Totally Hip: Ron Charles on Lit Crit and Cylons
Ron Charles, book reviewer for the Washington Post (a major American newspaper), has recently stirred up the traditionally calm waters of literary criticism with his “Totally Hip Video Book Review” series. Striking a perfect balance between irreverent and informative, Mr. Charles manages to call out absurd literary trend-ism while still engaging in criticism’s raison d’être: helping us find something good to read. Recently, Mr. Charles sat down with Armchair/Shotgun to discuss beanie babies, the coming robot revolution, and the glamorous lifestyle he enjoys as a literary critic.
A/S: According to your Wikipedia page, you’ve been with the Washington Post since 2005. Can you describe what developments in the literary world / your daily horoscope inspired you to augment your written criticism with the Totally Hip Video Reviews?
Ron Charles: As any viewer of the Totally Hip Video Book Review can tell, I developed this web series for the kickbacks, the cranberry juice, and the women.
A/S: You’ve explored the costs and benefits of e-readers and technology as they relate to the reader experience. With that in mind, when the robot revolution comes, will you be the first against the wall? Or not? Explain.
Ron Charles: The Cylons will embrace me because I’m the weasiliest kind of collaborator. On my iTouch and Blackberry, over Twitter and Facebook, I whine constantly about how technology is ruining our lives, distracting us from books, and separating us from each other. I’m endlessly, sadly conflicted about all this. In my heart of hearts, I know we were better off before e-mail, IM, even the Web. It’s all mostly a massive time-wasting distraction (except for that squeaky Fred kid on YouTube, of course). All this hoopla about e-readers this year continues to crack me up. Who are these people who can’t carry all their books on vacation? Who’s going on vacation anyhow? And if you are, are you really taking more than three or four books?
A/S: You’re a keen critic of literature. We’re curious whether this insight spills over into other areas of your life. For instance, could you review what you ate for breakfast this morning?
Ron Charles: There seems to be no spill over at all. (This morning I poured carrot juice on my cereal by accident.) My wife and I are avid theater-goers (which is great in Washington), and we visit the city’s museums fairly regularly. But I’m easily annoyed by po-mo crap. I thought the much-praised Yves Klein show this summer was ridiculous, for instance. But our very smart art critic Blake Gopnik thought it was one of the most profound things he’d ever seen. I’m pretty sure he’s right and I’m wrong, but I can’t help it.
A/S: But seriously: You pillory the hype-culture of modern literature. Is there any book (or any person) you feel deserves more attention this year?
A/S: Okay, even more seriously. Where can we get the Totally Hip Video Review t-shirt featured in your Holiday edition?
Ron Charles: Those bacon-hat t-shirts–and my Beanie Baby collection–are my Plan B when this whole journalism thing finally collapses. I’ve got 10,000 in a warehouse in Rockville. I’m taking orders now.
A/S: Finally, throughout your video series and its exploration of literature as pop culture, one question has haunted us from the very beginning: Your Beanie Baby collection. Could you please explain its origins?
Ron Charles: My mother showered my younger daughter with Beanie Babies when they were all the craze. She even bought her a special Beanie Baby holder that hung on the door and kept them all in pristine condition. (My daughter never cared much for them one way or another.) Years later, when we were filming the episode about the ape-shit crazy hysteria over Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, I wanted some little element that spoke to the novel’s environmental themes and the publicity craze, so I went up into the attic and found all those Beanie Babies just waiting there, ready to help me out. Mom was right: They did become more valuable.
A/S: Thanks, Ron!
Find out more about Ron’s breakfast disasters and other exploits on Twitter @RonCharles.
Photo: Mr. Charles, in his bacon-hat, from the Washington Post