Forget the Books

Secrets of Book Reviewing Revealed

If Hilton Als, Caitlin Flanagan, and Lee Siegel sat at the same table, they might seem to have nothing in common. Als, 40, wrote a 1996 memoir about coming of age as a gay black man in Brooklyn with a Barbadian past. Flanagan, also 40, is an Irish novelist's daughter who became a prep-school teacher and is now a stay-at-home mom in L.A. Siegel, 44, is a former Ph.D. candidate at Columbia whose brawling prose recalls the young Norman Mailer.

But all three write sharply opinionated book reviews—Siegel for Harper's and other publications, Als for The New Yorker, and Flanagan for The Atlantic Monthly. And all three are finalists for the American Society of Magazine Editors' "reviews and criticism" award. The other nominees are food critics; the awards are to be announced May 1.

The book critics are fierce competitors for originality. Indeed, after reading their ASME submissions, one is likely to forget the books and remember only the writers' sensibilities: Als as a champion of the social outsider, Flanagan as a satirist of class anxiety, and Siegel as a crusader for artistic and intellectual integrity.

Ben Schwarz, who is Books & Critics editor at The Atlantic, suggests that serious book reviews have never been about books, but about giving smart writers an opportunity to make a "bold, insightful argument with style." Although one might imagine that the essay-like book review is a modern invention, Schwarz says the essay masquerading as review is a tradition that first flourished in the literary journals of the 19th century.

"Since 1802, when The Edinburgh Review was founded," says Schwarz, "writers have found that the easiest way to make a broad cultural argument is to peg the argument to a book, and then the review itself becomes incidental. It allows you to write about intellectual subjects that might be more difficult for people to read if the writer didn't have the books as a hook."

But successful reviews are built on more than just a strong structural idea. A good critic has to "be honest and unmerciful," as the Lester Bangs character explained in the movie Almost Famous.

"The critic has an obligation toward the ideas and the language of the book," says John Sullivan, who edits Siegel at Harper's. "As a matter of course, most book reviewers are either writing books themselves, or thinking about it, and that can lead to a certain cravenness. You can't ask reviewers to commit career suicide, but you can ask them to value intellectual rigor above literary politics. If the critic isn't willing to say what he doesn't like, all you get are bouquets that have to do with behind-the-scenes back-scratching or negative pieces that are veiled revenge attacks."

No one would accuse Siegel of sending bouquets. The best-known of his ASME submissions is a damning review of James Atlas's biography of Saul Bellow, in which Siegel accused Atlas of taking a "ludicrously hostile and resentful approach to Bellow's life" and suggested that Atlas was "driven insane by his subject's cosmic laughter."

"I've never gotten more calls or e-mails about a review than I did about that one," says Sullivan. "People were moved by it." Siegel's other ASME submissions are less harsh, yet still acerbic, critiques of Louis Menand and Richard Yates. While the Harper's scribe can be unsparing, Sullivan says he is not driven by animosity, but rather by the old-fashioned notion that "ideas are a matter of life and death."

Sullivan says Siegel is "nostalgic for a time when there was civil but serious intellectual combat—a time when you could slam somebody's book in the morning paper and sit down for a drink in the evening, and understand that it was not about personalities denigrating each other. It was about hashing out ideas in a public forum and holding literature to a high standard."

Als is less interested in nailing writers' flaws than in his own idiosyncratic worldview. According to Deborah Treisman, Als's editor at The New Yorker, "We don't classify him exclusively as a critic. He's a writer who finds something to write about." Whatever the subject, "You know you're going to get an idea that you haven't seen somewhere else. It's not about making a case. It's about explaining his perception of something, and he's perfectly happy if you disagree."

New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick calls Als a "remarkable" writer and one of "the best young critics of African American literature" writing today. (In a recent review, Als deftly took apart Randall Kennedy's treatise on the word nigger.) Asked to describe Als's approach, Remnick says, "It's not a steely, removed intelligence. It's full of love."

Als's work is hard to quantify. All three of his ASME submissions deal with dead fiction writers (Carson McCullers, Chester Himes, Flannery O'Connor) whom he admires and who have recently been the subject of a new anthology or study. Each writer tried to capture the black experience, but the real thread that unites them, says Treisman, is that they "are all outsiders or thought of themselves as such." (McCullers was bisexual, Himes did time in jail, O'Connor never married and clung to her own provincialism.)

"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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