…if every organ of criticism took the trouble of laying out its priorities, prejudices, and understanding of its mission? The Atlantic has done just that in its January/February issue, and the results are extremely interesting and gratifying. They bespeak an accountability that is refreshing to see. And aside from the wonderful High Principle of it all, the specific principles noted by Benjamin Schwarz lean toward the bracingly blunt. Last I checked, no content from this issue was yet available online, so here are some cullings:
We assume that our readers look to this section as a critical organ rather than a news source–which means that unlike, say, The New York Times Book Review, we don’t have to cover the waterfront. For example, we chose not to review Pat Barker’s latest, because although she’s an important novelist we admire, her most recent book happens to be very far from her best effort. Its review, we reasoned, would be unfavorable but, since it would also point to her obvious talent, would hardly be an evisceration; in other words, it would almost necessarily be equivocal and boring (that good novelists so often produce less than stellar novels largely accounts for the fact that fiction reviews are so often politely qualified and, well, dull).
So true, although somebody has to review such novels (hello, NYTBR), and the Atlantic‘s rationalization is of little help to those stuck with the task of establishing this presumed critical consesnsus in an interesting and readable way. Still, they’re right that some portion of the high number of dull book reviews out there are dull because they are responsible. In an ideal world, even reviews of middling books would be fascinating, but this task takes a special kind of ingenuity from a special kind of critic–a fairly rare commodity that most of us would probably rather see spent on books that are really occasions, or are objects of genuine controversy–and that, frankly, very few reviewers are paid well enough to be able to muster, even if that special kind of critic is lurking somewhere in them.
One aesthetic penchant does militate in favor of British writers specifically: we prefer wit, wryness, and detachment to zeal. Whereas didactic blather and a pedantic spirit still infect too much American fiction, we find that British authors often write with the kind of insouciant precision we prize (as does an American writer such as Lorrie Moore).
Not a characterization of American fiction that I much recognize, but still, it’s good to know where the book review editors stand. Better to own the prejudice than to pretend it doesn’t exist. And finally:
We run fewer than the predictable number of reviews of books on politics, public policy, and current affairs. This is partly because we assiduously cover these areas in other parts of the magazine, but mostly because a very high proportion of these titles are just godawful.
Not to put too fine a point on it or anything.