Lyrical Book Reviews: No Adverbs with My Coffee, Please!

Here’s one thing I don’t need:  a lyrical book review.

The “lyrical book review” is on the rise, to judge from two recent book reviews in The New York Times and The L.A. Times.

I’d never read the work of Parul Sehgal, the new daily critic at The New York Times, until I metaphorically rustled the  book page (at the website)  and saw her review.  Here’s what I know about her:  She studied political science at Magill and got an MFA at Columbia.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have started with her review of Karl Knausgaard’s new book, Autumn, written in the form of a letter to his “unborn daughter.”  i.e., fetus. Under no circumstances would I read a letter by a man to a fetus. (Why are men obsessed with fetuses? Ian McEwan also wrote a novel from the point of view of a fetus, Nutshell. )

Although I don’t doubt Sehgal’s critical judgment of the book, I do doubt her editor’s line-editing.

The review begins,

How best to follow up a six-volume, 3,600-page, terrifically indiscreet autobiographical novel that cops to infidelity, self-mutilation, premature ejaculation, alcoholism, attraction to reactionary politics and ambivalence about fatherhood?

If you’re the author of “My Struggle,” the final installment of which will be published in English next year, it’s with a slightly penitential book-length letter to your unborn daughter.

Ye gods!  Is the first 28-word sentence a diary entry, or perhaps a poem? There is no subject or main verb.  “How best…?”  One wonders, does she mean, “How can one best follow up a …?”  or “How is it best to follow up…”  or “How could Knausgaard follow up?” And do we need “up”? And the verbosity goes on:  one adverb (“terrifically”) and six adjectives, two of them hypehnated  (“six-volume,” 3,600-page,” “indiscreet,” “autobiographical,” “premature,” and “reactionary”).  Whatever happened to the power of the verb?  What happened to Strunk and White?

And in the next sentence, let us delete the preposition “with.”  It’s not “with” a book-length letter, it is a book-length letter.

Mind you, people think very highly of Sehgal’s work.  In 2010 she received the National Book Critics Circle award, Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.

I  think the piece was  badly edited.

Or is lyrical verbosity  a Millennial thing?

In the L.A. Times the other day, I read an incomprehensible opening paragraph of Ilana Mesad’s review of Paul Yoon’s ‘The Mountain.”   Mesad is an Israeli-American writer and critic.

Her review begins:

Paul Yoon’s new collection, “The Mountain,” is not what you’d call delightful — the stories are sober and the prose is quiet, yet in that is the howling of the human condition that makes the best short fiction stand out. Only six stories long, it is also a small collection and an almost unfailingly tight one from Yoon, author of the short story collection “Once the Shore” and the novel “Snow Hunters.”

Wow, “the howling of the human condition”– pseudo-lyrical, yes? What does “yet in that” refer to?  Instead of “only six stories long” and “it is also a small collection and unfailingly tight,”  the editor might have considered,  “Yoon’s six-story collection is unfailingly tight.”  “Unfailingly” is so eccentric he might consider another adverb, though.

The rest of the review is written in ordinary spare language, nothing to offend.  But that first paragraph was too much before coffee.  Whom can we blame?  Writer or editor?

I’m hoping these two reviews were a glitch in the system.

The lyricism hasn’t yet infected The New Yorker, The Guardian, The New York Review of Books, and the TLS.

Thank God!

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