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Ron Charles Talks Totally Hip Book Reviews and More

"The TV critic doesn't critique each episode ofbecause that's not necessary. In the same way, some books that people are reading sometimes don't need to be critiqued."
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As someone who has recently taken a keener interest in social media as it relates to books -- check out my "Author Effect" project on Facebook where I've been trying to bring attention to some deserving books (Jessica Z. and Two Years, No Rain by Shawn Klomparens are the current selections) -- I was both happy and fascinated when I stumbled on the Washington Post's fiction editor's "Totally Hip Book Reviews." I started to look forward to their release each week and was thrilled when their inventor and star, Ron Charles, was gracious enough to agree to an interview. I'm sure the text below doesn't capture the hilarious hour-long conversation we had, so please insert a laugh track every few sentences or so.

CM: How did you come up with the idea for the video reviews?

RC: I came up with the idea about two months ago. My family had always made these satirical videos around the holidays, usually a parody of some TV show or movie. We hadn't done one in a while, but I had this idea of a character in my mind: a nervous book reviewer who was worried about losing his job and was playing into the current paranoia about the book industry. So I decided to make this video and put it up on YouTube, mainly for my friends. I was pretty sure that the People upstairs would ask me to take it down; instead, three days later, they told me they loved it, that they wanted to post it on the paper's website. I've been doing them almost weekly ever since.

CM: How long does it take to make one of the videos?

RC: They take an enormous amount of time, to be honest. I work on the scripts at night, and on Saturdays my wife and I get up and work all day on shooting them. Sometimes it takes hours to get one shot at a particular location just for a few seconds of video. Once it's shot, I'm up half the night editing it.

CM: That's a lot of time to put in...

RC: It is. I call it a labor of insanity sometimes, but I'm enjoying doing it. It's a really fun project for my wife and me to do together, and I think it's funny to explore the comedy of the book world and get to laugh about it with my friends.

CM: What audience do you think you're reaching with the videos?

RC: Honestly, I think the viewers of these videos are just my friends and certain publicists in NY. I don't think the videos impact people in their book choices. I think a "real" review in the Post has a lot more impact. It's certainly more profound than looking at paranoia in the publishing issue, if less funny.

CM: How do you choose which books to make videos off?

RC: I usually choose the book I'm going to review that week in the paper. However, that doesn't always work out. For instance, the week I reviewed Emma Donogue's Room, which I thought was fantastic, there was just no way to make it funny. So instead I made fun of being a book reviewer in the world of social media and discussed the Booker Prize Finalists briefly at the end.

CM: How do you choose the books you review in the Post?

RC: I review literary fiction, so, for myself, I pick what I think are going to be the big, important books of the year, including books that have won prizes, or might win prizes. We want to be part of the conversation surrounding those books. I don't always get it right -- there have certainly been books we've missed -- but that's what we're trying to do.

CM: Are the books you're reviewing generally big sellers?

RC: No, literary fiction is really a small part of the market. It's funny, most of the books that my friends think everyone is reading are generally selling about 15,000 copies. There are exceptions, of course, like Franzen's book. But we do have other reviewers that cover genres like mysteries and thrillers, which are big sellers.

CM: Is that fair to give so much attention to a book that might only sell 15,000 copies?

RC: No, it's probably not fair. But newspapers make choices all the time about what is worthy of attention and what a large audience of thoughtful people would be interested in in the long term. I mean, the TV critic doesn't critique each episode of Two and a Half Men because that's not necessary. People know what the show's about and they're either going to watch it or not. In the same way, some books that people are actually reading sometimes don't need to be critiqued. Reader's can see these books on the bestseller lists -- they know they're out.

CM: How many books do you receive each week? How many do you review?

RC: We receive about 150 books a day; we review about 15 a week. One of our employees does a first cut, my editor does a second, and then I hand out assignments to the other fiction reviewers. I personally review one book a week. A fiction review a day appears in the Style section. Non-fiction reviews (which I'm not responsible for) are generally in the Outlook section every Sunday. We also do a paperback column once a month, and a kids' book section once a month.

CM: How do you make the selection?

RC: We try to make sure that we have a good variety of subject matters in the paper, that we're hitting the top authors, reviewing the books you'd expect us to review. We want to also have a balance between men and women. To make sure we're attending to different genres and not getting too esoteric or too popular. We want to reach as wide an audience as possible and we are always re-adjusting the mix.

CM: Is timeliness of the review a factor?

RC: I think it was Calvin Trilling who said that a book's shelf life is between milk and yogurt. We certainly go to a lot of effort to make sure reviews are out within forty-five minutes of when the book is released. This puts us into the cloud of discussion that takes place around the book until the next one is released. If we run a review six weeks later, we look on it as a failure.

CM: Doesn't that end up leaving out a lot of books?

RC: The news business is about timeliness. There are other forums in which to discuss books than newspapers, and newspapers shouldn't bear the brunt of that discussion. That being said, the monthly paperback column does palliate this a bit.

CM: What do you think the purpose of book reviews is generally?

RC: There are a lot of people who enjoy reading and a lot of them want to know what to read. I see my job as helping them find what they might want to read. Some of our reviewers are more sophisticated critics and students of literary history and try to discuss where the books they're reviewing reside in that, but that's not necessarily what I do every week.

CM: Do you get to read for fun?

RC: No, but I have a lot of fun reading -- I'm picking the books that I review, so I'm almost always reading what I want to read. I generally read a book every five days. People are always sending me books that are old favorites of theirs -- they're in my retirement pile. I'll get to them eventually, hopefully.

CM: Being a "books & social media" columnist, I had to "crowdsource" a question. So: Do you read the entire book?

RC: I have read a book a week every year for thirteen years. The only book I did not finish was a Jimmy Carter novel that was, frankly, too boring. But Jimmy Carter is a fine man. Our best ex-president.

CM: How do you think you're serving the continued place for books in our culture?

RC: A serious question. I think that if I help to bring critical attention to good literature I'm contributing to some extent to our culture. I think it's something to have a major newspaper covering books, that we still run book reviews. It's not a profit center for the paper, but we're still contributing to the culture.

Thanks so much to Ron Charles for his time, and if you haven't checked out the "Totally Hip Book Reviews" you should -- immediately!