Notes on reviewing Books: The Millions, The New Yorker, and Christian Wiman

Critic Michael Bourne in The Millions has an excellent piece on book reviewing, where he discusses how the digital age has changed their purpose and scope.  Typical reviews typically opened with a brief context-setting introduction;, followed by a thumbnail outline, with the rest of the piece devoted to an assessment of the book’s worthiness.  Reader reviews on Amazon and Goodreads have taken over this role, he argues, though he allows for the value of intelligent literary criticism or a piece featuring an overlooked gem.

Reviews in the digital age should instead engage in conversation:

“not as an exercise in personal taste – I liked/didn’t like this book, and here’s why – but as a mini-essay using the book under review as the focal point of a larger, more interesting story. In a great many cases, this will mean reviewers having the sense to shut up when they have an opinion about a book but have nothing to add to the conversation beyond whether they liked or didn’t like it. This might be called The Thumper Rule of Literary Criticism: “If you can’t say something interesting – Shh! Say nothing!” 

When critics do wade into the conversation, they should be thinking how they can bring a special talent or experience they possess to the table. This can be as simple as having an unusually good eye for how narrative and language works, like James Wood of The New Yorker, whose reviews are worth reading even if you don’t agree with him or intend to read the book he’s talking about. Other times it can entail bringing a deeper knowledge of a subject to bear on a review.”

I think this is right, mostly.  It is very difficult to avoid injecting personal opinion, but whether a book “works’ or not, whether as fiction or non-fiction, is still important, and should be grounded in why and how the book works, or should address how well it covers its subject.

Last week’s New Yorker includes a review of poet(and editor of Poetry) Christian Wiman’s memoir, My Bright Abyss:  Meditations of a Modern Believer.  It is the story of his return to Christianity in midlife, after almost simultaneously falling in love and receiving a diagnosis of cancer.  Critic Adam Kirsch writes a wonderful review connecting Wiman’s memoir with his earlier poetry and essays, pulling in Wallace Stevens along the way to making his poetic and his religious sensibilities converse, and renewing my interest in both his memoir and his poetry.

It is exactly what a good review should do.

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