The sixth in our series of book-related interviews led by Wes Del Val features a sparkling conversation with New York magazine's literary critic, Molly Young. Here she introduces us to a semi-secret public library in New York, her list of the worst bestsellers, and the word "ensorcelling".
OGR No 6: Molly Young
Molly Young is clever. And she writes some of the best lede sentences in the business. Two examples followed by a very clever observation in the middle of a story that has stuck with and made me laugh since I first read it eight years ago:
“Standing in the airy kitchen of her Calabasas home, Kim Kardashian West looks like she might be the twentysomething nanny or assistant of Kim Kardashian West.” —On being at home with KKW for Elle, 2018
“The amount of time I waste finding and consuming alternative-medicine supplements for “brain function” has made me at least 10 percent dumber, and that paradox is not lost on me.” —On celebrity wellness for the New York Times Magazine, 2017
“...growing up with an octet of sisters (imagine the shower drains in that house!)” —On Italian fashion designer Riccardo Tisci for GQ, 2012
Besides being clever Molly also has a keen sense of timing and has written early pieces about significant pop cultural topics for major magazines, raising the national consciousness of each. To name a few: Jenna Lyons at J.Crew in 2011, celebrity astrologer Susan Miller in 2013, how staying in is the new going out in 2016, and just a few months ago on the garbage language pervasive in so many corporations. We’ll see if our current situation puts a dagger (please?) in the last one, and if it does internet searches will show Molly shone an advanced bright light on the subject.
Molly is currently New York magazine’s literary critic. She writes a fantastic newsletter (you’ll quickly see why she is an OGR) and loves getting book recommendations (how many critics would say that!) via her public Google doc. She adores crossword puzzles and I think she’d actually give up all other kinds of writing if she could live off of writing them full-time. And to top it all off she’s also funny and self-deprecating, which you’re about to see right now.
WDV: You can’t ever bring another book into your house and are stuck with choosing to read what is currently on your shelves for the rest of your life. What percentage of unread books do you have and what is going to get re-read the most?
MY: 50% of my books are unread. Not because I’m a lazy reader or an acquisitive book-buyer, but because I’m constantly getting new books in the mail from publishers. (Which is very nice of them, even if many of the books are dreadful.) For this reason the ratio is skewed toward unread.
The rereads are eternally the same. I’ll revisit Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country and Henry James’s What Maisie Knew until someone pries them out of my lukewarm dying hands.
Name a white male who should win a Nobel?
Why stop at one? Peter Schjeldahl, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Robert Coover...
I think you’d be perfect to write a piece about Reader’s Digest subscribers under the age of 35. (I would just love to know how many there are…) If you had to take the same concept but substitute a different magazine what would it be?
[I’VE TRIED VALIANTLY AND I CANNOT THINK OF AN INTERESTING ANSWER TO THIS! SORRY!!]
That’s fine, appreciate your honesty. I’m leaving it here anyway so I publicly plant the seed. Frankly I’d take a piece by you about under-35 subscribers to any magazine.
Name a dream biography you’d like to see by one writer about another?
The Biography of Gary Indiana by Patricia Lockwood.
What is a series for which you most want just one last volume to be written?
Scratching my head because I don’t read a lot of series. (Serieses?) But I would like Romesh Gunesekera to write a sequel to Reef, because it is 192 pages of exquisite words sequenced perfectly and I want at least a thousand pages more.
While on the topic, what book/s do you wish HBO would adapt into a series?
My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite because it is mental, as the British say.
What are two favorite books which would fit in each back pocket of a pair of jeans and still allow you to comfortably walk around?
J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Emmanuel Carrere’s The Adversary, two titles which happen to describe my relationship to the very physical form encased in my jeans.
Which titles would you say are most photographed for mood/lifestyle shots on Instagram but are least finished? For me a certain Alex Katz cover stands out…
Yeah but people finished that Rooney, didn’t they? She goes down so smooth. The only other “viral cover” I can think of is Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror, but she also goes down smooth enough that I bet people finished it. I hope? Look, I want to believe.
What do you use for bookmarks?
Knockoff Post-It notes of any hue.
You get to select any book in let’s say MoMA’s bookstore and then go read for a few hours in front of a piece of art there. The museum is closed so you needn’t worry about crowds or noise. What book and what piece of art?
I can’t multitask; if I’m doing two things at once then I’m doing one of them poorly. So I’d segregate the activities like this: go to the Met and stare at The Dance Class by Edgar Degas, because nobody was better at depicting women torturing themselves in the name of elegance, and then go downstairs to the Watson Library—which, by the way, is free and open to the public if you sign up for a card—and borrow an 18th century book of hair tutorials to pick up some inspiration for my own mop.
You’re asked to come up with a new bestseller category for the New York Times to liven it up, what would be some of your suggestions?
Would love to see that list, as would many others. Can you share some titles which would be on it?
The leading example in this genre is Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, which was disingenuous, evasive, and morally treacherous—as well as hugely successful. Among more recent books, let me think. The Woman in the Window was badly written and ripped off the plot of a great 1995 Sigourney Weaver movie named—amazingly!—Copy Cat. But that book has already received its comeuppance...
What’s a current book you think is primarily being read by women but which a lot of men today should be picking up as well?
I have no intuition for how various readerships break down as far as gender—or any other identity category, except maybe age.
Fair enough. Since you mention age, what are a few adult books you read when you were supposedly too young, but that made significant impressions on you?
I read Terry Southern’s Candy in sixth grade and I’m sure all my sexual disturbances can be traced to that experience. No regrets!
You’re on an 8+ hour international flight, what would you bring or have downloaded to read which would prevent you the whole time from turning on the screen to watch something?
I can answer this confidently because it just happened. I was flying back from Peru with a single book downloaded on my phone: Eliza Griswold’s Amity and Prosperity. You wouldn’t think an apocalyptic tome about fracking would be wildly ensorcelling, but I was so engrossed I didn’t notice that the poor man next to me was violently airsick until he asked to “borrow” my barf bag. Being a generous person, I allowed him to keep it.
Well you are supposed to escape into a good book… Thanks Molly!
Molly Young at home with her tapering three-legged bookcase.