Like many others, we were pleased to learn that David L. Ulin had been selected to run the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He's been a longtime player on the L.A. literary scene and has a sensibility that we think we dovetail nicely with LATBR readers.
Ulin is author of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith, and editor of Another City: Writing from Los Angeles and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a 2002 California Book Award, and he recently consented to take a stab at a 3MI. (The rules, remember, are that the first three questions are custom, and the last two are the small for all respondents.)
1) Can you describe something of the selection process that led to your hiring? How extensively were you prodded and probed?
DU: The process was pretty intensive, although I wouldn't characterize it as prodding and probing so much as a series of engaged conversations. First, I was asked to outline my ideas for Book Review; then, I went through a number of interviews with various people up the editorial chain. We talked a lot about the section, but also about autonomy and responsibility, and what it would be like to work together. Running a section like this, within the context of the paper as a whole, is by its nature a collaborative enterprise, and I think it was important for everyone to get a sense of how that kind of relationship would work.
2) So what's your first order of business when you get yourself settled in?
DU: It's difficult to talk in terms of specifics having not yet begun the job. But the broad answer is this: I want to rethink the notion of a Book Review, to consider how such a section needs to position itself in a world where literature is often marginalized. What is the nature of reading and writing? How are they relevant? And how do we integrate them into our lives? In the most basic sense, this means considering a more diverse range of work for the section, both in terms of the kinds of books that get covered, and the types of writing we showcase. I'd hope, for instance, to see more non-review material - essays, overviews, think pieces - and certainly, there will be a more consistent balance between fiction and nonfiction from week to week. But also, I'd like to take on a wide array of ideas and aesthetics, from traditional literature and scholarship to new media and electronic arts. Reading and writing, it seems to me, occur in all sorts of venues, from the page to the computer screen. Robert Coover's new collection features a story printed on playing cards; the narrative changes each time you shuffle the deck. How do we cover all of this, and still make the coverage cohesive and intelligent? I'm looking forward to finding out.
3) What do you consider to be the role of a Book Review? Do you feel an obligation to local writers? Or to cast a wider net? Is it to review popular books that people are reading? Or to alert them to things they might not be aware of? And how do you hope to reconcile the explosion of titles being published yearly with the shrinking number of pages given to Book Review sections? (And, for a bonus point, why do you suppose that the Book Reviews get smaller even as publishers' catalogs get bigger?)
DU: I don't like the word "obligation," but I do feel a commitment to local writers and to Southern California as a literary landscape. Much of my work for the last ten years or so has been in this area, and I continue to see it as important and profound. That said, I don't intend to edit a regional section, but rather a national section that grows out of its community to take a broader point-of-view. I'd like to cast as wide a net as possible, to alert readers to new books while also taking on more popular titles, to be smart and accessible at once. I don't think these desires are mutually exclusive; in fact, I believe, they're representative of how most people read. Right now, I'm reading Philip Roth, China Mieville, and Simon Winchester's book on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and each informs me in a different way. Book Review should function in such a fashion also, treating reading and writing not as fixed but fluid, activities that require us to readjust our responses depending on where we are or what we're doing on any given day. As far as reconciling the explosion of titles with the decrease in editorial pages, all you can do is to have a vision and represent it as best you can. At the Times, we'll cover 1000, maybe 1200, titles a year, which is a lot by contemporary standards, but is really just a drop in the bucket considering how many books are published in the United States. Rather than worry about it too much, though, I choose to see it as liberating. Since, no matter what, we can't be comprehensive, we might as well be true to ourselves.
4) Who's the best writer we've never heard of?
DU: Alexander Trocchi. He was a Scottish novelist of the 1950s, part of the postwar Paris expatriate community that included George Plimpton, Terry Southern, William Styron, and Peter Matthiessen. As an editor, Trocchi put out the short-lived journal Merlin, the first place ever to publish Samuel Beckett in English; as a writer, he supported himself writing high-class erotica for Maurice Girodias's Olympia Press, while producing two other novels - Young Adam (source of last year's film) and Cain's Book - that embraced a particularly flinty sort of nihilism. Trocchi was a long-time heroin addict, a lifestyle he claimed to have chosen freely, as a matter of philosophy, with the intent of nullifying his life. The truth, of course, was far more complicated, and he never published much of anything after Cain's Book appeared in 1960. Despite giving up on writing, however, he became involved with Guy Debord and the Situationists, and went on to play a role in the British anti-university movement of the late 1960s. He died in 1984, of complications from pneumonia, and if he's remembered at all these days, it's because of his notorious lifestyle, which is unfortunate, since he was a brilliant stylist and an unflinchingly philosophical writer, unafraid to take his ideas to the most relentless extremes.
5) And finally, ask yourself any question you'd like - but be sure to answer it.
DU: When is criticism a creative act?
Actually, it's probably more appropriate to pose this question from the opposite perspective: When is it not a creative act? For me, criticism is fundamentally creative because it begins with a writer or a thinker interacting with the world. Such a process is, necessarily, one of engagement; when we read or go to the movies or listen to music - when we walk down the street, for that matter - we are first and foremost experiencing something, and all criticism stems from the desire (need?) to make sense of that. This shaping impulse is at the heart of creativity; life may be chaotic, but there is order in thought. What does this mean in regard to Book Review? I'd suggest it gives us permission to look at reading and writing through whatever filter works. The best criticism, after all, has less to do with answers than with questions, and the more we embrace that, the more open and creative our questions can become.