Tag Archives: books editor

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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