Critical Mass

NBCC September 12 Panel: The Long-Form Book Review


Panelists at the New School on September 12 discussed the flourishing long-form book review. From left, NBCC board member Eric Banks, former chief in editor of Bookforum, and a freelance critic whose writing appears in the Wall Street Journal, Chronicle of Higher Education, and Men’s Vogue; Jennifer Szalai, a senior editor, Harper’s and NBCC member; John Palattella, literary editor, The Nation; NBCC board member Marcela Valdes, contributing editor, Publisher’s Weekly, and Ted Genoways, editor, Virginia Quarterly Review.

Panelists agreed the long-form review, from 4,000 to 10,000 words, gives the writer “the luxury of being able to pull in close and give a larger context to the subject,” as Szalai put it. It’s a chance the dig deeper, Banks said, and to do wide ranging research. The panelists also warned against abusing the opportunity for extensive textual analysis.

Palattella said The Nation’s 6,000-plus word “omnibus pieces” were an occasion for a writer to tell an engaging story about the life of a book, the life of an idea.” An example: Nathaniel Popper’s June 18, 2008 piece, “The Novelist and the Murderers,” on how Francisco Goldman’s “The Art of Political Murder” influenced the November 2007 elections in Guatemala.

Marcela Valdes talked of writing her first piece for Ted Genoways at VQR: “It gave me a chance to sit back and read all of Alice Munro’s work…” (See her literary history of Munro here.) For the Nation she wrote about Roberto Bolano’s complicated relationship with Chile. (”Windows into the Night”.)