For the 3rd edition of our 33 1/3 Series Editor Q&A feature, we spoke with Kevin Dettmar. In the interview below, Kevin talks about his role in the 33 1/3 series, what he looks for when reviewing book proposals, and also discusses 2 forthcoming books in the series, currently slated for publication in fall 2019.
What do you do outside of being a 33 1/3 series editor?
I’m chair of the English department at Pomona College in Southern California, where I teach courses in late 19th- and 20th-century British & Irish literature and contemporary popular music. My research and writing these days are split almost evenly between literary studies and popular music studies. At the end of May, an anthology that I edited with my friend and colleague (and fellow 33 ⅓ author) Jonathan Lethem, called Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z, will be published by the Library of America.
What are you reading or listening to right now?
Well, my most recent CD purchase (yes, I still buy CDs, at Rhino Records in Claremont, an actual brick-and-mortar record store!) was Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night—but I’m not sure that’s representative. It was an important record for me and my brothers and cousins growing up. I’m loving the new Kendrick Lamar; and I don’t think I’ve gone a week without a deep dive into Radiohead’s A Moon Shaped Pool which dropped almost a year ago. (The English teacher in me shudders to type that title, though: “moon-shaped” really requires a hyphen.) Fellow series editor Amanda Petrusich’s review in the New Yorker brought my attention to the wonderful reissue of John Cale’s Fragments of a Rainy Season, an album I’m always in danger of overplaying; now, at least, I’m overplaying the bonus tracks, too. Reading: I’m hoping to return to George Eliot’s Middlemarch this summer, after perhaps 25 years (!). I’ve been on a joyous Dana Spiotta jag for the past month after she gave a terrific reading here. And I’m finally caving in to the pressure to start reading Rachel Cusk (it’s always embarrassing to be late to a cult hit).
What are some of your favorite books in the series?
Am I the only one who loves Carl Wilson’s book on Celine Dion? (snickers). That book sets the bar for me; but I love Douglas Wolk on James Brown’s Live at the Apollo, R. J. Wheaton on Portishead’s Dummy, Gina Arnold’s Exile in Guyville, Jonathan’s treatment of Talking Head’s Fear of Music. And oh, do I love the books I’m now working on!
Why are you excited to be part of 33 1/3?
Hats off to series founding editor David Barker: when he created 33 ⅓, he created something like a fetish object, books that music lovers want to read and music writers want to write. I was head-over-heels when, after two failed attempts, my proposal for a book on Gang of Four’s Entertainment! was accepted five years ago; I’m not sure it’s more exciting now to be editing the series with three music writers I’ve long idolized, but it’s right up there. It’s as if someone had told my 12-year-old Little League pitcher self: “Young man, not only will you pitch for the Angels some day—you’ll go on to manage the team.” It sounds hokey, but it’s an honor and a real thrill to work closely with so many talented writers.
What do you look for in a proposal?
First, there’s the subject—the album being proposed for coverage. When I see what’s being pitched—let’s just use my own title, Entertainment!, for convenience’s sake—I should react in one of three ways. Either: Oh YEAH! Entertainment! That’s such an interesting/important/neglected/relevant/influential record. That’s a record that readers would be excited to see on a 4 ¾ x 6 ½ book cover! Or: Wait—what? We don’t already have a book on Entertainment!? That’s just wrong, and we need to remedy that. Or finally: What—what’s that? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of that … but by the time I’m two pages into the proposal, I feel like an idiot that I haven’t.
Second, there’s angle/argument/perspective: How does the author propose to bring to light and to life this record that I’d be excited to read about? At least since Amanda, Gayle Wald, Daphne Brooks and I took over the editorial duties, we’re insisting on proposals that make a real argument about the record and its importance. The opposite of this is the proposal that is easily rejected: This Album Is Important Because It Was Really Important to Me. Now don’t get me wrong: we’re not at all opposed to personal arguments, experience-based arguments. But I finally want to know, not (just) why the record was important to you, but perhaps generalizing from your own experience, why it’s important to others (or should be). When I’m describing Carl Wilson’s book to folks who haven’t read it, I say that what it does well is to explain why Let’s Talk About Love matters so much to those for whom it matters a great deal.
Third, voice. Surely this is the most subjective of all: but I’m looking for lively, accessible, energetic writing. Smart, but not hiding behind its smarts; written out of real passion, but not falling easily into a fan’s clichés. It may be something that writing on popular music will grow out of at some point, but I weary quickly of prose that accepts clichés as the most fine-grained expression of individual insights. See Nuke LaLoosh’s interview in Bull Durham; see William Miller telling Stillwater that their guitar sound is “incendiary” in Almost Famous.
Tell us a little bit about the new titles you chose for the series. What drew you to them?
I’m very excited about the first two books I’m working on for the series. The first, by David Evans, is on The Holy Bible by the Welsh band Manic Street Preachers. I know a little of the Manic’s music, and know that the band is held in high esteem by British fans of a certain age; the few things I’d listened to though, in a rather hit-or-miss fashion, hadn’t really stuck with me. Evans situates the album both within the band’s history (lyricist and motive force Richard James Edwards disappeared on the eve of a big U.S. tour and was never found) and, perhaps more compellingly, within the Welsh landscape and the language of that landscape. It promises to be a beautiful and harrowing book.
The other is Rien Fertel’s volume on the Drive-By Truckers’ Southern Rock Opera. Like Evans’s book, it’s very much involved with place—albeit a very different place. Fertel promises to squeeze a lot of musical and cultural history into his study; it’s about “the purity of the road,” he writes—”The purity of byways and highways, of backroads and crossroads that cut across the annals of American music and haunt much of southern history. That great snarl of roads that we navigate in order to uncover and understand a place, its people, and their culture.”