Lest anyone imagine the Good Old Days of book reviewing were ever all that great, we should consider the complaints lodged by the late Nona Balakian in an essay from 1954. “Arbitrarily thrown together in some remote corner of the Sunday literary supplement,” she wrote, “fiction reviews rarely achieve more than a summary of plot, and when occasionally more than four hundred words are allotted, the space is squandered on irrelevant references to the writer’s character, his morals, or his politics, with barely a concluding word about how the novel in question has been put together.”
Nor was she any happier in 1968. Book reviewers, she wrote that year were usually “at the mercy of professional editing, which can, and often does, destroy individuality of expression.” Many pieces were “mere puffs based on publicity releases, but less well written and edited.”
That was what Nona Balakian, an editor for The New York Times Book Review, had to say about her peers in print. Imagine the earful you might have received in person.
But she would have had no grounds for complaint about Ron Charles, the 2008 recipient of the Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, and three-time finalist for it in years past. His pieces appear regularly in Book World, the “Sunday literary supplement” (as the now perhaps antiquated expression has it) of The Washington Post. They display a knack for characterizing the shape and style of a book. Charles writes about craft without turning his reviews into manifestos for a single school of it. You do not get a sense from his reviews that the novels of, say, Saul Bellow—or Kathy Acker, or whoever—are the permanent and final touchstones for judging new fiction. The quality of consciousness in his work is that of an abiding receptivity, combined with a willingness to speak his mind, even when bored or disappointed by a book.
He is willing to use humor. Yet he does not thereby reduce criticism to one of the less remunerative forms of stand-up comedy. He can praise a novel without puffing it, or pan one without dressing up like a lumberjack.
One quality that Nona Balakian praised in reviewers was fearlessness. It was the rare occasion when she found it. Ron Charles has been reckless enough to suggest that an enthusiasm for the fiction of J.K. Rowling may not be a sign of the vitality of literary culture in America. Well, that’s one way to find out just how fitting the expression “Pottermania” really is.
A senior editor at The Washington Post Book World since 2005, Ron Charles was the book review editor and staff critic for The Christian Science Monitor for seven years before that. His recent work for Book World is available here. The Monitor occasionally reprints his pieces in its Classic Reviews section, such as this item.
Four decades ago, Nona Balakian wrote:
Newspapers have tried to solve their book-page problems variously. To make books palatable to the mass audience, book news is emphasized over reviews. Critical judgment is abrogated, and in its place we are likely to be given material prepared by a publicity writer. On papers with small budgets, a syndicated column presenting the views of a single man may take the place of diverse bylines….Under the circumstances, it is a wonder that we have the numerous instances of excellence that exist.
Indeed it is. So it seems appropriate that the National Book Critics Circle now pays its respects to Ron Charles—a working critic with the grace to make it all look easy, somehow.