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A chat with Stephanie Zacharek and Dwight Garner

Two of my favorite critics on writing about books and movies

Hey y’all,

Today I want to share a conversation I had with two of my favorite critics.

Stephanie Zacharek is the film critic at Time. She is the recipient of a Newswomen's Club of New York award, and she’s been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Dwight Garner is a book critic for The New York Times, writing about fiction, nonfiction, poetry and the book world. His most recent book is The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating and Eating While Reading.

They’ve both enriched my reading and my watching life in many ways, but when I found out they were friends, I thought it might be fun to interview them together.

I was right! We had a good time talking about honesty in criticism, having a sense of humor, the writing process, our favorite books and movies, how to develop your personal taste, and much more.

See below for an edited transcript of our conversation.



This interview has been made free for everyone thanks to the generous support of readers. If you’d like to support my work, please consider becoming paid subscriber!

The first question I have for you is when did you meet? And how long have you been friends?

DWIGHT GARNER: I read Stephanie when she was the film critic for the Boston Phoenix, the great alternative weekly in Boston, which now, sadly, is defunct, as are most alternative weeklies. And then I became the books editor of when it founded in 1995. And one of the first things we did was raid all the best writers from the Boston Phoenix, and Stephanie was numero uno. Happily for me, she became my friend. I love her work and I love her.

STEPHANIE ZACHAREK: I was writing mostly about pop music and a little bit about movies. But when I was drafted to write for Salon, I was so excited because Dwight was the first person who asked me to write about books. Which was just really fun and new for me. He really encouraged me to take off the gloves, to not pull my punches. And it was just really freeing. So yeah, we became friends.

I have an easy job, I just celebrate what I like, you know? Anything I don't like just doesn't go in the newsletter. I don't have to worry about hurting anyone’s feelings or anybody being mad at me. It's criticism by omission. How do you keep your honesty with your reactions to the work that you're reviewing?

GARNER: Stephanie, tell me if I'm wrong. The film critic has it slightly easier, because you can you can portion the blame out a little bit. With a book, there's one person. It's like, you know, “Your book stinks.” And there's no getting around it. Stephanie can talk about the cinematography, the acting, the screenplay, the directing... she doesn't have to really call anyone out that directly. Although good film criticism... I think Stephanie often does that as well. I mean, often there's some point that's at fault and there's people behind it.

ZACHAREK: Well, I also think it's harder for you because you're a writer, writing about other writers. So you're kind of in that milieu, and you run into people, you become friends with people. Not too much. I know that's something that you address in the book, like you really do have to work a little bit harder to keep those barriers up.

For the film critic, we're not hanging out — well, I should shouldn't say we, because some people actually do —  but we're not, for the most part, hanging out with directors or actors or trying to hang out with them. Sometimes it just happens that you become friends with someone — I'm friends with Michael Almereyda, whose films I love — but that happens sort of naturally and organically over years. And I don't review his films, his new films, which is sad for me that I can't do that, but you know, I just can't.

So I think in terms of not hurting feelings of like people that you know, or you might come to know, it is a lot easier for a film critic. On the other hand, I still think that there are probably too many film critics who do pull their punches. And I don't know exactly what they're afraid of.

GARNER: I got my job at the New York Times when I became a daily critic in 2008. The famous theater critic Frank Rich took me out for a drink. I remember having this drink with him at Jimmy's Corner, this great boxing bar near Times Square. And I said, “Frank, how can I have a career anything resembling yours at the New York Times?” And he said, “Don't have any friends.” I think he thought that too many critics get compromised by knowing the people they write about.

A lot of my best friends are writers, but I've had these friends for 20, 30 years. And they know I can't write about them. And I go out of my way now not to meet writers. If I do meet a writer, and I really like this person, I tell them after the second lunch, I say, “If we do this one more time, it's all over. I can never write about you. So let's figure it out now.” And anyway, I try to stay away from writers in general.

I do too. I mean, I don't want to hang out with writers most of the time. [Laughs]

GARNER: I do! I do! But I can't.

You two have written about different things over your career. If you were going to pick something else, like right now, to write about, other than what you write about right now, what would it be?

ZACHAREK: Wow. Nobody ever asked that question. I love that question. You know, I might go back to writing about music, which I still really like to do. Except, I'm also a little afraid of it, because I kind of ran out of steam on it. It was probably in the mid to late 90s. I just felt that I was running out of adjectives. And somehow, I don't know, writing about film, it was so much easier, because there is obviously a sound element. But also, it's just so much easier to describe, visuals and everything that comes with that, you know, costumes editing, acting... I love writing about performance. So all of those things just kind of meshed for me in a way that I mean, you know, I'm still doing it. So whatever that means. But writing about music is really, really challenging. So, I don't know, maybe someday I'll do more of that.

I heard someone, I think it was Jeff Tweedy, talking about music criticism, and he said in the old days you had to describe the music, because no one could hear it. Now everything's at your fingertips. You pull up Spotify or Bandcamp and stream it immediately. He was talking about how life was a little bit different back then — you couldn't get your hands on stuff, you couldn't get your ears on stuff immediately. You had to be a little bit more descriptive. How do you find that balance these days? How much description goes into your reviews?

GARNER: Well, I would say about music criticism, the description is still what really matters. I mean, even if you've heard it, hearing it is not the same as hearing a great critic say that this is what this person's voice sounds like. And really nailing it, you know. Not just talking, but nailing it in a way you've heard this position 100 times but, you know, they've got the voice down. And that's it, too. For a critic, I mean, the whole art is not having an opinion. Because everyone has an opinion. I mean, your Uncle Fester has a damn opinion. You know? It's how you get there. In the fine distinctions you make and how you can explain it and compare it to other art and put it in context. It's all in the fine details. Which is why I love Stephanie's writings. That's what she does.

You were talking about what else we would do. I mean, I'm a frustrated food writer. I've written a food book now. I think it might be out of my system. I like writing general essays on general topics. That's why I love my job because one week I can do a book about a biography of an architect. And then the next week maybe write about gardening or jazz or politics and I like to move around that way. So I don't know. I love the kind of writers who can be essayistic and funny about a lot of different topics.

Who are some of your favorite essay writers?

GARNER: A.J. Liebling, the great food writer. His great book is Between Meals. He wrote for The New Yorker in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s. Calvin Trillin, who writes about a lot of things in The New Yorker still, including food. Nora Ephron was so charming. She wrote about food, but also just life, politics, dinner parties, having big breasts versus small breasts... everything, you know? Writers like that, who bring a certain level of sophistication, but also are easy access. They don't throw large multisyllabic words at you. They're just smart because they're smart, because they're funny and right there.

How about you, Stephanie, who are some of your favorite essayists?

ZACHAREK: Well, Dwight! But I mean, I do have to circle back to something that you said Dwight, because so many people think that criticism, especially with film critics, my fellow film critics, and maybe the younger ones, especially, is that, it's not what you think, it's how you think what you think that's interesting. And one of the things that I love about Dwight's work is that there is a kind of, I want to say playfulness. That makes it sound kind of lightweight, but that's also kind of the point. Because you can get it a lot of truths by kind of winning people over with a sort of energy and buoyancy. And I don't think that that makes writing any less deep or thoughtful or consequential when you can do that. So what attracts me in Dwight's writing, specifically, is a devotion to the craft, and also just the pleasure of it. Especially as I get older, if you're just gonna throw a lot of existential crap at me as a way of describing the new Roadhouse remake or whatever, I'm just not interested.

I don't read that many critics at this point. I read some music critics. I love Amanda Petrusich at The New Yorker. I think she's wonderful. I think she's just a really, really wonderful, alive critic. And that quality of life, of being just really vital, is something that is lacking in a lot of critical writing today.

I always feel like playfulness has a connection to a sense of humor. The older I get, the more humor and a sense of comedy is really important to me. One of the things that really bothers me about the culture is I don't think we take comedy very seriously. I treasure and value it so much. How much is a sense of humor in work important to you?

GARNER: Well, it's vital to me. I mean, I agree with the great Australian-British critic Clive James, who said that a sense of humor is, I think he put it, “common sense, dancing.” Which I just love. You don't trust someone without a sense of humor. Donald Trump — no sense of humor! You meet someone without one and... 9 times out of 10 I don't trust or like writers who have no sense of humor. Every once in a while you get a Dostoevsky, who, you know, has his moments. Sheer power can win out. But I increasingly like to be made to smile when I'm reading. To me, that's a sign of a first rate intellect. Critics want to deliver pleasure, right? All writers do. And humor is just part of that pleasure. Pleasure is an elevated thing to deliver, if you're doing it right.

ZACHAREK: I'm trying to think the last time like I really laughed out loud. Oh, actually, it was just last week at Immaculate, which is a horror film but actually has some weight to it. A lot of contemporary horror, sometimes people try to make it funny, and it just kind of doesn't work. Or there is no sense of humor and it's all just people pulling their fingernails out and you know, like, Saw-type stuff, which is not my thing.

It's funny, sometimes you go to a dinner party, and people are like, “Oh, you're a movie critic, so what's your favorite movie?” And other critics that I know, it's like, “Oh, my God, I hate that question.” But I love that question! Because I always have a ready answer. And my answer is: The Lady Eve by Preston Sturges, which is a comedy. A lot of people might think, oh, no, I have to choose a really serious movie as my favorite movie. But The Lady Eve, not only is it funny and great in so many ways with fantastic performances by Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda, but it's actually about something very serious. This idea of looking at someone and thinking that you're in love with that person and not seeing exactly what's in front of you. And that whole movie is about their coming to terms with the person who is directly in front of you. Whether she's disguising herself as an heiress or whatever — you have to see that person. And I think that's actually a very serious thing for a movie to be about, but it's just rendered in this way that it's like a soap bubble. It's just really wonderful. So the other thing that you notice, among some writers is that they don't have a sense of humor about themselves.

Which is probably the most important kind to have!

ZACHAREK: Exactly. I shouldn't use social media as an indicator, but sometimes you see people on Twitter or whatever, and they're just trying so hard. And part of it is they're trying hard to make it and they want an editor to notice them and give them work. So they're performing for that goal, specifically. But it just makes me sad, because they're trying to like show how smart they are and it's just really dull.

One of Dwight's colleagues, Sam Anderson, when I talked to him recently, he said he'd rather be funny than say anything profound. And I love that. That's how I'm getting these days. I'd much rather get a smile or a laugh than say something deep.

GARNER: About a decade ago, I shared an office building with Sam Anderson in New York. It was this old abandoned high school. They rented out offices to writers. I didn't know Sam. Then I discovered that a) he was a brilliant writer, and b) funny as hell and he's a stand-up comedian sometimes! I mean, he's that funny. He can get on stage to be funny, which, I would rather shoot off my leg than trying to be funny on stage. But I do like to try it in print. So there we are. But he's great.

What is your comfort reading or watching? Is there a genre that you go back to? For example, I am a sucker for any kind of music oral history. So like that could be Legs McNeil’s Please Kill Me or Lizzy Goodman's Meet Me In The Bathroom, or Motley Crue’s The Dirt. I just love reading about music and I particularly love that oral history format. Is there a genre you go to when you're burned out and you want to fuel back up and remind yourself why you love this stuff?

GARNER: I know when I'm sick, when I have a I have a real cold... I can beat Stephanie. Stephanie I've known for 30 years — she's never told me to watch The Lady Eve! And I've never seen it, Stephanie. But I will see it now.

ZACHAREK: I told a friend of mine not to marry the woman that he was interested in because he showed her that movie and she didn't like it. And I said there are plenty of other movies you can have a difference of opinion on but not that one.

GARNER: I will admit that my sick-as-a-dog movie that I watch twice whenever I'm sick is Bowfinger with Steve Martin. It just gets me! It makes me laugh! I just love it. So I know that's when I'm really down in the dumps when I watch that. In terms of reading, I'm kind of like a shark. I need to keep moving forward. I don't really have a lot of comfort food. But I do read cookbooks. I wrote about that a bit in my new book, but I'm a cookbook fanatic, and I'll bring a few cookbooks to bed and read them and dream.

My wife is reading your book right now, and she does that too. She reads cookbooks to fall asleep. And I was like, “Ah yeah, there's someone like you out there in the world, Meghan!” I will say the person I've read all of his books 3 times now... Charles Portis has become the writer for me that whenever I want to tank back up... I don't know what it is. I can't remember half of what happens in his books for some weird reason, so every time I read them, it's like kind of new. But that's the person I go back to.

ZACHAREK: Yeah, like True Grit? What's it about? A girl in a hole!

Donna Tartt's reading of it is great. I listened to her old audiobook, which I love because it has all the clicks and pops. When people used to do audiobooks, it wasn't so high end! They didn't get all the pops and the “umms” and everything out of it. So when you listen to her audiobook reading of True Grit, it's pretty low-fi, and I find that really charming.

ZACHAREK: Like listening to old LPs.

Yeah! Like the hiss and pop on your old Miles Davis record.

ZACHAREK: You know exactly when they're coming, too.

Yeah, on your copy it becomes part of the music. So do you like screwball comedy? Because that's one of those genres for me. The thing I love about screwball comedy is that I've known my wife for half my life now, and I'm only 40, so our marriage has been the great fact of my life. So I love the sparring, zany back-and-forth of screwball.

ZACHAREK: One of my real comfort food movies is Gold Diggers of 1933. Again, it's like an amazing, kind of seemingly light film, but also made during the worst part of the Depression. And deals with that in funny ways and then also in kind of a serious way at the end.

I was thinking about what books I go to, or what types of books I go to when I when I sort of need to jumpstart myself. I really love memoirs by, or biographies of, really odd, eccentric women. Like old rich ladies in the early part of the 20th century. There's a great biography of Marchesa Casati. She owned a Palazzo in Venice, and she would walk an ocelot around on a leash, and wore this solid black eye make up all the time. I love reading about people like that, who lived their lives in “out there” ways. I just finished Elsa Schiaparelli’s memoir, Shocking Life, which is just terrific. Those are the things that... they have nothing to do... they're not going to really enrich me for my job or my line of work. But that's the kind of thing that I like to hole up with.

Something I fight as a creative person but also just a human being right now is trying to have some sort of personal taste. Especially with the algorithm and the sense of constantly having things pushed at me. This is why I love reading criticism in print, I love listening to the radio… I love bumping into things. The serendipity of having things that aren't algorithm-driven. I'm really into that these days. The cultivation of personal taste — how important do you think that is?

GARNER: Well, I would just say that I think as a critic, the only taste you have to work with is your own. As soon as you try to please other people, then you're lost, and you're just drifting at sea, right? But being a book critic, being a movie critic, you want to be enthusiastic about the things we think are great, you want to bring people along with you, you want people to discover. Because I'm reading vastly more than most people, you want to tell people, “This is great. Try this out.” It's hard because literature is is sometimes difficult to access. Not always, but sometimes. And I'm sometimes asked as a critic, why we don't review, I don't know, certain writers who publish a book a year, and who are always out there. And it's for the same reason that the New York Times restaurant critic doesn't review Olive Garden. Nothing wrong with Oliver Garden! You can get a nice meal there... maybe. But it's not what we do. We're looking, I'm looking for the best things that are being said and thought and well-expressed right now. And I hope that my taste as a critic, if people read me, they get to know who I am as a critic, and maybe if this is kind of thing that Dwight hates, maybe I will love that. So I read him long enough to know what he hates is the kind of thing that I love. Which is why regular critics matter.

ZACHAREK: I love the idea of having a critic as a negative barometer. Like, I hope that I am that for some people. Like, “Oh, if she loves it, I'll certainly hate it.” And vice versa. I'm with you, Austin. I love the radio. It's the first thing I do when I get up in the morning is I. So I turn on the radio.

What station? What station is your radio turned to?

ZACHAREK: It's not really my favorite, but I just sort of like the DJs is WFUV. Which is the Fordham University station, but it's run by professional DJs. But like, Corny O'Connell has the question of the day. And he'll say, “Oh, today's question is songs about sisters!” And so people send them to him on Twitter and then they'll do the four or five songs on that subject. So it's dumb stuff like that.

Maybe it's just because I'm a child of the 60s, but I've always loved the radio and I've always loved that sense of, like, you just might discover something new that you never heard before that's just gonna blow your world wide open. Or something like this morning: I heard Patti Smith’s “Frederick,” which I think is one of the great love songs. Women don't really write love songs to and about men and I think it's just a really beautiful example of that.

Taste, you know, honestly, I don't know how younger people manage it. For me, I have to just kind of turn off the firehose of social media or people telling me about things that they like, or things that I should check out that are coming to me like through that channel. Like Austin, I love your newsletter, because it's just little bits that I can focus on. I really need to have things broken down for me that way. Because I can't just be like, somebody's saying, on their Instagram every day a new thing that they're in love with. Oh, my God, I just can't keep up. And I also think one of the problems with that is that people aren't really digging deep to figure out why they love something or why they respond to it. And it is very, it is hard to do!

Dwight, I don't know how you feel about it, but for me, I do it for a living and sometimes it's just really hard. I kind of know what I think or I do know what I think or how I feel, but now I have to express it. And how do I do that in the best way? Without making a reader feel that I'm like assaulting them with my opinion? So I don't know, the question of taste? I don't know. I feel like I've had so long at this point.

I mean, I'm old and getting older —  I've had a lifetime of things that have influenced me. Books, movies, music, paintings. I already have so many influences floating around almost like in a cartoon, like the little birds just floating around your head all the time. My taste? Obviously I can still be surprised, but it already is it's own thing. I wouldn't know how to tell a younger person how to develop that in this day and age, you know? There's so much stuff out there, begging for their attention.

I think for me, it's about people. I want other humans. I get my stuff from other humans. So there's the DJ I hate in the morning when I drop the kids off to school, but then there's the DJ in the afternoon I love when I pick the kids up. It's very people-based. I have friends who have way better taste than me and I'm always asking them for stuff. It's very person-generated. It's very human-centered. I love this idea that we pulled out of having the anti — the dark, the shadow version of us, right? “Oh, they love it? I'm gonna hate it.” Or, “Oh, they hate it? I better check it out!” I love that. That speaks right to me.

I wanted to ask you a little bit of nerdy process stuff. Dwight, I'm just going to start with you because I want to ask you how long you've been keeping a commonplace book and what it's actually like. Is it in notebooks or is it digital? What is it?

GARNER: When I was a teenager I got the call one day, the impulse to start writing down favorite lines from books. You know, when you're 14 you don't know what you're doing. You think like, “Oh, ‘Life is like a box of chocolates,’ a good line!” My early notebooks just have the dumbest, just horrible, horrible shit.

But I've kept it for so long now, it's been transferred from print to various laptops. I sort of keep it obsessively. Everything I read, I end up writing things down from. I know, generally, I don't like a book, if I end up putting nothing from it into my commonplace book. Not to every writer has to be pithy and perfect, but if I read a book, and I don't want to put a single thing from it? And I keep all kinds of categories, I can open up to flying, social class, violence, war, sex, drugs, conversation, theater, music. I'm just obsessive about it.

And I try not to overdo it in my writing, sometimes. I think there's a period of my career when I quoted too much. And I've tried to kind of pull back from that. But if I have a mission in regards to quotation, I think that America, we all quote, horribly. We use the same five or six voices, always quoting Twain or everything is Einstein, Lincoln... Half the time it's made up. I want there to be better quotes in the world, goddammit! I want better ones, you know, because they're out there. Different people and smarter things. And my book of quotations, I think, is an anti book of quotations because for the most part, there's nothing in there you'll find in any other book of quotations. I mean, a few you will, but off-beat different kinds. And I'm proud of myself as a writer when I can use a good snippet of something to good effect.

So anyway, I still keep it. And I'll say something to your readers who are creative people in other areas: I find that my obsession with typing things into my into my commonplace book is a good form of what I call a B activity, like a B roll. Some days I'm not up to writing something. Or I'm not up to reading a big book today. Maybe I'll go for an hour and work on my commonplace book. I have this energy, right, I need to get it out sometimes, and I like to work. For me, it's pleasure. And I'll find myself working an hour or two in the evening on entering some stuff from old books I've read into my commonplace book. It's a way of using offtime to good use and kind of building something. And I hope that someday, this whole thing might be published or something. I don't know where — it's a monster right now. I think it's a thing that someday I'd like to see in print, but I'm not there yet.

So I want to be a real nerd and ask you, like, what is it though? Like, how many files is it? What software is it in? What does it look like?

GARNER: Oh, I'm not very tech savvy. It's Microsoft Word. And the files are so large that they get hung up and the beachball spins... They're broken up. I've broken up Food, because Food is so big. I've broken up Drink, because Drink is so big. I've broken up Writing because writing breaks down into so many aspects of writing to talk about, right? But even the A-M and M-Z are just large and unwieldy. And I don't know, it's a boring topic, but—

It’s not boring to me!

GARNER: I take great pleasure in it! My favorite unit of literature is the sentence, you know. And I realize that yes, a writer can make good sentences without making a good book or a good poem. That's possible. And yet, I'm a sentence guy, you know, I want the hits. That's who I am. So that's part of why I keep this.

I love it. You've been influential on me, because I started doing this commonplace diary and quickly realized, like, this isn't good enough. I need this on the computer. It needs to be a place where I can dump it in a file and move it around and stuff. So right now, mine are all in Apple Notes. One of the things that gave me great pleasure is that at a certain point, I was like, “Oh, part of the fun is dividing all this stuff into topics and seeing what your topics are.” Seeing that index!

GARNER: My wife has used my notes once or twice for something she's writing. And she says, “Oh my god, this is an index to your soul!” Like, the things I'm obsessed with are all right there.

They're right there!

GARNER: Whether it's illness or old age — not that I'm obsessed with those things, but I'm 59. You can just see the kind of stuff that I care about, because that's where the interest lies. There's very few about happiness. I have a happiness file, they're all about unhappiness. Because I don't do happiness quotes, because everyone else does! Leave that for homework.

Stephanie, what are your notebooks like? Do you keep notebooks? Do you have a system to keep track of your stuff? What's your nerdiness? Tell us about your nerdiness!

First of all, I'm not nearly as industrious as either of you. I am a very lazy person. And when I'm off duty, I'm reading one of those fashion designer autobiographies or making something. I love to make clothes and I love to knit. Stuff like that, or listening to music.

I do take notes when I watch movies, but you can't make anything out of them. Because they're sort of like, a little bit of stream of consciousness as I'm watching. Just to jot down sometimes pieces of dialogue that I might want to use later in a review. Or if I'm looking at an actor and something strikes me about their features or something that they're doing or the way they're talking, I'll jot that down. And sometimes it might be just three or four words that have nothing to do with each other, literally, but it's just a reminder to myself of some sort of mood or feeling that I'm having in that moment.

However, these are, yuck, not pretty at all. And I can barely read them after the fact. So I don't keep them. I recycle them. Because honestly, I mean, I go through probably like 50 of these a year. And I don't find it really helpful to go back and look at them.

What I do find helpful is to go back and read the review that I wrote from them. And that’s my library of stuff, my memory helper. At this point, I've reviewed so many movies that some sometimes I'll see a title and I'll be like, “I don't think I've ever seen that film.” And then I'm like, “Oh, yeah, of course, I wrote about it, but it was in 1999 or something.” I've just forgotten about it. I feel like I should now, especially talking to you guys. And Dwight, of course, knowing about your commonplace book habits. I feel like I should be doing more stuff like that. But...

GARNER: Don't change, Stephanie!

ZACHAREK: I'm just kind of lazy!

GARNER: I'll show you my notes. I'm reading a book for the second time. And these are the notes I took 20 years ago and in the back pages. It's a biography. And now I'm reading it again. And now I take notes on the page themselves. So anyway, I don't know, it's a sickness, Stephanie.

I live for this shit. This is what I live for. Okay, lists. I have to ask you about lists. Stephanie, you said something one time that changed my life as a listmaker. Because you said, pay attention to the bottom of a critics list, because that's where the oddball magic actually happens. I used to make a big list at the end of the year of the 20 best books I read. And then I might list some honorable mentions. And dammit, like a decade later, it's the honorable mentions that I would actually reread. What is that?There's something about the ranking mind that I find... it doesn't hold up to time or something. What do you think about lists and making lists?

ZACHAREK: Well, first of all, everybody's going to look at the number one, and they're going to look at that as it's sort of like an advertisement for you. This is who you are. What is your number one movie of the year? And so, when you're trying to determine that, you are trying to find like the most “you” movie that you can, but also... your whole role as a critic is to reach people and to open something up for them. So you're trying to fulfill these multiple functions. I would say the number one, even the second, and third movies, you're trying to be the most “you” that you can, but also hopefully open people up in a way. If you choose something completely obscure, then people are going to be, “Oh my god, she's so pretentious. She chose this film that like nobody...” Honestly, I don't really care so much about that, but it is kind of cooking in the back of your mind. Like, maybe you should pick something that people will at least know how to find it.

Austin, I love that you remember that quote, because I, too, will go back and look at old lists that I've made. And it's always honorable mentions. Those are the films that I remember. I remember the plots, I remember who was in them. And then sometimes, like, the number one film or the number four or five, I don't even remember really seeing that. I'm sure I saw it and loved it. But it hasn't stuck with me the same way. But I have no... I don't know why that is. Dwight, do you have any theories?

GARNER: It's not fashionable for a critic to say that he or she likes making lists. No, it's not. And I don't love it. But I've never had to make one that was in order. Mine have always been just my general top 10. So I haven't really had that problem. I will say, I do get bored of them sometimes. I wish some of them had different ways to go. When I was the books editor at Salon, we did an annual thing called the Turkey Shoot — someone picked their least favorite book that was highly praised and everyone else loved to just shut it down. And people still remember some of those because how many lists are negative these days? Very few. As a critic, it's no fun to go after a first novelist or young talent. That's not what you want to be doing unless they've gotten very inflated indeed by some of the reviews or great success and you have something different to say. But sometimes it's fun to shoot down an overinflated ego or a book that's gotten too much attention in the wrong way. And I do wish that sometimes these things were all just, I don't know, I wish we had a slightly more adversarial critical culture than we have right now.

I sometimes want to pick fake fight. I've had this like dream of like, secretly like making an alliance with someone else, a writer I know, and starting a war just as like a for fun just because I think it would be fun like that. Like, like a war like we would we would just talk trash about each other all the time. I just have these weird fantasies sometimes just you know, being the conflict you'd like to see in the word. Just the literary feud. I feel like there's so few of those anymore. Didn’t that used to be a thing?

ZACHAREK: Yeah, like Norman Mailer...

GARNER: I was talking to an old book review editor the other day, and he reminded me of the time he had a meeting with some higher up at the Times and he walked back from the meeting, and I said, “Well, what'd you guys talk about?” And he said, “Well, someone said to me, you should start a fight.” Meaning, the book reviews seemed boring right now. You know, find some to be angry about, you know, start a fight! Which I'm not sure. I'm not sure it's great advice, but it made me smile anyway.

Okay, let’s do a lightning round. Favorite snack? Favorite snack in the middle of the afternoon.

GARNER: Extra salty pretzels made by Uncle Henry's.

ZACHAREK: Dark chocolate.

What's the best book you've read recently? And what's the best movie you've seen recently?

GARNER: The best book I've read recently is a book by Rita Bullwinkel. It's her new boxing novel, which is so great and so fast. Headshot.

ZACHAREK: I'm not really sure if this is the best book that I've read, but it's certainly the spiciest — Young Kim's A Year on Earth with Mr. Hell. There's this woman named Young Kim. She had been the longtime partner of Malcolm McLaren. And she worked with him. She helped him produce shows and events. And she's the executor of his will. So she had a very serious relationship with him. And he had died and she was organizing something connected with him and his legacy. And she contacted Richard Hell, a poet and writer, but also, you know, musician, Television and The Heartbreakers and all that stuff, and they had an affair. And she writes about it.

It's a very affectionate book, but it's very explicit sexually. And he's not happy about this book. I think he hasn't said a lot about it. But he said, “How would you like it if you had your personal life, real intimate, splashed out for the world to see?" So I actually I have such mixed feelings about it.On the one hand, like I think it's great, historically, women have maybe been, you know, reticent to express these things, or to write about sex or write about their own sexuality, blah, blah, blah. But then I'm also like, oh my God, there's something about these rock and roll guys who have been with a lot of women, there can still be something very gentlemanly about them. And I think for him, like if he went out and like talked about her publicly and said, "Oh, she was like this in bed." Everybody would hate it would be awful! Be terrible! So I'm kind of looking at it, I'm like, well, why is it okay for a woman to do that, even in a very affectionate, respectful way, but it's still kind of embarrassing for him? So anyway, I'm wrestling with all of this. So I wouldn't say like best book, but really kind of fascinating.

So many books that I read, I'm like, “This is a great book. Wow, yeah, I can recommend it to people!” But then the books that really last with me, it's like, there was just something I had to wrestle with, or there was like, one little tidbit in there that changed things.

Okay, so here's my final question for both of you, which is, would you like to ask each other anything?

GARNER: I have a question for Stephanie. Book critics can always find the easy way out. If my review was short, let's say, I need to fill 1000 words and only have 400. I can always quote a big paragraph of the book. If you're a movie critic, you can't really do that, but this is a codicil to that question: How do you make sure you have the dialogue right when you're quoting it, does someone go and fact check it for you?.


No, you just have to hope that you wrote it down correctly in your notebook that you're scribbling in in the dark. It does happen. Sometimes you just don't have that much to stay about something. What I do then is sometimes I write about the costumes which I anyway. I love clothes and I love all the sort of visual things that that go with it. But I don't know. Otherwise, Dwight, I got nothing. I don't know. You just wing it.

I think that's as good of a stopping point as there is. “You just wing it.” I've winged it here and I've really appreciated y'all giving your time. This was awesome for me. This was so much fun.

GARNER: It was really fun, Austin. Thanks for having us.

ZACHAREK: Thank you. It was great.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to share this interview!


Austin Kleon
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