Bethanne Patrick’s Twitter ID, @TheBookMaven, couldn’t be more appropriate. I don’t know anyone in recent times who’s done more to promote literary culture. Bethanne is the Books Editor at Washingtonian magazine, and her reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, O the Oprah Magazine, People, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and many other places. She’s blogged about books for venues including AOL, Publishers Weekly, and BN.com, and helped to launch Shelf Awareness for Readers and Book Riot.
On Twitter, Bethanne created #FridayReads, which unites readers and other book lovers every week. From 2007 until 2011, she hosted an author interview show on WETA-PBS called “The Book Studio.” The author of two titles from National Geographic Books, Bethanne is currently working on her first novel. I’m very pleased that she agreed to share some of her thoughts about books and readers with us today.
SW: I love how you describe yourself on Twitter—“Writer, author, erstwhile blogger—but above all a reader.” Why do you identify yourself as a reader first, before all of your other occupations?
BP: I like to call myself a reader first because I think we all are readers first—we want to learn how to decipher the world before we have our own stories to tell. It’s a glorious common denominator. It’s also the “occupation,” if you will, that led me to all of the others. If I hadn’t learned to love listening and reading, I would never have become a writer, a journalist, an author, etc.
SW: How many books do you read each week and how do you select the books you read? Do you speed-read?
BP: On an average week (meaning no deadlines, vacations, or crises), I read three or four books. I average about 175-200 per year. I’ve never taken a speed-reading course. But in a way, I think that getting a master’s degree in English was a speed-reading course. I learned to consume huge amounts of prose in small amounts of time because otherwise there was no keeping up with coursework.
SW: In your reading, do you try to strike a balance between fiction and nonfiction and among different types of fiction?
BP: It depends on what kind of work I have. Right now, as Washingtonian Books Editor, I am reading a lot of nonfiction, since many books relevant to my section fall into that category. But I am an unabashed and unrepentant fiction fiend, and given my druthers, I might read nothing else. I do read many types: mystery, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, chick lit (if there even is such a thing, which I’ve argued against in the past), women’s lit, and so on, but I’m happiest with an engrossing, multilayered literary novel.
SW: You write about books in many places—your blog, Twitter, Washingtonian, and other publications. What percentage of books that you read and write about are debut fiction?
BP: I have no idea what percentage of books I write about are debut fiction, but I can say that I love to read debut fiction and am always on the lookout for fresh voices. Writers whose debuts I’ve championed in various places include Cara Hoffman (So Much Pretty, Be Safe I Love You), Siobhan Fallon (You Know When the Men Are Gone), Maggie Shipstead (Seating Arrangements), Joshua Ferris (Then We Came to the End), Lisa Howorth (Flying Shoes), and so many, many others. I wish I could think of more right now!
SW: You initiated #FridayReads on Twitter. What do you hope people will get out of these tweets?
BP: Conversation about books, and the knowledge that as readers they are never, ever alone—new book selections and other reading fiends are never more than a tweet away.
SW: I see you’re planning a #FridayReads website. What will it be like?
BP: I wish it were further along right now, but life intervened. Last year my family and I moved into a new house, which took up most of 2013, and 2014 has been off with a bang as I’ve taken over the books coverage at Washingtonian. Eventually, the #FridayReads site will be a place where avid and occasional readers can meet, discover the best resources for reading and books, and continue to create community and conversation about the written word.
SW: You also launched Book Riot, Shelf Awareness for Readers, and the AOL Books Channel. Why do you think these websites are necessary and important?
BP: Unfortunately, AOL Books is no longer, but Shelf Awareness for Readers and Book Riot are going strong. Those two things are quite different—Shelf Awareness for Readers is an email newsletter and Book Riot is a blog-based site. However, both are keeping book culture alive for distinct audiences, and that’s something to celebrate.
SW: What are your duties as Books Editor of Washingtonian? What do you hope to accomplish?
BP: I’m responsible for books coverage in the print edition of the magazine, as well as for weekly blogging (which can be about almost anything—rubs hands together with glee). My mandate for print is to find the best books by, about, and for Washingtonians. Luckily, this is not difficult. DC is the best-read city in the USA and has a fantastic community of bloggers, reporters, authors, poets, booksellers, and readers.
SW: Do you read and/or review self-published books or books that are published as e-books only? Why?
BP: Such a relevant question, and the answer is sadly, no. There are far too many books that come to me from traditional publishers for me to take time to look at self-published books (e-books that come from reputable houses/imprints are always of interest to me, but these are still few and far between). Here’s the thing: books from structured, established presses are books that I know have been properly developed, edited, and designed. I may not love everything about every book from a particular publisher, but I do know that the professional blocks have been checked. I don’t know that about self-published books.
However, I think that that will change as the new generation of what one colleague calls “craft publishing” emerges. This isn’t self-publishing, but it is publishing outside of the walls of big Manhattan houses. One of the things that turns me off about “self-publishing” is the idea of “self.” It’s self-ish, in my opinion, to believe that your words need no vetting, that your ideas don’t require another set of eyes.
SW: As a book critic, what do you think is your most important responsibility?
BP: I’ll always believe that true literary criticism (of which I’ve done precious little to this point) is important because it adds to our cultural conversation and tradition. Excellent criticism isn’t about negativity. It speaks to the future and the past, and places books and authors and ideas in context.
As a book reviewer, my most important responsibility is to tell the reader about the book—not about me, not about history around the book (so common in nonfiction reviews!), not about the author. About the book. Is it worth reading? What makes it so?
SW: Do you think critics should publish negative book reviews or is it better not to talk about inferior books?
BP: I do believe that negative reviews are sometimes worthwhile, but a couple of ground rules: I never give a debut novel a negative review. If it’s bad, I don’t review it. I rarely write a negative review of something in a series, unless it truly violates/disappoints readers’ expectations of that series.
But I do think that a disappointing book from a major author is an occasion on which to write a negative review (and, mind you, negative does not mean cruel or vicious).
SW: In a recent blog post on your website, you talked about the midlist in publishing and how important it is. Why is it so important, and what should readers do to find books on the midlist since they don’t usually get a lot of publicity?
BP: The midlist is where so many of my favorite books live, and here’s why: I don’t always think that perfect books are the perfect vehicles for enjoyment. Sometimes a book that aims even higher—and misses its mark—has great material. There are books I’ve read that I know will never get the big reviews, but still deserve readers. And readers would love them!
So how do readers find these books? So. Very. Difficult. This is one of the services that marketing-based sites like Shelf Awareness and Book Reporter provide; they give info, interviews, and reviews of many more books than any review section possibly could. Book blogs also help with some of the midlist, depending on the blogger’s particular interests. The best allies any reader can have? Still and always, librarians.
SW: How can publishers and authors encourage people to read more?
BP: Would that I had the answer. One thing I’d like to remind publishers is that every book has things within it that you can tie to something else. It might be a memoir that includes a section on gardening, or a novel that takes place in New Orleans. Get that author talking and writing about that angle in all the media you can!
SW: Are you still managing Twitter Book Club? What do you think can be gained from discussing a book in comments of only 140 characters?
BP: The Twitter Book Club started as a casual thing and morphed into a piece of my business for a while. Now that lots of other people are holding versions of Twitter chats and book clubs, I’ve moved on to other stuff, but it’s still a lot of fun, albeit fast and furious, to spend an hour tweeting about a book! One of our best book-club events was with Paul Greenberg for his book Four Fish. So many different groups were interested—environmentalists, hobby fishermen, cooks, foodies, and so on—that it drew a huge crowd.
SW: Louis Bayard, author of The Black Tower, called you “one of the premiere book interviewers in the business.” What do you think makes you such a good interviewer of authors?
BP: Full disclosure: Lou (whose latest novel is Roosevelt’s Beast) is a close friend and he was so kind to say that back at a time when we didn’t know each other as well! Hmmm, wonder what he would say now. Seriously, though, if I am a good interviewer of authors it’s because I love interviewing authors. I think the authors I’ve been fortunate enough to interview (in person, by phone, on camera, etc.) sense that quickly. They also know I always, always read their books; if I can’t read the book completely before the interview, I always finish before I publish the interview.
SW: What do you think are the most important questions to ask authors?
BP: The ones that make them think about their work in new and different ways, although I am quick to back off if I seem to have invented some meaning that they didn’t attempt. However, one of my greatest satisfactions in conducting author interviews is the moment when an author says, “I didn’t see that—you’re right! And what’s more . . .” Exciting stuff.
The least important questions to ask authors are those they’ve been asked a gazillion times before: When do you write? Where do you write? What kind of pen do you use? Readers may want to know this stuff, so I don’t think it’s useless, but it rarely gets the authors talking about anything interesting. I like to strike a balance between surprising the author and satisfying the reader.
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