I Met New York Times Book Reviewer Dwight Garner (What?!)

This past Thursday I was fortunate enough to get invited to sit in on a class by a professor who is acting as one of my thesis mentors. I have done this once before for another guest speaker she invited who was kind enough to let me pick his brain about the industry, but this speaker really interested me. When I first met this professor and explained my thesis idea to her about public perception of YA literature, she asked me to elaborate. I boiled it down to this: when I open up the New York Times and most other major news outlets (minus Buzzfeed), I see adult literature everywhere, and while they're making leaps and bounds with expanding the bestseller list for children's, where is the love for it? She laughed and said, "there's someone I want you to meet."

Months later I finally met that person. Dwight Garner is a really famous and brutally honest book reviewer for the New York Times. Seriously, check out his reviews if you want to be entertained and have your thoughts provoked simultaneously. I suggest looking at his review for the book Delicious! because it is very polarizing and was discussed in depth in class. He actually was the senior editor of the review for a while before he became a reviewer himself in 2009. He specializes in adult non-fiction and literary fiction, and he has a weakness for anything music related. When she invited me and my main thesis mentor to attend her class to hear his wisdom, we both agreed excitedly brainstorming about how we could pick his brain. 

Let me tell you, I've sent this guy books as a publicity intern. When he talked about the mountains of books that arrive outside his door and the annoying way publicists put press releases on the outside, I laughed. I was instructed to do just that, not wanting to give him an extra 20 minutes of an annoyance in his day, but to ensure he could learn about the book if he wished. To hear his thoughts was so enlightening, and certain things he said really struck me. I thought it would be interesting to share them on my blog because though we are not reviewers of his caliber and fame, we have a hobby of reviewing and can relate to him in that sense. Also because he's awesome.

Naturally, the first chance I was given to ask a question after he shared his life story and some of his wisdom, I asked about the future of YA lit in the book review. I staged my question by sharing my experiences...how I was at Bloomsbury for nine months as a children's intern and we had some amazing bestsellers but not necessarily any reviews, but while I was at the adult imprint of Viking (Guys! He complimented me on this and I died in silent pride because wow) for 2.5 months, I saw quite a large number of books reviewed in The Times. The difference really struck me. If we have a book on the bestseller list for consecutive weeks, why is it more likely to not get reviewed if it is a children's book than it would be as an adult book?

He sat there and he said he didn't really know, and then he asked me if it's something I think would be good for The Times? Okay, let me take a breather there because I didn't expect for my opinion to be valued at all in this situation. After a pause, of course I said yes! He even acknowledged that many adults do read YA today, a stance I am factually proving in my thesis, and he concluded that he would be bringing the idea to the editors because he seemed genuinely interested in the idea. My professors looked at me and gave me these huge thumbs up and I know it's something so little, but I am so excited because I think this is a step in the right direction and I want to thank him infinitely for even considering this.

Andy Dwyer, you are me.
But that's beside the point. Aside from me having this tiny victory and being slightly awestruck several times, I did learn a lot from him from a reviewer standpoint and I thought it would be cool to share.

Books are for memories.
As avid readers, I think it's obvious books are for memories. To this day, I could tell you what I was doing when I decided to pick up the very first Harry Potter book that changed my life, or just how much The Book Thief by Markus Zusak caused me to cry because I felt like this book got me the way no other book has. But Garner takes it to a different level. He uses his books to house his important keepsakes. That menu he stole from a restaurant where he had a memorable meal is inside the cookbook he was reading at the time. His visitor pass that he was given by my college when he visited is going inside the book that he was reading on the subway here. Concert tickets, movie stubs, pamphlets...anything with meaning to him goes into a book so when he takes it off his shelf in the future and opens it to read again, not only does the story itself bring back memories, but so do the little mementos that slowly trickle out as he turns pages. I LOVE this idea.

Writing in books is not abuse, and taking notes is ridiculously helpful.
Garner marks up his books and any books he gets his hands on (including my professor's boyfriend's books haha). When he said this at first, I was kind of shocked. I hate writing in my books, even if it is a galley. It just seems sacrilegious to me because I have placed such a high value on books. But then he elaborated. He went on to say if he is reviewing the book and notices "awk" or "ugh" many times in the margins, then this is not a book for him. His thoughts are only at their freshest when immediately reacting to something he just read moments before, which is why margin writing is so helpful. He highlights his favorite quotes and writes them down in a quote book he uses organized by quote topic to be able to look back on for future comparisons. He uses this book to quote a lot in his reviews, actually. Upon finishing the book, Garner flips through it and types up all of his notes in a comprehensive document that helps him gather and organize his thoughts before writing his ~1,000 word review that will eventually appear in The Times. While I may not be hurrying to follow in his footsteps in this regard, I think I'll be taking more notes on the books that are making me feel the feels in the future. Also his longer reviews make me less worried about the fact that I prefer to write longer reviews instead of shorter reviews.

Negativity is natural.
There have been countless discussions around the blogosphere about negative reviews. Some people refuse to write them, others tend to write them a bit to often and a little too snarkily. It depends on the reviewer, really. But he pointed out that negativity is natural. If you are just going to repeat what others are saying and have nothing but praise, it's not really a review if there's not a single thing you can pinpoint that could be changed. The one time Garner said he tends to avoid fully negative reviews is if it is a debut. Unless the debut is getting picked up by other major news outlets, what is the point in writing negatively about a new kid on the block? Returning players, however, know how to take a hit and can handle a serious critique. Looking back at this, I found it to be a very nice tidbit of advice.

Dropping books is okay.
Garner reviews for a living and says his job is pretty much a 7 day a week, 6-7 hour a day thing since he works from home and coffee shops in his small New Jersey town. One can assume he does a lot more reading than us because it is his focus and most of us blog as a hobby outside of school and whatever job we have, but he says it's okay to drop books. If it isn't working and you know deep down you'll have nothing but negative things to say, why continue unless you are obligated to do so for one reason or another? Why waste your time when there are so many other amazing books out there waiting to be read? He drops his books left and right instead of struggling through and putting himself into a slump by wasting his own time. I really like this attitude and I am going to adopt it.

To elaborate, he says the first chapter of a book is very telling. If you read the first chapter and are not curious about what happens or impressed by the storytelling, why continue? You know it's probably not a book for you, so drop it before you get so invested that dropping it becomes a moral dilemma like it does for so many of us. I am definitely going to be more willing to DNF books now.

Do not read about the book you're reviewing prior to reviewing it.
As reviewers, I think many of us have adopted this principle which is why our reviews sky-rocket in views around the book's immediate release date. Garner explained that he avoids other reviews of a book he is about to review so he doesn't have other people's thoughts floating around in his head and no preconceived ideas about the book going into it aside from his own personal bias. He went on to explain that he never reads press releases that he gets with books unless he really liked the book and is about to review it. Even then, he struggles with reading them because he has a lot of respect for the publicists who write them and they do such a good job at explaining things he often finds himself trying to recall their wording. He always finds a way to explain his thoughts in his own way, but the more words swirling around in your head written by others, the harder it may be to formulate your own thoughts.

Fact check.
At The Times, Garner has copy editors that also happen to be strong fact checkers. He says that reviews written off of a galley instead of a finished copy especially need to be fact checked since they are not a completed proof. I think this is important when reviewing for us because it's always important to differentiate between an ARC review and a finished copy review because of this. A story can transform so much between a galley and its publication date, after all. Just look at Becca Fitzpatrick's debut that was initially a standalone when the ARC came out, but was a four book series by the time the first book hit shelves!

Thank you so much to my professor who allowed me to sit in on her class. This was such an enlightening experience that I greatly enjoyed. Thank you Dwight Garner for taking the time out of your day to meet with the class. And thank you to the readers for checking out this article. I hope you find Garner's advice just as interesting as I did! I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

1 comment:

  1. I LOVED this write and insights!!! Thank you so much for taking the time to type it all out. What a goldmine.