Tag Archives: criticism

In Conversation With: Alex Shephard (OC ’09)

7 May

This week I was lucky enough to steal away some of Alex Shephard’s precious time for the following interview. (Check out his work here!)  Shephard graduated from Oberlin in 2009 and is one of the founding members and editor in chief of Full Stop, an infant online books forum that includes interviews, reviews, features, etc.  If you haven’t read Full Stop, please drop what you’re doing and go there now!  The site is a huge inspiration to me as an undergraduate pursuing a pretty useless creative writing degree.

Here I ask Alex about the popular new site, his own writing ambitions and advice, and what it takes to become a new superstar of the book world.  His answers are poignant, smart, and certainly left me thinking.

How did the idea for Full Stop come about?

In Philadelphia, they serve something called the “City Wide Special” — a shot of Heaven Hill whiskey (which tastes a bit like fermented rust) and a 16 oz. PBR. After drinking a couple of these, Jesse and I started talking about how we didn’t think our generation was well represented in the online literary “scene” and about how, after writing for other places for a few months, we wanted a space of our own where we could experiment and grow as writers and editors. For obvious reasons, that first conversation wasn’t particularly coherent, but we stuck with it.

That was, I think, the week before Thanksgiving. By mid-December we had brought in Max Rivlin-Nadler, Amanda Shubert, and Eric Jett and had a lot of discussions about what we wanted the site to cover and how we wanted to cover it. Looking back, I’m amazed at how quickly everything came together — we basically set the site up, on a whim, in 6 weeks.

Have you been surprised by the response thus far?  What were your expectations?

I have been amazed by the response thus far. When we started we had no reputation to speak of, no money, no marketing; in fact, there’s still no money or marketing. Just a handful of interviews and reviews and about two dozen people who were really committed to making the site work. By the second week, we had been picked up by 3 Quarks Daily, which helped to boost traffic a lot, but for the most part we’ve grown, and have continued to grow, by word of mouth. It’s difficult for me to express how moved I’ve been by how quickly we’ve gained a modest, but committed readership. The fact that that our readership continues to grow on an almost daily basis is really heartening.

Because things happened so quickly, I don’t really ever remember talking about what our expectations were for the site, in terms of traffic. We mostly discussed things like tone, what we did and did not want to cover, our editorial roles etc. I’m pretty sure a part of me expected that nobody would read us at first, because, well, why would they?

I’m proud that, while I monitor traffic pretty religiously, it’s not something that we place very much importance on. I hope you’ll forgive me for copying and pasting an excerpt from an earlier interview, but I do think that it’s relevant: “We started [Full Stop] to write about what we’re interested in, to contribute to a conversation that, without energy and integrity, can easily stagnate. If nobody was reading something, perhaps we’d pay attention to that, but we generally want to write and read about what we want to write and read about and I hope that doesn’t change.”

Full Stop carves and defends a necessary space for young critics to talk with and about young writers.  The discussion has traditionally been established writers talking about young writers.  Do you think full-stop’s dialogue had the potential to change the way critics approach literature?  Or do you think the approach is already changing, and full-stop is merely a product of that change?

 I don’t think there’s one conversation. So, I’m pretty wary of talking about how we can “change” a critical conversation that’s always been pretty multivocal. While the internet has exploded the critical conversation, it hasn’t, in my opinion, dramatically altered it. The old guard — your newspapers, journals, and magazines with New York somewhere in the title — is still going strong and most  websites still follow their model. I’m pretty sure you could find legitimate parallels between most of the online beacons and journals or zines from ages past.

That being said, the internet has the power to create and sustain, I think, a more diverse critical conversation. For instance, we’ve tried to bring in people with a lot of different backgrounds and interests. It’s also changed the way we register critical authenticity or legitimacy. You no longer need a secondary outlet to say “here is something we sanction”; you can just go out and do it yourself.

Before Full Stop, did you have any other writing jobs/did you maintain a blog?  If so—how did that experience inform your current work?

I was (and still am) a fairly active freelancer, though most of the work I did before Full Stop was editing and most of the writing I did was anonymous. I wrote reviews and conducted interviews for a variety of outlets (some reputable, some not), but didn’t do nearly as much writing as I do now. And most of the worthwhile writing I did was private — attempts at fiction; “journaling.” So I’m not sure how that experience informed my work. Writing and editing technical manuals and medical papers certainly didn’t contribute anything, but it did make me hungry — it made me really, really want to do the kind of writing I longed to do. That drive was and is essential to the site. I’ve tried to stay hungry.

What have you learned so far from the experience and what advice would you give to undergraduates seeking to make careers in writing?

Let me begin by prefacing everything that follows with this: I don’t really know what the fuck I’m doing. Full Stop has been an exercise in improvisation and one that hasn’t been going on long enough for me to really be qualified to give advice. But, here it goes:

So much of what I’ve learned is remarkably boring; it’s mostly stuff that seems obvious, but is actually pretty difficult to accomplish. Respond to emails on time, keep deadlines, maintain control over the disparate tasks you have to accomplish. The great Tom Scharpling sums it up perfectly with his 3 rules for getting quality creative work done:

1. DO THE WORK. Can you look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and say that you did the best you could?

2. BE THE BEST POSSIBLE VERSION OF YOURSELF. Don’t shortchange yourself or pull your punches because of some internal negative voice.

3. WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU NEED TO DO. It helps. Do those three things and you’ll be more alright than not.

Is there any job more romanticized than writing? People often overlook that a writing career often means an often grueling workload, financial instability, and (always) the possibility that no one will read what you’ve spent x hours writing. It is, first and foremost, a job. So I think that finding an internal drive and maintaining a certain level-headedness about what you’re getting into is really important.

What are your plans for the future, both with Full Stop and in your personal writing career?

 Full Stop (at 4.5 months) and I (at 23.5 years) are both relatively young and have no concrete plans. I honestly have no idea what the site will look like in 6 months, and that’s one of the things I love most about this project: we’re always trying new things, there’s very little pressure and no constraints. As for my own writing career, I just hope I continue to “develop” as a writer.

If you had to write an acknowledgements page right now, who would you include?  What people, works, or experiences have been most important to your growth as a writer?

Growing up in Elmira, NY I lived in what Philipp Meyer calls a “split existence”:  a private life of reading and writing and a “social” life of normal Rust Belt teenage boy stuff. That dichotomous upbringing was and is really crucial to my thinking. My experience at Oberlin was equally important. The Oberlin English Department essentially taught me how to write, with David Walker taking on the bulk of that Herculean task. And a lot of the folks I met at Oberlin, now my best friends, are people I still “workshop” ideas with. My bffs Eric Jett (Full Stop’s Web Editor), David Sokoll, and Lucas Brown are the three people that had the greatest effect on me over those four years and, as a result, I’ll be burdened with love and affection for them for the rest of my life.

In an interview Wells Tower did with Barry Hannah (probably my favorite writer of fiction), Hannah talked about living in Oxford, Mississippi and having to get used to Faulkner’s ghost hovering around everything in that town. When I spoke to Wells back in February, we touched on the idea of “ghosts” (this didn’t make it into the final interview) and concluded that we’d never really had that experience. So, in terms of works or writers, I can’t really direct you to one (or even two or three) and say, “I wanted to do this because of x.”

That being said, I can briefly give a rundown of a few critics or non-fiction writers that had a big effect on me. In high school, Andrew Sullivan and Chris Hitchens loom large. I still read everything they write, and credit them with a great deal of what I guess you could call my “moral” development, though I would be hard pressed to define that. In college or shortly after, Nicholson Baker, Paul Collins, David Foster Wallace, and V.S. Naipaul became heroes. Other folks, mostly living, one dead, that come to mind when I think of writing I admire: Richard Holmes, Marco Roth, Ta-nehisi Coates, Benjamin Kunkel, Jessa Crispin, Michael Schaub, Samuel Coleridge, Blake Butler, Denis Johnson, Joan Didion, Edmund White, Nitsuh Abebe, Geoff Dyer, Gabe Delahaye (the funniest man on the internet), Max Magee, Edan Lepucki, Tony Horwitz, Christian Lorentzen, Michael Miller, Emily St. John Mandel, and John Jeremiah Sullivan. So there’s what The Awl would call a “listicle without comment.” I’m sure I’m leaving a bunch of writers I like out, but those are the people that came to mind immediately.


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.”