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Book Jobs Not by the Book: Rachel Hurn, Book Reviewer

Rachel Hurn

Rachel Hurn

Rachel Hurn‘s nonfiction and criticism have appeared on the New Yorker and in the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. She is a bookseller at McNally Jackson and a graduate of the New School with an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction. She lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @RachelMarieHurn.

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What are some different professional capacities in which you’ve worked with books? In what ways have these other undertakings influenced your work as a book reviewer?

I first started writing about books and book culture when I interned at The New Yorker in the spring of 2011. I worked specifically on their book blog, which was then called the Book Bench and is now Page Turner. I wrote the blog’s daily news, reporting on literary culture and linking to book-specific stories that had been published that day. It was like a New Yorker-approved RSS feed. I also wrote book reviews, author Q&A’s, and cultural criticism essays. I loved it. The feeling of getting asked to do the internship, and the delight that came at that moment, lasted until the end of my time there. My editor, Macy Halford (who is now in Europe working on a book), taught me the meaning of a good editor. She was supportive and encouraging and so kind. If they ever wanted me back, I’d be there in a heartbeat.

In addition to my freelance writing, I also work part time at McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore in SoHo. It’s fantastic to be surrounded by books all day, and to always be in the know on what’s coming out and what’s selling well. Also to know what books are falling under the radar. We have very carefully curated sections, and we often carry otherwise unheard of, hard to find books (if they are still in print, that is). We also do a lot of events with writers, and it’s great to deflate some of the mystery that comes with literary stardom. I’ve realized that writers (even famous ones) are just people.

I’ve realized that I’d much rather review books that I find interesting and that I consider to be good books. It’s no fun to put down another writer, and frankly, I’m not very good at it. I’m much better at gushing about someone, which I do with frequency. There is so much damn good writing out there.

How did you discover the book review as a form that you really connected to?

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“I Await the Devil’s Coming,” by Mary MacLane.

Reading a book is like having a relationship. I feel such kinship when I write my name on the inside flap, or when I dare to break the spine, or when I feel the need to not break it, keep the book in mint condition. There are different kinds of books for different times in life. Many times when I’m writing about a book, it tends to reflect something that is going on in my life. Like when I wrote about Mary MacLane’s I Await the Devil’s Coming for the Wall Street Journal. She’s this young woman who wants to reject her roots. She’s practically screaming at the reader, which is something I feel a lot in my own writing. Like, I am young but hear what I have to say! Hear me roar!


How did you start making connections with publications that regularly run book reviews? Once the connection is made, how do you work with a book review outlet to bring a review to publication? What other relationships (with publishers, authors) are an important factor in your work?

Honestly I’ve made a lot of significant connections through Twitter. It took me a long time to see Twitter as a networking platform, but it is very much that. An editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books (who is now a friend) started following me, we connected, I wrote a piece for him, and then he got me in touch with the WSJ. Things like that happen all the time.

Each publication I write for is a little different in how they work. Mostly though I find the books I want to write about, pitch them to the editor who decides which book is right for the publication/time/etc., and then begin working on the piece. I give myself about two weeks to write the first draft. Then there’s a quick period of back and forth edits with the editor. Obviously the most exciting part is the day it’s published.

How does writing book reviews influence the wider framework of your life as a writer? As a reader?

I’ve noticed that the decision of what to read has become more pointed. I have finally admitted (and accepted) that there are too many books to read all of them in one’s lifetime. I used to start a book and then feel this obsessive need to finish it, even if I wasn’t totally enthralled. Those days are over.

What does it feel like to be a professional book reviewer in the age of exponentially shrinking book review space/book editor layoffs, let alone Amazon+Goodreads? What are your hopes/fears for the book-review career that lies ahead of you?

The first book reviews I wrote were online for The New Yorker. Amazon and Goodreads and the internet in general do not worry me when it comes to publishing my writing. I’m more worried about the state of the bookstore. I suggest that if people like having a local bookstore, they should never buy a book from Amazon again. Ever. But as for writing–good writing will always be needed. Like any other art (or technological advance for that matter) we need to keep supporting the people who do the job. Pay for books. Buy local. Subscribe to your favorite magazine and newspaper, even if that means subscribing on your iPad. I could care less how people are consuming art, as long as they are willing to support it.

What would you communicate about the role of professional book reviews to your peers in other corners of book business?

The fact that more and more local bookstores have closed means that the book review has become even more important to the book business. If you can’t walk into a store and ask a knowledgeable person who reads a ton which book you should bring with you to Greece this summer, then you can turn to the NYT Book Review. Or any number of places. You don’t want to rely on an algorithm to make your relationship decisions, do you?

2 Comments

  1. Sarah says:

    Well-put, Rachel! You’re so rad. Thanks for championing great work.

  2. Yvonne says:

    Very impressive interview. Rachel, your answers really show the breadth and depth of your vision. Great work!

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