Homegrown: Ron Charles
The term ‘literary critic’ might evoke an image of a person tucked behind a computer in a cramped office stacked with volumes of published work. But Ron Charles, book reviewer for The Washington Post, doesn’t fit that imaginary persona in the slightest. In fact, you’re much more likely to see the St. Louis native bring his literary opinions to life in crazy costumed videos shot by his wife, Dawn Charles, a high school English teacher.
The critic says he began acting out his book reviews as a tongue-in-cheek response to his employer’s efforts to entice millennial readers. “I was discouraged by what publications were asking journalists to do to attract younger people, like social media and blogging,” he admits. “I thought, ‘What is the most ridiculous way I can promote my work?’ So we created a studio in our home and started making satirical videos with me as this manic, desperate character and Dawn as my shrewish wife. It’s a great creative outlet.” The couple’s basement is full of costumes they have used for the productions. (Their Totally Hip Video Book Reviews are on YouTube.)
After talking with Charles, you’ll feel like inviting him to your next book club meeting, and not just because he would offer compelling literary insights. While critics have to be confident about their opinions, they also have to wield some tact at times, but neither is a problem for Charles. He’s got plenty of words and ideas and is not afraid to use them, but he also comes across as warm, friendly and funny. He sometimes meets authors whose writing he has critiqued and says that can be fun or a little awkward, depending on how he felt about their work. “Getting to know them is nice, but if we become friends, I can’t review their books anymore,” he notes.
Charles says he didn’t plan a career as a literary critic. After growing up in Town & Country, he studied at Principia College and Washington University and wound up back in the classroom as a teacher, including a stint in the English department at John Burroughs School. “I loved teaching there,” he says. “The students were wonderful, my colleagues were great friends, and the school really encouraged creativity and intellectualism. But the neverending work wore me down; it stretched across every evening and weekend, and I reached a point where I just couldn’t grade any more papers.” A student’s mother offhandedly suggested he try reviewing literature for a living, so he chose a title, wrote about it and submitted the piece to editors at The Christian Science Monitor.
They accepted it and asked for more, and he was off and running. “I was stunned that they were interested in my work,” he says. “And to be paid for it? That was amazing.” He moved to Boston to take a job as the publication’s book editor, then later relocated to Washington, D.C., to work for the Post. Today, he also writes a weekly newsletter covering a variety of topics.
If you’d like to meet the critic and pick his brain about bestsellers, you may be in luck. He will be in town Oct. 17 to interview award-winning writer Susan Orlean, author of The Library Book, at the St. Louis Woman’s Club. (Reservations are required.) Charles says he enjoys returning to his old stomping grounds a couple of times a year and has led other local book discussions featuring authors like Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout. “It’s always fun to talk with people who read for pleasure instead of for a living,” he says. “I love that they have jobs and families but still make time to be alone with a book. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Photo courtesy of The Washington Post