The 2008 AltWeekly Award winner for Arts Criticism talks about his work.
Adam Sobsey’s favorite part of his job should be obvious: He gets paid to read new books. “I get to read books I normally wouldn’t read otherwise,” Sobsey says.
When he’s not doing book reviews for the Independent Weekly or writing theater reviews for The News & Observer in Raleigh, Sobsey spends his time swimming in his own text, writing plays about Ezra Pound and about himself growing up in the 1980s. He’s also tried his hand at a novel, but hasn’t had the best luck finishing it. “I’ve been given a new appreciation for writing books,” he says.
How did you get into the business of reviewing books?
I had been a freelance theater critic for The News & Observer for about four years and the arts editor, David Fellerath, asked me about writing theater reviews for the Indy. They only had one drama critic, and it was a struggle for him to make it to everything. The N&O prohibits its writers from covering the same subject for other publications, but David was actively looking for writers. With my background in literature, I became a candidate to cover books.
You are a playwright; does that ever get in the way of your time reviewing books?
More the other way around. I went away for five months to write plays this year, and only wrote one piece for the Indy while I was gone. I love writing book reviews, but if I had to choose, I’d choose playwriting.
Do you like movies at all?
I used to be a really big moviegoer, but I hardly ever go now. I [actually] haven’t been to the movies since I saw The Darjeeling Limited. I’d rather just stay home and read. I don’t have a television. I don’t have an iPod, I only have CDs. I’m still pretty 20th Century.
Your articles tend to offer a bit of backstory about the authors you’re critiquing. What do you think an author’s past says about their current work?
That’s true of two of the reviews I submitted for the AAN Awards, but more an exception rather than a rule. I usually just focus on the book I’m reviewing. In the case of the books by David Guy and Larry Brown, I think an awareness of their pasts will help any reader to better enjoy their books.
How does a book review in an alt-weekly differ from one in a daily?
I feel less pressure to make a consumer judgment — buy the book or don’t — when I write for the Indy, which feels to me more like a place to interact with a book rather than merely rate it — largely because a) it’s got a heavy arts and culture component, and I feel justified in looking more closely and deeply at what I’m reviewing, and b) my editor encourages a more essay-like style rather than just the standard thumbs-up-or-down reaction. Also, I often have more space in the Indy than I do when I write theater reviews for The News & Observer, so there’s an opportunity for me to say more about what I’m reviewing, either specifically or more broadly. I’m more comfortable in the Indy with using language and syntax that might be considered too literary in a daily, as well. The News & Observer cuts words like “misprision” and “abjure” when I use them.
When you write your reviews, do you expect your audience to have a smidgen of knowledge about the writers you’re talking about?
I imagine they know at least a little about literature or they wouldn’t be reading book reviews, so I write for an audience that I imagine has some background in the “canon” and don’t hesitate to make references to authors like George Eliot and John Cheever. But most of the authors I write about aren’t really famous ones — although a fair number of people in Durham are probably familiar with David Guy, since he lives here — which is why I sometimes make a point of offering some biographical or literary context.
What do you ultimately feel is a book critic’s purpose?
Ultimately, to champion a great art form, to ask from it as much as it can give, and to read and write for a community of readers who take their reading — of my reviews and of literature as a whole — into the world with them every day.
Read the pieces that garnered Sobsey a first-place finish in Arts Criticism (circulation under 55,000):
Durham Author David Guy Distills a Lifetime of Work
The Final, Unfinished Novel of the Late, Great Larry Brown
New Stories From the South: More Than Confederates and Kudzu
Part of the 2008 “How I Got That Story” series, in which Academy of Alternative Journalism fellows reveal the processes of the writers and editors who won first-place AltWeekly Awards. These interviews also appear in Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2008.