Ron Charles – Deputy Book Editor, Washington Post
On a recent spring afternoon, Ron Charles set foot in the vault of the Folger Library in Washington to see the first edition of Shakespeare’s “Sonnets” on the 400th anniversary of the book’s publication.
It was the perfect outing for Charles, a lifelong book critic, who in April 2009 was promoted to the deputy editor for the Washington Post book section.
“It is awfully fun to tell people about books they haven’t heard of and they might enjoy,” Charles said. “It is delightful and a real privilege to be a part of the literary conversation of this country.”
Charles joined the Post four years ago as the fiction editor, a position not much different from his current responsibilities. He called his recent promotion “a cosmetic change” with more management duties but the same challenging writing schedule.
“I review every Wednesday and in the [meantime] I read a lot of books to see what we should assign and what I want to review myself,” Charles said. “And of course, I get to choose the books I review now, so I am delighted almost every week by how wonderfully people write.”
Book reviewing and critiquing is certainly challenging in the era of the Internet, and Charles recognizes the importance of adjusting to different media models and the Web. His specific goal for the section is to “help it evolve as quickly as possible to whatever new models come along.”
He explained, “We are trying to be everywhere because we don’t know exactly what the future holds. It obviously does not hold more news print.”
To keep up with the times, Charles is everywhere, indeed: He Twitters “madly” everyday, contributes to the Post’s Short Stack blog, and produces the weekly Book World podcasts for the paper. However, he is still trying to fully grasp the role of newspapers in the e-future.
“What we’ve done for centuries is being gatekeepers and editors,” he said. “And we select what’s important, what’s interesting, what’s entertaining. And we edit it, and that’s a real service. How would readers be served when there are 10 million blogs? How would they know if their reading has been checked, or edited, or vetted in any way? I don’t yet understand that.”
Writing for multimedia is something Charles did not foresee. Once an aspiring writer himself, Charles has been reading and critiquing books his whole life. Prior to the Washington Post, he was the book editor for theChristian Science Monitor for seven years. Before that, he taught American literature and criticism at Principia College in Saint Louis, Mo., and after briefly teaching English at John Burroughs School, Charles decided he is “sick and tired of grading papers” and needed a career change.
“A friend suggested that I review books,” he said. “So I literally went to the bookstore, picked up a book I thought it would be interesting, read it, reviewed it, and sent it off to the Christian Science Monitor. They bought it and asked for more.”
Changing careers after 12 years in academics was a move that gave a breath of fresh air to Charles’ lifelong affair with books. But even after many years of reading books and making professional judgments about them, Charles said it is still difficult critiquing someone else’s work.
He tries to remain objective, he said, and “always, to be fair, kindhearted, [and] generous.” He added, “I try to remember that someone worked on this book for several years, that several editors and friends thought it was good, that my reaction to it might be colored by what I’ve read recently or by trouble at home or simply because I’m too tired.”
Certainly when there are challenges, rewards are around the corner. For Charles, it is the constant variety of books and the fact that every day, he deals with “the best writing that has been done in the country.”
One may wonder, what is a book critic’s favorite book?
“Recently?” he asked. “I really liked a book called “Serena” by Ron Rash and “American Rust” by Phillip Meyer. And I love Geraldine Brooks.”
Charles strongly advises PR professionals to tailor their pitches and said, “By far the best publicists are the ones that tailor their recommendations to what we might be able to use. The worst ones just spray the publicity materials to everyone and just take it part-time.”
He wants to receive short pitches that clearly emphasize why a book might interest his audience. Most of the books Charles reviews are from American authors, but he does critique books from all over the world. He is open to a variety of fiction, however emphasizes that publicists avoid sending self-help books.
“I have never in the history of the section, reviewed self-help books, so I don’t need to be pitched those,” he said. “Anyone who knows anything about the Post and our book section would know that or should know that.”
He added, “Do not call in your pitches. Always e-mail. The lead time is less than two months, unless the book is embargoed or is crashing for some reason. Do not fax press materials as faxes never make it. The mail is also problematic.”
Charles’ biggest pet peeve in dealing with PR professional is when he receives e-mails asking if he received a book.
“We get 150 books a day. I have no idea what I have received. I know what I have assigned, but what I have received? Who knows?” he said.
He does not accept follow-up e-mails and explained, “If you sent me an e-mail and I have responded, that’s pretty much it. Our relationship ends there.”
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