On book reviewing

Since I have written published book reviews, I was interested in this article from the Harvard Review Online.

On December 6, 1990, Harvard professor and eminent literary critic Helen Vendler gave a talk on book reviewing. Somehow the text of this talk found its way into a copy of Erato/Harvard Book Review, where it was discovered twenty-six years later by a Harvard Review staff member who was packing up boxes to send to the University Archives. We are delighted to be able to share these notes and hope you enjoy Professor Vendler’s insights into the duties of a book reviewer.

Writing a book review is a difficult task: it requires us to describe an object that is invisible, to recreate it for someone who has never seen it.

Who is the reader of a review? It is someone coming for the first time to a work—often a work that no one knows very much about. The reviewer needs to know something about the readers: are they experts in the field, interested amateurs, the general public that doesn’t know much about the field or the particular work? Am I writing for my optometrist, my dentist, my taxi driver? What can I assume about them? What do they need to know in order to read my review? One can think about two classes of readers: those who read the review because they think they will want to read the book, and those who read the review because they know they won’t want to read it. Reviewers must be mindful of both groups as they write.

Reviewers are responsible for selecting the important elements of a book and explaining their importance. Though they must be as inclusive as possible, reviewers must learn not to report everything; they must compress. Deftness will help—the insertion of a qualifying phrase, an aside, will set the scene or reveal a trait of character. Try to tuck things into the body of the review; use lists if they will help. Try reducing chapters, even whole books, to a sentence. Then take that reduced statement and decide how to expand it. Remember that publishers set a page limit, and use that limit to help yourself select the central issue, the significant details, the quotations. The first draft is almost always too long; learn to cut without destroying the work.

Where to begin the review: in the Garden of Eden, the English Civil War, or the first lines of Paradise Lost? “Where do you put in your wedge?” It is useful to think of the development curve of the book. How does it move from A to B, from preface to concluding chapter? Following this curve may help plan the shape of the review.

Reviewers can plot the curve in part by making extracts. Isolate passages that you might want to quote because they illustrate the best and worst characteristics of the book. Compile an anthology, a mini-book. Then reread the quotations. Why did they attract you? What do they illustrate? Which can you use to start the review or to end it? Which will you use to illuminate what points?

What are the desiderata: what would we want or expect to learn from this book? What does the book claim to do? What do we find? Were we disappointed? We can trace for ourselves the curve of expectation and match it to the jagged line of reality, sometimes above, sometimes below that curve. Does the book exceed our expectations or disappoint? Does it make us irritable? How shall we measure or explain the difference between promise and performance?

A review has three main parts: a description of the book, an evaluation, and a defense of the evaluation. Fitting those parts together will vary from review to review.

The first task is to describe, to produce a taxonomy of the book: what kind of book is it? Reviewers should describe the whole and its parts economically. Give readers the big picture, then focus on one piece. Use comparisons and contrasts to give readers a sense of the whole work without describing it in excessive detail. “Unlike Jane Austen, this author …. ”

In most books there’s a slough of despond waiting to trap reviewers: a chapter they don’t want to discuss. (Often this is because the author didn’t much like writing that chapter.) Be fair to the author; recognize the “flabby connective tissue,” but don’t let that weakness overwhelm the book or the review.

Turning to the evaluation of the book, reviewers ask about its context. How does it fit into its era, its nation, the ideological patterns of which it is a witness? Situate the book. How is the topic under discussion seen nowadays; does this book fit the paradigm or does it propose a new model? Ask about its ancestors and about what books it might generate. Books make other books happen. What would we like to see next? What evidence, devices does it use; does it use them well?

These questions reveal the reviewer’s criteria as well as the nature of the book. What framework does the reviewer use to measure the book? What are the standards, the measures by which the curve of expectation was drawn?

There’s one ethical rule for reviewers: read every word, including every footnote, the index, the bibliography, the captions of the pictures. And another rule: don’t review what you don’t feel competent to review.

Writing a book review is like giving oneself a mini-seminar. One has to know an enormous amount about the matter of the book to understand it and be properly critical. Preparing to write is a process of self-education; it involves experience and self-awareness. Critics who are too young haven’t read enough; those who are too old may have lost touch with the center of a generation.

Helen Vendler is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard, where she received her Ph.D. in English and American literature, after completing an undergraduate degree in chemistry at Emmanuel College. She has written books on Yeats, Herbert, Keats, Stevens, Shakespeare, Seamus Heaney, and Emily Dickinson. Her most recent books are The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar; Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries; Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill;and Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form. She is a frequent reviewer of poetry in such journals as The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, and The New Republic. Her avocational interests include music, painting, and medicine.

R. S. Thomas: “a great articulator of uneasy faith”

Since I have a deep respect for Rowan Williams, who is a first-rate theologian and accomplished poet, I am inclined to explore the poetry of fellow Welshman and Anglican R. S. Thomas on his recommendation alone. Here is an introductory video on the poet.

From David E. Anderson’s “The Things of This World” (Religion & Ethics Newsweekly):

In the twentieth century, one of the greatest poets of the dialectical imagination was the Welsh Anglican priest R.S. Thomas (1913-2000). Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called him “as influential as T.S. Eliot in religious circles,” and one critic designated Thomas “a poet of the Cross, the unanswered prayer, the bleak trek through darkness.” His powerful poem “The Porch” needs little explication:

      Do you want to know his name?
      It is forgotten. Would you learn
      what he was like? He was like
      anyone else, a man with ears
      and eyes. Be it sufficient
      that in a church porch on an evening
      in winter, the moon rising, the frost
      sharp, he was driven to his knees and for no reason
      he knew. The cold came at him;
      his breath was carved angularly
      as the tombstones; an owl screamed.

      He had no power to pray.
      His back turned on the interior
      he looked out on a universe
      that was without knowledge
      of him and kept his place
      there for an hour on that lean
      threshold, neither outside nor in.

God’s absence, wrote Thomas, was for him like a presence “that compels me to address it without hope of a reply.”

From David E. Anderson, “R. S. Thomas: Poet of the Cross” (Religion & Ethics Newsweekly):

Thomas is mostly interested in God’s silence or absence, the deus absconditus or hidden God, and what that means for forging an identity in the modern world. What language might be used to address such a God in a meaningful way? As Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has written, R.S. Thomas was—like one of the poet’s spiritual mentors, Soren Kierkegaard—a “great articulator of uneasy faith.”

***

Rowan Williams, in his essay “R.S. Thomas and Kierkegaard” in the collection Echoes to the Amen: Essays after R.S. Thomas, argues that a kind of complex love begins to address, not resolve, this paradox [of absence and presence]. He cites a passage from The Echoes Return Slow:

But love answers it
in its turn: I am old now and have died
many times, but my rebirth is surer
than the truth embalming itself
in the second law of your Thermo-Dynamics.

The lines point a slow coming to a kind of faith, a faith in the poet’s own resurrection of some sort that he posits, at least momentarily, is as certain as the dead laws of science and technology. There is in the poem something of the dying to self in order to be born again. Williams concludes that “God, for Thomas, is both the frustration of every expectation and the only exit from despair. And that God is encountered only in the embrace of finitude.”

Related

Two kinds of religious imagination

I read an article that invoked a fascinating distinction between two kinds of religious imagination from Mary Catherine Hilkert’s book, Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination:

The Sacramental Imagination

  • emphasizes the presence of the God who is self-communicating love
  • the creation of human beings in the image of God (restless hearts seeking the divine)
  • the mystery of the incarnation
  • grace as divinizing as well as forgiving
  • the mediating role of the church as sacrament of salvation in the world
  • the “foretaste” of the reign of God that is present in human community wherever God’s reign of justice, peace, and love is fostered.

The Dialectical Imagination

  • stresses the distance between God and humanity
  • the hiddenness and absence of God
  • the sinfulness of human beings
  • the paradox of the cross
  • the need for grace as redemption and reconciliation
  • the limits and necessity for critique of any human project or institution, including the church
  • the not-yet character of the promised reign of God.

The author of the article then singled out great religious poets of the sacramental imagination (John Donne, George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Richard Wilbur) and dialectical imagination (William Cowper, R. S. Thomas, Elizabeth Bishop).

SOURCE: Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: David E. Anderson, The Things of This World

Novelists are not in the message business

Here is an uncanny resemblance of views about the nature of fiction by Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor and atheist novelist and Philip Pullman.

From O’Connor’s essay, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in Mystery and Manners:

People have a habit of saying, “What is the theme of your story?” and they expect you to give them a statement: “The theme of my story is the economic pressure of the machine on the middle class” — or some such absurdity. And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story. Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction (p. 73).

From O’Connor’s essay, “Writing Short Stories,” in Mystery and Manners:

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you to experience that meaning more fully (p. 96).

From the main page on Pullman’s website:

As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don’t think it’s the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means. The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I’m not going to explain. Anyway, I’m not in the message business; I’m in the “Once upon a time” business.

Rowan Williams and Philip Pullman

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury and currently Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge University, and Philip Pullman, author of the fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials and the fictionalized biography The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel of Christ, are unlikely bedfellows: the former is a brilliant theologian of the church while the latter is an accomplished atheist writer. Nevertheless, they respect each other and model civil discourse in an uncivil age, which is fitting for two old-fashioned British gentlemen. In 2004, Williams and Pullman had a conversation at the National Theatre in London. The whole exchange is worth reading, but here are some memorable excerpts.

On the appeal of gnosticism and interpretations of the Fall:

Dr Rowan Williams: I suppose one of the questions I would like to hear more about from Philip is what has happened to Jesus in the church in this world [of His Dark Materials], because one of the interesting things for me in the model of the church in the plays and the books, is it’s a church, as it were, without redemption.

It’s entirely about control. And although I know that’s how a lot of people do see the church, you won’t be surprised to know that that’s not exactly how I see it. Chance would be a fine thing! There is also the other question which I raised last week about the fascinating figure of The Authority in the books and the plays, who is God for all practical purposes in lots of people’s eyes, but yet, of course, is not the Creator. So those are of course the kinds of differences that I am intrigued by here.

Philip Pullman: Well, to answer the question about Jesus first, no, he doesn’t figure in the teaching of the church, as I described the church in the story. I think he’s mentioned once, in the context of this notion of wisdom that works secretly and quietly, not in the great courts and palaces of the earth, but among ordinary people and so on. And there are some teachers who have embodied this quality, but whose teaching has perhaps been perverted or twisted or turned, and been used in a fashion that they themselves didn’t either desire or expect or could see happening.

So there’s a sort of reference to the teaching of Jesus which I may return to in the next book – but I don’t want to anticipate too much because I’ve found that if I tell people what I’m going to write about, I don’t write it, something happens to prevent it, so I’d better not anticipate that too much. But I’m conscious that that is a question that has been sort of hovering over people’s understanding of the story anyway.

The figure of The Authority is rather easier. In the sort of creation myth that underlies His Dark Materials, which is never fully explicit but which I was discovering as I was writing it, the notion is that there never was a Creator, instead there was matter, and this matter gradually became conscious of itself and developed Dust. Dust sort of precedes from matter as a way of understanding itself. The Authority was the first figure that condensed, as it were, in this way and from then on he was the oldest, the most powerful, the most authoritative. And all the other angels at first believed he was the Creator and then some angels decided that he wasn’t, and so we had the temptation and the Fall etc – all that sort of stuff came from that.

And the figure of Authority who dies in the story is well, one of the metaphors I use. In the passage I wrote about his description, he was as light as paper – in other words he has a reality which is only symbolic. It’s not real, and the last expression on his face is that of profound and exhausted relief. That was important for me. That’s not something you can easily show with a puppet to the back of the theatre.

RW: That’s very helpful because I think it reinforces my sense that part of the mythology here was what came from some of those early Jewish and Christian or half Christian versions of the story in which you have a terrific drama of cosmic revolt. Someone is trying to pull the wool over your eyes is the underlying thing, and wisdom is an unmasking. I think, if you have a view of God, which makes God internal to the universe, that’s what happens.

PP: Yeah.

RW: Someone is going to be pulling the wool over your eyes?

PP: I suppose that’s right, yes. The word that covers some of these early creation narratives is gnostic – the Gnostic heresy, as it became once Christianity was sort of defined. The idea that the world we live in, the physical universe is actually a false thing, made by a false God, and the true God, our true home, our true spiritual home is infinitely distant, far off, a long, long way away from that. This sense is something we find a lot of in popular culture, don’t you think? The X-Files, you know – “the truth is out there”. The Matrix.

Everything we see is the false creation of some wicked power that, as you say, is trying to pull the wool over our eyes, and there are many others. Can I just ask you a question for a minute? What do you put this down to? The great salience of gnostic feelings, gnostic sentiments and ways of thinking in our present world? What’s the source of that, do you think?

RW: Well, let me try two thoughts on that. One is that the human sense that things are not in harmony, not on track, can very easily lead you into a kind of dramatic or even melodramatic picture of the universe in which somebody’s got to be blamed for that.

So, “we was robbed”, you know, “we have been deceived”. It should have been different, it could have been different, so salvation, or whatever you want to call it, then becomes very much a matter of getting out from underneath the falsehood, pulling away the masks, and that’s tremendously powerful I think, as a myth of liberation.

It’s what a lot of people feel is owed to them, and I think some of the fascination of the Enlightenment itself, as a moment in cultural history, is the fascination of being able to say we can do without authority because authority is always after us. One 20th-century philosopher said that the attraction of somebody like Freud is charm. It is charming to destroy prejudice, because we have the sense that this is the real story. Now we’ve got it.

The second thing about the popularity of this mythology is that even the most secularised person very often has problems about the meaning of the body, and it is very tempting, very charming again I think, very attractive to say, what really matters is my will. And if the reality is my will and my thoughts. If there is somewhere a condition where I can get the body where it belongs, get it under control, then that’s where I want to be. And, of course, Christians and other religious people do buy into that in ways that are very problematic. It’s very hard sometimes to get the balance right theologically.

PP: Well, this, this brings up the Fall of course, or the notions of sin that are bound up with our physicality supposedly, which is one thing I was trying to get away from in my story. I try to present the idea that the Fall, like any myth, is not something that has happened once in a historical sense but happens again and again in all our lives. The Fall is something that happens to all of us when we move from childhood through adolescence to adulthood and I wanted to find a way of presenting it as something natural and good, and to be welcomed, and, you know – celebrated, rather than deplored.

RW: There’s a real tension, I think, in quite a lot of Christian thinking about just that question. Is the Fall about bodies or not? And you do get some Christian thinkers who would say, yes, even the body is the result of the Fall, and then others who say, well no, it has a metaphorical sense, and there is a level of bodily existence, which is OK, which is willed by God.

Coincidentally I was reading just a few days ago, a letter by David Jones, the Anglo-Welsh poet and painter, and he’s writing about the Fall and about Milton’s perception of it. He notes that in Milton as soon as Adam and Eve are thrown out of Eden, the first thing they do is to have sex, and David Jones says “that is the bloody limit” because he’s writing as a Catholic with a rather strong investment in the idea of saved material life.

There is a right, a godly way, of this existing – it’s not just about experience, sex, the body and so forth, being part of what goes wrong. It’s a mixed bag historically.

PP: One of the most interesting things for me about this notion of the Fall, is that the first thing that happened to Adam and Eve is that they were embarrassed, with consciousness. For me it’s all bound up with consciousness, and the coming of understanding of things – and making the beginning of intellectual inquiry. Which happens typically in one’s adolescence, when one begins to be interested in poetry and art and science and all these other things. With consciousness comes self-consciousness, comes shame, comes embarrassment, comes all these things, which are very difficult to deal with.

RW: That’s right. I think that as a religious person, I would say that’s a neutral phenomenon. That’s just what happens, and one of the fallacies of religion that’s not working is to suppose that somehow you can spin the wheel backwards, and go back to pure unselfconsciousness.

PP: Which is a mis-reading because after all, it says in Genesis, there’s an angel with a fiery sword standing in the way. You can’t go back.

RW: Can’t go back. The only way is forward. Yes, and sorry to quote Anglo-Welsh poets again, but one of R S Thomas’s pieces is about there being no way back to the Garden. The only way is forward to whatever there is. I think I quoted you once before when we were talking about that statement of Von Hügel, the Catholic philosopher at the beginning of the last century, who says the greatest good for an unfallen being would be innocence, but the greatest good for a fallen being is forgiveness and reconciliation, which sort of brings in what I think the version you’re getting at leaves out.

On how to educate people about being religious:

RW: And I want to try and help people to see why, as I say, religious belief can be difficult, why it can be appallingly oppressive, why it can be amazingly liberating at times. To get inside that a bit. That’s why I’ve talked a bit about autobiography as a vehicle for this, looking at what people actually say about how it’s difficult and how they live through it, or don’t. Then I think you’ve begun to see that being religious is a way of being human at a certain depth. I don’t think you’d entirely disagree with that, from what I hear, even if you don’t think it’s about anything solid at the end of the day.

PP: Well, I think that religion is something that all people have done, or people in every society. It’s a universal human impulse, the sense of awe and transcendence. It’s possible to find that in most societies, and in a great deal of art, and this brings me on to what I was going to ask next. How do you see fiction for example?

RW: Being used in…

PP: Would you use fiction? Would you, sort of be instrumental about it. Or is it an end in itself? I rather think fiction’s an end in itself.

RW: I would use it in teaching, but I think one’s got to be very careful about using it, in the sense of saying, well you’ve got to have a message you can squeeze out.

PP: Well, this is what worries me.

RW: What you learn, I think, after absorbing a really serious piece of fiction, is not a message. Your world has expanded, your world has enlarged at the end of it, and the more a writer focuses on message, the less expansion there’ll be. I think that’s why sometimes the most successful, “Christian” fiction is written by people who are not trying hard to be Christian about it. A bit of a paradox, but I’m thinking of Flannery O’Connor, the American writer, my favourite example here. She’s somebody who, quite deliberately, doesn’t set out to make the points that you might expect her to be making, but wants to build a world in which certain things may become plausible, or tangible, palpable, but not to get a message across.

PP: Isn’t this what happens, though, when we read fiction any sort of fiction sympathetically, good fiction, classic fiction? Good art of any sort in fact?

RW: Yes, and I think that’s why. Yes.

PP: We’re looking for an enlargement of imaginative sympathy, aren’t we?

RW: That’s right. We’re looking for a sense that our present definitions of what it is to be human – what it is to live in the world – are not necessarily the last word or the exhaustive version of reality, and that the truth is out there in another sense. It’s out there in a bigger universe.

PP: Well the truth is in the library, perhaps.

RW: Well, yes, that’s true of all serious fiction, all serious drama, all serious poetry. It is about certain kinds of fiction that gives it a religious aura, that poses religious questions, is tougher to answer. I suppose it has to do, perhaps, with some of those characteristically religious themes like absolution (how you live with the past), with the possibilities of forgiveness, and with whatever it is that poses at depth the question of how I relate to my entire environment – not just to what’s immediately around me, but to my entire environment – which, of course, for a religious person has God as the ultimate shape around it.

Related

  • The Guardian: Rowan Williams reveals how it felt to see religion savaged and God killed in the theatrical performance of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. 
  • The Guardian: Rowan Williams reviews Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. He says the New Testament is far more alive to the dangers of religious authority than Philip Pullman allows.
  • Rowan Williams, Belief, Unbelief and Religious Education. A lectured delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Downing Street.

Trump may cure this “nation’s excessive fixation with the presidency”

I welcome the perspective of George Will, a Never Trump conservative like myself, who has found “a few vagrant reasons for cheerfulness,” as he writes about in his trenchant Washington Post op-ed, “Trump is something the nation did not know it needed“:

“To see what is in front of one’s nose,” George Orwell wrote, “needs a constant struggle.” An unnoticed reason for cheerfulness is that in one, if only one, particular, Trump is something the nation did not know it needed: a feeble president whose manner can cure the nation’s excessive fixation with the presidency.

Executive power expanded, with only occasional pauses (thank you, Presidents Taft and Coolidge, of blessed memory), throughout the 20th century and has surged in the 21st. After 2001, “The Decider” decided to start a preventive war and to countenance torture prohibited by treaty and statute. His successor had “a pen and a phone,” an indifference to the Constitution’s take care clause (the president “shall take care that the laws be faithfully executed”) and disdain for the separation of powers, for which he was repeatedly rebuked by the Supreme Court.

Fortunately, today’s president is so innocent of information that Congress cannot continue deferring to executive policymaking. And because this president has neither a history of party identification nor an understanding of reciprocal loyalty, congressional Republicans are reacquiring a constitutional — a Madisonian — ethic. It mandates a prickly defense of institutional interests, placing those interests above devotion to parties that allow themselves to be defined episodically by their presidents.

Furthermore, today’s president is doing invaluable damage to Americans’ infantilizing assumption that the presidency magically envelops its occupant with a nimbus of seriousness. After the president went to West Virginia to harangue some (probably mystified) Boy Scouts about his magnificence and persecutions, he confessed to Ohioans that Lincoln, but only Lincoln, was more “presidential” than he. So much for the austere and reticent first president who, when the office was soft wax, tried to fashion a style of dignity compatible with republican simplicity.

Fastidious people who worry that the president’s West Virginia and Ohio performances — the alpha male as crybaby — diminished the presidency are missing the point, which is: For now, worse is better. Diminution drains this office of the sacerdotal pomposities that have encrusted it. There will be 42 more months of this president’s increasingly hilarious-beyond-satire apotheosis of himself, leavened by his incessant whining about his tribulations (“What dunce saddled me with this silly attorney general who takes my policy expostulations seriously?”). This protracted learning experience, which the public chose to have and which should not be truncated, might whet the public’s appetite for an adult president confident enough to wince at, and disdain, the adoration of his most comically groveling hirelings.

Related