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An Interview with Frank Wilson, Part I

Frank Wilson is the book editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where he has worked since 1980, and as of this writing, he is not on strike. When he is not editing book reviews or writing his column, he can be found at Books Inq. Here, he discusses the basketball team at his alma mater, the recent controversy about blogs and book reviews, and the relationship between phenomenology and his writing style.

Liz Lopatto: How are you?

Frank Wilson: I’m waiting to find out whether we go on strike or not. How are you doing today?

LL: I’m doing quite well. I’m not waiting to go on strike.

[both laugh]

LL: So, how is it that you got to where you are today, editing a book section?

FW: [laughs] How did I get where I am today? Well, I went to a local–what was then a college, a Jesuit college, St. Joseph’s, which is now St. Joseph’s university, and had the distinction when I went there that wherever you went in the country, and you told someone you went there, the immediate reaction was “Oh, the basketball school!” [laughs] And they still are a powerhouse in NCAA basketball, but the interesting thing about it was that it was still an old-fashioned Jesuit college, still governed then by what was known as the Ratio Studiorum, the plan of studies. So what I got was a pretty good dose of a classical education with Latin, Greek, couple of years of real philosophy and four years of theology. And the odd thing is, it’s the theology that has sort of saved my neck more than once, because in the news business, it’s nice to have somebody who actually studied it when something comes up about the Catholic Church or religion. I actually have some idea what’s being talked about.

I went from there, actually, to working as an editor at Arms Control and Disarmament for a while, and then I went to graduate school at Penn. But Penn wasn’t offering me any money, and I didn’t particularly take to the curriculum there. The University of Dayton did offer me money, so I went there, and went there only for a semester because it finally dawned on me that I didn’t like graduate school in English.

And so I then left and became a kind of journeyman journalist–oh, I did all sorts of things. I was a book editor for the old J.D. Lippincott company, and I worked doing book editing for Fortress Press, which is Lutheran–or was–and then I worked as an art gallery director and I wrote a column for a defunct weekly in Philadelphia for a while, a book review column, and when things got really lean–and by that time I had a wife and kids–I went into construction. [laughs] I was an office manager.

I started writing reviews for the Inquirer in 1976, and four years later, I got a job here as–a very humble job as an editorial assistant–and one thing lead to another. I wound up on the copy desk, and I was reviewing all along, for this paper and for The New York Times and other publications. Anyway, a job opened up and I ended up with the job I always wanted.

LL: How did you get started writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times?

FW: I had already done a number of reviews for various publications. In fact, the first review that I wrote professionally was published in 1964, the October of 1964, in something called The Intercollegiate Review, which was published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. And so I had a lot of clips, and I had been writing this thing for the local weekly. I just came over, and met the then-book editor, Larry Swindell, and he gave me an assignment. It was a heck of an assignment, too. It was the concluding volume of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The problem was, I hadn’t read the previous–what was it, eleven volumes. So I ended up reading a twelve-volume work in order to do my first review for the paper. And then of course by the time I ended up writing for the Times, the book editor who succeeded Larry, Becky Singer, became the book editor of The New York Times, and I’d been writing for her here, so I wrote for her there. And once I was working here, I wrote for the Inquirer regularly, so I’ve been writing reviews–gee, for thirty-one years, now that I think about it.

LL: How are books chosen for review?

FW: You know, in a good week, I get about a thousand books in my office. I mean, it’s not always that high–there are slower times in the year, though this year, it didn’t seem like it was ever lessening. I went on vacation in July, and when I came back, there was just a huge quantity of books that had arrived in my absence, but–that is, by the way, the single commonest question I am asked: How do you choose?

There are–I think it’s a 175,000 new books come out every year, which is close to 50,000 more than when I first took this job four years ago. And we can review–maybe–we might hit five hundred in a year. We’re in that ballpark range. And some of them are obvious. It was obvious that we were going to review Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. It’s obvious that you’re going to review something coming out by Phillip Roth or John Updike because they’re name authors and they have to be reviewed.

I pay attention to what my fellow bloggers say. I listen to what my reviewers tell me. I look at Publisher’s Weekly. I’m a little bit of a contrarian. I don’t really see why a book that has been reviewed in The New York Times needs to be reviewed by me. It may–I may want to, for various reasons, but it seems to me, since there are a diminishing number of book review sections in the country, it might be better to start looking for things that are off-beat.

We’ve reviewed a lot of books by Europa Editions in the past year because a lot of European fiction doesn’t get paid attention to in the United States, and that’s unfortunate. So I try to find quirky things, and if somebody tells me that a book that no one else is paying attention to is worth paying attention to, I might just review it. But it’s a judgment call. And if an author is local, that’s going to figure in the equation. It’s not going to be a decisive, because there are enough local authors around Philadelphia that I could end up reviewing nothing but local authors, but basically, it’s just keeping your ear to the ground and your nose to the wind.

I had seen on a number of blogs mention of Jane Gardam’s novel, Old Filth, and I figured, that sounds like an interesting book. And I started reading it, and it felt like an interesting book, and I got Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review to review it for me, and he did a really great job. That’s the great thing about blogs. You have all this input from these people who are passionate about reading and books.

LL: I’m sorry. I have to ask. What do you make of this–for lack of a better term–brewhaha that started with John Derbyshire, then escalated with Susan Hill, then was escalated again by Rachel Cooke?

FW: Oh, that’s–the thing about professional reviewers? For me, it’s one of those things, a tendency in the world today that my wife and I were talking about recently–finding either/or categories where, pretty obviously, it ought to be a both/and category. Why do I have to choose between bloggers and professional reviewers? The lit bloggers that I am aware of all seem to like reading book review sections. And–I have seen plenty of stupid remarks made by print journalists about bloggers and blogs, which indicate to me only that they don’t know what they are talking about, that the only thing they know about blogs is what they’ve read in the newspaper. But I thought whoever the book review editor was who sent the message to Susan Hill, saying that he or she would not have her review for him or her or review her books–that’s about a silly a thing as I’ve heard in my life. Just for the record, in case she ever decides to change her mind, she can review for me any time she wants.

What do you think about that?

LL: Well, I think it’s ridiculous. I think the two end up complimenting each other’s coverage, more than anything else.

FW: That’s what I’d say.

LL: I’d even go so far to say that blogging is especially a boon to editors, because you have your audience responding to what you’ve printed in real-time. I’d say that makes it a lot easier to focus your coverage.

FW: I totally agree. I don’t know why people in the print media seem to be bothered by the interactivity and the feedback. I don’t get that. People who, on one hand, have no qualms about sitting down and writing whatever they damned well please about somebody else out there seem to be awfully thin-skinned about someone calling them a fool. I’ve been called a fool. In fact, I just spent two weeks being called a fool by just about every atheist reader in creation because I reviewed three books about science and religion, and tilted toward the religion side of it–actually, two of the books were by believers.

LL: Right, Daniel Dennett and Francis Collins and–

FW: Colin Gingrich. And I think that anybody who’s familiar with Richard Dawkins’ books–The Selfish Gene or The Blind Watchmaker–knows he is a very good writer. But you wouldn’t know that from The God Delusion. It has to be his worst-written book. It’s a terrible book. It’s chaotically organized, it’s constantly digressing from the subject at hand–at one point, he even says he’s brought up a subject that doesn’t have any bearing on what he’s talking about, and you wonder, “Well, why didn’t your editor tell you to cut it out, Dick?” I think he’s become one of those writers who’s become so big that he doesn’t have to listen to his editor anymore, and that’s a disaster for a writer. I am a much better writer than I was a few years ago because I had a guy named Jeff Weinstein, who is now with Bloomberg, editing my column every week. And Jeff is a great editor, and he knew how my prose sounded, and he could tell every time I hit a false not.

I edited his column, by the way, but it was a lot easier editing his column. [laughs] Because he’s also a very good writer.

But you’re absolutely right that it’s the interactivity and the sense of community that you get from blogging. I have a lot of bloggers reviewing for me now. I’ve mentioned Mark Sarvas, but I’ve also had Ed Champion, Patrick Kurp of Anecdotal Evidence, Ed Pettit of The Bibliothecary–and some others. I’m sure I’m forgetting people. You’ll have to forgive me. It’s early in the morning and I am an ageing man.

LL: How do you decide on a tone when you’re reviewing?

FW: My thing about reviewing–the principal thing that my philosophy mentor in college taught was existentialism and phenomenology, so I have a bias toward the phenomenological point of view, which I can sum up very simply: if I can accurately and precisely describe what I experience, you will know how I feel about it because I have to choose my words carefully to communicate that. I prefer not to say “I like it,” or “I don’t like it” or to use affective terms. If I’m precise, you’ll know whether I like it or not. So I primarily like to report on the books I review. If the first person singular pronoun happens to pop in inadvertently, I will keep it there, but I don’t tend to start off by thinking “I.”

I think that people want to read the review to find out what the hell the book is about, and if you tell them that, they’ll know whether they’ll be interested in reading it. Sometimes you’ll have no choice. I mean, I reviewed a book by James Sallis recently, and he’s a really good writer, but the book was preposterous. You can’t have a character–I mean, my father was a cop. If a policeman spends eleven years in the slammer, it wasn’t for violating the dress code–he’s committed a major crime. And when he’s released after eleven years, it’s probably on parole. And he’s not going to be hired as a deputy sheriff in any town in the United States, not if they know that. Particularly when he as a penchant for going around and shooting people in the knees. I can see why he might have been a problem with the force.

I found that unbelievable. And said so, in no uncertain terms. That book really annoyed me.

I try to avoid books that I don’t like, I have to confess, because–you must know–reading a book you don’t like is a really unpleasant experience.

LL: Yes. Sometimes I think that when reviewers perform hatchet jobs, it’s an act of retribution for having to read a book they seriously loathed.

FW: Right. I mean, I started writing a column because of the budget cuts–my budget got cut very severely, and I was faced with the fact that I had virtually no money left. One way of saving money was to write a review myself every week. And very early on, I was reading a book for review called The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya, and it was a really gloomy, unpleasant book, and I was reaching for it in my home office and thinking, “What a way to have to spend the weekend, reading this depressing text,” and a lightbulb went off in my head. I thought, “I don’t have to! I can make my column a recommendation column. I can just find books that I like to read and recommend them to people.” And mostly I have done that. But every now and then I come across one that you read all the way through and decide maybe you shouldn’t recommend.

Most of my reviews are recommendations, and sometimes I’m wrong. I think I was right in my fundamental judgment about Ian McEwan’s Saturday. I think it is a fascinating book to read. That is what I concluded, but I think it’s not that good a book. I think it’s a preposterous book, as a matter of fact. It’s one of those strange things, where you read a book and read right through it, because it’s well-written and well-done, but afterwards as you think about it more, you begin to realize there are more and more problems with it. And you begin to like it less and less as you think more about it. I don’t know if you’ve had that experience; I don’t know if any other people have had that experience with Saturday.

Part two of the interview will appear tomorrow. Past interviews include Michael Lemonick (one and two), Claire Messud (one and two), and Marisha Pessl (one and two).

CORRECTION: It was Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review and not Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation who reviewed Old Filth.