All Booked Up

One of the first books Carolyn Kellogg was assigned to review for the Los Angeles Times was a novel she did not like.

She agonized over her critique, feeling guilty and conflicted about writing negatively of another writer’s work for the paper’s large audience. But her editor reminded her that if she were going to be a book critic, she had to be, well, a critic. That meant having the confidence to publicly share her opinions.

“I thought about it and probably cried but said, ‘Okay I’m gonna do it,’” she says. Now, nearly a decade and many reviews later, Kellogg has ascended to the position of books editor of the LA Times. It’s a role well suited to the writer and bibliophile who forged a vibrant career out of curiosity, a sharp critical eye, and a voracious appetite for reading.

By the time Kellogg began writing for the LA Times, the fourth most widely distributed U.S. newspaper, she had already acquired many of the tools needed to parse out how a book is working, or isn’t. The daughter of a librarian, she grew up in the Northeast nurturing a love for all things literary. After attending the University of Southern California, she followed her penchant for the written word to the Internet, working as an editor on websites including public radio’s Marketplace and the news outlet LAist.com. Kellogg also launched her own site, a witty literary blog called Pinky’s Paperhaus, where she wrote about the latest books and literary award winners, and interviewed authors for a podcast series.

But after spending so much time focusing on others’ work, Kellogg wanted to turn her full attention to her own writing. By 2006 she had landed at Pitt’s graduate writing program, where she studied with novelist and now-retired professor Chuck Kinder, who helped her hone her fiction writing skills as she earned a Master of Fine Arts degree. “Her insights and suggestions were often better than mine,” Kinder recalls.

Meanwhile, online, she continued sharing her take on the literary world. Her work soon caught the eye of an editor at the LA Times, who invited her to review that first book, and then another. Shortly after graduating from Pitt, Kellogg moved to California and became a staff writer for the paper, where her thoughtful analyses were featured regularly. Others noticed her keen observations, too. The Pitt graduate served as the vice president of the board of the National Book Critics Circle for six years and, in 2009, won LA Times’s feature blogging award for her writing on the newspaper’s book blog, which she helped to found.

The books editor since early 2016, Kellogg assigns articles and chooses which books—of the hundreds that cross her desk every week—her team of critics will review. Being surrounded by so much great writing is an ideal perk, but what is perhaps better, she says, is being able to help share that writing with others.

“There are always people who will turn to the book pages. But there’s also that person getting the paper to read about the Dodgers, who might accidentally flip to one of our essays about how Latino poets are left out of national poetry month,” she says. “I hope to surprise readers or introduce them to something they’ll love.”

Written by Liberty Ferda. This story appears in the Winter 2017 issue of Pitt Magazine. View the issue in Zinio Player.