Collections of essays and reviews are the neglected stepchildren of book publishing, generally undertaken to please or placate an author rather than as sales-worthy ventures in themselves. (I should know, having written two such collections.) In our culture of punditry and sound bites, these more reflective forms of writing get short shrift — which is too bad, since essays at their best offer a different route into a writer’s mind than fiction or memoir: more indirect, perhaps, but also potentially thrilling, like listening in on the process of someone thinking, choosing and dismissing perceptions, alighting on one adjective rather than another through critical skill and the power of synthesis.
In “See What Can Be Done,” the gifted story writer and novelist Lorrie Moore has gathered what she charmingly and faux-modestly describes in her introduction as “34 years of, well, stuff.” This category covers more than 60 pieces written for a gamut of publications from Mademoiselle to The New York Review of Books, where Moore began writing in 1999. (The book’s title comes from the notes that Robert Silvers, the longtime editor there, would send when proposing an assignment.) It includes reviews of Nora Ephron and Kurt Vonnegut; thoughts on Christmas and Monica Lewinsky and JonBenet Ramsey; longer essays on Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eudora Welty; three ardent reviews of Alice Munro; and a clutch of inspired pieces on television that cover “The Wire,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Homeland,” “True Detective,” “Making a Murderer” and “O.J.: Made in America.” These last essays put me in mind of Clive James’s writing on TV (his dissection of “The Sopranos” is arguably the best piece ever written in this genre) in their ability to move beyond the series under discussion to draw larger cultural inferences.
The New York Times | May 18, 2018