Maud Newton is a peach. In person she is lovely, gracious, soft-spoken, petite, bookish, and adorable in round glasses. Her skin is porcelain. She reminds me of a silent movie star—moon-faced, brunette, demure. And she’s so gosh darn nice.
As I drove to hear her address the MFA students in the Butler University Efroymson Center for Creative Writing the other evening, I formed a question to ask during Q&A. I can never think of an original question at these things or have burning curiosity about anything I haven’t already read about an author in an interview, but there was one thing I really wanted to know from this Rebecca “Maud” Newton, who has been a champion literary blogger since before blogging was even a word. What I wanted to ask her was,
“You have reached a level of writerly acclaim I can’t even imagine aspiring to. You’re prolifically published, religiously followed and emulated. The Paris Review even calls you ‘Necessary Reading.’ My question is this: How are you not a d-bag?”
But as Maud spoke, and from the moment she greeted me in the entryway with a warm smile, firm handshake and sincere “Thank you for coming!” the answer became apparent, negating my need to ask. She’s just naturally, well, nice.
Maud Newton is one of the good guys, and why is this trait so surprising? It may be the prevailing tone of snark sweeping the lit-mag-osphere, or the soaring popularity of wittily written, if profane, blogs that are equal parts hilarious and mean-spirited that make a writer think, “Well, I’d better get busy cussing and jabbing others with clever jokes at their expense if I want to find success in the literary realm.”
Another reason “nice” strikes me as such an anomaly may be that I’ve experienced enough visiting writers to be jaded by the colossal egos. Oh excuse me, Lorrie Moore, but you could take a lesson from Ms. Newton in the art of graceful celebrity. And, b-t-dub, you’re not as widely read or admired as you think you are. And, Walter Mosley, you are a tres debonair, wildly articulate, killer crime novelist, but take some notes from Maud Newton on humility. And did Paris Review ever recommend either of you people as necessary reading? I think not.[Which reminds me of an important piece of advice Ms. Newton offered bloggers, namely to be really sure of what you want to say before you say it; consider your message and be careful what you put out into cyberspace, because once your words are out there, you can’t get them back.] Well, Maud, I have looked within, and I am sure. I don’t need those words back. Even if they do border on snarky.
Highlights and Quotes from an Evening with Maud Newton
- Maud Newton doesn’t have a staff. Stacks of some 300 books clog the limited space in her Brooklyn apartment, so if you’re an author or publisher and want a book reviewed toute de suite, get in line. She’s just one person with one pair of eyes.
- Blogging did not kill long-form literary criticism, which she points out “is flourishing on the internet.”
- Have faith in your voice, your own perspective. It’s what distinguishes you from all the other writers.
- “It’s okay if crazy people hate you.”
- “Express yourself sincerely.”
- Beware: blogging can reinforce an insidious desire for instant gratification.
On reviewing books:
- A reviewer has the duty to be honest and “not bore the reader of the review.”
- A reviewer should look into herself and be honest about her reactions to the book. “I won’t review books I don’t have strong feelings about,” she said. And she tends to avoid the negative review these days. (Oh how I wish I’d asked a follow-up about why that is. Maybe it’s a function of her inner goodness.).
- As a reviewer, Maud Newton asks herself, “Does this book feel like it will be for me; will it be edifying to me in some way?” If the answer is “no,” she puts it down, never to pick it up again. “I’m really a selfish reader.”
- Maud Newton has a full time job, some legal publishing gig where coworkers—”fellow refugees from the law”—call her “Rebecca” and don’t necessarily know from Maud Newton.* It is no wonder she’s no longer a lawyer. Lawyers make lousy nice people.**
- Maud Newton doesn’t think your blog has to be focused on one, specific thing to be widely read or followed. “(A personal blog) can be a great repository for the things you like to write about and things that interest you,” she said. “People like complex people.”
- Maud Newton the novelist keeps a book she calls “horrible,” a book “a lot of people really like,” on her desk to keep her working on her own novel. She says, “If someone can publish that book with a straight face, there is hope for mine.” (She was too gracious to name said horrible book publicly.)
- Maud is blogging less these days, primarily because of the time-drain. “Blogging won’t help you finish your novel or memoir,” she said, which was, to me, the best advice of the night for a roomful of writers who are limping along toward their first novels.
Stop blogging, Maud, because I can’t wait to read your novel. I’m a selfish reader too. If only I were as nice as you.ASIDE: The sunny spring evening of Ms. Newton’s visit marked the death of two other literary giants: Adrienne Rich and Newton’s mentor, Harry Crews—a blow that rattled me with the realization that my writing mentors might one day perish. Sincere condolences to you, Maud.