The Responsibilities of a Book Critic in the Era of a Trump Presidency
2019 Pulitzer-prize winner Carlos Lozada on writing about class, identity politics, and the Mueller report
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Carlos Lozada was already a lauded writer prior to being awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. He was a finalist the year before, received a citation for excellence from the National Book Critics Circle, and was a long time editor before turning full-time critic less than half a decade ago.
His literary criticism for the Washington Post has covered a wide range of topics. Like most Americans, he has been preoccupied with politics and Trump since the 2016 election. His recent essays have covered all of the peaks in the Trump era political book world including Fire and Fury, A Higher Loyalty, and Chasing Hillary. Just days after winning the Pulitzer, the most important document released so far about the current presidency was released. As most of the world ignored the Mueller report or turned excerpts into memes on Twitter, Lozada got to work writing yet another thoughtful and critical essay on it.
I talked to Carlos Lozada over the phone about his approach to book criticism and the responsibilities of a book critic in the era of a Trump presidency.
Adam Vitcavage: What is your approach to book criticism?
Carlos Lozada: I was an editor for the first fifteen years in journalism and this was my first full-time writing job. I started it in 2015 mainly because I felt like such a poser editing terrific writers without having really written myself. Our longtime book critic announced he was going to step down from the role and I felt it would be interesting to try to tackle this and make it my own.
The thing I try to do with these pieces is to simply see what’s coming. What is interesting coming out? Start making your list. I did that at first. I felt I needed to review a lot.When I got into the role more, I felt picking big subjects I was interested in and then looking for the books that made sense to read in order to get into those subjects. That’s my approach that I have tried to take so I am not hostage to whatever books the publishing companies are putting out at the moment.
AV: I understand that feeling. So many books—I’m thinking of political ones—are all about similar topics with different spins. They’re all written well and researched thoroughly, but we are hostage to what sells. Because America is a business, after all.
CL: You can end up following along. There is not a lot of agency with that approach. Last year, I decided I wanted to read and write about truth. All of these people are afraid we’re entering a post-truth world. I realized there were recent and forthcoming books on the subject so I sat down and read five or six of them. I tried to tackle that theme together.
I’m also interested in how the right is dealing with the Trump phenomenon. I looked at a bunch of books by people on the right who are Trump opponents and the Never Trump crowd as well as those who bought into Trump right away. I wanted to understand what was going on in that world through these sets of books.
I didn’t anticipate I would be writing so much about politics when I took this job in 2015. Even working for the Post, I knew I would write some about politics. Luckily there are interesting ways into the political conversation without having to be just about the campaign.
AV: Reading those books from the Right, what are things you learned coming from that end of the political spectrum?
CL: The books of the Never Trump conservatives who very early on declared they were opposed of Trump being the nominee of the Republican party have a lot of principle, anger, and righteousness in those books. There aren’t a lot of grappling of their role in how the Republican Party got to a point where they could nominate Donald Trump. That was interesting to me. These are writers who, to some extent, were deeply involved in the transformation of the party over the last couple of years. There was no grappling with that.
I felt in reading those books, that was an angle I could write about. That’s what I try to do with all of my pieces. You don’t have to like a book to write something interesting about it. Ideally, if you dislike a book you can dislike it in an interesting way. Your critique has to be its own piece of writing. Readers have to enjoy that on its own.
AV: I feel like a lot of people think criticism is just that quick regurgitation of a piece of media because a lot of outlets on the internet are like that because they need clicks.
CL: It’s not really fun to write that way. A critique needs to stand alone. It’s a subject that is worthy on its own, there just happen to be books written about it. That’s how I have tried to do the job.
It takes a long time to do it this way because I end up reading a lot of books on a subject. It’s really tiring, but in the end I hopefully come out with something that is more interesting to the reader than if I was just reviewing each of these books individually and giving a thumbs up or thumbs down.
AV: Earlier, you mentioned about what the Right was grappling with since you started this position with the Post?
CL: That is something I want to tackle next. Especially now that we see the range of people who are putting themselves forward as nominees for the party or the new crowd that has been elected to the House of Representatives.
Parallel to all of that and those debates, you see all of these books coming out that are grappling with liberalism. Adam Gopnik has a book coming out in the next couple of months called A Thousand Small Sanities and I think it grew out of something he wrote at The New Yorker. It’s about liberalism and that is something I will probably do in the next couple of months: read books about liberalism.
It will be fun to do in parallel to the early portions of the 2020 race on the Democratic side. Then we can see how it’s playing out in the literary world and the political world.
AV: What subjects interest you in America now?
CL: There is so much talk of class. When Trump showed up, you started getting all these books on the working class: White Trash by Nancy Isenberg, Strangers in Their Own Land by Arlie Hochschild, and recently Heartland by Sarah Smarsh which I really enjoyed. It became this fixation. Suddenly the white working class was sexy for non-stop deconstruction. There is so much more to that as a debate over identity. It’s almost as if it separate from the identity politics debate even though it’s all of a piece.
Those questions to be of identity and class are interesting and worth exploring. Late last year, I read several identity books that dealt with gender identity or racial identity.
The other thing I am thinking about is how Trump has made us focus on first principles in some ways. He’s questioning a lot of things people took for granted. Whether it is engagement with the world or the role of immigrants in American life. Books that help us think about first principles are interesting; like Jill Lepore’s These Truths is useful. Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning is very useful.
Those kinds of books I find very useful right now as opposed to what craziness is going on inside of the White House. That is less appealing to me. I am glad those stories exist because I want to know what is going on. The Mueller report is the best version of that because it is all on the record and under oath.
AV: With the Mueller report, how did you approach that?
CL: I had very little time. It was the same week they announced the Pulitzer prizes so it was a very good way to stop basking in my reflective glory and get back to work. It went live on the internet on Thursday, April 18 and I printed it out to read it beginning to end. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. Usually I go in with a few questions that I want resolved or want to think about.
Here I just read. I knew so many people, including folks in our newsroom, were writing about the details of it. I tried to treat it as a book even though I know it isn’t. I read so many of those inside the White House tell-alls that I could try to treat it as that to see what it feels like.
In some ways it had a lot of the same pieces as the those tell-alls that have a signature moment. The Mueller report has that. When Mueller was appointed, Trump says, “This is the end of my presidency; I’m fucked.”
The report has the official caught in the lie when Sarah Saunders says she really hadn’t heard from countless FBI agents saying they were happy James Comey was fired. There are the Nixon references.
The report felt familiar to a Trump era inside the White House book, but then it was just the authoritative manner that separated the book. Bob Woodward didn’t have subpoena power. Mueller was able to get these people under oath and on the record.
AV: Are there other types of Trump books you’re interested in?
CL: What I am most interested now are books that try to go deeper on specific aspects of the Trump presidency. Julie Davis and Mike Shear at the New York Times have a book coming out this fall on Trump and immigration. I am very interested in reading a book like that because it is far more specific and focused.
AV: Are there longer or larger pieces in your peripheral?
CL: I’m not sure. I try to reinvent my job every few years or else it can get boring. I started by writing about as many books as I could. Then I delved into these multi-book essays connected by a theme. For now, I still think I want to do some of that. One thing I will try to do is read old books that are relevant to whatever we are experiencing now. A lot of great stuff was published before we were born. I might look back on books about old political campaigns leading into the 2020 election.