By David Lynn, Editor
In a recent message to me just after I’d accepted her new book review on Thomas Sayers Ellis’ Skin, Inc. for KROnline, Kascha Semonovitch mentioned that the task had been “a challenge and a pleasure.” She’s right, of course–crafting a good, effective review is no easy undertaking. And as editors we have to be as picky, as demanding as with any other work we publish. Book reviews and literary discussions were at the heart of the original purpose of journals such as The Edinburgh Review in the early 19th century, and were central to the mission of The Kenyon Review and The Partisan Review in the mid-century glory days of the 20th.
In recent decades, however, serious book reviewing has taken something of a backseat in many literary magazines to compilations of “creative” work. Yet looking forward, I suspect really good reviewing may re-emerge as part of our raison d’etre. And just as we claim that KROnline and The Kenyon Review have different if complementary aesthetics, so the book reviews featured in these publications pursue distinct purposes as well.
Book reviews in The Kenyon Review tend to take on themes and clusters of books, whether by a single author or by several. These are true, extended essays, offering the writer a chance to develop a significant discussion. In a coming newsletter I will discuss some examples of this kind of writing, what makes it work–what hooks my attention well enough to warrant publication.
In KROnline, on the other hand, we want to feature short, smart, fun engagements with recent individual books. So in her recent review of Skin, Inc.: Identity Repair Poems by Thomas Sayers Ellis, Kascha opens with:
So, you want to know what this book is “like”? What category it fits in? Well, you can go to hell. Or back to the library. Read this book on its own terms.
Bold and brassy, this is hardly your traditional book review. But it sets a tone, an attitude, and the rest of the piece is rigorous and penetrating. For example:
To make a comparison is to situate this new individual work in an over-determined landscape. Delineations among literary borders as among races cover over the real that arises from the particular: “These genres these borders these false distinctions / are where we stay at / in freedom’s way” (3).
Taking an entirely different tack, Lauren Goodwin Slaughter launches a review of Master of Disguises by Charles Simic:
Just as Dickinson warns that the truth must be told “slant” so as to not “dazzle” us “blind,” in his new collection Charles Simic suggests that we need disguises to shield ourselves from the depth of our own overwhelming humanity. In his typically elusive, straightforward writing, Simic conjures variations on this theme throughout the four sections of his fluid and organized book.
So Lauren uses Dickinson to give us an entry or a comparison for thinking about Simic. And her tone and care are as appropriate to the subject as are Kascha’s to Ellis. Each in her own way manages to engage a particular book–and its author–directly and with wonderful illumination.
I happen to believe that the reading public is hungry for such practical, well-written reviews. As more and more traditional publications dumb down their book reviewing–or abandon it altogether–KROnline can do more. In coming months, with editorial leadership by Zach Savich and Daniel Torday, we will be publishing many reviews of recent books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction by established authors as well as of promising first books by emerging voices, from commercial houses and from small, independent presses.