Predictability is boring and consistency is overrated: Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post
Carlos Lozada is in the trenches. As the nonfiction book critic for the Washington Post, his output demonstrates that he spends an enormous amount of his time reading, writing, and thinking about the Trump administration and its effects. Book publishing is a grindingly slow process for fiction and creative nonfiction, but for political nonfiction it moves, comparatively, at the speed of light. Lozada has to keep up with all that, and he is charged with interpreting it for the reading public.
Well, the reading public that reads the Washington Post, anyway. Which is, um, everybody in Washington DC. This means all the people who have direct experience with DC culture – all the Capitol Hill interns, all the lobbyists, all the contractors and wonks and hangers-on – they could all potentially turn to Lozada for smart things to repeat at cocktail parties and networking events.
Fortunately, he provides them in spades. Read on for his answers to my questions about how he structures a review, whether political books have an expiration date, and Washington book parties.
Our conversation has been lightly edited.
Let me start out by saying that I am so glad you do what you do. You’re exactly the kind of book critic that I am not, and I’m grateful to you for reading political nonfiction so I don’t have to. What drew you to this subgenre of books and criticism?
I spent fifteen years as a news and magazine editor before becoming a book critic, so I had to read deeply on economics, foreign policy, national security, history, culture, religion, politics, gender, technology and countless other subjects just to help me do my job. That made the transition to writing about nonfiction books pretty seamless. In hindsight, it almost feels like everything was leading up to my taking on a role like this one.
These days it may seem like I write mainly about politics, but my favorite books to write about are ones that hit politics from unexpected angles. Reviewing, say, a history of the gun industry, like Pamela Haag’s The Gunning of America, or delving into a book on the technology of modern protest movements, like Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas, are both ways of writing about political engagement without having to write about some hack running for office. And, of course, some of the most memorable books I’ve read in my four years as a book critic have not been about politics, strictly speaking, at all. Evicted by Matthew Desmond, Ordinary Light by US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú – these books stay with me no matter the political season.
Your reviews quote the books extensively. Can you tell me more about this strategy for criticism?
Calling it a “strategy” gives me too much credit. The extent to which I quote the authors likely varies significantly from book to book and review to review. Where the writing in a book is particularly glorious – or painful – I try to impart a sense of that to my readers. Also, since the editors at the Post let me write rather long compared to other newspapers or magazines, I may have more freedom to quote when I think it’s effective. Part of it might relate to how I prepare to write a review, too, which basically involves boiling down a book into some 2,500 or 3,000 words (mainly quotes from the book along with my own marginalia) and using that as a starting point from which to begin drafting a review.
A book review is like any piece of writing: it needs its own rhythms and pacing and juxtapositions and surprises to compel readers to keep going. Too much quoting, or too little – when readers begin to wonder what the author says or sounds like – and you’ll likely lose them. Or sometimes a long quote from the book can work only if followed by a short little dagger of judgment or insight in the critic’s own voice.
When I think I’m done with a draft, I give it one last look in two contrasting ways. First, I go through the draft and find ways to pare back on the quotes already there, truncating, paraphrasing, or simply cutting. Second, I scour my notes to see if there is some quote lost there that I’d forgotten all about and that is just so irresistible I have to work it into the piece.
I go the other way: I write an essay on the book first, and then find quotes to support. But then I reread the pages I flagged in case I missed a quote that has to go in the review.
I started doing it this way when I first became a full-time book critic, probably out of fear that I would miss something really important in the book. I’ve stuck with it since then out of habit. I’m sure it is horribly inefficient, but at this point I wouldn’t know how else to do it.
I'm interested in how a critic reads books meant to diagnose a political situation with an expiration date. Does criticism change when the book at issue is focused on a current moment? Is political book criticism inherently of-the-moment?
I try to write in a way that will still feel revelatory and helpful to readers some weeks, months or even years after a book comes out. This means thinking about books of the moment with a longer-term sensibility. There are cases, of course, where a book just captures a particular news cycle and the intensity of interest is high. (I absolutely had to review James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty right away, for example, and I’m glad I did.) But for many books that may seem to speak only to a particular moment, that “expiration date” you mention is pretty flexible. For instance, right now we’re seeing several books by conservatives or Republicans who feel unmoored, politically homeless. Stuff like The Corrosion of Conservatism by Max Boot or How the Right Lost Its Mind by Charles Sykes. And we’re also seeing lots of books on the fate of truth in American politics, such as The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani and Gaslighting America by Amanda Carpenter.
These books could be opportunities to write about the outrage of the moment, pegging them to related events in the news. But it is more challenging and rewarding to place those books in history – in conversation with past periods of conservative rethinking or other eras of deliberate disinformation – and contrast them with other works of other eras. This takes more work, but it makes more sense. You have to signal to readers how a new argument contrasts with what has come before. This is all the more obvious in biography: Recently I reviewed David Garrow’s massive Barack Obama biography, Rising Star, but before I could do it I knew I had to read or revisit past Obama biographies. It was a lot more work, and in the end only produced a few more lines in my review, but I felt I’d done it right.
Agreed. The best critics have a foundation (whether it resembles a “canon” or not) instead of just a perspective.
I love how books end up addressing different eras and generations in unexpected ways. We’re never done reading them. Italo Calvino once wrote that a “classic” is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. Lots of books can be that way if we give them a chance.
Your reviews focus far more on the books than on your own opinions. It seems like you’re more interested in batting around the ideas of others than of promoting your own.
I usually get called out for the opposite failing – injecting too much personal viewpoint and perspective into my writing! (A former book critic at a competing publication once told me she felt I was more of a “book columnist” than a critic or reviewer.) But I think I’d be a lousy op-ed writer, and I admire people with the knowledge and skill and guts to range so widely, so frequently.
Books are good raw material for a discussion of ideas, an effective way of presenting and packaging ideas. But it is the ideas themselves that need to grab me one way or the other – and then I can go in and do what I do. In a first iteration of my pitch for this job, I proposed myself as a sort of ideas critic, grappling with them in whatever medium they emerged. But in the end focusing on books made more sense, logistically and (perhaps) intellectually.
I don’t see a clear dividing line, though, between engaging with the ideas of others versus introducing my own. Criticism is not stenography. Invariably, I interpret or elevate or question the works of others through the lens of my own ideas and perspectives and preferences. And, hopefully, readers find that perspective interesting and will continue reading. Maybe the fact that my own politics are a bit scattered helps me here; predictability is boring and consistency is overrated. As a critic you do need to defer to the material before you to some extent – after all, you need to start somewhere – but what you choose to read, what ideas you decide to connect, and what insights you bring to bear on that material, that is all you, and it’s liberating.
What kinds of opportunities does a book critic have to talk politics when writers of other kinds don't have a natural entry point?
Everything can be political. If you don’t see an entry point, look harder.
“Book Party” seems to denote reviews you’ve written which group books together – so it’s the books that are having the party, rather than people having a book-focused party. Have you thought about having the other kind of party as a book column?
“Book Party” is the name we gave the online space where my Washington Post reviews appear, but I love the idea of it reflecting my preference for multi-book essays. It also connects to Washington in the sense that book parties are a major form of socializing for a certain type of Washingtonian. Everyone shows up in some fancy DC home, buys a copy, gets it signed, gossips over sushi and wine, listens to the writer pontificate and thank people, and then leaves with little intention of ever cracking that book open.
One of your reviews mentioned that you’re in a book club. Can you talk more about that? How do you decide what to read, and/or fit it in with your reviewing schedule?
You’re reminding me that I really need to get the book group back together! We haven’t met in a while. It’s mainly newspaper and magazine writers and editors, along with some policy wonk types, and everyone is busy. We decide on books collectively, either at the end of a discussion or over email later. That’s half the fun, seeing what different people want to read. We’ve read Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra, American War by Omar El Akkad, The Future Is History by Masha Gessen, and How to Think by Alan Jacobs, among others. I try to avoid books that I’m going to review, too, but once I’ve read something, it is hard for it not to worm its way into something I write. That’s the one drawback of a job that I otherwise love – reading purely for fun gets harder to do.
I figure it’s either all work or all play.
Yeah, but if reading books for the Washington Post is work, I’ll take it.
Carlos Lozada is the nonfiction book critic for the Washington Post .
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