New York Times book critic to revisit his literary roots

MIDDLEBURY — Dwight Garner, a book critic at The New York Times, says the best part of his job is also the hardest: just keeping up.
“There’s this fear of missing something,” he said, explaining that more than 20 books arrive at his apartment every day. His tries to keep as much on his radar as possible, from work by established authors to books out of smaller publishing houses. The latter he reads in the hopes of stumbling upon something fresh.
“The best feeling a critic can have is discovering a new author,” he said. “A lot of my time is spent in my desk chair in my apartment reading through the books I get.”
Garner, who graduated from Middlebury College in 1988, will return this Wednesday, Jan. 16, to discuss his career and how his college experience helped him hone his critical skills. The talk, which will take place in McCardell Bicentennial Hall Room 220 at 4:30 p.m., is part of the college’s Meet the Press lecture series.
Garner looks back fondly on his time in college, where he studied the great critics in class and found his own voice at the Middlebury Campus newspaper. His career as a college critic was aided by then-owner of the Vermont Book Shop, Dike Blair, who allowed Garner to take books for free in order to review them.
His reviews soon caught the attention of Vermont newspapers, and he started writing for the Vanguard Press in Burlington among other publications. Garner also worked at the Addison Independent while in college, which he recalled fondly as one of his formative journalistic experiences.
After college he stayed in Vermont to freelance and work odd jobs.
“Criticism,” he noted, “is no way to make a living, then or now, unless you’re very lucky.”
When he moved to New York, Garner worked for “Harper’s Bazaar” and was among the founding editors of “Salon Magazine” before The New York Times hired him in 1998 to be the editor at the Times Book Review. Ten years later, he transitioned to writing reviews for the regular paper.
Garner views critics as people who feel an innate need to participate in conversations about “all kinds of culture, high culture, low culture, everything.”
“To be a critic, you have to read everything all the time,” he said, explaining that the profession requires one to value ideas and want to keep up with everything new.
He pointed to two recent trends in literature, including a new generation of prolific female writers.
“There’s this vanguard right now of really smart, idiosyncratic female writers who don’t sound like anyone else writing right now,” he said. “You have a sense of these young writers figuring things out in public, and it’s impossible to predict where they are going but I want to be along for the ride.”
Garner also noted that he has already seen the early effects of the Trump presidency in new fiction. He predicted that, going forward, this administration would have a “seismic impact” on the literary world.
“I’ll be more than curious to see how our best fiction writers respond to this era,” Garner said.
When asked if he had any recommendations for Vermonters, he turned to an old favorite from college called “Total Loss Farm” by Raymond Mungo. Published in the 1970s, the book follows a hippie commune in Vermont founded by radical journalists.
“There’s not enough weirdness in the world anymore and that’s true of writing and writers as well,” he said of the book, which he once called “the best and also the loopiest of the commune books.”
“It’s a good Vermont book to have on your shelf,” he said, adding, “In fact, you’re not a true Vermonter unless you have this on your shelf.

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