Has book publishing found its savior? Well, probably not, but in August, The Washington Post’s Ron Charles made his small-screen debut in the role of a cranky, self-important book reviewer. Charles, who is actually deputy editor of Book World at the Post, has put together a handful of additional videos since then, managing to sneak substance, and even story, into his character’s diatribes. But to keep things entertaining, he’s not above rolling on the bed in his pajamas, wearing a wig made of bacon, or faking historical footage to show that Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” has had more than a century of hype. Here, he talks with us about what exactly he’s up to.
Why did you start doing the Totally Hip Video Book Reviews?
My family and I used to do this kind of thing for my extended family and friends. We would do parodies of holidays, based on TV shows or things like that. We hadn’t done any since we moved down here from Boston to D.C. And about six weeks ago, we were sitting around on a Saturday. I was frustrated that I hadn’t done anything lately. I’d had this idea for a comic, satirical book review character. I said to my wife, “Why don’t we just throw this together?” So we literally just broke my review for that week down into scenes, filmed it around the house, and posted it on YouTube.
This wasn’t your Post overlords saying “Do your multimedia this week”? It was done on your own?
I had no idea the Post would be interested at all. In fact, I thought they would see it, be embarrassed and tell me to stop. A few days went by, and it got lots of hits on YouTube – this was on my own account. I bet it wasn’t two days later that somebody from upstairs – the fifth floor, where all the important people work – called and said, “Hey, we’d like to take this over.”
So now, at this point, are you still scripting? Who’s behind the camera? How’s it put together?
The Post offered to take over and produce it, film it, edit it, the whole thing. I just could not take on any more work, and I knew that would involve other people’s schedules. It would become one more duty.
I pretty much wanted it to stay fun, so I said, “No, my wife and I will keep doing it whenever we want and however we can. If you’re interested, post them. If you’re not, don’t. Let’s just leave it very casual.” So my wife does the filming, and I write up the script and we race around the house, and sometimes around town, and do it ourselves.
And you edit it yourselves as well?
Right. It’s just Final Cut Express and a digital camera.
Your tag line is “fast, fun and totally hip” – but as often as not, the shell of parody and self-mockery seems to contain a serious review. Do you have an approach you’re trying to take to the substance of the material, in addition to this character you’ve created?
It’s an awkward fit, to tell you the truth, to try and wedge a serious book review, sometimes about a serious book, into what is a parody of my industry’s hysteria and collapse. So I’m still working that out, and I don’t honestly have any particularly sophisticated critical theory behind all this. I’m just doing it week by week.
Some weeks it works better than others – Emma Donoghue’s “Room,” for example. I was so moved by that book, and I thought it was so powerful and so devastating. I couldn’t see any possible way to put it in the context of a parody about book reviewing. So that week, I decided to talk about other things and run through the Booker short list. I think it kind of worked in that setting.
Are you typically taking the review you’re doing in the paper each week for the focus of your video? Or is it not that fixed a schedule?
No, it is that fixed. Every week, the video that goes up is based on my review in that day’s paper. My reviews come out on Wednesday in the Style section, and the videos go up then – sometimes they go up a few hours before, but they’re pretty much coordinated to that.
Did you get all your tips for scripts from Dana Milbank?[Laughs] No, I learned it all myself, just from filming my family.
Obviously you’re having fun, that’s what makes it engaging. But what are you hoping this will do?
Honestly, people have attributed to me all kinds of much more complex motives. We really just do these for fun. There’s so much to parody about journalism, particularly the book section, and the book review industry itself – I don’t know if you can even call it an industry anymore, the way it’s fallen to its knees in the last 10 years. But there’s a lot of material here. I think a lot of it is pretty insidery, but at least there are still enough people on board to enjoy this kind of gallows humor.
What kind of response have you gotten from readers?
A lot of very nice responses from publicists, editors and publishers, and even some authors. It’s the kind of thing that I don’t think could have existed before Twitter, oddly enough, because I would have had no way to publicize it and to hear back from people or to contact them and let them know it’s out there.
So the bulk of your audience comes from your Twitter feed?
Yeah, but now the Post promotes it pretty heavily, even on the home page some weeks. On those weeks, I’m sure the bulk of the audience goes beyond my book friends. But the people I have direct contact with come almost entirely through Twitter.
Has anyone taken umbrage? I’m thinking particularly of authors.
No, I have not heard any complaints … yet. The last one I did, I think, was Danielle Evans. She’s a young woman here in town – she had a collection of short stories. I praised her book really heavily in the paper, and so I heard from her publicist that she was delighted and thought it was funny. Publicists will tell you whatever you need to hear, of course, but that’s the only time I heard directly from an author.
Actually, no, I did hear from another one. Lily King was mentioned offhandedly in one of the episodes, in a joke about what my wife was reading. And she wrote to me, too, and thanked me for mentioning the book. But Jonathan Franzen has not contacted me yet, alas.
No “Oprah” show for you.
Too bad [sniffs].
Here at Nieman Storyboard, we’re always interested in the narrative angle. When you’re putting these together, it feels like there’s a storytelling sensibility working in the background. Is that a conscious thing you’re trying to do?
That’s a conscious thing. I am trying to tell a story, both about this character, this ludicrous book reviewer who’s so vain and so insecure. And then you can probably notice that there’s always this abrupt, rough transition, where I move into a few minutes of more serious review of the book. That’s more in my own voice.
I don’t want to just be silly. I also want to convey at least a little bit about some of these books that I’m reviewing. But it remains a fairly rough narrative.
It seems like social networking tools provide a useful outlet for you to reach people with this information, but at the same time, they’re part of what you’re mocking in this character that you’ve created.
Yes. I thought that was particularly awkward in – I can’t remember which episode it was – where I made fun of all the other things that people do about books other than actually read books.
Where your wife is sitting reading her book, and you go off and have all these non-reading literary adventures?
I thought that was a bit awkward, because of course those things are engaging people, but I do think there’s at least a funny joke to be made about the fact that really all we need is a book, some quiet time and a chair, and all these other things we’ve invented are essentially distractions.
So what’s the best that could happen for this character you’ve created?
Oh, probably a spot on “Saturday Night Live.”
So you’re dreaming big?
Well, you asked for the best. Actually, I think that I’ll do a few more episodes, and then it will peter out, and I’ll be either condemned for some slip up, as usually happens with these things, or I’ll just be exhausted and not be able to think of anything more to do.
But the real problem is the sort of sensitivity, and I tried to address that straight on in the last episode about a white reviewer reviewing a black author’s book and how anxious we all are. I thought that was fairly risky, but apparently it didn’t offend anybody. Everybody seemed to get what I was making fun of there.
Here at the Post, when you think of the four or five missteps where people have been fired or reprimanded or put on leave, it’s really hard. Our overlords are telling us to be radical, to be hip, to be spontaneous, but at the same time not to ever, ever make any mistakes. And that’s just impossible.
That’s a challenge a lot of people are facing, especially when things are done on top of their regular duties.
Yes, even my reviewing is on top of my regular duties. My actual job is to assign and edit book reviews. I do all my reading and writing at home for the Wednesday reviews, and the videos are done at home on weekends.
Even though your character is part of the exact thing you’re mocking, the videos are pretty dynamic.
This whole emphasis on doing everything so fast, the whole 60-second joke, which I’ve probably milked way too long –
That will make it perfect for “Saturday Night Live.”
Right! But you see this all over the Internet – people doing things in 60 seconds or a minute. I guess it’s a reflection of our desperation for the one thing we can’t manufacture any more of, which is time. People only have so much attention, regardless of how many things they can buy. We only have 24 hours apiece. It makes us all crazy.