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The literary landscape of the book review

Megan O'Grady of Vogue

On Nov. 8, three titans of the contemporary book review, Nicole Lamy of the Boston GlobeJennifer B. McDonald of the New York Times Book Review and a current fellow at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, Megan O’Grady of Vogue and a past Nieman Fellow, sat down with Harvard Review editor Christina Thompson to wax analytic on their jobs, their philosophies and the state of the book review in today’s online extravaganza. Their observations revealed an ailing industry, but a valuable one, which is still defending the cause of purposeful literary criticism, clear, rigorous thought and, above all, the primacy of prose.

On the one hand, the quality book review is a product of an intimate interaction between a book and a particular human being. “I’m a matchmaker, essentially,” said McDonald. Much of her and Lamy’s job consists of finding the perfect writer to review a new release. The resulting

Jennifer McDonald of the New York Times

page-bound blend and clash of sensibilities—that of the author and that of the book—is what makes, for instance, reviews by novelists so appealing: “It’s very entertaining to read such voice-heavy reviews,” said Lamy.

But all three panelists made it clear that the book review should never stop at this one-to-one exchange. Rather, it should open on to something far wider in scope. For this reason, the apparent virtue of novelist reviewers can often hide a voice-y vice: “[They] don’t evaluate sometimes. It’s all about them,” Lamy said. “The review has to give a very clear sense of what it’s like to be inside the book, then place the book in a larger landscape of literature.” Like the particle physicist, the book reviewer focuses on the very small (voice, tone, plot structure) to make far-reaching conclusions about the world in which we live—and, of course, read.

One motif of the talk was the negative review. “Negative reviews are important in proving that we’re not just a cheerleading squad,” McDonald said. The credible critic, after all, must draw the line somewhere, or else what is she but a poorly veiled agent?

Nicole Lamy of the Boston Globe talks with an attendee.

O’Grady, however, said she never writes negative reviews for her Vogue column, in which she reviews, excerpts and features new books. “My space is so small and so expensive,” she said. “I want to devote it to the most deserving books.” The disappearance of the negative review due to practical limitations seems to be more and more often the case among today’s review publications.

Were this to prove permanent, there is one species of negative review all three of the night’s panelists will never miss: the “gratuitously savage.” “Could you take a broader view?” Lamy sometimes cryptically asks her less tactful writers in an effort to circumvent such savagery. Perhaps this is the fundamental question of the book review, and what preserves its value in an age rapidly dissolving in pixels.
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