Contributing Editor, Vogue Magazine
Criticism is less about looking to others to show us how to think about things, but about holding a contextual mirror to ourselves as a culture and to the kinds of stories we're telling today.
Interview by Heidi Legg
Cambridge is a magnet for thinkers, writers, scientists and those who want to share in the great experiment. With this, there is a certain intrigue in finding out the person next to you is discovering gravitational waves, prototyping a new cure, directing a new play or interviewing the elusive Elena Ferrante, author of The Neapolitan Quartet novels. That is how I found out Megan O’Grady was in our midst.
With the cultural uproar this week over the identity of Ferrante being revealed, it is worth noting that O’Grady published a rare interview with Ferrante two years ago, in the August 2014 issue of Vogue. She also wrote a second piece in Vogue after the final novel in the quartet was published. In her pieces, she has long been focused on Ferrante's voice for feminism and intelligence and the 'telling of a story truthfully', rather than through identity.
This past spring, Debbie Porter, founder of The Boston Book Festival to be held this October 15th in Copley Square, had invited O’Grady to discuss her early interview with Ferrante, and I went to listen. O’Grady is young, intelligent and personifies many of the qualities one hopes for in a literary critic – she wants heft, truth, and stories that cross both boundaries and borders, and that resonate.
As Contributing Editor at Vogue Magazine, she reads miles of books and galleys delivered to her in Cambridge, far in advance of the pop-culture machine that eventually reaches us. In her interview, she discusses books she thinks will be part of our vernacular this year, what she looks for in story and how the role of critic moves us as a society.
Let's get this out of the way... How do you feel about the revealing of Elena Ferrante’s identity this week by Italian journalist Claudio Gatti?
To be honest, I couldn’t be more weary of the obsession over “who she really is,” but it does speak to the success of her fiction, the feeling of raw truth readers have found in it, not to mention the seamlessness of the world she creates. I’ve always read the books as origin myth, not autobiography. That said, of course I’m interested very much in the intersection of who we are and what kinds of stories we choose to tell, and I suppose there’s the question to what extent the author performed Ferrante for the press, telling anecdotes from a Neapolitan childhood which may not have existed—and this is different than simply writing under a pseudonym. But even so, I don’t see much of a scandal here; in no way does it diminish her work. If anything, it reminds of the way in which an author can, with empathy, make us see ourselves in a life unlike our own. And there could be an upside if she’s finally unmasked: maybe people will focus on her work, and stop asking me if she’s really a man!
Now, we can move forward! What books are you reading?
I'm already looking towards winter and spring 2017. For this fall, I would say the book that I'm probably most excited about is Zadie Smith's Swing Time, which comes out in November. It's the story of two girls growing up in a housing project in West London and follows the trajectory of their lives. It really builds on all the promise of White Teeth, the book that she wrote when she was twenty-three. It feels personal. It's about two girls growing up and how we measure ourselves against one another. There's so much natural propulsion in the plotline of life. It's a big book about race, gender, class, and power differentials.
Zadie Smith has been doing so much around helping writers think about writing. Does that appeal to you as a book critic when you’re looking at authors that are coming out, the role they play in the writing world?
It's something that comes up if I interview an author, certainly, and I think it's something that probably does come to bear in the work itself. When I'm choosing a book to review, it's really just about the book itself and less about anything else. When it comes to Zadie Smith, she's also a wonderful essayist, and I think you can find the same qualities that she brings to her nonfiction in her fiction, as well. In this book in particular, I see some of those very real world concerns and anxieties about race, about upward mobility, about the people left behind. I also detect the anxieties of a parent – someone who sees the past and future and worries about that future, especially for girls – especially for brown girls.
Do you see any emerging trends in literature at the moment?
Friendship between women is a big subject that has, historically speaking, been relatively untapped in literature. I'm thinking, of course, of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. These books are looking at female friendship in an epic way, and how we replace our families with a long relationship. Female friendship is interesting because, as Ferrante once told me, it's not governed by the traditional rules that we think about when we write about relationships between family members.
I feel we've had books in the past that have explored mother/daughter relationships or father/son relationships or even the relationships between two men as friends, but with two women, historically, it's always somehow been the domain of “Chick Lit.” It's nice to see that subject treated with such seriousness.
The other thing I've really noticed, especially in American literature, is a tendency for many writers, both established and new, to be looking back at our origins. They are looking back at those things that have brought us to this place in time, and I think it's coming from a sense of crisis. Many of these authors are African American and they're looking at our racial history.
Do you mean looking back at Diasporas or the exploration of one’s roots?
Both. Getting more specific, there's Homegoing: A novel by Yaa Gyasi, which is an incredibly ambitious debut. We did a big feature in the Vogue magazine, and she’s recently been chosen as one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35.” She's Ghanaian-American, born in Ghana but raised in the US. She wrote a wonderful novel that moves from Ghana and the Cape Coast Castle where the slave trade began. Using alternating chapters, it is the story of two sisters and follows each successive generation in both Ghana and in America. We see how slavery became later entrenched into this very structural racism that we have today and that we see playing out in our lives at this very moment. At the same time, we also see the colonial history in Africa.
Another example is Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, which is grounded in plantation life in the 18th century, but is interested in destabilizing his contemporary readers in various ways.
What is the role of book critic at Vogue magazine, and what do you see as your larger impact for Vogue readers?
Vogue is such a great platform because its readership – educated women of many ages – is very much the same demographic that buys the majority of literary fiction published in America. The Vogue readership is in the millions, and I take the choices I make for my column very seriously. I have the benefit of having an Editor-in-Chief who takes literature very seriously, who's very much a reader herself, and wants to support young authors. And of course, she wants to make sure that we're covering those things that are going to make an impact in the culture.
It falls to me and other Vogue editors to make those decisions, very early on before anyone else is reading them, and to think what books those might be and which authors we might interview. Vogue also publishes a lot of book excerpts, both fiction and non. Last year, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk was a particularly memorable excerpt that appeared in Vogue.
Do you think of yourself as a soothsayer?
I don't have any one particular way of choosing a book. There are some books that you get wind of early, because the book deal was so enormous. But what I really want to make sure we do at Vogue is to also cover things from smaller presses, the books that are wonderful, but maybe didn't get the giant book deal. Historically, those gazillion dollar book deals have been rather gendered, but now, we’re seeing young women get major book deals, like Emma Cline and Yaa Gyasi.
The young debut author is someone that everyone, whether you're a publisher or a critic, is interested in discovering and really introducing to the world. So, we're always looking for that. But in the end, the thing that I'm really looking for is a singular story that's well told from a voice that we haven't heard from already.
I'm not interested in yet another sad young literary man. We’ve had so many of those stories. I am looking for original voices, and that might be a debut or it might be a breakout novel from someone who's published several novels before. It also could be an author who's already had an established career who's doing something very different, and something very new. I always find authors interesting who try different things, who are willing to try something else, and who aren't always after telling the same story or needing to do something kind of hermetic and perfect.
I have a great respect for the Vogue book reviews because there is a sense of gravitas to them while still covering what is popular. Has it always been that way?
The Vogue sensibility is always going to be something that's highbrow and international. I review books by men and women but again, because women's stories tend to be less well represented in our culture — women’s books are less often reviewed and women get fewer bylines, win fewer prizes, etc. I try to remedy that in my small way. But I also review books by men and, again, it's really trying to find a good mix.
There are so many things, as book critics, that are given to me on a platter. I get hundreds of email messages a day from publicists. There are an exhaustive number of galleys. As you know, it is very difficult to write a good book, perhaps especially a good novel. Our space is limited – we're not only a literary publication, we also happen to be a fashion magazine – but our ever-expanding presence online at Vogue.com does give me more flexibility.
Given there is a content explosion online, how are book critics important?
I think publishing is alive and well in the US, but I think that we all want to know what to read. Critics are a kind of gatekeeper, holding things up to the light. If you can find somebody who has a sensibility that you want to follow, literary criticism might be seen as useful in a very pragmatic way.
But to my mind, criticism is less about looking to others to show us how to think about things, but about holding a kind of contextual mirror to ourselves as a culture and to the kinds of stories we're telling today.
That is something I'm really hoping I’m able to get across in my page in Vogue, first by my selection and then by what I say about the books I choose. I hope that people will be able to see why this is an important story today and be able to relate that to something in a larger context.
What would you like to change in the publishing industry?
There are several things. The problem with any industry is that it asks people to justify their jobs. There's an emphasis on the book as product, as something to be sold. I often receive too many books that are good ideas, or maybe have an interesting voice, but they needed more time to percolate. They needed editing. We are losing that artistic relationship, I fear, between editors and writers. Don't get me wrong, there are many wonderful editors in that very old fashioned sense, but the pressure is on editors to acquire, to meet bottom lines.
Ah, the fabled story of the editor and the writer. I long for it. What do you see?
There are still some examples of that today. It’s a question of emphasis, of taking the time, even if it's many years, to develop a book. The other thing I'm not fond of about the industry is the impulse that if something has already been sold and did well, to publish more of the same, like Hollywood franchises.
Publishing is a wonderful place to tell stories. I'm often gratified by the diversity that I see in it, and certain experiences and voices from other countries are being published here in the United States. Translation remains a major barrier, but there are things that break through.
Another thing a critic can do is point at some of those gaps, those absences: ‘Oh, why aren't we getting stories about this kind of experience?’ Give context to readers who are maybe too young to know or who don't know because they're in other fields. We are able to explain how certain kinds of stories have been privileged while others are not. All the clichés about men writing the big canvas of life and women writing interior, domestic stories. Women write about war, too. Men write about parenthood, too. There is truth and beauty to be found in all of it.
One of the greatest things literature can do is to grant the reader empathy for another person's experience, and I think a critic can help show how that's possible, how you might empathize with someone whose experience is so different from your own. Maybe it's an author from another country, another gender, another era, but there's something in the story that makes you see the world a bit differently and enlarges it for you. A critic might be the person who leads you to the bookstore to pick up that book.
There is a change in habit with the younger generation with Snapchat and Instagram and small snippets of text. Where is the role of literature and does life in social media concern you?
I'm not worried about literature. I'm not worried about storytelling. I think long form journalism is certainly suffering but I feel like in terms of publishing, there's a difference between what's happening in the newspaper business and being published as an author. Long form journalism is still finding a home in publishing. Books, I feel, will continue. In what form? I hope they'll still be on the printed page. I don't own a Kindle. I spend enough time in front of screens. I actually do get several dozen galleys a day at my doorstep, and I have to open the packages. I really need to hold the paper.
Are you a speed-reader?
I think what you're getting at is something about the quality of our attention in the age of technology. I'm not a speed-reader but I do have a way of looking at things. I don't read everything I get cover to cover, obviously, but I do read a certain number of pages until I decide that I know what I need to know. I feel like one of these MIT geniuses can tell us about the effect of all this technology on our brains and on our attention spans. But at the end of the day, the human need for stories is the same and, whether you read it on Kindle or on a printed page, I'm not sure it really matters.
There are many studies lately coming out saying we are in a less empathetic time and statistics that show empathy comes out of reading literature, and I do worry about how this new generation will absorb reading novels. Do you?
I do worry a little bit more about the "me-ism" of social media and the total focus on the self. Mind you, I absolutely love the memoir. I feel like it's a beautiful form and there is a reason why it has become so popular. But I wonder if something in the culture or in the literature suffers when there is just a complete, total focus on the self.
In terms of attention span, I feel like we need both. Some authors are very good at using social media for promotion and for getting their stories out – critics and journalists, too. I'm not one of those people. I'm somehow not Millennial enough to really be that person tweeting my every story, or to Instagram book covers. I'm maybe five minutes too old for that.
Do you have any mentors or earlier literary critics who inspire you?
Growing up in Kansas, removed from intellectual circles, I think I found what I needed in books. I was certainly not encouraged to be a book critic. I probably didn’t even know what that was, as a child, or that one could be, or aspire to be, such a thing. I fumbled my way into graduate school and I had some wonderful teachers, the most formative of which was E.L. Doctorow. He taught a craft class and it was there that I read Virginia Woolf, Celine, Richard Wright, and so many authors that became furniture of my mind.
At the time, when I was in graduate school at NYU, I was planning to get a doctorate, and it was the heyday of theory. It felt like I was forcing literature through a keyhole. It felt reductive and small. Doctorow made me realize there was another way to talk about and to think about literature. He was very supportive of me and that was very helpful and something I really needed, because my life could've gone in another direction. Certainly today there are other critics whose work I admire and who have very different perspectives than me, but who I regard as just wonderful.
There's a tendency for newspaper book reviews to assign reviews to other novelists and I find that practice, while sometimes enjoyable to read, somewhat problematic critically. When a novelist also rigorously takes on a role as a critic, that’s another matter, but I find it problematic when two authors happen to write about similar subjects and are reviewing one another.
I find that way of thinking reductive. I feel like it makes the thing smaller rather than larger. It creates a problem of often putting authors in the position of having to pat each other on the back or wittily take each other down, and that's not what it’s about.
Are you a plot driven or character driven reader?
While I love a good thriller, I would say definitely character. I think these things are probably cyclical but we have definitely had a crisis in plot over the last few years, with literary authors resisting the artifice and the mechanics of it but at the same time feeling very susceptible to its solaces. I'm definitely one of those people who is bored with plot but feels a need for narrative propulsion.
Why is this happening, this crisis of plot?
I think we get tired, certain plots become familiar, especially when you're a critic but even as any reader, and we start to see the plot points creakily playing out. ‘Okay, so the moral crisis in this book is going to be a woman, or a child, murdered or raped. Or—oh, the wife is going to sleep with her friend’s husband, just so something happens in this story.’ You start to see it coming a mile away. And the moment of epiphany—ugh, don’t get me started.
Aren’t there only seven basic plots? Isn’t there a study on Shakespeare about this?
There are infinite variations, of course, but in general, a man or woman goes on a journey, sometimes an interior journey, or a stranger comes to town—a disruption in an established order. What’s more interesting to talk about, maybe, is how authors have responded to their restlessness. Many authors have gotten more personal, as a result, and written things that flirt with being memoir or slightly fictionalized memoir. Sometimes, a singular voice really is enough to carry us along.
The thing that I keep coming back to is this idea of the natural propulsion of life. Is there any plot that's at once surprising and yet inevitable feeling in the way a human life unfolds?
I think the thing that we all are reading for at the end of the day is something that rings of truth. I’m always less interested in whether or not it’s factually true, or if we call it fiction or memoir. And I'm thinking of people like Ferrante, Knausgaard, and Rachel Cusk. How are they able to get at something that feels just really, really true? And that is when you're both startled and you recognize yourself. Those are the moments that you read for.
What did you learn as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard?
I think it definitely gave me a respect for journalism and concern for the future of journalism. It also made me feel very fortunate to have the platform that I do and to be doing what I do. I realize that it is a privilege to work with Vogue, with a major presence in the cultural landscape. My Editor-in-Chief is devoted to Vogue being a cultural magazine and I feel very proud of that.
I was also inspired by the stories my fellow fellows were telling, sometimes at great risk to themselves and with very little remuneration. It gave me more of a sense of purpose. I want to make the most of this perch that I have, and I recognize how unusual and unique it is. Vogue is highbrow and aspirational. At the same time, it's a mass-market consumer publication.
Do you have favorite interviews?
You never know what the chemistry is going to be with an interview; I’ve had a few people start crying while talking about their work. If I've been able to succeed as an interviewer, an author is able to forget I'm there and go to that place in their head where they go when they write. That's when you get really interesting things.
I had very wonderful interviews with Elena Ferrante, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Edna O’Brien. Those were all very memorable. I'm often the first person that an author talks to about their book, due to our long lead-time as a publication. They haven’t yet figured out what they have to say, and those are my favorite interviews.
The person I would most like to interview but have never had a chance to is Alice Munro.
As a Canadian, I appreciate that. How did you get your position at Vogue?
I don't know that it's such an interesting story but I was in graduate school in New York, my fellowship money was gone and I needed a job. There wasn't much I could do except maybe work at a magazine. I sent my resume to Conde Nast and soon became an editorial assistant at Vogue.
There's a movie about that.
So I've heard. At first, I edited the horoscope! But books were the thing I wanted to write about. I eventually left and reviewed for other places, like the New York Times, but Vogue became a place I could make a mark, thanks to both my editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, and my terrific editor and friend, Valerie Steiker.
Favorite place for a cocktail?
I’m not a bar person, so it would be the Central Harbor dock in Brooklin, Maine, at sunset. A gin and tonic prepared by my husband.
Are there things you collect?
Bookstore you love most?
Any independent book shop that has managed to survive in this country is doing heroic work. They must be supported. Here in Cambridge, the Harvard Bookstore and Porter Square Books are both wonderful; the latter has such a great children’s section.
Books we should watch for?
I would definitely look out for Brit Bennett. She's an amazing, amazing young writer - her debut comes out in October. It's called The Mothers. She's also a nonfiction writer. She writes a lot about race, about being a woman in the time that we are living in.