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Editors on Reviews

Along with lack of bias, most editors look for writers who can bring a larger context to the book they're reviewing. Heidi Julavits, a founding editor of the Believer, says the review's philosophy is to treat books "fairly but rigorously" and to "contextualize a book, so that it is clear that no book emerges from a vacuum, that every book is an inevitable collaboration of many influences, both literary and cultural."

Wolff of Constant Critic uses Anthony Lane's film reviews in The New Yorker as an example for her writers, because "he's witty and knowledgeable, and brings a vast range of references to the subject."

Kirkus's Larsen looks for reviews that weigh books against others in their genre as well as against previous work by the author. Context is so important to Larsen that she tends to go back to the same reviewer to cover an author's subsequent books. "I try to give every book, no matter what the subject or genre, its best chance," she says. "Our readers may not share the reviewer's standards and opinions, but they shouldn't doubt his effort to be fair."

"I'm looking for those few who bring something truly unique to any review they do," says Weaver of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Sometimes that means they bring a special expertise to a particular book: Hamilton Jordan, chief of staff in Jimmy Carter's White House, for instance, recently reviewed newsman Bob Schieffer's memoir. That's an interesting perspective. Sometimes I'm more interested in a writing style, an academic background, a life experience."

Benjamin Schwartz, literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly, assigns book-related essays to a stable of reviewers, including Caitlin Flanagan and Christopher Hitchens, both of whom were finalists for the 2003 National Magazine Award in criticism. He uses almost no freelancers: "Each one is a huge risk," he says. Like many editors of monthly magazines, he tends to use the tried-and-true contributor, who will know how to write for his audience, rather than taking a chance on a new writer.

How book review editors perceive their publication's function determines the standards they establish in choosing critics and fashioning reviews. "Some review publications deliberately regard themselves as guides for consumers; they speak directly to the publishing industry and evaluate the commercial prospects of this or that book," says Wasserman of the Los Angeles Times. "Other publications use the publication of books as pegs upon which to hang the ruminations of their critics." Still others see their role as contributing to the cultural conversation: "The reach and influence of reviews has almost certainly diminished as a result of the altered nature of our culture, because print is less central to it," says Wasserman. "For any thoughtful exploration of deep knowledge and lasting entertainment, it seems to me that serious criticism remains desirable. And nothing has appeared that replaces it, at least for people who want to be informed and thoughtful about the times they live in."

Although book review editors have their share of frustrations—so many titles, so little space—as well as their own takes on how best to serve their readers, it's pretty safe to say they also have a love of books. "Discovering writers," says Arana, "thatthe reason all of us are in this business. You read a review or open a book and you know it may be someone who is completely new to the task or somebody who has lost a reputation and has come back with something extraordinary. That moment of stumbling on greatness—like Jonathan Safran Foer, Yann Martel, the excitement of reading Jonathan Yardley's review of Atonement—that is the reason why we're here."

Jane Ciabattari is the author of the short story collection Stealing the Fire (Canio's Editions, 2002). She has written book reviews for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Columbia Journalism Review, and the East Hampton Star, among other publications.

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Editors on Reviews (July/August 2003)
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