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October 10, 2007


My essay on Charles Schulz in the column today is not -- repeat, not -- a review of David Michaelis's Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography. Not every piece of writing that discusses a book is a review of that book.

One day I will give up trying to make the point, since it's clearly hopeless. The idea that there are genres in short nonfiction prose does not seem to matter to very many people. But damnit, I've spent a lot of time trying to understand how the different forms operate, and how to work in them. So the difference means something to me, for all the good it does to stress this.

My review of the biography will be out in a couple of weeks, probably. As for the essay, working on it was an occasion to revisit some work by Umberto Eco that I want to write about again soon. He has a funny, sardonic piece about what he calls the "fourth dimension" of Italian literary culture that seems curiously apropos in the age of digital publishing and litbloggery.

Posted by smclemee at October 10, 2007 9:29 AM


Has this distinction really been so hard to make clear? Years ago, I was obsessed with the essays of Lytton Strachey, and one of their most obvious features is a failure to "review" the books that provoked them.

Posted by: Vance Maverick at October 10, 2007 11:27 AM

I'm afraid ithe answer is yes.

I have written profiles that were based on extensive interviews (with an author, the author's cothinkers, and those who think the author is full of bullchowder) and in which I do not express any judgment of my own of a book -- only to have them called "reviews."

That sort of piece is also (in turn) quite different from an essay in which I try to follow my own line of thoughts, connect up a book with topics it does not cover, etc.

But making such distinctions is hopeless, and things can only get worse. From now on, every piece of prose is going to be called a blog, at least if it appears online. I have no doubt about this.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at October 10, 2007 11:39 AM

Is there something going on between Philoctetes' bow and Charile Brown's kite that I'm missing here?

Posted by: nnyhav at October 10, 2007 1:00 PM

That's one for Eco to answer. I can see Wilson's point in calling on the story, but Eco's reference to Charlie Brown as "Philoctetes of the paperbacks" did puzzle me.

Posted by: Scott McLemee at October 10, 2007 2:06 PM

every piece of prose is going to be called a blog

I'm very much afraid you're right. I thought, for example, that there was a distinction between a "blog" and the "posts" / "items" / "entries" that appear on it, but no. Just this morning, I heard an NPR commentator call a post a blog -- and the first comment on an Unfogged item.

Posted by: Anonymous at October 10, 2007 2:11 PM

Are the essays published in the New York Review of Books reviews?

Posted by: Aaron Swartz at October 11, 2007 7:40 PM

Good question....Some are, some aren't. And there's a category of the "review-essay" that seems particularly suited to a lot of what appears in NYRB. (Also Bookforum, I think.)

Posted by: Scott McLemee at October 11, 2007 8:02 PM