Washington Post critic sees an avalanche of good books and wonders who will read them

Ron Charles, book critic for The Washington Post, gives a talk at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Photo by Andrew Nemethy
Ron Charles, book critic for The Washington Post, gives a talk at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Photo by Andrew Nemethy

If Ron Charles’ work was captured in a book, a good title might be “Last Man Standing.”

Charles is the fiction editor and a book critic at the prestigious Washington Post, a seat that gives him a broad perspective on the world of books and a well-informed sense of the state of the publishing industry. Before joining the Post in 2005, he served as book review editor and critic at the Christian Science Monitor for seven years.

Being a newspaper book critic means occupying a lonely seat these days, considering he’s seen staffing drastically cut to only two and a half people in the books section. And that’s the good news.

The bad news, he says, is that today there’s only a handful of book editors left at major newspapers across the entire country, in an industry that is not exactly rolling in the dough.

So it seemed entirely appropriate, and wryly funny, for author and Vermont College of Fine Arts President Thomas Greene to lead off a discussion on the state of fiction at the college Thursday by jumping right in before a packed audience of aspiring writers, faculty and visitors at College Hall during graduation week.

“I want to start off this night with a small question, which is the future of the printed word,” Greene said. That comment drew a roar of laughter from the crowd, who understood the dark humor lying behind the question, which affects every aspect of a publishing world beset by dramatic changes.

Charles, an unassuming man with glasses whose cataloging brain somehow can spit out innumerable titles and authors and isn’t afraid to give his honest opinion – think “50 Shades of Grey,” for one – responded that Amazon, eBooks, and technology are blowing up the world of books as we know it. Some will benefit from the winds of change, while others will see their world blown away.

“If you are a mid-list author or own a publishing house, the news is really bad. Everything is about to change,” he said, predicting famous authors will soon start selling their novels direct to their readers, eliminating a need for publishing houses.

That will “suck the money” out of publishing and change the entire system.

“A lot of those changes, if you’re old school, are going to be terrible,” he said. “They’re going to ruin your lives.”

But for new writers who are willing to bend rules and be imaginative, tech savvy and able to connect on social media, there will be more opportunities to find an audience.

“We’ll see a lot of creative changes for new authors,” he said.

Greene said he began an email discussion on fiction with Charles that caught his imagination and eventually led him to invite the critic up to Montpelier to talk on stage.

Led by Greene’s questions and then by the audience, Charles described how his job works, the sometime quixotic process in which books zoom onto the best seller list, and the daunting odds facing fiction writers.

Despite the upheaval, he called changes in the industry “pretty exciting stuff.”

eBooks will allow a new market for short stories and novellas that are too short to publish on paper, he predicted. Multi-media books are coming that will offer new synergies in reading.

What amazes him most, he said, is that he is seeing an “avalanche of writers” producing some really good fiction. The question is, who is going to read them?

“We’re going to reach a point soon in which there are more books than there are readers,” he said, only partly in jest.

According to Charles, some 300,000 books get published each year with an ISBN number, the nine-digit commercial identifying code. Around three million self-published books get a code as well. But an estimated 10 million other books are published that don’t even have numbers.

That is an avalanche that makes it hard to tell what’s worth reading or not and difficult for consumers.

“Ten million books. How are we going to browse that?” he asked.

Today only a handful of critics like him survive at newspapers to do the sifting. The Post gets 150 books a day, many of them shuttled off to oblivion before they even get to his desk. He joked it’s like Fantasia or “Lucy and Ethel with chocolate,” referring to the famous episode of “I Love Lucy” where the chocolate assembly line speeds up overwhelming Lucille Ball.

The Post reviews 20 books a week, and many of those are big name authors who have to be reviewed. That leaves only a few slots for new writers.

“The math is really cruel,” he said.

The irony, he said, is that “I am amazed, really amazed every month, sometimes every week, by the incredible new authors that I just stumble across.” Unfortunately, many of those, he quipped, “are strangled in the crib.”

Charles suggested that the screening and recommendation of books in the future will filter out in many ways, via celebrities like Oprah, magazines, web sites and blogs. He said he thought independent book stores could carve out a new niche as the source of recommendations as a way to connect with the reading, and buying, public.

Greene asked Charles if he thought the Pulitzer Prize Committee should have chosen a winner instead of passing this year, leaving three authors in the lurch.

Charles described that decision as a “bad, bad choice,” since the prize is one of the few noteworthy boosts to the reading world.

“When they don’t give it to anyone it’s incredibly annoying,” he said, saying it also “depletes the culture for that year.” His own choice was Anne Patchett’s “State of Wonder,” but if none of the three books on the final list moved the panel, he said they should have gone out and picked another, such as “Doc,” a “fantastic” western by Mary Doria Russell.

Greene asked if publishing is male-centric and slights female authors, an issue raised in commentaries and editorial pages in the past year. Charles said a study that showed more books by men were reviewed than by women authors made him do his own “affirmative action” effort to try and provide more balance. He noted 70 to 80 percent of the readers of literary fiction are women and so are many of the good new authors.

A surfeit of good new literary books “that the vast majority are not going to read” is counter-balanced by the remarkable success of popular and women’s popular fiction. But those novels seem to find an audience while many good books are left without readers, which is why he doesn’t review a lot of popular fiction, he said. He said critics can easily review the 500-600 movies that come out each year but when it comes to books only an “infinitesimal amount” can get reviewed, creating a tension between reviewing popular “crappy” books and ones worth reading.

He put the sex and bondage phenomenon “50 Shades of Grey” in the latter category, notwithstanding its remarkable success and “completely unpretentious” author.

The book, he said, is “dull, cliched and there isn’t a fresh phrase” in it. What it has become somehow is a book people read because they “want to see what the fuss is all about.”

“If you think about it, it’s a terrible way to pick a book,” he joked, but the business of a book snowballing – “for whatever reason, lightning strikes” – is with us to stay.

“We’ve created this cultural phenomenon that is really about its own popularity reinforcing itself,” he said, sort of like Paris Hilton’s nonsensical media prominence, except in this case it’s bland bondage in the media eye.

“The worst thing about it is, in the next two and a half years, as this plays out, we’re going to be inundated with this stuff,” he joked.

Still, to those in the audience who hope someday to find their own audience with the written word, he remained upbeat, saying it’s a wonderful time to experiment with genre and not be “locked in” to the standard concept of what a novel should be.

“I would be encouraged and don’t give up,” he said.

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Andrew Nemethy

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  • It is, indeed, an interesting phenomena of the Internet Age that it becomes easier and easier to write, even to write reasonably well, at the same time that the attention span for readers seems to get shorter and shorter. To some extent, this is just an exacerbation of something that’s always been true: the percentage of good authors who actually make a living, let alone achieve fame and financial success, is minuscule compared with the number who write.

    It’s time for most writers to realize that “being read” does not require making the best seller lists. That’s buying into the notion that only the very few, in any profession, who achieve notoriety “count” and that all the rest should just forget about it.

    If we writers can let go of our grandiosity, there are more avenues than ever to reach a small audience who care about what we have to say.

  • rosemarie jackowski

    The world of books continues to amaze. Questions – “In Vermont how many public tax supported libraries ban books based on the political view expressed in the books?”

    Will Vermont have book-burning in its future? Will the First Amendment survive in Vermont? Will political speech be ‘free’ in Vermont in this election cycle? How many candidates will be arrested for trying to participate in debates held in public tax supported facilities?