New & Noteworthy

Why we review the books we do

Readers often puzzle over why a certain book or subject is ignored in this section while another is written about; or they discern—or think they discern—certain predilections in our coverage. Periodically we make explicit our prejudices, preferences, and aims. This section, like the magazine as a whole, seeks to discriminate. Our readers are bombarded with information every day, and more books are published in a week than most of our readers could get through in a year. We want to tell them which titles shouldn't be missed, which are unjustly neglected, and which we think should be ignored, though they may be widely praised elsewhere.

Although in some ways constraining, discrimination also liberates us. We assume that our readers look to this section as a critical organ rather than a news source—which means that unlike, say, The New York Times Book Review, we don't have to cover the waterfront. For example, we chose not to review Pat Barker's latest, because although she's an important novelist we admire, her most recent book happens to be very far from her best effort. Its review, we reasoned, would be unfavorable but, since it would also point to her obvious talent, would hardly be an evisceration; in other words, it would almost necessarily be equivocal and boring (that good novelists so often produce less than stellar novels largely accounts for the fact that fiction reviews are so often politely qualified and, well, dull). Instead, because life is short and one's reading time considerably shorter, we want to draw readers' attention to the best books, regardless of (original) publication date, which is why we review a fair number of reissues. We assume that readers want to know about Modern Library's new edition of George Gissing's previously all but unobtainable New Grub Street, for example, and Vintage's reprints of Somerset Maugham's novels—and not just what's of the moment. In fact, we think readers would rather hear about, say, Yale's reissue of Jerome Carcopino's vivid but scholarly Daily Life in Ancient Rome than about Thomas Cahill's widely reviewed, formulaic, and patched-together Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter.

Gissing and Maugham are English, of course, and some readers think they detect an Anglocentrism in our books coverage, especially in our fiction reviews. This charge of parochialism is half right. We tend to focus on prose style in our assessment of fiction. It's obviously far more difficult to do so when reviewing literature in translation, because both the reviewer and the reader of a work encounter not the author's writing but the translator's rendering of it. Hence we run fewer pieces on translated works than do comparable book-review sections (although the essays on Proust and Cervantes in this issue testify to our attentiveness to major new translations of essential works). And we're therefore particularly interested in books written originally in English—by British novelists but also by American, Canadian, and Australian authors—and especially mindful of the influences and echoes spanning centuries among writers in this language. But one aesthetic penchant does militate in favor of British writers specifically: we prefer wit, wryness, and detachment to zeal. Whereas didactic blather and a pedantic spirit still infect too much American fiction, we find that British authors often write with the kind of insouciant precision we prize (as does an American writer such as Lorrie Moore).

If we run more than the predictable number of reviews of novels composed in English, we run fewer than the predictable number of reviews of books on politics, public policy, and current affairs. This is partly because we assiduously cover these areas in other parts of the magazine, but mostly because a very high proportion of these titles are just godawful. (I write this as someone who once made his living as a foreign-policy analyst.) Magazine and journal articles are usually the best forum for bold and original arguments on these subjects; most books on them tend to have (at best) a kernel of an important idea, padded with superfluous case studies and second-rate reporting. But we do ferret out those titles that present important arguments, especially titles ignored in the public discourse, and we also focus on some titles that we believe distort current debate or receive unwarranted praise. In this regard we would cite the review we ran of Germs, a book that we believed hyped the bio-terrorism threat. It was published just after 9/11, and was widely reviewed during the subsequent anthrax scare; in fact, its arguments helped shape how that story was covered. Most reviewers lauded the book, and particularly praised the authors' prescience. We asked Bruce Hoffman, an unusually judicious terrorism expert, to assess it. His contrarian review trenchantly pointed out the book's fundamental flaws; briefly, persuasively, and sharply made a case that local and national authorities were devoting too much attention to the wrong sort of terrorist threats; and proved to be correct.

Readers sometimes note that we tend to run pieces that are either unusually short or unusually long compared with those in other review sections. As for the short ones, we're convinced that important and praiseworthy titles can be reviewed analytically, with verve, and even definitively in much less space than other book sections usually allot. We strive to make these short pieces read like mini-essays, tightly argued and with a strong point of view, rather than like capsule summaries. In our fiction reviews we eschew plot summary; we think novels should be elegantly characterized, not recapitulated. This approach gives the reviewer, even in a short piece, room to place the book in a larger context, be it of the author's body of work or of trends in fiction. As for the long pieces, we're trying to nurture and revive the stylish, critical, often saucy and disputatious review-essay, because we believe that from Macaulay through Virginia Woolf to Edmund Wilson, Dwight Macdonald, and Gore Vidal it's proved to be a form perfectly suited to discussing complex ideas with grace and flair, and to taking the pulse of the contemporary intellectual and cultural scene. In such pieces we might cover traditional subjects (canonical writers, historiographical debates), but we're aiming also to restore what Orwell (in describing his own work) called "semi-sociological literary criticism." We'll occasionally examine hugely popular (or widely discussed) novels and nonfiction books to assess the social, economic, and commercial roots and contexts of literary phenomena. More often we'll use this form to explore what are often dismissed as lifestyle subjects. In bookstores frequented by Atlantic readers whole sections are devoted to titles that chronicle, or offer advice about, the way the professional class lives now—its anxieties and obsessions; what its members spend their money and time on; what they talk about on dates and after dates, at dinner parties, and on the sidelines during their kids' soccer practice. The books' subjects range from college admissions to family life; from competition in the workplace to creating a home life; from courtship, sex, and marriage to homework, raising kids, and the problems facing teenage girls. We believe that these issues—together with the way they're framed and defined by the books people read—should be the subject of discerning, sympathetic, occasionally tart cultural criticism.

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Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor of The Atlantic. More

His first piece for the magazine, "The Diversity Myth," was a cover story in 1995. Since then he's written articles and reviews on a startling array of subjects from fashion to the American South, from current fiction to the Victorian family, and from international economics to Chinese restaurants. Schwarz oversees and writes a monthly column for "Books and Critics," the magazine's cultural department, which under his editorship has expanded its coverage to include popular culture and manners and mores, as well as books and ideas. He also regularly writes the "leader" for the magazine. Before joining the Atlantic's staff, Schwarz was the executive editor of World Policy Journal, where his chief mission was to bolster the coverage of cultural issues, international economics, and military affairs. For several years he was a foreign policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, where he researched and wrote on American global strategy, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and military doctrine. Schwarz was also staff member of the Brookings Institution. Born in 1963, he holds a B.A. and an M.A. in history from Yale, and was a Fulbright scholar at Oxford. He has written for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Foreign Policy, The National Interest, and The Nation. He has lectured at a range of institutions, from the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School to the Center for Social Theory and Comparative History. He won the 1999 National Book Critics Circle award for excellence in book criticism.

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