A Year in Reading: Natalie Bakopoulos

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Maps of DaysThough I’ve always craved some kind of systematic approach to reading—whatever that might look like—my reading is often chaotic, starting six books at once, making it through one or two, starting five more, and so on. Eventually I get to them, I suppose. I know a lot of people lament not being able to read at all during these times—the overwhelming state of working from home, or homeschooling, or lots of activity in a small space, or the political distractions and dread. And I understand, my focus is often terrible—I can barely respond to email at all—but reading is one place I’ve found deep solace. Since I’ve been a child, reading has been a way I create calmness, a sort of reset—and also the way I procrastinate. It’s not just the immersion in another consciousness, though that’s of course part of it; it’s something about the slow, physical act of reading, the way my breathing slows down, my body sinks in to the language on the page.

For the past several years, I’ve been
keeping messy lists of books read, and books I buy, and books I begin. I won’t
mention the latter two here of course because my putting a book down, or buying
and not reading, rarely has little to do with quality or enjoyment and more to
do with mood and happenstance and time. I think I might have started more books
than I finished this year, though I’ve finished a lot, and my to-read pile is
tall. (As a side note: thank you, indie booksellers, for not only providing
curbside pickup and shipping but also for hosting nonstop Zoom events.)

My reading this year in particular was
its own sort of keeping time. I often associate a book with where I am, where I
read it—planes, cafes, libraries, balconies, beaches, and so on—but this year my
setting did not change. I found great relief when the warm weather arrived, and
the summer seemed to open everything up and make the lockdown more bearable. Day
65, day 100, day 254: my to-read list grew and shrank, grew and shrank. Reading
outside with a cold beer or iced coffee made the pandemic feel more bearable. Then
came the shift in the light, the sudden cold days, and I returned to reading
indoors, beneath a blanket.

I finished Emily Wilson’s excellent translation of The Odyssey in 2018 but returned to it this year on audio, read by Claire Danes—those first two months of the year, when I still had a commute. It was a nice companion to Phoebe Giannisi’s Homerica (printed side-by-side in both Greek and in English translation by Brian Sneeden), which weaves in The Odyssey and Orpheus, mythology and motherhood, nostos and the domestic and the shocking passing and chasing of time: “for years / until yesterday / I was a girl.” Here is the Sweet Hand by francine j. harris I read in late summer, outdoors: “Being alone affects the canvas under language,” harris writes, and this fantastic collection had me thinking about the link between loneliness and language. I realize in writing this that I rarely read a poetry collection from beginning to end at once—a glaring omission from my reading map—but I read Henri Cole’s Blizzard one Sunday afternoon, the first snow falling outside my window. After Louise Glück won a Nobel Prize and her lines began to flood the internet, a great respite, I returned to her A Village Life. “When you look at a body you see a history,” she writes. “Once that body isn’t seen anymore, / the story it tried to tell gets lost.”

Let’s begin at the beginning. On the first day of the year, on a train from Chicago to Ann Arbor, I read Chia-Chia Lin’s powerful novel The Unpassing, and whizzing by that gray wintry scenery seemed a good match for Lin’s grief-stricken Alaskan landscape, at least the one I imagined in my mind. It’s a beautiful exploration of exile and home: “Now we yearned for all places and found peace in none,” she writes. Kate Brigg’s This Little Art is a marvel: a smart and lyrical meditation on translation. “I think we owe translators, and perhaps also ourselves as readers of translations, not gratitude but rather some intellectual recognition of the fact that her work pertains not just to this or that part picked out for late scrutiny by the reader or the reviewer, but to every single one of the small parts forming the whole” (emphasis hers).  It’s commonly noted that something is lost in translation, but I’ve always objected to this idea of loss, and Brigg’s generous, elegant meditation shows that something can also be gained. E. J. Koh’s The Magical Language of Others is a lovely memoir-companion to it, a lyrical exploration of language, translation, and links between generations, as well as her own path to writing and translation. While translating her mother’s letters to her from Korean, Koh acknowledges the limits of her language, her own translations’ incompleteness and limitlessness: “If her letters could go to sleep, my translations would be their dreams.”

The early days of the pandemic had me reading War and Peace with Yiyun Li and A Public Space, but I abandoned it—again!—after 250 pages. Will I ever finish it? The holes in my reading used to give me great shame, but I’ve long gotten over that. Along with A Public Space, I did read Mavis Gallant’s Green Water, Green Sky, which was devastating—I love her stories but have never read her novels. Elliott Holt, who led this reading, also brought me to Anita Brookner’s Hotel Du Lac (through an Instagram post), and I was pulled in by its atmosphere, its tone, its introspection—I see that hotel lobby so clearly in my mind, as though I had been sitting there all along, having a cocktail and observing the characters. Andrew Durbin’s slim, sensual novel Skyland features a quest to find a painting of the iconic writer Hervé Guibert on the Greek island of Patmos, and I, missing Greece this summer, found relief and pleasure in entering that landscape through the page. There’s something very satisfying about this sort of quest, even if it doesn’t turn out as hoped. I mean, do they ever?

I’m writing about Greece, and various kinds of appropriations, and Johanna Hanink’s The Classical Debt is an excellent, generous, incisive examination of the tendency to always look at Greece through the lens of nostalgia for an ancient, classical past, and how this relates to modern-day debts. I also loved The Real Life of the Parthenon, by Patricia Vigderman, a ruminative, satisfying look at ruins, aesthetics, power, and ownership. On the topic of cultural appropriation in writing, Paisley Rekdal’s upcoming Appropriate is compassionate and smart, a mapping of her own lifetime of reading and teaching, an exploration of whose stories we tell—and how, and why—and the way returning to a work of art often elicits such a drastically different response from our first encounter.

“One could call this a peaceful time, I suppose,” Yuko Tsushima writes in Territory of Light (translated by Geraldine Harcourt), “but in fact I spent it on edge with something close to fear, because I no longer had any clues as to what to expect.” Tell me about it! I read this absorbing novel in the early days of the pandemic, and in my mind the narrator’s small apartment I associate with quarantine, not only because of a memorable scene where both she and her daughter run high fevers, and not only because the neighborhood experiences a succession of deaths, but also simply her astute attention to small physical spaces. Among the many pleasures of this novel is the way Tsushima writes space and the way it affects us. I felt bereft when I finished it, and when I saw Katie Kitamura compare it to the new Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami (translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd), I read, and loved, that too. Like many of the novels I’ve read this year, it’s a novel about a woman writer/artist, and though this book, too, pays close attention to physical space, it’s also keenly, hyperfocused on the female body, as well as the nuances and patterns of language.

Courtney Maum’s Costalegre is narrated by fifteen-year-old Lara, whose mother, an art-collecting heiress, brings Lara and a group of European artists to a compound in Mexico—it’s 1937, fascism is on the rise and Europe is on the brink of war. Lara is fascinated by an artist named Jack, and though the others speculate he unable to work, he’s doing so quietly, making pure and clean sculpture from the rock. Lara herself is an aspiring artist, but she doesn’t realize it’s words that might will free her from her mother’s shadow. The book takes the form of a diary, and it’s her fragmented mind, her approach to the world through language, not necessarily image, that helps her shape herself and her role in this place.

Luster by Raven Leilani and its exploration of shifting power dynamics, and sex and race and class, is also about the female artist growing into herself, and the voice was both raucous and vulnerable. Such surprising turns, both on the level of the sentence and the story. Though this novel has received many accolades, what first piqued my interest was Kaitlyn Greenidge’s excellent early review of it in VQR—I love everything Greenidge writes—where she notes that Edie, Luster’s narrator, is “a black-female flaneur,” a figure who embodies “the individual that the flaneur usually observes and categorizes.” I was hooked from her review alone.

A recommendation from Ayşegül Savaş (whose Walking on the Ceiling was one of my favorite books of 2019) led me to the charming and poignant Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami (translated by Allison Markin Powell), which also has a lot of walking through the city, but mostly takes place in a particular bar (remember bars?) around drinks and meals, and had me bursting with longing. It explores intimacy and loneliness and the slow burn, the joy and sadness, of getting to know someone.

On the topic of walking, I also read Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse, which charts her own walkings through various beloved cities, and the walks of other women writers. This might be my favorite sort of book, the sort that map the intersections between life and writing and literature. I suppose I understand the aversion to books narrated by or about writers, though sometimes it seems those books are easy targets. For me, what’s not to like? We are holding a book in our hands that has been written by someone who has mostly likely come to writing through a love of reading. Though I understand the pleasure of the suspension of disbelief, I also find great pleasure when a writer shows their work. Writers and Lovers by Lily King I read in a weekend, and her portrayal of grief and the uncertainty of youth and the hope for validation was deeply affecting, and brought back my own memories of waiting tables in the 90s, the idea of being a writer so far away. Often these books are some of my favorites, whether the story is autofictional and engaged in the actual process of writing the story we are reading—or more broadly about the creation of art, a stand-in, perhaps, for the act of writing. Or being.

A self-portrait of the female artist as x might also include some other favorites, which felt like a linked trio: Kate Zambreno’s meditative Drifts and Amina Cain’s wonderful Indelicacy and Amanda Michalopoulou’s bold God’s Wife (translated by Patricia Felisa Berbeito). I have always loved Lara Vapnyar’s work since I first read her stories in the New Yorker, but Divide Me By Zero truly captured my imagination, and made me wish I’d gone far enough in math to understand the elegance of certain solutions. Lucie Britsch’s witty and melancholy Sad Janet, though it came out in the summer, is a perfect book for the holiday season, particularly if you find this time of year less than joyous, all that forced cheer. Such wit and such heart.

“We convert ourselves into something absurd because the absurd is already living inside us,” writes Pola Oloixarac in Mona, a wonderful line that could apply to so many of the works I read this year. Translated by Adam Morris, Mona is a provocative commentary on the “Western” literary world—and also on violence, and women—and the way identity is often essentialized, even by those trying to resist any sort of harmful “othering.” It’s also about writing—“We can’t write except in drag,” another woman tells her, in the sauna, after insulting Mona’s “hyper-feminine affect”—the novel is impious and funny but also takes a surprising, disconcerting turn. With its forests and mood it brought to my mind the myth of Eurydice. The ending was astounding.

I’ve been talking mostly of novels but this year, working on my own nonfiction, I read so many wonderful essay collections. William Gass called sentences “containers of consciousness,” and the elegant prose in Donovan Hohn’s meditative exploration of place and memory, climate and coast, in his aptly named collection The Inner Coast is a gorgeous illustration of such. As is Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s lyrical World of Wonders, which also explores our relationship with the natural world, and particularly the way her own engagement—particular as a woman of color, a perspective often overlooked when it comes to nature writing—with the flora and fauna of the many places she’s lived became a sort of home all its own. As does writing: “To sense one’s presence on this earth,” she notes. In a way this whole book is a sort of ars poetica.

Sejal Shah’s artfully constructed essay collection This Is One Way to Dance is organized in the order in which she wrote the essays and circles around complex ideas of identity, belonging, and the particularities of place, and made me think about the aesthetics of form in the essay in particular. “Lyric or braided, traditional or flash, essays have granted me the space to stretch, pivot, and grow…. I worry the boundaries and borders to observe where sparks rise,” she writes in the introduction. Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory is a remarkable immersion into a very astute consciousness, and over the months I dipped in and out of Olivia Laing’s wise collection Funny Weather, which felt like just the thing I needed; her words were like a smart and calming companion through these months, and when I realized I had read all the essays I wanted to start again. Joanna Eleftheriou’s moving This Way Back is takes us between Cyprus and New York—and other places too—and gently explores her identity as a lesbian Greek Orthodox woman who has spent her life in between; the way she combines literature with history with personal narrative with landscape is exceptional. It’s a collection of essays, but their arrangement and progression creates a wonderful narrative urgency and arc, making it feel like a memoir too.

Zadie Smith’s Intimations is another mapping of an elegant mind at work, a short collection of six essays, and though I read them in one sitting, they are certainly not light. More collections! So many wonderful essay collections this year. In Brown Album: Essays on Exile and Identity, Porochista Khakpour writes with a compelling wit and candid voice. At the time of this writing I’m in the middle of two other collections—Like Love by Michele Morano, who is funny and poignant and always so smart.  Claire Messud’s Kant’s Little Prussian Head & Other Reasons Why I Write does what some of my favorite collections do: intermingle the writer’s personal history with that of their literary one: a literary mapping.

I read more memoir than usual this year: T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls struck me with its struck me with its nonchronological way of telling a story, her look at the instability of family and home and privilege, the messiness and beauty of girlhood, time as a jumble of fragments we look for ourselves within. Heidi Julavits’s innovative The Folded Clock—defined as “quasi-memoir”—inspired me to think about how I map my days, and also about the strangeness of time.

I loved Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House about growing up in New Orleans and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and her exploration of individual, cultural, and communicated memories. Things visible and invisible, and to whom—her own neighborhood was often left of maps of New Orleans. I love the way we see how she begins to see, to further chart the map of her world. I’m in awe of Jenn Shapland’s My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. “Archives always conjure this mix of overwhelming constraint and bewildering freedom for me,” she writes, which had me writing Yes!! in the margins, and I might use these words to describe memoir too. Critics have called this work “genre-bending,” and have noted that The Yellow House too, is beyond memoir, but to me these books are illustrations of all the complex and intricate things memoir, and essay, can do. Kapka Kassabova’s wonderful To the Lake is memoir, return narrative, and an exploration of a complicated family history against a larger, complicated Balkan one.  It’s a gorgeous meditation on the link between landscape and memory and Kassobova’s own space in it.

I’m particularly drawn to short story collections linked by place, and Stephanie Soileau’s Last One Out Shut Off the Lights is simply stunning. Such heart and deep attention, particularly to the lives of women and girls and the particularities of place—in this case, Southwest Louisiana—and if these characters might be difficult we love them all the more for it. And by difficult I mean real, and complicated, and alive. Speaking of difficult, I didn’t realize how much I’d missed the cranky, lovable Olive Kitteridge and her Maine landscape until I returned to Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Again. The beloved-to-many Randall Kenan died this year, and he left behind a new, beautiful collection, If I Had Two Wings, which captures the uncanniness of reality, the sweetness of relationships, and various kinds of hauntings. These stories were moving and mysterious and structurally exciting too, and I loved the way a character named “Randall Kenan” appears here and again, just like the grounding fictional small town of Tims Creek. Apollo Papafrangou’s forthcoming We Grew Here is a novel-in-stories that explores masculinity and gentrification through a Greek American Oakland lens. Maria Adelmann’s forthcoming story collection Girls of a Certain Age is funny and irreverent, and the characters, often lost or misguided, were a delight to spend time with, going along with them as they tried to find their way.

Coming soon, but get ready, because it’s excellent: I read, in draft form, V. V. Ganeshananthan’s smart and stirring novel Movement, which explores Sri Lankan politics, loss, and the complexities of ideology, loyalty, grief, and violence.

I’ve been particularly interested in novels that play with time and space, past and present, myth and history, a mix-up of it all, as well as those that are eerily atmospheric and strange. Peter Stamm’s The Sweet Indifference of the World (translated by Michael Hoffman) was mysterious and absorbing. Though its concerns are much different, in my mind it’s linked with Charles Baxter’s new, mesmerizing The Sun Collective, which will stay with me a long time. I wouldn’t call it futuristic—it’s oddly, eerily prescient, mirroring a current reality in uncanny ways—but it’s uncanny. It explores mysterious connection, the crushing bleakness of capitalism, ideologies gone awry, and the sense of transcending physical worlds in order to live in them. To be everywhere and nowhere at once.

Though the fantastical is a small element in Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s epic A Girl is a Body of Water, it’s a memorable, important one, particularly in the way she explores the complexity of female identity. Set against the backdrop of Idi Amin’s reign in Uganda, the novel intertwines ideas of silence, seeing, disappearances, storytelling, myth and history, and both the small and large shifts of power that affect a friendship, a place, a life, and also suggests that time is not linear, nor does it move in one direction. And it’s gorgeous.

Maybe because it’s the last book I finished before sending this off, and I hate to pick favorites—but Sigrid Nunez’s What Are You Going Through is among my favorites of the year. Two nights ago, unable to sleep, I read half of it, slept several hours, and woke up and finished the rest. The way we are invited to follow the narrator’s meanderings, the way the novel felt both warm-blooded and earthy and deeply philosophical, the way I felt I was in the presence of a sharply intelligent, benevolent sensibility—I loved all this (“all this: the inexorable, the inexpressible,” Nunez writes) and felt such sadness upon having finished it. I felt so wrecked, so torn apart—yet somehow, miraculously, also shored back up.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

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Particular Ways of Being Wrong

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All lazy book reviews are essentially the same: they reflect a reviewer’s inability, or perhaps refusal, to fully engage with the writer’s project on the book’s own terms. Lazier still is to not discuss the book but instead the author, to review not the project, to paraphrase John Updike, but the reputation.

Recently, I read Alexander Maksik’s 2011 debut novel, You Deserve Nothing, heralded by The New York Times for its “dazzling clarity and impressive philosophical rigor.” After the strong reviews and well-deserved attention, the online magazine Jezebel claimed that Maksik had allegedly based the story on his own experience as a teacher in Paris and his relationship with a student. Amazon and Goodreads readers retracted their stars and updated their reviews to show their disgust and moral outrage. I don’t mean to defend or attack Maksik’s alleged personal choices. But as a reader, a novelist, and a critic, I simply do not care what they were. These “violations of confidence,” as Jezebel noted them, should remain in Maksik’s private life, between himself and the young woman with whom he was involved. They unfortunately became literary gossip. They should never have become part of the literary conversation.

But of course they did.

This summer, Maksik released his second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift. This beautiful novel follows Jacqueline, a young refugee who, having fled Charles Taylor’s Liberia, finds herself homeless on the Greek island of Santorini. The novel weaves Jacqueline’s present life on the island with her past life in Liberia. Though the reviews were also strong, many reviewers, from Norman Rush for the NYTBR to John Freeman for the Boston Globe, felt compelled to mention not only the first book but also the real-life affair. Claudia La Rocco, an astute dance critic, reviewed Marker for the New York Times. Her anger about the book, or perhaps really about Maksik the writer, was clear from her opening.

La Rocco opens her review not by mentioning Maksik’s first book but of the scandal surrounding it, and when she finally gets to the book she is reviewing, her tone is incredulous: “Would a woman suffering from diarrhea, chronic dehydration, and malnutrition really be able to tramp around a sun-blitzed island, hiding in abandoned buildings, under trees and in a cave, with only a few fainting spells to show for it? Would she be so concerned with questions of beauty and choice?”

First, the premise of the book, of any book, is asking for a willful suspension of disbelief. That said, Jacqueline is not concerned with questions of “beauty and choice,” a reductive and unsupported claim, but of survival and staying under the radar. When she does allow her mind to drift toward the mundane it is a clear repression of the horrific memories that are threatening to rise to the surface and destroy her.

This, though, was my interpretation (I reviewed the book for the San Francisco Chronicle), and not everyone will share it. Fair enough. More disconcerting here is the way Maksik is first attacked for writing what he knows and then for writing what he does not, for attempting to “embody a character so divorced from his own experiences.” The review reads like a personal condemnation of Maksik, from his choice of subject to what the reviewer sees as his emotional avoidance; it amounts to a list of grievances. La Rocco also notes that Jacqueline “comes to resemble the protagonist of You Deserve Nothing, Will Silver, a damaged loner adrift in a haze of existential malaise.”

It’s clear that Maksik is interested in exploring isolation, loneliness, and the often devastating human desire for connection. Though I found the comparison between Will Silver and Jacqueline to be a bit of a stretch, it is indeed an interesting one, so I was surprised when La Rocco used this parallel as if exposing some little dirty secret, as if Maksik were somehow cheating the system.

Most writers would assert that certain philosophical obsessions consume their work, even if expressed in different ways. One of the pleasures of reading through an author’s oeuvre is to trace the way, say, Ian McEwan’s “malevolent intrusions,” as noted by Zadie Smith, play out again in and again in different settings and times and with different characters. This is not the same thing as writing the same novel over and over but a testament to the fact that some ideas might preoccupy a writer for a lifetime. This is the beauty of art: the intersection of our own particular way of being in the world with the way the world is.

Will Silver of You Deserve Nothing is a teacher at an international school in Paris. His tenure at the school was an escape from, or the delaying of, grief. The recent loss of his parents and his abandonment of his wife shape who he is: unable to love yet with a great nostalgia for it. Once Will understands that Marie, the student with whom he has been involved, has not been discreet, he anticipates the pain that will surely come. A beautiful, palpable tension emerges from what we know is inevitable. Marie has fantasies of domestic bliss: a baby, or coming up the stairs to the apartment when they are old, but Will doesn’t allow himself such delusions. His sadness shows he knows from the start that it will not end well.

And yet he chooses it anyway. This, to me, was heartbreaking and honest. The writer Rivka Galchen has said that character is “one’s very particular way of being wrong,” a brilliant insight into character and fiction as a whole. And You Deserve Nothing, though far more complex than just presenting ideas of “right” and “wrong,” does just that. Several acts of cruelty and inhumanity, whether acts of random violence or domestic abuse, deep-seated bigotry, or the aggression we inflict upon societies through war, go unpunished, and the book offers a provocative comment on our own selective moral outrage.

I admit I lose patience with the “I’m helpless to young female beauty” of the Rothian variety (though I did find beauty and truth in The Dying Animal, say, as well) or the sense of entitlement and power that strangely emerges from this hand-biting helplessness of male desire. I try not to dismiss books based on their premises or subject matter alone. But I didn’t find You Deserve Nothing to be overly familiar. And even if I did, as Adam Langer noted in the New York Times, it is “so rivetingly plotted and beautifully written that you forget its shopworn premise.”

The reviews of You Deserve Nothing, in fact, were excellent. Until we began to discuss what should never have been discussed in the context of criticism.

The role of the critic is not to argue over what is real but what has been created. If there are writers who don’t exorcise their demons and fears when they write, their failures and their shortcomings, I don’t know them. Most novelists will admit that bits of ourselves, some thinly veiled and some deeply so, are present in all our characters, both those who resemble us and those who don’t.

A novel is an act of the imagination. To read it as anything but is a failure of the contract we enter when we engage with a fictional world. In his essay “What Is Real Is Imagined,” Colm Toibin writes: “The world that fiction comes from is fragile. It melts into insignificance against the universe of what is clear and visible and known… The difference between fact and fiction is like the difference between land and water.”

As critics our duty is to uphold that. Literature is not a recording of an experience but the creation of one. Fiction creates its own truths, its own histories. To paraphrase Auden on poetry, it’s “a way of happening, a mouth.” When we read we are creating a map in our minds of the book, and as reviewers we are to act as cartographers of this imagined space. A review is really a mapping of one’s intimate conversation with a book. It does not mean our personal tastes and perceptions about the world will not enter this conversation — they certainly will, and they will affect our experience with that novel and the ideas it brings forth.

But when as reviewers we ignore the created experience and instead focus on the author and his or her “right” to create, or not create, we never even enter the conversation. Nothing is revealed. The map is blank and therefore useless.

Can we write about anything we want, as fiction writers? I say, absolutely. But we have to make those difficult artistic decisions ourselves, to consider our material and the best way to approach it. A good review should be grappling with the complexities set forth by the work in question and not treating the author’s choice of material as suspect. The reviewer should ask: how is this done, what has been attempted, has it been delivered with freshness or skill or compelling insight? A lazy review is cruel, and a cruel review is lazy; both stem from a lack of imagination and empathy. Like cruelty itself.

And what to make of the responsibility of the reviewer? Can we say anything we want? Let’s look at John Updike’s oft-quoted advice on reviewing:
Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
It seems rather obvious, no? To review the reputation is to ignore or simply discredit the spell entirely.  It’s intellectually lazy and boring. We may have opinions about an author, certainly, but we should not have an agenda before even reading the book or writing the review. If we do, perhaps we should reconsider accepting the assignment. When we attack the author for his or her material, our approach is single-minded: not criticism but propaganda. We undermine the value of the enterprise that we as reviewers should be elevating: the conception of art and a discussion about not only what the art is doing but how it is constructed.

In her 1959 Harper’s essay, “The Decline of Book Reviewing,” Elizabeth Hardwick lamented that “a Sunday morning with the book reviews is often a dismal experience.” The tagline of Hardwick’s Harper’s piece reads: “The fates of authors and publishers — not to mention the reading public — depend on book reviews, but who reviews the reviewers?”

It’s an important question and a relevant conversation to continue, particularly now, with the proliferation of online reviewing. But those of us who are charged with talking about books professionally should work to maintain professional standards as to how we talk about them. Book reviewing need not be a laudatory, effusive enterprise, and I’m grateful that it’s not. In fact, often the most celebratory reviews expose the flip side of the same problem: the replacement of a critical engagement with literature with our emotions about and perceptions of the writer. Alexander Maksik’s case is not representative of all book reviewing but is representative of a certain ad hominem approach, neither rigorous nor intellectual. Investigations into whether we’d want to be friends with a book’s narrator or whether the author experienced some of the story’s events might be entertaining conversations to have over a round of beers. But such is chatter, not criticism.

Reviews like La Rocco’s do nothing more to deepen the literary conversation than do the scores of many amateur “reviews” on Amazon or Goodreads (to wit: many of these reviewers took back the five stars they awarded to You Deserve Nothing after Jezebel’s claim), and though an open democratic forum about literature is not without value it makes professional, sophisticated, rigorous book reviewing all the more crucial. When we begin a review, we should ask, what will this bring into the cultural conversation, and what we are doing for the world of art and ideas when we do?