CRITICAL HIT AWARDS: March 2013, “First Principles”

Welcome back to the Critical Hit Awards for book reviews. This is a round-up, a recommended reading list, and — why not? — a terribly prestigious and coveted prize. Nominate your favorite review of the month by tweeting it at @electriclit with the hashtag #criticalhit, or cast your vote in the comments section below.

Our guest judge is Nicole Cliffe, Books Editor of The Hairpin.

Electric Literature: What makes a good book review?

Nicole Cliffe: Ideally, of course, the reviewer should be smart and funny and insightful and have actually read the book. These all seem like foolish things to point out, but we’ve all read reviews in which some combination of these traits is lacking. Let’s take this list as our first principles.

Stepping back, though, I believe it is very difficult to succeed with a book review if you lack generosity of spirit and a genuine love of books. There are plenty of terrible books, there are far more mediocre books, there are many good ones, and there are some that are great. Books that are terrible or mediocre are rarely worth your time to review. Which is not to say that a negative review has no place in your arsenal, but when I am reviewing a book, I try to imagine that I am speaking to the author, that that author wants to have written a good book and has proceeded with that desire in good faith.

James Wood, who I believe to be the best critic currently writing (or ever, I’m a huge proponent of James Wood) once said that if he has met an author, even at a cocktail party, he refuses to review their work unless he can do so generously. I, being intensely less talented, more timid, and consistently amazed that anyone writes books at all, just take it one step further by mostly discarding books I cannot speak positively about. I can think of only two or three occasions I’ve written harshly about a book, and I’ve always mildly regretted it afterwards.

My only other general observation about good book reviews is that they should ideally be able to stand alone. You should want to re-read a good book review, as you would a short story. To return to my unceasing fangirling of James Wood, I cannot count the number of times I have revisited his piece on Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It’s a work of art.

Speaking of works of art, here’s what I was impressed by in the month of February:

Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol

Reviewed by Jordan Wingate in MAKE magazine

Nominated by Mark Molloy

Reviewing a new translation of a great work is a whole different kind of headache, generally speaking. Obviously, the collected tales of Gogol are great, where are you going to go with it? What makes the Pevear and Volokhonsky better than what preceded it? I think Wingate does a good job showing the merits of the translation, but also in situating Gogol within an historical and literary framework and teasing out the threads of bureaucratic minutiae, riddles, and the search for metaphysical meaning that make these tales uniquely Gogolian. And, man, he’s got a great first sentence. You always need a good first sentence: “In a bed in Moscow in March of 1852, his nose covered by leeches, his backbone palpable through his shrunken stomach, attempting — as ordered by a fanatical priest — to starve the devil within him, a mad Gogol perishes of inanition at the age of 42.”

Various Recent Books

Reviewed by Adam Kirsch in The New Republic

I absolutely did not agree with everything Kirsch has to say in “The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form,” but I greatly admire his chutzpah in swinging for the fences. It’s funny, it’s well-written, it’s pointed, and it demands that you form an opinion of it immediately. Kirsch tells us that the new essays are not the old essays, and why. He compares authors it would not seem necessarily intuitive to speak of together. He’s starting a conversation. And, of course, he opens with Philip Larkin: “‘The essay, as a literary form, is pretty well extinct,’ Philip Larkin wrote gloomily in 1984.” Indeed.

The Novels of Renata Adler

Reviewed by Gary Indiana in Bookforum

Indiana is advocating for Renata Adler. Indiana wants you to read Renata Adler, he wants you to know why you should be reading Renata Adler, and he thinks Renata Adler’s novels (which have traditionally taken a back seat to her other work) have the ability to serve us well in fixing the novels we are currently writing. How marvelous! No, really. What Indiana has here is a bit of a polemic, in the guise of “hey, they’ve reissued these novels, let me tell you about them.” But it’s done expertly well. Probably you should all go read the novels of Renata Adler?

Nature Wars by Jim Sterba

Reviewed by Russell Banks in The New York Review of Books

Russell Banks writes consistently excellent reviews, and this is no exception. I always admire Banks’ willingness to work at achieving real depth in reviews, and for Nature Wars, you can see it in his decision to delve a little further into the environmental issues being explored by the author. Sterba wants to talk about white-tailed deer? Banks is going to tell you what you need to know about white-tailed deer to really engage with what Sterba is trying to say. Moreover, you’ll notice that Banks spends more time quoting Sterba than you’ll see in the average review. When you really admire a book, why not let the author do some of the heavy lifting? Banks thinks he learned from Sterba, he wants to pass it on. I like that.


— Nicole Cliffe is the Books Editor of The Hairpin and writes a monthly column on Classic Trash for The Awl. You can find her tweeting @Nicole_Cliffe.

— Brian Hurley, curator of Electric Literature’s monthly Critical Hits Awards, is over here.

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