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Book Critic Ron Charles Discusses Year’s Best Works of Fiction

December 28, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Jeffrey Brown talks with book critic Ron Charles of The Washington Post about the best works of fiction in 2011 and the shape of the industry.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, four books of fiction from 2011 that top one reviewer’s best list.

Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: What kind of year was 2011 for books, both for the content and the actual things, the books themselves?

We talk with Ron Charles. He’s the fiction editor of The Washington Post’s Book World.

Welcome to you.

RON CHARLES, The Washington Post: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: If you take the year as a whole, was there a theme or themes that jumped out with you in terms of the kind of books you were reading?

RON CHARLES: It’s a lot of books, you know, hundreds of thousands of books.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

RON CHARLES: But when you look at the top-quality fiction, what struck me was the number of really fine books by women and about women, particularly young women.

JEFFREY BROWN: We saw that in the Book Awards.

RON CHARLES: The National Book Awards, particularly.

Sort of surprised. This young woman, an African-American, Jesmyn Ward, writes a book called “Salvage the Bones.” It’s comes out kind of from nowhere. It hadn’t been widely reviewed at all and wins the National Book Award.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was about the — just leading up to Katrina, right?

RON CHARLES: Right. It takes place in ten days before Katrina. It’s in Mississippi, this very poor African-American family, and it’s about a 14-year-old girl. It’s a really powerful, very poetic, raw story.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s an example of one where as, you say, few people had heard of it. It gets on the list and everybody says, what’s that?

But then I know you wrote about it afterwards and you really loved it.

RON CHARLES: We had to read it right before the awards.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes.

RON CHARLES: But, as I said, it had not been widely reviewed.

I think, though, what is going to happen, it’s going to be adopted by colleges and maybe some more progressive high schools, and it could be in print for a long, long time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what of the technology and economics of the book business? Of course, what we have talked about for several years is the e-book, the rise, and will it take over from the actual book-book. What do you see happening now?

RON CHARLES: We say it every year, but this is the year.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: This wasn’t the year.

RON CHARLES: This is the year.

About 50 million e-books are going to change hands this year, many of them in the next few weeks. Amazon is saying it’s selling a million Kindles a week now. The new year is going to begin with a lot of people owning e-books for the first time. And they are going to read in an entirely different way.

And the industry will have to adjust very, very quickly, I think more quickly than they realize.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, do they realize? Where’s the industry in awareness or change at this point?

RON CHARLES: It’s a strange moment, because we have years of terrible news for independent bookstores, and then, of course, the big chain, Borders, closes this year.

But then this year, it seemed to be turning up. Independents were surviving. There were some new independents. Ann Patchett started her own store in a sort of celebrated event. So, things seem — things seem to be stabilizing.

JEFFREY BROWN: I actually did want to ask you about the independent bookstores, because, as I travel, I — after years of hearing how they’re all going out of business, they’re actually — some of the old stalwarts remain.

RON CHARLES: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I do keep reading — occasionally read about new ones.

RON CHARLES: Right. No, it’s…

JEFFREY BROWN: So is there sort of a new niche out there possibly?

RON CHARLES: It seems to me that the ones that survived are the really strong ones. And they may be able to keep going.

And, as you say, they have defined themselves in particular ways. They’re not general bookstores anymore. They’re specializing in certain things. They’re mystery bookstores, or they sell wine and books. They have little restaurants. It’s very nice. They have found some way to make themselves essential to their community. And that’s what it will take from this point going forward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. So a couple of your favorites from the year out of the many that you’ve…

(LAUGHTER)

RON CHARLES: “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett.

JEFFREY BROWN: Speaking of her.

RON CHARLES: Yes. As I said, she opened a bookstore this year.

She wrote “Bel Canto,” which a lot of people read and loved. And this book is probably the easiest book to recommend to everybody. It’s very exciting. It’s about a scientist in Minnesota who is sent on assignment into Brazil to find a colleague who’s died. She’s a fertility specialist.

It’s very exciting. It’s sort of weirdly creepy. And it ties right into the news about the behavior of pharmaceutical companies, about fertility science, and about what it means to have a mentor and how you grow up and pull away from those people. I thought it was probably the most exciting book of the year.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I should say, although it’s probably obvious to people now, we’re talking fiction here.

RON CHARLES: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, give me — give us another novel that you loved.

RON CHARLES: Another book I loved, a historical novel by Mary Doria Russell called “Doc.”

What’s weird about Mary Doria Russell is that she’s this fabulous science fiction writer. And then, all of a sudden, a few years ago, she wrote a book about the Middle East, which seemed way out of character. And then she comes out this year with this Western about Doc Holiday and Wyatt Earp.

It’s written right into the history that most of us think we know and all the movies we think we know, but she does a lot of very sophisticated correction of those clichés, the old Western clichés. It’s a great story. And Doc Holiday turns out to be a much richer, more fascinating character than I remember.

JEFFREY BROWN: Than we remember from the movies?

RON CHARLES: Yes. And he’s got this Hungarian prostitute who speaks Latin to him at night.

(LAUGHTER)

RON CHARLES: He really wants to be a dentist, but he can’t make enough money, so he plays cards instead.

And the whole book takes place before they even get to the O.K. Corral. but that’s coming up in the next book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Alright, I’ll give you one more.

RON CHARLES: OK.

“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides. He writes very slowly. In 20 years, he’s only brought out three novels. But most people remember “Middlesex.” It won the Pulitzer Prize. “The Virgin Suicides” before that.

And this book, it is a very charming, intellectual book about a young woman who just graduated that day, the day the book opens, from Brown University. And she loves old-fashioned novels. And you can tell she’s been completely corrupted by them, the way she thinks about love, about herself, about the men who are in love with her.

She needs to straighten her life out. And how is she going to do that if all she knows about life is 19th century novels?

JEFFREY BROWN: What happens when you open a book and you start it and your — I don’t know, your heart sinks, or you realize, I’m not going to love this book? What is that like for you? Because you still have to go on and write about it.

RON CHARLES: Yes. Always, I do. I do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah.

RON CHARLES: I spend a lot of time picking the book first. We get about 150 books a day.

JEFFREY BROWN: One hundred and fifty books a day?

RON CHARLES: A day. And we’re choosing about 15 a week. So we don’t review almost all the books.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, yes.

RON CHARLES: So I don’t make a selection lightly. And once I’m committed to it, having done a lot of research, I stick it through to the last page.

But it can mean a very bleak week if I don’t like it.

(LAUGHTER)

RON CHARLES: But I do.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you have enough weeks to keep this going.

(LAUGHTER)

RON CHARLES: Yeah. And, usually, I’m — usually, it’s the opposite. Usually, I’m delighted. Usually, I’m amazed, and I just can’t believe how much talent the country keeps producing, how old writers keep reinventing themselves, how new writers seem to come out of nowhere and do really, really fine work.

So, I’m always impressed, usually.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ron Charles of The Washington Post’s Book World, thanks so much.

RON CHARLES: Thank you.