Podcasts and Literary Criticism

January 12, 2017 | 7 min read

If listening to your favorite podcast is like meeting your best friends at the bar, then reading a 500-word book review is like sharing an elevator with a casual acquaintance. There’s a chance both could be great experience, but it’s more likely the elevator ride will blend in with the hundreds of other forgettable interactions you have every day.

There was a time when the print book review was the definitive source on how to think and talk about new books. Even five years ago, the idea of an author going on a podcast to promote his or her book seemed laughable; most people didn’t even know what a podcast was, let alone how to download one. In some ways, print is still the dominant form, and every writer still dreams of getting that great New York Times review. But with new literary podcasts appearing every week, the world of book discussion has been fractured and reshaped. The podcast hasn’t killed the book review, but as traditional book reviews have become less dominant, podcasts have filled that void and changed the form.

In a recent episode of “Book Fight,” the podcast I co-host with Mike Ingram, our guest Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, a poet and music critic, argued that the era of the traditional music review is dying. You don’t need to read Spin or Pitchfork to find out how many stars they gave an album, because you can stream it yourself and then go to social media to read hundreds of reactions from your friends within an hour. There was a time when the point of most reviews was expressly to guide you in making one decision: do I buy this thing or not? Now, thanks to digital media, the engagement with the material is totally different, though still rooted in the same desire: to hear some music you’re going to love, and connect with other people who love it too.

Though the music and book industries aren’t quite analogous, there has been a similar shift in the way people want to talk about books. John King, host of “The Drunken Odyssey with John King,” describes podcasting as, “An elaborate extension of social media.” A good book podcast can graft the spontaneity, intimacy, and energy of talking with your friends onto the conventions of a book review. Though there is still an invaluable place for detailed criticism from writers like Zadie Smith and Daniel Mendelsohn, many book lovers are seeking out venues that seem less intimidating. It can be daunting for someone who feels like a literary outsider to pick up a 10,000-word piece on three translated works in The New York Review of Books, but not to download a couple episodes of a show you can listen to while you’re cleaning your apartment.

Book reviews have traditionally been written in an ostensibly objective voice, while podcasts provide a more personalized, idiosyncratic response to a given book. Listeners are less interested in where the book should be placed in the canon than they are in how the hosts of their favorite show were affected by it, and why. When asked how podcasting has changed her approach to criticism, Rebecca Schinsky, co-host of “Book Riot” and “All the Books,” says, “I care much less about criticism, about pretending that objective evaluation of a piece of literature is even possible, or about pronouncing whether a book ‘should’ be read or not.” Tod Goldberg, co-host of “Literary Disco,” echoes her view: “Our listeners come to our show not just to hear us review a book, but to talk about our lives, hear our stories, learn how literature plays a role in our real lives.”

You might argue that this emphasis on the hosts’ personal reactions is problematic, a sign of the self-obsessed times in which all opinions are treated as equal. There are, you might say, objective standards that make some books definitively better than other books, and that the increasing interest in podcasts is more proof of the decline of rigorous criticism in an era of moral relativism. While I concede both the value of the canon and the need for some baseline standards in evaluating books, I would argue that the shift toward more personal criticism is actually the opening to a more inclusive culture of book criticism. To record a podcast, you need a computer, a decent microphone, and a couple hundred dollars for web hosting; not everyone has these tools at their disposal, but it’s an increasingly accessible medium that allows for a more diverse range of opinions than you might find on the handful of influential book review sites. When you listen to a podcast, you’re not just getting a plot summary and a star rating for a book; you’re being invited to share in the deeply personal response that a real person, whom you’ve come to know and think of as a friend. There’s a greater empathy for the host, but also a greater burden on the host to articulate her thoughts on the book effectively.

Every episode, the hosts are forced to consistently define and redefine their personal aesthetic, defending their reaction to a book while trying to articulate why they love or hate a particular thing, particularly when listeners might have expected them to have the opposite reaction. This discussion can be rigorous and difficult, and over time can lead to the host’s views on literature evolving significantly. It can also compel listeners to pick up a book they never would have tried otherwise.

Sitting across the table from a friend whose opinion I respect, I’m forced to explain every week why I feel the way I do about the most recent thing we’ve read. In doing so, I acknowledge that I’m bringing a different set of experiences, expectations, biases, and values to the table, and hold no illusions of speaking on behalf of Literature as a whole. Schinsky adds, “We’re not thinking about reviewing in the traditional sense. Our goal is to talk about what worked for us about a book and help listeners determine if it’s then a book they want to try.”

Many of the most passionate arguments I’ve had about books have occurred in bars with my friends, where we were willing to be uncensored, strident, and occasionally irrational. Sometimes you want to defend a book you don’t really like just to get under a friend’s skin. Sometimes your friends will roast you for loving a book they can’t stand. It’s liberating to be with a group of people you trust, knowing you can argue that the canonical novel everyone loves is terrible. Or that the small press chapbook you’ve just finished is one of the most important things you’ve ever read. And beyond all else: it’s fun. It’s a reminder for those of us in academia that you can talk about books without losing your sense of humor. At their best, podcasts replicate this particular experience for readers.

There are now dozens of thriving literary podcasts (some profiled here and here), and though there is surely some overlap in audiences, each fills its own comfortable niche, the place where the listener has found some hosts they respect and like spending time with. As with all subcultures, book lovers are interested in the work itself, but they’re also interested in joining a community.

Longtime fans form intimate relationships with the hosts of the show and their fellow fans. “Books on the Nightstand,” one of the pioneers in the literary podcast genre, built a thriving community of nearly 6,000 fans on Goodreads, and many are still actively posting even though hosts Ann Kingman and Michael Kindness ended the show in July. These are people scattered across the world, reaching out to find others who also love books and enjoyed spending time once a week with Ann and Michael. What they had in common was a desire to connect, not just with the literature but the people behind it.

Though each listener has her own favorite episodes of a given podcast, the real depth of experience comes from living with the show over a long period of time, developing relationships with the host(s), and feeling included in the dialogue. It’s like being part of a book club without the social pressure or the bad wine. You can show up whenever you have time, do the reading or not, and leave when you’re ready. You can form a bond with the voices in your head. Traditional reviews are limited in their ability to meet these needs from a reader. Brad Listi, host of “Otherppl,” says he wants to avoid a “high-minded academic back and forth [because] that kind of talk feels limiting to me; it excludes too many listeners.” Though you can read your favorite critic’s work over the years, learning from them and seeing their tastes evolve (or calcify), you never really feel like you know them. There is a distancing effect created by the medium itself. You are there as a student, not as a guest in the author’s living room. This is a good and valuable thing, but it’s not the same thing as listening to two people you like discussing books every Monday on your drive to work.

A quick story: two nights after the recent election, while many of us were still reeling from the results, I went to a reading in Philadelphia. The atmosphere in the room was weird, unsettled, and anxious. I wasn’t sure if anyone would even show up, but it turned out to be a standing-room-only crowd. I got the sense that everyone was tired of sitting alone in their homes and fearing the worst. People cried while Paul Lisicky read about watching the inauguration of Barack Obama with his dying friend. People cried during every reading. Ingram, my “Book Fight” co-host, opened the night with a short speech about the value of community in a time of great anxiety. He said literature can’t save people’s lives, but it can help a little. It can be a small, good thing to use books to build community and make people feel loved, supported, and welcomed. Though he didn’t mean it in exactly this way, I think it was also a good summation of what makes podcasts great: they draw people in based on the common ground of literature, and then use it to create connections where there were none before. Goldberg says that when he and his co-hosts are recording “Literary Disco,” “we know that beyond the quality of the book, we are sharing with our audience something more profound: here is what great literature can do, here’s the empathetic bridge literature lets you cross, here’s us, experiencing it, live.” As our lives become more fragmented and diluted across various online streams, there’s something rare and valuable about knowing you can have this resource to build meaningful bonds with thousands of strangers.

Image Credit: Gavin Whitner

is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower's Handbook. He co-hosts the Book Fight! podcast and works as non-fiction editor for Barrelhouse. He lives in New Jersey and teaches at Temple University.