An Interview with Nieman Fellow Jen B. McDonald

Courtesy of Brent McDonald

Each year, Harvard's Nieman Foundation rewards fellowships to 24 journalists who then spend a year taking classes at Harvard. Among this year's prestigious crop of fellows is Jennifer B. McDonald, an editor at The New York Times Book Review.

Did you ever write a review you now wish you could take back?

My opinions change all the time, not necessarily dramatically but in subtle ways, and I think that's probably true of a lot of critics. I look back at almost all my writing and wish I could change something after the fact.

Could you elaborate on your chosen course of study, and what you hope to achieve through it?

I'm taking a course on historical approaches to literary criticism (English 194, "Literary Criticism: Major Approaches") with James Engell. It's excellent; he's an incredible lecturer. I'm also taking Lit 113, "Existential Fictions: From Saint Augustine to Jean-Paul Sartre and Beyond" with Verena Conley. These classes look at literature, philosophy and criticism and how these disciplines affect our lives... When I applied for the Nieman I said that I wanted to come away with a stronger foundation for doing my work at the Book Review, and wanted the opportunity to study these things in a place known for its excellence.

What's your creative process?

It's generous for you to think that I have a creative process! When I've been assigned to write something, I spend a long time reading and thinking and flailing and agonizing, trying to figure out what it is I want to say and how I want to say it. Once I have the spark of an idea I sort of have to force myself to sit down and get it all out on the page… For me, the process really starts bearing fruit in the revision stage.

What's a favorite story from your time at the Book Review?

One of the most satisfying experiences I've had as an editor at the Book  Review was hearing from one of my reviewers that she had heard from a novelist, whose book she had reviewed, that the review, which was mixed, had somehow changed that writer's life...That was such an unexpected and gratifying response—to think that we have given something to the artist as well as to the broader audience of readers.

Your beats for the New York Times include linguistics, race, dance, and sex and gender. How did you develop such a diverse array of interests?

Before I became a journalist I wanted to be a ballet dancer...So that's where my expertise in that realm comes from. I'm also a big word-nerd...and have always been fascinated by questions of usage and the study of what makes language work. Sex and gender—I'm a woman. I have, as I'm sure most women do, pretty strong discussions of women's role in society... I'm interested in how culture tries to define people and how women and other historical minorities have sought to shift the balance of power.

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