I can’t remember exactly when I first encountered William Pritchard in print, or what he was writing about on that occasion, but I do recall that before I’d finished the piece (which appeared in the Hudson Review, I believe, sometime before younger readers of this column were even born) I had concluded that here was a writer I would happily look for again. And so it has been, to a degree I couldn’t have imagined back then.
Ear Training includes thirty-something essays from a lifetime of writing, selected by the author—longtime literary critic and emeritus professor of English at Amherst College. Published by the splendid small press Paul Dry Books, it bears a photo on the back cover showing Pritchard in a comfortable chair (legs wrapped in a blanket and propped on a settee), intent on the book he is reading. Across from him, a small dog is curled comfortably on what appears to be a striped bedsheet spread over another chair. The title of the book is the subtitle of the introduction (originally included in Pritchard’s 1994 collection Playing It by Ear), which is quite wonderful, and which I will nudge all my bookish friends to read:
The words on the page—well, yes; but what I remember most about my Amherst English teachers is the way they took words off the page and brought them to life through the speaking voice. . . . Behind such performances [the teachers “sounding” Shakespeare or Milton or Eliot]—the insistence that in the beginning, first of all, the poem needed to be heard, realized in the manner through which it was read aloud—was the example of Frost.
And if this is especially true of poetry, it is true of prose as well, whether in the idiolect of Henry James or Cynthia Ozick. And it's not only true of prose that is officially “literary.” When I had the blessed opportunity, more than thirty years ago, to teach a course called “Advanced Writing,” our primary text was John McPhee’s just-published Looking for a Ship, from which I read many bits aloud to my students. This emphasis, I think, is even more needful today than it was thirty-odd years ago (when I was teaching that class) or fifty years ago (when I was in grad school).
The essays in this capacious collection are divided into various thematic sections (“Novelists,” “Poets and Poetry,” “Critics and Criticism,” and more, including “Music and Musicians” (which features a review of Terry Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington) and a section on “Teaching.” Part of what makes the book so enjoyable is the range of Pritchard’s subjects: Philip Larkin, Helen Vendler, Anthony Powell, James Merrill, Elizabeth Taylor, Samuel Johnson, Emily Dickinson, John Updike, Elizabeth Bishop, and many more. I was particularly delighted to reread his splendid essay “Hugh Kenner’s Achievement.”
Anyone who at least semi-routinely is engaged in reviewing should read Pritchard’s concluding essay, “Credo: Confessions of an Impenitent Reviewer,” not least for his observations on the “many varieties of editorial behavior in relation to the review one has submitted and what actually gets or doesn’t get printed.” Though a good deal has changed in the publishing world since this essay first appeared (in the Yale Review, 2010), much that he says remains relevant in 2023:
The question still remains, as posed by my old teacher, “Why does anyone need to do this, and more specifically, ‘Why you?’” I continue to review because it helps give a shape to my life, day by day, week by week. The long-term disease of writing a book has eventually its cure and attendant gratifications, but you may never finish it, whereas it’s a good bet that you’ll survive to read your 1,200 words about X or Y.
Pritchard goes on to mention the “executive pleasure in planning and revising your reviewing strategy,” his policy about where to publish (“As a potential reviewer I care not about the magazine’s politics”), and more.
If you have on your gift-list for Christmas any bookish young men or women who have already put a toe in the water or seem likely candidates to do so, Ear Training would make a splendid gift. So too if there are elderly scribblers on your list, or midlife folk who at least occasionally engage in reviewish behavior. Beyond those circles, of course, there are many who simply enjoy reading artful reviews and deploring inept or otherwise unsatisfactory ones. Not a few of these (so I imagine) would also relish Pritchard’s book.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.