Launch day never comes but what I am surprised at what we’ve pulled off, thanks to the talent, perseverance, and generosity of our contributors and the diligence, enthusiasm, and contributions of our editors! Our May issue seems to me to exemplify what we want Open Letters to be. It covers a wide range of material — I think there’s greater variety in the titles we cover than in most other literary magazines, online or otherwise — and in a range of voices. Have you ever looked at our “About” page? Here’s what the wise heads that set up Open Letters in the first place came up with as our “mission statement”:
We’ve all had the experience of reading a review that sparkled—one that combined an informed, accessible examination of its quarry with gamesome, intelligent, and even funny commentary. These are the pieces we tell our friends about and then vigorously debate.
That’s the kind of writing you’ll find in this month’s issue, so hop on over and take a look! Among its goodies you’ll find a thoughtful exploration of Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge by friend-of-Novel-Readings Colleen Shea (a.k.a. the esteemed proprietress of Jam and Idleness); an exuberantly insightful commentary on a new edition of Birds of America by the inimitable Steve Donoghue; a provocative critique of Tea Obreht’s critically-acclaimed The Tiger’s Wife; and much more.
My own contribution this month is a review of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which has also been receiving a fair share of critical acclaim. You’ll have to read my review to find out if I’m joining in the chorus. I will say that the book is extremely readable, and that writing the review was good mental exercise, especially once I decided on how I wanted to structure it.
While I was working on it, a conversation broke out on Twitter about the question of what makes someone a good fit to review a particular book. OK, I started it — well, technically Mark Sarvas started it by noting he thought a particular reviewer was a “terrible choice” for a particular assignment. Happily, I pretty much “assign” my own books to review, but I puzzle over how to make good choices for myself, so I asked what he thought the parameters were. He proposed avoiding cases of “outright conflict,” cases where there’s a specific “axe to grind.” I proposed someone who could be expected to have a good conversation with the book . Gregory Cowles of the NYTBR chimed in (Twitter is fun that way) to suggest “open engagement” as the key.
As I said in that exchange, I seek out books to review that I expect to like, by which I mean books by writers I have some reason to trust, and/or on topics and/or in genres that are within my usual range of interests. This is not to say that my default plan is a good review (in fact, I try not to think in terms of “good” or “bad” reviews). I just figure that way I have the best shot of appreciating what the book does well but also recognizing what, according to my reading experience, it doesn’t do well. To keep going with the conversational metaphor, there’s no point trying to have a lengthy discussion with someone whose language you don’t speak at all. If I were a full-time professional book reviewer, such discrimination would presumably be a luxury. Sometimes when I’m paging through catalogs not finding any “likely candidates” for my next review, I hope I’m not being some kind of prima donna, or (worse?) that I’m not being intellectually unadventurous. But who would want to read my attempt to review something like Revenge? Or, to go even further outside my normal literary habitat, Richard Hell’s autobiography, reviewed with great panache in this issue by Steve Danziger? Much better to leave these books to readers who get them.
Besides, in a way all contemporary fiction is an adventure for me, since my official expertise is entirely elsewhere. I’ve certainly found plenty to grapple with in the recent books I have reviewed, from The Marriage Plot to Two-Part Inventions. (Whether I’ve acquired expertise, or at least relevant experience, by writing about contemporary fiction on my blog is another question, not entirely unrelated, I suppose!) Mark’s question was timely in part because I was wondering if I was a good choice to review Life After Life. Reviews were coming out all around me as I worked (I managed not to actually read any of them until I had a complete, committed draft of my own!) — Francine Prose’s came out in the New York Times just this past weekend, too. Clearly someone there thought she was a good fit, and I can see why. Every reviewer who acts in “good faith,” though (to call on another of Mark’s Twitter comments) brings something fresh to the conversation. It’s possible, too, especially reading the major literary reviews, to feel as if there’s all too much insider trading (have you heard the joke about the New York Review of Books — that its real name is The New York Review of Each Other’s Books?). I think my review stands up well to Prose’s. (Mind you, she, poor woman, was probably given a word limit.)
What do you think makes someone a good fit for a particular review? Proximity or distance? Expertise or an unexpected angle? Or will you take any of these provided the conversation itself is good enough? These questions are relevant to me not just as a writer but as an editor, after all.
Also, in case you wondered, the next book I’m reviewing is Deirdre David’s biography of Olivia Manning. I think I’m a good fit: I know David’s work as a Victorianist, of course, and I’ve read both trilogies in Manning’s The Fortunes of War, and I know a lot more about early 20th-century women writers than I used to because of my reading in the ‘Somerville’ set. So far it’s entirely fascinating.
I think it’s a careful balance between proximity and distance. As you’ve suggested, a book under review shouldn’t be entirely outside one’s interests, etc. But shrieking fandom–I’m thinking what a very bad idea it would be for me to write a review of anything written by David Mitchell–is very bad too. No axe to grind AND no illusions of perfection to uphold! Some open-minded, more intellectually than emotionally engaged spot in the middle I’m guessing is the goal.
That said, if the reviewer’s writing is really compelling, I’m willing to forgive a lot. 🙂