Critical Comment
An Introduction

The entries that will appear on this Web log are not book reviews.

Since its beginnings in the early Nineteenth Century,  modern (or mass-produced) literary journalism has had a firm grip on the word “review.” The first really successful literary journal, which ran from 1802 to 1929, was the Edinburgh Review. Its background was the liberal thinking spawned by the Scottish Enlightenment — politics, in other words; still the most suitable subject for journalism. (Hazlitt, Walter Scott, and Macaulay were just three of its notable contributors.) Journalism generally answered the question, “What’s new?”Literary journalism, accordingly, sought to account for the latest books likely to be of interest to its readers. The accent was on novelty, not background.

Eventually, the word “review” was shared by publications with their contents. The New York Times Book Review first appeared in 1896; Americans who read a fair amount usually call it, simply, “the Book Review,” which nicely collapses the word’s two connotations.

With some exceptions, usually produced by the authors of actual books, book reviews are formulaic essays, more sophisticated than but not fundamentally different from middle-school book reports, outlining the plot (without necessarily revealing the ending) and evaluating the principal characters. The reviewer will also size the book up in various comparisons, with the author’s other work (if any) as well as with books on the same or similar subjects. Because of fashions in journalism, today’s reviews will try to engage the reader by introducing some personal experiences, not necessarily directly relevant to the book under review, of the reviewer. The result, publishers pray, will boost sales without providing too naked a crib sheet for those who “don’t have the time” to read books but who want to appear to be on top of the latest things. Book reviews really are a kind of news, and that’s how they’re read.

For a few years, in a blog that I used to keep, I reviewed the contents of each Sunday’s Book Review, and I learned a few things. A “good review” is a well-written essay, and not to be confused with a review that judges a book “favorably.” And the thing that both good favorable and good unfavorable reviews do is to steer readers either toward books that they’re likely to like or away from books that they’re not. The worst kind of “bad” review is the tantrum in which a reviewer complains that the book under review is not a completely different book, most likely one that the author had no intention of writing. The best “good” reviews, in contrast, explain, in paraphrase, what it is that the author set out to do. This is the reviewer that every writer hopes to get but rarely does.

Such excellent commentaries are not really compatible with the principles of journalism, or at least with the book-report formula. They don’t focus on the comprehensive overview of a book. Instead, they venture daring, if not impertinent, impressions of what it’s like to look at the world through the author’s eyes. Or they may simply take up a detail that has caught the attention of a reader interested enough to write about it. Background is a very important part of the comment’s persuasive authority. Novelty as such is of little or no interest; what takes its place is a sense of the intriguing difference. This is what makes the comment “critical.”

Since, as a rule, I won’t be writing about books that I don’t like, I can hope that the entries here will all be good and favorable. I won’t call them reviews, however, because a good many of the books won’t be new. They’ll be books that I’ve re-read, possibly for the umpteenth time, or classics that I’ve finally gotten around to reading for the first time. Instead, I’ll hope that they pass for critical comment, not journalism.