping children, it could be writing computer code, it could be solving logistical problems – anything. Find out all the ways that that thing can be part of a career. Find out the steps you will have to take over the years to get to the place where you can do that thing and get paid enough money to live on.
- Jillian Mapes: There are so many ways to be a writer in this day and age, with so many outlets tailored to varying points of view. The internet has made it so there are outlets that specifically want the perspectives of young women (shout-out to Rookie Mag, one of many). You’re never too young to start putting your creativity out there, and hopefully finding like minded people who inspire you. If you don’t end up writing or doing something creative, that’s of course fine too — what’s important is to not cut out options because they seem intimidating. I think most people can be great at a few different things in life — it just involves a lot of practice and passion. What’s most important is that you love what you do.