The great media layoffs of 2008 hit book reviews like a nuclear blast. Stand-alone book sections folded at many newspapers, book editors and critics were laid off or took buyouts, and in the worst cases, newspapers like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shut down their printing presses but stayed online, while some, like the Rocky Mountain News, closed altogether. Consequently, the competition for the remaining, coveted spots in reliable bookselling media has intensified. After all, how many authors can Jon Stewart interview in a given week? For many, the book review is in dire need of a savior, or at least some hope, a tiny green sprout poking out of the tattered, yellowing rubble of the postprint landscape. Enter a middle-aged man with slices of raw bacon draped over his head.
That man is Ron Charles, fiction critic at the Washington Post and author of a popular series of video book reviews on the Washington Post's Web site that promises to bring viewers book coverage that is "fast, fun, and totally hip!" His faux snobbish tone, heavy on self-mockery, pokes fun at the idea that any traditional news organization could produce anything remotely "hip" in the age of LOLcats and Lady Gaga—yet there is something curiously hip about these videos.
Perhaps it's the sight of a grown man in his pajamas, writhing around in cologne samples. Maybe it's that Charles reviewed Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, the novel lauded by the New York Times as "a masterpiece of American fiction," while on the toilet, surrounded by Beanie Babies. Or, maybe the hipness stems from the idea that loyal Post readers can finally get a peek behind the curtain, or in this case, the byline, of a respected voice in the book world. And, it turns out, that voice is funny.
Really, really funny.
From Print to Web
Whatever the reason, Charles's book review videos have gained a devoted following, especially among the Millennials of the publishing industry, to whom social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are second nature. While the Washington Post Web editors play it close to the vest in terms of actual numbers, they say Charles's video review of Freedom, for example, has logged over 25,000 views, a respectable showing, along with audience raves.
"God, I love these," posted Jessica Krakoski, communications publicity manager at Cave Henricks, on Facebook, along with a link to one of Charles's recent masterpieces. "I literally laugh out loud at every single one," she tells PW. "He manages to make fun of himself, book critics, birthers, the New York Times, and Justin Bieber in just four minutes."
McGraw-Hill business editor and freelance book reviewer Niki Papadopoulos agrees. "This is amazing," she tweeted, linking to Charles's video on the National Book Award nominees, hosted on Slate. "What I love is that he doesn't hide behind a block of text," she says in an interview. "He engages with the Web on the Web's terms, not just on print's terms." That's true—Charles has over 7,000 Twitter followers, and beyond his videos, he regularly engages with readers in online discussions about books.
With book reviews sections shrinking, developing dynamic content that can connect with readers in the digital age has been a stumbling block for many newspapers and magazines. But the uncertainty that comes with the constantly shifting habits of digital readers is not all bad news for books.
The Los Angeles Times's stand-alone book section closed in 2007, with review space reduced from 12 pages to three in the "Arts and Books" section. But thanks to its Web efforts, the books staff has actually expanded book coverage, including Web-only reviews, and the frequently updated "Jacket Copy" blog. "One of the great things about the Web is that it is wide open in the best sense," says David Ulin, who served as book editor of the Los Angeles Times from 2005 to 2010, when the paper was still developing its online strategy. Ulin says he appreciates how Charles is extending book reviews via new media. "What Ron is doing is not just a shtick," he notes. "He knows what he's talking about, and he's making good points about the books. It takes a certain personality to do that, and this is a great outlet for his personality."
The shrinking newspaper industry is a serious problem for books, Charles acknowledges, despite his humorous, new media slant. Upon accepting the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2009, Charles skittishly quipped between sips of water: "I don't know if I'm nervous, or if this is just survivor's guilt." He estimates that book coverage in print is down perhaps 15% at the Post since the closure of its stand-alone book section, Book World, that reality has seemed to motivate Charles more than discourage him.
New Kind of Fame
So what does "totally hip" video book reviewer Ron Charles think of his newfound success as an Internet star and book review revivalist? "Oh, I can't even go out in public anymore," he deadpans.
It is that sense of humor that has played so nicely on the Web. Charles's irreverent video book reviews rely less on witty comparisons or apt euphemisms typical of traditional print reviews. Instead, he has a knack for letting clever editing deliver the punch line. In one video, he tells viewers that President Obama has invited him to "host the National Book Festival at the Mall," immediately followed by a quick shot of himself looking bewildered, wandering around a D.C. shopping mall.
Charles says he picked up his video skills years ago when he and his family used to make satirical videos to send out to friends for the holidays. His family has since become something of a troupe for his Washington Post video reviews, with appearances by his daughter, his mother-in-law, and his wife of 26 years, Dawn, who plays herself in a recurring role. But ever since the days of his early family videos, he says, he's had the idea for a character—a stereotypical, overly snarky book critic. He finally tried out that character in August of 2010 when he produced his first video book review. His first subject: Mona Simpson's My Hollywood.
Charles couldn't have chosen a more appropriate candidate for launching himself into the digital age of video book reviews. Simpson, the critically acclaimed author of previous titles like Anywhere but Here, had not published a book since 2000, when the media environment was much different. Recalls Simpson's publicist, Kathryn Zuckerman. "We had to warn her that there were not as many outlets now. So when the video fell in our laps, we were delighted. We all gathered around a computer and giggled."
In the hilarious video, Charles carelessly plays with power tools, rides a fake roller-coaster, and talks over the sound effect of a crying baby. But would the author find it funny? Yes, Simpson says. "Authors want to be read," she explains. "We're glad for book reviewers to address us in any form." Although she found Charles's video amusing, she quickly adds that it served as a complement, not a substitute for a print review, in which Charles praised the book.
On the other end of the author spectrum is Danielle Evans, a 26-year-old up-and-coming writer, just entering the publishing world. Her debut collection of stories, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, got the video review treatment in September 2010. "I grew up reading the Post, and Ron Charles is a critic I really respect," says Evans, a D.C. native. She says she'd been watching his videos since they first launched, but had no idea that her book, which deals heavily with racial issues, would be the subject of one. "He was one of the people who did a smart job of talking about race," she says of Charles's critical insights.
Other authors have also taken note of Charles's work and have even been bold enough to actively jump on board, with cameos in his videos. Bestselling author Chris Bohjalian did a mock ad for unsightly toenail fungus. Lisa Scottoline murdered Charles in the shower à la Psycho, and perhaps most hilariously, Arthur Phillips donned an absurdly cheap fake mustache and assumed an Australian accent in a comically vain attempt to promote his own books. All of the authors were quick to participate when asked, and Charles says more big names have already signed on for future roles—certainly attesting to the fact that his videos are appreciated for their insights and the way they promote books, and because, in real life, Charles is nothing like his snarky character.
"It's not close at all," says Dawn, his wife, laughing at the comparison. "Ron is knowledgeable, but he's not pompous, though he does like to poke fun at the type of reviewers who haven't read the book." Far more humble than his arrogant on-camera persona, Charles shrugs off his pioneering book review/filmmaker status. "I just think of myself as a nervous, jittery guy."
Charles may downplay the significance of his "silly videos," but his employer, like his fans and followers, has embraced their potential. The Post eagerly adopted Charles's videos soon after he uploaded his first video to YouTube. By the time the second video was ready to debut, Charles was contacted by someone from the newspaper's online department and asked about adding them as a regular feature on Washingtonpost.com.
"When I saw the note, I thought they were going to tell me to take them down," he remembers. On the contrary—he has received positive reviews in-house as well as from his viewers. "I've been in the elevator with Ron and people who don't work with him or know him tell him how much they love his videos," notes Rachel Shea, Washington Post book editor. "There have been a lot of mixed feelings about what to do on the Web, but Ron's videos work," she says. "They're silly, but smart."
That the videos are smart is perhaps the key to their success. Given the humorous nature and snarky tone of his reviews, it might be tempting to choose easy targets like Twilight. Instead, Charles tackles the critically acclaimed of modern literature. In addition to Franzen, Simpson, and Evans, he has also taken on Michael Cunningham's Nightfall, Sara Gruen's Ape House, and Susan Fletcher's Corrag, all with unique, insightful—and humorous—results. He has also produced videos for larger, book-related topics. The National Book Awards, the Booker Prize finalists, and the rise of book apps have all served as fodder.
While the humorous videos have opened eyes to new ways of covering books on the Web, the inside joke is that Charles never intended them to be something that might pave the way for the future of book reviews. In fact, just the opposite—he intended them to be a mockery of that very perception, a "satire" of our challenged attention spans. "This kind of thing won't work for all book critics," he says, "and yet serious critics are being encouraged to do crap like this. It's horrible. That's what I'm trying to make fun of."
The irony is not lost on Charles. "I toiled away every week for 13 years and no one seemed to notice," he jokes. "Then one day I run around my house with bacon on my head and [New York Times Book Review editor] Sam Tanenhaus is sending me notes."
A Moment in Time
The question, however, is how much longer can the videos last? Charles concedes that the work of reading, reviewing, and writing and producing videos at least once a week is quite taxing. "It's an unbearable schedule," he laments. "During the evenings, I fiddle with scripts and ideas. And on Saturday morning, after breakfast, my wife and I start filming." This is usually a day-long process, he says, as the two scramble among various D.C. locations. What might end up being a 10-second shot in front of the White House can take hours in traveling and filming. One minor shot set in a bookstore took more time than anticipated after Charles, one of D.C.'s most respected voices in publishing, was kicked out of two other bookstores.
After a full day of filming, the wrap party usually involves going out to dinner with his wife, after which Charles sits down to a long night of his least favorite part of the process: editing, which typically takes him around six hours, using Final Cut. Although he doesn't turn in the finished product to the Post until Sunday night, he forces himself to stay up as late as necessary on Saturday to finish. Sunday he devotes entirely and exclusively to print reviews.
While appreciative of all the positive feedback he's received from colleagues and readers, Charles does wonder how much longer he can keep up the intense seven-day working schedule. "I'm sure I'll eventually start doing videos less frequently," he says. "Or eventually, someone high up will be offended. Isn't that how these things always end?"n
Dan Ozzi is senior publicist, Vintage and Anchor Books.