Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Steve Donoghue: Happily Reading Along

At Open Letters, we're (as beloved Boston book-dealer George Goodspeed used to say) in books. It's true that we'll happily consider pieces on the whole gamut of artistic expression - one of our most popular contributors discusses nothing but video games, for instance, and in Locke Peterseim we're lucky to have the single most talented movie reviewer working today - but from the beginning, our most passionate love and main focus has been on in-depth book criticism of the type we've all so much enjoyed in periodicals like The London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books.

Not for us, then, the daunting task of running short stories - and just as well, since the editorial gauntlet we'd represent would range from the fundamental ("Why isn't this nonfiction?") to the lowbrow ("Why isn't this Edgar Rice Burroughs?") to daunting ("Why isn't this George Eliot?") to the challenging ("Why isn't this Anthony Burgess?") to the terrifying ("Why isn't this perfect?"). And likewise we usually steer clear of the explicitly personal essay, although we'll make exceptions if the contender is both excellent and, predictably, book-related (Scott Esposito's "On Packing Two Bags for Mexico" comes to mind, and there've been a few choice others).

Instead, we tend to concentrate on essays about books: reviews, appreciations, reconsiderations. And although that still presents us with a staggering variety of submitted work (so much so that we hand off entire genres to their own separate spheres - Maureen Thorson taking poetry, for instance, and our indomitable columnist Irma Heldman holding the line with mysteries), it admits of a certain focus which we do our best to sharpen. Luckily, we bring separate strengths to the job. Greg Waldmann is a first-rate scrutinizer of the nuts and bolts of prose; if a writer starts waxing about charmed magic casements opening on the foam of perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn, that writer had better be prepared for Greg to ask "So how do these casements work? Do they actually hang over these perilous seas, or what?" Rohan Maitzen and John Cotter are our two published authors; to any essay about some writer's work, they bring not only the spiked truncheon of the editor but, crucially, the first aid kit of those who've been on the receiving end of reviews. Sam Sacks, as all the book-world knows, writes the Fiction Chronicle for The Wall Street Journal and can therefore be trusted to know a hawk from a handsaw when it comes to assessing the work of other critics. And there are persistent rumors that I went to school with James Russell Lowell.

In putting together an issue of Open Letters Monthly and dealing with the onrush of submissions, our gallant band is also helped by something my fellow Massachusetts resident (and fellow devotee of Boston's mighty Brattle Bookshop!) Sven Birkerts gently alluded to earlier in this series, in "Screening the Essay": if the writer of a submitted freelance piece is going to waste your time, he'll make that fact obvious fairly early on. Is the opening of the piece off-puttingly arrogant ("Like I used to say to Bucky Fuller...")? Is it maddeningly timid ("Bulgakov might be great - but really, how would *I* know?")? Is it choked with jargon ("The meta-structuralism of Angus McGonagle is only asymptotically eidolic")? Is it, right out of the starting gate, boring? ("I believe," Christina Thompson wrote in "Prose Matters," which also appeared earlier in this series, "that nothing should terrify a writer more than the prospect of being boring" - and she's absolutely right.)

Admittedly, good writing about books and authors is an extremely tricky balancing act. Those who haven't tried it can hardly imagine how exacting it can be, for instance, to make the requisite amount of exposition flow smoothly in the narrative of the piece, as opposed to the dreaded "info-dump." In “Second Glance: The Privy Mark of Irony,” look at how carefully Colleen Shea manages to keep her readers informed about Francis Beaumont's play (which she immediately, engagingly calls a "hilarious post-Modern, meta-theatrical romp”) The Knight of the Burning Pestle while simultaneously analyzing it; she can safely guess that 99 percent of her audience will know nothing about the work, so she must educate, examine, and exult all more or less simultaneously - and it's masterfully done.

Or consider the equally delicate task of conveying passion without pathos. Paradoxically, the central, animating joy common to all readers - the squeal of "that was great!" about a choice work by Gertrude Stein or George Meredith or Gerald of Wales - has no place in serious book criticism. Not in its raw form, anyway: the good critic must find a way to channel that bright burst of enthusiasm into prose that sends the reader irresistibly in search of the author being discussed. One of the best ways to do this is to humanize that author, as Stephen Akey does so fluidly in “Tom and Em,” writing about Thomas Hardy’s love-poetry to his late wife Emma. The opening of his piece is as starkly assured as something out of Hardy's own prose: "After taking to her bed with an indisposition on November 26, 1912, Emma Lavinia Hardy, Thomas Hardy's wife of thirty-eight years, died the following day. It was then that he fell in love with her." What do you do, Akey is smart enough to ask, "when the love of your life unexpectedly dies, leaving you no chance to explain, apologize, or redeem your mistakes?" No matter what the reader might previously have thought about Hardy's poetry, they're going to want the answers to that question.

Questions like that - pieces like these - keep us reading at Open Letters even when the hour is late and demands of our "real" jobs are piling up. In fact, one of the highest compliments we can pay to an author (unbeknownst to them, since they never see it) is to append "no edits here - just happily reading along" while working up a piece for publication. That comment invariably comes when a writer has forgotten pretension and evasion and sensation and is just passionately telling the story of some reading they love. That kind of craft is tough to achieve and even tougher to maintain, but when it happens (and we can be pretty helpful at getting it to happen!), those are the moments when we're all mighty glad to be in books.


Steve Donoghue is a Boston-based book critic whose work has appeared in The National, The Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. He's the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly and hosts one of its book-blogs, Stevereads.

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