by Eric Bies
There was a time when Google replied with images of and information about a world-class jockey, an Englishman born the same year Mark Twain published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Lately, the results of the same query tend toward the man of our time, the subject of this interview. Call it a correction: Steve Donoghue the Boston book critic, Steve Donoghue the editor, Steve Donoghue the YouTuber.
His bylines regularly straddle Books columns at venues large (The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, The National) and small (Big Canoe News, The Bedford Times Press). He is a co-founder of Open Letters Review (where his annual end-of-year Best and Worst Books wrap-ups shouldn’t be missed). His work has been selected to appear at this very site. He reads faster and probably writes faster than you and me combined, and the proof is in the literary pudding: literally thousands of book reviews, articles, and essays to his name. “Prodigious industry” does not begin to tell the story; it’s his unconventional YouTube presence that registers a note of head-scratching astonishment.
For starters, not a single one of his videos has come close to going viral. His second most popular upload, “The Only Sure-Fire Way to Deal with Book-Mildew”—a parody of book restoration guides, instructing anxious owners of moldy tomes to shower the offending objects with water, then throw them away—boasts just 18,000 views. (And that’s an outlier: the typical Donoghue upload tends to clock in at around 850.) His subscriber count, by most measures modest, weighs in at 13,600. And yet stacked against this figure is the rather remarkable channel-wide tally of 5.7 million video views. Rain or shine, that number climbs at a steady rate of 20,000 new views per week.
No secret here: Donoghue is nothing if not consistent. Jettisoning three, four, sometimes even five videos into the YouTubesphere on a daily basis, he has managed to upload over 5,600 videos in the last six years. At a conservative estimate of 20 minutes per video (excluding his occasional 2-hour livestreams), you could conceivably settle down on your couch, click play at the beginning, and bare bookish witness to some 112,000 minutes—unedited and wittily extemporaneous—something like 1,870 hours, or 78 full days, of audio-visual Donoghue content.
But what keeps his viewers coming back? Is it the glut of “mail” videos, in which he draws the curtain back to reveal the latest in forthcoming releases from America’s major commercial and academic publishers? Is it the frequency with which he posts his ecstatic dispatches from Boston’s beloved Brattle Bookstore, highlighting haul after haul of eclectically selected used books? Maybe it’s his uncannily effortless ability to spin interesting discussions into ever more interesting digressions—from Horace to Spock, from Spider-Man to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Undoubtedly, many of his viewers tune in for the pleasant and rare combination of a vast, polyglot knowledge of literature and the unmannered ease and comfort of its delivery. (This viewer showed up in 2020 for an illuminating year-long marathon all about Penguin’s renowned line of black-spine classics, with videos on Gogol, Augustine, Genji, and more.)
Regardless of how people find Donoghue, they seem to stick around, above all, for his personality—his humor, his opinions, his rants—his firm position in the camp of anti-snobbery (who else holds forth on the merits of Ovid’s Latin as readily as the denouement of a Regency romance?), and the sense of community he inspires.
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Interviewer: When John Jeremiah Sullivan sat down to interview Guy Davenport for the Paris Review, he began by asking him how he spent his days. How do you spend your days?
Steve Donoghue: It’s not exactly exciting reading! I walk my bossy little dog first thing in the morning, then I settle on the couch for the day’s work. Like any writer, my weeks are cascades of various deadlines, some shorter and more urgent, some longer and more cumulative. When some bit of writing runs aground briefly, I do an hour or two of reading to recharge the old batteries. And I take breaks from both of those things for more dog-walks and also for making YouTube videos.
Interviewer: You’ve mentioned in your videos that you weren’t much of a reader as a child—that you came relatively late to a love of books. You credit this change to one great teacher. What changed?
Steve Donoghue: That one great teacher—I think a great many readers have one—showed me that reading was not only not boring (my previous and long-standing idea) but in fact the greatest adventure of them all. You open a book and let someone else into your mind, in complete silent privacy, and you basically challenge that person to see how much they can rearrange your mental furniture. Once I really experienced that, I was hooked.
Interviewer: How did you get your start writing book reviews? How has the landscape of professional book criticism changed since you entered it?
Steve Donoghue: I first started writing about books a long time ago for a handful of small newspapers in the Midwest, but then, for reasons that must have seemed good to me at the time, I stopped—became a retail bookseller in Boston for 25 years and did no book reviewing. Then Sam Sacks, who now writes his indispensable “Fiction Chronicle” for the Wall Street Journal, suggested I write some book reviews for the Columbia Journal of American Studies under its then-editor Tony Dokoupil back in 2006. Then Sam, the writer John Cotter, and I created the online literary journal Open Letters Monthly, and that re-planted me firmly in the world of book reviewing.
And the landscape of that world hasn’t changed fundamentally, despite some outward appearances. It looks smaller, for instance, but that’s only if you’re looking at traditional print venues. Thousands of newspapers have gone out of business, true, and most of the ones still standing devote little or no space to books. But thousands of online venues have appeared—there are more people today writing about books than at any time in history. The landscape also looks more explicitly co-opted, with reviews seeming more and more to be mere adjuncts of a book’s publicity campaign. But that’s an illusion too—reviewers are still mostly doing what they’ve always done: trying their best, under strictures of time, column-length, and editorial whim, to do right by their readers.
Interviewer: Many readers are flocking to social media platforms for their literary run-downs, reviews, and recommendations. Do YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok present a threat to your line of work? With more options than ever, how are the general reading public to decide where to go for their bookish news?
Steve Donoghue: Hah! I wondered how long it would take us to get around to TikTok! Yes indeed, there’s a “BookTube” substratum of YouTube, there’s a “bookstagram” substratum of Instagram, there’s a “book twitter” substratum of Twitter, and of course there’s TikTok, which has recently been revealed as a potentially enormous book-hype site. There’s also Goodreads with its 100 million users. There’s Amazon, with stacks of reviews on hundreds of millions of books. That’s a lot of competition for old-fashioned paper-and-pulp book reviews. Fortunately, the yardstick for the general reading public hasn’t changed: the actual talent of the reviewers. When you find reviewers who make you think, maybe make you laugh, and make you broaden your reading, you’ll keep going back to those reviewers, regardless of where you find them. There’s something appealingly traditional about long written book reviews, but I could hardly say there’s no value in venues like “BookTube” or “bookstagram,” right, since I’m active on those venues myself?
Interviewer: Speaking of BookTube, does it surprise you at all that thousands of people have subscribed to your channel? Having written so long for print publications, what was it like gaining a purely digital audience?
Steve Donoghue: After long hours of utter confusion, I’ve made the mental decision to view those thousands of subscribers as an impenetrable enigma, like the nature of the Trinity. Or else I opt for the explanation those subscribers themselves give me: that they’re watching mostly for a glimpse of my little dog. In any case, it’s a terrific daily counterbalance. In a written review, I have an audience, a readership, and a very pointed subject. In a YouTube video, I have friends, conversation-mates, and plenty of spontaneous fun. Both are centered on books, but they’re wonderfully different.
Interviewer: When you write a positive review of a new book, does that mean that you personally enjoyed the book? How would you describe the relationship between your public writing and your private reading? Does Steve the Critic ever come to loggerheads with Steve the Reader?
Steve Donoghue: Oh my, I love these questions! In a way, they get at the heart of how I think about book reviewing just in general. I firmly believe two things about the act of reading critically: first, once you start doing it, you’ll want to keep doing it, and second, it should never, never come to loggerheads with simply “reading for fun.” It’s entirely possible to love a bad book—in fact, that’s one of the fun parts of reading. You go wrong only in saying that if you love a book, it must therefore be good. Technically impeccable books can be gawd-awful (trying not to look in Jonathan Franzen’s direction here …), and gawd-awful books can be tremendously enjoyable (anybody can supply examples here, right? Agatha Christie? The Godfather? The Martian?). Steve the Critic’s job is to call balls and strikes—this novel has flat characters, this history ignores all the pertinent works of its author’s main academic rival, etc. Steve the Reader’s job is the same as every other reader’s: to find books to love, regardless of balls and strikes.
Interviewer: Your cozy little corner of BookTube is known for its unabashed embrace of literature both high and low: a frayed and sun-bleached Western by Nelson Nye bump shoulders with Seanus Heamey’s rendition of Virgil. In your definition, what makes a reader “well-read”? How do breadth and depth compete in your calculation?
Steve Donoghue: Certainly the greater ecosystem of “BookTube” is as prone to charlatans, frauds, and shills as any other YouTube ecosystem, but yes indeed, I’ve landed with a good crowd, fun, flexible, non-judgemental—very often “tagging” each other and razzing each other … and cross-pollinating recommendations on every possible kind of book. And the enormous variety of reading in that ecosystem really reinvigorates the idea of being “well-read.” Traditionally, it means being versed in canonical literature, starting with Homer and the Bible and working through the Greeks, the Romans, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and so on—and there’s of course an enormous value in that. But idiosyncratic, passionate reading happens everywhere. I try to cast my reading net fairly wide, but I could talk for hours with somebody who only reads 1980s fantasy novels.
Interviewer: You mention “tagging.” For the uninitiated, “tag” videos revolve around sets of thematically linked prompts. Tag creators gets the ball rolling by responding to these prompts themselves, then—as in, “Tag! You’re it!”—calls on other content creators to follow suit. I’d like to spin one up myself. In the spirit of 3 Quarks Daily, we can begin with…
- Science: Name a science book that challenged, complicated, and/or broadened your conception of life on Earth.
Steve Donoghue: Oh no, tag questions! And you’ve promptly zeroed in on the kind of tag question that always tangles me up, since most of the things that have broadened my view of life haven’t been books (and that continues to be true). But in the specific terms of your question, I could certainly nominate The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong—it’s one of those incredible books that have mind-blowing concepts on virtually every page.
Interviewer: 2. Arts: Name an artist who, one way or another, was also an excellent writer or storyteller.
Steve Donoghue: As odd as it might seem, here I’d like to nominate the portraits of John Singer Sargent. At first they seem incredibly static, as most portraits do. But the more you look at them, the more they start to unspool narratives in quiet but insistent ways.
Interviewer: 3. Philosophy: What is a good life? Where (if anywhere) do books fit in that picture?
Steve Donoghue: I think the basic version of a good life is one in which you enjoy yourself (which involves a nice amount of self-indulgence) while helping other people enjoy themselves (which involves a healthy amount of duty). And obviously such a conception doesn’t need books at all. I view them—all of them, from Aristotle to Meg—as pure objects of play, which is a big part of why I love them so much.
Interviewer: 4. Politics: Name a historical president, prime minister, sultan, emperor, king, queen, etc., whose memoirs—nonexistent—you wish had been written.
Steve Donoghue: Well, I’d love it if we had a full-scale modern-style memoir from England’s King Henry II, but much more recently, I’d really, really like a non-prettified version of Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography, a memoir of his time in politics—and of course especially his time in the White House—that’s as hugely insightful, catty, and side-splittingly hilarious as he 100% always was in private on the people, events, and politics of the day. That would have been a presidential biography to end all presidential biographies, but instead, we get this respectable Edwardian mausoleum that’s one of the least readable things he ever wrote.
Interviewer: 5. Literature: Name a fiction writer or poet who is overdue for a revival in popularity and/or acclaim.
Steve Donoghue: I fundamentally distrust revivals! They lead to pretentious dude-bros trying to convince me that Henry Green is an overlooked genius! They lead to dude-bros telling me Stoner is the best novel ever written! Although I’ll never pass up an opportunity to recommend the novels of James Boice….
Interviewer: Apart from tag videos, how do you decide what kinds of videos to make on any given day?
Steve Donoghue: Oh, there’s SO much bookish stuff to talk about! I open most of my book-mail on-camera with my BookTube friends, so they can get my first reactions to new arrivals in real time. I walk those friends through all my second-hand book purchases (the platform’s popular “book hauls”). I do regular read-alongs with other channels, where we’ll agree on some book, read it together, and do regular videos about it over the course of a month. It’s fun to make a video where I read a poem and talk about it a bit. And there are BookTube “events” that assemble a larger roster of BookTubers—events celebrating genres like science fiction or westerns. On any given day, I just look over the most fun topics and make those videos.
Interviewer: In some sense, BookTube has provided a popular alternative to good old-fashioned in-person book clubs. Even the unbelievably successful book-of-the-month services we’ve seen crop up over the past few years, organized by the likes of Reese Witherspoon, seem to prioritize digital conversations over meetups at your local Panera Bread. Why do you think the paradigm has shifted so emphatically?
Steve Donoghue: Partly, I’m sure, the shift happened because most bookworms are hopeless introverts! Hah! But another appeal of BookTube is probably its more egalitarian nature: except for the enormous, entirely impersonal channels that are basically sponsorship vehicles, most BookTube channels are full of dialogue, with give-and-take in the Comments fields and conversations often spilling over into emails or Voxer or such. In some of the best neighborhoods of BookTube, it’s entirely possible to make friends, which is terrific.
Interviewer: What about your experience as a BookTuber has changed as your channel has grown in subscribers? What has prevented your channel from reaching, say, a hundred thousand subscribers?
Steve Donoghue: I actually wouldn’t say my experience has changed as a result of any number of subscribers, the number isn’t the variable I’d pick—instead, it’s the turnover. You get comfortable with a big crowd of friends, but you’re always adding new people, some of whom will be coming straight from the rest of YouTube, where rude and pointless fight-picking is par for the course. That can lead to awkward moments! As for reaching a hundred thousand subscribers, I think the most basic answer is that I’m not a good product for the corporate side of YouTube. I’m not exactly photogenic; I never ask people to “like, comment, and subscribe;” I don’t accept sponsorship deals; I don’t monetize my videos; I don’t script or edit or fine-tune. In other words, I’m fairly conspicuously not fake. Mega-subscriber status tends to be reserved for androids who literally haven’t spoken a sincere word on-camera in years. And honestly, they can keep it! I treasure my more intimate BookTube world far too much to trade it for one in which I follow every fad, consider my subscribers “vermin,” and pay a flunky to read my Comments field.
Interviewer: Do you have any tips for those who might feel tempted to jump into the BookTube fray?
Steve Donoghue: Well, as I always say (and the tempo’s only increased in the 21st century), the world doesn’t need any more insincere, grifting a-holes—so my foremost piece of advice to anybody contemplating doing BookTube (or doing anything else) is: don’t be one! The best parts of BookTube are the most sincere parts, where people are participating for the community and the fun of it, not for ad revenue. If you’re starting a channel, comment on other channels, interact with other BookTubers, join in the fun. I watched BookTube videos for over a year before I made any, and that kind of interaction has always been my approach. The key decision is: at least try it. Every devoted reader should at least try it.
Interviewer: Anyone who’s listened to you talk about book reviewing knows that you are a self-described “hack.” Isn’t that usually understood to be a bad thing?
Steve Donoghue: It is indeed! But I tend to think of it as a handy term for deadline writers doing the best work they can—often very good work. And partly I embrace the term in order to bite my thumb at the world’s pretentious writers who drape themselves in their own profundity before they cough up one banality after another.
Interviewer: Who are some contemporary book reviewers whose work you admire?
Steve Donoghue: Well, there’s that Sam Sacks fellow over at the Wall Street Journal! And an encouraging number of others, like Christian Lorentzen (since it’s mighty important to read critics with whom you disagree), the great Ruth Franklin, Christopher Irmscher, and Claire Messud’s “New Books” column for Harper’s—although I should point out that none of these fine critics are hacks, in either the good or bad reading of the word; they’re some of the book-chat world’s best deep thinkers, bless their nerdy hearts!
Interviewer: You’ve made it clear over the course of this interview that you do not suffer “tools” gladly. Is pretentiousness dangerous?
Steve Donoghue: Oh my, yes—it’s absolutely deadly. It completely eviscerates the fundamental compact between critic and reader, because it focuses the entire critical enterprise on the former instead of the latter. Pretentious critics want to take something from their readers—adulation, blind faith, you name it—rather than give something to them (the benefits of their experience and judgment, etc.). And since they’re insanely prone to fads and bandwagon-jumping, since they’re forever chasing after some cool-but-talentless new Williamsburg wunderkind, they’re the very worst thing any critic can be: untrustworthy. Pretentious critics don’t want to inform your choices—they want to find the people who precisely agree with them, chuckle archly with those people, and scorn everybody else as “dummies.” It turns reading into a velvet-rope club with a super-exclusive guest list. It’s revolting.
Interviewer: In addition to your writing, you’ve recently launched a “Book of the Day” podcast with the Cedarburg Public Library. You don’t appear to be slowing down on BookTube (you uploaded five new videos the day before Thanksgiving!). It looks like you might be publishing your first collection of reviews in the near future. Plenty is happening. What am I missing?
Steve Donoghue: Yes, there’s the CPL Radio daily book-chat, which is enormous fun—and which is also a YouTube channel, where the video of all our shows is uploaded. And a very talented young writer friend of mine is crowdfunding a project to make a book of some of my reviews over the years about the US Presidency—he tells me it’s going well, so it looks like I’ll soon have a book to my credit, which is exciting. And of course I’m still reviewing very actively, on Open Letters Review, for Big Canoe News in northern Georgia, where I’m the Books editor of a beautiful two-page spread of books coverage (a rare thing in US newspapers, to put it mildly), for the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette, and for the Christian Science Monitor here in Boston. And there’s the “BookTube” neighborhood of YouTube, where, as you pointed out, I’ve made thousands of book-related videos. And there are dog-walks. Lots and lots of dog-walks.
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Email: st.donoghue [at] gmail