Media People: Pamela Paul of The New York Times Book Review

There are roundabout ways into journalism and then there’s the way Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, came to it.

First it was going to be advertising, partly inspired by her mother who became a copywriter the same year as the fictional Peggy Olsen did in “Mad Men.” Then it was teaching and library work on a sojourn in Asia. Then children’s book publishing at Scholastic, having applied on “a whim.” Then business development for documentary films and what was then Turner Broadcasting and Time Inc. Then it was following “a guy” to London. Then, finally, she got some freelance work there for The Economist. That eventually led to her first book deal for The Starter Marriage, which was something of a sensation upon its 2002 release.

“It was kind of a novel idea for people at the time,” Paul said of the book, which looked at the budding phenomenon of short-lived and childless first marriages, inspired in part by her own to Bret Stephens.

But a career writing was always the one she wanted, Paul says over Zoom, sitting in front of appropriately book-filled shelves.

Even after moving to Thailand in an effort to put herself through something uncomfortable, then traveling through some of China having decided to stop eating anything but one serving of rice a day for weeks because she hadn’t suffered enough in life to “appreciate” things appropriately, Paul didn’t let herself try writing for a living. Eventually she succumbed, just as she did to proper food after almost a month without.

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“I quit my job and wrote my first book and kept writing for The Economist and I realized I won’t ever, ever, ever not do this again,” she said.

But full-time staff work was not something she was going for when an opportunity to join The Book Review came up 10 years ago. Paul was happy writing books and freelancing, frequently for The Times, in her pajamas from home (a muscle that snapped back into form when the pandemic hit). But ultimately she realized it was an opportunity she shouldn’t pass up.

“I Dick Cheney-d my way in,” Paul joked. “[The editor] asked me to help find someone and I’m like ‘How ‘bout me!’”

Now having just written her first children’s book, “Rectangle Time” (a longtime wish), along with three other books since joining The Times, Paul reflects on what finally brought her to writing, what’s changed in book publishing and journalism since she started in the Aughts and the effects of literary criticism being harder to find, but maybe more important, than ever.

WWD: So when you were younger was media the goal? Did you just want to be a writer?

Pamela Paul: I did want to work in something that was word-oriented and I thought ad copywriting sounded like a lot of fun and I loved the idea of publishing. But I really couldn’t afford to work in publishing when I graduated.

WWD: How did you get to The Economist?

P.P.: When I graduated from college, I moved to northern Thailand and was planning to then move to Hong Kong. I knew Hong Kong would be harder [financially], so I came home and drove up to my college alumni office to look up some names of people who lived in Hong Kong so I could have some contacts to get a job. And while I was there, there was a job listing for a position at Scholastic in New York. So I applied on a whim thinking “Well, if I were to not go to Hong Kong, this is the kind of thing I’d want to do because it’s books for kids and parents and it’s something I could feel good about myself doing.”

One of the reasons I moved to Thailand is I found that some of the jobs I was looking at felt like they were compromises in terms of what I wanted to be doing with my life.

WWD: And you decided to teach English or you just always wanted to go there?

P.P.: What happened was I was interviewing for jobs in advertising and I was in the middle of an interview with someone from Quaker Oats and I remember saying to the interviewer, “I really like Cap’n Crunch but only when there’s Crunch Berries.”

The interviewer was like, “Um, OK, a lot of us here like Cap’n Crunch, but why do you want to work here?” And it was one of those experiences where you see yourself from a birds-eye view and I thought, “What the f–k are you saying.” Then said to him, “Actually, I’m sorry I don’t want to work here and I’m sorry I wasted your time,” and I walked out and canceled all my interviews. It was sort of my John Cusack moment.

So I decided to force myself into a situation where everything I would be doing would be things I thought I wouldn’t want to do.

WWD: Huh, OK…

P.P.: I was not interested in Asia so I picked Asia. I wanted to go somewhere where I didn’t know anyone. I had no connections. No job. No friends. I didn’t speak the language. It wasn’t the same ethnicity or religion or anything. And I assumed I would teach English, but it turns out I’m terrible at teaching English. I’m also just a terrible teacher, to clarify that.

WWD: I’m not sure I’ve heard of someone doing something like this to such an intentional extreme. Where did the urge even come from? Was this advice?

P.P.: No. I don’t know where it comes from. I think sometimes I have some kind of very mean inner voice, which is just like “You never had to walk 10 miles back and forth from school, who do you think you are complaining?!” I believe in the value of challenging yourself. Two things I’d done earlier, which were not nearly as tough, but I was a very unathletic kid — truly, I could not and I’ve never ever hit a ball with a bat — so as a challenge to myself in college I joined the rugby team.

WWD: Again, maybe the most extreme thing you could have done.

P.P.: Yeah. But I enjoyed it. And I joined a gospel choir even though I’m an atheist and I can’t sing. I guess I do have a streak of wanting to put myself in situations that are uncomfortable and challenging and like, can you take it? Maybe it’s also that I grew up with seven brothers so I always feel like I’m such a wuss. I’m a wimp and I have to tough it out.

When I was in China, I ended up snowed-in in a blizzard in April. I ended up finishing a book in that yurt called Wild Swans by Jung Chang. I had this sudden feeling of “I’m never going to be able to appreciate things the way she can because I’ve never really had any kind of deprivation.” So, I decided to deprive myself of the thing I love most, which is food.

WWD: OK…

P.P.: So for the rest of my time in China, I decided I would not eat except for one serving of rice or bread a day, depending on what area I was in, and one clear broth every two days, to make sure I got enough vitamins.

WWD: And how long was this for?

P.P.: I was going to do it for six weeks but, cut to the chase, it lasted about three-and-a-half weeks. I was walking out of the Forbidden City, there was a noodle stand and I was like, “F–k this.” So that was the end of that.

WWD: It’s funny that you referred to yourself as a wimp. I would say you’re borderline masochistic.

P.P.: No, I’m super indulgent. But that’s why I tried, because I am that person. I have a full drawer of candy at my desk at all times.

WWD: How did you not end up writing “The Master Cleanse” or something and becoming a millionaire? 

P.P.: Oh, God. No. I went Scholastic. I went from there to Time Inc. and from there I actually moved to London for a year.

WWD: Still with Time?

P.P.: No. I followed a guy. And I didn’t have working papers and could only freelance so that’s how I ended up writing for The Economist. I did a monthly column for them on global arts and that sort of moved into film and theater criticism and later book reviewing. But I moved back to the U.S. after a year and worked briefly in documentary film, also on the business side. Then I went to Turner, also in new business development. All the while really kind of wanting to be a writer. I had actually written a proposal and a good chunk of a book when I came back from Asia about that experience, which I thank my lucky stars was roundly rejected everywhere, as it should have been. I hope it will never ever see the light of day.

WWD: It’s kind of a fascinating story though. You just think the writing was bad?

P.P.: You know it’s nonfiction, so maybe I just didn’t like me at that time. I would’ve given me a bad review. And the writing was bad. But in 2000, I quit my job and wrote my first book and kept writing for The Economist and I realized I won’t ever, ever, ever not do this again. So after that I took my first real job in media working for a trade magazine.

WWD: Which one?

P.P.: American Demographics. Which was a magazine that I loved. After that magazine went under, I went freelance and the second and third books I wrote were based off of stories for Time. I went from writing mostly for The Economist to writing mostly for Time to then writing mostly for sections of The New York Times.

WWD: How did you get that first book deal? Did you use connections from publishing?

P.P.: I had no connections. The only thing I had was an agent from that first book and the reason I had one was because when I was living in Thailand, I would write these letters home called “Pam-a-grams.” I would write one letter and I would send it to my mom with a list of names to send it on to and she would photocopy it. One of the “Pam-a-grams” got in front of a book editor and that’s how I got an agent. Other than that, I had no name. The Economist had no bylines but based on my proposal and my work there, I was able to get that first book deal.

WWD: And that book, “The Starter Marriage,” kind of popped off.

P.P.: You never know when it’s your first book what’s normal and what’s not, but what was not normal was the amount of attention it got. I think it was kind of a novel idea for people at the time. At the end of 2002, in Time’s Man of the Year issue, now Person of the Year, they also have terms of the year and one of the terms was Google and one of the terms was Starter Marriage. And one went on to make millions and millions of dollars!

WWD: If only you’d had the presence of mind to start a marriage search engine.

P.P.: It was a good lesson to have early on, the value but also the limits of the media. There was a week where I’d done all these TV shows and radio interviews and I walked out of my apartment one morning like, “I am so famous, everyone is going to be like, ‘What is Pamela Paul doing just walking down the street in Murray Hill?!’” And of course nobody knows. You can think you’re everywhere and no one knows who you are.

WWD: When you really started writing and freelancing, do you look back on it like it was a totally different time in media culture or are some things the same?

P.P.: Oh, no. It’s totally different. Completely different. It was the Aughts and there were still lots of magazines and lots of editors. I remember sending snail mail pitches with clips that I’d cut out and send along and getting snail mail responses. Early on it was considered disrespectful to email someone. There was a greater number of outlets that were interested in writing. There was less emphasis on what would go viral and hit with an audience and more on what was an interesting piece of writing and what was of value and worth doing and important.

But it’s easier now to have some kind of visibility. You can kind of hang out your shingle on Twitter or have some kind of digital presence. In the early Aughts you were just another name in someone’s mailbox.

WWD: Do you think there’s an issue now of quantity over quality? The accessibility has led to a difficulty in cultivating good writers or more deeply reported pieces of journalism?

P.P.: The Internet is really big and there’s obviously a glut of writing. One of the functions of magazines, especially, used to be a kind of curation and triage that no longer exists to the same extent. I’m generally kind of pessimistic. I tend to think that a lot of the pieces I really loved to read in magazines are harder to find.

WWD: This idea that news outlets and media in general have an overarching focus on virality, do you think that’s in book publishing as well, printing those books that will get a lot of coverage?

P.P.: It’s hard to know what their motivations are, but I do think the book editors I know are all incredibly passionate and principled people who are really in it because they’re trying to produce great work or get great work out there. It’s generally an industry filled with people who are trying to do good in the world. I feel that way about journalism, too.

WWD: Since you’ve been with The Book Review, do you feel the book industry has changed in any meaningful way?

P.P.: Book publishing always changes and shifts to reflect the times. Micro-generations of writers that happen and then recede. I like to think of books as agenda setting, but in other ways there’s a bit of a lag. You have societal changes and the books follow.

WWD: And you wrote three books while freelancing before you joined The Times. Was it a hard decision to go back to an employer or were you ready?

P.P.: No. I was never going to work in an office again. I really liked working at home in my pajamas. In that respect, quarantine is like, “Oh, here I am again.” I was pretty pleased. Then the editor of the Book Review at the time was looking for a full-time children’s book editor and he asked me for advice. I was in L.A. with my husband and kids and I wanted to go to this picture book and illustration gallery store, Every Picture Tells a Story, now closed. So I had this epiphany, “If I actually care this much about children’s books, maybe I should consider this job myself.” Three weeks later I was working at The Times. I Dick Cheney-d my way in. [The editor] asked me to help and I’m like “How bout me!”

WWD: What is it about children’s books that’s so alluring to you?

P.P.: Oh, I mean, at every level. That’s when we become readers. That’s when you’re first drawn in. Those are the books that fundamentally make you a reader, that open your eyes to what words can do. With picture books, there’s an aesthetic to it, a whole other kind of story-telling.

WWD: I’m curious about the process at The Times. How do you decide to review a book?

P.P.: It’s a very collaborative desk. Specifically for The Book Review, in general, it’s the staff critics who decide what to review. And I think it should be the critics because they’re making a decision to write about books they deem important and they feel like they have something to say. And they also think The Times as an institution should weigh in on. It’s hard to write about something that is not important to you.

For the other reviews [not done by staff critics], it’s a little bit the opposite. There, it’s the editors and the editors we call previewers, who each have areas of expertise. They bring to senior editors, including me, the books they think we should review and ideas of people they think could be good at reviewing and then we have a conversation. Then we make a determination to assign this book at this length and go to these people to review first, second and third.

WWD: With those reviews, typically by big names, is that something that this newer, maybe friendlier era of the book review has brought in?

P.P.: There are a few things that guide us. We never want to do a takedown. We don’t deliberately set up a book to be slammed. If we just wanted clicks, we could do that, but that’s not what The Times is about and it’s not journalistic or ethical. When we’re assigning a review, we’re looking at a number of measures, one of which is “Would this reviewer appreciate this book?” We want someone to give a fair assessment who will be open to it.

WWD: It seems like this tone is different than in previous years or decades.

P.P.: My immediate predecessors were Sam Tanenhaus and before him Chip McGrath and I feel like that’s part of what they were doing.

This is a section of ideas and books. A kind of Swiss neutral territory. We’re kind of halfway between the newsroom, which does not insert opinion, and the opinion section, which is just opinion. We assert opinion through the lens of books. The way we’re trying to achieve that has been fairly consistent over the last couple of decades.

WWD: In present terms, what is the purpose or value of criticism? 

P.P.: There’s a value in really good literary criticism, now more than ever, because there are so many opinions. What The Times is doing is a kind of rigorous criticism that is increasingly rare. Most local news outlets no longer have staff critics or even books pages or reviews of any kind.

If you talk to an author of fiction who’s been working for a couple of decades, they used to be able to count on getting a good 20 to 30 reviews in Ohio, Illinois, Florida, Texas. Now, you’re lucky to get one or two reviews. There used to be pages of book reviews in Vogue, for example, now there is one column on one page…

WWD: Of summaries.

P.P.: Yeah. There’s a real dearth of quality literary journalism. And I’m not trying to say anything negative about our competition, but there isn’t enough competition. And there aren’t enough resources. And particularly at a local level. It used to be that the San Francisco papers would review local authors. The L.A. Times would give a lot of space to writers based in California. Readers are losing out with the disappearance of that coverage.

WWD: Do you think the kind of dying breed of the professional critic has a degenerative effect on the arts-books-culture ecosystem on the whole?

P.P.: Yeah. If you don’t have enough people who can rise up and make a living writing book criticism, getting that experience of doing all that reading, there’s no pipeline. What would I say to someone today who says, “I want to be a book critic?”

WWD: But people do still read. There have been a couple of different eras of whoever saying “Books are over,” but do you see the appetite for reading books being about the same as it’s always been?

P.P.: I think books will endure. I like TV and film and theater as much as the next person, but to my mind, books are the most powerful vehicle for storytelling for the reason that with a book, the reader is creating the experience as much as the writer is delivering it. You’re creating as much as you’re consuming and those stories stick with you because they become your own.

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