In our latest Algonquin Talks feature, we interview Greg Cowles, one of the esteemed preview editors at the New York Times Book Review. Previously, we featured Amy Salit, producer at Fresh Air; Sara Nelson, books editor at O: The Oprah Magazine; and Ron Charles, book review editor at the Washington Post.
You received your MFA in Fiction from Columbia. Who did you study with? Was your thesis a short story collection or a novel? Did Ron Charles make a cameo?
I had terrific luck with all of my teachers at Columbia — Mary Gordon, Stephen Koch, Maureen Howard, and a lot of other smart, passionate writers who took their students seriously — but I really hit the jackpot with Michael Cunningham as my thesis adviser. He had just finished “The Hours” (it was published a couple of months after we started working together), and he was thinking hard about questions of structure and style and theme. Michael is a dedicated and generous reader, and he applied those questions as strenuously to my work as he had applied them to his own. In doing so he no doubt made my thesis — a hodgepodge of short stories and a chunk of unfinished novel — much stronger than it would have been. Ron Charles did not make a cameo. But the novel’s still unfinished, so there’s time.
After graduating from Columbia, you worked in the fiction department at the New Yorker. Is it true that you discovered Jonathan Franzen and Susan Orlean? Any other discoveries you’d like to take credit for?
Jonathan who? Actually, the New Yorker thing started while I was still at Columbia: I had an unpaid internship reading submissions from the slush pile, which evolved into a brief and embarrassing temp gig as Bill Buford’s assistant and then, after I graduated, into a freelance job reading agented manuscripts. I stayed on much longer than I could afford to because it was so damn fun. I discovered nobody. But some of the people I encouraged from the slush pile did go on to publish stories elsewhere and eventually books, so maybe that counts?
How long have you been at the New York Times Book Review? What’s a typical day like for you in the office? How do you and the rest of the editors choose what authors to review? Bribery? Level of attractiveness?
I’ve been at the Book Review since September 2004, first as a copy editor and for the past three years as a “preview” editor, which just means that I look through galleys and assign reviews, usually of fiction. My days here actually look a lot like my days at the New Yorker, and probably like any editor’s days anywhere — I sit at my desk and read. (You thought I was going to say “and drink,” didn’t you?) Depending on my workload I might be reading galleys or editing reviews or scouting out possible reviewers from clips and other publications. I send a lot of emails. As for deciding what to review, I adhere to Vin Scelsa’s three essential commandments: Respect the elders, embrace the new, encourage the impractical and improbable without bias. Bribery might not hurt either, but depressingly few people try.
The death of the book review:__ True __ False X_ Ask Ron Charles __ Viva reality TV!
You’ve been a great champion of books from smaller presses. Have there been any times when you had to argue to get a book reviewed?
Never. There have been times when I was more passionate about a book’s virtues than I could reasonably expect any of my colleagues to be, but I’m blessed with understanding bosses who give me a lot of leeway.
Are you a fan of any other particular reviewers/review publications? (Ron Charles said he’ll pay you $100 if you include his name.)
Ron Charles! And I’m not just saying it for the cash (or certified check). I’m a fan of anyone who reads often and well, with an intact sense of humor or an eye for unrecognized talent. That includes the consistently excellent Dwight Garner, here at The Times, and Sam Anderson, who recently left New York magazine to write a column for the Times Magazine. Harper’s is lucky to have the gifted Zadie Smith writing regular criticism now. The reviews in Poetry magazine are unfailingly smart and lively. I love Michael Silverblatt’s “Bookworm” radio show. And I read most of the review publications you’d expect: the New York Review, the London Review, all the major newspapers. But of course my favorite reviewers are the ones who write for me.
What’s your stance on ebooks—do they signal the end of an era? Will we be done with physical books within the next decade? Will there be flying cars by 2021?
I’ve only very recently ventured into the world of ebooks, by downloading a book of jazz theory onto my iPhone. I was disappointed it didn’t come with audio clips or other bells and whistles — shouldn’t the “e” in ebook count for something? — but it was undeniably cool to hit “Download” and have the text at my fingertips a few minutes later. But the end of an era? Printed books are still relatively cheap, convenient and beautiful, and for the sentimentalists I know (myself included) they hold an almost talismanic appeal as physical objects. Also, not everybody has an iPhone. As for flying cars, it’s hard to imagine when we don’t even have flying horses and carriages yet.
According to the American Copy Editors Society, you were selected as “Headline Writer of the Year” for 2007. Was this for a particular headline?
Wow, you dug deep for your research! I probably have that award citation buried deep in a drawer somewhere — it was for a group of four or five headlines, but off the top of my head the only two I remember were “The Way of No Flesh” (for a history of vegetarianism) and “Dinosaurigami” (for a children’s pop-up book of prehistoric animals).
Got any snazzy headline suggestions for this interview?
I actually started brainstorming before I realized you’re trying to trick me into doing your work.
You wrote for the New York Times’ blog Paper Cuts. I see you gave a shout out to Geek Love cult-classic author Katherine Dunn. First and foremost, do you love the book as much as I do? Second, how do you feel about Paper Cuts being absorbed into the larger Times arts blog?
It’s been a long time since I read Geek Love, but I remember being fascinated and impressed and bludgeoned by it in about equal measures. I was very glad to see that Dunn has a new novel in the works. I was less glad that Paper Cuts was folded into Arts Beat — but from our readers’ perspective it probably makes sense to group all of our arts coverage together, and the fact is that my own contributions to Paper Cuts had dwindled in its final months. I have a lot of respect for litbloggers who are able to write something worthwhile or funny or interesting every single day. It’s not easy.
What are your favorite books of 2011 so far? And what books are you most looking forward to reading the rest of this year?
Favorites of the year include a couple that are heartbreaking for different reasons: Francisco Goldman’s autobiographical novel Say Her Name, about the death of his young wife, and The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished posthumous novel, which contains long stretches and set pieces as good as anything he ever wrote. I also liked Jean Thompson’s sweeping family comedy, The Year We Left Home, and Arthur Phillips’s Shakespeare-forgery novel, The Tragedy of Arthur. As for books that haven’t come out yet, I’m excited about Nicholson Baker’s filthy new House of Holes and Tom Perrotta’s novel of the Rapture, The Leftovers, which in its way is actually a kind of 9/11 novel.
You’re going to be stranded on a desert island—you can only take 3 books, 3 albums, and 3 B-list celebrities with you. What/who are they?
Really, the desert island question? Ack. You’d want books that could occupy you for a long time and stand up to repeated readings, so you can’t go wrong with the clichéd response of the Bible and the complete Shakespeare. Oh, and I’d think you’d want a really good seafood cookbook, wouldn’t you? For albums, I’ll go with Glenn Gould’s “Goldberg Variations,” John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and, um, The Clash’s “London Calling.” For B-list celebrities, you mean besides Ron Charles?