When I’ve answered the “Why We Chose It” imperative about reviews on KROnline in the past I’ve focused on the books we’ve chosen to review, and I could go on here about how impressed I’ve been by Pamela Erens’s work, which has been rightly compared to James Salter’s—no minor compliment, that.
But it occurred to me: why not consider why we chose the reviewer? The solid literary review of the solid literary novel requires a certain lightness of touch, a certain acuity matched by a certain inherent affinity for the endeavor. Vanessa Blakeslee excels at these things.
I do not remember how I came to begin working with Blakeslee. What I do know is that in the handful of pieces she’s written for us, she’s expertly balanced those extraordinary demands of the book reviewer that I know I, for one, so value: to have a “take” on the book which is clearly discernible from the outset. To give a thorough synopsis while succinctly making qualitative judgments (“Erens’s eye for detail isn’t confined to her principal characters,” Blakeslee writes). To conjure prose as lithe and adept as the prose of the book in hand.
In sitting down to write this WWCI, I pulled down off the shelf my worn copy of Randall Jarrell’s collected nonfiction, No Other Book, which incidentally I dog-eared and annotated while I was an undergraduate at Kenyon College. Jarrell’s tongue could be as lacerating as any critic since Carlyle, but his humor and keen intellect always kept his voice buoyant. In his great essay “The Age of Criticism,” Jarrell wrote, “Chances are that it has never occurred to the young critic to write a story or a poem. The new critic is but old scholar writ large.” Our reviewer here—reviewer not critic—and I make that distinction not haphazardly—has written a collection of stories, and has a novel forthcoming. Many of the reviewers I’ve worked with in my years as a Book Review editor at KR have published well-received books, or have novels, memoirs, story collections on the way: Marie-Helene Bertino, Elliott Holt, Amy Butcher, Patrick Dacey, to name a few. The book reviewer at KRO these days is not a critic, for the most part. But she is—we are—the product of a different age from Jarrell’s. She is the book reviewer: the writer who meets a book at its premise, with attendant generosity first, who knows to describe what’s wrong when she finds something lacking, but whose job is primarily to present to our reader what she finds in a book, reading it with her mind and her heart, but primarily with her spine, as Nabokov implored his students to do.
It occurs to me that while we have fine criticism still, and find it in the beautiful essays of James Wood or Daniel Mendelsohn or in the pages of vibrant publications like n+1 or the New Inquiry or The Los Angeles Review of Books, we do not live in an age of criticism. We do not live in “a thought-tormented age,” as Gabriel in Joyce’s “The Dead” feared we did. I don’t know that I want to pronounce what kind of age we do live in—I know it’s an age that produces so much prose every minute one couldn’t properly read it all, let alone criticize it. But I do feel this: The book critic and the book reviewer do not have the same job. “Write so as to be of some use to a reader,” Jarrell states late in his indispensible essay, and I take it to heart, or more accurately to my spine, “—a reader, that is, of poems and stories, not of criticism.”