Tag Archives: The Art of the Review

The Art of the Review VI: Belinda McKeon

Parul Sehgal -- July 13th, 2011

The malingering Art of the Review is back and delighted to present Belinda McKeon, the Irish critic, curator, playwright, and novelist–her first book Solace is out now from Scribner. She’s also (full disclosure) a good friend of mine–but I’m her fan first and foremost, so I’m especially thrilled that she joined us for this long and candid chat on criticism, her debut novel, the differences between Irish and American literary culture, and the view from her window.

What drew you to criticism? How did you get your start?

I’d loved writing essays in university – really, really loved it, more than any nineteen-year-old should, and I wanted to keep doing it. Like most of my classmates, I came from a high school background where opinion meant regurgitation of something already written by somebody else, where teachers expected us to memorize the answers in the Spark Notes. And at first, my subjects – English and Philosophy – seemed so alien, the ideas being rattled out by the lecturers seemed so complicated, that I felt as though I’d wandered into a course in atomic physics instead. But somewhere along the line, everything clicked for me, and I realized the pleasure of thinking about a piece of writing, of reading it closely, of looking for the undercurrents, of finding an argument and going in deep into the work to make it hold. I started reviewing books, and interviewing authors, for the college newspaper, and when I graduated, I sent my resume to the Irish Times, and asked if I could do the same for them. I got lucky; it was a summer at the height of the boom, and opportunities were there for graduates. They sent me to plays, and they let me rummage in the books cupboard, and they sent me to interview authors, several of whom were personal heroes, so that was a tad on the intimidating side. But they also told me to get on with it, so I did.

What, if any, are the critic’s responsibilities?

To give the work the time it deserves. To put aside preconceptions, and not just preconceptions, but the stubborn initial impressions which can sometimes set in too firmly, too soon. To read carefully. To somehow bracket out other distractions. It’s not an author’s fault if you’ve been too busy checking email or twitter all day to give their book your attention. It’s not their fault if doing so has made you ratty and scattered. So don’t take it out on them, and – I know this isn’t easy – don’t take on more assignments than you can reasonably manage in a given space of time. It’s also not an author’s fault if you have three other books breathing down your neck as you try to read or review theirs.

Have you ever been wrong about a book?

I certainly hope so. In fact, I would hope I’m at least a tiny bit wrong every time. It’s not very interesting if it’s possible to get this stuff 100% right. Or are we talking about atomic physics again?

What critics – past or present – are important to you? Which contemporary reviewers do you read regularly?

James Wood is not just a critic I admire hugely, he was a teacher who made a real difference to my writing when I had him for a master class at Columbia. That was just a four-week thing, and I took it two years in a row, gatecrashing the first year, if I remember correctly. His approach is considered, intelligent, and born out of a deep love of writing and what it can do. I’m a complete fangirl, I admit it. As for critics from the past: I want to meet H.L Mencken when I die.

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The Art of the Review V: Nilanjana Roy

Parul Sehgal -- May 6th, 2011

If the book critic is, in John Freeman’s words, a ”public reader,” then Nilanjana Roy is that and much more; her blog The Akhond of Swat is the bustling agora of Indian letters (or at least Indian writing in English). The New Delhi-based writer (and her very engaged commentariat) tackle the latest books, book scandals (hello Greg Mortenson), news tie-ins (a round-up of Osama Bin Laden biographies) — as well as a host of questions specific to Indian publishing (notions of “authentic” Indian writing, translation issues.)

She started reviewing at age 17, “20 years ago, when Indian publishing in English was still young, and when readers like me switched between languages—Bengali to English, English to Hindi—without self-consciousness; we read the way we spoke, changing languages like you would the gears of your car.”

She’s been a book reviews editor at Outlook and Biblio, and today, when she’s not instigating debates over on her blog, she writes a column at the Business Standard and contributes to the International Herald Tribune. Warm, wry, and accessible to a fault– even when covering archaic rape laws or how parallel imports will affect the Indian publishing market — she is a bridge between text and reader, between the safety of our tastes and the terror of the new.

We chat about Rushdie vs. Naipal, the virtues of a “magpie mind,” and why critics shouldn’t review bestsellers.

We’ll get to more high-minded discussions in a bit, but I can’t resist asking about the feuds in Indian letters. What is going on over there?! Since January alone, there’s been Hartosh Singh Bal vs. William Dalyrymple, Pankaj Mishra vs. Patrick French, Mihir Sharma vs. Anand Giridharadas. As you’ve noted, it’s the same argument with many avatars that’s been happening for a long time: Who has the right to write about India? Who is Indian enough? Whence this anxiety of authenticity? Do you find these conversations and quarrels profitable, resolvable, or even interesting?

I used to run a litblog called Kitabkhana, and going through the archives is a great way to realize how much these feuds and spats resemble the grand — and petty — intrigues of the Mughal courts. Some of it just stems from a historical fondness for argument, and it’s not all bad: Mihir Sharma’s contrarian reviews can be cutting, but they also have substance to them, and you need a Mihir as an antidote to the culture of respectful politeness, or the mindless praise allocated to books that are seen to be successful.

Naipaul vs. Rushdie is a beautiful example of a feud that covers some serious ground — the differences between their approaches to history are sharp, and worth paying attention to, because each offers a distinct and mutually contradictory way of making a way in the world. It’s never been carried out by the participants themselves, but by groups of historians, writers, thinkers who fall into either the Naipaul or the Rushdie camp, and the disputes range from the absurd to the trivial to the deeply serious.

The obsession with authenticity, is to my mind an empty quest — you’re getting into a ridiculous debate over whether the urban Indian, for instance, will ever be as authentic as her counterpart from the village, you’re evaluating different ways of writing India and elevating one over the other as the only true way. But the exasperation, the sense of disenfranchisement on the part of writers who don’t have the kind of easy access a French or a Giridharadas might, the impatience with a West that seems to want only a certain kind of facile, tourist’s guidebook writing from India, that is not interested in more complex narratives — these are very real. Giridharadas and French are almost accidental targets — the real battle is over an anxiety over what kind of portrait of the country will emerge, and an impatience sometimes with narratives that either simplify or contradict the version a Pankaj Mishra sees as the true story, for instance.

The realities of the marketplace currently dictate that Indian writers working in Indian languages other than English will rarely find an audience outside the country; that causes bitterness. The marketplace also dictates that Indian writers in English will of necessity be judged, bought, sold and read by editors and publishers working to the tastes of the European and American markets, which currently control English-language publishing — a fact that is often distasteful, frightening, or daunting to many Indians.

Hidden under all of this is the real fear: that we are losing our own distinct voice, that we are losing the right to tell our own stories without glossaries and without the necessity of explanation, that we speak and write and think in a borrowed tongue — English is an Indian language, but it is still an alien Indian language. So all of this makes these spats interesting; resolvable, no, but profitable, yes.

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The Art of the Review IV: Stephen Burt

Parul Sehgal -- April 8th, 2011

It’s National Poetry Month, and we’re extremely lucky to have Stephen Burt with us. Considered to be the leading poetry critic of his generation, Burt writes about poets and poems with more subtlety, shrewdness, and heart than just about anyone (he’s also a bit better-acquainted with the X-Men than you’d expect).

He’s a prolific reviewer, a professor of English at Harvard, the author of two poetry collections (Popular Music and Parallel Play) and critical studies including The Art of the Sonnet and the sublime Close Calls with Nonsense, an introduction to reading new poetry. Oh, and he’s also at work on four new books. Excellent.

Burt talks to us about how books are like people, why criticism is like making chairs, and how to review even the dullest book.

What drew you to criticism?
I’m tempted to say that criticism itself drew me, in the sense that a comic book artist draws the character in the comic book: that I am its invented creature. Resisting the temptation, I’ll say that I grew up indulged, heard and overheard by parents and teachers as I opined on the relative merits of X-Men storylines, for example, or prog-rock albums, and I gradually discovered that other people—even people I had never met!–might read my opinions if I researched them and wrote them down in the right ways. By that time they were opinions about other art works and other art forms, most often and most happily about poetry, although I still have opinions about the X-Men, if asked.

Another answer: in my teens I read Randall Jarrell and William Empson and Hugh Kenner and (by that time I was enrolled in her courses) Helen Vendler. Even before my teens, if I remember rightly, I was reading popular science explainers and language mavens and other explainers of complicated things in clarified, non-esoteric language. I was storing up models, without knowing why.

I have been fortunate enough to be taken up by congenial editors early. Not all critics, not all reviewers, get that.

I read a wonderful interview you did where you said the following: “Reviewing, like all other literary criticism, like the making of chairs, like the making of film scores, is an applied art: it’s heteronomous, serving ends outside itself, and should not let its own artfulness detract from those functions.” What function do your reviews serve? And how do you know–can you know?–if you’ve succeeded?
Time to quote Auden! “What is the function of a critic? So far as I am concerned he can do me one or more of the following services: 1. Introduce me to authors or works. 2. Convince me that I had undervalued an author or a work because I had not read them carefully enough. 3. Show me relations between works of different ages and cultures. 4. Give a ‘reading’ of a work which increases my understanding of it. 5. Throw light upon the process of artistic ‘Making.’ 6. Throw light upon the relation of art to life, to science, economics, ethics, religion, etc.” (This and much else from the essay “Reading,” at the front of Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand.)

Reviewers can do all those things. I hope that I have done them, now and again.

Reviews can also clear space for the appreciation of neglected, undervalued or misunderstood art by dispelling bad arguments about art, or by trying to clear worse art out of the way when it seems to be obstructing the view of better art. (Sometimes the better art and the worse art are by the same artist.)

As for how you know when you have succeeded, W. S. Merwin recalls in a poem that he once asked John Berryman whether and how he knew his poems were good, and Berryman replied “You can’t you can never be sure/ you die without knowing.” You can’t quite know what you have done inside a reader’s mind.

On the other hand, reviews can get books more attention—and that’s something you can know. If I review Jane Doe’s second book, and then her third book gets more attention than her second (more reviews, more people reading it, even more copies sold), perhaps at the margin I had something to do with that. Reviewing is like writing poetry in some ways (it’s an art) but it’s also like making chairs (see above) and it is in a third set of ways like voting: an individual contribution to a necessarily collective effort.

How do you sidestep the peril that is reviewspeak (oh, all those “luminous,” “lyrical” “tours de force!”)–and formulaic review structures?

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The Art of the Review III: Michael Miller

Parul Sehgal -- April 1st, 2011

We’re thrilled to have Michael Miller in the hot seat this week. Miller got his start at the Village Voice and has since written for the Voice Literary Supplement and been an editor at Time Out New York–where he curated an extraordinary book section that celebrated both the popular and the recondite, the traditional and the experimental. Always pushing the reader to more complicated, challenging pleasures, he brought Brian Evenson, Lydia Davis, and Rudolph Wurlitzer to a whole new audience.

Miller is now a Reviews Editor at Bookforum where he’s also (full disclosure) my superb editor.

He chats with us about lazy critics, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, Stephen Elliot’s good taste, and why being too “right” about a book can make for a dull review.

Give me a sense of your average day. How many books do you get/how do you separate the wheat from the chaff? How do you decide to farm out reviews?

I deal mostly with fiction and poetry, plus some nonfiction books about pop culture, music, and film. I’m not sure how many books arrive each day, but the stacks are high! I pick books in a variety of ways. Sometimes I’ll see a book by an author I’ve read and liked in the past. For instance, I read Ron Padgett’s biography of Joe Brainard, so I’ve set aside his new book of poems, How Long. Same goes for Jo Ann Beard: She has a piece I love in one of those Best American Essays anthologies (the one edited by David Foster Wallace), so I’m definitely going to check out her new novel, In Zanesville. I also hear about a lot of things word of mouth: I think Stephen Elliott has good taste, so I usually check out what he chooses for his reading group at The Rumpus. That’s how I heard about Deborah Baker’s The Convert.

I can’t speak for the other editors here, but when I’m assigning reviews, I try to find someone who knows the territory but not too well. Ideally, a reviewer will be just a little out of his or her element. That leaves room for some original thinking—even surprise—on the critic’s part.

In your review of Mark Gluth’s The Late Work of Margaret Kroftis, you praise its “direct, no-fat sentence style,” the author’s “creative command of his cultural references,” the book’s ability to quietly “break your heart.” These are all qualities I’ve admired in your reviews–economy, smart allusions, an emotional and intellectual engagement with the book. When you’re reviewing, do you have some sort of criteria that you hold the book to? Or does every book demand or invent its own set of criteria?

I think it’s impossible to let go entirely of your criteria for what makes a book successful, but I do try to leave my expectations at the door. I suppose that one of my criteria is how well a book sets its own terms. I recently read Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and that book’s success has everything to do with the way it sets its terms and dispenses with characters and plot development.

Sontag said (and I paraphrase villainously) that criticism should not regard itself–or be regarded–as art; to do so would be to betray its mission. I like the grim finality of this, but I’m not convinced. Take your review of Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance for the Believer. You have a great line–”It’s as if [Davis'] characters were rubbernecking while cruising past the pileups of their own obsessions.” That’s such a funny and weird and plain arresting image, I won’t be persuaded that it’s not art. Where do you stand? Do you consider criticism to be an art?

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The Art of the Review II: Ron Charles

Parul Sehgal -- March 25th, 2011

Clearly, we can’t get enough of Ron Charles. And can you blame us? Even before his alter ego, the zany Totally Hip Book Video Reviewer, peered up at us through strips of raw bacon, the longtime book critic has been charming, disarming, and educating us every week in the pages of the Washington Post.

The winner of the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Balakian Award (his acceptance speech ought to be required viewing), he’s beloved for his humility and playful prose, for his reviews that, in Scott McLemee’s words, “display a knack for characterizing the shape and style of a book. Charles writes about craft without turning his reviews into manifestos for a single school of it.”

We–the tragically unhip–catch up with Charles and chat about Peter Carey, pornographers, and the virtues of curbing your enthusiasm.

Where did the Totally Hip Video Book Reviewer come from?

I’ve always made short funny videos for my family, and I started toying with doing a new series featuring a character I called the Super Book Critic who imagined that he had superhuman powers (it mainly featured me getting books out of trees). The idea evolved, and my wife and I thought, why don’t we take the review in this week’s paper—it was Mona Simpson’s Hollywood—and film it in three or four minutes? We ran around the house, and I acted it out a bit. I put it up on YouTube and got something like 3000 hits in 24 hrs. The response was incredible. I’d expected to hear from my manager or someone on the 5th floor telling me, “Take this down. You’re embarrassing us!”—or worse. But instead I got a note saying that the Post video team wanted to produce and edit the videos. But that would have been a whole other job, and it would have to be very professional. Instead we’ve kept it as a very casual arrangement. Most weekends, my wife and I make a video and hand it in to my editors on Monday. The audience is not that large—

But we are fervent.

People are being very nice about it.

I especially enjoyed your review of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Speaking of Franzen (what a segue!), with the Franzenfreude episode, increasing attention is finally being paid to how infrequently authors who are women and people of color are reviewed compared to their white, male counterparts. Is this something the Washington Post is trying to address?

It’s a conscious weekly goal. We’re aware that we’re falling short, but we’re working constantly to make our coverage fairer. It’s been more of a challenge in nonfiction, I think. In fiction, there are just so many talented women authors.

Everyone is a critic now—on Amazon, Goodreads, on their blogs. Is this something you find threatening? Is the professional critic’s authority being diminished? Is it a good thing?

It’s not a good thing for my job [laughs], but I do think it’s a great thing that people can communicate about books and reach out to other readers—it’s wonderful to see this kind of enthusiasm. It’s what keeps book culture alive and vibrant. Even if you’re interested in some kind of obscure genre fiction, you can go on Goodreads and meet hundreds, even thousands of people who’ve read the book you have and are looking to chat. As far as the authority of the critic goes, I’m not in that realm. I’m just trying to be a daily newspaper book critic. I’m trying to read books that I hope people might enjoy, and I’m trying to help readers find things worth reading. I’m not setting down the literary theory of the 21st century.

You’re not? Get to it!

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The Art of the Review I: Laura Miller

Parul Sehgal -- March 18th, 2011

We’re happy to announce a new series on PWxyz–The Art of the Review. Every Friday, we’ll be interviewing our favorite reviewers, talking technique, and taking the pulse of criticism today: How do critics select books to review? Have they ever been wrong about a book? How much impact do reviews have anyway? How do critics in print media feel about their online counterparts and vice versa–are they in league or at odds? We’ll be talking to reviewers at established dailies, at up-and-coming review websites, and working all over the world–in New York, Dublin, and New Delhi.

We’re kicking things off with an interview with Laura Miller, author of The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, and cofounder of Salon.com for which she writes a regular column on books, beloved for its wit, directness, and deep engagement with (and omnivorous appetite for) books of all genres.

She talks to us about how book critics have let down the public, why she likes reading–but doesn’t trust–James Wood’s reviews, and why everyone should at least try to read Twilight.

You’re one of the reviewers I most enjoy following—not least because I can never predict what you’re going to cover next. You write about a novel, like Room, one week and Let the Swords Encircle Me (the world’s longest, most intricate account of Iranian politics) the next. And the week after that, you’re on to Yellow Dirt, an exposé on uranium mining in the American Southwest. How do you decide what to cover?

I cover books that I’m enthusiastic about. I look at books in the same category, sample a bunch, and pick what I like the best. My general rule is in a month of 4 weeks, I do one fiction book and 3 nonfiction books: one memoir or autobiography, one history, and something contemporary. There are a few things I’m not into—I’m not big on military history, and sports books put me to sleep—but I do have broad tastes. Any book that someone tells me about or sends me, be it self-published or whatever, I try to look at the first couple paragraphs at least.

Why do you review so much more nonfiction than fiction?

At Salon, we know exactly how many people read every single story. When it comes to reviews, people are interested in reading the reviews of nonfiction books. Maybe it’s because even if they never read the book, they’ll learn something from the review.

“Franzenfreude” and the recent reports from FAIR and Vida have drawn attention to how infrequently authors who are women and/or people of color are reviewed compared to their white, male counterparts. Is this disparity something you think about or try to address in your review coverage?

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