William is an Istanbul-based book critic. He has a column called Folded Corner in the Hurriyet Daily News, as well as regularly publishing free-lance work in a variety of literature magazines. He is the host of the Turkey Book Talk Podcast regularly broadcasting interviews with important writers on Turkey and the Middle East. We met in a cafe in Taksim to talk about books, podcasting and criticism.
Luke: Who are you?
William: Well, I’m twenty-nine years old next month and I’ve lived in Istanbul for seven years, working most of that time. I’ve been writing for The Hurriyet Daily News for over 5 years, as well as freelancing for other places. That's my professional background.
Luke: How did you get into criticism?
William: I was writing stuff for my own pleasure really. We had a blog on the Hurriyet website and I wrote a couple of articles about books for that and the editor-in-chief asked me if I wanted to do them more regularly.
Once I got into a rhythm I also started doing more freelance stuff for other places too. Step by step.
Luke: What other venues are you working for?
William: I do a lot of stuff for the TLS, as well as freelance work elsewhere, Politico, War on the Rocks. I try to do around one freelance thing a month. Sometimes it pays, sometimes it doesn’t.
Luke: Can we talk about your writing process? Starting off right at the beginning, how do you select a book for review?
William: I was worried about that when I started. I asked myself “How am I going to find out when things are going to be published? Which publishers I should keep an eye on?” But after a while I learned which publishers I should be looking at, what supplements I should be reading, and which trade journals for publishers and books sellers are important. Simple word of mouth is also important.
Luke: You’re focusing on books about Turkey and the Middle East?
William: Yes, generally about Turkey. Genre-wise, its pretty broad. Novels, poetry, history, politics, travel, as well as some more academic books. If I was just doing mainstream books every week I’d run out very quickly but the academic book market is heaving. There’s a lot of good stuff being published, as well as a lot of rubbish. I’m never worried about finding stuff.
Luke: So next you read the book, obviously. What are you thinking about as you read?
William: Obviously, it’s a completely different process to just reading casually. I almost don't know how to read a book casually any more. When I’m reading for review, I’m trying to distill the argument, to understand it from page to page, highlighting sections that seem salient. In the more academic books there are sections you realise aren’t as important as others. Over time you get better at identifying what’s important and what’s not.
In each review I’m trying to bring something new to the text, a new perspective, or an argument from a particular angle.
Luke: Is the process different when you’re reviewing fiction as opposed to nonfiction?
William: I’d say it’s easier to review fiction. Because I feel that with the more research based books there is more pressure to do it justice. I’m not saying you don't have to do justice to a novel but if you miss a bit of the argument in a book about a particular historical period, you can get the whole thing wrong. With a novel, it’s more impressionistic and subjective.
Luke: Ok, onto the next step. So you've read the book, how do you then go about writing?
William: Usually something will come up as I’m reading, something will click and I’ll think ‘that is how I can get into this.’ Maybe it will be an intro, or opening paragraph, or line. If that happens, it flows from there.
Luke: What would you say was the primary purpose of writing a review? Is it to break down the arguments and talk about it or are you informing the reader, whether they should read this book or not?
William: I think it's a bit of both, and some other things as well. You've got to do more than summarise the argument; you have to reflect on it in an original way. There’s no point just writing the blurb of a book. You've got to do something more with it.
When I started writing these I was a bit worried about not knowing enough about what I was reading. When I was starting out I’d been here in Turkey for just two years and I probably didn’t know enough about the subjects I was writing about, so it was really a steep learning curve. But now I think I have a good background and feel confident criticising or weighing up arguments, not just accepting everything that I’m reading. After a while living here, learning the language, speaking to people and trying to understand the place, I think I’m in a position where I know what I’m talking about. So I can allow myself to be a bit more critical.
Luke: When you get a new book to review how much do you read around the topic?
William: It depends on the book. I’ve just read the new book by Olivier Roy, a French sociologist looking at Islamism, more specifically jihadism. I’ve been reading about him, critiques of his work. Ultimately the supplementary reading depends on how much I know about a subject. With the Roy book, I’m no expert, so a bit of extra reading helped.
Luke: To what extent do you look at other critics’ work when you’re writing your reviews? Do you look at it or do you ignore it and try to keep it really objective?
William: Obviously if a book has been out for a while you kind of cheat by looking at other critiques to see how they reflects on what you think. You’ve got to read other people to learn from them. That’s also true stylistically. It’s almost painful to go back to read the first reviews did. Although, it’s also satisfying in a way because you're think, ‘I’ve improved a lot since then.’ As with most writing the best advice is just to read as much other work as you can.
Luke: What other papers do you read?
William: I try to read the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, as well as the Financial Times’ culture pages at the weekend which are usually really good. There are individual critics as well that even if you don't agree with them all the time you can learn from the way that they structure an argument, the way they approach subjects. Adam Shatz in the LRB springs to mind. There’s also John Gray, whose literary criticism I find to be much better than his political writing.
Luke: How has working professionally as a critic changed your opinion on books, literature and reading in general?
William: I was a bit worried when I started out, that I would come to hate reading. Thankfully, that's not happened. I read more than I’ve ever done. But if I ever get a free week or so I really try to exploit it and read as much as I can. Generally if I’m reading a book for pleasure it will be a rereading of something I’ve enjoyed before. Reviewing has probably made me even keener to read. It actually gives you a better appreciation of all the things that you've not read.
Luke: You read one and they reference four other books.
William: Yes, you’ll say ‘oh, this amazing looking book has just been published but I can’t read it until I’ve done these five other books’.
Luke: Bastards keep writing new ones.
William: Exactly, if only they could stop.
Luke: You've been reading about Turkey for a long time now, could you make a sweeping statement about the state of Turkish literature?
William: Well, I mostly read in English so I don't know if I can say much about that. I can say that there are a lot more translations than there where when I started. When I arrived here it was basically just Orhan Pamuk.
Luke: Elif Shafak.
William: Yeah, unfortunately. Though Orhan Pamuk is actually good.
Luke: So I want to ask you for some recommendations. If somebody's looking to get into Turkish fiction or nonfiction, where should they start?
William: Well a good book by the novelist Yusuf Atilgan has just been republished in English, Motherland Hotel. It was written in the 70s. It’s a short novel around 200 pages about the physiological breakdown of a small hotel owner in Izmir. He becomes obsessed with one of his guests. It seems to be a traditional format but it’s actually quite experimental and at the end the narrative completely breaks down.
As for nonfiction, it really depends on the subject.
Luke: For someone who wants to understand Turkey as it is now.
William: Whenever I’m asked ‘what would you read to get good summary of Turkey?’ I always struggle. A lot of the books coming out are very subjective, which is good in some ways but less good if you want to get a cool-headed look at these things. I read Ece Temelkuran’s book The Insane and the Melancholy, which kind of exemplifies the problems with the books that that are coming out at the moment. If you were coming to Ece Temelkuran’s book not really knowing anything about Turkey, you’d get a very strange idea about what the country is actually like. There’s also Kaya Genç’s Under the Shadows: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey, which is basically the opposite of the Temelkuran book. It tries to give this very objective view of Turkey; tries to be a bit cooler headed, giving a deliberately more nuanced picture. But you can see it misses out a lot. Of all books that purport to “explain Turkey” to a general audience, I don't think there is a single one that really stands out.
Luke: Do you think that’s because of how complicated Turkey is as a country?
William: Yeah, it is unbelievably complex. It’s probably impossible to give an accurate picture in a single volume. Even once you learn the basics you realize there are so many more layers to the onion.
For example I’m reading a really interesting book by Cemil Aydin called The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. He talks about how the idea of the Muslim world as a single whole is a surprisingly modern thing. Before the 19th century there wasn't really this modern concept of a “Muslim world” sharing distinct unifying characteristics. There was of course the idea of the Ummah but it didn't mean anything politically. Throughout history there were Muslim empires in alliance with Christian empires and actively plotting against Muslim populations in other parts of the world. So you see this idea of a discreet “Muslim world” is very recent. You can see a reflection of this in the way that the Ottoman Empire is being reinterpreted by Islamists in Turkey today. It really misses the point of what the Empire really was, which is far more ambiguous.
Luke: Moving on to the podcast. How did that come about?
William: I was doing interviews with authors to accompany the reviews. We were speaking over Skype and I had a lot of audio that I felt was going to waste. So why not do something with it? That’s where the podcast came from. There seemed to be a gap in the market. There aren’t any podcasts about Turkish politics in English and Turkish books, apart from the Ottoman History Podcast of course.
Luke: But that's much more academic.
William: Yes. They have a big audience but it’s quite specific, basically limited to academics on the subject..
Luke: I've found that if you’re not into it, it can be really hard listening. It’s not like some of the other history podcasts that provide a clear historical narrative. The Ottoman History Podcast deals with obscure topics.
William: That’s not even a criticism. They’re not looking to put it into any other package. They know their listeners are all specialists and they’re not really trying to reach out to anyone else.
Luke: Sometimes they’re fascinating; they do have some really interesting topics.
William: I kind of consciously try to make Turkey Book Talk more accessible. Sometimes, you get a subject that is interesting but quite technical. It's my goal to try and draw out those interesting parts and put it into some sort of coherent package.
Often I’ll try to look at some of these books and try and make them more relevant to contemporary themes and what’s happening today. Many of these authors are brilliant and have been researching their stuff for years, so I really want to do the work justice.
Luke: How do you choose a guest? Is it just whatever you’re reviewing?
William: Yeah, sometimes you’ll see a book that's coming up and you’ll want to speak to them. The good thing is that I don't think anybody that I’ve asked has said no. Everybody always wants to speak.
Luke: Which of your interviews would you say you liked most?
William: I like the one I did recently, with Kapka Kassabova talking about the border between Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria. She spoke very well and had a lot to say. It always depends on the guests. Sometimes there will be a exciting subject but you end up slightly disappointed by how it turns out. It’s contingent on a lot of factors.
Talking about modern Turkish politics, an episode that I really liked was with Michael Wuthrich, who wrote a book called National Elections in Turkey.He studied all of Turkey’s elections since the first free one in 1950 in very close detail and traces Turkish political history through the prism of its elections. What I liked about that book was that it didn’t regurgitate a lot of the received wisdom about Turkish politics that we all hear. It went a lot deeper and showed that a lot of these narratives are more fragile than you might imagine. He talks about the classic academic idea of the “center and the periphery.” Which is that there was a central modernizing, nationalizing, secularising project in Turkey that was applied to the conservative masses on the periphery, who eventually ended up asserting themselves against it. According to the center-periphery theory, this dichotomy continued in different forms until today. But Wuthrich shows that it kind of falls apart when you dig into the specifics of Turkish party politics. When you study specific decades and elections you get a far more nuanced picture.
I think that episode was a good example of what I want to do with the podcast: To try to give new perspectives on familiar subjects, which lets you see it in a new way. Otherwise there’d be no point in doing it. It would just be regurgitating information.
Another good one was, Bilge Yeşil on her book Media in New Turkey: Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal State, talking about the modern history of the Turkish media.
Luke: I might pick that book up actually.
William: It’s worth reading. In some ways, I find so much American “journalism about journalism” really cringeworthy and self-indulgent.
Some Turkish journalism about the media is a bit like that too. But from another perspective, you can really learn a lot about political and economic changes in Turkey simply by looking at changes in the country’s media.
Luke: What are you reading now?
William: It’s the book I mentioned earlier about Islam. I’m hoping to do an interview with him as well. There are a few good ones lined up. The new history of the Ottoman Empire called A History of the Ottoman Empire by Douglas A Howard, which looks mouth-watering.
Luke: Thanks for talking to us.