On Not Ruining Writers’ Days & Other Literary Links

I often complain about the internet, but I have recently read some smart essays online.

I was particularly interested in an essay by Chad W. Post at Three Percent, “Thinking About Book Reviews.” He begins by saying he did not much like Clarice Lispector’s second novel, The Chandelier, recently published by New Directions in a translation by Benjamin Moser.  And Post’s reactions serve as a preamble to an essay on the purpose of book reviews.

Post asks whether reviewers of books in translation should hype books.

I think this is a commonly held belief—especially when it comes to reviews of translated books. There are so few opportunities for most of these titles to get any ink-time, so what’s the point in writing about a subpar book that you don’t really like? These opportunities should be maximized by drawing attention to wonderful books that are masterfully translated. If reviews are supposed to bring readers to particular books, shouldn’t we use this opportunity to direct the curious to the masterpieces out there?

Furthermore, what is gained—for the translation profession as a whole—by shitting on a translated title? Just don’t write/tweet/say anything! There are so many good books out there deserving of attention, not to mention all the great translators doing amazing work—so just write about those.

And then he replies to himself (and the reply is in italics):

But is that really what criticism is? How can the translation profession really improve if these books aren’t ever criticized? Translators, not to mention readers of international fiction, can gain a lot from seeing what works, what doesn’t work, witnessing the mind of a sharp reader in action.

I certainly agree with him on the issue of hype, which applies to all reviews, whether of books in English or translation.  Are we under pressure to  hype?  I seldom post about books by living writers these days, because (a) most new books I read are mediocre to bad, and (b) I don’t want to ruin a writer’s day.  (Reviewing was easier before the interactions on the internet.)

American and English literature seem to be in a slump these days.  If I listed all the new books I have abandoned after reading half we’d be here all day.  New books in translation seem to deal with more significant issues:  is that possible?  I loved Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, a brilliant Japanese retelling of Wuthering Heights, which won the Yomiuri Prize For Literature in 2002.  (I wrote about it here.)  But I can’t think of any American or English novel I’ve read in this class lately.

But reviews are problematic anyway.  Hype?  Not hype?  New books?  Old books?  What do you think?


At The New Yorker, Karen Russell writes about Joy Williams’ recently reissued second novel The Changeling.

Like Ovid, Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, and God, Williams is interested in metamorphosis, in the “monstrosity of salvation.” Her astonishing second novel, “The Changeling,” first published in 1978, follows Pearl, a young mother on the lam. Pearl’s drink of choice, too, is gin. In the book’s first sentence, she is in a bar, “drinking gin and tonics” while holding “an infant in the crook of her right arm.” Significantly, the booze precedes the infant. His name is Sam; he is two months old. We seem to be in a world of crushing sameness: parking lots and pretzel logs, homogeneous retail. It’s a costume the novel wears for about a paragraph and a half, then shrugs off with a spectacular gesture…

The American Scholar has re-posted a brilliant 2007 essay by Charles Trueheart on Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet

Speak the name Lawrence Durrell, as I have been doing recently, and you will have little trouble prompting the title of his masterwork, the four-novel cycle he called “The Alexandria Quartet.” Yes, everyone read it back when. Or some of it. Justine . . .Balthazar . . . The well of memory tends to run dry about there, leaving only the wistful fragrance of the little remembered but not quite forgotten.

Yet half a century ago, when Justine appeared, it elicited a rush of critical superlatives that announced the birth of a literary classic. Almost at once the novel established an outlandish reputation for Durrell, previously known for a precocious first novel and some sublime travel writing. He was confidently placed in the big shoes of Joyce, Proust, Henry Miller, and D. H. Lawrence, among other modernist forebears. “The novel may indeed be dying,” declared the critic Robert Scholes, “but we need not fear for the future. Durrell and others are leading us in a renaissance of romance.”


Swamped in the Flood of Literature & Should We Review Our Friends’ Books?

Should we review our friends’ books?  Yes, at our blogs!

In journalism, strictly speaking, it is a conflict of interest to review a friend’s book.

But the ethics of literary journalism are always in flux–you never know who knows who–and literary mores were entirely more flexible in George Gissing’s 1891 novel, New Grub Street.  In this fascinating book about the writing world in nineteenth-century London, the characters dash off anonymous book reviews, often having barely skimmed the book.  One particularly vicious editor does hatchet jobs on his enemies’ books: the level of paranoia being what it is, the authors sometimes blames the wrong man for the bad review.

And so we applaud the ambitious, not altogether likable Jasper Millvain when he writes anonymous rave reviews for two different journals of his friend Biffen’s naturalistic novel, Mr. Bailey, Grocer.  The starving Biffen spent two years writing this nearly perfect, if tedious, book, and risked his life to save the manuscript  from a fire in his lodging house.

Jasper doubts if the reviews will do much good, even though he uses the word “masterpiece.”  He tells his sister Dora, who admires the book,  “Most people will fling the book down with yawns before they’re half through the first volume.”  And he knows some would think it unethical for him to review the same book twice.

And then he delivers a soliloquy about the trade of literature.

Speaking seriously, we know that a really good book will more likely than not receive fair treatment from two or three reviewers; yes, but also more likely than not it will be swamped in the flood of literature that pours forth week after week, and won’t have attention fixed long enough upon it to establish its repute. The struggle for existence among books is nowadays as severe as among men. If a writer has friends connected with the press, it is the plain duty of those friends to do their utmost to help him. What matter if they exaggerate, or even lie? The simple, sober truth has no chance whatever of being listened to, and it’s only by volume of shouting that the ear of the public is held. What use is it to Biffen if his work struggles to slow recognition ten years hence? Besides, as I say, the growing flood of literature swamps everything but works of primary genius.

Today many good  books are still “swamped in the flood of literature.”  From my amateur reader’s point of view, the same few books are reviewed in every paper, and yet tens of thousands of books (too many books?)  are published.  The list of books to be reviewed is magically pre-determined by a conspiracy of marketers, editors, and (possibly) witches and warlocks(!).  Yes, I want to read about established writers, but am dubious about some of the “hot” debuts.  Caveat Emptor is my motto.  Some of the “cooler” debuts might be my reading.

Naturally, a lot of the oddball stuff goes missing from book review journals. This year two excellent novels which deserve more press are Karen Brown’s eerie novel, The Clairvoyants (which I wrote about here), and Erica Carter’s harrowing novel about three down-and-out women in Arkansas, Lucky You (which I wrote about here).  Some books are passed around by word of mouth.  Still, reviews help.

And what about the small press stuff? Where is that reviewed?   A small press editor told me many, many years ago that, from the monetary point of view, it was better to publish a bad book by a charming writer with a lot of friends than a good book by a solitary writer with few friends.  (The bad writer’s book sold; the good writer’s did not.)  But he wanted to publish good books, so instead got a lot of grants.  And did not make money.

Hm, I never thought of it that way!

But what if it’s a great book?  Where are all the great books?  I loved Lidia Yuknavitch The Book of Joan, a stunning novel that is, thank God, widely reviewed.

There must be more like Lidida Yuknavitch writing.


The rain stopped late Saturday afternoon, and we’re wallowing in green.  This is what Memorial Day weekend looked like.

So green, isn’t it?

Yellow flowers always cheer me up!  And does anyone know what these are called?

Happy biking, happy swimming, happy sitting around in shorts!

George Gissing’s “New Grub Street” & My Top Five Summer TBR List

In 2007 I scrawled in my book journal:

Why read anything but George Gissing? One can’t read genre fiction all the time. If one isn’t reading a mystery or a science fiction novel, one might as well read Gissing. Not a likable writer:  too gloomy, too depressive. But his books are  both pageturners and classics. In New Grub Street, he writes about money-grubbing writers in unrelenting poverty.  It is a masterpiece about churning out pages  for pay.

Musing about my badly-paid freelancing years, I recently returned to Gissing’s New Grub Street. Unlike the characters in New Grub Street, I happily wrote pop articles and reviews, and felt under no pressure, because it was not our main income. I enjoyed the work and appreciated the flexible schedule.  So many women of my generation needed flexible hours.

That is not the case in New Grub Street, where writers live in attics or depressing rooms, and must support themselves by churning out pages, and more pages.  In the first chapter,  Jasper Milvain, a savvy writer/networker, tells  his sisters that his novelist friend  Alfred Reardon will likely commit suicide.

“Things are going badly with him.  He is just the kind of fellow to end by poisoning or shooting himself.”

Reardon is one of the most wretched writers in literature.  His first two novels were successful and respected; now he is desperately writing a bad novel to support his his family.  His wife Amy refuses to leave their small flat for rooms in a poor neighborhood.  She  has suggested he write a “popular” novel, but it is beyond him.  When Margaret Home is published, he is depressed and is paid less than he’d anticipated.  It is a bad book.

In a chapter called “Rejection,” Gissing writes,

One of Reardon’s minor worries at this time was the fear that by chance he might come upon a review of ‘Margaret Home.’ Since the publication of his first book he had avoided as far as possible all knowledge of what the critics had to say about him; his nervous temperament could not bear the agitation of reading these remarks, which, however inept, define an author and his work to so many people incapable of judging for themselves. No man or woman could tell him anything in the way of praise or blame which he did not already know quite well; commendation was pleasant, but it so often aimed amiss, and censure was for the most part so unintelligent. In the case of this latest novel he dreaded the sight of a review as he would have done a gash from a rusty knife. The judgments could not but be damnatory, and their expression in journalistic phrase would disturb his mind with evil rancour. No one would have insight enough to appreciate the nature and cause of his book’s demerits; every comment would be wide of the mark; sneer, ridicule, trite objection, would but madden him with a sense of injustice.

This made me think about the importance of reviews. I  read reviews to find out about new books, not necessarily for the critical judgment.  Good reviews sell books, but do bad reviews kill them? I have blithely read between the lines and discovered some excellent books, despite bad reviews.  I loved Beverly Lyon Clark’s scholarly book, The Afterlife of Little Women, which a reviewer didn’t care for much.

Here is My Top  Five  Summer TBR list (and how I found out about the books).

1.  Jane Austen the Secret Radical by Helena Kelly.   I read a good review of this at The Guardian.  This intelligent book is the antidote to the conservative romantic interpretations of Austen’s work   I have been dipping into the book and very much admired the chapter, “The Age of Brass–Sense and Sensibility.”

She writes,

What we can say is that Sense and Sensibility, even in 1811, would have been read as a novel about property, and inheritance–about greed and need, and the terrible, selfish things that families do to each other for the sake of money.

2.  All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Sanders.  This well-reviewed SF novel just won the Nebula Award.  The back cover says, “An ancient society of witches and a hipster technological start-up are going to war as the world tears itself apart.”  Sometimes it takes an award…

3.  The Children of Jocasta by Natalie Haynes.  All right,  I will read anything about classics (it’s my background–go, team!), and this retelling of the Oedipus tragedy, with its emphasis on the women in the myth, sounds fascinating.  In spite of lukewarm reviews in the UK, I cannot wait to read this novel. What do reviewers know?  Yes, Colm Toibin just retold the Oresteia, and everyone will read that, but I want to read a woman’s voice.  I do hope The Children of Jocasta  will be published here.

4.  P. G. Wodehouse’s The Mating Season, a Bertie Wooster and Jeeves book I’ve never heard of!  Found it by browsing online.

Kathleen Hill’s Who Occupies This House Her stunning small-press novel, Still Waters in Niger, popped up as a recommendation on my Amazon screen in 2000.  It is one of my favorite books.   Who Occupies This House, also published by the prestigious Triquarterly Press, has been moldering on my shelves for a while.   Am looking forward to it, but have read no reviews.

AND DO LET ME KNOW IF REVIEWS, GOOD OR BAD, INFLUENCE YOUR READING.  Yes, I’ve asked you before, but this time I mean it!

Reluctantly Subscribing to Intellectual Book Review Publications

I recently subscribed to  The New York Review of Books and The Times Literary Supplement (TLS).  Mind you, I didn’t want to.  I wanted to buy a new set of dishes at Target.

But it seems I should “invest” in such publications if I want to “hold the line.”

With a few exceptions, mainstream book reviews seem to be going down. Critics say everybody’s a critic:  well, they still need to do their job.  Formerly reliable book pages (The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.) are occasionally still brilliant, but have acquired a new nervous tone, like a homecoming queen smiling too hard as she coaxes votes from the hoi polloi (οἱ πολλοί). As newspapers fold, editors try to attract a new audience:  they waste space on romances, Stephen King, and “pastel lit” (otherwise known as chick lit”).  God help me, Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers is the fluffiest of beach books, and I read it because Michiko Kakutani reviewed it, and  The Washington Post actually reviewed Ann Patty’s error-riddled Living With a Dead Language:  My Romance with Latin, an inconsequential, poorly-written memoir of her auditing of Latin classes, consultation of “laminated SparkNotes,” and shallow observations on Roman literature. My husband and I, who are both Latinists, refer to Patty, a former New York editor who discovered V. C. Andrews,  as “the new Lucia.”

And to think New York editors blame Amazon for their problems!

All right, so I can breathe again.  The TLS , The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker are holding the line.

In the “N.B.” column in the TLS (June 15, 2016), J. C. writes about George Gissing.

Some weeks ago, we made a modest suggestion to the editors at Penguin Classics: to publish George Gissing’s disguised memoir The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903) in a single volume with Morley Roberts’s memoir of Gissing, The Private Life of Henry Maitland. Roberts’s book, published in 1912, nine years after Gissing’s death, is itself an act of disguise. It uses fictitious names for well-known personages – G. H. Rivers for H. G. Wells; Schmidt for Gissing’s friend Eduard Bertz – and for books: for Paternoster Row, read New Grub Street; for The Unchosen, The Odd Women. Distracting at first, this habit eventually has a certain charm; Roberts’s biography is as much a work of the imagination as Gissing’s autobiography. Hence our proposal to Penguin to compensate for its past neglect of Gissing. So far we haven’t heard back.

Oh, what a good idea! I could do with a Penguin set of Gissing.   I recently started Gissing’s brilliant novel, Born in Exile, which novelist and critic D. J. Taylor has said is his favorite book.  I was only able to find a used Everyman paperback, and the print is too small.  I’ve had to turn to the e-book.

And The New York Review of Books (June 23, 2016) is also doing its job.   Daniel Mendelsohn’s brilliant article, “How Greek Drama Saved the City,”  examines the difference between theater in ancient Greece and the modern U.S.  Here is an excerpt from Mendelsohn’s essay:

At the climax of Aristophanes’ comedy Frogs, a tartly affectionate parody of Greek tragedy that premiered in 405 BCE, Dionysus, the god of wine and theater, is forced to judge a literary contest between two dead playwrights. Earlier in the play, the god had descended to the Underworld in order to retrieve his favorite tragedian, Euripides, who’d died the previous year; without him, Dionysus grumpily asserts, the theatrical scene has grown rather dreary. But once he arrives in the land of the dead, he finds himself thrust into a violent literary quarrel. At the table of Pluto, god of the dead, the newcomer Euripides has claimed the seat of “Best Tragic Poet”—a place long held by the revered Aeschylus, author of the Oresteia, who’s been dead for fifty years.

A series of competitions ensues, during which excerpts of the two poets’ works are rather fancifully compared and evaluated—scenes replete with the kind of in-jokes still beloved of theater aficionados. (At one point, lines from various plays by the occasionally bombastic Aeschylus are “weighed” against verses by the occasionally glib Euripides: Aeschylus wins, because his diction is “heavier.”) None of these contests is decisive, however, and so Dionysus establishes a final criterion for the title “Best Tragic Poet”: the winner, he asserts, must be the one who offers to the city the most useful advice—the one whose work can “save the city.”

Today, the idea that a work written for the theater could “save” a nation—for this was what Aristophanes’ word polis, “city,” really meant; Athens, for the Athenians, was their country—seems odd, even as a joke. For us, popular theater and politics are two distinct realms. In the contemporary theatrical landscape, overtly political dramas that seize the public’s imagination (Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, say, with its thinly veiled parable about McCarthyism, or Tony Kushner’s AIDS epic Angels in America) tend to be the exception rather than the rule; and even the most trenchant of such works are hardly expected to have an effect on national policy or politics (let alone to “save the country”). Such expectations are dimmer still when it comes to other kinds of drama. The lessons that A Streetcar Named Desire has to teach about beauty and vulnerability and madness are lessons we absorb as private people, not as voters.

By the way, last fall I wrote a blog entry on “Filthy Jokes in Aristophanes.”  (It is NOT intellectual!  That’s why I need the NYRB.)

Do you have any observations on good, bad, or indifferent book reviews?  Are they “going down?”  Favorite publications?  Favorite blogs?  I know I’ve asked this before.  I need to add some new American blogs to my blogroll! Some of my favorites have quit.

Between the Lines: Reviews vs. Promos

vintage woman reading book stock-illustration-21375543-vintage-woman-reading-book-and-holding-cup-of-coffee

I hate to say this, I really do, but I have 10 review copies left over from last year.

How did I end up in this dysfunctional relationship?  With less space for reviews in newspapers and magazines, publishers want to give free books to bloggers, Amazon reviewers, Goodreads reviewers, etc.  In fact, it has reached the point where most Goodreads reviews seem to end with the sentence, “I am grateful to ____ for the opportunity to read an advance copy.”

Oh, dear.  We’ve all been there.  I’m not exactly grateful. In this relationship, guess who ends up doing the work?   But the problem here is my own.  Last year, only 6% of the books I read were review copies. So why did I request and/or accept so many books I never got to?  I seem to prefer to buy my books and read them at leisure.  And now I must send brief e-mails explaining these books left over from 2015 are not quite my kind of thing.

Do the publicists even notice?  Well, sometimes.

There is a shaky border between reviews and promotions these days.

Professional reviewers can be barracudas, but writers also complain that amateur reviewers trash their books with one-star reviews at Amazon before the publication date.  Well, I can’t address that problem.  The amateur reviews I read are usually kind.  Some of them are promotions rather than reviews–which is much better both for writers and publishers, I suppose.

I’m not against promotional writing.  It’s easy to spot, and you accept it for what it is.  Some promotional publications are very good.  We pick up BookPage free at the public library.  It features reviews, interviews, and columns.  Well, the reviews are not actually reviews:  they are what I call “prom-iews.”  In short, it is promotional writing.

But the trick?  BookPage picks good books.  The genres are clearly defined, so one knows it’s a debut novel aimed at millennials, a memoir, literary fiction, or history.  Never a negative word is written, but I often learn about a good book first at BookPage.  (N.B.  It’s where I read about MFK Fisher’s novel, The Theoretical Foot.)

The free biweekly newsletter Shelf Awareness also features  “prom-iews.”   I find it less interesting than BookPage (editors do matter).  But I do look at the book ads!

As for professional book review publications, we all know these.  The New York Times Book Review seemed like magic when I was growing up. On the internet we can also read The Washington Post, The Guardian, and many more.  Criticism is mixed into the long reviews, and, at least in the U.S.,  boundaries are set between reviewers and writers of books reviewed:  they are not supposed to know each other.  Of course, lines do get crossed.

And because the book publication editor assigns the reviews, there is none of this “gratitude” to the publisher.  Some serious reviewing is expected!

Anyway, I try to avoid review copies.  There are so many books I want to read…  I don’t need free copies of new books thrown into the mix.

Zombie Books & Ethics

But perhaps not medicated enough?

But maybe not medicated enough?

My cousin announced that she intended to quit her job. “I hate books.”  She is very bored lately at her very good quasi-librarian job.

“No, you don’t.”

“No, I do.  I want to get out of the profession.”

“You don’t have to read at work,” I pointed out.  She doesn’t, as a matter of fact, read much at work.  Most of the time she sits at an island and answers patrons’ questions.

“Sometimes I do.”

Then she told me what had happened.  She had written a short review of a zombie novel for an online zombie book review publication–perhaps it’s called ZOMBEEEEZ.com, or animatedcorpse.net–but hadn’t bothered to finish the book first. The editor found a massive mistake in her review.   She has been blacklisted, if you can be blacklisted by an editor who works out of her home in pajamas editing a webpage which pays nothing and which nobody has ever heard of except a few zombie fans.

“Idiot!” I said, half-affectionately.

I think it is fair to say half of the people I know are mad.

It would never occur to me to review a book I hadn’t finished, but people do this and even boast about it.  Years ago, when I thought book reviews were the holy grail, an acquaintance boasted that he never finished the books he reviewed.  He employed a review formula that was popular at a particular small newspaper (which you haven’t heard of:  don’t worry, it’s not The New York Times), plugged in clichés at the appropriate points, and enjoyed deceiving the editor.  He claimed that the books were so bad that it didn’t matter whether or not he finished them.  They were “glib” and “poorly-written” whether he read the last page or not.

What a sophist!  Perhaps his story wasn’t true:  I don’t know.  I crossed him off my list of to-have-coffee-with friends, because it’s confusing to try to figure out what what is true or false in hyperbolic stories told by  someone who doesn’t know truth from lies.

My cousin does not have to review zombie books.  She actually likes zombie books.  I thought this was a fun thing for her.  Nobody at work knows she reviewed zombie books, so this idiotic thing won’t affect her career.

Is the sky falling, Chicken Little?  You say you’ll review it, you read it. You put at least that much into it, if nothing else.

It’s sitcom-funny, but not funny.

Where are her ethics?

She is forever pushing boundaries.

And  it is that mad time of year, Christmas.

She needs to make some decisions.

Like whether she really likes zombie books after all.

Like whether she f—ed up like this because she wants to read better books.

Maybe–though I doubt it–even this will turn out to have been a good thing.

forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit. (Virgil, Aeneid, Book I).

“Perhaps someday it will please us even to remember this.”

Though I doubt it.

Critics We Like & Mrs. Caliban

We are all Mrs. Caliban.

We are all Mrs. Caliban.

There are critics we like, and critics we don’t like.

I am astonished that most of the critics I admire are men.  I would never have believed such a gender division possible fifty years after the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

First, the past.

We all miss John Updike.

We all miss John Updike.

John Updike was a life-changing critic whose essays in The New Yorker introduced me to many brilliant writers.  He wrote fascinatingly about Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, one of my favorite books, a sad, witty, moving novel about a desolate housewife who falls in love with a monster. Surely all women understand this inclination to love exotic monsters, because monsters in literature are more human than the human monsters we fall in love with.  (Not you, honey!)

Ingalls’s Larry is one of manifold literary monsters who attract women.  Think of Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape, in which the heroine falls in love with Erasmus, an escaped 300-pound ape.  Think of Melissa in  Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Distant Planets; she falls in love with a dolphin.  Think of Titania and Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Think of the many strange couplings–like Leda and the swan–in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  (I should get offline and finish this essay.)

Ingalls’s heroine, Dorothy, is the neglected wife of a philanderer and the grieving mother of a dead child.  One day when she is listening to the radio, she hears, or thinks she hears, a strange announcement.

Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this programme to make the following announcement in this area.  Early this morning, keepers at the Jefferson Institute for Oceanic Research were attacked by a creature captured six months ago by Professor William Dexter on his South American expedition.  The creature, known to the popular press by its nickname “Aquarius the Monsterman,” appears from intensive scientific analysis to be a giant lizard-like animal capable of living both underwater and on land for extended periods….

When the monster, Larry, shows up in her kitchen, she is not afraid.  She hides him.  He is kinder than her husband.

And oddly, though few of us entertain lizard-like monsters in our kitchen, we empathize with Mrs. Caliban.

We are all Mrs. Caliban sometimes.

And would we have found this book without Updike?

But what about contemporary criticism?  These days we read so many reviews online that criticism can metamorphose into a chimera if we’re not careful.  We read The New York Times, The Washington Post Book World, The New York Review of Books, TLS, The Guardian, and other publications, not to mention blogs, tweets, and GoodReads.

And then I give up on a book.  “This is a piece of crap.”  “Where did you find out about it?”  “Either The New Yorker or a blog, I’m not sure.”  “Get offline!  It’s too unreliable.” “My blog is not unreliable. I found out about this at X blog.”  “Is that the one with the dog pictures?”  “WEll, they all have dog or cat pictures.”  ” The New Yorker doesn’t have a dog or cat.” Oh, dear.  I should never have shown him that dog video.   And why didn’t I take better notes?  If I had been taught by Jesuits, I would have believed the tenet, “Do it right the first time.” I would have  written bibliographical information…

Do it right.

Marry a monster.

Criticism is chimerical.

It’s so confusing.

Good reviews, bad reviews, books that sound good, books that are good, books that turn out to be terrible.

But there are good critics, and sometimes we find them.

truths_ragged_edge_cover_hrMy favorite critic is Michael Dirda of The Washington Post Book World.  Isn’t he everybody’s favorite?  His style is relaxed and conversational, but he has a Ph.D. in comp lit, and is obviously one of the most over-qualified newspaper reviewers. He writes about poetry, science fiction, biographies, novels, reference books, you name it.  He is prolific, and I’ve read his reviews in The New York Review of Books, TLS, and The Barnes and Noble Review; he used to have a blog at The American Scholar. I can’t tell you how many dazzling books I have read because of his reviews.  He recently reviewed Philip F. Gura’s Truth’s Ragged Edge: The Rise of the American Novel, and I would have loved to read it had I not spent all my money at the Planned Parenthood book sale and banned book-buying for the next few months.

Book-How-to-win-an-election ciceroPeter Stothard, editor of TLS and a classicist, is a brilliant critic:  after I read his stunning book, Spartacus Road:  A Journey through Ancient Italy, I looked for his criticsm online (a little gentle cyber-stalking), and I must say he keeps a low profile.  I found some of his reviews in The Wall Street Journal: He praised Donald Kagan’s Thucydides: The Reinvention of History  and Philip Freeman’s translation of Quintus Tullius Cicero’s How to Win an Election, which particularly interests me because I’m fascinated by Cicero’s relationships with his family (Quintus is the famous Marcus Tullius Cicero’s brother).  I’ll be looking for more by Stothard on the classics.

I very much like the reviews of novelist Adam Langer, who, astonishingly, was called “the worst reviewer in America” by The New York Daily News. I  read one of Langer’s reviews in The Washington Post to ascertain whether he was as eloquent as I remembered, and he was.  His review in The Washington Post of Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, a novel of “wayward youth” in the “Reagan ’80s,” not only describes the book so vividly that I have added it to my TBR, but admits its flaws, which many reviewers seem too intimidated to do these days.  He mentions that two other recent novels have similar themes , but are presented in a more solid historical and political context.

Then there’s Robert McCrum, an associate editor at The Observer. What I enjoy most at The Guardian/Observer website are McCrum’s mini-essays. Today he wrote about conspiracy theories on the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays.  Last week he wrote a fascinating essay about the speech as a genre, both in the political arena and in literature.

Where are the women, you might ask?  I’d like to know, too.

Joan Acocella

Joan Acocella

I love Joan Acocella, the dance critic at The New Yorker who also writes fascinating articles about books.  Her style is both engaging and sophisticated:  she has a gift for making you want to read books you wouldn’t normally read, such  as André Vauchez’s Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint, and Augustine Thompson’s Francis of Assisi: A New Biography. She has also written brilliantly about Willa Cather and Zadie Smith.  I only wish she wrote more often about books.

Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times is shrewd and sharp, a demanding, even-handed critic known by writers for hitting hard.   I read her reviews more frequently than I do the other Times reviewers, because I trust her, even though our tastes are very different.  For instance, I didn’t think the Oprah book, The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, was particularly graceful or significant, and it made Kakutani’s Top 10.  But I always want to know what Kakutani says, because she can be trusted.

My goal in middle age has been to be beyond gender, in the sense that I no longer want to consider gender issues.  As I have indicated, I happily read male critics, and I don’t  care if a review is written by a man or a woman. But I feel disgruntled when I realize that fewer women get criticism gigs than men:  you can read the VIDA statistics here.  

I’ve been a very good sport about this.

And so, if you’re out there, what is your plan for making writing gigs more equitable?

And, fellow bloggers and readers, who are your favorite critics?