Forget the Books

Secrets of Book Reviewing Revealed

"Hilton writes about a specific type of disenfranchisement," says Treisman. "Whether it's defined by race, class, gender, or geography, it's often about the artist as outsider, and what drives someone to create."

If Als made a conscious decision to view society from the outside in, Flanagan has always seen it from the inside out. Daughter of the novelist Thomas Flanagan (who grew up Irish in Greenwich, Connecticut), the reviewer met Ben Schwarz's wife when the two women taught together at a prep school in L.A. When Schwarz took over the Atlantic's books section, he immediately asked Flanagan to experiment with a new form.

"Caitlin has a true interest in, and affection for, popular culture," says Schwarz. "She's penetrating but doesn't always look at it with just a sneer." So does she sneer sometimes? "She would acknowledge some snobbery in her outlook," he says, adding, "Because she has a strong sense of her own heritage, it bothers her when class aspiration inspires people to do things that have nothing to do with their background."

Flanagan's first Atlantic piece purported to be a review of 12 books on marriage, but was actually a lament on the way expensive "white weddings" are now marketed as a status symbol to the hoi polloi. Old-fashioned brides did not scour sample sales for Vera Wang gowns, she noted, nor did they buy Bride's to learn honeymoon tricks involving "acrylic pearls [and] some water-based personal lubricant."

In her ASME piece on Ivy League admissions, Flanagan mocks the way upper-class parents and children lust after the "best school," and concludes that truly smart kids don't need "some Ferrari of a college nudging them" toward a great education—because they will seek enlightenment wherever they go. She didn't point out that reading ASME submissions could be a fantastic writing course unto itself.

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