If you’ve been a magazine reader for roughly 65 years and an editor assigning book reviews (among other things) for roughly half of that time, your old habits die hard. We need a piece on X, you think. Who would be a good choice to take that on?
Then frustration sets in. You pick up a magazine (a good one) and find that yet again, the opportunity to publish a really good career-survey of the poet Robert Kelly (with a delicious author photo) has been missed, even as space is allotted to subjects that have already been run into the ground (yet another postmortem of “liberalism,” for instance). Action being preferable to brooding, I will here mention a few pieces I would like to read, in the hope that someone with assigning power will look for an ideal reviewer.
First and foremost, I’d like to see an expansive piece on Herta Müller’s collage poems. I can’t understand why these haven’t received more widespread, in-depth attention. She composes them from words (in some cases, syllables) cut out from newspapers, advertising pages, and such. They’re playful, even childlike, and yet haunting at the same time, as is true of much of her work. Writing several years ago about Müller’s novel The Fox Was Ever the Hunter, I was struck by “an uneasy intensity in which a childlike experience of the world is channeled to express the harrowing nature of everyday life in a country ruled by a narcissistic dictator with a vast security apparatus at his disposal. She accomplishes this with an almost violent aversion to clichés, prefabricated scenarios, and the like.” That “almost violent aversion,” held in tension with playfulness, characterizes the collage poems as well.
Also much to be desired: a big piece on Balzac, maybe pegged to Peter Brooks’s forthcoming Balzac’s Lives, due in September from New York Review Books. (Not that we would need a new book as an occasion.) To be done properly, such a piece would need to be very long, with something of Balzac’s own ambitious sweep. And I must stipulate that the writer should give at least some attention to A Murky Business, simply because my late friend Bill Tunilla and I particularly loved that title and employed it as a catchphrase. (It was Bill who got me reading Balzac, in the 1980s.)
I would also like to see occasional reviews of interesting books no longer new, published in the last 25 years or so—books that may sound too specialized for review in a “general” magazine but that, in the right hands, could occasion delight. For example, Andrew McGowan’s Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals, published by Oxford University Press in 1999. There’s a special pleasure in making such work (or at a minimum, its implications) known to a wider readership.
A writer I greatly admire and have sometimes written about, Marly Youmans, has a new book coming late in March from Ignatius Press: Charis in the World of Wonders, with cover art and illustrations by the incomparable Clive Hicks-Jenkins. This novel, set in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, should occasion a piece that tackles the whole sweep of Youmans’s work. She’s not part of any fashionable faction, and much as I would be delighted and surprised to see it receive generous attention in the New York Times Book Review and other such outlets, I am mainly hoping that First Things, Commonweal, Image, and other kindred publications will not let this opportunity pass.
I could go on (and on, and on). I hope I haven’t sounded churlish. Let me conclude on a different note: expressing gratitude for Stephanie Burt’s essay “Taken by Storm,” on the poetry of Samuel Menashe, published in the February 2020 issue of Commonweal. After you read it, you may find it necessary to acquire the book under review, The Shrine Whose Shape I Am: The Collected Poetry of Samuel Menashe (Audubon Terrace Press). Reading good reviews can be expensive!
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.