Gimbling in the Wabe – Wherein I Talk to Lev Grossman About Something that You Might Not Expect

by Sharon Browning

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You know the saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover”?  Well, you shouldn’t judge an author by his publicity photo, either.

Ever since I started reading Lev Grossman’s The Magicians modern fantasy trilogy, I’ve been a little scared of him.  Virtually every photo I saw of him showed a very serious, very intense young man.  Very striking, but a little intimidating.  Okay, more than a little.

Then I read up on him and learned that he not only is a bestselling author, but also a senior writer and book critic for Time magazine.  He has written for The New York Times, Wired,, The Wall Street Journal, and The Village Voice (among others) and has interviewed the likes of  Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen, J.K. Rowling, and Johnny Cash (according to his Wikipedia page, and in this case, I tend to believe it).  His father is a celebrated poet, his mother a novelist, his twin brother a game designer (and novelist), and his sister a sculptor.

Pretty serious stuff.

Lev Grossman

And then, considering that the protagonists of his Magician books are not necessarily “good” people (real people, honest people, but not necessarily “good” people), it seemed to me that Mr. Grossman was not a person to be messed with.  Oh, sorry – not a person with whom one should mess.

But that was before I attended NerdCon: Stories, a convention held earlier this month in Minneapolis, that had as its central theme “Why Stories Matter”.  That was before I saw Lev Grossman on a panel (along with Holly Black, Paolo Bacigalupi, Stephanie Perkins and Nalo Hopkinson) entitled “Honing Your Craft: Embettering Your Word-Doing” where he not only gave thoughtful responses to questions posed but also laughed, joked, and told personal stories about his writing experience.

That was before I saw him on stage (along with the likes of John Scalzi and Rainbow Rowell) in a “Rapid Fire Q&A” where a question was posed – sometimes serious, sometimes silly – and each person in line had to give a short and fast off-the-cuff response (he writes on the subway, by the way, and I believe he said he prefers waffles over pancakes).

And that was before I sat in queue to spend a few minutes with him face to face, at his book signing session.  Eagerly grasping my copy of The Magician King, I waited my turn while marveling at how much time he spent with each person, how he appeared to be having actual conversations with them, fully listening and giving thoughtful responses.

So as I waited my turn, I formulated what to say to him, what to discuss in my few minutes of allotted face time.  I rejected anything specific about The Magicians trilogy – I’m sure he was getting plenty of questions about that, and with the books debuting as a television series on the SyFy network  in early 2016, I figured there would be more than enough about his thoughts on that in the months to come.  I also couldn’t think of any salient writing questions that didn’t feel trite or contrived (or that he hadn’t already answered numerous times in the past hour).  But there was something I really wanted to ask him about:  what makes for a good book review?

After all, he’s the senior literary critic for Time magazine!  Before he started writing novels, that was his bread and butter.  And while I couldn’t bring to the table any camaraderie about being an author, I certainly knew what it was like to struggle with writing a good review (even though my only training has been “on the job”).  And now, here was my chance to get advice from not only an authority – but an authority I admired (now more than ever)!

And just as I had hoped – actually, exceeding my hopes – we chatted about just that: reviews.  Well, kinda sorta.  I did start off identifying myself as someone who wrote reviews for a literary website (he even took my LitStack business card!), and asked him what advice he could give someone like myself about writing a worthwhile book review.  But he told me that instead of speaking of “what makes a good review”, he would tell me about how he approached writing reviews.  (Better and better!)  He said that what he did when he wrote about a book was to tell a story:  the story of how he personally experienced the book as he read it; his reactions, what he took from it as a reader as well as a critic.

I was enchanted with that notion.  I thought about my own reviews, and realized that I struggled the most when I tried to reach for an established view of what a review should be, rather than a personal view of the work.  What Lev – I can call him Lev now, can’t I? – was saying made so much freekin’ sense.

He agreed with me that reviews which spent more time trying to impress the reader with the reviewer’s supposedly prestigious volume of scholarly knowledge and literary sophistication rather than speaking to the book itself were virtually worthless.  He said that he wanted to take the reader through his own experience with the book, thus giving the reader a genuine, heartfelt appraisal of the work.

I then asked him if he ever felt “bad” about writing a less than complimentary review (something I struggle with, often – I want to be truthful when I have issues with a book, and not sugarcoat what I feel are weaknesses out of fear of hurting the author’s feelings, but, well, I don’t want to hurt the author’s feelings!), and he said that the most important thing in a review is to be honest.  That you can be honest but still be respectful, and even kind.  In fact, it is the duty of a critic or reviewer to give an honest assessment of the work, that’s what people look for, that’s what they count on.  And a good reviewer should be able to share disappointment in a book without being malicious or petty.

Ah, I said, I try to always find something good in any book I review, and mention (or point out) perceived weaknesses without dwelling on them.  He said that was the right tactic to take.  And then, I said, if I read a book that I simply cannot recommend or that I honestly did not like, rather than penning a completely negative review, I will not even write about it.  That’s when he looked me straight in the eye, and I swear some kind of distance between us (“us” being established author to adoring reader) dropped.  He leaned back in his chair, smiled broadly, and said, “Exactly!”

I will admit, my fan girl heart thrilled right then.  I thanked him, gathered up my copy of The Magician Lev n MeKing (which he had personalized for me while we had been talking not only with his signature, but with flourishes, and even a drawing of a little key – if you’ve read the book you’ll understand why this was so precious), and let him turn his attention to the next person in line.

Oh, how I would have loved to have talked to Lev Grossman longer, to have picked his brain over a cup of coffee or pint of lager!  But I was more than satisfied, by spending those minutes having a bona fide conversation rather than engaging in the expected simple meet and greet.  That extra attention meant the world to me, and left me energized and confident that I am on the right track with the work I do here at LitStack.  (Unfortunately, I did not get a picture of him giving me a hug while we both smiled – smiled! – at the camera; the poor volunteer manning the cameras for the signing had hit the “movie” button by mistake, and instead I got a seven second video of my feet walking around the table where the signing was taking place – she did make up for it by taking multiple pictures of us actually talking, though!)

Meeting Lev Grossman was one of the highlights of the convention for me, and being able to talk about reviews with him (which truly is something near and dear to my heart) is an extremely valuable take away.  Yes, yes, yes, stories matter to me, but not just my stories – the stories that I read and enjoy and want to share with others… those stories matter so much to me, as well.  So very much.

I love reviewing books.  I love sharing my love of stories with you.  I love promoting authors whose talents I admire and whose storytelling transports me to places that I never even dreamed of.  I love sharing the good word, spreading the gospel, witnessing as to the power of the word in my life – the word of the storyteller.  The word of the writer.  Being able to do that is a gift, too, and it’s one that I’m proud to be a part of.

I also now know – again – not to judge a book by its cover, or an author by his or her publicity photo.  What’s inside both is where the truth lies, and sometimes – oftentimes  – that truth is freekin’ sublime.

Thanks, Lev.  Thanks, NerdCon: Stories.  Thanks, LitStack.  Thank YOU!

~ Sharon Browning


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