“I read and write fast, and work six to seven days a week sometimes,” he said on Friday morning at Soho House after staying up all night working on proofs for the next issue of Granta. “Ultimately you can get a lot of reading done if you have no other job. And that’s what I did—I read books and wrote about them.”
In the process, Mr. Freeman became the ultimate generalist, writing solid if not always revelatory pieces on fiction, history, poetry and anything else he felt like.
“Each newspaper I wrote for had a slightly different idea of what my specialty was, which kind of forced me to not have one,” Mr. Freeman said. “The San Francisco Chronicle would always assign me books by writers either in translation or not from the U.S. I ended up doing a fair number of local Ohio writers for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. There was a paper I wrote for, I forget which one, where I was doing lots of sport books. I reviewed for Entertainment Weekly, where I’d do lighter fiction. I just like to read, so I didn’t mind. I think ultimately specialties are kind of dangerous.”
Review editors and book publicists alike loved him; he was versatile, reliable and, most importantly, a fan. And while the reviews Mr. Freeman wrote never added up to any particular view of what great writing should be or signaled a consistent operating aesthetic, their frequency and ubiquity—along with his irrepressible participation in New York literary life—earned him an unmistakable reputation as an open-minded, energetic reader.
“I think the thing that strikes me about John is that he really loves books!” said the literary agent Julie Barer. “Like, I didn’t know him very well and I had a breakfast with him a couple of months ago, and we spent three hours just talking about books. Literary fiction, science fiction, John Updike, contemporary young writers … I don’t know his taste well enough to know what he likes, but he’s one of those readers who is just always hungry for great work.”
What remains to be seen is whether the fact of his broad palette makes him the perfect editor for Granta—one who will cast a wide net for new writers from many disciplines—or a confused one without a clear curatorial mission.
“I could not from serving with him on the board of the NBCC formulate a particular idea of what he likes—it seemed all over the map to me,” said Salon.com book critic and former books editor Laura Miller. “He has definite likes and dislikes as far as books go, though… so maybe if he has more say over what he’s doing [now that he’s not catering to the whims of newspaper editors], his taste will emerge. It is kind of a big question mark: When he’s free to exercise his taste at will, what will Granta look like?”
Mr. Freeman’s biggest asset, Ms. Miller said, might be his manifest knack for connecting with people and attracting attention. As the freelance publicist Kimberly Burns put it, “He is everywhere!” Or, in the words of his longtime girlfriend, the literary agent Nicole Aragi, “He’s got a little bit of community organizer in him. He’s good at bringing people together, and giving them the energy to do more than complain.”
It helps that Mr. Freeman believes in the inevitability of books—even if, as he will lay out in his forthcoming manifesto for Scribner, The Tyranny of E-Mail, the Internet is engendering in the people who use it habits that distract them from reading. This is the salve he has to offer a chapped and chafing industry. As people cry doom, he’s there to hold hands and assure them that it’s not that bad.
“I couldn’t do this job or the National Book Critics Circle job or the job of the critic if I didn’t believe fundamentally that there’s a fighting chance for keeping the experience of reading at the center of human life,” he said. Nevertheless, he believes that some of the discussions that took place at Book Expo—namely the ones about how long-form narrative will disappear as readers grow more and more accustomed to absorbing information in bits and pieces—will one day seem ridiculous.
“People are always going to read,” he said. “People love to read, and there are lots and lots of readers. … They have an instinctual, perhaps even biological desire for narrative. We can corrupt or pollute or whatever verb you’d like to use that desire with our popular culture, but ultimately there will be desire for storytelling.”