Uncategorized | February 08, 2004

I’m finishing my review of Toni Morrison’s new novel, Love, for The Missouri Review, and throughout the process the question of necessity has dogged me–what purpose do reviews of new work by well-established authors serve? Morrison’s novels proliferate in college classes, not only in literature, but also in history, sociology, and African-American studies, among others. Plus, she’s been publicly canonized by Oprah Winfrey. As most reviews of her novel point out, her career exists in the rare space of critical respect and public recognition; she’s won the Nobel Prize for Literature and appeared on the cover of Time magazine. I’ve approached reviewing the novel as both an appraisal of an individual aesthetic work and part of a larger context of her authorial record. For most readers out there, I’m not sure what’s more important. Is my job simply to announce a new novel by a great author? Do I rank it among what of her work is necessary to read and what is not?

An interesting complication of this idea is the reissue: John Updike’s The Early Stories was recently published, as was Richard Bausch’s The Stories of Richard Bausch. The former collects Updike’s early work, while the latter collects all of Bausch’s short fiction. The critical line on both fat volumes is that they establish the writers as American masters of the short story. I agree completely; Updike and Bausch both handle interiors deftly and in distinct ways. But reviews of their collections seem only to be canonizing them with little detail about what makes their work really vital. If I reviewed them, though, I’d probably find myself echoing the praise of them as authors and as figures, but I find myself wanting more. I’m not looking for dissent about their greatness (though I suspect that could be valuable if done well), but I want reviewers to contextualize their work more, to do more than reiterate their greatness to readers who already recognize that greatness.