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Karen Long, Plain Dealer Books Editor, Talks About Reading and Reviewing

27 Apr

Karen Long, books editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, spoke as a guest in my Rhetoric and Composition class this afternoon.  Long, who has held her position since 2005, talked about her path as a journalist and book critic, the details of her weekly routine, about ethical problems of writing about literature, and about the role of book criticism in the lives of readers.

                In her own words, the soft-spoken Long “stumbled into” her job as books editor.  She had already been working and writing for the Plain Dealer in a number of other capacities, and when the position for books editor opened in 2005, she approached the editor in chief and begged for the position.  His response: “Do you read?” and, “What do you read?”

                Long receives between 350 and 450 books a week, which she files into a special room where she and other reviewers can have their pick of “spec” copies—pre-print copies of books sent to reviewers before the mass publication date.  Of those roughly four-hundred books, Long must cull twelve to fifteen a week to be reviewed in a two page spread.  The challenge is “to make those selections and to make the books in conversation with one another.”  Sometimes, as was the case with a recent issue, books were selected for their timeliness (i.e., the anniversary of the BP oil spill).  Other times, the books are highly anticipated, such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which debuted in 2010.  Still other instances allow for Long to select books that might not otherwise have been reviewed, to polish the gems from the crass.

                On the flipside of the coin, Long must pair reviewers with appropriate books.  Unlike books editors at larger publications like The New York Times or the Chicago Tribune, Long has the flexibility and the desire to print reviews by new voices—as long as they’re good.  “My bosses don’t like me to run a writing lab,” she said.  “They say if it’s not ready, you shouldn’t be mucking around.”  Still, Long admitted to helping some especially poignant or passionate readers find their critical voices.  The bottom line, however is that, “If it’s B- [work], I don’t want it.”

                In talking about her approach to the job, Long sounded like a broken record: “My motto is readers first,” she said many times and in various ways.  “There’s so many crappy books out there, I don’t feel ashamed to say, ‘read this book, don’t read that book.’…  I see it as a public service… I’m working in an old medium and trying to appeal to everybody.  My goal is to not be the last book editor of the paper.”

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A Quiet Voice–Reading by Layli Long Soldier

18 Apr

Layli Long Soldier captivated obies with her short reading at Slow Train this past Sunday.

          Photo Credit

  This past evening, Sunday April 17th, I had the great pleasure of listening to a poetry reading at Oberlin’s Slow Train Café by Layli Long Soldier as part of the Multicultural Resource Center’s Indigenous Women’s Series.

I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much.  As I’ve said in various other ways on this blog, listening to poetry often makes me feel incredibly stupid.  I guess I wasn’t blessed with the sort of mind that associates words and sounds and images, or that can follow a string of these images and sounds into some other transcendental space.  Then again, I have a feeling any sort of true poet would laugh at that last sentence, because I’ve always been sort of wary of poets—I get the sense that some of them get a great kick out of standing up in front of a group of raptly attentive individuals, spouting off long lists of adjectives that supposedly mean something.  It just always seems like there’s some joke I’m not getting.  Although to circle back, this mentality is probably the child of a severe insecurity my ficton-writerly self has with my failed-poet-writerly self.  And if I am going to keep rambling I might as well just condense all of that into a single sentence, which would be that my real problem with poetry is that I think too much and that I don’t just listen, don’t simply feel.

Long tangent aside—Layli’s reading.  This was both my first reading of the semester, and also my first visit to Slow Train, so I decided to commemorate the occasion by purchasing hot chocolate, an iced coffee (for the boyfriend) and one of every type of baked good Slow Train sells.  Thirteen bucks later, I nestled into the lone empty corner (hidden behind a speaker; I had to poke my head around the corner to watch Layli read, which brings up the interesting topic of why this was necessary—wasn’t I just coming to listen?  But the reading was also a visual experience, and that in itself could be a whole new post.) and allowed Layli’s poetry to carry me away.

Her poetry is striking in the way it deals with words and their meanings, both on paper and in a deeper sense, in the sense that words both define and cannot define things.  Her poetry captures the pains of the body, of motherhood and fatherhood, of a spiritual relationship between the past and present, and of memory, and of definition.  I can say that I was moved by her rhythmic reading and her quietly shaking hands—an unassuming reminder that she was in many ways like me.  Her poetry was not an exclusive joke and did not make me feel stupid, rather it was heartfelt, something she was both excited and nervous to share.

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Layli Long Soldier, Oglala Lakota, is a graduate of the creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her family is from northwestern Idaho and the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. She has served as editor-in-chief of the “Native Language Network” and other publications for the Indigenous Language Institute. She is a two-time recipient of the Truman Capote Scholarship Award. She is also writer/guitarist for “M=Water” and mother of a five-year old daughter, Chance White.