Alas, farewell to Carolyn See’s wise world of words

A sad day here in Book World: Our longtime book reviewer Carolyn See is retiring.

See, who celebrated her 80th birthday earlier this year, has been championing great books and wittily skewering bad ones for decades. Her first review — of C.Y. Lee’s “China Saga” — ran in The Washington Post on Sept. 3, 1987.

In 2012, after a nasty stomach bug laid her up in the hospital, she told us she wanted to stop reviewing, but we successfully badgered her into staying in our pages twice a month. Last week, though, she insisted that it was time to set down the reviewer’s pen.

Although we met in person only once, I’ve had the great pleasure of editing her work for almost 10 years. She has been a reliable source of encouragement, humor and defense against the self-indulgent melancholy that can prey on an editor’s mind. Every few months, she’d weary of e-mail, and I’d hear her soft, laughter-filled voice on the phone: “Hello, Sweetums.” In a moment, we’d drift away from books, and she’d be regaling me with another unbelievable story about the “Life and Times” of Carolyn See. Even the harrowing ones were always — in her telling — hilarious. It was like getting my own personal update on her celebrated 1995 memoir, “Dreaming: Hard Luck and Good Times in America.” I’m hoping our phone conversations continue for a long time, but her reviews in The Post, alas, have come to an end.

Here are a few tributes from her friends and colleagues:


Washington Post book critic Carolyn See, pictured at right, announced her retirment on Aug. 5. (Lisa See/Handout)

Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post book critic: For 27 years Carolyn See has brought fierce intelligence, wit and panache to the book columns of The Washington Post, as well as a writing style that is hers alone. I’d be hard-pressed to name anyone who writes as gracefully as she does or whose prose offers more pleasures. She’s brought a useful West Coast perspective to this East Coast newspaper, and she’s drawn our readers’ attention to innumerable books about which they might never have heard. She’s been a unique presence and — to put it mildly — she’ll be missed.

Michael Dirda, Washington Post book reviewer and former editor: Carolyn! What Carolyn brought to Book World was, first of all, her inimitable self. Nobody wrote such smart, funny, feminist, surprising, commonsensical and take-no-prisoners reviews as she did. You read a Carolyn See review because it was by Carolyn See — the book hardly mattered. You knew you were in for a good time. She was, and is, a force of nature. Second, Carolyn gave Book World a West Coast presence. She knows everyone in the California literary scene, from writers to academics. Being a superb novelist herself, she also understands the ins and outs of the publishing business and the writing life. She constantly reviewed and welcomed those who were new and just starting out. Not least, because she inserted bits from her own life into her pieces, readers gradually came to feel that they knew Carolyn as a friend, as someone who had experienced hard times and come through them. In my own case, she would occasionally send me a note about something I had written and her words — always just the right words — would make my day. Enjoy the California sun, old friend.

Marie Arana, former editor in chief of Book World: Carolyn See’s reviews were consistently among the wisest and cleverest essays published in Book World. She could be as hilarious as she was profound, as scathing as she was greathearted, as meticulously surgical as she was freewheeling and fun. There are few critics who have given themselves so generously to the task of promoting the good and filtering the bad — to celebrating literary excellence and its authors.

David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times book critic: Carolyn taught me how to be a writer in California. For her, that meant a three-dimensional literary life: Writing, teaching and reviewing, all of them inextricable from the whole. As a critic, I have tried to follow her model that reviews should be part of an ongoing conversation with one’s readers, and should explicate something essential — not only whether we like a book, but also how it connects to, or reflects, our aesthetics, our world view. Carolyn has always regarded reading as an act of engagement . . . and reviewing, too.

Editor’s note: If you’d like to send a note to Carolyn, I’d be happy to forward your letters and e-mails to her.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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