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No Evaluation Without Justification

Two weeks ago, while I was at Sydney airport awaiting a flight back down to Melbourne, I opened Dan Chiasson’s review of Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories on my iPhone. I read it on the spot, then I read it twice over; and for two weeks now I have left it open on the iPhone so that I can pull it out at a moment’s notice — or in a moment of boredom — and read it over again.

It is arguably the best book review I have read in about a year, maybe more. It hits all the right targets. It contextualises Davis’ work, it quotes liberally from the Collected Stories, it identifies her overall aesthetic purpose, it illustrates the ways in which particular stories advance that purpose, and it evaluates the extent to which Davis makes an engagement with that purpose worth her readers’ time — that is, the extent to which she makes her book worth reading.

Our current critical environment usually demands only that book reviews deliver a thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdict on their particular subject. Reviewers need only identify whether or not a book is worth reading before their job is considered done. Justifications for their evaluations no longer seem to enjoy a place in critical discourse. In this review, however, Chiasson goes far above and beyond what is now required of him; and, in doing so, he simultaneously advances a careful and persuasive evaluation of the book at hand and reminds us why a reviewer’s justifications for an evaluation are not dead weight to be thrown overboard but rather the ballast that keeps the review afloat and on a steady course.

Read it, and read Lydia Davis’ Collected Stories as well.

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