News & Politics

What I’ve Learned: Jonathan Yardley

Picking Washington’s best novelists, why negative reviews are fun to write, overrated authors, and more.

Ask book critic Jonathan Yardley to name some great Washington novels. “There aren’t any,” he says.

“Most people define a Washington novel as about politics and power. I have little interest in that. To me, the Senate and House are populated by some of the worst people of the country all gathered in one building.”

Yardley—who retired last year from the Washington Post but continues to review for the paper—was born in Pittsburgh in 1939. His father was an English and classics teacher, then a headmaster and Episcopal minister; his mother later became a bookkeeper.

He edited the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina. He then moved to DC to intern with New York Times bureau chief James Reston. In 1964, Yardley returned to North Carolina as editorial writer and book editor at the Greensboro Daily News.

He then reviewed books for the Miami Herald for five years. He returned to Washington in 1978 as book editor for the Washington Star until the paper’s demise in 1981, when he joined the Post.

Among his honors is the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, which he received in 1981. His son Jim, who writes for the New York Times, received a Pulitzer last year—shared with Joe Kahn, for their reporting from China. Another Yardley son, Bill, also works for the Times, as Seattle bureau chief.

Along with thousands of reviews, Yardley has written six books, including a biography of sportswriter and short-story author Ring Lardner; Our Kind of People, about his family; and Monday Morning Quarterback, a collection of his Post columns on cultural and social issues. He’s married to Marie Arana, editor of the Post’s Book World as well as author of the recent novel Cellophane.

In his book-filled apartment on DC’s Logan Circle, we discussed what he’s learned.

What are your favorite books?

For pure pleasure, I love C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. I’ve loved them since I was 11 years old. There are nearly a dozen, but my favorite is his first, Beat to Quarters.

I love Faulkner. I love the sunniness of The Reivers and the Snopes trilogy. I love the thematically burdened novels like The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August, and Go Down, Moses. Faulkner is absolutely essential to my life.

I love every word Peter Taylor wrote. I couldn’t say which of his books I love the most. The Collected Stories, issued in 1968, is as fabulous as his later work The Old Forest and Other Stories.

Time and again I’ll go back to Flannery O’Connor—both her fiction and nonfiction. Her letters, titled The Habit of Being, and her speeches and essays, Mystery and Manners, are marvelous.

The shelf up there contains my wife’s and my favorites—books like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, which I’ve read three or four times.

No matter how many times you read a great book, there’s something you’ll discover for the first time.

Who has written the best Washington fiction?

The best writing about Washington hasn’t been political. It’s been by Edward P. Jones and George Pelecanos. Jones tends to be pigeonholed as a black writer; Pelecanos’s work is unfairly dismissed as genre fiction. Yet they’re both writing about how ordinary people live in Washington—who are not the same as those living in Chicago, New York, or another big city.

The black Washingtonians—and their ancestors—whom Jones writes about thought of Washington in the same way the Chinese thought of California: It was Gold Mountain. Blacks considered this a place to go to escape the South and start a new life in menial service jobs or low in the federal bureaucracy, to strive to move into the middle class.

That’s a real Washington story, but it’s not the story of strutting around the United States Senate. That political part of the city isn’t interesting. Maybe I’ve read too much of it. I found Tom Wicker’s novel, Facing the Lions, among the best of that lot.

I’m not a Henry Adams fan, but many people still steer you to his Democracy. His prose is too ornate for my taste.

K Street interests me more than Capitol Hill, as K Street is a peculiarly Washington institution. Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking sticks a foot in the door of K Street. I’d like to read more like this. Few people who know about that world are sufficiently irreverent to write good fiction about it.

No good novel has been written about Washington lawyers—good at the level of Louis Auchincloss writing about New York lawyers.

Who are some overrated writers?

How much time have you got?

Literary types seem to love T. Coraghessan Boyle. I don’t. Many love Richard Ford and Annie Proulx. Again, I don’t.

Tom Clancy’s a hack. Stephen King, John Grisham, and Michael Connelly are good at what they do—and as it happens, I admire much of what they do, though the literati dismiss them as genre writers.

I like fiction that reaches out to the world. A book about the self, only the interior, can’t often please me. A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley is about that, but it’s also about being a man in America. It takes the self beyond the self.

Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities is by no stretch of the imagination a great novel. Still, it’s a pretty good one.

You know why people love that novel? Because it reaches out and illuminates their own world. Wolfe goes into courthouses and police stations, he follows these crumbums, yet he also goes to the stock market and follows those people around. He writes about the world that upper-middle-class Americans recognize. They flock to this novel since they want him to tell them about their own world.

That’s why people keep reading Charles Dickens. Dickens is the ultimate master—so funny, so wise, so human, and his novels are so populous. His Bleak House is an amazing book. Likewise David Copperfield. Dickens’s American Notes ranks as the funniest book ever written about this country. Though it’s very dyspeptic, in many ways it’s the smartest book about America.

You haven’t mentioned Shakespeare or Gone With the Wind.

Shakespeare simply is above everyone. But as beautifully as Shakespeare reads, essential though he is to our existence, I prefer reading a novel to reading a play.

I have very complex feelings about Gone With the Wind. You just can’t put it down. Scarlett and Rhett are amazing characters. It’s proof of that old saw that mediocre novels can make great movies. Leaving aside its portrait of black life—which is totally unacceptable—as a movie it’s incredible. Some of those performances, the battle scenes and love scenes, are just unbelievable.

When considering books like Gone With the Wind or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you must place them in their times.

Two writers I admire enormously, who are important to my existence, are Ring Lardner and H.L. Mencken. In each case, you find stuff that’s offensive.

In Lardner’s day, whites traveling by train called every porter George. That’s what was done then. So you read his works about porters—all called George. It seems patronizing beyond belief, but that was what upper-middle-class white folks did then.

Mencken has a lot of offensive stuff too, including about Jews. This is strange because some of his friends were Jewish, including Alfred Knopf and Mencken’s crowd in Baltimore. Nonetheless, in his diaries and the memoir that I edited, My Life as Author and Editor, there’s a lot of stuff that upsets us today.

How do you keep from being a curmudgeon?

That’s an uphill task. Some reviewers—of books, music, movies, whatever—write only positive notices; that undermines their credibility. Yet attack seems more fun than praise. The very vocabulary of attack is more varied and interesting. “Wonderful,” “extraordinary,” “exceptional,” “accomplished”—blah, blah, blah. You get bored fast.

Readers don’t get bored with adept attacks. The reviews that have been the most fun to write have been very negative. I once reviewed a novel by Joan Didion—most of whose work I greatly admire, but not her fiction—as a parody of her fiction. It was unkind but lots of fun to write.

How is the Internet changing book sales and reading?

We still don’t know what to do with the Internet. We’re all trying in different ways.

I see no correlation between weak book sales and growing Internet. The Internet makes it easy for anyone anywhere to buy a book and get it fast.

And the Internet doesn’t endanger books. No one’s yet developed an electronic reading device that’s as user-friendly as a book. E-books haven’t gone anywhere.

How good a job does the New York Times Book Review do? And how important is it?

Very important, considering everyone in the business reads it. It’s the hometown newspaper of the book industry.

With both my sons reporters for the Times and my first job having been there, I can’t be wholly objective about the paper. Still, I consider the Book Review’s glory days to be in the 1970s, when John Leonard ran it. John’s politics and mine differ, as do our literary tastes, but he brought an energy and irreverence to the section that was refreshing. That must have scared the old folks running the Times then, because they got rid of John pretty quickly.

You may expect this, but I really believe we do a much better job at Book World. We’re far less predictable, and we say in 800 words what they take 2,000 to say. Plus, they don’t do it as well.

In terms of serving readers, having me in the front of Book World and Michael Dirda in back is terrific. We like each other personally but are completely different. So we’re serving a completely different diet to readers.

The Times doesn’t have anything like that. And it relies too much on a small stable of reviewers, particularly of fiction.

Do you have writing pet peeves?

I’m not against language changing but am against it changing in stupid ways. My pet peeves come from writers using banal language in bad ways—committing the twin sins of pretentiousness and wordiness.

When you go to a concert and see someone sit down to play the piano, you assume he knows how to play. Likewise with someone who’s written a book—you assume he knows how to write. Yet many don’t.

Some of your pet peeves?

Using “presently,” which means “soon,” when the writer means “currently.”

Using “like” instead of “as.” The two have different meanings. That sin began with the old ad “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” Nice jingle but horrid grammar.

Using “author” as a verb. It’s a noun—use “write.”

Using “reference” as a verb, as in “He referenced this in our conversation” when the author means “cited.”

There are some new words I really like. To dis someone is a wonderful phrase, with a slightly different meaning than to criticize. To spam, from the term for junk e-mail, is another great phrase. So I’m not a total curmudgeon.

What have you learned about book reviewing?

Luckily, I had a lot of experience even before I started doing this. I’d been an editorial writer and continued doing that even after I started reviewing. This made me able to develop an argument and express a strong opinion.

I’ve learned that the best reviews delve into what the author’s trying to do. That’s a judgment call, but I’ve received many gratifying letters from authors appreciating that I grasped what they were trying to say. In some cases, these came from authors whose books I had given a mixed or even negative review.

Above all, I’ve learned—though I may not show it—a good deal of humility. Now and then, some reader or publisher will say, “Oh, you have so much power.” But I don’t have a scintilla of power.

Your good reviews sell books, don’t they? And bad ones hurt sales.

I may influence a reader a bit, but I can’t make anyone read a book. I have an utterly unquantifiable degree of influence. It’s probably pretty small. The bestseller list would look mighty different if I had anywhere near the influence people think I have.

A single book review is part of a great mess of factors that determine a book’s success. The biggest is word of mouth: What does your friend say? Or your bookseller or librarian?

Some books start out very slowly, so the author and publisher become very disappointed. But word of mouth builds. Take Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, a lousy book. The hardback didn’t do much, but when the paperback appeared, its timing was perfect. The women’s movement had reached the point where it needed that book. So women started telling one another about it. And they told their men. The book just went kaboom!

I’m a modest part of a very complicated process. I have my readers, for whom I care enormously. I’m very lucky to have spent my career as I have. I love doing this. But it’s not the day at the beach that most readers consider it to be. I spend lots of time slogging through 500-page books that reveal themselves on page 25 as being pretty poor. Yet I’ve got to finish them. I read every book I review from beginning to end.

What have you learned about life?

I have two mottoes. The first comes from Dr. Johnson: “No man but a blockhead writes except for money.” And Fats Waller’s great question: “One never knows, do one?”